Mexico, why have I waited so long?

¡Hola, buen día!

It feels like it’s been a long time since my last trip, possibly because last year my two adventures took place in English-speaking USA (Moab and Vermont). Perhaps this is a contributing factor for being excited to relive my latest trip in written form, but it’s much more than that. This felt like more than just a vacation. It was a full on cultural adventure and I have fallen in love with Oaxaca, Mexico. 

We flew to Oaxaca through Mexico City

Sparking the Fire

It all started about 1.5 – 2 years ago, as I started watching Chef’s Table. The episode showing-casing Enrique Olvera introduced me to Mexican cuisine and to Oaxaca. He made the cuisine seem so exquisite, with simple ingredients.

When we’re talking about food, Mexico is a country with many contrasts. Mexico is extremely rich in its poverty and I see that in food. When you have “nothing to eat,” you have to eat anything and everything.

Enrique Olvera

And let’s be honest, Oaxaca (pronounced wah-ha-kah), the word, is awesome.

If you haven’t watched Pati’s Mexican Table (on TLN channel for me), it’s a fun way to learn about Mexican cuisine. You can also get her recipes from her website: https://patijinich.com

Season 6 was all about Oaxaca. After watching an episode, hubs was obsessed with the mole negro, but I think it was actually the episode with the chichilo mole by Chef Celia Florian that he was really after. But let it be known, there are many types of moles in Oaxaca, so if you don’t like one type, try another!

It’s also worthwhile to mention book and Netflix series, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, not your traditional cooking-travel show. We made sure to watch the episode on acid, as it took place in Mexico. The show not only made me even more excited to visit Mexico, but it makes you want to travel!

Procrastination out of Fear

Around the same time, hubs and I also started watching Narcos Mexico. The story is grossly engaging, but full of violence. It certainly does not depict Mexico as a happy tourist destination, though the story is set in a different time, and in a specific region of Mexico (not the region I was seeking out).

There is one scene that sticks with hubs, and that is the one where the bone-head American tourists walk into a shady looking restaurant and end up getting blown to pieces.

Even after watching this show, I was still up for visiting Mexico, but hubs is more conservative than I am, which is why I think our relationship is nicely balanced. Sure, he’s been curious about Mexico, but he also wants to return home, alive. I get it. It doesn’t help that it’s not uncommon to hear about Canadian tourists staying at resorts (think Cancún) getting murdered. I am guessing there’s more to the murder stories than simply innocent people walking down the beach, getting their heads blown off. But I needed more than this reasoning to convince hubs that we’d have a great time. So I decided to make the focus on food (food is always the way to a person’s heart!) and something organized, so that we wouldn’t have to wander the streets on our own.

And the winner is…..

Although there are a number of operators offering food tours throughout Mexico, my interest lay with Mexican Culinary Traditions. Their website hooked me in with the photos and the information on their website provided enough of a feel for how their trips were organized. The cincher for me was that they offered a trip to Oaxaca, which was exactly where I wanted to go. Unlike some other tours I came across, they provided a home-base, meaning we weren’t spending most of our time on a bus traveling around the entire region, but rather we’d stay in and explore Oaxaca City. I also felt that hubs would feel more secure knowing the “company” is American-based, with the owners originally from Mexico and both having spent a big part of their lives in Oaxaca. I sent him the link and crossed my fingers. He said yes.

The lead-up to the trip involved watching a lot of fabulous Mexican cooking shows, hubs researching food poisoning, and me reading out loud, a children’s book set in Mexico.

In addition, we did take Dukoral before our trip, as well as purchase Pepto tablets as suggested by Mexican Culinary Traditions, which we took daily during our trip (half-dose mainly). Did this stuff really work? I can’t say for sure, but neither of us suffered from any food-related illness on this trip!

Travel Setback

Our Spanish skills are very basic. One thing we tend to do was not done this time. We typically like to arrive a day or so before a tour starts, just to have time to settle in and deal with any mishaps, like lost luggage (more on that later). For this trip, we planned to arrive the day the tour started. Our flight was to arrive in the afternoon, and the welcome dinner was taking place that evening. Sounds easy enough, right?

Our flight on Air Canada from Toronto to Mexico City was delayed by an hour, which made our already tight connection from Mexico City to Oaxaca City even tighter. It would not have been as problematic had we not had to pick up our luggage at Mexico City. This was not made clear to us by the AC agent as the bag tags made it seem as though our luggage would meet us on the carousel in Oaxaca.

When we landed in Mexico City, it took forever to get through immigration and once we made it to the baggage pickup, a representative of InterJet airlines approached us asking if we were passengers so-and-so. That’s us! He had some luggage tags in hand and asked us if we could take a photo, which clearly showed where our bags were coming from and where they needed to get to. He told us we had no time to re-check our luggage for the next leg of our trip, so we needed to get ourselves on our confirmed flight to Oaxaca, and our bags would be on the next flight. Everything he said to us was clear. We started to make our way to the exit, but the ladies at the exit refused to let us leave without luggage. In hindsight, I should have said we had no checked bags, but instead we were frantically trying to explain that our bags were on a different flight. She understood no English and we couldn’t communicate in Spanish. It didn’t help that she was a bit of a bitch, refusing to even look at the photo of the bag tags. I ran back to the original guy and told him that they wouldn’t let us leave, so he ran back with us and he explained the situation to the ladies as I glared at the one woman. She refused to make any eye contact with me, even as I stuck my face to hers and said “gracias” as I raced by (when in fact I was thinking, “see, I told you!”). In retrospect, I get that she was only being a bitch because she didn’t understand what we were telling her. And as hubs kept telling me, we’re in her country so she isn’t expected to communicate in English because she’s airport security and not a greeter. This is why hubs is so likable.

We arrived in Oaxaca on-time. It’s a 40 minute flight, thank God. There was a child whining/crying on the descent that was so annoying. I had to plug my ears. Turned out that crier wasn’t a baby – it was a toddler, crying like a baby, and they were just across the aisle, which is why I had to cover my ears. How do such small people have such big vocal capacity?

The Oaxaca airport is small (but bigger than Saint John airport). Without luggage to pickup, we exited quickly. There was a small line of drivers holding up name signs, but I didn’t see my name. Divide and conquer – I would stay near this pickup spot in case the driver was on his way, and hubs would stop at the InterJet office to ensure our luggage was on its way.

It turned out that the remaining flights to Oaxaca that day were cancelled, so our bags would be on the first flight out the next morning. My initial reaction was relief that I opted to wear black jeans, a black t-shirt and runners on this flight, rather than my standard flight uniform of sweatpants, an old long-sleeve t-shirt, and my hiking shoes. I’m glad I also carried my electric toothbrush, and hubs is lucky that I grabbed his electric head and put it in the travel case as a “just in case”.

I should mention that compared to Air Canada, InterJet was much better – the seats have more leg room, and even though this is a short flight, they still offer free snacks and drinks. The AC flight was a 5-hour flight, really tight seats and no snack. The InterJet flight (Oaxaca to Mexico City) was pretty much free, with the bulk of the cost being the taxes. I think it was $47 each. The cost of the bags cost more than the flight, at $40 per bag.

While hubs was dealing with InterJet, I was searching through my emails to ensure I hadn’t provided the wrong flight information to MCT. I had in fact given the right info, so where was our driver? We didn’t have data, nor were our phones connecting to any carrier, so it was impossible to make a call. But as it turned out, I only had email addresses for our guides. I had nobody to call. The last option was to take a cab, and just as we were considering walking over to the taxi booth, a man approached us saying my name. You should have seen the look of relief on hubs’ face! He was 30-minutes late, but better late than never! And in this case, his tardiness allowed us to deal with InterJet, so it all worked out. We had originally thought that he’d be able to help us with our lost luggage, as our driver in Croatia had, but our Oaxaca driver didn’t speak English.

As we got into the car, there was a woman in the front seat. She spoke perfect English, and was very friendly and easy-going. I loved her introduction: “I know I seem all official sitting up here, but I’m not.” Amanda is from Denver. She was on the food adventure with us. She is also bilingual, so she comfortably conversed with both the driver and with us. Hearing our luggage ordeal, she was so sweet and offered to lend me clothing for dinner.

When we arrived at our hotel, our welcome package was already waiting for us in our room.

It consisted of a handmade wooden chocolate milk whisk/frother, hand carved jícara mezcal cups made out of gourds with accompanying ring-stand, natural fiber woven pockets, cacao nibs, and dark chocolate tablets handmade by a group of indigenous women from the community of San Martín Soyolapam, Oaxaca. We also received our itinerary for the week, and it turned out we had a fancy dinner that first evening. Enter panic attack mode!

Maybe next time I should pack one nice outfit in carry-on. We immediately decided to (1) look for a bank machine, (2) get toothpaste and (3) find something to wear! Hubs kept telling me I could pull off wearing what I already had on, but I didn’t want to wear all black in colourful Oaxaca. He was a little more concerned about what he had on (faded jeans and a t-shirt), but not concerned enough to buy the first thing he could find. The thing about small towns is that there aren’t mega-malls. They actually do exist in Oaxaca, but it’s outside of the downtown core (as in you need a car). All the little shops near our hotel carried either artisanal items or outfits that looked like I was going clubbing. I ended up finding a white with red stripes t-shirt, which I felt was the most useful piece, in case our luggage was further delayed. With the conversion, this was a $6 find!

For the record, our luggage did arrive the following day.

The Magic of Oaxaca

This post could end up as a TLDR; if I detailed every amazing day. The city is colourful, surprisingly very clean, and walkable. You can see the history and pride in the buildings and within the people.

A city can be just a city, but when you travel around it with friends, it feels like home. This is the best way I can describe what traveling with MCT and our small group of adventure-seekers was like. MCT is a project founded out of the love that mother (Iliana)-daughter (Isabel) duo have for the country they both grew up in, and for the Mexican culture they are passionate to share with anyone that is interested.

Each day, we all meet up early for a hearty breakfast, followed by an activity that can take us to food markets, craft markets, museums, beautiful churches, gardens, or to surrounding villages. And just like the locals, we’ll do all this until lunch time, which is usually not before 3 pm. We’re fed well, to the point that you wonder if you’ll have space for dinner. I soon figured out that the eating schedule, plus the lightness of each meal is what allowed me to eat my way through Oaxaca. When I say “light”, I mean that we’re not stuffing ourselves with pasta/carbs and lots of meat. Having various smaller bites is the only way to go if you want to try all the mouth-watering plates.

For germaphobes, this trip might not be for you. I will admit, I’m a bit of germaphobe, but I can get over it if I have to and as long as I feel that my fellow eaters are not ill or dirty. I got over sharing pretty fast because I yearned to try every beverage and every dish that was set in front of me. The drinks of Oaxaca are diverse and refreshing. Atole is a warm drink that is a meal on its own. It is served in a bowl and is made of masa (corn flour) and cinnamon. You can have chocolate added, but I liked it plain. It’s served with a large wedge of dry bread to dip into your drink. Hot chocolate also comes in large cups, and can be made with milk or water. This isn’t your instant powdered hot chocolate. Horchata in Oaxaca is definitely better than in Spain. Iliana said that it is made with rice in Mexico rather than the chufa nut as they do in Spain. Whatever it is, the drink I had in Spain was way too sweet. And then there is tejate, which consists of maize and cacao, and wait for it….. the person making the drink sticks their entire arm into the large vessel to mix the drink. Yep, I tasted it anyway, and I liked it. Another favourite that isn’t corn-based is agua de jamaica (hibiscus). It’s so refreshing! I’ve made hibiscus tea before, but I should add a bit of sweetener and chill it. Memories of Oaxaca!

And then there is mezcal. I actually had no idea what it was before the trip. I had only heard about it, but didn’t look it up. On our first evening, we had our first (of many) taste of this strong spirit made from the agave plant. Much to my surprise, I quite liked it. The first sip is difficult as it is around 50% abv, so it burns. You are supposed to swish that first sip in your mouth. With the second sip, you start to enjoy the flavours. My favourite are the smokier mezcals, and by smoky, I am referring to flavours of dry chilies or chipotle, and not like tobacco. You drink this out of a small glass with a wide mouth. This is where the small gourd or a candle holder is a good choice. The wide mouth allows you to really appreciate the aromas. I had also mentioned sipping. This is not a shooter like a cheap tequila (which is a form of mezcal because tequila is also made from agave). But don’t get confused, mezcal is not a tequila. Our mezcalista actual described tequila as the “steam-cooked bastardized cousin of mezcal”.

Here is an interesting clip from Pati’s Mexican Table on how mezcal is made.

Here are some of the plates of delicious food we tried in Oaxaca. Let it be known that on this tour, there was honestly no one place that I felt was a disappointment, and this is rare for us! Obviously some places are so good that you start to salivate just remembering the food, but even the more simple/humble places still served up quality food.

Memalita @ Criollo
Iliana admitted that the best tamales are on the street. On this evening, we enjoyed various tamales at our hotel, after our mezcal tasting with Andrea of Mezcouting, a wonderful and knowledgeable mezcal expert. I can’t remember all the fillings, but I can tell you my favourite was filled with chicken and green mole.
Octopus with pineapple and cream @ Alfonsina
Tetelas @ Itanoní. Great breakfast place!
Translation of the sign behind the cook (above). This is their story of corn.
Ceviche @ Alfonsina
Shrimp Aguchile marinated in lemon, cucumber, serrano chile, and mezcal @ Los Danzantes
Omelette with grasshoppers and Oaxacan cheese @ La Casona de Tita (B&B)
Tlayudas @ El Negro
One of my favourites! Pork belly with chicharrón taco @ Pitiona

A typical day

The tour was spread over 6 days, but it felt a lot longer (in a very good way). How can I explain this? It felt as though I was living in Oaxaca. I didn’t feel rushed, yet I saw and experienced so much. Part of this is because we stayed in the city, in the same hotel, so each evening, it felt like I was returning “home”. And Illiana and Isabel had planned activities for us, which is why it felt like we covered so much. I love our cycling trips, which is pretty much riding all day, but I absolutely adored this trip because the activities varied so much. And the things we did didn’t make me feel like I was a tourist. We went to markets and places where you’d also find locals. Of course we did some touristy things, like the guided tour of the botanical gardens, and took a trip out to see the “widest tree on earth”, but even then, it still wasn’t cruise ship touristy. Another great thing is that our group wasn’t big. There were 10 of us, a great size for being able to travel together and having the opportunity to make new friendships. Very often, we’d be let loose in the markets, so since there weren’t too many of us, Iliana was able to herd us back together when it was time to move on.

Traveling with Iliana and Isabel was a great experience for many reasons, but for me and hubs, we loved that they spoke the language. One thing I realized quickly is that hubs and I would have struggled here with our level of Spanish. At the beginning, I stayed close to our guides as we wandered through the markets, but I quickly started to feel more at home and would explore on my own. If I had questions, it wasn’t difficult to find them and ask for a translation or explanation. And vendors were all friendly, even though we couldn’t communicate. One vendor even cut open a passionfruit when I showed interest, just to show me and let me taste.

Basically the format of our day would start with me opening my eyes at 6:30 am when the church bells chimed. This would be followed by the loud calls of a tropical kingbird that hung out in the trees outside our window. At 6:45, the church bells would ring again, and I would hop out of bed, throw open the window and lean out to take in the sites and sounds of the morning chorus (kingbirds, sparrows, finches, and hummingbirds). There was one morning where I thought canons were being shot, but it turns out Mexicans like their fireworks, and someone was setting off fireworks at 6:30 am.

This audio was taken just before 6:45 am. It was on a day that fireworks were going off – you can hear the boom. Toward the end of the clip, you have to strain, but you can hear the church bells. The audio didn’t capture as well, but trust me, it’s pretty loud. That bird you hear throughout, I’m pretty certain it’s the tropical kingbird, and it certainly sounded like he was sitting on our windowsill! Nature’s alarm clock.
Each hotel room is behind the shutters, so you can imagine how dark it can get in your room.
Large window that I loved keeping open

Hubs and I would either call room service to bring us coffee if time was tight, or we’d go down to the restaurant and enjoy a cup with a plate of fruit. I am rather fond of Mexican coffee – it’s robust! Although breakfast at the hotel was included, we didn’t take advantage because our tour also included breakfast. Each day we’d be taken to a new place, and never did the the food disappoint. Many of the breakfasts were substantial – it’s rare that I’ll eat more than an egg with toast for breakfast at home – so try chilaquiles verde con pollo. And before that came out, my drink was served, which was a meal in itself!

Atole de amaranto (warm, corn-based beverage with amaranth) with a piece of pan de yema (yolk bread). The drink was served in a bowl!
Left: chilaquiles verde con pollo (lightly fried and quartered corn tortillas with chicken and green salsa)
Right: Enmoladas con pollo

Usually after breakfast, I’m wondering if I’ll be able to eat lunch. After a hearty breakfast, we’ll head off to our main activity for the day. Sometimes it’s local (in the city), and sometimes Rafael drives us out of town to a surrounding village. Rafa was our hired driver for the duration of our trip, with his comfortable van. Rides could be as short as 10 blocks, to maybe 1 hour, but we definitely did not spend the majority of our time stuck in a vehicle.

Surprisingly, by the time we were on our way to lunch, I’d be ready to eat again. But we were on Mexican time, meaning lunch was usually never served before 2:30 pm. And yes, the meals would fill me up and I’d again look at the time and wonder how on earth I’d be able to fit dinner in my belly. There was always room for the next meal.

One of the best things offered on this trip was the free afternoons. After lunch (we’re talking 4-ish), we’d have the rest of the afternoon to ourselves. Many times, hubs and I would hit the town on our own. The location of our hotel was perfect for getting around on foot. It’s always nice to have some alone time, where we could chill out and talk about our favourite parts earlier in the day. Meet up in the evening was between 7 – 8 pm and would sometimes start with a drink together before heading to our dinner spot. Isabel and Iliana picked some really great places. We spent one evening on the rooftop patio that overlooks the city and the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán. ¡Espectacular! That restaurant also had the most delicious pork belly taco! I seriously could have skipped the dessert and ate another taco instead.

Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán from rooftop of Pitiona
Rooftop patio with views of the city @ Pitiona

One night, hubs and I headed out for a drink after dinner, but most of the time it would already be getting late and we’d head back home with the group. I’d usually have no issues falling asleep. The bed was so comfortable!

Market experience

We visited food markets, craft markets, and a meat hall! The meat hall was a unique find, and intimidating for someone that’s never been here. Again, with the language barrier, I wouldn’t even be able to ask how it worked in terms of ordering. As for the setting, for Torontonians, think Rib Fest in terms of smokiness, but indoors. Our group was approaching the building by foot, and I knew we were close when we saw the smoke ahead. Even if you were unable to see the plume of smoke, you just had to follow the smell of grilled meats. My stomach started to growl in anticipation.

Wandering into Mercado 20 de Noviembre

As soon as we walked inside the building, it was hot and hazy. The bright lights at each stand gave the place an eerie mystique. The narrow hall is lined with almost identical looking stands with raw meats on display, with a grill next to each stand. Our guides told us we could take a seat in the dining area if it was too smoky, but I wanted to be part of the action. I followed Iliana to her preferred meat stall, where she picked out various meats. I asked her what made this stand better than all the others. Was it the seasoning they used? Nope. What matters is the cut, and today, she prefers the cuts of meat from this stand.

Iliana ordering some beef, pork, and chorizo from Aiko y Gaby

With the meats chosen and on the grill, Iliana selected the condiments and add-ons, and we made our way to our table in a quieter spot of the dining hall. As we waited, different vendors would approach, trying to sell us wooden spoons and other souvenirs. These sellers are actually everywhere, at all the markets!

Our food arrived quite quickly, and papers were handed out instead of plates. It was a make-your-own tacos meal using soft corn tortillas.

The meats were flavourful

This would also be my first (but not last) time ordering an agua fresca. The flavour was jamaica, which is hibiscus. Absolutely refreshing! After the first few sips, I did turn to Iliana to ask her if this was actually safe to drink. You’d think I’d ask before consuming, but I like to live on the wild side. 😉 Yes, the drinks are made with filtered water. And yes, that’s my $6 t-shirt.

Finishing up the final sips of my agua fresca de jamaica

There was one evening after dinner that Iliana took some of us that were interested, through a night market. I found myself a beautiful woven bag, which I ended up using for the remainder of the trip.

A great find at the night market
Gorgeous craftsmanship! I fell in love with the bag as soon as I saw it. Iliana told me what region it was from, but now I can’t remember.

This is how cooking classes should look like

There was a day that right after breakfast we hit a food market to pick up ingredients for our lunch. This day definitely turned out to be one of the most hands-on interesting days. Iliana doesn’t have a set menu for what we’re going to cook up. It’s based on what’s fresh at the market that day. We ended up with a crate of fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, and seafood. Rafa dropped us off in front of this “house”, but when the door opened, it was like being in a fantasy land. Iliana’s artist friend was out of town and had allowed us to use his kitchen. I describe this as a fantasy land because the first thing is we were in his house, but the outdoor part of his home. I’d call it more of his home’s courtyard/studio. As an artist, he had lots of pieces (stuff + paintings), a swing, turkeys in a coop, a strange outdoor stage (as an art piece) – it’s so difficult to describe the place!

Entering the home – it’s pretty much like a courtyard
On one of the tables, there was a project in progress
The table with the paints is in the background.
A swing hanging from a beautiful flowering tree – so whimsical!
Walking a little further down the path, you pass an outdoor, open shower on one side, and across is the kitchen area (what you see)
The gorgeous, rustic outdoor kitchen, where we are helping to unload and sanitize all the food from the market.
Tucked in another area, I find this massive stage

This home is like no other I’ve ever visited. One of the other members of our tour described it like being on an acid trip without taking acid. There was just so much to look at, it was difficult to figure out where to start! And then there was the Mexican hairless dog – so ugly it’s cute.

But back to business – we were here to cook together! I loved the controlled chaos in the kitchen, with Iliana randomly assigning tasks, giving you a brief demo of what she wanted you to do, and leaving you to the task. Some of us were working at the main kitchen island, while others were working at the dining table. It was such a fun moment that really brought us all together. It was a Mexican kitchen party, and I was drinking in every moment of it as I was peeling, chopping, slicing, mixing and sneaking tastes of different things. The banter, the aromas, the beauty of dishes slowly being placed on the table….

Sanitized items that now need to be trimmed and stemmed
Giant shrimps
Carrots, corn, tomatillos, avocados, onions, squash – so much prep work to be done
Pea flowers and zapote fruit

We had a brief interlude, where we learned how to make Oaxacan cheese. It’s absolutely delicious! The cheese today was made with unpasteurized whole milk and a piece of lining from a cow’s stomach (instead of a packet of rennat).

Rafa’s wife and daughter make the best cheese!
The ball of wrapped cheese is known as quesillo, and it’s sweet and stringy. I could happily sit there and unravel the ball into my belly! The cheese in the round molds is queso fresco. It’s a little salty, a little tangy, and has a spongy consistency. It’s lovely.

Soups, salads, salsas, moles, shrimp, mushrooms – there was so much food. Everything was fresh and bursting with deep flavours. It was unforgettable and I salivate just looking at all the photos. Here’s a few teasers.

Did you know that guacamole should never include garlic?
Cactus salad, tomato salad, salad with coconut, grasshoppers as garnish – so many wonderful new things!

Local crafts = labour of love

We visited some of the local artisans in the surrounding villages and learned about their craft. What I especially loved was that we were not forced or expected to make any purchases. Mexican Culinary Traditions also does not get any commissions on the sales, nor do they take any payments from these families to bring us to their homes/workshops. They take us to these families because they truly love their work and want to support them. I respect MCT for this practice because it demonstrates how much they value exceptional craftsmanship of hard working people/families, and that they believe in supporting small, local businesses because of this and not for a payout.

On this trip, we visited two different families in the textile business, a family in the wood carving business, and a small business that is focused on black pottery. The work of all three was impressive, but I was especially drawn to the textiles and alebrije (wood carving).

Alebrijes – turning chunks of wood into fantastical figurines

Zeny & Reyna are husband and wife. They have been making alebrijes for a long time and create masterful pieces. Some of their work have even been showcased in hotels and museums.

Zeny is the master carver, taking the copal wood and letting the natural shapes of the wood guide him in the design.

Zeny carving the copal wood. This is an ideal type of wood because it is a softer wood. The piece originally started as the stump lying in the forefront.

After carving, the pieces are placed in the sun to draw out the moisture so that the wood becomes hard. As the wood dries, it becomes a lot lighter in weight, and it naturally cracks. Enter Zeny & Reyna’s son. He specializes in restoration.

One of Zeny’s sons performing the restoration work

He takes thin pieces of wood to fill the cracks and sands the piece so that it is once again, a single, solid piece. This figurine is now passed to Reyna, who paints each of the pieces in bright/bold colours and intricate designs.

Reyna does all the painting, using brushes and dried spikes from the cactus plants for the extra-fine details

Colours used have meaning, such as dark colours like black and grey represent the power of the moon/night. Yellows and reds represent the power of the sun. Brown represents the power of the earth, and blue represents the power of the air and water. As for the designs, you may see the same designs in different colours for smaller pieces, but as the pieces get larger, chances are you won’t see two identical pieces, but also, you will not see the same design. Their store was full of treasures!

The pieces start small, and as you hit the back of the store, the pieces become larger and more unique/custom.

I was so glad that we held off buying any alebrijes from town, even at the women’s co-ops. Don’t get me wrong – those pieces are beautiful and impressed us, but after seeing the pieces at Zeny & Reyna’s, I could see the difference.

In Reyna’s shop, hubs and I started on the side with the small pieces and I found a number that were quite appealing, but as we made our way further into the shop, the pieces started to look even more interesting. You could really start to see the details in the carving, and in the painting, becoming more intricate and complex. The hummingbirds hanging from the ceiling in the middle were stunning. The life-sized jaguar was breath taking! And then we both spotted it – there was a section with owls, but one owl in particular mesmerized us. I picked him up gently to examine the painted design and I immediately wanted him. I couldn’t put him down, even though I had a woodpecker on a tree with a worm already in hand. Want. Owl. Lucky for me, hubs loved owl too, so I didn’t have to do much convincing.

We’ve named him Vincente, pronounced Bincente. Those eyes.
Such an incredible amount of hand-painted details!
Textiles without factories

How often do you pick up a fabric and consider the amount of work that has gone into creating it? I’ll be honest, I almost never do this if I’m at a mall or shop. I might admire it if it looks nice, and I’ll check the price tag, which might cause a gaffaw, and that’s about it.

This all changed on the day we visited a family of weavers in the village of Santo Tomás Jalieza that practiced the art of backstrap loom weaving. They create beautiful belts, placemats, table runners, bracelets, just to name a few. The family includes a few generations, and it’s not uncommon for children to start learning the trade at a very young age.

This piece is made with a thicker cotton, the thickness of kitchen twine. I think she said it takes a good number of hours to complete.
This is the mother. She is weaving thinner item, but the material she is using is like sewing thread. Her piece will take a few weeks to complete. My question is, how does she sit on her haunches like that for more than 5 minutes!?

As much as I was humbled by their creations and very much wanted to support them, I wasn’t sure how I would use/display their beautiful work. It helped that others in our group made quite a few purchases so I was pleased they got some income from our visit.

We also visited a couple of clothing shops with the embroidered shirts. As pretty as some of the handiwork was, the shirts in those particular stores did not suit my frame. This is not to say that all shirts aren’t great, as I saw a very pretty one at Zandunga restaurant, but they didn’t have my size. I wish I had taken a photo of the design. But back to the clothing shops on the tour – a number of the others in our group did purchase shirts/dresses, and they looked fabulous! The one unique find during this part of the trip was a can of coca-cola, with coffee!

It’s a sweeter coca-cola, with a mild hint of coffee flavour. Hubs thinks it’s less coffee and more chocolate flavour.

There was one day that we were taken to Teotitlán del Valle, a village known for weaving. We visited Tejidos Zapoteco, a store and taller (workshop) where woven tapetes (rugs) are made by the Hernandez family. Jesús Hernández, master weaver, gave us a demonstration of how they make their rugs. I was captivated by the production process, right from when the tufts of wool come in and need to be cleaned, right through to the completed rug. Everything is done by hand, and all the materials are natural.

I believe the root used to clean the wool is called amole.
The wool is purchased as they do not have their own sheep/farm.

Although the washing demo took place in a bowl, they would typically wash in woven baskets so that the dirty water flows out easily. After washing the wool, you would set it out to dry before combing it. Looks easy enough, right?

Add the tufts in, pull the second comb through. Got it.

Easy peasy isn’t so easy! It requires the right technique, and some muscles. I wasn’t able to get a single stroke! The two combs were locked, no matter how hard I pulled. It felt like one of those illusionists tricks. Hubs tried too, and with much force, he managed to get a few strokes in, but not smoothly.

Jesús then demonstrated how the cleaned and combed wool is spun into a continuous spool of thread. By this point, I’m mentally tallying up the time going into rug making, even before the wool is spooled into thread/yarn! This is still how they work today. No automated machines are used here.

The light and fluffy tufts of wool are spun together using this wheel to create the thread.

If all this isn’t fascinating enough, the dying process should really blow you away. All their base dyes are natural, from plants and insects. They are dried and turned into powders, and they provide rich hues.

Grasses, marigolds, shells – no chemicals

The most fascinating of the colours is the red. It’s a deep crimson. I couldn’t believe where it was harvested from! It starts with prickly pear cactus, which he had some hanging from the ceiling.

Dried cactus hanging from the ceiling

It’s whitish-grey because it’s dried/drying out, but look closely.

Close-up of stuff on cactus

Can you see the grey things? Jesús easily scrapped these off to allow us to get a better look.

Cochinilla (better known to me as scale)

He explained that these were cochinilla (cochineal, or scale), a type of insect. I’m not entirely clear if they are dead or still alive. They weren’t moving. But what happened next was magic! He gently pressed down and smeared the scale (essentially squishing the scale), and this is the result.

Squished cochinilla

Is that not super cool?! They typically make this colour in bigger batches obviously, and not on someone’s hand. I think with a big batch, they can also turn it into a powder format. From this point, Jesús was able to demonstrate how they create many different colours from the base colours, simply by mixing colours, or adding acid or alkaline (e.g. lemon juice, baking soda, and ash).

The colour magic of acid and alkaline

Understanding how colours are produced, we received a quick show of how the yarn is dyed.

Dying takes place in large pots and then hung to dry

There were a number of looms in the workshop area, with two women busy at work. It requires focus, dexterity, and it’s a full-body project.

Photo from the opposite side of the massive wooden loom
In addition to operating the loom from above with your arms, it also requires operation with the legs.

We were then lead back up to their store, where Jesús proudly showed us their work, starting with the very small pieces (think coasters) that are made by his kids (when they were very young). I believe kids start to learn the process at age 6? Slowly they begin to make larger pieces, and with experience, the designs also become more intricate. He finally showed us the larger masterpieces, pointing out the colours and explaining what some of the design patterns represented.

Example of a traditional design

As an example, this design is common and if you start on the left, the stairs represent starting as a baby and growing up. The flat area at the top of the stairs represents most of your adult (mid life) time. The path down represents old age and then death, but as you see, it runs into the next colour, which represents the cycle starting all over again. The circle of life.

As much as I love colours, I found myself drawn mostly to the natural/non-dyed rugs. Perhaps it’s because I’m thinking ahead, or maybe I’m just boring. I find the natural colours to have that more timeless look, and I feel that no matter how many times I may update the interior of my home, the natural colours will easily fit in without a second thought.

Just like with my owl carving, one rug spoke to me. After pulling out the tape measure, giving hubs the puppy-dog eyes, the rug was packed up. The only thing I now wish is that it was bigger! In the case of hand woven rugs, bigger is better!

My tapete that I cannot stop admiring

It was so sweet when Jesús came up to me before we re-boarded our bus and took my hands and thanked me for supporting his family. Of course I wanted to support them, but at the same time, I didn’t make this purchase out of charity. This rug, and so many of them, are complete works of art. No two are identical. The quality and craftsmanship are unbelievable. This rug took them 14-weeks to weave. It’s a true labour of love.

I originally wanted to replace the rug under my craft table, but I feel this one isn’t quite large (deep) enough. And my craft table is not in a highly visible spot (and it’s surrounded by houseplants, so you can’t see much of the floor space), so having it here in my very open, quasi-living room is a much better spot. I see it every time I walk into the kitchen, and each time I look at it, I remember vividly how it came to be and my heart smiles.

Monte Albán, once a great city

For the history lovers, a trip to Monte Albán (meaning White Mountain) is an important spot to visit. Be sure to pack a sun hat, sunglasses, and slather on the sunscreen. This archaeological site has next to no shade, but it’s dang impressive.

View from the rim
Iliana and I had some one-on-one bonding time in the main site.
As we got word that the group was approaching, we made our way to meet them and I spotted hubs.
Looks like he spotted us too!

We came to Oaxaca for the food and left with a greater understanding and appreciation for not just the food, but for the land and culture, and how it has shaped the people and their cuisine; simple in ingredients but rich in flavours (and history!). A food tour that can have this kind of impact, reaching my very core, is no ordinary food tour. Traveling with Mexican Culinary Traditions is like visiting your best friend in their hometown. You’re there, immersed in the culture, laughing, learning, hungry for more.

As soon as we landed back at home, I turned to hubs and told him that it felt like we were gone for a month, in a good way. I felt satiated through food and the experience. The tour itself was only 6 days long, but we covered so much yet I never felt rushed. The tour struck the perfect balance of keeping us busy and giving us free time, every day. We also lucked out with a great group – not so many people that you can’t remember everyone’s name, but big enough that you’ll find at least one person you can connect with. Our group was made up of people from all walks of life, but the one thing we had in common was the love for adventure and respect for other cultures. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of fellow travelers, and I’m certainly thankful that it was Isabel and Iliana that welcomed us and introduced us to the best parts of Oaxaca.

Oaxaca Outtakes

It moved! It’s still alive!

– fellow group member

Don’t be afraid. Try everything, even the worms. They’re actually tasty.

They’re not still alive

Come on, please

– Niño Guía

Our guide at the El Árbol del Tule was so cute! He had a laser pointer and was robotically showing us the different images in the massive trunk. After each stop, he’d say, “come on, please” to get us to move along with him.

Sorry for the vertical video. The video isn’t even for the graphics. Just listen to him – very cute.

There’s at least one, maybe more, mosquitoes in here

– hubs, while I was deep asleep

It was about 1 or 2 am. I was asleep. My ankle had been bothering me (see next outtake), and hubs was already starting to get a little concerned about my ankle/bites. The lights in our room are now on. I don’t like being woken up. I don’t say anything. I’m hiding under the covers, trying to stay asleep. I hear him clapping his hands together (trying to kill a mosquito). Finally, I’m like, “turn off the God damn lights already!” I was so tired. I apologized in the morning because I know he was doing this out of kindness and concern. He was worried that I’d get more mosquito bites and maybe something worse would happen. I’m reminded of how much this man loves me! Mosquitoes weren’t my problem, read on….

Hubs: Should I call our insurance company first?
Iliana: No, you can just pay at the hospital

– Conversation in the 2-minute taxi ride to the hospital at 8 am-ish

Absolutely unexpected – the hospital we walked (hobbled) into was like walking into a mansion, or a fancy open-air store, because the atrium was open (you could see the sky). It was so quiet and serene, and I could hear the birds chirping. Expecting a 4-hour wait, the female doctor helped me onto the bed as soon as I walked into emergency and I was looked at immediately. Talk about efficient service! And good thing we had Iliana with us to translate. What I thought were mosquito bites were ant bites.

I WAS NOT SICK. We had an outdoor evening event four nights ago. I noticed the itchy bites later that evening, thinking they were mosquito bites. Two days later, my ankle/foot was looking a little bit swollen. I only went to get my ankle looked at because the following morning it had swollen quite a bit more, to the point that it hurt to put any weight on it. Think sprained ankle – except I had not sprained my ankle. On my ankle was a mosquito-like bite that had now formed a blister (yeah, kinda gross looking). I’m a mosquito magnet and have been bitten by mosquitoes, both at home and abroad, and have never exhibited blisters or swelling. The doctor said she didn’t think they were mosquitoes, but the good news is she also didn’t think it was a spider bite. She guessed maybe an ant. I received a prescription to help with the swelling and itchiness and was out in a flash. Cost? CDN $30.

Managed to rejoin the group and had a fantastic day even though some of the activities were modified (meaning I didn’t get to do everything the rest of the group did, but I was there!) Later in the afternoon during our free time, one of the members on our tour who spoke Spanish, helped me get ice from our hotel’s kitchen. What’d I say about a great group we had!

Ice and elevation – boring but necessary

While I was confined to our room, icing my ankle and keeping it elevated, hubs did some sleuthing. He came back and said he thinks he found the culprits – fire ants – but he wasn’t 100% certain as they were moving too quickly. I told him to get the tape out of the first aid kit and do like my sister did when she was a kid – tape the ants. I gave him a ziplock bag, thinking he’d bring a sample back to me. No such luck. He said there was no way in hell he was bringing fire ants into our room, dead or alive. But by taping an ant, he was able to confirm it was a fire ant. He said they were strong buggers. The one ant was peeling itself off the glue of the tape! According to the interweb, fire ant bites and stings can cause swelling. Yes, you read that correctly – they can both sting and bite, and they can do it several times. They attack if they feel attacked, so I’m guessing that I unknowingly disturbed their nest or something.

After only a day-and-a-half of taking the meds, my ankle was back to normal, and most of the bites faded/disappeared.

Um, is he coming back?

– Me speaking to hubs after the nurse walks away

The $30 medical emergency fee included a cortisone injection for the swelling. The nurse did the injection (butt). Hubs is in the room with me. The nurse says something quickly and walks away without putting a gauze or anything on the injection site. I found this funny and confusing. Hubs is also standing there a little confused. The nurse isn’t returning. Hubs is looking at the injection site and telling me to roll over more because I guess some blood was trickling out. Finally hubs tells me he’ll go find something or someone to help me. The doctor immediately comes in and sticks a band-aid with a cotton ball over the site. I don’t know why, but this was really funny to me.

Terremoto, terremoto

– alarm sounding at 4:30 am

It started with this annoying alarm sound, but outside our room. For this reason, I ruled out fire. And then an automated voice came on, but all I could make out was terra-something. Like I said, I hate being suddenly awoken from a deep sleep. So I was like, “what the f is that?” Hubs wakes and says, “feel that? I think it’s an earthquake.” Made sense. Terra is ground or earth. I also felt the vibration. We hear some other guests opening their doors, so hubs gets out of bed and starts walking towards the door and he says, “should we be standing under a door frame or something?” and in my cranky state I tell him he can stand under the frame as I throw the blanket over my head and go back to sleep. Before hubs gets to the door, the alarm stops, the vibration stops, so he hops back into bed and we’re both asleep again.

I found it curious that there were no instructions while the alarm was sounding. In the morning, we did a Google search and discovered that at 4:37 am there was a 4.7 earthquake about 40 km away from Oaxaca City. And we also found the translation for earthquake – terremoto. I guess there were no instructions because earthquakes aren’t uncommon, and there must be sensors built into the ground that trigger the automated alarm. Half our group slept right through the entire thing. Mind you, we slept with our windows open, so maybe if our windows had been closed, perhaps we wouldn’t have heard anything either. Nah, I’m a light sleeper.

So you know you’re not supposed to throw toilet paper into the toilet, right?

– fellow traveler

This running joke started by The Sisters on our trip turns out to hold some merit. It’s not uncommon to see signs in the washroom asking you to throw your soiled toilet paper into the bin next to the toilet. The signs aren’t usually in English, but you get the gist of it. Yes, it seems kinda gross, but apparently in Mexico, the sewage system isn’t quite as robust as we’re used to. I think workers do a good job of keep things clean because even at places where you are expected to toss toilet paper in the bin, the bins were never close to full, nor did those washrooms smell.

Also note that some public washrooms require $3-$5 pesos. You pay and the lady hands you a wad of toilet paper. It’s not a bad system and the washrooms in Mexico tend to be quite clean.

Oh, you were in the back courtyard?

– Isabel, after I told her we went to Sabina Sabe for drinks

One evening me, hubs, and Amanda decided to go for cocktails after dinner at this funky spot recommended by Isabel. We walked in and the bar was packed. Connected to the bar was the restaurant, but that’s only for guests that are eating. Amanda kindly asks a hostess if there was anywhere quiet we could sit to enjoy our drinks. A waiter asks us to follow and it was the weirdest spot – in the “room” directly outside of the men’s washroom. It’s separated from both the bar and restaurant. It’s quiet. We’re the only people there. I wish I had taken a photo, but the waiter was standing right at the door frame waiting for us to make a decision (he had just given us the drinks menu). We all order and he walks away. Minutes later, he returns and tells Amanda we can have a small table but we’d have to give it up for dinner guests if necessary. We agreed. I told Isabel about this and she referred to the spot as the back courtyard. I suppose you could describe it as such, but it was literally in front of the door to the men’s WC. It was a fun night, with our Spanish-inspired cocktails (they had a guest bartender from Spain working the bar).

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