Walking on the moon in Oaxaca

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May 26th 2016
Published: August 12th 2016
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Tonight we were leaving Oaxaca City and heading south to Mazunte on the Pacific Coast. However, before leaving on our late-night bus, we were embarking on a day-long road trip to explore the outskirts of Oaxaca City.

We woke early, as we needed to check out of Oaxaca Real Hotel at 8:30am, even though we weren’t leaving Oaxaca City until 9pm. We organised our packs, stored them in a small room at the hotel and jumped into a minibus – we were travelling to Tlacolula, a small town 30km southeast of Oaxaca City.

Our breakfast destination was the Mercado de Tlacolula, one of the oldest markets in Mesoamerica. After cramming ourselves into a long thin table at a small market stall called Adolfa, we started with an amazing hot chocolate served in a large clay bowl. We then watched in amazement as the various components of the market speciality – barbacoa – were placed on separate plates in front of us. We could barely see the table, and there was little room to move. Barbacoa is a traditional Oaxacan dish served for breakfast/brunch, and it typically comprises slow-cooked meat (we had mutton and goat) served with a rich broth, tortillas and accompaniments such as lettuce, radishes, onions, chillies, lime and salsa. Mercado de Tlacolula is well-known for its barbacoa, and rightfully so. It was amazing, albeit a little overwhelming. We were served a colossal amount of food over the course of the meal, and there was so much wastage, which always engenders a state of unease for us both. We finished with a glass of mezcal, another bowl of hot chocolate and a plate of fresh pastries (which we dipped into the hot chocolate). YUMMO!!!

Feeling a bit lethargic from our morning feast, we slipped out from the table’s uncomfortable bench seat and wandered the aisles of Tlacolula’s old municipal market before making our way back to the minibus. Our next destination was a further 16km southeast of Tlacolula – we were travelling to the ancient ruins of Mitla, an important Zapotec archaeological site.

The ruins are nestled in the San Pablo Villa de Mitla municipality, and I was surprised to be arriving in the middle of a small town. I don’t know why, but I’d imagined the ruins in a more remote and exotic setting. We stepped off the minibus into a wall of Oaxaca’s morning heat, and it was hot – really hot. Comparisons are rarely useful from a travel perspective, but we had visited some amazing ruins over the past five weeks (Tikal, Palenque and Teotihuacan in particular), and I had to admit feeling a little underwhelmed as we walked onto this site. However, with comparisons aside and with the informed commentary of our guide, the ruins almost came to life. I was intrigued by the stone mosaics, where each small piece of stone (and there were thousands of them) had been cut to size and then literally fitted into a frieze – almost like a small jigsaw piece – to create the overall design. I’d always thought mosaics of this nature were carved directly into a large slab of stone.

We walked past cacti of all types and sizes as we wandered the crumbling site, listening to ancient stories of Zapotec civilization and culture, as well as more recent stories of plunder and ransack on the part of political, religious and archaeological invaders. The midday sun was beating down, and I was wilting. It was time for sorbet. There was a tiny ice-cream stand just outside the ruins, so we sat down to a very refreshing and timely sorbet tasting. We tried all manner of sorbets, and they were all fantastic, but my standout favourite was the mezcal… 😉

It was time to head back to Oaxaca City, and on the way we were visiting the final destination of our Oaxacan road trip – Parador Don Agave – a roadside mezcaleria (mezcal distillery) near the township of Macuilxochitl de Artigas Carranza. We sampled many mezcals, all of which were served with slices of orange and plates of delicious fried grasshoppers. They were absolutely incredible, and by the end of the tasting (which included by-products such as cream liquors) we were in a mezcal-induced state of heightened serenity.

We picked up a bottle of mezcal that had been hand-crafted from wild agave (colloquially termed a ‘wild one’). It was our outright favourite from the tasting due to its very smoky flavour. The various bottles of mezcal were branded with the agave species (or sub-species) they had been made from, and ours originated from the coyote agave. I’m so looking forward to opening our bottle of Coyote mezcal when we return home.

Relaxed in a mezcal afterglow, we jumped into the minibus and headed back to Oaxaca City, which was only a 30 minute drive. We wandered the streets of the old city in the afternoon sun, picking up a pair of ceramic earrings for Ren at Casa de las Artesanias de Oaxaca. We cooled down in the hotel pool during the late afternoon and then walked to Praga around 6pm, where we relaxed with nachos and cold drinks on the restaurant’s rooftop terrace.

It had been a long and fantastic travel day. Feeling very relaxed, we walked back to hotel and settled into the noisy and dusty (but comfortable) lobby to work on our travel notes. At one stage we heard a commotion on the street, so we went to investigate and discovered a pop-up Mass (of sorts) being held outside Hospital Molina, which was just across the road from our hotel. When the Mass ended, the large congregation walked slowly behind the Priest (who was stationed on the back of a small truck), and we stood and watched them as they disappeared down Calle de Manuel Garcia Vigil, the street of our hotel.

At 8:30pm we jumped into a taxi and sped through Oaxaca City’s streets one last time on our way to the bus station. We were catching a nine hour overnight bus to Mazunte, a small beachside town on the Pacific Coast of Oaxaca.

On our third day in Oaxaca City (pronounced wah-HAH-kah) we went on a road trip out of town which gave us an insight into regional Oaxacan life. This was the stereotyped Mexico I had seen in commercials, in all its sun burned and slightly surreal glory. As we drove east out of Oaxaca City towards Valle de Tlacolula (one of the three valleys that surround Oaxaca City), the landscape was red-brown and flat, and only occasionally punctuated by houses or farms. We passed a few agave farms where neat rows of agave sat, patiently waiting to be turned into tomorrow’s mezcal.

About 30km from Oaxaca we stopped at Mercado Tlacolula municipal market for breakfast. We were a little bit excited about partaking in a traditional breakfast of barbacoa (meat cooked over coals in an underground pit), especially as Fernando had been talking this up quite a bit. We entered the market and sat at a long (but very cramped) table at Adolfa’s stall. Fernando explained that traditionally a barbacoa meal is started with a shot of mezcal. We laughed in disbelief and said we could never consider having a shot of mezcal with breakfast. It was only just past 9am!

The meal started with a really delicious frothy hot chocolate drink in a bowl. It was a pure hug in a mug, except it was in a soup bowl, so even better! I would have been happy enough if we’d left after this, but there was more to come… much, much more to come.

Next we were served a gorgeous broth which came with the condiments of raw white onions, habanero chiles, coriander leaves/cilantro, sliced radish and lime. I was already very full and the main part to the meal hadn’t even made it to the table yet.

The next course included large tortillas served with mutton and goat in achiote (red annatto seeds) marinade. Both meats were very tender, but I preferred the flavour of the goat. The condiments for this course were guacamole and a salsa verde (green salsa). By this stage we were seriously full, but the offer of more hot chocolate was made, and I was amazed that Andrew managed to fit in one more bowl of hot chocolate with accompanying pastries. I was impressed.

Fernando cheekily re-explained that it was traditional to have a shot of mezcal with a barbacoa breakfast… and we felt a bit pressured into not offending the stall owners (that’s our story and we are sticking to it!). So before we knew it, we found ourselves downing a shot of fierce mezcal. At the risk of sounding like a total alcoholic, I have to admit that I loved it! That shot of smoky mezcal at 10am put a very happy spring in my step for the rest of the morning. As I’ve mentioned before, I honestly think that bottles of mezcal should come with the warning ‘beware addiction will occur!’. 😉

After breakfast we explored the Tlacolula market which is supposed to be one of the oldest markets in Mesoamerica. Many of the villagers from the surrounding Zapotec towns come to sell goods at this market, and it gave us an opportunity to see Zapotec traditional dress, cultural artisanship and hear another indigenous language.

We then drove to the ancient ruins of Mitla, an important Zapotec archaeological site thought to have been the main religious centre for the Zapotec people. It was originally built as a gateway between the world of the living and the world of the dead (the name Mitla was derived from the Nahuatl word for underworld – Mictlan).

Balam was our guide for this trip, and what made it quite special was that he was from Oaxaca and was very connected to the history and culture of this site. We started at the pretty impressive Grupo de las Columnas, whose restored yellow stone buildings had a warm pink hue in certain light, and some of them were thought to have been painted red in their time.

We walked past a beautiful cactus garden and entered a courtyard where we walked up some very high and steep stone steps to enter the ‘Hall of Columns’, the entrance to the main sanctuary. This open air space had monolithic columns of grey volcanic stone that once supported a roof. A mysterious doorway led us down a very low, narrow and dark passageway to another roofless interior square chamber. The chamber walls were quite beautifully covered with panels of inlaid cut-stone ‘mosaics’ in a number of unique designs. We had also noticed these elaborate and intricate stepped-fret designs on all the outside walls that were still standing, and in the tombs we later visited. Balam explained that these mosaics were made with small, finely cut and polished stone pieces that had been fitted together without the use of mortar. The spectacular workmanship and precision was truly amazing.

The Mitla site wasn’t large or grand, but I really enjoyed the little we saw. There was a sense of geometry and balance that really appealed to me, and the buildings had been restored quite beautifully and without a sense of over-restoration.

With little to no shade, the hot Oaxacan sun had been beating down on us for the entire time at the ruins, so we were very happy to hear a whisper about a special cold treat! Fernando led us to a couple of small stalls behind the site that sold homemade sorbets that were local to the region. After tasting all the flavours on offer, I decided on two flavours – tamarind with chile and guanabana (sour sop). Andrew chose mezcal and guava. It was all superb.

On the way back to Oaxaca, we stopped at a mezcaleria (mezcal distillery). Even though mezcal is experiencing a resurgence all over Mexico, Oaxaca is still considered the spiritual heart of mezcal production. At Parador Don Agave we had a tour of the premises and a run through of the production of mezcal. Mezcal now has DOM (Domination of Origin) status, and has to be grown and produced in one of seven Mexican states to carry the mezcal name. Mezcal can be made from one of 28 varieties of agave (there are around 400) and must use 100% agave. Even though commercially farmed agaves are used to make mezcal, many wild agaves are also used, and they are highly prized for the degree of difficulty involved. Mezcal is related to tequila, as they are both produced from the maguey plant, but authentic tequila can only be made from one specific maguey plant – the blue agave – that must be grown in the state of Jalisco, where the town of Tequila is located (it has DOM status too).

Mezcal is usually handmade by small, family-run producers who have used traditional methods for hundreds of years. The agave plants look like aloe plants with long spear-like leaves, and at harvest the leaves are sheared off leaving the central pina (pineapple). Up until this point, a tequila harvest and a mezcal harvest are essentially the same. The process differs in the cooking of the pinas. With mezcal, the pinas are cooked in an underground pit lined with volcanic rocks which are heated to an extreme temperature by a wood fire. The pinas are piled into the pit and covered with a mound of earth, and this underground oven smokes, cooks and caramelizes the pinas over a multi-day cooking process. It’s this process that gives the wood fire smoky flavour (which we love) to a mezcal.

Once the pinas are cooked and unearthed, the crushing process for the agave is traditionally done with a tahona, where a horse or donkey pulls a large stone wheel around in a circle. The resulting product is left to ferment naturally. This entire process happens on a farm and is overseen by a Master Mezcalero. Artisanal mezcals are usually much more expensive than mass-produced tequila (with tequila, the pina is generally steamed and cooked in large industrial stainless-steel industrial pressure cookers; then the cooked agave is shredded and chemically fermented before distilled).

After our educational tour, the fun part began – tasting! As with wine tasting, there were notes on the subtle ways to produce different tastes in a mezcal, depending on the variety of agave chosen and the processes followed. A very slow underground roasting of the agave releases flavours like walnuts, peanuts, hazelnuts, pumpkin, brown sugar and caramel. Mezcals that haven’t been fully roasted have a more citrus, green and floral taste. Natural fermentation brings out the taste of banana, pineapple and dried fruits. Some mezcals are sold con gusano (with a worm)… the gusano is the larval form of the moth that lives on the agave plant. There are different theories about the worm, but I got the distinct feeling that a worm indicated a cheaper, less refined, possibly more ‘touristy’ mezcal.

Mezcal is generally drunk straight, and even though it can be bracing on the first sip, it quickly becomes an easy drink to embrace. Slices of orange with agave worm salt were provided to cleanse the palate between tastings, and a side of fried salty grasshoppers were offered as snacks. The grasshoppers were surprisingly tasty! Not only are they the food of the future (being protein-rich and easy on the environment), they were actually quite addictive. They take on the flavour of whatever is added to them, like popcorn – well, crunchy popcorn with spiky legs and wings.

We sampled what felt like twenty mezcals – salud! There was one espadin (farmed agave) and all the others were wild agaves that take considerable effort to produce. After we’d sampled all the bottles lined up at the top of the table, more and more samples kept coming out from behind the bar, mostly of a creamy variety similar to Baileys but much sweeter. I had totally lost track of what we sampled after the first ten shots, and to be honest, by then everything had descended into laughing and giggling wretchedness (in the best gleefully good way). But I kept reminding myself that I had to dance a careful dance between being happily tipsy and keeping half decent, as we had a few hours back in Oaxaca without a hotel room before we boarded an overnight bus. 😊

We wanted to buy a bottle of wild agave mezcal, and we both agreed that the pronounced smoky flavour of the Coyote agave had stood out for us. We bought a bottle and offered a little prayer to the travel gods that we could get it home in one piece.

We were a little bit (actually a lot bit!) happy on the drive beck to Oaxaca. We got back to Oaxaca in the later afternoon, and still had a few hours to kill until our overnight bus at 9pm. We went for a walk, specifically seeking out a little artisan collective we’d come across the day before – Casa de las Artesanias de Oaxaca. I try to limit myself to one piece of jewellery per trip, and I’d already purchased a silver bracelet in San Cristobal and two amber pendants in San Juan Chamula. However, I’d really fallen in love with some traditional Oaxacan pottery earrings, and I knew I’d regret not buying them.

We chilled out at the hotel for the rest of the afternoon. Andrew had a swim while Natalie, Jacob and I sat around the pool and chatted. We eventually ventured out for some drinks at a rooftop bar on Allende that we hadn’t tried yet – Praga. Andrew and I shared a bowl of nachos, our first Tex Mex dish of the trip! It was unexpectedly delicious.

As we lounged around getting ready for our bus trip, I reflected on the awesome time we’d had in Oaxaca. When doing travel research, I usually write a list of places to see, things to do and dishes to try that are local to any place we visit; and I was amazed to see that we’d crossed almost everything off the Oaxaca list. 😊

That evening we said goodbye to Arturo (who was heading back to Mexico City), and caught taxis to the bus station to board an overnight bus bound for the Pacific Coast. The bus was as comfortable as all the other intercity buses we’d caught on this trip, and one of many that criss-crosses Mexico carrying millions of people a day...or night, as it were. It felt like we were in a little rocket, speeding towards the coast in the dark.

Next we travel to Mazunte, in Oaxaca Mexico.


13th August 2016
parador don agave - mezcal tasting

Mezcal, three times a day keeps the sad away!
So now, back home with your Coyote Mezcal, you'll need to fry up some grasshoppers to go with them--you can impress your friends with the spiky legs and wings! I love that you got the Coyote Mescal--the coyote is a beloved trickster character in many native American traditions, and I love the little rascal, as well as the coyotes back home that serenade me at night. And your Fernando was a perfect coyote, getting you all so happy with your breakfast mezcal!
14th August 2016
parador don agave - mezcal tasting

Re: Mezcal, three times a day keeps the sad away!
There are some foods that should only be eaten in situ! We loved all the traditional tales and legends the agaves have been named after, and the depictions of those legends were gorgeous too. It was a superb day :)
13th August 2016

Mezcal and grasshoppers
This taste testing sounds fantastic. It is always a worry carrying certain items home especially if they break in your backpack giving your clothes a distinctive aroma.
14th August 2016

Re: Mezcal and grasshoppers
The tasting was a definite highlight! Even though all the alcohol made it home safely, we had a bottle of hot sauce from Belize that leaked a bit...I'm not sure which the customs sniffer dogs would prefer - getting nose deep into habanero or mezcal soaked clothing :)
18th August 2016

The joys of Oaxaca
Mysterious doorways and dark passage....that would be a good opening line for your book....chapter 23...tales along the Mezcal Trail...a warm glow sank over the weary travelers as the settled back into the bus. You are leading a good life!
19th August 2016

Re: The joys of Oaxaca
Hehe I love the title 'tales along the mezcal trail'! There were many many joys in Oaxaca, most of them totally unexpected :)
18th August 2016

Those look very serious!
19th August 2016

Re Nachos
I wasn't at all sure about that squirty cheese, but that was a very tasty bowl of nachos!
1st September 2016

Lovely to read about the Mezcal-producing process, and the differences between Mezcal and Tequila. Ah, the "mezcal afterglow" and "a lot bit happy" part sounds wonderful :D It's a shame I wasn't able to include Oaxaca or Chiapas on my trip, as I was advised against them due to ongoing teacher strikes/blockades at the time - did you guys find any of these problems when you were there?
2nd September 2016

Re: Mezcal!
Thanks Alex. I love the nerdy details of things like the difference between mezcal and tequila, but assumed most people would skip over it ;) Would definitely say include Oaxaca on your next trip - it was fabulous. Chiapas was harder to travel through but had many highlights too. We had to sit through one blockade between San Cristobal and the Guatemalan border (delayed us half a day), and a sit-in protest in the zocalo in Oaxaca City... but luckily they were all peaceful. We very much support the right to protest - especially for indigenous rights - so we couldn't complain really.

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