Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Vistas de Oaxaca.


We arrived into Oaxaca late yesterday afternoon after a long day's drive from Puebla. On the outskirts of town, Juan Jose pulled our van over at a vista point, high above the city, so we could have a bird's eye view of Oaxaca and the surrounding valleys.





After we settled into our rooms at the hotel, Francisco took us on a walking tour. We headed down the street towards the zócalo. It was early evening and it seemed like the whole of Oaxaca was out and enjoying themselves.

Oh what fun! A very short walk later and we were soon walking by the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (Basilica of our Lady of Solitude).  Families, street performers, food vendors and even a band.....they were all in the square.  And the ginormous bunches of balloons provided dashes of color against the stark stone of the basilica.

Everyone seemed to be having a great time. I couldn't believe how lively the place was on a Monday night!


As much as I hate to admit this, I had no interest in going inside the basilica; the fun was all outside.

It was too early, at least if you're in Mexico, for dinner so we decided to head to the market.  Turns out Francisco loves to wander them as much as we do.

We wove our way around the zócalo, trying to follow Francisco while dodging the crowds coming at us in the opposite direction.

Going to the mercado.  By now, the sun had set over the horizon signalling end of day.  By the time we arrived at the market, vendors were already closing up shop.

But wouldn't you know it.....the chapulines vendor was still selling her bounty of fried grasshoppers.  And yours truly had to buy more :-)  Following Francisco's advice, I bought two bags of *medium* sized grasshoppers - one bag that was just chili flavored and the other was chili and lime.  Oh.....that bag of chili and lime grasshoppers was sooooo good.

We entered the market but stall after stall was either closed or closing so no point continuing on.  Somehow the conversation turned to chocolate which Oaxaca is famous for.  Next thing you know, Francisco had the idea to take us to a store that specializes in making custom blends of chocolate.  We were all intrigued by the thought that we could get custom made chocolate so we agreed to go with him.

Chocolate! The store was only a few blocks away.  When we entered, my first thought was that it looked like a coffee shop.....the kind where they roast and grind the beans for you.

In one part of the store, they had big machines to grind up the chocolate nibs.  I was fascinated by the large metal bins that contained chocolate paste....in all its glorious ooziness.

There was also a section of the store devoted to selling bars of chocolate and boxes of chocolate powder; in varying degrees of percentage of cocoa.  I like super dark so one bar after another and one box after another, I picked them up and sniffed.  Oh....such intoxicating smells.  As tempted as I was to buy a box or bar or two, I resisted as I had no desire to be lugging chocolate all over the place as we travel around Mexico.  As it turned out, we all left the store empty handed.

On the way back to the zócalo, we passed by a La Michoacana ice cream store.  Of course, we had to quickly dart in and check out the flavors.  I made a mental note of the store's location in case we come the next night  :-)

Bro had to check out a street vendor selling pastries and usual, couldn't resist buying.....just a wee bit of a snack before dinner.

Back in the zócalo, we did a quick walk around.  In one part, there was a small group of indigenous women protesting; I can't remember what about.

Dinner time! As we rounded the path back to the Basilica, the guys were ready to leave us behind.  Francisco asked us what our plans were and we replied that we had dinner on our mind.  By now, it was close to 10pm and in Mexico, that would be about the time the locals gather around for dinner.

Turns out they were hunting for food too so we decided to dine together.  It was such a beautiful night  that we just settled on one of the outdoor restaurants that ring the zócalo.

From that night forward, we would eat every meal, except for breakfast, as a group.  It was a wonderful opportunity for everyone to get to know one another and we really enjoyed each other's company.

Not to mention that we had two people who knew what all the local specialties were and could point us towards each those items.  In the case of Oaxaca, a local specialty is tlayuda which is basically Oaxaca's version of a pizza. For dinner, a plate sized tortilla is baked on a comal, barbecue grill or directly over coals. The tortilla is then topped with any variety of ingredients. In our case, we ordered a veggie tyaluda sprinkled with Oaxaca cheese on the top.


Ayşe and I shared a tlayuda and even with us two eating, we couldn't finish it.  Francisco, who seemingly has a bottomless pit for a stomach, polished off what we couldn't eat.

While we were waiting for our food to arrive, there was a small band of drummers providing a thumping beat.  Ayşe went to check them out and I ask her to record their performance.  I was too pooped to move from my comfortable dinner chair.  After I saw the video she shot, I was re-energized watching the women in the video dancing to the beat.  They were having so much fun!!


After dinner, we took a slow stroll back to the hotel and people watched along the way.  I had only been in Oaxaca for a few hours but had already fallen in love with the place!

Even though we hadn't really done much during the day, I was still tired.  I was looking forward to taking a shower and relaxing with the TV.  I knew today was going to be an activity packed day so it was important to get a good night's rest.  

Most of today was spent outside of town.  Our only *touristy* thing to do in town was to visit the Templo de Santo Domigo de Guzmán.



A strollin' we go!  After we toured the church and monastery, Francisco led us back towards the hotel.  It was another opportunity to see the charming painted Spanish colonial buildings that the town has worked hard to restore and preserve.

The bright, beautiful colors stood out even against the background of a very gray and dreary day.








It was drizzingly lightly as we made our way.  Rain didn't deter the locals from hitting the streets either.












Buildings constructed of the cantera stone that is unique to Oaxaca, were interspersed among the painted ones.  They added a bit of a  rough, *rustic* charm.








More tasting of local specialties as we walked.  This time it was tejate which is a corn and cacao drink.  Originating from pre-Hispanic times, it remains very popular in Oaxaca.  The drink is made from toasted corn flour, fermented cacao beans, mamey pits and flor de cacao (also known as rosita de cacao). The ingredients are finely ground into a paste. The paste is mixed with water, usually by hand, and when it is ready, the flor de cacao rises to the top to form a pasty foam. It can be served as-is or with some sugar syrup to sweeten it. The drink is served cold.  Francisco ordered it cold and sweet.  To me, it tasted like a watered down cold hot chocolate.  Wasn't bad.  Would have been more refreshing had it been a hot day.







Sipping on a drink, walking, talking, people watching, window shopping.....it was a very enjoyable stroll.








Did I mention we also ate while we walked?  Well, at least Ayşe did :-)  She had never eaten jicama before and as we passed by a street vendor selling some, she stopped in her tracks out of curiosity.  Turns out the vendor was actually selling pickled fruits and vegetables.....including chilies. Ayşe wanted to try the pickled jicama so Francisco helped her to pick out what she wanted which was pickled jicama with a very, very, very generous sprinkling of chili.  Ayşe is a certifiable chili head!!


The historic center of Oaxaca is such a quaint area.  Although all buildings all house commercial establishments but because this is a UNESCO World Heritage site, there are no ugly signs or neon lights to detract from the beauty of the surroundings.  There's no graffiti and the streets are devoid of trash.  It's almost like walking through a recreation of a Spanish colonial town in a museum.

It's also a very small town, very walkable.  Even though we were meandering a lot as we walked, it didn't take us long to make it back to the zócalo.


Dancing in the square.  As we passed the basilica, I heard the sounds of a live band playing.  In the elevated podium that is situated on one side of the zócalo, there was indeed a band playing.  Surrounding them was a small seated audience.  At the foot of the podium, there were people dancing to the music. 


Watching the older couples dancing brought smiles to all our faces.  In fact, we enjoyed watching their performance so much that we not only sat down to take it all in but we also videotaped them.   I still smile each time I play the video.  *BIG SMILE*


We left the dancers behind and headed back towards the mercado. Again, everything was closing up as we entered so it was quick walk through. We left empty handed and decided to head back to the zócalo. As usual, bro picked up food from a vendor along the way. We also decided to do a bit of souvenir shopping. Last night, we had passed by a set of vendors selling the colorfully painted wooden animals that Oaxaca is known for. We decided to check them out. Ayşe found some wooden animals she liked but unfortunately, the vendor was not willing to really negotiate so we left empty handed. Looking back, we left a lot of places in Oaxaca empty handed :-(

Back to the zócalo. Today had been a long day for all of us and as much as we all could have lingered longer in the zócalo, we were absolutely beat. Too tired to even eat. we slowly meandered back to the hotel and called it a night. Tomorrow morning we would be leaving Oaxaca and I feel like we hadn't even nicked the surface of all that we could have experienced in this wonderful town. Maybe someday, I'll be lucky enough to come back and stay longer.