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Beyond Oaxaca

Cooking class

The city of Oaxaca is nestled in a valley in the middle of Oaxaca state, an area not far off the size of England. In fairly close radius around the city are lots more towns and villages as well as some spectacular scenery and ruins, so we were able to take lots of day trips to see more of the state.

Cooking class

One day we took a cooking class in the weaving town of Teotitlan with Maria Reynes of El Sabor Zapoteca.

Cooking class
Cooking class

It started with a trip to the village market to pick up some ingredients.

Cooking class
Cooking class

We made a nopalitos (cactus) salad with a lovely avocado and coriander dressing

Cooking class
Cooking class

Followed by red mole, the rich chocolate and chilli sauce that Oaxaca is famous for. We toasted off spices, chillies and almonds over a wood fire, then had a good workout pounding the ingredients to a smooth paste with a stone platform and roller. That’s then cooked down and spooned over mushroom-filled tortillas to make a dish of mole enchiladas.

Cooking class

It all tasted fantastic and was a lovely way to spend a day, as well as chatting to Maria and seeing local life in a small market town.

Mezcal trail
Mezcal trail

At Josh’s behest we took a full-day educational tour of mezcal distilleries and agave farms, led by Canadian-turned-Oaxacan mezcal expert and excellently-named Alvin Starkman. It took in many of the villages to the south-east of Oaxaca, ending in the town of Matatlan where nearly every other building is a mezcal bar, shop or distillery. Most of the farms were nestled way into the countryside so it was also a great way to see the more rural side of the state.

Mezcal trail
Mezcal Tour
Mezcal trail

We saw a fascinating scale of production types: from the farm who still does everything by hand, including the gruelling task of pounding the roasted agave to a pulp in a pit in the ground, to much larger, slicker operations. And a lot in between, from workers getting pissed-up on their product and encouraging us to do the same, to a lady who dropped a live scorpion into a mezcal bottle and served us her wares from jerry cans.

Mezcal Tour
Mezcal Tour
Mezcal Tour

The product of the tiniest and most hands-on operation was my favourite of the day, and a bottle came home for only around $120/£6. I learned a hell of a lot about mezcal from Alvin and came away with a new appreciation for it. From the clear unaged variety to anejo, aged for over two years – plus the flavour differences that using different species of agave offers – you’re bound to find a mezcal to suit your palate. I can still only sup the tiniest amount at a time though.

Monte Alban
Monte Alban

On a more cultural level we made the obligatory trip to Monte Alban, the remains of a Zapotec settlement up in the mountains to the west of the city. It was a quick and cheap ($50/£2.50 return) bus trip to the site. We didn’t join a tour so I didn’t get an awful lot from the experience, but it’s nicely maintained and so big it doesn’t feel crowded. There’s also a tiny museum and quite a nice cafe with views over the valleys.

Mitla, Oaxaca
Mitla, Oaxaca
Mitla, Oaxaca

I actually preferred the much smaller ruins at Mitla, which is the remains of another Zapotec settlement. All the walls are covered in intricate geometric carvings, said to represent animals. You can also duck into a spooky underground tomb and check out many varieties of cactus and agave that are planted amongst the ruins.

Hierve al Agua
Hierve al Agua

On our last day, and kind of saving the best until last, we took a trip to Hierve Al Agua. It’s a mineral spring and petrified waterfall in the mountains, created by salt buildups over about a thousand years. About an hour away from Oaxaca, we were driven there by Ernesto of Alternative Tours, who handily was also our BnB owner’s son.

Hierve al Agua
Hierve al Agua
Hierve al Agua
Hierve al Agua

It was absolutely stunning – up there with the Dead Sea and Peguche Falls in the epic stakes. We got there quite early so it was pretty quiet. You can swim in the pools but we forgot our stuff so just had a paddle.

Hierve al Agua
Hierve al Agua
Hierve al Agua
Hierve al Agua

We then took a short fifteen minute hike to nearer the petrified waterfall. They haven’t done much to make it tourist-friendly – the paths are rough and there are no barriers separating you from a plunging fall over the rock edge to the forest below – which I thought was pretty great. A fittingly epic end to this brilliant trip!

Market day at Tlacolula

Oaxaca

Tlacolula is a city about a 20 minute drive from Oaxaca, famous for both its 16th century church and its huge Sunday market, to which thousands of people from the neighbouring towns and countryside flock. We took a cab out there the day after arriving in Oaxaca on Saturday night to check it out.

Oaxaca
Oaxaca
Oaxaca

The market really is absolutely ginormous – up to 1,000 individual traders – and quite disorienting, although it’s hard to get completely lost as it’s all on gridded streets. The main things on sale are vegetables and fruit, toys, clothing, kitchenalia, and street food. There’s a pleasing lack of souvenirs or tourist things because at heart it’s a market for locals, who come from all the nearby towns and villages to shop and socialise. So for us it was really a chance to soak in the culture and atmosphere (and to eat) rather than to shop.

Oaxaca
Oaxaca

Amongst the stalls was a hectic little funfair, with dodgems, foosball tables and shooting galleries.

Oaxaca
Oaxaca

And in the middle of it all is the relief of stepping in the calmer open square overlooked by the beautiful church and fluttering colourful bunting.

Oaxaca
Oaxaca
Oaxaca
Oaxaca

Oaxaca
Oaxaca

The market is studded with vast indoor food halls, where there’s a system at play to get some food: you pay one woman for some freshly made tortillas, then visit the meat or vegetable stands to buy your fillings, then give those to a person on the charcoal grills to cook for you. We weren’t quite sure how it all worked, so went for the easier option of one of the smaller outside stands.

Oaxaca
Oaxaca

We had delicious quesadillas with proper stringy, salty Oaxaca cheese, squash blossoms and frijoles for me and chorizo for Josh at 20 pesos / £1 each. The rain started pelting down as we ate, which led to a fun frenzied attempt to get a plastic sheet strung up to shelter under! Luckily like most rain showers here it blow over soon enough.

Oaxaca
Oaxaca

These cute little tuk-tuks ferry people between Tlacolula and the nearby towns.

Oaxaca

We jumped in a ‘colectivo’ cab to take us back to Oaxaca – a local system for a few different parties to share a cab to the same location, which at 20 pesos each is much more cost-effective than a private cab. However Josh and I were both stuffed together into the front seat, not exactly safe or comfortable – but a fun and cheap ride! I’d call a Sunday trip to Tlacolula a must-do if you’re in the area.

Around Oaxaca

Oaxaca

After a week of scampering around the vastness of Mexico City, it was great to have a week in the much smaller and more relaxed city of Oaxaca to decompress a bit. Nearly 300 miles south of DF, Oaxaca is the calm, low-slung, cultural and historical yin to the capital’s busy, built-up, somewhat personality-less yang.

Oaxaca

We caught the ADO GL bus from Mexico City to Oaxaca, costing about $650/£30 each. We pre-booked the bus a few days before our departure day by visiting the ADO bus terminal near the San Lazaro metro stop in DF, though the bus was barely a quarter full in the end so we probably could have bought on the day. The bus was comfortable and spacious, but the 7 hour journey did feel very long and tiring. I think a flight, like we did on the last day to catch our connecting flight home, might be a better option.

Oaxaca

You do get rewarded with some striking views about three-quarters of the way through the journey, as you rise into the mountains that frame the Oaxacan valley.

Oaxaca
Oaxaca

Oaxaca

We stayed at Casa Ollin B&B. Of the top three on Tripadvisor this was the only one that had availability for our dates. It was really nice – decorated in a colourful traditional style, friendly and comfortable, and very well located just a few blocks from the Zolaco. I think it was geared towards people a bit older than us, but it was nice to have somewhere homely to relax in.

Oaxaca
Oaxaca

The best part was breakfast, which was a different freshly home-cooked Mexican treat every day, and taken on a communal table so we could chat to the owners, chef, and other guests as we ate. We had tamales, quesadillas, and even huevos con chapulines (grasshoppers – eek – none of those for me though!).

Oaxaca
Oaxaca
Oaxaca

The centre of Oaxaca is charmingly picturesque, almost like a Disneyland town. It’s compact and very easy to navigate – even I failed to get lost there! The main north-south street is pedestrianised and lined with stalls of local handcrafts: ceramics, clothing and so on. After some political unrest in 2006 Oaxaca has been working hard to tempt visitors back, and it certainly feels extremely safe and welcoming. I read somewhere that 75% of the population of Oaxaca work in the tourism business (!). You certainly feel welcome as a visitor here since a lot of local industry is totally reliant on tourist money to be sustainable. However I’m glad we visited at the edge of the high season since there weren’t other tourists everywhere yet.

Oaxaca

There’s a bustling food and crafts market at the central Zocalo by the cathedral and there are two large covered markets just south of there with the usual assortment of produce, crafts, clothing, ceramics and so on. You’ll also find chocolate factory shops (the smell will hit you first!) as well as higher end boutiques and gift shops tucked into little courtyards off the main streets.

Oaxaca
Oaxaca
Oaxaca

Those darn photogenic Beetles were everywhere!

Oaxaca
Mexico sewing stuff

Oaxaca
Oaxaca

Oaxaca

There are several good museums – we checked out the textile museum and stamp museum which were both lovely.

Oaxaca
Oaxaca
Oaxaca
Oaxaca
Oaxaca

For me Oaxaca was really best by night. The street lights are sparse so it gets all dark and atmospheric. Every evening there was something going on, from a parade to a protest to a brilliant school brass band striking up.

Oaxaca
Oaxaca
Oaxaca

The markets and food stalls stay open, and with over 250 restaurants on top of that it isn’t at all hard to find something to eat.

Oaxaca
Oaxaca

Oaxaca’s famous for its cuisine and we did have some great food, though I seem to be lacking in the photo department here. My favourites were Los Dazantes, Zandunga, La Vieja Lira (a really nice Italian for when we were taco-ed out) and Itanoni – they’re all on my Google map.

Oaxaca
Oaxaca

Mezcal is not hard to come by either, whether to shop or drink. We did an amazing artisanal mezacal tour one day which I’ll write about later.

Oaxaca
Oaxaca

We even found a brill little microbrewery-bar attached to a deli, La Santisima, which did amazing mini burgers.

Oaxaca
Oaxaca

There’s excellent locally grown coffee (it’s grown about four hours’ south of Oaxaca towards the coast; we would have loved to visit a plantation) and lots of cafes that serve it well.

Oaxaca

I think it would be hard to fill a week in just Oaxaca city as it’s so small. Taking some day trips into other areas of Oaxaca state is a must-do. From towns each with their own craft or cuisine speciality to the ruins at Monte Alban and natural wonder of Hierve Al Agua, they were some of the highlights of the trip. More on all those coming up next!

Coyoacán and Casa Azul

Coyoacán

One of my favourite days in Mexico City was the day we spent in Coyoacán, a district to the south of our base in Condesa. It was quickly and easily accessed via the metro but offers a welcome wind-down from the dense city centre. I’d definitely recommend a trip there if you’re visiting D.F to soak in the relaxed pace, little cobbled streets and pretty open plazas.

Casa Azul

Casa Azul
Casa Azul

My main reason for wanting to visit was to go to Casa Azul, the home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Josh was somewhat reluctant beforehand but ended up really liking it too. You enter into a very pretty planted courtyard.

Casa Azul
Casa Azul

Met a resident scruffy little kitty.

Casa Azul
Casa Azul

The museum is in the casa itself, left decorated in the way they would have been when Frida and Diego lived and worked here. Here’s the bedroom, complete with Frida’s death mask on the bed – her ashes rest here too.

Casa Azul
Casa Azul
Casa Azul

The beautiful studio with art supplies carefully laid out.

Casa Azul

Casa Azul
Casa Azul

Casa Azul

The colourful and cosy kitchen/dining room. I’d love some of these ceramic pans and wooden spoons.

Casa Azul
Casa Azul

At the end (which I think was actually supposed to be the start, and we walked around backward) are a few rooms of artworks from and inspired by Frida and Diego. There aren’t loads of artworks by the couple themselves here – they can be found at the Museo Casa Estudio in nearby San Angel and the Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño in Xochimilco – but what was there was fascinating. I don’t know a lot about Frida’s work besides the famous self-portraits, but I loved these surreal dreamlike sketches and paintings.

Mexico sewing stuff
Casa Azul

Casa Azul
Casa Azul

Mexico sewing stuff
Casa Azul

I was also really pleased to find that the Vogue-sponsored exhibition of her clothing and accessories was still running. It was small but thoughtfully presented, comparing her medical-related corsets and leg braces (she was injured by both polio and a road accident early in life) to her highly decorative clothing and accessories. The final room showed some contemporary designer pieces inspired by her style.

Coyoacán
Coyoacán
Coyoacán

After the museum we walked towards the town centre, finding a good little food market along the way. Day of the Dead buildup was in full swing in mid-October; the colourful sugar skulls, cutwork bunting and piñatas really made the markets fun to browse.

Coyoacán
Coyoacán
Coyoacán

We wandered through the gorgeous central square and some of the little streets running off it…

Coyoacán

Coyoacán
Coyoacán

Coyoacán

…and found a beautiful little artisanal coffee shop called Avenalleda. They roast their own beans and made a beautiful cold brew. We bought a variety of beans to bring home.

Coyoacán
Coyoacán

It kind of became a running joke that I photographed every VW Beetle I saw on this trip. THEY SO PHOTOGENIC.

Coyoacán
Coyoacán

We had lunch at another entirely vegetarian taquiera called un, Vege Taco. I think it was there largely because there was a Buddhist centre over the road. It was really tasty and a bargain.

Coyoacán
Coyoacán
Coyoacán

After lunch we strolled along the Franciso Sado road, a very pretty cobbled street which connects Coyoacán to San Angel. It’s got several little delis and artisanal food shops along the way. We half-planned to visit the Museo Casa Estudio, but it was a further walk still than we anticipated so gave it a miss.

Off to Oaxaca next…

Mexico City: eats, drinks and markets

Obviously, one of our main reasons for visiting Mexico was for the food. London has some good Mexican places but I was really interested to see how the real stuff compares – and what actually constitutes a real Mexican dish and which are fake exports. I’m looking at you, burritos. In general we ate really well, almost always going for Mexican food (not that there is that much foreign food around anyway – mostly Italian, Argentinian or American places) and we tried the whole gamut from 50p streetside tacos to a high-end tasting menu at supposedly the best restaurant in Mexico City. I was pleased to find that it wasn’t hard at all to find vegetarian options nearly everywhere – and honestly, they looked a heck of a lot more appealing than a lot of the meat!

Mexico City

Breakfast is a fun meal. You can go for pastries and coffee at one of the many bakeries around (Mexicans seem to love pastries and sweet breads – pan dulce) or go bigger and local with some huevos smothered in salsa, rancheros or chilaquiles style. We had a great coffee shop called Chiquitito around the corner from our Airbnb in Condesa, where we stopped for cortados, yogurt and croissants on a couple of days. We had a good Mexican style breakfast up the road at El Pendula, a cosy bookshop come cafe.

Mexico City

Mexico City
Mexico City

Lunch is generally the main meal of the day in Mexico and they take it late – around 3pm. One of my favourite lunches was at Cate de mi Corazon, an entirely vegetarian taco place right by our Airbnb in Condesa. Some of the flavours were a bit odd to our palate (such as a sweet jamaica – hibiscus flower – filling) but my enchiladas – stuffed tortillas smothered in red salsa – were really tasty.

Mexico City
Mexico City

Probably the best meal we had of the entire trip was a decadent late lunch at Limosneros, a really beautiful restaurant just south of the Zocalo in Centro. The building dates from the 16th century and the restaurant was started 100 years ago by the current chef’s grandfather. There wasn’t much veggie choice admittedly, but my hibiscus flautas and charred chile and pineapple salad with soft goats’ cheese were absolutely stunning. Josh’s cochinita pibil looked brilliant too. And dessert was peanut butter and jam ice cream! It was a pretty fancy place but the bill was a very reasonable $750/£40.

Mexico City
Mexico City

Before we left the UK we booked dinner at Pujol after reading this New York Times article with Rene Redzepi of Noma. Supposedly the best – and definitely the most expensive – meal in the city, we could only get a booking for early on Tuesday night, the day after we flew in. Unfortunately I was quite disappointed by it overall. It’s undeniably elegant (in a friendly and laid-back kind of way) and they do put on a whole veggie tasting menu and some dishes were great, such as baby corn smoked over wood and served in a hollow pumpkin, but overall it was so rich I was feeling a bit queasy by halfway through and trying to hide how little I could eat. With a whopping £70 a head price tag it was a real shame.

Mexico City

A muuuuch cheaper lunch or dinner option is to grab some antojitos (snacks) from a street vendor, hole in the wall or cafe. They can also taste fantastic if you pick wisely. We had some filling tortas and cold beers in a cute old-school cafe in Centro, and great tacos for $17 a go at Tacos Hola/El Guerro, a tiny place with a few bar stools and pavement tables near our Airbnb on Avenida Amsterdam. He cooks up several different fillings a night, including quite a few veg options, and you can just keep ordering til you’re full.

Mexico City

For drinkin’, the national drink of mezcal is clearly the way to go. We did a mezcal tasting tour in Oaxaca which I’ll write about later (I’m quite the mezcal fact file now) but the local Alipus artisanal mezcal bar was a good place to start. Plus there’s local beer: El Deposito has a great range of local and world craft beers in its few bars dotted over the city. You can buy to take away or drink in.

Mexico City
Mexico City

On a classier note, we had a great night at Licorería Limantour in Roma, one of the world’s 50 best cocktail bars, drinking mezcal cocktails and chatting to the lovely bartender. He sent us on our way with mezcal shots for the road and some recipe cards to take home.

Mexico City
Mexico City

Mexico City
Mexico City

When we weren’t actually eating, one of our favourite things to do was to trawl around the many food markets. One of the best and largest is San Juan, which is right in the kitchen wholesale district just south of the Zocalo and apparently where chefs go to shop. Those morels! Knobbly little squashes! And SO MUCH hot sauce…

Mexico City
Mexico City

There’s good craft and souvenir market at La Ciudadela; we bought some thick blown glass drinking tumblers, $130/£6.50 for six. Oaxaca was the real place to buy crafts though, as I’ll tell you about later.

Mexico sewing stuff

I hunted down some fabric shops, a must-do for me on any trip these days. I wrote more about them on my sewing blog. There seems to be one big fabric shop chain called Parisina are mostly grouped in the streets around Uruguay just south of the Zocalo (there’s a couple in Oaxaca too). Most of the fabrics are pretty gaudy synthetic polys – especially novelty printed fleece and, I suppose especially at this time of year, Day of the Dead and Hallowe’en themed stuff – but there were also some wools, poplins and pretty plaids. It was all dead cheap, mostly ranging from $15/80p to $60/£3 a metre, so a little bit came home with me…

Mexico City

Mexico City
Mexico City

We were woefully under-researched on our other favourite pastime, flea markets, but luckily snuck a great one in on our very last Saturday morning before catching the bus to Oaxaca. It snaked right around the Jardin Pushkin near the eastern end of Avenida Alvaro Obregon and contained a great range of goodies from vintage videogame cartridges to dead-stock stationery. It was pretty expensive, making me think it’s more of a collectors market than bargain flea. I only came home with a little tin for 100 pesos.

Mexico City

We actually did pop to another flea in between our flight back from Oaxaca and the connecting flight to London the following Saturday, at Plaza del Angel. This is a little indoor mall full of antiques shops, which on the weekend spill their wares onto the walkways for a flea-style experience. There was a lot of fun stuff, from vintage film posters to tiny toy sewing machines (how did I resist?) and prices were reasonable. I bought a little ceramic owl for the collection and some paper ephemera.

Mexico City

In terms of non-market shopping, Avenida Amsterdam in Condesa has a bunch of nice boutiques (as well as restaurants and bars) and is a lovely leafy area to wander around. Avenida Alvaro Obregon and Calle Comida in Roma are good to check out foody delis and little vintage shops. We even found a hipster yard sale in full swing on Saturday, and now I’m wondering why London boot sales don’t come complete with artisanal g&t and bagel stands.

Mexico City

My favourite find was a tiny boutique off Av Alvaro Obregon called Ursa Minor, which the owner has beautifully curated with homewares and crafted items from local designers. We bought a mini skull artwork handpainted on wood, some pretty ceramics, and some other little gifts.

All these places – plus a bunch more places we didn’t get the chance to make it to – are on my Google map and Foursquare list.