After a few very relaxing weeks settling into life in Puerto Escondido we thought it would be a good time to test out Jesse Ventura. We have bought a Jeep Cherokee, which we will use to drive around Central America next year. I have named this big strong beastie ‘Jesse Ventura’ (not due to his time in the WWF but for my love of the film Predator!)
So what better way to test him out than by taking a 6hr drive up and over the Sierra Madre del Sur Mountains to the cultural State Capital Oaxaca de Juarez. Before I get into telling you about this interesting colonial city we need to start with how to say Oaxaca as it’s sounded out as ‘Wah hah kah’.
Oaxaca State is one of the poorest in Mexico with rural areas being overlooked as the majority of resource money is spent on development of the Capital area and tourist towns such as Huatulco. There is major development work to build a new ‘super’ highway from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido this is due to be completed in 2016 and from our experience on the roads so far (massive rivers and landscape to be bridged yet) I cannot see how this target will be met!
The journey roads conditions can only be described as ropey, roads are full of potholes, lack in tarmac in places plus there are Topes everywhere. These large concrete speed bumps are located at the entrance and exit anywhere people might be living near the road to prevent pedestrian fatalities. Topes are hard to spot as they sometimes merge into the road being the same grey colour. If you don’t slow down in time to negotiate them, they could do some real damage to your vehicle and they make you bounce all over the place! I am the navigational spotter and will call out to Mr E in a loud voice TOPE!!
The drive up and over the mountains is winding and laborious but its fun to see all the little villages and the landscape changes from tropical palm trees to fir trees once you are up and over the peaks. Along the journey we saw a lot of cyclists and vehicle convoys making their religious pilgrimage to the town of Juquila .These mountains are really high and these young men will sometimes have large framed pictures of ‘The Virgin of Juquila’ tied onto their backs with string. Cycling to reach ‘The Lady’ is a real test of character and strength to their catholic religion. I gave several whoops of encouragement out of the comfort of the car window and received the thumbs up sign in return.
Arriving in Oaxaca City is quite a shock as its noisy, traffic congested, looks dirty but as you enter the main centre the colourful colonial architecture appears everywhere.
Mr E had found us a great deal at the Hotel Trebol situated on Flores Magon, just one block from the Zocalo and opposite the markets, it was a perfect location to explore the small central compact city by foot. The first thing we noticed was a drop in temperature, Oaxaca sits at 4900ft where the cooler winter afternoons were 23c and the evenings went down to a chilly 7c, so after sweaty 32c in Puerto we had to pop our fleecy tops and trousers on, brrr!
The Zocalo or ‘main city plaza’ with its central bandstand and cathedral is the heart of the city. At the time we visited the Zocalo it was occupied with a huge protest. (More to come on what the protest is about in another blog) Along with the protestors a massive street market had been set up, it was noisy and busy! Really loud music blared out from the pirated CD stands, vendors called out selling their wares; hats, belts, toys, clothes and a variety of tourist craft items. Being so cold at nights my favourite stalls were the ones selling knitted woolly hats for children, yellow ‘Minions’ complete with the goggles from the film ‘Despicable Me’ being the most popular!
Oaxaca cuisine is a foodie haven, there are some excellent restaurants to choose from where you can get a complete menu of the day for about £5 or you can splash out and go for a full regional Oaxacan gastronomic experience.
In the Zocalo there were plenty of street food stands to choose from, eating at one of these stalls is great fun as it’s a great spot to people watch, it was Day of Clowns while we were there! The food is plentiful, safe (no dickey tummies) cheap to buy at about 50p to £1 per dish plus it’s totally delicious!
We ate Tacos Dorados tortillas filled with chicken, rolled and fried and Molotes corn style pasties stuffed with chorizo and potato. Street food is mostly covered with mole sauce or guacamole sauce and then topped with cheese. We also really like the Tlayudas these are giant tortillas filled with beans, Oaxacan cheese, spicy meat then folded like a calzone and cooked over a hotplate – muy deliciosa!
During the evenings there are stands cooking up fresh batches of crisps, the boys thinly slice potatoes with a mandolin accurately, quickly and without losing their fingers! The crisps are then deep fried, a large cup costs £1 and the Mexican way is to cover them in a tomato chilli sauce and lime juice. Sounds rank tastes great!
Oaxaca is also famous for its Hot Chocolate, there are plenty of cafes selling steaming cups of this lovely liquid. Handmade Oaxacan chocolate bars are broken into pieces in a jug, hot milk is then poured on and a wooden pestle whips it all into the frothy beverage. With the chilly nights our goosebumps were warmed with this delicious drink!
Oaxaca is art lover’s destination with plenty of interesting parks, churches, galleries, museums and a wide array of Oaxacan art institutes to choose to visit.
Probably the most famous tourist destination is the stunning 16th century Church of Santa Domingo de Guzman. The baroque architecture is beautiful set in a square with agave plants framing the entrance. Inside the church it is adorned with colourful 3D gilt relief effigies and there is gold embellishment all over the gorgeous ceiling. I expect a candlelit mass here would be something special.
Next to the church is the beautiful Santo Domingo Cultural Museum. This was the original Dominican monastery and now houses Mexican historical artefacts, fabulous Mixtec treasures excavated from the tombs at Monte Alban and plenty of art exhibitions. At the end of each corridor large open air windows frame beautiful scenes of mountains in the distance and the adjoining botanical gardens.
A trip to Oaxaca wouldn’t be complete without visiting the markets. Next to each other are the Mercado 20 de Noviembre and the Mercado Benito Juarez. They are full of food stands and stalls selling pretty much everything you could need from flowers to meat, fish, chocolate, mole sauces, clothes, hats, local handicraft gifts, mescal and piñatas.
The market is also famous for its stalls selling chilli covered grasshoppers and crickets, the ladies call out to try and buy their ‘Chapulinas’ and if this gets your taste buds tingling you can buy a large bag for £1, we declined!