The city of Oaxaca is nestled in a valley in the middle of Oaxaca state, an area not far off the size of England. In fairly close radius around the city are lots more towns and villages as well as some spectacular scenery and ruins, so we were able to take lots of day trips to see more of the state.
One day we took a cooking class in the weaving town of Teotitlan with Maria Reynes of El Sabor Zapoteca.
It started with a trip to the village market to pick up some ingredients.
We made a nopalitos (cactus) salad with a lovely avocado and coriander dressing
Followed by red mole, the rich chocolate and chilli sauce that Oaxaca is famous for. We toasted off spices, chillies and almonds over a wood fire, then had a good workout pounding the ingredients to a smooth paste with a stone platform and roller. That’s then cooked down and spooned over mushroom-filled tortillas to make a dish of mole enchiladas.
It all tasted fantastic and was a lovely way to spend a day, as well as chatting to Maria and seeing local life in a small market town.
At Josh’s behest we took a full-day educational tour of mezcal distilleries and agave farms, led by Canadian-turned-Oaxacan mezcal expert and excellently-named Alvin Starkman. It took in many of the villages to the south-east of Oaxaca, ending in the town of Matatlan where nearly every other building is a mezcal bar, shop or distillery. Most of the farms were nestled way into the countryside so it was also a great way to see the more rural side of the state.
We saw a fascinating scale of production types: from the farm who still does everything by hand, including the gruelling task of pounding the roasted agave to a pulp in a pit in the ground, to much larger, slicker operations. And a lot in between, from workers getting pissed-up on their product and encouraging us to do the same, to a lady who dropped a live scorpion into a mezcal bottle and served us her wares from jerry cans.
The product of the tiniest and most hands-on operation was my favourite of the day, and a bottle came home for only around $120/£6. I learned a hell of a lot about mezcal from Alvin and came away with a new appreciation for it. From the clear unaged variety to anejo, aged for over two years – plus the flavour differences that using different species of agave offers – you’re bound to find a mezcal to suit your palate. I can still only sup the tiniest amount at a time though.
On a more cultural level we made the obligatory trip to Monte Alban, the remains of a Zapotec settlement up in the mountains to the west of the city. It was a quick and cheap ($50/£2.50 return) bus trip to the site. We didn’t join a tour so I didn’t get an awful lot from the experience, but it’s nicely maintained and so big it doesn’t feel crowded. There’s also a tiny museum and quite a nice cafe with views over the valleys.
I actually preferred the much smaller ruins at Mitla, which is the remains of another Zapotec settlement. All the walls are covered in intricate geometric carvings, said to represent animals. You can also duck into a spooky underground tomb and check out many varieties of cactus and agave that are planted amongst the ruins.
On our last day, and kind of saving the best until last, we took a trip to Hierve Al Agua. It’s a mineral spring and petrified waterfall in the mountains, created by salt buildups over about a thousand years. About an hour away from Oaxaca, we were driven there by Ernesto of Alternative Tours, who handily was also our BnB owner’s son.
It was absolutely stunning – up there with the Dead Sea and Peguche Falls in the epic stakes. We got there quite early so it was pretty quiet. You can swim in the pools but we forgot our stuff so just had a paddle.
We then took a short fifteen minute hike to nearer the petrified waterfall. They haven’t done much to make it tourist-friendly – the paths are rough and there are no barriers separating you from a plunging fall over the rock edge to the forest below – which I thought was pretty great. A fittingly epic end to this brilliant trip!