48 hours in Oaxaca

This blog is dedicated to Aunt Es, who always had a great question about our travels and always listened to our answers. We’ve hoisted a glass of red wine for you, Aunt Es.

You know how there are all these features online and in travel sections of what were formerly newspapers titled “48 hours in …”? Well, this isn’t exactly that because we did what we did and we can’t say we hit all the highlights or know the perfect places to go, but here’s the fun adventure we had last weekend.

Our flight out of Mexico City was a bit over 90 minutes delayed, so we landed 50 minutes late. It’s really about a 50-60 minute flight, but it’s booked for 90. Our next mistake (after flying on Friday evening with the rest of the weekenders) was not realizing that the regular cab fare from the airport was for a shared van. If you ever go to Oaxaca, get the especial taxi, which is solo. It was half the price, but we also got a tour of some of the less touristica parts of the city.

One of the important aspects of Mexico to know is that places often look very sketchy from the outside … and then the outer door opens and Wow! This was the case with our hotel, Ayook. I was a bit worried when we got dropped off, but the interior was lovely, the staff was attentive and the room was comfortable. Plus, it came with breakfast: coffee, fresh squeezed oj, breakfast bread and a choice of two entrees. Can’t beat it. It was a few blocks from the center of town, so if you want to be in the thick of it without a walk, it’s probably not the hotel for you.

We had reservations for dinner at 7:30 and we got to the hotel with time to unpack, get our bearings and head over. We thought the food was good if the server was a bit, how shall we say, forgetful? Oaxaca is known for mole and I had plantain fritters with mole and then enchiladas. Steven had chicken with black mole and an appetizer of empanadas in, what else, mole. OK, I ate the mushroom one, which was also yummy. Most of the restaurants have open courtyards, so we dined under the stars.

Saturday morning, we had a tour at 8 a.m., so we called it a night (It’s a night!) after dinner and just relaxed in our room. (Remind me why we do this – we decide to have a nice weekend away, but then schedule a tour so early we need to set an alarm…I am sure at some point we will stop doing this, but I just don’t know when.)

Our guide, Bamal, showed up right on time. We had just finished breakfast and were heading to Hierve de Agua, which translates to “bubbling water.” It is a geological formation of petrified (really calcified) waterfalls with three pools in which to swim. Since we had already eaten breakfast, we made a quick stop at a market where we tried traditional Oaxacan bread and hot chocolate, rather than having breakfast there. Both were delicious.

The ride to Hierve de Agua was through the foothills and we saw farmland, a local council meeting, and a goat herder (a boy of maybe 12) (he was herding goats, so we knew he was a goat herder, its not like he was wearing a sign or had a special goat herding outfit) along the way. There’s a paved road part of the way now, newly opened during Covid, which cut about a third off the now 2-hour trip.

The site has three lookout points. You walk down from the parking lot, passing the swimming area to see the waterfall from below. We were told we didn’t really have to go all the way down, but, who are we kidding? Of course we did. The guide, who did not come with us for reasons you will discover in the next blog, told us there were about 80 steps down to the last lookout. Child’s play! I am a counter, and I counted (en español or supuesto). There are 151 steps down, which means there are 151 steps back up. I hate rock stairs almost as much as I hate boulders (I hate guides who can’t count steps – or just reduce the number so that it doesn’t seem so daunting).

It was worth it and it was hot, which was great because then I was willing to go in the water which all the Mexican people agreed was FRIO! Steven and I swam around until I started getting cold and we headed back. We thought our tour included Mitla, one of Mexico’s many ruins, but it didn’t. However, our driver and tour guide were kind enough to take us there anyway since Bamal believed the website was a bit confusing.

The ruins at Mitla are a well-preserved Zapotec burial site with temples that the Spaniards found in 1521 as a working city and then cannibalized to build the church of San Pablo. The Zapotecs were the predominant culture in what is now Oaxaca and indigenous people still speak many dialects of the language. Because the Spaniards and others built directly on top of existing structures, ruins are discovered all the time. Bamal told us that when people excavate to build foundations or basements, they often find ruins which they are supposed to report or face fines. However, many people do not because that would limit their ability to improve their homes or businesses. Nevertheless, there are thousands of sites in the state, which is a bit larger than Indiana. (The government is currently excavating something like 2,000 sites.)

By the way, the city of Oaxaca (just like New York, it’s so nice they named it twice), is a UNESCO world heritage site.

What would a weekend in Oaxaca be without a mescal tasting? After Mitla we went to a restaurant and distillery and tasted nine, yes nine!, of their mescals. The key difference between tequila, which can only be made in the state of Jalisco, and mescal, is that mescal can be distilled from any variety of agave, while tequila is only made from blue agave. The Mexican name for agave is maguey.

The tasting was fun and we got to try mescal made from wild agave, which, because it can take up to 30 years to grow, is expensive! We had the perfect excuse not to buy because we were flying and couldn’t bring liquid on the plane.

We arrived back at the hotel around 4, pretty tired and sweaty. It’s hot in Oaxaca. Our dinner reservation wasn’t until 9:30, but we needed the rest and the shower. By the time dinner rolled around, I was hungry, but I am here to tell you that it was worth the wait.

We went to Las Danzantes, which either was recommended to me or I found on a web site of great restaurants. Steven had the mole sampler (six different types!) with banana fritters and I had the mixed bugs see left and right. No joke. Five different types of bugs with guacamole, salsa, and tortillas. The waiter carefully explained the bugs and how I should eat them (in Spanish!). He also explained the mole types to Steven. I know I’m a vegetarian, but I don’t find eating bugs objectionable. It’s not like they are penned up and live miserable lives before I crunch on them.

For our main course, I had a chile relleno stuffed with huitacoche, a fungus that grows on the ears of corn. I know, sounds yucky, but it tastes good, has more protein and the amino acid lycine than corn. Steven had chicken breast stuffed with pumpkin flour and cheese with red mole. He said it was yummy.

I couldn’t help myself and ordered goat cheese flan with lavender and chocolate for dessert. It sounded kind of icky, but I figured it might be my only chance to try such a thing and it was totally worth it. It didn’t have the tang of goat cheese, but it was firmer than flan and had chocolate. Can’t go wrong. The meal was excellent and the service was impeccable. (I noticed that she didn’t mention the mescal cocktails nor the different sipping mescals we ordered – so neither will I.)

We didn’t have any plans for Sunday and had to check out of our hotel at noon, so we ate breakfast and chilled until then. Steven found a walking tour of Oaxaca and we followed that for a few hours. It was great because we got a nice overview of areas where we hadn’t been and even stopped into the Museum of Contemporary Art Oaxaca. The botanic gardens was closed, unfortunately. I still think it’s weird that tourist attractions are closed on Sunday, but maybe it’s nice that people don’t have to work every day.

Oaxaca is known for pottery and textiles as well as art and food food food. We wandered around a few shops, but since we don’t have a place to put anything, we don’t buy anything except fridge magnets.

We grabbed lunch at the zocalo, or main square, and watched the world go by until it was time to get our suitcase and head to the airport. A few hours later we were back in CDMX, having spent more time in taxis than on the plane.

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