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Oaxaca, Mexico - Feb 2024

Updated: Jul 6

I still get a little nervous when I travel to another country, my mind races: what if they can't understand a word I'm saying, I get violently ill or even worse someone tries to overcharge me? To allay my fears, I try and plan out my first day in a new land:


-How to pronounce the city I'm visiting . . . in this case it's "whah HAH kah."


-How to get from the Oaxaca International Airport (OAX) to our hotel as expeditiously and economically as humanly possible. Thankfully OAX makes it fairly straightforward, as in the small arrivals terminal there is a large sign with the Spanish word for "transportation from the airport to your hotel" written on it. Once standing beneath it, you have two cash or credit options:

  • Colectivo: pay $120 MXN/person (~$7 USD), you may have to wait a little bit until enough tourists are collected, then all get in a small van and be deposited at various hotels throughout Oaxaca.

  • Especial: pay $465 MXN (~$27 USD) and then get one especially for you (I couldn't help it).

OAX Arrivals

I decided to go with Colectivo, purely to meet another hip young adventurous couple with them having to listen to some of my stories (did I mention I wrote a book . . . ). And in the end the it worked out just fine: no wait, only one stop prior to our hotel and now an extra $13 USD allocated to mezcal.


-Our first meal, which was taken at Del Jardín directly on the Zócalo (Plaza de la Constitución). The 36 Hours lady at the NY Times personally recommended the place to me. It's all about location, enabling one to listen to live music and people watch. If I did it again maybe I'd just have the Bohemia Clara cervaza and skip the Tlayuda Con Quisillo, which reminded me of bland Taco Bell pizza.


There are a number of joints fronting the Zócalo and they're all quite similar, though no matter which you choose, you will be propositioned . . . by peddlers. Señora AAR mentioned that "not giving eye contact is dismissive," to which I replied "though sometimes giving it can be expensive." Needless to say, we are now traveling home with some new cloth napkins. The woman who sold them, assured us that they were "Hecho en México," though mentioning that other vendors may sell items "Hecho en China."

-Via a cursory review of the internet I located an ATM at Citibanamex that charged a modest fee ($1.50) and dispensed various denominations. I also took note that the current exchange rate was $1USD ≈ $17 MXN.


-Per the AfterActionReport.info SOP, a free walking tour was scheduled for the next morning.


Our free walking tour guide mentioned that we should visit the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo de Guzmán as it contained an alter made of solid gold. Now I must admit I found this hard to believe . . . a church named after a Jew¹? What's next naming U.S. military bases after enemy combatants²? Well, I decided to visit anyhow and I was amply rewarded, as while the outside is impressive enough, the inside is Vatican-worthy. BTW: The alter isn't solid gold but gold leaf, which is still quite stunning.

A Presidential Alter

Unless you visited Santo Domingo to celebrate Domingo services, I would recommend you then immediately proceed directly across the square to Terraza Los Amantes to celebrate cerveza o'clock. The place has a great view and a strange vibe, as the music is 80s rock standards, interrupted every now and then, by a live saxophonist belting out Bésame Mucho.

El Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, Bohemian Obscura y Bohemian Clara

Oaxaca is all about the three M's:


Mole is a traditional Mexican sauce containing fruits, nuts, chili peppers, and spices like black pepper, cinnamon, or cumin. Most people think of only black mole (mole negro), which made with chocolate can be quite sweet, but there are numerous others.


Most of the restaurants in Oaxaca are housed in a building that appears to date back to the time of the conquistadores, but not Los Danzantes which appears to be the result of an expenditure of a significant amount of pesos to completely renovate a voluminous space into a modern oasis. A huge canvas sail covers the dining area, with a pool to catch the rain and a modern staircase leading up to the restrooms.

I started off with a mezcal Negroni and as soon as I saw the "Oaxaca Bugs" I knew it needed ordering, if only for blogging purposes. While I wonder who came up with the name, I do appreciate their forthrightness as you don't want to order "five different regional bugs" by accident. Aaron, our server, was nice enough to detail each bug using a giant tweezer, including one that was more of a larvae. The Missus indulged my curiosity, though surprisingly wasn't much help on the consumption side of things. Quite crunchy though a little bland. Our small plates of ceviche, a mole sampler and octopus taco were excellent. A damn good meal with drinks(x4) for only $117 USD (tip incl.).

Oaxacan Bugs with Guacamole, Artisanal Quesillo, and Pico de Galo with Manzano Pepper

Oaxaca Te Amo was a much more traditional and real way to experience mole (though without any bugs). Via mole amarillo I realized that mole is more than just mole negro, which I find is too sweet. Amarillo mole uses peppers such as chilhuacle amarillo (“yellow chilhuacle”), which makes it more traditionally spicy. It was real, in that as we ate, workers hauled sacks of concrete through the dining area in preparation for a roof deck renovation.


Mezcal is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from agave. There's a whole appellation thing much like Champagne or Rocky Knob AVA. I won't bore you with all the legalese, just think of it as tequila-like liquor made in a number of Mexican states from the same order of plant that gives you Aloe vera. It is a testament to man's ability to distill alcohol from almost any organic matter.


Oaxaca is filled with numerous mezcalerías that serve to educate (and inebriate) tourists on its benefits. I decided to visit a few to better understand this quintessential Oaxacan delicacy.


Los Amantes Mezcalería is located across the street from Santa Domingo and serves only mezcal produced by the eponymous distiller. I should tell you upfront that besides having a firewater taste, mezcal is also quite smokey (just when you think it can't get any better . . . ). So I asked my mezcaltender, Jare, to serve up his least smoky mezcal. And he served me two ounces of "los amantes Mezcal Artesanal" which is a blend of three mezcals. It was a good choice as the reduced smoke allowed the gasoline notes to shine through.


Casa De Té Mezcalaria Cafe Tres Hermanos Maiz Tortilleria Cominda Comal, which roughly translates to "Mezcaleria Tea House Cafe Three Brothers Corn Tortilla Bakery Meal Griddle" or possibly "Cheap mezcal and beer drunk while sitting on a rickety chair while listening to a live guitar and bongos." I should have been wary of a place that has more names than the King of England, but there was the live music. That is until I ordered a shot of the cheapest Mezcal (Espadin) and a cerveza.


By chance Señora AAR stumbled us upon two real scores:


-A place called Expendio Tradición, which is a classy restaurante/mezcalaria that as fate would have it had a bartender named Miguel. After chatting up Miguel Dos, we were rewarded with a gratis mezcal cocktail sampler which all paired well with the squash blossom soup, a Oaxaca specialty.

-While strolling the Zócalo for a late night snack, like a cat sniffing out a freshly opened can of tuna fish she discovered a cool modern bar at Origen. The place is so cool it doesn't even have a sign outside. Our bartender, Ernesto, who also goes by "El Diablo" makes a mean Mezcal Sour, which may be the only way some people find mezcal palatable.


Tony Bourdain visited Oaxaca back in 2001, and had a mezcal (or two). And it got me thinking, would it be possible for me to drink a mezcal (or two) sitting at the exact same spot as Tony Bourdain?! So I knew what needed to be done . . .


Soon after I was sitting on the patio at Restaurante Terranova directly on the Zócalo at the exact same table as the Master. I ordered, via Jorge, Tony's exact order: mezcal, sangrita and a Sol cerveza. Due to either a miscommunication . . . or providence, two shots of mezcal were supplied. So I applied some sal de gusano (ground fried larvae, ground chili peppers, and salt which literally translates as "worm salt"), to the lime, sucked it, then shot the first shot, and washed it down with the sangrita . . . I felt that I did Tony proud. Though the second shot was sipped, as I wanted to savor the moment . . .


Note: most mezcal lovers recommend that it be sipped, though after some analysis shooting it may be a viable option to minimize the bite and maximize the effect.


Museums are buildings in which objects of historical, scientific, and artistic interest are stored and exhibited. Visited by tourists in order to convince themselves that all the money they spent on food, drink, flights and lodging, in the end, actually allowed cultural enrichment.


The Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre-Hispanic Art contains an extensive collection of sculptures selected for their artistic qualities, that was curated by the eponymous Oaxacan and Mexico's second most famous painter. Located but a block from our lodgings made it quite convenient, with free admission Sunday making it a no brainer. From the outside it looks like a rather underwhelming eighteenth-century colonial house (which it was), but from the inside its a cool modern museum with color coded rooms, smooth granite floors and well displayed art.


Monte Albán³ is a large pre-Columbian archaeological site that is located four miles from Oaxaca, which from 500 BC to 750 AD was the capital of the Zapotec civilization. There are numerous way to get to the mountaintop location: walking, public bus, taxi, tour bus, and shuttle bus. We chose the later, using the services of Viajes Turisticos Mitla, which for $90 MXN ($5 USD) per person took us there at 10:00 am and back at 2:30 pm. Admission to the site costs an additional $95 MXN.


Once on site it was decided to hire a tour guide. There were a few hanging around the entrance, so I allowed Sra. AAR to handle the coordination and subsequent payment of $200 MXN per person to Julio, who soon after escorted us through the turnstiles for what turned out to be a solid 1.5 hour tour. Prior to it being decided a guide book was purchased at the gift store which has some pretty good dope.


The place reminded me of another pre-Columbian archeological site I previously visited, Tikal, with a series of variously sized and restored, stepped pyramids located around a main plaza. I found two buildings noteworthy:


-The Ball Court where Zapotecs played a ritual game using a rubber ball in a modestly sized arena with the "winner" often getting his head cut off. Similar courts are located at other pre-Columbian sites, as similar ballgames were played throughout Mesoamerica.

-The Dancers Building, which contains large relief carvings of what was thought to be dancers. It gave its name to the above mentioned restaurant, Los Danzantes. Subsequent research has determined that the "dancers" are actually dead male figures in grotesque postures whose genitals have been mutilated. A fact, I was thankfully ignorant of when I dined there a few days earlier.        


Afterwards, our cultural enrichment was celebrated at the museum restaurant via an authentic Zapotec meal of cerveza and club sandwich.


The Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, is located adjacent to Santa Domingo and may have some good information about the local culture as well as some Monte Albán gold artifacts. The stop at the previously mentioned mezcalaria, Expendio Tradición, prevented visitation.


A few nights before our departure to Mexico, a good friend asked "what I hoped to get out of visiting Mexico." I must admit it left me speechless and doubting my world travel bon a fides. Later, but too late, it came to me that what I really wanted was to gain a better understanding of another culture. Well, that and a haircut.


I don't think it's incorrect to say that many Americans view those who live south of the border with derision, with few less thinking they are all criminals and one thinking the entire place a "shithole". While I have traveled enough to realize that the U.S. does not have the patent on culture, good governance, ethics and competent law enforcement, travel continues to make me realize that there are numerous places outside the U.S. that are much like the U.S.: filled with hardworking people, who want to raise a family with some dignity and have the ability to waste too much time watching TikTok.


It didn't hurt my understanding of a culture that goes back over a millennium, that it comes with an extensive and creative food scene, economical costs, minimal crime and streets that are Tokyoesque clean.


Oh yeah, for $7 USD, Dario did a fine job though I'll let you be the judge.

El Corte de Cabello

Lodgings

The Missus picked us out the Hotel Siglo XVII Art Gallery via booking.com (fully cancelable of course almost to the last minute) and it was quite nice, though it appears it would have been even nicer a few years earlier, as another guest mentioned to me "some of the maintenance has a spit and bubble gum quality to it." Though the rooftop pool was quite lapable, and the place didn't seem crowded at all. $240/night (tax incl.).


Midway through our stay an incessant knocking was heard that interrupted my thoughts and more importantly my naps. Apparently the adjoining church (it's Mexico, there's one on every block) was being repointed by a very rhythmical mason. The Missus put her own hammer down and got us upgraded to a bigger room on the other side of the courtyard.



Endnotes: I wanted to provide some very specific details that while vaguely interesting did not contribute to the overall narrative. Perhaps just wait until the end to read.


¹ Saint Dominic de Guzman was not actually Jewish (as some might say “it’s very hard to be sarcastic when I interpose [sic]").

² It's bad enough that U.S. military bases were named after enemy combatants but what's worse was that all of them were Losers. Fort Hood, Texas (renamed Fort Cavazos) was named after John Bell Hood, a man who led his entire enemy army to destruction at the Battle of Nashville. I'm thinking maybe Fort Hood should have been renamed after the man who kicked his ass that day, General George Thomas? Though, as he was a former slaveowner . . .

³ Monte Albán is pronounced like the name of the eponymous actor famous for playing the boss on Fantasy Island ("Welcome to Fantasy Island"), Khan in Star Trek ("Kirk? Kirk, you're still alive, my old friend?") and selling Chrysler Cordobas (with "rich Corinthian leather").

⁴ It is the editorial policy of this publication to publish the words uttered by the president of the United States verbatim.

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