The shuttle ride was poorly executed because it hadn't shown up at our homestay as promised a full 35 minutes after the pick-up time on our receipt. I ended up walking to the office where I booked it and we came to a scant understanding that we could come wait at that office and they would try to fix the situation. I ran back to Melissa still waiting at the homestay, we lugged our heavy travel bags to the office, and were eventually walked to a vehicle that would be charitably be described as a station wagon. After squeezing into the now full vehicle and meeting our new travel guests, we learned that there was still another couple to go in the already full "shuttle". Fortunately, when we got to their pick up point, they had bailed after waiting at least 45 minutes, and one woman got out, so Melissa was able to get a front seat for the window mountain ride (car sickness) and we had a bit of breathing room. The rest of the ride progressed without issue and a short bit later we were en route to Oaxaca.
|Our path so far. Palenque is about 20% of the way to Merida from San Cristobal|
Upon flying in you can spot some differences before landing. Oaxaca is still very mountainous; it's a lower elevation than San Cristóbal, but like that city it's surrounded by mountains and hills and a rugged landscape. Unlike San Cristóbal, it's not very green. This isn't desert but there aren't many as trees and grass is scarce; the vegetation is scrubby bushes and agave plants.
The Oaxacan airport was smaller than we expected but modern and nice. This was the first time I'd seen a viewing area next to the tarmac; apparently some people like to sit in these bleachers and watch the planes land? Or wait for loved ones to disembark (no jetway, we deplaned right on the tarmac)?
One thing we really appreciated at this airport is that you go to a counter inside the main building to buy your tickets for a collectivo into the city. It was priced by zone, so we showed the attendant where our hostel was, paid the Zona A price, and got receipts to present to the collectivos waiting to take passengers into town. You don't have to negotiate and wonder if you're getting a fair price or going the right way, and we got dropped off right at our hostel. I think the cost for both of us was around $10.
As we dropped off other passengers and saw some of the centro district, we could tell that this town had more money than anywhere we'd been recently, and was more liberal and modern as well. The presence of money and modernity is visible with the kinds of shops that are popular, the kinds of clothes people are wearing (or aren't), and how many tattoos you see (we'd barely seen any in Mexico up to this point).
Oaxaca, like most colonial Mexican cities, has a centro district of colonial buildings, churches, a central park or plaza (zocalo), and lots of tourists. Our hostel was just outside the Eastern edge of the centro to the North and East. We'd seen in some hostel reviews online that being close to all the action can be noisy at night, and most hostels were a bit outside of centro anyway.
|A bit of centro Oaxaca|
We had only booked two nights initially at our hostel, but after getting there and having a look around we really liked it and immediately booked another seven nights. We stayed at Hostal Mixteco Nava Nandoo, and it was the nicest, friendliest, best service hostel we've been to in these last two months. It's not that the facilities were amazing (they were pretty good), but rather that the people (family?) that runs it were the nicest and most attentive staff we've dealt with by far. They bent over backwards to help us figure things out and feel welcome, such as:
- Calling local restaurants participating in the Feria de los Moles (mole festival) for us to find out where we could buy tickets
- Bringing Melissa a pillow when she was laying on a common room couch (unasked)
- Bringing us another extra pillow when they noticed we had kept the first one and it kept switching sides of the bed in our private room (also unasked)
- Cleaning the private rooms while we ate breakfast every day. They were fast and must have been watching to see when we went to eat.
- Moving other reservations around to let us stay in our room for the entire stay
- Sitting down with us at the free daily breakfast to discuss the best tlayuda places and Mexican cooking through our broken Spanish
- Sharing their mezcal with us and other guests on the rooftop
- Literally giving us small gifts when we left, and I think I would have gotten a hug if I didn't have a large backpack on.
- MELISSA: Also - great, reliable, fast, modern wi-fi that was never down.
The facilities were nice and the layout was really unique and cool. The building was centered around a tiny open air shaft down the middle, you can't even really call it a courtyard. There are three floors, with private rooms arranged around the center and large open (but covered) common areas on the roof. I'm pretty sure that the shower head had its own heating element attached to finish heating up the water. We ended up getting endless hot showers, a first for the trip. You can't even take endless hot showers in the states!
As I said above, Oaxaca has a core centro area with its historical buildings, churches and commerce. Surrounding this is the rest of the city, many times larger than centro. If you go out far enough, the hills and mountains rise all around the city with many barrios (neighborhoods) built onto the hillside. I'm not sure if these are considered separate towns or part of Oaxaca city, as we didn't visit any of them, or much outside of the centro.
One of the coolest features on the surrounding hills was the auditorium, Auditorio Guelaguetza. It looks like a huge tent (or a bit like a tiny Sydney Opera House) up on a hill just outside the city, but visible from almost everywhere. Sadly we didn't get to visit any events there, but we did drive by it on our way to the cooking class we did and got an up close look. I imagine that the views here for night events are incredible; you'd be able to see all the city lights down the hill, spread out before you and creeping up the hillside barrios in the distance.
|The Auditorio as seen from the museo at Santo Domingo|
We got to our hostel around 5pm our first night, so after a bit of descansando and settling in, we set out on the fifteen minute walk to the center of the centro. Our hosts informed us that there was a convite, or traditional dancing gathering type of event in centro so we stopped by that first. On the pedestrian only street that connects the zocalo with the Templo de Santa Domingo de Guzman, we first heard then saw the convite: a mass of people and a stationary parade with giant spinning, dancing, paper mache puppets and other artistic parade props.
Now this is something where Melissa surely thinks I'm simply ridiculous, but I loved those spinning, hilarious puppets. Something about the grade school level faces (meaning no offense) and the bouncing and spinning motion just cracks me up. We never got to see much other than one end of the parade because of the crowd density (despite living in New York so long, neither of us has much tolerance at all for even moderately dense crowds). I did notice that someone was flying a drone over the celebration, presumably recording it from the sky. Some buildings nearby had rooftop bars and restaurants, but we couldn't find any easy ways up so we left the convite and headed towards the zocalo to explore more of the Saturday night activities.
For our fist meal in the city, we wanted something properly Oaxaceno, but despite this being a busy Saturday night with tons of people walking around and vendors set up, the only street foods we could find were hamburgers and hotdogs! Well, there were a lot of nieves (flavored ices), elotes and esquites and papas (corn, corn and freshly fried potato chips), but those aren't meals. We walked around the very New Orleans-y feeling zocalo until the rain really started and we had to run to a decent but touristy cafeteria on the square. Determined to start our Oaxacan food journey, I ordered the chapulines con guacamole, which we learned is really what it says, rather than being guacamole con chapulines.
|Chapulines con guacamole, on a tortilla. Kind of gamey, not enough crunch|
If you haven't heard it from this blog yet, chapulines are fried grasshoppers, popular throughout the Oaxacan state and beyond. They're usually fried with chiles, lime and salt, and range from tiny (think 5mm of pencil lead) to medium (a half inch of soda straw), to perhaps quite large if what I've seen online really exists (mouse sized). 90% of what we saw in Oaxaca were the tiny size, with the remaining 10% the medium sized. I never saw the giant ones, but remember them clearly from previous online research <image not wanted to be found>.
So for whatever reason, we both expected a bowl of guacamole with some chapulines sprinkled on top or mixed in. What we got was a bowl of chapulines with some guacamole spread on the plate. We ate some but they were pretty gamey and not very crunchy, and went unfinished.
Off to a good start on the Oaxacan food scene, we wandered the centro area a bit more that night before turning in. Prior to coming to Oaxaca (but after hearing and reading a lot about it), I predicted that it would be to Mexico what New Orleans is to the USA. Everyone talks about the amazing and unique Oaxacan foods native to the region, the hundreds (570) of mezcal distilleries, the unique culture, dress and customs. I think that aligns with New Orleans because it's probably the most unique food city in the states, being the product of French influence and southern ingredients. I doubt there's another US city with so many notable dishes solely attributed to it (etouffe, gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish boils, muffalettas, po' boys, hurricanes, the Trinity, beignets).
After our time in Oaxaca, we think that this analogy isn't far off. While we did experience a lot of music and culture here, I wouldn't put it on a level with New Orleans (that city is drenched in music). Oaxaca is known for many types of unique foods like moles, the chapulines, tlayudas, atoles, mezcals, memelas, the squash blossom quesadillas, Oaxacan cheese in general, and probably much more. We thought the zocalo area in particular had a New Orleans kind of feel with its balconied restaurants, but I can't say that architectural feeling extends beyond this area. Overall this is a useful but limited comparison for those who haven't been there, Oaxaca is a really unique place in a very diverse and fascinating country.