Mexico City Historical Walking Tour

Free walking tours are a great introduction to new cities when traveling, so its one of the first things we seek out. As a world city, Mexico City has some popular walking tours, but they're not city-wide. No, in this large and sprawling city, you can only see one or two neighborhoods in a four hour tour.

The group we went with currently has five free walking tours. We chose the Historic Downtown tour since we were staying near the historic district, but despite our proximity, we were almost late to the tour because I kept underestimating the scale of the city on maps.

The tour started outside of the cathedral that looks onto the zocalo. At this point we've seen at least half a dozen zocalos in Mexico; all of them charming, centrally located and green. The DF zocalo is a different breed: absolutely massive, all stone and concrete, and under active reconstruction. Like most zocalos it was surrounded by historical government buildings, museums and a cathedral.

After taking in the massive plaza, we found the tour leaders in pink shirts and placed ourselves in the English speaking group. Our guide started by explaining why all Mexican cities call their central park squares zócalo: zocalo in Spanish is a plinth, or platform where a flag or monument is erected. In Mexico City history, there were plans to build the entire plaza but only the plinth was ever built. This has since changed, but for a long time it was just a zocalo, so that's what most Mexican cities call their town square.

The Cathedral

We started at the cathedral, La Catedral Metropolitana. Its a huge, beautiful cathedral, like many others. I guess it was the biggest one that we've seen in Mexico, but didn't look too different.

I loved the fact we learned about this cathedral though. When Pope Francis visited this cathedral, he blessed one of entrances so that anyone passing through it would be absolved of all sins. Normally this entrance is closed on all but a few sacred days, so the Pope ordered that these doors be kept open for a year so that visitors could benefit from this blessing.

The odd thing is that after the year was up they closed the doors again! Melissa and I couldn't understand it; if these doors are permanently blessed, why wouldn't you want them open all the time? Our best guess is that nobody would go to mass if it were that easy to be absolved.

The cathedral

We saw people walking up here, you can do tours of the cathedral itself for roof access

The cathedral, with some of the zocalo construction in the foreground

Templo Mayor

Next to the cathedral, like right next to it, are the ruins of Templo Mayor. Its stupid how close this ancient site is to an urban plaza. Even more odd is that it wasn't really discovered until recently, 1978.

And the weirdest part is that while these ruins were sitting under houses in the historic neighborhood of Mexico City, right next to a massive cathedral, the ruins themselves are way above street level! Its not like they're buried 15 feet down, they're more like 10 feet above the sidewalks.

The story we learned is that the site of the ruins was a neighborhood called "the island of the dogs," because when it rained and the streets flooded in this sinking, swamp city, all the street dogs would retreat to this hill.

We didn't go into the ruins but could see a lot from the sidewalks. Excavation is still in progress and who knows what they'll unearth. I would have loved to have returned to explore both the cathedral (you can walk on the roof!) and these ruins, but Mexico City is so big we kept busy elsewhere.

Detail of some of the Templo Mayor ruins, a serpent body with god knows what for a head

As you can see, these ruins rise above street level. Its baffling how they went undiscovered for so long.


More Historical Buildings

Also on the zocalo border was the National Palace of Mexico. The importance of this particular site extends back to the Aztec empire, and today its a modern palace building that houses an art museum.

Moving on to another plaza we sat outside a statue of Josefa Ortiz, a woman who played a role in the Mexican War of Independence from Spain. Her most important contributions are summed up by Wikipedia:

The overthrow of King Ferdinand VII of Spain as a result of the Peninsular War in Spain suddenly increased the prospect of independence for the Spanish colonies in the Americas. The meetings in Ortiz de Domínguez's house became the official location of the revolutionary conspiracy and much of the insurgent planning was carried out there, including gathering weapons and supplies and storing them in various houses. The beginning of the revolution was planned for December 8, 1810. However, on September 13, the conspirators were betrayed by a supporter, who informed the Spanish colonial authorities about rebel activities in Querétaro. Unaware of his wife's allegiance, Miguel Domínguez was asked to conduct a house search in the town in order to apprehend the rebel leaders. He imprisoned Ortiz de Domínguez in her room to prevent her from exchanging information with her fellow conspirators.

The rebels had a large following, and Ortiz de Domínguez eventually managed to get a warning out through the town mayor, Don Ignacio Pérez. The news allowed the leaders of the conspiracy to abandon the town and prompted Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla to declare war against the Spanish colonial authorities, in which he made a speech to his followers known as Grito de Dolores ("Cry of Dolores"), in the early morning of September 16 of 1810, an event that signaled the start of the Mexican War of Independence.
So she was basically the Princess Leia of the Mexican War of Independence, without the secret powers and royal birth.

The statue of Josefa Ortiz

Across from this plaza was a museum featuring Diego Rivera murals. I barely knew that he was Frida Kalo's husband, and knew next to nothing about his life or career. We learned that he was a much bigger deal than her, at least initially (we haven't seen the movie). Earlier in his life, before he was internationally known, the Mexican Minister of Education approached him about producing murals to educate and influence the Mexican public on issues important to the government. The reason they approached an artist is that at this time, most Mexican citizens were illiterate farmers, so the written word wasn't going to have much impact on the population.

Diego Rivera started work on the murals, but his sponsor said that with his European art background, he wasn't ready to reach the Mexican public. He needed to travel the country and learn the folk art styles that his people knew and had used for centuries. So he traveled for years, and when he returned started the murals in a completely different style more familiar to his countrymen, and they worked. We later went to an exhibit featuring early Rivera and Picasso works (they were contemporaries and friends) and I couldn't tell who painted what without reading the placards.

As we walked through the streets, we stopped at the Teatro de le Ciudad, across the street from a former women's asylum (past societies tended to put women in an asylum when they were inconvenient). We paused outside a store specializing in quinceañera dresses, our first glimpse at the importance of the ritual. For those who don't know, quinceañera means fifteenth birthday, and is a coming of age event for girls only (boys don't really have an equivalent in Latin America), similar to a bar/bat mitzvah, or debutante balls from years ago.

Teatro de la Ciudad facade.
The prevailing dress style is over-the-top and elaborate, with bright, floral, almost neon, colors. They're like American prom dresses on steroids. We later stopped at a bakery that makes quinceañera cakes that are similarly elaborate and colored.

Down a few more streets we sat on some steps by a statue and learned about one of the most important names in Mexican history: Benito Juarez. We've seen streets, towns, docks, airports, nearly everything named after Benito Juarez. He is the Washington or Lincoln of Mexico; its a name used so commonly you almost forget he was a person.

Benito Juarez is among Mexico's most beloved presidents in part because he was the first indigenous man elected to the office. He instituted many reforms, and played a major role in the history of Mexico, but his birth alone catapults him to the top; all other presidents had been at least partly European.

At this tiny plaza with a Benito Juarez statue, we could see the building rooftops that James Bond runs across in the opening sequence in Spectre. Call me a dork, but I really liked that scene, specifically the incredible Day of the Dead parade. I don't feel ashamed to admit this because while that the movie invented this parade, they now do it every year because so many tourists showed up disappointed that it wasn't real.

The plaza seen in Spectre, with our tour guide

Palacios

The next few buildings we were able to enter and admire the architecture. The Museo Nacional de Arte is an art museum with a range of architectural styles. It's well done, not jarring, and apparently this mix of styles is the hallmark of one of Mexico's popular presidents, Porfirio Diaz, who had a hand in the design of many of this district's buildings. When the historical society had to categorize this building, they couldn't decide on any one style like neoclassical or Gothic, so it was given a new category called "Porfirio".

The Museo Nactional de Arte, with a statue of King Charles the IV, the last Spanish monarch to rule Mexico

Three types of columns visible in one row, in a courtyard of the Museo Nacional de Arte

Across the street from the art museum was the Palacio de Correos de Mexico, the Postal Palace. As a working post office, it may be hard to imagine why this is a stop on a tour, but this building is fancy. In past years, they incorporated a flag into the atrium for every country that had a diplomatic relationship with the young Mexican state. Our tour group was internationally diverse, and everyone took time to find their country's flag somewhere on the walls.

The Postal Palace from the outside, with fancy street lamps. Due to pollution and geography, Mexico City rarely has blue skies

The American flag close to the ceiling in the atrium

The atrium is dominated by high ceilings and this ornate, soaring staircase
Melissa wanders the Palacio de Correos
Finally, we made our way to the Palacio de Bellas Artes (palace of fine arts). This building stands out; we had marveled at it when walking from our hostel to the tour start. It's at the end of a long park, with a massive, shiny, gold dome. This is another Porfirio building (they all have eagles incorporated into the outer decorations), with Neoclassical and Art Nouveau on the exterior and ancient Mayan and Aztec figures incorporated into the facade.

An almost blue sky above the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Aztec faces on the lower balcony
Bellas Artes from the department store across the street. They have an 8th floor cafe with a killer view, but long waits

Bellas Artes from the streets, with DF pink taxis and the Porfirio eagle on the dome

This is the building that was showing the Diego Rivera and Pablo Picasso exhibit that we later visited. It's also a theater showing art and cultural performances. Standing outside the Palacio, we learned my favorite fact from the tour.

Mexico City is built on a drained swamp, and it's sinking. As much as 5 cm each year. This is an abstract fact until you see evidence of it. Across from the Palacio, our guide pointed out two buildings; one was anchored to the bedrock below the swamp and the other was built on the surface. They're visibly pulling apart where the latter building is sinking unevenly.

Looking at the ground in front of the Palacio after learning this, we could suddenly see how it sloped away in areas, and lines in the marble sidewalk panels that were laid straight are now crooked from the shifting ground. It was like a scene in the Matrix or Pleasantville where suddenly your eyes are open and you start seeing everything in a new light.

Not a detail everyone would notice, but these buildings are definitely drifting apart

Food

The last part of the tour touched on food in Mexico City. Our guide gave us background on Mexican food, the four main ingredients that define this cuisine that Mexico has given to the world: the chile, corn, tomatoes and chocolate. As students of Mexican food, this was not new to us so focused on getting specific restaurant recommendations from our guide.

Our first food stop was Pasteleria Ideal, a massive, bustling bakery selling thousands of pounds of pastries a day. They must have produced every kind of pastry and bread found anywhere in Mexico. Our group went upstairs to the cake floor to finish our education on quinceaneras. Here were the enormous, multi-tiered cakes that they make for these and other events. These cakes are sold by weight; the biggest cake I saw weighed in at 110 kg (242 pounds).

Want some cakes? There were three rooms like this of display  cakes

The biggest I could find was 110 kg and at least 6 feet tall
We finished up visiting a house covered with blue tiles and a smaller church. Melissa and I were growing hungry at this point, so we took a recommendation from the guides to visit one of the Salon Corona restaurants in the neighborhood and ate some solid tacos.

One the way back to our hostel we stopped back in the bakery and got a pastry that never got eaten (too full!) and struggled mightily to figure out how the checkout process worked there. This place is so high-volume that they separate boxing and itemizing your pastries from paying for it. As best we could tell, you go to one woman who will wrap and box your pastries and write up a receipt for your bill, which you then take to a cash register woman. After paying, you return to the box woman to show proof of purchase and take your pastries. That's three stops just to by a piece of bread. We were so confused we kept walking back and forth, clueless about what each station's responsibilities were. Honestly, it didn't make much sense to us, but they do a lot of business so I suppose theirs a reason for it.

Overall, we're glad we did this tour but wouldn't call it unmissable. The Centro Historico has many incredible, unique, historical buildings, and we learned more about the history of the modern Mexican state on this tour than anywhere else in Mexico. If you're into art, museums and history then this would be a great introduction to some of DF's best assets, but if you are more about street art, culture, or modern history, another neighborhood may suit you better.

Arriving in Mexico City

The Trip to DF

We left our hostel in Oaxaca and started on the 25 minute walk with our heavy bags to the bus station, north of centro in Oaxaca. Coincidentally, we ran into the Norwegian girl who stayed with us at the homestay in San Cristobal! She had just arrived in Oaxaca after finishing her classes in Sancris when we ran into her on the street. Funny how that works out sometimes.

We had tickets for an ADO bus to Mexico City, and other than a short touch of motion sickness had a very comfortable ride. The sketchiest part, and my favorite, was the one stop we made at a little gas station, restaurant, bathroom called Restaurante Medio Camino, or "Half Way Restaurant." We didn't really plan our food well for this trip so I got us two room temperature sandwiches (a cemita since we were so close to Puebla here!) and some new chips. They may make the mayonnaise differently here, because I've had a lot of room temp mayo at this point and have never had an issue with it...

Rolling, green hills between Oaxaca City and Mexico City

The half way restaurant
Arriving in Mexico City took a bit of planning because there are at least three major bus stations there, whereas most cities (even New York) just have one central station. None of them were walkable from our hostel, so we chose based on arrival time and ended up at the Norte (north) station.

I wonder how big the other stations were, because even after arriving in this bus depot we had a solid five minutes of driving to get to our parking spot. This depot had at least 100 docks, so if the other stations are as large that's 300 buses at a time that can arrive every hour.

We immediately appreciated how much more organized transportation in the capital is. To get a taxi, you walk to an official counter inside the station, tell the attendant where you're going, and pay for a taxi voucher to the zone with your destination. You then walk to a manned taxi line, give your voucher to the attendant who takes care of the driver's voucher. This eliminates haggling with the driver and worrying about whether you're choosing a safe taxi or not. Haggling may be better for locals who know the city well, but for first timers these systems are predictable and great.

Mexico City

We always knew that Mexico City was big, but during our stay we repeatedly revised our definitions of big. Sprawling is a better word; I still haven't been to a city that's more vertical and dense than New York (they exist, Hong Kong surely for one), but for area covered New York doesn't (seem to) come close. We got our first glimpses as we rode to our hostel in the Centro Historico and watched the blue dot on Google maps scarcely move.

Our hostel was just outside of the Centro Historico, on a side street within sight of a massive intersection where three of the largest boulevards in Mexico City meet. We stayed at Hostel Suites DF; after arriving I was thrilled to see that they offered a Lucha Libre outing, bookable with the front desk.

Checking into our hostel and then venturing out to find some dinner (sushi) was really satisfying because this neighborhood felt so much like a big city, with narrow streets and tall buildings throwing everything into shade. This entire trip has been us slowly realizing how much we like big cities, and we immediately felt more at ease wandering around this neighborhood than a quiet Cancun neighborhood.

After sushi, we made some friends with the Australians in the hostel common area and took notes from them about places to visit in the city and Guatemala. As a side note, I don't think I'll ever willingly sit on benches made with old burlap coffee bean sacks again; I ended up with itchy legs for a few days and I'm blaming the sharp burlap fibers for that.

It was really nice, feeling at home in this massive, noisy city. We love how in a large city you are anonymous and nobody cares about you, in the best possible way. So much of our trip has been in tourist towns and cultural centers, where white people walking around (with or without giant backpacks) register on every pair of local eyes. Not everyone tries to hassle you or sell you something, but enough of them do do and the feeling of being watched is a consistent, insidious annoyance.

We were definitely a bit more anonymous in Oaxaca, but outside of the tourist spots in DF were were just about invisible. Mexico City is also busy at night, so when you're walking down an unknown street, there's almost no cause for concern when one stranger walking behind you, because you're never really far from other people. I don't know what it says about us, but we feel more at ease in this mass of people and concrete than we do walking down deserted small town roads.

One last thing: like Washington DC, Mexico City is a special federal region called Distrito Federal, or DF. We really took to that acronym and its understood around Mexico. Much signage in the city also refers to it as CDMX, or Ciudad de Mexico.

By the numbers

Looking at a few key figures, this is how DF compares to New York:

Metric Mexico City New York
Population, city proper 8.9 m 8.5 m
Metro area population 20.0 20.1
Area square miles 573 302 (just land), 468 (including water)


Mexico City is actually the largest metropolitan area in the Western hemisphere according to its Wikipedia page, but these numbers are really hard to get a definitive take on another page has New York edging it out. It is the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world, the oldest capital city in the Americas, and if it were a country it's economy would be the fifth largest in Latin America, just behind Peru.

New York, by contrast, is home to over 800 spoken languages, and the GDP of its metropolitan statistical area, if it were a country, would make it the 11th largest in the world.

I'm actually surprised at how close they are on the population stats because we've constantly heard that Mexico city is so much bigger, but they're actually quite comparable.

Oaxacan Food

Well, Oaxaca is known for its food so we made it a mission to seek out everything unique here and to try at least one version of it. Many of these are not exclusive to Oaxaca; Mexico City in particular has food from all parts of Mexico.

Tlayudas

These are a tiny bit like a Mexican pizza: giant, thin tortillas cooked on a tomal, smeared with a thin layer of frijolitos, a thin, savory black bean spread. On top of that goes Oaxacan quesillo, the super stringy, salty cheese, then usually lettuce, tomatoes, and maybe some grilled meat.

We tried two; the first was at the Mercado de Noviembre 20 and was served flat like a pizza. The thin tortilla is very crispy when you get it, so its a struggle to break off pieces and keep the toppings on it for a full bite.

Tlayuda from the Mercado de 20 Noviembre, with chorizo

Tlayuda from El Negro, so stretchy and easier to eat
The second we tried was at a place called Tlayuda "El Negro" that our hotel hosts recommended. These were folded in half like a quesadilla and griddled a bit, so they're like a giant quesadilla rather than tortilla pizza. I liked these the most; Melissa liked both places a lot. While the cheese was hot, I could have taken a bite and had Melissa walk half way across the restaurant with the tlayuda before the cheese broke; its ridiculously stretchy.

Oddly, at "El Negro," when I ordered a tlayuda with ribs, I got a normal tlayuda with a couple of grilled pork ribs on the side rather than incorporated into the tlayuda fillings.

Street Hamburguesas

We struggled with this because we had an idea about Oaxacan street foods we wanted to try, but most nights could only find hamburgers, hot dogs, freshly fried potato chips, and elotes and esquites. Eventually we gave in and tried one of the hamburgers and learned why they're so popular.

I stood at a stall, watched and waited as the cook expertly made no more than two burgers at a time, to order. These burgers are loaded. From memory (which means I'll probably miss a few ingredients) each had:
  • A single beef patty, probably 3-4 oz
  • A hot dog cut lengthwise and once width-wise
  • Sauteed, almost caramelized onions
  • A piece of ham, browned a bit on the griddle
  • Pineapple
  • A scoop of pickled chiles and onions
  • Lettuce
  • Chopped tomatoes
  • Ketchup, mustard, mayo
  • A lightly griddled bun
This little greaseball had a good mix of flavors and textures, with the pineapple and pickled chilis giving a bright bite to the otherwise soft mass of sauces, bread and meat. Overall it reminded me of a 5 Guys burger with almost everything on it, and I can see why these are popular in centro.

Melissa got a street hotdog too; these were served with ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise and some onions.

This is not a great picture, but this hamburger was excellent

Chapulines

I've covered these elsewhere and won't go into much depth here. They weren't everywhere, but were pretty easy to find if you wanted them. I'm surprised the burger didn't get a scoop of these for umami.

Chapulines con guacamole

Moles

Oaxaca is known as "The Land of the Seven Moles," I think we got to five on our trip.
  • Negro - the "black" mole. Despite the special status this mole holds, it's not hard to find. We had some at Criollo and at the market during the cooking class tour. If you encounter mole in the US that's not guacamole, there's a decent chance that its mole negro (poblano is also common stateside)
  • Rojo - the red mole, spicier and more focus on the chiles. I had this at lunch on the Mitla tour and really liked it
  • Coloradito - a less spicy red mole; I ate some at the food market in centro
  • Amarillo - the "yellow," this one is very adaptable and we had a version for lunch at the cooking class. We haven't been too impressed by this yet
  • Verde - we never got this, although it was available at the Mitla tour lunch. Apparently this is the easiest to make, and seems similar to a salsa verde with tomatillos, cilandro and green chiles
  • Chichilo - we didn't get this one and didn't learn much about it
  • Manchamantel - literally meaning "the tablecloth stainer," it was one of the featured moles at or Criollo dinner. I thought it was sweeter and kind of one note, and don't consider that dish a definitive version
Mole coloradito from Mercado de 20 Noviembre, with a chicken thigh

Mole negro from Criollo with a tamale

Mole manchamantel from Criollo with beef

Mole amarillo from our cooking class


Quesadillas

Quesadillas of course are not exclusive to Oaxaca, but the city is known for a particularly pure version that can be found at street stalls.

What I hoped to find in Oaxaca, were the quesadillas made with just Oaxacan quesillo cheese and squash blossoms, or flor de cabeza. After failing to find any for a week, on a Saturday in centro we finally saw a dozen stands doing these quesadillas.

As expected they were simple and excellent, relying on the quality of the ingredients. The woman making them was a treat to watch; she didn't use any tools when working with the hot comal, instead using her fireproof hands and technique to flip and fold the quesadillas.

Street quesadillas, muy autentico

Hot hands folding the quesadillas

Nieves

Ice cream has been pervasive in Mexico, and is present in Oaxaca, but takes a backseat to the street carts serving nieves, or flavored ices. We tried popular flavors on the market tour, and later bought a very refreshing lima, or lime leaf nieve in centro on one afternoon when we underestimated how hot the day would get. The great thing about the lime leaf nieves was that they have a ton of limey, fragrant flavor without much acidity.

Nuts

Roasted, salted nuts are sold all over Mexico as snacks. In Oaxaca and Mexico City though, they often include whole cloves of fried garlic, which is a really nice touch I wish other cities would adopt.

Sal de Gusano

As everyone remembers from college days, there is a ritual for drinking tequila and mezcal. You may not like salt and chase with lime every time you shoot tequila anymore, but you should keep the tradition with mezcal. Between sips (good mezcal shouldn't be shot), or especially between different kinds of mezcal, as this is a palate cleanser, you can eat a slice of sour orange with a bit of sal de gusano.

If you've been paying attention, you should see that this is "worm salt". Its actually roasted, ground up moth larva, the same that are put in a mezcal bottle, with roasted chiles and a smokey salt.

Big old bowl of of sal de gusano

The best way to consume this that I've seen is to dip the orange wedge into the pile of reddish sal de gusano and eat the wedge. Its not gamey or gross; really its not different than a chile salt with a bit of savoriness.

Many mezcals come with a tiny pouch of sal de gusano tied to the lid so you can keep the tradition on the go.

Mezcal and Gusano Popsicles

Knowing that all of these flavors were popular, I was still surprised when the major ice cream chain La Michoacana was advertising mezcal-flavored popsicles (paletas) with a sal de gusano dip. Sadly we didn't get to try these.

Gusano and mezcal popsicles

Atole

We didn't see this much on the street or in restaurants, and I don't think its totally unique to Oaxaca but it can be found there. Actually, the most interesting atole we had was at an incredible, under the radar quesadilla place in San Cristobal, literally called "No Name Quesadillas," that opened at 9 PM (or whenever the chef felt like it) and sold huge quesadillas and hot atole until they run out.

The place was a bit of a scene, in a good way, and we ordered the only atole available that night, which was a hot corn and pineapple drink. Interesting, but not something that's going to appear in my regular drink rotation.

Criollo

For my birthday in 2016, we went to Cosme in New York, mainly because of this picture that I saw in a magazine:

Corn husk meringue with corn mousse, stolen from Food and Wine
Cosme had a great menu, was well reviewed and very hard to get into, but I'm not going to lie: it wouldn't have been in my sights if not for that dessert.

Cosme is the first New York and US restaurant by chef Enrique Olvera, whose other restaurants are in Mexico City and Oaxaca. While it wasn't the best high-end meal we've had it was pretty good and notable, so when we considered going out for a really nice meal in Mexico we chose his Oaxaca restaurant Criollo over his Olvera's more expensive Mexico City places.

Sadly, it wasn't that great of a meal for the price and aclaim. We did the tasting menu with a couple of drinks mixed in (no pairing). I can't remember every dish we had, and the table we sat at was very awkward, especially since we ended up getting just one plate to share for every course.

Some of the highlights were
  • Manchamantel mole, the only time I ever saw the tablecloth stainer available
  • Mole negro tamale, that tasted too much like chocolate. If any one flavor stands out in a mole its not correctly balanced, so this was flawed
  • The blue corn chips - I'd read that these are a special heirloom breed of corn and made fresh daily, but they weren't particularly tasty. In fact, they weren't even the tastiest thing in the chip basket; we enjoyed the yellow corn more
Honestly I can't remember much more. There was a dish where we could not tell if the protein was beef or pork. I argued beef because of the flavor of the fat but couldn't say for sure. We later confirmed that it was beef, but the ambiguous nature of this didn't endear it to us. I remember one course had a pear or pineapple puree that neither of us ate more than a bite of because it didn't fit with the dish at all.

I hadn't intended to write a negative review of this place, especially because it wasn't bad, but we did have to ask for salt in one course and it just wasn't anywhere near the expectations we had. Fortunately it wasn't too expensive and is a fraction of his Mexico City restaurant's tasting menu so we feel like we got through our "nice meal in Mexico" checklist item cheaply.

Overall

Food in Oaxaca was great and a bit different, but did not exceed my expectations from reading years of food journalism. Food in Mexican cities is pretty good in general, but if I could only eat in one of those cities again it would definitely be Mexico City due to the variety and quality. Still, a great experience to visit one of these food capitals of the world and be able to try almost everything.

One dish we missed is memelas, solely because they are primarily a breakfast dish and our hostel offered a great, free breakfast everyday. At least we'll have something new to try if we ever return!

Oaxacan Day Tour: Mitla

One of my goals coming to Oaxaca was to visit a mezcal distillery for a tour. Among the coolest things we learned about after we arriving in Oaxaca is Hierve el Agua, the petrified waterfalls. So when our hostel advertised tours with a group that included both attractions in a five-part "Mitla" day tour, at a reasonable price, guess what we did?

The five sights on this Mitla tour were:
  1. El Tule, a massive, 2000 year old tree
  2. Visiting a Zapotecan family that produces wool good using traditional methods
  3. Mitla, probably the #2 ruin around Oaxaca (Monte Alban is bigger and more popular)
  4. Hierve el Agua
  5. The mezcal distillery "El Rey de Matatlán"
We signed up through the hostel, a van picked us up right outside the door the following morning at 8 AM and got it done.

El Tule

This was a big tree. A really big tree. Much wider around than the redwoods in California, although not nearly so tall. Technically, it has "the stoutest trunk of any tree in the world" (Wikipedia) and is over 2000 years old. Its in a town near Oaxaca City proper and the area has been built up around the tree to support tourism.

Our group for the day was a mix of English and Spanish speakers, so all day we would wander around while the guide did the Spanish portion, returning for the English. We learned that in 1990, the local authorities contacted tree scientists (dendrologists), who recommended a few changes to preserve it: stop draining all of the water from the area and reduce the air pollution nearby. So today, the road that went right by the tree is now closed to cars and incorporated into the the walkable tourist area.

Oaxaca sign in front of El Tule

The massive trunk of this tree with a bit of perspective


Zapotecan Wool Production

It's a good thing we did a full day tour, because this is something we never would have done on our own but was totally worth it. Visiting this traditional wool producing family was surprisingly interesting and well organized.

We arrived at their beautiful ranch in the Oaxacan hills (I guess the wool tourist business pays well), filed out of the van and sat down in the demo corner to hear how they produce their wool goods. The patriarch giving the tour didn't have much English so the Spanish speakers got the best part of it, and what he did try in English we barely got half of.

This family was actually featured in an Oliver Sack's book called Oaxaca Journal, written about the nine days that the author visited Oaxaca and researched native ferns. I want to pause here to let it sink in that Oliver Sacks wrote a book after visiting Oaxaca for nine days, so anyone who thinks that I'm writing too much on this trip (Melissa) can take that into consideration.

As we sat in their demo area and tried to figure out what was going on, we saw the techniques used to card, dye and spin the wool. The wool off the sheep is either white or black, and it's lumpy and dirty with sticks and leaves in it, so it needs to be cleaned up for weaving. The woman performing the demo used hand carders to for this process; she'd take a bit of wool and scrape it between the two paddles to remove debris and order the wool into a fluffy, usable product. They insisted that some of us try the carding so a few people did, and... could not do it at all. The tool creates a lot of friction and apparently takes some practice and strength to be able to use.

A hand carder from yarn.com

One of the large production looms, with the pattern stenciled on paper to the left

The entrance to this wool house
After the wool is carded it's spun into a thread. The woman demonstrated this by holding a lump of carded wool in her hand, hooking a bit onto a hand powered spinning machine and slowly drawing out thread as it spun. Its kind of hard to explain but fortunately Melissa volunteered to try it and was able to spin! Other volunteers broke the thread immediately and couldn't produce much.


The most interesting part of this visit was the techniques they had to dye their wool almost any color. All the dyes came from nature; none of them were factory made and store bought. The origin of the red dyes was fascinating: it comes from a bug that infests cactus paddles. They had some infected cactus paddles around, it looks like they have dry little white cocoons on them. They don't look like living bugs moving around. The Zapotecans here actually cultivate cacti with these cochina bugs so that they have a sufficient source of red, orange and purple dyes.

The process of creating the red is to harvest the bugs, dry them in the sun, crush them into a powder and boil it until it turns red. We got a brief demo of the finished product as they smeared red dye across one of the daughter's hand's. Next they squeezed some lime juice onto the girl's red dyed hand and the dye turned orange, explaining that red dye plus a bit of acid gives them orange. Finally, they rubbed a bit of limestone into the remaining red and it turned purple, so red and a bit of something basic means they can create three colors from these little bugs. It was a great look at indigenous chemistry, and makes me wonder how long it took to figure these techniques out.

Other colors were less chemically sophisticated, such was:
  • Gray - just a mix of white and black wool in the carding process. Different amounts of each vary the darkness of the gray
  • Ochre, a burnt yellow color, is made from a rock lichen
  • Yellow is made from marigolds. Farmers put the marigolds into chicken feed around here so that their chickens at the market stand out as richly yellow
  • Brown comes from ground up nut shells
  • Blue comes from the indigo plant, after its treated and oxidized for 90 days
We also saw some demos of the weaving process, done on large, wooden, hand operated looms. They had one piece with a complex design, half-woven. To create the designs they mark the outlines on the vertical threads in the loom, and use those markings to know where to start each color on the horizontal threads. The vertical threads are a lot less numerous and comprise very little of the finished product, and none of its coloring or design.

To finish up we went into their sales room with thousands of wool products, where they showed us each design, size, and style. Melissa liked some of the geometrical table runners; I liked some of the neutral colored massive rugs hanging on the wall. The products ranged from rugs we'd never fit in a NYC apartment, down to tiny coin purses.

A cactus with the red producing insects

A panorama of the Oaxacan mountains surrounding the wool house

They didn't allow any pictures in this room so we don't have much to show for that. The products would be a good value if we were heading straight back to the states, but weren't cheap. I think a normal area rug ran from $50 - $150. They explained that the cost of a finished product depends not on the complexity of the design in it, but the size, amount of wool and amount of dye used in the finished product. So it seems like their labor costs aren't a major factor in the finished product, material costs are.

We didn't buy anything but appreciated the experience and were surprised at how interesting the entire visit was.

Mitla

The third stop of the day was the town and archaeological site of Mitla. These ruins are some of the most well-preserved Mayan sites, and are particularly notable because some of the original coloring is still visible.

The original painting that remains is all red, made from the same insect based dye that we saw at the wool stop. Every ruin we've seen so far was originally painted with bright colors and elaborate art, but the only evidence of that we've seen has been some very faint redness on interior walls.

Some of the red dye at Mitla

Still colored walls surround the stairs up to the best preserved building

Mitla is also less intentionally destroyed than many Mayan ruins, because for whatever reason the Spanish that arrived here liked this site and rather than tearing it down to use the stones for a new church, left it intact. Its suffered some damage from weather and earthquakes over the centuries but many delicate features are still standing.

Especially notable at Mitla is the architectural style of the roofs. We saw hints of a similar style at Palenque but nothing so well preserved. Many of the ruins open to tourism span a wide range of time periods and geography, so despite all being "Mayan", they differ widely in architectural style.

This ruin site isn't large; there's only two main areas that we visited. The first was a temple-like building that archaeologists believe was a palace with administrative functions, unlike most Mayan palaces that only housed the royal family. This looked out over a large flat stone courtyard and held all of the impressive architecture. We were able to climb the stairs and explore the interior rooms and hallways of this building, taking care not to hit our heads on the low doorways.

In this building our guide pointed out several features. According to him, the design is so precise and the designers were so earthquake aware, that every single stone is cut exactly for its position in the structure. You can't remove any one stone and swap it with another, they wouldn't fit. The designers also left gaps in some parts of the building so that when an earthquake hits it has room to move a bit rather than just shake apart.

Broad view of the main Mitla structure still standing with unique details in the stone work

Some of the well preserved stone work in the interior of that building

A peak into one of the tombs discovered later

Also, some of the largest stones used were the broad, strong stones that sit over the doorway. These need to be strong because they support the hundreds of pounds of stone above. One of these was completely original, still in use after hundreds of years. The other two large doorways on the palace's facade were buttressed with some steel I-beams, as archaeologists determined that they were weakening with time and may collapse.

The second area of interest at this site was the tombs, which were discovered long after the site itself. These were under a nearby stone courtyard, with modern stairs descending below the surface into some cramped spaces that were... empty.

Our guide explained that the best theory for why these tombs are empty is that by the time the Spanish were working inland towards Mitla, the residents knew of the invasion and what had happened to other cities. Rather than abandon their tombs with the remains of their ancestors and valuables, the Mitlans emptied them out and moved them to Monte Alban, the largest ruins in Oaxaca. Monte Alban was never discovered by the Spanish, so the Mitlans made a smart decision here.

Hierve el Agua

After a touristy but surprisingly good lunch, we had a longer drive up into the mountains to reach
Hierve el Agua, "the petrified waterfalls". According to our guide this is the only such formation (known) on Earth. The main attraction here looks like a waterfall from a distance, but up close its all rock that's formed in the shape of a waterfall from centuries of calcified groundwater bubbling out of the mountains and cascading down. Its basically the stalactites and stalagmites of a cave in the form of a spectacular cliff-side waterfall.

We parked at the top near the tourist center where we had a few minutes to go to the bathroom and enjoy a sweeping view of the Oaxacan valley. There's a large swimming pool here that was drained, but must be amazing when its filled because it goes right up to the edge of the cliff.

Even on cloudy days its hard to take a bad picture in the Oaxacan hills

On the way to the base of the waterfall
Our guide advised us multiple times as we approached that there are two options here: a short easy hike that takes you to the natural pools near this cliff, with a bit of a view of the waterfalls, or a longer, steeper hike that goes down to the base of the falls for the best views. He stressed several times that people with health conditions shouldn't really do the longer hike, but since we're somewhat young and healthy we chose that one.

A local guide from the mountain villages took us down the trail. It was pretty steep down, with lots of large, broken stone steps embedded into the trail. The biggest challenge was the time though since we didn't have too long on this five-part day tour. We made it to the base without issues and were glad we did because you see much more of the waterfalls from this angle than is possible from the natural pools up top.
We finally see the petrified waterfalls

The main "falls" from the real base
The other falls with natural spring pools on top and a killer view

Footpath to the base of the primary falls

One of the "sources" of the falls. This rusty fence is all the security around this little spring that's still building the falls. Not exactly Old Faithful
The climb back up was certainly harder for cardio but we made it with enough time for me to go check out the natural pools on the shorter hike. These were impressive, large circular limestone pools of greenish water, some going right up to the edge of the cliffs again. Some of the features here look like ripples in water, but its all calcium deposits. A few small fenced off areas marked where the remaining water now bubbles up to fill the pools and continue building this feature.

Many visitors brought swimsuits to wade into the pools and get pictures on the edge of a cliff with the Oaxacan valley in the background. I wasn't so prepared and didn't have the time so I tested the water temp with a toe and headed back to the van for our final stop.

Mezcal Distillery

The entire day, and especially the legs to and from Hierve el Agua, we'd seen tiny independent mezcal distilleries, or fabricas, alongside the roads and advertised in the mountain towns. Our tour went to a larger distillery at a major highway interchange, but these smaller fabricas helped give us a sense of how pervasive and largely independent mezcal production in Oaxaca is.

We stopped at El Rey de Matalan, which was right next door to Don Agave, the distillery we were recommended to in San Cristobal.

We split up into a Spanish group (almost everyone) and an English group consisting of only Melissa, me, and an Irish guy we'd befriended earlier that day. For once we got the better end of the deal because we had a distillery employee give our tour while the Spanish group followed the tour company guide.

We started out by visiting the little agave garden they had on the grounds. If you don't know, agave is the family of plants that are used to produce tequila, mezcal, cometeco, agave syrup, sissal, and more. It looks a bit like aloe, but for most of these applications its not the leaves that are used, but the "trunk".

The agave garden

A fire pit that's resting before reuse, lined with mountain stones

"Cooked" pinas piled up ready for the next stage

A "clove" of cooked pina. Darker in color, and a little moist and sticky from the sugars that the heat developed
Our distiller/guide, who learned English in the US, explained that while tequila is made from only one type of agave, the blue agave, mezcal is produced from dozens of different varieties. Some varieties aren't even farmed, but must be found and harvested wild. Subsequently, bottles of mezcal from wild varieties are more rare and expensive and have a range of wacky tastes.

One of the most popular agave varieties used for mezcal is espadin, which in Spanish is a small sword. Looking at a picture of an espadin agave its not hard to see where the name comes from. We were both surprised by the range in appearance of this family of plants: some leaves are broader, flatter and shorter, others more spiked. Some plants had a dense arrangement of leaves, others more sparse. We asked about the stalk that was growing out of some of their plants, apparently this tree will eventually grow on all agaves, although the age at which it appears differs. Its kind of a signal of maturity, but I don't think they let the tree grow on production plants.

Speaking of maturity, we learned that raising agave takes a while. I knew that a good grape vine for wine took a long time to mature; similarly the agaves we saw reached production maturity between 8 and 12 years after planting, depending on the varietal. And unlike a grape vine, once it's ready, the plant is completely used rather than producing berrise every year.

Because of the long time periods involved in producing the agaves, its clearly the hardest part of mezcal making to scale up. The actual mezcal production process was really small; we could see the entire production area easily in what we assumed was just a demo spot. In fact, our guide told us that one of the key differences between mezcal and tequila is that tequila production is often modernized and scaled up, whereas mezcal is always small scale, made by hand by small producers.

After leaving the demo garden, our guide walked us through the process beginning after a plant is harvested. The leaves are cut off and the "trunk", called the piña or pineapple, is collected and cut into quarters. The piñas kind of do look like pineapples so I can see why they're so named, although they're several times the size of even a large pineapple.

After being cut into smaller pieces, the fabrica builds a fire in a pit in the ground lined with large mountain stones. They keep this fire going until the stones are glowing red; our guide said that they can't use river stones for this because they'd explode from the heat. With the stones sufficiently full of heat, the piñas go in to the fire pit and the entire thing is covered with dirt and left to sit for up to a week.

Grinding the cooked pinas to pulverize and extract the agave syrup base. There were horses nearby on site for pulling this

The result of grinding the pinas

This is where mezcal's most distinct characteristic comes from: its smokiness. The piñas roast and cook in the slightly smokey, very hot environment for a while, and when they come out the sugar in the piñas has developed and the material is much softer and juicier. We were able to visit a fire pit in use that was already covered up with earth, if you put your hand on it and feel through the dirt a bit, you can feel the heat on the inside. Its remarkable because I'm pretty sure dirt is a really good insulator.

After the producers determine that the fire pit is ready, they uncover it and move the now cooked piñas to a resting area. Almost every stage in the process seems to involve a rest of the material before the next. Luckily, they had cold, roasted piñas sitting in a pile on the ground that we were able to pick up and taste. They kind of oozed a bit of agave syrup that you could try, it was a bit sweet and not too smokey, basically the same as agave syrup you'd get in the store.

After their rest on the ground, the piñas ground in the iconic stone rings with a giant, several hundred pound stone wheel that's pulled by a horse. The result of this is a shredded, piña pulp that is moved to a large fermenting tank with water, and (mostly) covered to develop alcohol. The timing here depends on the weather conditions, more or less heat and humidity can shorten or lengthen the fermenting time needed. I was surprised to learn that the process doesn't use any specific yeasts, unlike modern beer production. The natural yeasts in the air do the job and the distillers don't add anything.

After some time in the fermenting tanks, they'll drain off the liquid that's collecting into the bottom and move it to the stills. These really aren't any different than any still that's ever existed, although they're a lot more rustic than I imagine most distilleries use today. What we saw was a clay stove, a brass still, a giant clay tub of water and the condensing tubes next to it, with the end result draining into a jug sitting on the ground.

The still itself wasn't too exciting unless you're really into that kind of thing, but we learned some interesting facts while standing around it. Many distilleries produce some special types of mezcal that are altered at the distilling stage. You can buy bottles of pechuga mezcal, which will probably be a bit pricier, because for these bottles they put a raw chicken breast in the still to filter and change the flavor of the final product. It sounds pretty gross, but remember that the vapors going through the still are very hot and are mostly alcohol. In the end, the chicken breast is black and beyond fully cooked when they take it out.

A second specialty bottle is called conejo, and it similar to pechuga, but instead of a chicken breast they use a rabbit body. Pechuga and conejo are spanish for "breast" and "rabbit". I tried both of these varieties at the tasting area, nothing was off about it but they do have a slightly different, unique flavor. Nothing you'd think was weird if you didn't know what you were tasting. Apparently this process and these varieties are traditional, not something invented by modern mezcal marketing.

In addition to the conejo and the pechuga, seemingly every distillery produces at least a dozen flavors of mezcal crema, which are flavored, low alcohol drinks similar to Baileys. Most cremas are a fruity or creamy flavor, although coffee is quit popular as well. Not all cremas have dairy in them, but some do and are kept refrigerated at the tasting areas.

The production still, dripping out liquor, fire pit and garden in the background

Three of the wild agave mezcals on offer. At least two of them tasted like no more than cigarettes.
We'd seen and tasted many of these before the distillery tour, but learned here that the cremas are made with the product of the first distillation, rather than a watered down finished mezcal like I'd assumed. Each distillation with liquor further refines the product as other vapors are lost and the alcohol content concentrates. Most mezal is distilled a few times to reach at least 80 proof, and they are often bottled at or near the strength they come off the still with. Still, its interesting that what we're drinking in the cremas is technically a different distillate than what we get in a bottle of anejo.

After reaching the desired strength, mezcal is barrel aged before bottling. Unlike high end whiskies, mezcales max out at twelve years for the anejo bottles, with reposado being a few months up to one year and joven being no more than a few months. These are pretty much exactly the same as the tequila standards, and like tequila the older bottles are a lot darker and smoother.

I usually prefer the younger jovens because I like something with a lot of bite and flavor. Fortunately we were able to try as much as we wanted from the wide selection at the tasting bar. Predictably, Melissa didn't like any of the straight mezcals although gamely tried many of them, even some of the truly challenging ones.

As I said before, the wild agave mezcals had some off the wall flavors, I thought two of the three wild ones were so smokey and strong that they basically tasted like cigarettes. I didn't get much nuance in flavor or enjoyment for those; I may have considered bringing a bottle back for shock value and because of its uniqueness and rarity (only a few dozen bottles produced a year) but we had a while to go on this trip yet.

We tried the pechuga and conejo, which were a bit more savory but not that different; I think these command a small premium in price. Another premium bottle is extremely common: most distilleries offer at least one line of gusano mezcal. Gusano is "worm" in Spanish, and these bottles come with a maguey worm drifting around the bottom of the bottle.

These worms grow on the agave leaves, and in their larval stage they are added to some bottles to improve and alter the taste. Similarly to the pechuga and conejo, these bottles taste a little different and a little richer but its not a huge difference to me. This is where mezcal and tequila get their reputation from as being gross and having worms in it.

I remember that our distillery guide said that its impossible to get a hangover on mezcal, especially the wild varieties because the agave plants don't grow anywhere near the pollution from the highway and cities. I've long thought that tequila and mezcal are better options for avoiding a hangover, but wouldn't go so far as to say that it's impossible to get one.

I ended up buying an airplane sized bottle of pechuga and tasting many bottles before we headed back. On the return to centro Oaxaca our day's guide played some Guelaguetza music for us and sang some contemporary songs for us in the Zapotecan language. It was entertaining but he did not get better as the all the mezcal tasting took effect.

Overall we liked this tour. It was a long day, and I wish more of it had been in English, but we learned a lot, especially on some topics that we never would have sought out individually. After the distillery, it made perfect sense why that comes last; you wouldn't want this before the hike down to Hierve el Agua. The one kind of odd thing was that entrance to almost every attraction was a la carte: we had to pay extra to see the tree, for lunch, for entrances to Hierve el Agua and Mitla. I'm not sure why they don't do it all under one price, but in the end it wasn't too expensive for a full day tour.