Updated: Oct 22, 2018
The home of beautiful landscapes, hot chocolate, and the meat sweats.
After our week in Mexico City, we were ready to move on from the big city and head somewhere with less than 8 million people. Our next destination was Oaxaca de Juarez (Oaxaca City) in the southern state of Oaxaca. We bought our tickets for the eight hour bus ride ($27.82 for both tickets) and left Mexico City around 10:00 in the morning. Not being entirely familiar with the variety of bus options, we simply bought tickets from the first booth we saw advertising Oaxaca as a destination. With our tickets in hand, we did a bit more research on the bus type we had chosen. Air conditioning, partially reclining seats, but unlike some of the other options, no bathrooms. Eight hours, no bathrooms. We prepared ourselves the day of the trip by, unnecessarily, depriving ourselves of any food or liquids. The bus ended up making multiple stops en route to Oaxaca. At each stop, everyone frantically filed out of the bus heading towards the restrooms. Not us. Our bladders were as dry as the Sonoran Desert, and our bowels as empty as the tequila bottles from the past weekend.
The bus ride was amazing...for Andy. The landscape was unforgettable. Some of the tallest mountains we had ever seen. As our bus crossed bridges well above the river valleys below and weaved through the mountains that seemed to have no end, we attempted to find some way to make the cameras on our phones do any of the scenery justice. For Felicia, the images that will stick with her from the ride are the mental images she struggled to fight off. Images of vomit hurtling across the next three rows. So began the latest and, what would become, the lengthiest chapter of her ongoing contention with motion sickness. Felicia won this round, but it was only the first of many to come.
Our plan for Oaxaca was much more relaxed than the exhausting week in Mexico City. We had fewer things to see on our list (though some of those sights would take some effort to get to), and we wanted to make a conscious effort to do things at a less feverish pace. We also wanted to take advantage of what was probably the nicest Airbnb we’ve ever stayed in. Rooftop loft with a view of the mountains on one side and the entirety of Oaxaca City on the other, just close enough to catch a public bus to downtown (more on that later) and far enough to escape downtown ($163.03 for 7 nights).
Our first few days in Oaxaca City followed a similar narrative. We would awaken, either by our own free will, or more likely the neighboring dogs perched atop garages or the roosters occupying backyards. We would walk the few blocks to the nearest bus stop ($0.86 for 2 people) and head downtown. Once downtown, we would almost always head straight to Mercado 20 de Noviembre. We basically lived at this place. Over the course of the week, we ate at a handful of the dozens of eateries inside the market a total of nine times. While our list of sights to see in Oaxaca was shorter, the list of foods was not. Our main targets were tlayudas, Oaxacan cheese, tasajo, enfrijoladas, nieves, more tamales, the famous chocolate of Oaxaca, as many variations of mole as we could find, and mezcal. Definitely mezcal.
(Oaxaca is known worldwide for its chocolate, and Mayordomo is Oaxaca's premier chocolate company. They serve freshly-made hot chocolate in a glazed pitcher in which the server rotates the molinillo, a traditional wooden whisk, between their hands in a rapid motion until the rich beverage froths. It's impossible to roam the streets and markets of Oaxaca without coming across the warm aroma of this chocolate and cinnamon mixture.)
After grabbing our lunch, which would average about $8.00, we would spend a couple hours roaming the downtown area, hanging around the Zocalo, or sitting outside of the famous Santo Domingo Church. We would often submit to the nearby vendors and grab an afternoon snack, usually a big cup of fruit ($1.25) or nieves, a shaved ice dessert ($1.34). After spending the day downtown, we would head back to Mercado 20 de Noviembre and eat a meal there or grab food to take back to the apartment to enjoy on the terrace, with a few beers (three 16oz cans for $2.14) picked up along the way.
On our fourth day in Oaxaca, we visited the archeological site of Monte Alban ($7.49 total). Standing atop the ruins, perched atop a mountain about twenty minutes outside of the city, you get a full 360 degree view of the surroundings over a thousand feet below. While the ancient city pales in size to Teotihuacan, it is no less breathtaking. How such great structures were crafted on the top of a mountain is mind boggling.
That afternoon we headed to a location we had been dreaming of for a long time, a heavenly, sacred place, a place we lovely referred to as “meat sweats alley.” Within Mercado 20 de Noviembre is a hallway, lined with vendors all working to convince you to buy a pile of meat from them. At first glance it seems like chaos. The entire hallway is filled with a shroud of smoke from the nearby grills. Vendors are shouting and running up and down the length of the hallway. It’s pretty simple though. You walk up to one of the stalls, each of which are adorned with a variety of raw meats, and choose which type you would like. We went with a mixed kilo ($9.36), which included chorizo, pork, and tasajo (a thinly sliced beef). As your meats are being grilled, you are directed towards the tables at either end of the hall where a vendor from a stand serving drinks and sides seats you and offers you a plethora of grilled vegetables and sauces. Within a short period of time, your meats are ready, and it’s time to get to work. And yes, within minutes we were sweating. Was it from all the meat we were eating or from sitting in the fog of kilos and kilos of meat being cooked around us? We’re not sure, but for some reason a quote from Andy’s childhood kept ringing through his ears. “On Earth as it is in Heaven.”
The next day we decided to check another major sight off of our list, Hierve el Agua, one of two petrified waterfall sites in the world. The journey to get there would be an adventure in itself, one in which Felicia’s arch enemy, motion sickness, would once again rear its head. In total, it took two bus rides, a pickup truck, and a motor taxi to get there. We started with the usual bus we would catch from near our apartment and headed towards downtown. We got off a few stops early and walked a couple blocks to the baseball stadium (Shout out to the Guerreros, who were headed to the Mexican League finals--which they ultimately lost while we were in Chiapas).
From outside of the stadium, we caught the bus headed towards Mitla ($2.14 total), the closest town to Hierve el Agua. After what seemed like a much shorter ride than the forty minutes we had read it would take, we hopped off the bus and looked for our next mode of transportation, a pickup truck with a covered bed and a couple of benches in the back ($3.75 total). The ride was shorter because we got off at the wrong town, which we didn’t realize until our trip back from the falls--luckily everything worked out. Once we located one of the trucks, we climbed in the back and headed down a short stretch of highway, before weaving up the mountains. While sitting in the truck before leaving town, Felicia was all smiles. About halfway through the ride, Felicia had herself barely propped up and looked like she did not have an ounce of blood in her body. She didn’t puke, so we’ll count this one as a draw. For those keeping track, she is now 1-0-1 against motion sickness.
The pickup truck dropped us off at a very small town burrowed in the mountains. From there, we took a motor taxi ($2.68) for the last fifteen minutes of the trek. After a short walk, we were cooling off in the spring-fed pools, which sit at the edge of the rock formations looking out at the surrounding landscape (entrance fee = $2.68 total). It was well worth the effort to get there, even if one of us nearly filled the bed of a pickup truck with tortillas and grilled meats. It was surreal to be able to swim up to the edge of the pool and stare out at the beautiful backdrop, which left us speechless.
No motion sickness on the ride back, we were both too busy gripping the bars of the pickup truck with white knuckles, mentally planning how to survive a roll down the side of a mountain. To return to Oaxaca, we again took a pickup truck, however this ride took a different route. This time, we were weaving along dirt roads carved into the side of the highest mountain in the area. The narrow road had plenty of sudden turns and no guard rails, which allowed you to better envision your death as you peered over the edge, just inches away. It was the craziest road we had ever traveled, and it was amazing (Felicia disagrees). It felt like something out of a movie. One of us had a newfound sense of religiosity when we finally made it back to the bus station.
We spent two more full days in the city, enjoying the food, the sights around town, our rooftop terrace, and some more mezcal. The next leg of our trip would take us to the state of Chiapas. We had originally planned to head to Salina Cruz for a day before heading to Tuxtla Gutierrez, in order to breakup the long bus ride. However, we decided to suck it up, skip Salina Cruz, and take the ten hour overnight bus ride.
Oaxaca gave us the break we needed after Mexico City. There was still a lot to eat and things to do and see, but there were less people and it felt less daunting. As two people who can only handle large cities in smaller doses, Oaxaca was a step in the right direction. We were able to check many dishes off of our food bucket lists and had the opportunity to visit two wonders that we had been dreaming of for a long time. Traveling from Mexico City to Oaxaca reminded us just how much the world changes culturally and naturally within such a short distance. We were still in Mexico, but the local food and the surrounding landscape was changing rapidly. Our coming time in Chiapas would bring even more changes.