Oaxaca (pronounced wa-HAH-kah) wasn’t even on our travel radar, in fact we really wanted to go hiking in Canada but decided we’ve been putting off visiting friends in Oaxaca long enough. How did we learn of Oaxaca, Mexico? My friends are retired and have been wintering there for the last few years. Not knowing how we’d like the place, we came back home LOVING Oaxaca. This was our first venture into Mexico. It is located in the southwest, bordered by Veracruz to the north, Chiapas to the east, Guerrero to the west, and Puebla to the northwest. It is one of the most indigenous areas of Mexico. We actually visited twice in 2019. The first time was in February to visit friends and the 2nd was because after watching Coco, I wanted to see Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos) at the end of October. It’s a place to go if you want to experience the authentic artsy and indigenous side of Mexico. Oaxaca is known for it’s textiles, pottery, indigenous culture, mole sauce, and it’s history.
Oaxaca is 1 of 32 states of Mexico. You tend to hear a bit more about the coastal town of Puerto Escondido for surfing but the city of Oaxaca is picking up on the travel radar, I’ve seen articles about it being an up and coming destination. We’d like to check out the Oaxaca coast in the future. We weren’t sure if it was safe but my cousin’s surfer husband said his friends go all the time to surf so that’s good enough for us. We were getting mixed feelings from travel blogs and reviews about the coast. Always put safety first.
It’s a very affordable/budget friendly destination. We stayed at Casona Oaxaca the first time which was nice except for the ants. My friend said it happens, she gets them at her apartment rental from time to time and I get ants in my own apartment at home but on vacation I flipped out. I’m a sissy with bugs, they really freak me out. The hotel was great and they sprayed immediately but they came back by the end of the week. Besides the ants, it was a clean room. My friend was telling me if you want a less authentic experience, stay at the Holiday Inn and they probably wouldn’t have ants. Casona is a really old beautiful building. Vic was fine, it was just me. I don’t know if I could stay there again, I’m that much of a sissy. Our hotel had a nice inner courtyard where you could sit all day and night to open sky, the rooms were clean, air conditioning really good. I’m curious to stay at Quinta Real because that hotel used to be a former monastery. There are many places to stay from hostels to hotels. My friend’s friends have used airbnb, got good deals, and enjoyed their experiences. We flew United from Newark, NJ, had a 3 hour layover in Houston (the airport BBQ was good), and about 10 hours later arrived at our destination. 6 nights for 2 people total cost $1400 for flight and hotel room with private bath. Our room did have great air conditioning.
There are 16 indigenous peoples that are officially recognized, the best known are the Mixtec and the Zapotecs. You can tell the differences by the colors they wear, we haven’t been there enough to identify native clothes. You can still hear many different indigenous languages, it’s so cool knowing that colonialism didn’t stamp out everything. We’ve read that the cultures survived better than other parts of Mexico because of the rugged terrain.
We stayed in the city center which is very convenient and walkable. You can also go hiking if you can handle the altitude. We would have gone hiking but I’m sensitive and my body doesn’t adjust to 5000 ft (1524m) in 6 days.
The modern state of Oaxaca was created in 1824. The name derives from the Nahuatl word “Huaxyacac,” which refers to a tree that is found around the city called “guaje.” Humans began inhabiting the area as early as 11,000BC and evidence was found in a cave near Mitla (upcoming post). Most that is discovered about pre-Hispanic Oaxaca is found in the Central Valley area. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (2010).
It’s good to learn Spanish, some English is spoken but not a lot. Vic failed Spanish and I had 5 years of beginners French. Wish schools started us earlier to learn languages and I never wanted to learn French. Now I’m just lazy but Duolingo, the app on your phone is helpful to learn languages. If I try harder, I’d pick up a little more. Vic now wishes he tried to learn in school since we like to travel to Spanish speaking places. At least he knows his numbers, that helps but even then sometimes we need to break out a calculator so they can tell us the price.
We really enjoyed going to Oaxaca’s mercados (markets). They have stalls of food, clothing, bags, baskets, and other tchotchkes (knick knacks). Mercado 20 de Novembre was a few blocks from our hotel. Abuela’s is our favorite food stall.
There’s a grilled meat hall that carnivores should check out for the experience. I don’t know how exactly to explain it. There are several stalls of assorted red meats. You order meats from the meat vendor, another stand cooks it, buy your tortillas and condiments from other vendors. It’s really authentic and a bit overwhelming experience. Vic got by barely speaking Spanish but it would have been easier if we knew more. I didn’t try it (don’t eat red meat) and Vic says it was worth the experience but he preferred to eat other things around town. Here’s a video about Oaxacan street food.
We really enjoyed the food. It’s better Mexican than we get back home (would hope so!). I can’t handle mole sauce, it was too rich for my tummy and I was allergic to something in it. 2 Benadryls stopped my itching 🙂
Remember to NOT brush your teeth and DON’T drink the water, even the locals don’t drink it. That’s a myth we learn that their tummies can handle it. The locals drink bottle water and use ice that is trucked in. The street carts we ate at used bottled water. Also pack hand sanitizer and toilet paper (ha! sounds like Covid advice but I carry this on every vacation because you don’t always find soap or toilet paper in the bathroom). I actually learned the toilet paper trick when we went to Buenos Aires in 2012, read somewhere that toilet paper would be handy to carry and it was some of the best advice ever. Sometimes there’s no toilet paper and problem solved (abroad and at public restrooms at home).
Speaking of water…street food, is it safe to eat? Yes! But only eat where you are comfortable and feel safe. If street food isn’t for you, then it isn’t for you, it’s ok. We were fine. It really is eat at your own risk everywhere. One of the worst cases of food poisoning we’ve ever had was after eating fancy pastries in Paris. We were hesitant at first to eat street food but our friends showed us the bottles of water lying around and told us the locals use bottled water just like we do. We stuck to the busy food stands with the long lines where the locals and tourists go. I had the best tamales ever at Heidi’s, she’s my all time favorite tamale stand. I like the tamale con pollo salsa verde (chicken). It’s her masa, the cornmeal is ground extra fine, it’s so soft. You know how normally when we have them the masa is coarse. Her’s are very special to my tummy. So, if you visit, hunt for Heidi’s in the Zocalo.
I had no idea what they were but everyone I know who lives in Spanish areas back home knew. These are elotes, it’s grilled corn, with mayo, cheese, chili powder (I think), lime and some other stuff. Don Paco is the cart to go to at the Zocalo. His lines are super long but go fast. It’s incredible watching how fast they work, my kitchen skills are pathetic compared to him.
Next street food stop is Tacos del Carmen. They are close to Santo Domingo, the former monastery. They are always crowded and have a long line so if you want chicken, get there around 10-10.30am, they were sold out of chicken by 12 on our 2nd visit. The chicken, mushrooms, and chorizo ones are our favorite tacos. Her’s are a bit different; they are rolled, beans smeared on, with cheese, whatever inside you choose, and spiced. The other tacos carts are like the ones in the states, folded in half, meat, sauces, onions, and cilantro. The other taco carts are good too but I like to eat a lot at Tacos del Carmen because I can’t get hers back home.
Next up…our day trip to Mitla.