The first thing we did when arriving in Oaxaca was trying the local specialty: Tlayudas, a sort of massive tortilla covered in puréed beans, melted cheese and other delicious things. Ours also came with a big piece of grilled meat laying on top!
Oaxaca (pronounced “Oahaka”) is famous for its colonial architecture and some Zapotec archeological sites that you can find around the state, but it is also highly regarded by all Mexicans for its culture, food, and above all for its Mezcal! Mezcal is a distilled alcohol made from agave. Yes, this is tequila, except that tequila is made exclusively from blue agave in a particular region of Mexico only (tequila is basically like champaign).
To understand the city a bit better, we embarked on a Free Walking Tour. After starting with the cathedral we quickly moved to a chocolate tasting. Fact learned: Mexico doesn’t grow enough cocoa for all the chocolate it manufactures, and thus needs to import cocoa from neighbouring and African countries. We then visited some political art collectives. Art is an important way of expression in Oaxaca where the local communities have since long been protesting against the government for its lack of transparency and potential involvement in activists’ disappearances. We finished the tour with a glass of Mezcal, which would become our most common drink for the next 24 hours.
We spent our afternoon in the Mercado de Abastos, a giant market half open-air, half covered, filled with fruits, vegetables, nopales (cactus leaves), tlayudas, tortillas, salsas, and the one we were looking for: chocolate!!! We had some refreshing cold chocolate drink with freshly grinded cacao beans and plenty of sugar, almonds and cinnamon!
We wrapped up the day by going to a Mezcal bar where instead of your usual bowl of peanuts we received chapulines: salty grilled grasshoppers!
The next day, we visited the Arbol El Tule, an approximately 2000 years old tree with the biggest diameter in the world (17m). It wasn’t easy to get it on one picture. We then paid a visit to a traditional carpet makers that uses the ancient techniques inherited from the Zapotecs. Only natural ingredients such as Indigo charcoal, pomegranate seeds, cactus worms etc. are used to dye the textiles.
Then we did what’s logical when it’s 11 am and you have an empty stomach: a mezcal tasting! We tried aged ones, sweet ones, fruity ones, wormy ones – yes, the famous shot with worms, we did it… and that moment when the poor little worm cracks and explodes in your mouth and sticks to your teeth isn’t exactly the best feeling. The mezcal didn’t help much to wash it down.
After some lunch that helped against the spinning head of the mezcal, we visited Mitla, an important Zapotec archeological site that has been preserved well and that boasts very unique mosaic designs.
The last stop of the day was Hierve El Agua, which looks like a petrified waterfall but is in fact a natural rock formation created by spring waters rich in calcium carbonate, just like Pamukkale in Turkey. We could even dip in the natural pool with an outstanding view over the valley.
We finally got back to Oaxaca and hopped on yet another night bus that brought us to San Cristobal de las Casas, in the state of Chiapas.
San Cristobal de las Casas
We got to San Cristobal at 8 am and took a few minutes to recover our ability to move thanks to the aircon that was set on -20’C in the bus. Tired of dorms, we got ourselves a double room in a cute hostel that the hipster-owners decorated very nicely with recycled stuff and loads of flower bouquets (Becky happy). We were still sleepy as fuck but we decided to go straight to the free walking tour taking place that morning, and got a very nice overview of the city, passing through churches, markets, cafés and art centers/galleries that were very interesting. As in Oaxaca, people like expressing their political frustration through art and the Chiapas region is very famous for strong Zapatist movements.
The walking tour was again a good opportunity to meet other travelers and that evening we met a few of them at a wine bar – the wines we tasted were probably not the best products in Mexico, but after our traumatizing experiences in Asia we were easy to content – and ended the night in an alternative/hippie center where we sat on the floor sipping mulled wine while listening to a young Argentinian couple singing while their two kids kept trying to steal the mic or hit the drums…
The next day we did an excursion to the Cañon del Sumidero, a 40 km-long canyon with cliffs up to 1000m high on each sides. A boat took us from one end to the other, stopping from time to time to catch a glimpse of lazy crocodiles (cocodrilos in Spanish), curious monkeys and snobbish pelicans. We then drove to the top of the canyon to have a different perspective and the view was absolutely mind-blowing.
San Juan Chamules
After a nice dinner and a good night sleep (finally!), we took a Collectivo (minibus) to the tiny village of San Juan Chamules, famous for its unconventional church: the place was actually excommunicated (apparently due to the ritual sacrifices they practice there everyday – killing chickens, not humans), and can barely be compared to any church we’ve ever seen. Inside the church, the air was dense with the smoke from several thousands of candles and the muffled chanting of worshippers. Several people, mostly family groups, were sitting on the floor covered in pine needles, kneeling in front of long lines of candles they had previously sticked directly on the marble floor. A middle-aged lady kneeled together with her daughter in front of the statue of a Christian saint, chanting incantations while passing bottles of Fanta and glasses of alcohol over the smoke of the candles melting down a few centimeters away from her knees. Her long braided black hair swang back and forth as she held a mildly-protesting chicken above her head and passed it a few times just centimeters above the candles’ flames. Without stopping her chanting/praying, she then rubbed the chicken over the entire body of her daughter and finally discretely twisted the neck of the chicken before shaking its flabbering neck over the candle flames for a last time. The entire scene reminded us that we were once again in a totally different culture (but didn’t stop Quentin from buying a roasted chicken for lunch a few minutes later), and much of its signification remained mysterious to us. Our biggest question might actually be how this church hasn’t burnt down yet, considering the thousands of candles glued to the ground that is itself covered in pine needles, and that’s without considering the dresses of all the women that are made of fur that appear like potential torches as they brush a few centimeters away from the burning candles. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed inside of the church. Indigenous people in Chiapas hate pictures as they believe it steals their souls, and in Chamules there is no tolerance for those who don’t respect the rules: they would grab your camera, smash it on the floor and stamp it to a powder that would even make Thermomix jealous. We thus only discretely took some pictures in the streets.
With this we wrapped up our southern Mexican adventures and it was time to head to the Yucatán peninsula, in the East of México.