Oaxacan Daydreams: Tlayudas, Street Art & Mezcal | Oaxaca City, México

Hello, my lovely internet-machine friends! Welcome to a hopefully welcome tiny distraction in this endless loop of what-is-happening, is-anyone-OK and we’re-definitely-in-the-thick-of-it outrageousness.

This post is more than a few months late … Oops. But you know what? I’m calling it fashionably late and I stand by that. The truth is capitalism has me in a tight, unyielding chokehold and this yearlong project has consistently consumed 95% of my neurons — I’ll let you guess the amount of energy I’ve had left to do anything else for the last I don’t know how many months.

But I digress! I had the privilege of visiting the gorgeous city of Oaxaca, Oaxaca, México, in October 2021. And what do you know? Of course this traveling bb fell in love with it (because what city has she visited without falling in love?). I might write more than one post about Oaxaca City because there’s just so much to talk about — the food was incredible, the drinks were spiritual, the architecture was *chef’s kiss* — but stay tuned to find out if I can muster up the energy for that.

First of all, I think we picked the best time of the year to travel there because the weather couldn’t have been more perfect during our entire stay. It ranged from fresh and cloudy with a little rain to sunny and just a little hot throughout the five days we were there. Anyway, I’m not a friolenta beetch so I was good on the nights it was a bit under 60 degrees. We booked our five-night stay at Hotel Casa Vertiz right in the historic center and less than a block away from the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca (a major tourist spot I didn’t even get to go to). The hotel was very reasonably priced (we paid about $480 USD for the room) and the perfect location was a major deciding factor. Right after check-in, we hit the streets in search of my favorite thing in the world — food!

We walked on the ancient cobbled streets around the historic center near Templo Santo Domingo (see above) that night, and we ended up at Vaca Marina for an impromptu, fancy-poo-poo rooftop dinner. The food was unreal, tasty and flavorful, and just the perfect way to kick off our first night in Oaxaca de Juárez. We ordered a bunch of dishes to try, including tacos de pulpo (octopus tacos), papas trufadas (potatoes with truffle), tlayudas with shrimp (a traditional Oaxacan dish that’s kind of like a quesadilla but with a hard/crunchy/toasted corn tortilla with refried beans, lettuce or cabbage, avocado, meat, Oaxaca cheese, and salsa), and some fancy mezcal cocktails. Everything I tried here was delicious!

The next day, it was cloudy, crisp and a bit rainy. A perfect 60–65 degrees! We tried to visit the Jardín Etnobotánico (botanical garden), but they were only letting in one group of 15 people every hour on the hour 10 a.m.–noon because of COVID-19 (not sure if it’s changed yet). We didn’t make the first group, so we decided to find breakfast and come back for the noon group. Spoiler alert: We didn’t make it to any of the three groups on any of the days we tried. You had to be there already in line VERY early; and if you didn’t make the first group, you HAD TO stay in line possibly until noon. And that’s a long time to be waiting in line and not exploring the city! But I felt OK missing it because there are so many things to do in Oaxaca City.

After getting my Housewives vibes on with a mouth-watering molletes-and-Aperol-Spritz breakfast at Boulenc, we explored the historic center some more and waited for the rest of our group to land. But wait, Boulenc had some unbelievably delicious salsas machas (Mexican chili oil with different nuts, spices, etc.) that I still salivate about. I really wish I could have brought some home because OMG they were in-cred-i-ble. Back in the historic center, one of the most visible sites is the 15–16th century Templo de Santo Domingo with its hypnotizing Baroque façade and its adjacent botanical garden that houses a collection of plants that are native to Oaxaca (yep, the same one I couldn’t get into). As I walked those uneven cobbled streets steeped in so much rich history, I admired the colorful doors and walls that enthralled my every surrounding and I wondered what life was like within each of those walls.

We saw A LOT of very raw, politically charged street art wherever we walked. This southern-Mexican gem is no stranger to anti-regime rebellion and civil conflict — protests happen here very often — as was portrayed by so many of the murals and paintings I saw. These called out issues like the immense amount of femicides that happen daily in México, violence against women, violence against the trans community, colonialism, lack of support and oppression of the indigenous peoples, the patriarchy, machismo, the 43 missing students from Ayotzinapa and more.

The artists of Oaxaca use street art as a way to support the struggle of the people and to encourage conversation about the current problems that the people of Oaxaca, especially indigenous peoples, face. Even though Oaxaca is one of the safest states in México, it’s still one of the poorest in the country. Street art is one way for its people to show tourists the harsh realities that lie behind our aesthetic vacation photos on Instagram. They’re only a small ripple on the surface of what Oaxacans want the world to know. These pieces and every ounce of what they represent came home with me.

Monte Albán is one of the most important archeological sites of México where different groups of peoples, including the Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs, lived throughout 1,500 years. The once-bustling city is believed to have been carved out of the mountain starting in the sixth century BC. If you’ve ever held a $20 pesos bill, then you’ll have seen Monte Albán in the palm of your hand. After a 20-minute drive from the center of Oaxaca City, Monte Albán was the first stop on the all-day private tour we booked through our hotel. The total cost for the tour for eight people on a sprinter van was $3,500 MXN (about $500 MXN each with tip) with four stops and a buffet lunch. We only ended up doing two of the stops because we had a dinner reservation and the last two stops just felt like we were just going to be taken there to buy things. I do have to admit the lunch was subpar and very disorganized. But all in all, I enjoyed our day and I enjoyed our tour guide. You are bound to find a tour to suit your specific needs or you can explore on your own!

Our time in Monte Albán was truly lovely though. Our guide explained the history of the site as we walked through its great plazas, admired the pyramids, took in the carved hieroglyphics and basked in the delicious drizzling weather. The clouds and slight rain made the 2.5 hours we spent there feel like a breeze. That being said, do bring a hat, sunscreen, and water because there is hardly any shade and I can imagine how hot it gets on a sunny day.

If you don’t hear mezcal when you hear Oaxaca, you need to get on the Google right meow. Most of the complex-tasting spirit hauls from the state of Oaxaca and of course we had to have a tasting … or a couple. We reserved a private tasting for our group of eight at Mezcaloteca, a mezcal tasting room with a vast collection of different types of mezcales from different states in México, where we learned how mezcal is made and how you can best enjoy it. Our catadora‘s knowledge of and passion for mezcal was obvious as she went into amazing detail about each of the mezcales we tried and the regions they came from.

Depending on how many different mezcales you want to try, the tastings cost between $320 MXN for three and $410 MXN for five per person (That’s about $20 USD!). The catadores at Mezcaloteca will answer all your questions and you’ll get to taste unique small-batch mezcal. I loved hearing about the many, many different types of agave plants there are and how the region in which the plant grows affects how the mezcal tastes. Mezcal is a bit more free as it truly varies so much more in taste than tequila because mezcal can be made from 50 different types of agave plants and tequila can only be made from the blue agave plant. I’d still consider it an acquired taste and I’m definitely a tequila girl. But mezcal is absolutely on its way to blowing up, if not already there!

Before our official private tasting, we randomly walked into Baltazar Tetelas & Mezcal and had an impromptu mezcal tasting that got us started on our boozy afternoon. Baltazar offers customizable mezcal flights, handcrafted mezcal cocktails and authentic traditional Oaxacan dishes. I looooved their cocktails and I tried chapulines (grasshoppers) for the first time in my life! #Adventurous. The food in Oaxaca City not only 100% lived up to its reputation, but it truly blew it out of the water. And you can read more about everything I devoured at the restaurants and bars I went to in Oaxaca in a future post I’m planning, including the juicy details of our eight-course dinner at the Michelin-star-quality, world-famous Criollo.

Other musts in Oaxaca City are the many mercados where you can find unique art and fresh native produce, including Mercado Benito Juarez, Mercado 20 de Noviembre and Mercado La Merced. At Mercado 20 de Noviembre, you’ll be submerged into a sensory-overload cloud of mesmerizing aromas, swirling colors and a messy myriad of voices trying to catch your attention to buy the freshest meat or sweetest fruits.

Try to not feel overwhelmed when servers from each of the many comedores (dining halls) try to convince you to sit at one of their tables. Most of their menus will be the same, or very similar, and they’ll all be EXTENSIVE and affordable. You’ll be able to order asados, quesillo, enmoladas, enfrijoladas, tlayudas, tetelas, tasajo, mole and so many other traditional dishes. I ordered a quesadilla with queso Oaxaca (one of the loves of my life) and a delightful plate of chicharrón en salsa roja at Comedor Típico La Abuelita.

El Arbol del Tule, Mitla and Hierve El Agua are another three Oaxaca highlights we didn’t get to check out on this trip. Two of them because they were closed and the other one because we just ran out of time. But I’d love to come back and check those off my list! We also jumped on a last-minute double-decker-bus tour of the neighborhoods of Oaxaca de Juárez. The mezcal-bottle-shaped bus drove by some of the city’s iconic spots, including the house where the first indigenous president of México Benito Juárez (whom the city is named after) got married. And I didn’t even go into how top notch the street food was. This trip is now one of my top favorite trips I’ve ever been on. Yes, I know I say that about almost every trip I go on. I really had so much fun exploring this beautiful city with my friends and I hope to return soon!

If this post has somehow not convinced you to start planning a trip to Oaxaca City, then this short video recap of my trip just might!

I really hope you enjoyed getting a tiny peek of how wonderful Oaxaca City is. There is so much I could keep writing about! Let me know in the comments if you’ve been to Oaxaca or what you want to see in Oaxaca if you haven’t been. And for now, that is all, my friends. I shall catch you on the next one!

-V

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