We weren’t in Oaxaca to do anything in particular, we just wanted to chill and explore another Mexican city. Oaxaca is beautiful and colourful like Guanajuato but that’s where the similarities end. For a start it’s a lot less sleepy, with plenty of westerners living alongside locals (it’s a popular place to learn Spanish).
Before we go any further, I have to confess we had no idea how to pronounce the name when we planned to go there – for weeks we were calling it oh-axe-aca, when it is of course pronounced wahaca. I know now why the London chain didn’t use the original spelling.
The first thing we noticed about Oaxaca, after coming from further north was that it is hot, hot HOT! The sun beats down on the city all day, making the early afternoon most definitely a time for a coffee in the shade or a siesta.
It is also home to a lot of colonial architecture, some sparkling, some crumbling. And last but possibly most important (to us) it is known as a culinary centre of Mexico. We had a lot of eating to do!
As with most towns and cities in Mexico, the zocalo (central square) is the hub of the action. It was a bit different in Oaxaca though, as it was chock full of protesters camps. From what I could gather, they were primarily protesting about the tragic case of the 43 disappeared students, something which also delayed our journey to the city due to protesters blocking the road with rocks, though there may well have been general protests about the government as well – sadly as this point our Spanish wasn’t strong enough to discern much.
Luckily the atmosphere was not threatening in the slightest as protesters lived and ate together, seemingly with the rest of the city in full support.
A short walk from the zocalo, the stunning Ex Convento de Santo Domingo dominates the view. We had wanted to visit the attached cultural museum but it seemed to be closed every day we were there. We did explore the inside of the church though, including (slightly embarrassingly) during Mass where we thought we were hidden at the back but inadvertently became involved in a mass shaking of hands instigated by the priest – we had no idea what we were doing and were grateful to sneak out when Mass finished.
Elsewhere in the city centre, two markets adjacent to each other dominate – the Mercado Benito Juarez and the Mercado 20 de Noviembre. The former is a busy market selling just about everything and well worth a walk around but the latter is dedicated to food and so where we went to fill our bellies.
Inside you can buy (and eat) anything from tortas (sandwiches) to moles to tacos to desserts. But we headed for the grilled meats hall. Here you pick a vendor displaying various types of raw meat – some are tenderised, some are marinated and some are just raw. We went for a selection of half a kilogram which included chorizo, beef and pork.
The vendor promptly starts barbecuing your meat but that’s only the start. In a slightly complicated system, separate vendors sell tortillas, vegetables and fresh salsas. We ended up with lots of tortillas, some spicy vegetables, a tomato salsa and an incredible fresh guacamole. The whole package cost 118 pesos (£5.12) and we could barely finish it – there was SO much meat.
Afterwards you have to pay, which was the difficult part, as we didn’t realise we had to pay each vendor separately, but we managed eventually. In our excitement we forgot to take any photos of the meat vendors, just a quick snap of our soon to be devoured meat.
On the way out there were lots of vendors selling chapulines – aka grasshoppers. In all our travels in Asia I had never got around to eating bugs and had always regretted it – I needed to know what they tasted like!
There were a variety of flavours and sizes and they kindly allowed me to sample a few of them. In the end I went for a small bag of medium sized grasshoppers (the big ones looked like they might be gooey inside!) fried with chilli and garlic.
They tasted so good. Very spicy and very garlicky, they made a great snack for the rest of the day. They did have a slightly earthy aftertaste, being grasshoppers, but overall my first experience of eating bugs was a pleasant one. I couldn’t persuade Katy to try any unfortunately.
Another unique dish we ate was the Tlayuda, a thin and crispy tortilla, filled and folded. It sounds like a quesadilla but the filling is a bit different, with pork lard and cabbage alongside beans and cheese. Grilled meat is served on the side.
There were a few others on my list which I didn’t get to try, including Oaxaca chocolate in a drink, mainly because I didn’t see any vendors. I did however try the city’s most famous alcoholic export – mescal.
I found a mezcaleria which was so rustic and beautiful it looked like a museum piece, but it was a genuine, local mescal dispenser. I bought a small bottle of the blanco which was enjoyed both mixed and sipped (even though I didn’t realise blanco is the worst for sipping). There was alarmingly no indication of alcohol percentage but my verdict – strong (probably over 50%/100 proof)
In truth that is about all we did in Oaxaca, eat, drink and explore. It was relaxing and good fun and we’d come back if in Mexico again, to use it as a base for exploring Oaxaca state.