After driving seven hours on the windiest mountain road you could ever imagine, we arrived in Oaxaca City. As the navigator, the first thing I did when we entered the city was get us lost. All of a sudden, we found ourselves sitting in traffic on perhaps the sketchiest street we’ve been on since the trip began. There were prostitutes hanging out on the sidewalk and all manner of unfriendly looking people walking all over the place. As we were stuck with cars all around us, all we could do was hold our breaths as we slowly made our way out of there. Not a good first impression of Oaxaca City, especially after the nauseating drive we had just completed.
After a few tries we found our way to the RV park where we would be camping. When we pulled in, we thought “this cant be the place!”- it looked completely run down and deserted. Then lo and behold, Mr. Oaxaca comes to the rescue. An enormously buff guy with biceps bigger than his head came walking by and we asked him if we were at the RV park. He assured us that we were and that the manager would return shortly. In the meantime, he offered to show us his gym across the street. The walls of the gym were covered in photos of Mr. Oaxaca in all kinds of modeling and body builder poses (he literally was Mr. Oaxaca back in the 90’s). Mr. Oaxaca took us under his wing and offered to show us around town. He took us to see the Arbol de Tule, a 2,000 year old Mexican Cedar 14 meters in diameter and said to be the biggest tree in the world.
Mr. Oaxaca also took us to Ciudad de las Canteras, a beautiful park in Oaxaca City with a lake and cool rock walls and paths everywhere (canteras means quarry).
Mr. Oaxaca had to work at his gym all week so Aron and I were on our own. We headed out to explore the center of town where we strolled around the main square, or zocalo, and saw Oaxaca’s Cathedral.
The streets of the city are lined with colorful buildings and palm trees with churches on nearly every corner.
Oaxaca is known for it’s food, it’s crafts, and it’s chocolate, so naturally we had to get a taste of all three. We sampled some Oaxacan chocolate which had lively notes of cinnamon and cardamom as we watched how cocoa beans are roasted and turned into chocolate.
At the Mercado de Artesanias (the artisan market) we perused row after row of handmade cotton clothing, woven wool rugs, and hand painted wooded figures called alebrijes. We made it out with a dress for me, a belt for Aron, and a rug and mirror for the van.
One night we dined at La Biznaga, a restaurant that we had read about in the Lonely Planet and was confirmed as a great choice by our taxi driver. The mescal margaritas were strong, fresh, and delicious and everything we ate was bursting with the flavors of Oaxaca.
We started with squash blossoms stuffed with cheese, lightly battered and fried, and covered in a flavorful green sauce. We also sampled some baked Oaxacan cheese wrapped in herb leaves and my favorite- a crispy tortilla horn filled with jamaica (a type of hibiscus flower) served with guacamole.
For the main course we shared chicken stuffed with cheese and mushrooms bathed in black mole with blackberries. We have never tasted so many flavors in one bite, it was a delicious experience for the senses.
Just outside of Oaxaca city, we visited Monte Alban, an ancient Zapotec site inhabited from about 500 BC to 750 AD when it was mostly abandoned. The ruins sit atop of a mountain overlooking the valley and Oaxaca City below. At it’s height, Monte Alban had nearly 20,000 inhabitants and was a great Zapotec City. Even the ancient Aztecs would visit Monte Alban with gifts because when the valley below was covered in fog, Monte Alban would be above the clouds and therefore closer to the gods that were so important to their culture.
A local of Xoxocotlan (pronounced ho-ho-kot-lan), a town at the base of the mountain, happened to be jogging by and stopped to share the culture of his ancestors with us. He showed us the tomb of an ancient ball player in the ground which to a passerby would have simply looked like a hole. We climbed inside as he told us it’s story.
The ancient ball games were a very important part of Zapotec culture and were played for the gods. Players were selected at a young age and were given a tattoo of the sun god on their leg to symbolize their privileged status. In each ball game, two players would use only their arms and upper legs to get the ball into a bowl on a platform in the center of the court. Once one player got the ball in the bowl, the game was over. Sounds simple but sometimes the games would last ten hours or more! Here is a picture of the ball court at Monte Alban.
The winner was thought to be in the favor of the gods and would become a very important, high class member of society. The loser was thought to be not in favor with the gods and would be cast our of town to wander the valley where he would be shunned by all the other towns. When the winning ball players would pass away, they would be buried in a tomb deep in the ground with pottery, jewelry, and stone figures of the most important gods to keep them safe.
The fibers of the tree below were used to make the balls for the game. The little round berries on the branches were eaten to clean the blood- one was swallowed every day for thirty days.
Our guide also took us to an ancient ceremonial center of Monte Alban which is only available to the local indigenas. Indigenas still gather there to communicate with the gods of sun, rain, and corn and the following day (March 20) there would be a ceremony to welcome the coming of spring. In the center of the ceremonial site, our guide showed us a carving of an Aztec god (on the right) speaking with the most important Zapotec god on the left.
The villages around Oaxaca City are each known for a certain artesanry, or craft, such as green and black clay pottery, woven wool rugs, textiles, and alebrijes. Aron has a small collection of alebrijes back in San Diego so we stopped in Arrazola, the town where they originated. Manuel Jimenez of Arrazola was the first to make alebrijes. As Manuel and his alebrijes became famous throughout the world, the entire town joined in. We went into shop after shop of alebrijes until we couldn’t look at any more. Each artisan family
had a slightly different style and often the men carve the wood figures and the women paint them. All are hand painted with brightly colored dots and intricate patterns. We ended up looking at so many that we were too overwhelmed to buy much. We also visited the home of Manuel Jimenez’s two sons who continue their fathers tradition and host a gallery in their home. This is the one picture of an alebrije that I was able to take as the artisans usually do not allow pictures because they want to preserve the originality of their work.
On our last evening in Oaxaca, we strolled the town center and visited the Templo de Santo Domingo, by far the most magnificent of all of Oaxaca’s churches. The entire interior from floor to ceiling is covered in three dimensional carvings and sculptures gilded with gold.
The beautifully lit, colorful streets of Oaxaca were filled with people out for the evening.
We stopped into a few art galleries filled with all kinds of beautiful, creative paintings and we wished we had the money and the space to make some purchases. Below is a photo of one of my favorite paintings.
Our last stop for the night was the central square where we ate some elotes in front of the beautifully lit cathedral.
Leaving Oaxaca City, we took a different road back to the coast but it turned out to be just as windy, if not windier, than the first. We drove past cute little mountain towns in the pine trees. One town in particular had colorful mushrooms painted on many of it’s wooden buildings and made a few references to Maria Sabina, an indigenous curandera, or shaman, who had lived in the area for most of the the 1900’s and introduced magic mushrooms to the rest of the world.
We hit the Oaxaca coast and spent a few days exploring the beaches of Zipolite and San Agostinillo. Zipolite is a nude beach which we thought wouldn’t be a big deal, but we did feel a little uncomfortable when we sat down to a nice breakfast and there were elderly nude men and women strolling around and stretching in the sand in front of us. Don’t look too closely at the picture below or you’ll see what we mean.
In both Zipolite and San Agostinillo we stayed in little hotels because we had a hard time finding a spot to camp in the van. In Zipolite we stayed at Posada San Cristobal (posada means guesthouse), a nice three story hotel right on the beach.
In San Agostinillo, just a few kilometers down from Zipolite, we stayed at a restaurant/little hotel called Mexico Lindo y Que Rico where we rented a little cabana and ate wood fired pizza.
Our last stop in Oaxaca state was Barra de la Cruz, a spot known for it’s long sand bottom right hand barrels. Unfortunately, we learned that a recent hurricane shifted the sand so the wave is no longer as amazing as it once was. Aron surfed some pretty alright waves in the evening but was a little disappointed after all of the surf videos of perfect barrels that he had watched.
We did see a cute little pony though which I was pretty excited about.
Overall, Oaxaca is a beautiful state, from the coast to the mountains. Next up- Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico.