As Day 1 unravels so do some of our plans, we always knew this was a bit of a convoluted journey schedule which would most likely be impacted badly if there were any complications. The weather driving to Heathrow deteriorates; temperatures hover around 3 degrees and the hard driving rain gets heavier, and our hearts sink a bit as the “delayed” notices start going up, sure enough our flight is one of them. Approaching Amsterdam, the pilot helpfully reads out all connecting flight details, those who have missed, and those who have to run to the next gate. We are, strangely, not on his list.
The reason, it transpires, is that our next flight, Amsterdam to Mexico City, is also delayed, due to a mechanical problem with the incoming flight, by about 2 hours, which leaves our next connection, in Mexico City, under real stress. As departure time in Amsterdam approaches, heavy snow starts to fall, necessitating de-icing of the plane before take off, and we are in the end 3 hours late as we finally depart.
Being served a full aeroplane dinner at 3am, and being woken up to eat it, is slightly surreal, but the flight is comfortable and the night passes relatively quickly. Around 90 minutes before landing we are given breakfast, comprising scrambled egg, tomato, hash brown and…..broccoli. With growing anxiety we watch the time race on, and we eventually touch down in Mexico City with only 45 minutes to spare until our flight to Oaxaca.
Because our third flight is domestic, we now have to go through immigration, the hall is rammed and the queues are massive. We ask, but there’s no way to bypass the immigration system. Then, we’re given hope as we are pulled out of the queue and fast tracked through a different kiosk, but then it’s on to the end of another queue, this time security, and all seems lost. Then we’re through, and the display signs for our flight say “Final Call”. We start running, one of the drivers of an electric transit truck spots us, piles us in and races us through the crowded terminal to the gate. He drops us at the top of the descent, we pelt as fast as we can run down the twisting ramps, arriving at gate breathless and anxious, and meet the smiles of the Aero Mexico lady.
“Your flight has gone”, she says calmly. So close, yet so far.
To their great credit, Aero Mexico sort us with the next flight kindly and efficiently, although it’s 5 hours later than the one we missed. And so we have time to kill in Mexico City airport, still in T shirts in an airport which seems hell bent on turning the AC to shiver level. The locals have coats. Mind you, early morning at this altitude (7300 feet) is pretty cold outside anyway. All we will lose is one morning in Oaxaca. It could have been worse…
Although Day 2 is an extension of Day 1 really. So Mexico City Airport presents us with dilemmas, the aircon regime really is ridiculous, they must have it set to the polar bear symbol and it’s too cold to sit still anywhere for more than a few minutes, especially with us in our T shirts amongst locals huddled in overcoats. And then there’s the food dilemma. Our body clocks have reached lunchtime yet it’s only 7am; the aeroplane breakfast is several hours ago but we need to adjust quickly to local time. Both issues are solved by a cafe away from the aircon, which serves a remarkably good Mexican breakfast and great coffee. Even the name of the breakfast is good: huevas divorcionadas, which translates as “divorced eggs”! So two breakfasts in one day. Ah, the joy of travel.
Thankfully the flight to Oaxaca is uneventful and, after all the changes and obstacles, we are very relieved to see our backpacks on the conveyor.
Our first impressions of Oaxaca city are pretty much wide eyed delight; as we trundle through its cobbled streets on the collectivo minibus, a wonderful city unfolds. Low rise ochre coloured buildings, tree lined streets, leafy squares, everything exactly as you would picture in a traditional provincial Mexican town. Cool bars and inviting restaurants pass by, sunshine kisses every old wall. It’s delightful. So is our one night stand hotel, Hostal de la Noria, a beautiful old town building with airy, spacious rooms. We can’t wait to explore this fabulous looking city.
And so we set off to explore, the cobbled street soon opens up into Zócalo, the main square in Oaxaca, and what a spectacular square. It is massive, surrounded by restaurants with colourful table cloths. Giant ancient trees offer relief from the heat of the sun. Zócalo is clearly the place to be and awakens all senses, the long journey to get here all but forgotten, the pictures we had seen of this place have now come to life before our eyes. Hawkers selling an array of goods, colourful scarves and other fabrics from beautiful to garish, trinkets of all sorts, huge bunches of balloons. Street venders offering an array of interesting snacks, tacos, coated corn, all sorts of sweet delights, fresh pineapple doused in chilli sauce, the aromas are wonderful. There is music everywhere, the whole place is alive. To one side of Zócalo is the Cathedral, it is colossal, majestically keeping watch over the hustle and bustle below. Our attention is drawn away from this wonderful site by the sound of loud percussion music, we are drawn to it and to our amusement realise we have encountered our first Mexican celebration. Adults and children adorned in brightly coloured national dress, the ladies carrying wooden bowls, equally as colourful, filled with assortments of sweets. The music loud and jolly, the procession wends its way through to Zócalo. We don’t know what the procession is for, we just know that there are a lot of them for children in the lead up to Christmas and we are lucky enough to see one within an hour of arriving in Oaxaca.
We take a seat at one of the brightly decorated tables, order a Victoria beer and become totally immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of Zócalo totally in awe of its vibrancy.
Eager to see what the evening brings in Oaxaca we have a quick change and head back out, not wanting to miss anything. We find the market, still bustling, stalls laden with unusual produce, ladies stretching out cow stomachs then layering them with chilli paste to make some tasty delicacy, tortillas being made by hand and of course bugs, bowls of them, crispy and coated in red stuff presumably chilli, this is a first for us. Mexico has more edible insects than anywhere else on Earth, and piles of them are here, at Oaxaca market. Bugs are on our culinary list for this holiday, we will definitely do it, but not tonight.
We head back to Zócalo passing numerous mezcal bars, Mezcal being a drink unique to the State of Oaxaca, apparently is like tequila, I am sure we will sample a few during our stay. The temperature drop after sundown takes us by surprise, the mountain air has a proper fresh chill after dark and we feel a little underdressed.
Tired now from our long journey, the jet lag and excitement of this city, we enjoy a meal of tortillas and other local delicacies, including the cow stomach in chilli, washed down with a very palatable Mexican wine before heading back for an early night and an early morning flight to Puerto Escondido. Oaxaca has us hooked, it is mesmerising and we are excited at the prospect of returning to spend a whole week here at the end of this trip.
Either we still haven’t adjusted body clocks or we are just over excited, but we are awake before the 4.50 alarm, and the next leg begins.
Boarding the tiny 12-seater propeller plane, too small to stand upright, and sitting right behind, and talking to, Ricardo the pilot, is all hugely exciting and a brilliant experience. The scenery below is breathtaking as we climb up over the city, over farmland and then right up over the forested mountain range, morning mist swirling in the valleys and between ridges, until the blue sea appears through the heat haze, huge stretches of golden sand lining the shore.
Ricardo smiles and chats throughout and you almost get the impression that he’s having as much fun flying it as we are as awestruck passengers. Thirty five minutes later we are collecting our bags and off to find our apartment, one big adventure already behind us and it’s only 8am. After dropping off our stuff in our delightful, and big, apartment, we set off on our first exploration of our new home town, and it’s so different from the cold mountain air of Oaxaca, the sun already properly hot so early in the day.
Puerto Escondido (in English, the “hidden port”), is a sprawling former coffee port wrapped around a huge sweeping bay, punctuated with coves and bays which means there are several different beaches of different character along the 3 mile stretch. According to guide books, the town splits in half either side of the main highway, the old town above and the beach and surfer town below; we have a whole two weeks here to explore it all. So our first sortie eventually takes us through the adoquin, the street where apparently everything happens at night, to Playa Principal at the west end of town, where for the second day of two we have an incredibly tasty Mexican breakfast: hot sauces, scrambled eggs with chilli, beans and tortillas, and wonderfully strong coffee. We didn’t know scrambled eggs could be this good!!
Wildlife spotting starts early; a giant iguana scurries across the scrub; colourful birds and butterflies abound; the air full of bird song, and, most spectacular of all, giant vultures circle majestically above, scouring the ground below for food.
The afternoon is spent on our nearest beach, Playa Carrizalillo, just a short walk and 160 steps down the bluff from our apartment. And so it’s lazing in the sun, dips in the Pacific, a cold beer (Victoria, it’s good), a green coconut, and generally unwinding from travel, and settling in to a chill vibe. One of the beaches here, Zicatella, is home to the Mexican Pipeline, those incredible tunnel shape waves so loved by the most daring and capable surfers. The impossibly pretty cove of Carrizalillo is by comparison very calm, yet even here the current is incredibly strong, and we have some childish fun sitting on the sand shelf and being pulled back and forth by the current. We act like kids and get the giggles. So does just about everyone else. You have to do it.
True enough, the adoquin changes character after dark, filled by a myriad of street stalls selling every form of tat, the air filled with Hispanic music, incessant chatter, and the smells of tacos cooking on the many street vendor trolleys. Dinner is a seafood restaurant, fresh grilled red snapper and octopus on a wooden veranda above the beach, the sounds of the crashing surf at Zicatella audible above the noise of the street. Both are served in atypical ways, sauces and accompaniments which you wouldn’t normally expect with seafood, our excitement about the food here is just growing. Even the free snacks handed out with beer are exciting: we’ve already been given peanuts in lime juice; pickled carrot slices with chilli; and roasted garlic.
So much to explore; and for once, we are here long enough to do it all. Feels good.
Puerto Escondido’s beaches are reputed to each have a character of their own, distinct from each other, so we aim to explore some of them today, though as it happens the day turns out to have a rather wonderful twist.
Breakfast tacos by Playa Principal starts our day; Principal is, as the name suggests, the main town beach, popular with sunbathers and swimmers despite also being home to the fishing fleet. It has two aspects as it contains a sweep around the corner of the bay. The sea here must be teeming with fish; the little outboard motor fishing boats don’t need to leave the bay for their catch; guys stand on the sand with only basic lines and reel fish in seemingly effortlessly; and on top of the this a huge flock of pelicans are resident here. They are heavy, ungainly birds, entirely built for feeding purposes, but great to watch as they join the fishing industry on Principal.
Around the curve of the bay, Playa Principal becomes Playa Zicatella, surfers’ paradise. The really spectacular tube surfing waves come in the summer months, but even so, today’s are pretty spectacular and the December surfers somersault, flip and ride the waves in spectacular style. When they finish, some of the pelicans glide across the wave tops, snapping fish from the top of the surf, almost as spectacular as the surfers. Swimming is banned on Zicatella, the currents are far too strong, but we have another play in the swirling waters, again it’s a lot of very childish fun!
With wonderful happenstance, today is a special day in Puerto Escondido, it’s the Fiesta de la Virgen de la Soledad, who is not only the Oaxaca state’s saint, but also the patron saint of fishermen, so doubly revered by the Oaxaca coastal people. As we return to Playa Principal, huge crowds are gathering, ready for the major fiesta, firecrackers crack, bands play, shotguns are fired, excited chatter everywhere. The procession, naturally, takes place on water, and we realise that the fishermen are bringing in every single boat to enable fiesta lovers to join the flotilla.
We have to give this a go, but the Latin character is clear in the scramble to join in. It starts as an orderly queue or three, but, as each boat nears the sand, the front dozen of each queue barge through the water and a chaotic scramble ensues, as masses of people slug it out waist deep in crashing waves, fighting for the ten or so places on each boat, bustling each other, the waves, the boat itself, the skipper of each frantically trying to restrict numbers on his boat. It’s hilarious to be part of it.
There doesn’t seem any way that two over polite English people are going to succeed here, but we reach the front and are now part of the scramble. Boats come and go; battles are fought and lost; then, suddenly, hilariously, Michaela is diving over the bows of a boat, landing in a heap among laughing locals, who drag Phil over the side and into our tiny boat. We are in!!!
Our boat speeds off to catch up with others, the swell is big, the surf splashes over us . Ahead of us 50 or more fishing boats full of excited people, gathered way out at sea surrounding the boat carrying the twenty-foot tall effigy of the virgin (“our princess of the sea”), another boat carrying the brass band. As we approach, the engine is cut and the masses of fishing boats are bobbing about in readiness, some decorated with balloons, others adorned with flowers. We are full of excitement and anticipation. The procession begins, and slowly the flotilla of colourful fishing boats set off, encircling the virgin as if to protect her and escort her safely back to the beach, all the while the brass band are playing celebratory music. It is such a magnificent spectacle and as we watch this event evolve we feel privileged to join the locals in this important fiesta. As we approach the shore hundreds of people line the beach awaiting the safe arrival of the flotilla, we jump off into the sea and join them. The Virgin is then carried and placed next to an altar, she stands tall and proud, her jewelled gown and crown glinting in the afternoon sun.
A convent choir begin to sing, it is beautiful, a priest arrives, clouds of incense fills the air, its time for outdoor Mass on the beach, and so we respectfully move away from their private celebration. What a wonderful, amazing experience.
Sitting and reflecting afterwards, with a welcome cold Victoria beer, we discuss just how often we seem to get lucky with these things. Travel is just so serendipitous. Later, a meal of fresh grilled fish stuffed with garlic – delicious- ends an amazing day. Great experience.
Hot weather at Christmas is going to be a novelty for both of us, we’ve never been out of England for the festive period before. There’s no way we’re going to turn our apartment into a corner of England, but we will need to do something in recognition of it.
So this morning we do one thing we always love to do, wherever we are, and visit the local market, foods and local craftware abound and although fascinating, probably not the most exciting market we’ve visited, in terms of new sights. We make notes of what we might need to buy if we self-cater at Christmas, and buy our one concession for the apartment, a poinsettia, which now regally fills the role of Christmas tree on the veranda.
Lunch is taken at a market comeda (food stall), before we try out two more beaches, Playa Manzanillo and Playa Angelita; it’s so true about the beaches being different, but we’ll give a full guide later.
And so to tonight’s food experience, to a specialist pozoleria, serving one of Oaxaca state’s peculiarities. Pozole is, in broad terms, a soup, but the large amount of solid food it contains, plus the accompaniments, make it a meal on its own. Kind of a soup-come-stew. The real peculiarity is in the consumption, as the pozole is served without spices, but is accompanied by chillis, both fresh and dried, raw onion, limes and ground coriander, and you add these extras to your own dish until you’ve made it hot enough for your own palate. Inevitably, we overdid the extras, meaning that the last few mouthfuls were fire water. It’s a fun meal to eat, though.
Yet another beautiful sunny morning here, its hot already at 08:00, a far cry from the winter weather back home in England. As we sip our coffee on the balcony and discuss the day ahead, we watch the gardener climb the palm tree to cut down the crop of coconuts, just a few feet away.
Nothing planned today other than to chill out and arrange a boat trip, we head down to Manzanilla beach for breakfast and mention it to the guys at the palapa, and five minutes later Carlos appears and says “you want a boat trip eh?” He is one of very few people who we have met who can speak any English. The deal done we will now meet Carlos at 06:50 tomorrow with his boat called Tequila in search of whales, dolphins & turtles.
It’s almost impossible to say how much fun it is mucking about in the waves at the far end of Playa Principal, just around the point where Principal becomes Zicatella. The currents at Zicatella are too strong for swimming, and Principal is popular and gentle. So, just at the cusp of the two, the pounding waves are powerhouses, the currents a constant battle, but just enough to be able to go in and throw yourself about. And be thrown about. Once again we are in a second childhood, bashed around by the waves and thrown around; now and then the petite Michaela is simply bashed aside by the surf, then she catches one wave right, and her little blonde head pinpricks the mass of white surf as she is carried ashore at breakneck speed. We laugh maybe just too much. It’s exhausting. It would be exhausting for youngsters, and we’re not youngsters. But we are certainly young at heart, and this is so much fun.
Fish tacos. Pescadillos. Whatever you call them, they are fantastic, and we have more for our beach shack lunch. Pescadillos rock!
Christmas is clearly approaching now, and the fiestas are gathering pace, the beat on the street is intensifying, the mood is lifting, the spirit rising. On the adoquin tonight, first an incredible dance troupe, so vibrant, so intense, dancers in traditional tribal costume with elaborate headdresses, pulsating rhythmic movement to a throbbing drumbeat, a spectacular show somewhere between tribal aggression and a Matthew Bourne production. It is truly electrifying and uplifting. Next, the wind instrument band from Tuesday’s flotilla, blasting out fast paced music, ladies in traditional dress dancing in the street. The town is alive with fiesta fever. There is a magic in this place. There is magic here.
Dinner is back at Junta da Mar, perhaps becoming our favourite restaurant so far. Great food, great wine, great staff, looking across to the lights of Zicatella the other side of the roaring Pacific. We say it again. There is magic here.
And so we set our alarm for that early start. There’s humpback whales out there, we’re told…..
And so we’re up before dawn, walking down to Playa Manzanillo to meet our boat, soon to be greeted by a magnificent orange sunrise as we wait on the sand. It’s sunrise, and our boat is called Tequila. Insert your own joke here.
Very quickly we get lucky and pass a pod of dolphins curving in and out of the water in that unmistakable style. Carlos then gives us the drill: we have to scour the sea for the elusive water spout which will direct us towards a whale.
We know that many such sorties are not successful and sometimes, of course, this is because rogue operators don’t take you anywhere near the correct location. But our luck continues: Carlos yelps in delight and points, his colleague hits the throttle and we bounce across the waves. For a considerable length of time, we journey alongside a humpback whale, surfacing roughly every eight minutes and giving a wonderful display, crashing its tail back into the water after each surge. Fabulous sight. We go on to see bottlenose dolphins and huge turtles in large numbers and the whole trip is extremely worthwhile and good value at 500 pesos each.
After today’s early start we spend the afternoon on Playa Carrizalillo and the evening around the adoquin. Carrizalillo is without doubt the most picturesque of the beaches, nestled in a gorgeous cove, and not too busy probably due to the steep steps down to it. The adoquin is living up to its reputation and seems to be enlivening during our time here, it’s fun to take a beer at a pavement table and just watch the action.
Well there isn’t much to put into the journal on a lazy day. And all today brings is a quick visit to the Catholic Church, very attractive inside with its Christmas decorations, plus the Virgen de la Soledad, back from her exploits in the flotilla, a bit of stocking up on food in case nothing is open at Christmas, and then a lazy afternoon on Playa Manzanillo. Mexico does this to you. There’s always manana……
So instead of a journal, read our blog posts on the home page; there’s two dated 22/12..
Close to our nearest beach at Carrizalillo and walking distance from our apartment is the small neighbourhood of Rinconada, with its own community of shops and restaurants. Several are appealing, and last night we chose El Nene, where the food turned out to be so good that we reserved the last remaining table for Christmas Eve. Exceptional food and a lovely palm tree garden location.
So after a lazy day yesterday we are back to an early start today for a bird watching tour of a nearby lagoon, Laguna Manialtepec, so it’s still dark as we meet our guide for the morning, Michael Malone, an Ontario based ornithologist who spends four months a year conducting wildlife tours from Puerto Escondido. Michael proves to be an outstandingly good guide, informative and knowledgeable, and the trip on the lagoon and into the Manialtepec River which feeds it, in a narrow boat with gentle outboard motor, is a splendid experience. We lose count of the numbers of exotic birds spotted, but they include several species of heron, three types of kingfisher, birds of prey and a majestic osprey. Amongst the many fascinating facts imparted by Michael, we learn that the vultures we see every day – they are turkey vultures and black vultures- have slowly migrated south and were not originally native, in fact they moved south as the coastal highway was constructed, because a main road means dead animals which, to a vulture, means dinner.
The Oaxaca state has a monsoon climate, bringing approximately six dry, and six wet, months each year, with heavy rainfall during the humid summer months. During the dry season, like now, barrier beaches form, but the rivers continue to flow down from the lush mountain hinterland, and, with the barrier beaches in place, the water level in the lagoon rises, and floods into the adjoining lowlands. The result is an extensive mangrove forest, these unique trees with their odd looking air roots forming a dense curtain around the lagoon. Mangrove trees can only survive in salt water though, so the rainy season is essential for their survival. As the heavy rains come, so the rivers swell and gain pace, more and more water swelling the lagoon until eventually the barrier beaches are breached, and the lagoon and the ocean once again connect and become one. Salt levels increase, the mangroves are fed, and lagoon life perpetuates. The ironic fact is that once the barrier beaches are gone, the water level drops, meaning that, eventually, water levels in the lagoon are actually lower in the rainy season than they are in the dry. All properly fascinating, and a sequence of events which gives rise to this area’s amazingly diverse wildlife.
The predicted temperatures before we travelled out here were around 28-30, but it seems to be increasing daily and, though we don’t know the accurate truth, it has felt hotter than that today. So another beach afternoon is inevitable after the lagoon, and we spend another happy couple of hours back at Playa Carrizalillo, which, as we’ve already said, is undoubtedly the most attractive of the beaches here.
Today, Day 9, is December 23rd, and the holiday season is upon us, beach numbers are increasing. We’ve been told a number of times that Boxing Day is when huge numbers hit the beach, so we may be in for an interesting few days. We have, however, now established that there will be plenty of restaurants open over Christmas, so self catering on Christmas Day is becoming much less likely.
Bare Throated Tiger Heron
Day 10 – Christmas Eve
Our foodie expectations here are being surpassed by reality; there really are some terrific surprises, the Oaxaca state’s reputation is for having a different twist on Mexican cuisine, but here on the coast there is a double influence with both that Oaxacan twist and the abundance of fresh fish and seafood.
Last night we hit the Zicatella strip, the end of town for surfers and hipsters, the street by the beach is a long strip of beach bars, restaurants and hotels, giving a feel and an atmosphere completely different from the rest of Puerto Escondido. It’s lively but much more laid back and cool, more of a chilled holiday feel than the Latin feel elsewhere in town. Cocktail bars abound, we enjoy one very cool beach cocktail bar before some outrageous food at Cayuco restaurant, including tuna in cocoa sauce, and tuna baked in foil like kleftiko. Borderline madness!
Today we return to the stretch of beach between Principal and Zicatella, which is known as Playa Marineros (Sailors’ Beach), where being bashed by the waves is again enormous fun, talk about bringing out the child in us! On the way, we detour to walk a different stretch of seafront, where a crumbling path around the rocks takes you to below the lighthouse, providing great seascape views along the way.
Back to foodie stuff. The food here is high quality and hugely tasty even in the beach cafes and, in fact, particularly at Zicatella, there is little distinction between beach cafes and quality restaurants. Lunch today is at one of these, and consists of pescadillos (fish tacos) and quesadillas (tortilla wraps containing fresh succulent shrimps, melted cheese and tomato), simply delicious. Not so delicious, in fact impossible to drink, is a weird local favourite, michelada, which is beer mixed with tomato juice, juiced celery, chilli, lime and salt. We give it a go, but it’s little more than a waste of a good beer!
And tonight is back to El Nene at Rinconada, for some incredibly fresh tuna, caught this afternoon and on our plate tonight, lightly seared and incredibly tender. Yet another amazing meal. This is an exciting foodie trip.
Day 11 – Christmas Day
We awake early to our first Christmas away from home, no cold crisp winters day, no damp drizzly English weather, instead a pink glow and palm trees silhouetted against the early morning pale blue sky, the call of tropical birds and the promise of yet another hot sunny day.
As we eat breakfast, the last remaining high cloud drifts away, the deep blue sky now uninterrupted, a squirrel visits us on our balcony and a hummingbird flits amongst the fronds of an overhanging palm, this is a beautiful start to a very different Christmas. True to form there has been an influx of local families gravitating to the beaches; yet somehow, unlike some other places, the increased numbers simply adds to the pageant and the gaiety, as Puerto ramps up the volume, and the spirit, another couple of notches. The people here are as colourful in character as they are with their choice of clothing, and just being amongst and part of this atmosphere is a joy.
Dinner tonight brings more wonderful fresh fish, but also for Phil the first red meat since Oaxaca city, down on the Zicatella strip again. Cocktails for £3 anyone??
Sunset over Zicatela
Day 12 – Boxing Day
Forgot to mention something yesterday. Forgot to mention that we’ve now eaten another speciality of this area, a dish known as ceviche. Ceviche is a dish emanating from this Pacific coast of Latin America, and is in fact Peru’s national dish. It’s a raw fish dish, in which the fish has, as an alternative to cooking, been marinated in citrus – and the Oaxacan version uses lime juice. It’s delicious, the lime juice tenderises the fish beautifully, and gives it a vibrant and fresh flavour which is a real delight.
We are very aware that food is taking over this particular blog, but it is after all wonderful here: and we are, after all, the hungry travellers. Today we finally made it to La Juquilena, after a false start the other night. La Juquilena enjoys a reputation for the best local food; it’s in the old town, near the market, and it’s where the locals eat. After receiving one recommendation, we asked our cleaner, Flora, to make a recommendation for true local food, and she also suggested here, meaning that it acquired must-do status. The false start came when we asked a taxi driver to take us there a few nights ago, only to find it closes at 5pm daily, so today we finally make it, and it’s well worth the wait, sharing the long tables with locals, watching the frantically busy kitchen staff, and eating tacos and tlayudas amongst the heat and the noise is right up our street. Tlayudas are yet another local specialty, large circular crispy tacos (by large, we mean as big as pizzas), topped with all the local non-seafood favourites, chorizo, chicken, cheese, smoked beef, refried beans, plus radish and avocado. And again, you add the mole yourself until you’ve made it piquant enough for your own taste.
Beach visits bookend lunch; it’s back downtown tonight. After today we have three more days here before we move back to Oaxaca city. We will be sad to leave, but equally will be looking forward to the next stage of this trip. Puerto Escondido has virtually everything, we are loving our time here.
Best restaurant in town
Two essential elements of life in Puerto Escondido are undergoing change at the moment, with new versions of both the cathedral and the market under construction. The old traditional Catholic cathedral is a modest church nestled amongst hillside buildings and, unusually, takes a bit of finding, tucked behind a hotel up winding leafy steps. A much more grand version is appearing on open land off the highway, currently looking very impressive but as yet only a giant shell. You get the impression that construction is slow progress.
The new market building is similarly taking shape down towards Zicatella, although the old market also appears to be being modernised step by step, so it’s not clear whether the move will be total. We return to the old market this morning, it’s much more vibrant today than our first visit, most likely because we’re here earlier in the day. Taking breakfast in the rammed comedas is brilliant (and delicious again!). How good it feels to see waiting staff dashing everywhere, simply because they have to run to the relevant market stall to go fetch what you’ve just ordered. There’s no ageing stocks here; everything grabbed, and cooked, to order. Brilliant!
This afternoon we head out to a new beach, Playa Bacocho, an amazing stretch of beautiful sand set against a palm tree backdrop. It’s another beach with powerful current as huge waves well up over the steep shelf and crash ashore; both the surge and the backwash are incredibly strong and we have to have our wits about us just to play a while. But we are at Bacocho for a specific reason…
The highlight of today is our visit to the turtle project Vive Mar. They work tirelessly through the night on this 27 km stretch of beach protecting these endangered creatures from poachers and natural predators. As the turtles come ashore and lay their eggs, the team collect these eggs and take them to the safety of an enclosure, bury them in the sand to incubate under a conical cover. Consequently hundreds of baby turtles hatch every day.
Today we are here to help these tiny turtles take to the sea safely. As we arrive we see a nest which has just hatched, masses of tiny tiny turtles emerging from the sand, some just shaking off the remainder of their shell, this will be the batch to be released tonight and ours are somewhere amongst this scramble of little creatures. We pay our donation and receive half a coconut shell each, the sun begins to set and our excitement builds as it’s now time to receive our own turtle. They are so tiny, and for a few minutes they are encased in the safety of our coconut shell, we name them….Ike & Tina Turtle!!!
We gently tip them into the sand, they seem dazed to begin with and then they lift their heads as if they suddenly sense the sea is near by and using their flipper like legs start to scurry towards the waves. Seagulls swoop down, the turtles easy pickings for a tasty meal, we must not interfere with nature but everyone is shouting at each seagull that approaches and children are allowed to throw sand at the gulls to deter them.
It’s quite a spectacle, hundreds of these little creatures heading towards the sea, some going the wrong way heading back up the beach, it’s exciting and tense as you cheer yours on, how do they know what to do? These one-hour old hatchlings heading off to the Pacific Ocean, they look so tiny and vulnerable as they make their way to the crashing surf. A big wave comes and Ike and Tina vanish, washed away into their natural habitat, we shout adios as they disappear into the sunset. They made it to the ocean, survived the first two hours of their life but face so many dangers on their long voyage, and for the lucky ones, they will return here one day to lay their own eggs.
Life begins as the day ends
In keeping with everything we’ve been told over the last few days, the Mexican holiday period has brought hordes to the beaches and it feels as if the population of the town has doubled overnight. Watching the pageant unfold is extremely amusing though, as the families seem to bring enough with them to set up temporary homes on the sand: there’s furniture, tables and chairs, parasols, cool boxes, crates of beer, picnic hampers, even giant speakers to blast out their own music at night club decibel level. It’s as if a new township settlement has hit the beaches: in fact, we learn later that a whole village will charter a bus or two and come en masse to a beach, so the township analogy isn’t far off the mark.
Yet another restaurant discovery last night as we try out the rather non-Mexican sounding Danny’s Terrace and have yet another glorious meal looking out towards the Pacific; a giant whole red snapper for Michaela, and for Phil a beef dish with accompaniments of baked banana, chocolate mole with sour cream, refried beans and pepper salsa. Amazing!
Our Friday (Day 14) night has a special dinner appointment though. Amongst our neighbours at the apartment is a couple from Victoria, BC, Canada, named Wayne and Adriana, who have invited us for dinner tonight, and it promises to be special, as Adriana is not only Mexican but a professional chef. And so we spend a hugely pleasant evening chatting on the balcony, drinking beer, wine, Mexican brandy and a distilled pineapple drink, and eating the most wonderful and authentic meal. Just when we thought this foodie holiday experience could not get any better, the bar raises even higher. Accompanying the first beers are a local delicacy: edible ants, and a mole made from those same ants. Ceviche, beef, shrimps in mango salsa, it’s all incredibly tasty.
Not for the first time on our travels, we’ve struck lucky with people we meet.
And so to our last day in Puerto Escondido before we return to Oaxaca city. We will be sorry to leave this wonderful place, but at the same time stimulated by the thought of a week in that great city which we had a taster of almost two weeks ago. Once we are retired and travelling the world, that will be one of the most exciting emotions; the sadness of moving on mixed with the excitement of enjoying somewhere new. This move is a forerunner.
So today is filled with those “one last time” moments; huevas Mexican for breakfast by the beach; a last mad play in the crashing waves at Playa Marinero; lunch and goodbye hugs with our friends at another beachside restaurant; and a final visit to the beautiful cove at Playa Carrizalillo, coupled with a last swim in the Pacific. Hummingbirds flutter and grackens call; squirrels dash along the power cable and lizards scour the walls; the vultures circle above, the deep blue sky pales and for the very last time we watch the sun drop down below the palm trees, once again painting the western sky a deep orange. We have loved this place.
Our time here closes with a beer and cocktail at our favourite Adoquin people watching spot, and dinner back at Junto da Mar. And so we move to a completely different phase of the trip.
Sunset from Carrizalillo
Ricardo flies us safely back to Oaxaca, second time on the little plane is no less exciting than the first. It’s 2 weeks since we first set eyes on Oaxaca city, tired after out 30 hour journey but that one afternoon and evening captivated us and now we are excited to be back to explore.
We walk through the cobbled streets and Zócalo opens up in front of us, as big and vibrant as before, loud and bustling, brightly coloured artesan stalls, hawkers, food carts, selling anything you can imagine. Music from a brass band echos around the square. Busy restaurants, people milling about, others sitting under the shade of the giant trees, all being overlooked by the majestic cathedral.
We leave the square and wander aimlessly, absorbing the atmosphere, the noise leading us around the attractive streets and past majestic churches and a huge basilica to what turns out to be the most unbelievable food market, the Mercado 20 de Noviembre. As we enter the narrow alleyway, we can hardly move it is so packed, either side has a meat stall and all has their own barbecue, meat sizzling the smell mouth watering, we can hardly see the other end for smoke, it is utter bedlam, we will definitely return here to join in this eating frenzy. We edge our way through this chaos and into the main food hall, not quite as chaotic but equally as interesting and the food looks fantastic, the sheer size of the comeda area and the numbers eating and drinking is a sight to behold.
Exhausted already we head back to the tranquillity of our beautiful hotel, a traditional old building, a peaceful haven amidst the madness of this city.
Back to Zócalo for the evening and the noise has increased tenfold. So it seems has the amount of hawkers. The lights in the trees add to the atmosphere, giant balloons are being thrown around, music is everywhere, we take a seat and watch the night’s events unfold over a beer, Zócalo is definitely the place to be. A new band starts, loud happy music, everyone is dancing, these people have such rhythm. We move to a table upstairs on a balcony and as we eat some delicious local dishes we are unable to take our eyes off the spectacle below, it is like no other place we have visited. Totally absorbed by the atmosphere we head back down to join the masses and dance the night away. This town knows how to party, its people know how to party, and it’s not even New Years Eve yet!
Only in Jemaa El-Fnaa in Marrakech have we seen anything approaching this level of manic activity, and food stalls, yet here, Oaxaca adds to the mix, both alcohol and fiesta fever. The colour, the noise, the, well, life of this place, is incredible.
So we’ve added to our tour of Oaxacan specialities now by eating “tamales Oaxaquena”, meat in a deeply rich mole wrapped inside polenta and cooked in a banana leaf; there are more to go yet, including the famous chapulines, the edible grasshoppers which we are looking forward to trying.
Over the last two weeks, temperatures at the coast rose steadily and according to Adriana passed 35 towards the end of our stay, higher than we had expected. Now in the mountain city of Oaxaca, we are more than 5,000 feet higher, and you can tell. The days are still hot, but after sundown the temperatures drop and the fresh mountain air breezes through the town, and it’s just a little uncomfortable sitting down to eat. In fact, the locals’ dress ranges from fleeces to overcoats and our single layers are insufficient, meaning it’s time to follow their lead and buy extra layers from the market, so our evenings now see us proudly sporting our new “bajas”, alternately known as “drug rugs” (don’t ask).
Fiesta fever bubbles under all day as we explore this delightful city further, taking in its impressive churches, dynamic markets, endless artesan craft stalls and of course its beautiful squares. From almost anywhere, look up the streets and the backdrop is the mountain range towering above; the straight lines of the tree lined streets bordered by mostly single or double storey buildings in an array of ochre shades. The colours and shapes of these buildings, set against the uninterrupted deep blue of the sky and decorated with vivid cascading bougainvillea, make this a delightfully attractive place
We set off for New Years Eve in Oaxaca city, not knowing what to expect but with our experience here so far we are sure it will be one big fiesta. Zócalo is busy as usual, a band on the stage finishes so we assume the main event will now set up, we find a table, sip cocktails and drink beer ready for the evening to unfold but to our surprise the evening doesn’t evolve as expected. We stroll around Zócalo, kids everywhere throwing firecrackers at the floor fireworks being thrown against the Cathedral wall, the sound deafening at times. People spraying foam at each other, smashing cooked painted eggs on each others heads, all a bit like a good humoured riot. It’s getting late now and it is clear there will not be a main event on the stage tonight. It really is a kind of disjointed chaos and leaves us wondering what it is all about. Each restaurant has live music playing for its diners, a jumble of sound fills the square. We gravitate to the loudest one, yes, this is the place to be, dancing amongst these happy people. The countdown begins, everyone cheers, Happy New Year! People hug and a tiny local old lady hugs us and whispers “Feliz Ano Nuevo” with a big warm smile on her weathered old face. And so the party continues, we wave long thin balloons in the air as the dancing and singing continues and the sound of fireworks echo around the city. This is one unusual New Years Eve and although the party atmosphere is fun, the whole event appears a bit of a shadow of the previous nights and its disjointed character is to some degree a surprising anti-climax.
Happy New Year
So often when travelling, it’s the people that make the difference, no matter what type of establishment you are in, and today is one of those days that brings this home. New Years Day dawns and we’re on the move today, out of Hostel de le Noria and across the city to our next base, Hotel Cazomalli, so different in so many ways. Hostel de la Noria is a gorgeous building and our room was delightful, but the staff there must be the only people in Mexico who don’t know how to smile, they are surly to say the least. Contrast that with our arrival at Cazomalli, a small family pension rather than hotel, in a quiet picturesque area away from the bustle of the city centre, where the family, and owners Francesco and Marina in particular, welcome us into their home like long lost friends and make us feel immediately welcome. This is, well, us.
This barrio is almost like being in a different city from the area around the Zócalo, narrow cobbled streets and colourful single storey dwellings adorned with both trailing bougainvillea and Christmas lights, tranquil but not dead, and so very Mexican. All through this trip, even on the coast, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the very small amount of English spoken, and in this corner of town, it’s even more pronounced. To our delight, small eateries are hidden everywhere, the food odours utterly tantalising as you wander around these quaint streets with their busy churches and lively cafes. We think it is unlikely that, from tomorrow, we will eat around the Zócalo again: there’s too much to explore in our new neighbourhood.
However, after settling in to our new home and exploring new areas of Oaxaca, we gravitate back to the Zócalo simply because one of the restaurants here has the best draught beer we’ve found in Mexico so far. And so we quaff a couple of jugs in the sun (much to the disbelief of the waiters who spend half their day shuffling tables out of the sun and into the shade), and take our first helping of chapulines, the edible grasshoppers so loved by the locals here. We had absolutely no idea grasshoppers would be so tasty; they are simply delicious and we will need to eat more before this trip is over!
Tonight though, the foodie exploration of our new neighbourhood starts in earnest, and we take a delicious light evening meal in a tiny corner cafe where the guests are just us two, plus two enormous Mexican family groups. This feels really good, no English either on the menu or with the staff, but we’ve learnt enough “menu Spanish” to succeed. Our new home has a roof terrace from which the views across Oaxaca and the surrounding mountains are terrific; we end our day admiring the night view and breathing the cool fresh mountain air, feeling good about this final leg of this amazing trip.
View from our roof terrace
Today we will head out of town to the mountains, but first we go in search of breakfast in our new neighbourhood. These quiet cobbled streets, and one storey colourful houses just add to the chilled vibe here. Few tourists venture up here, perfect for us, great loss to them. Yesterday seemed near deserted but today its business as usual and shuttered doors are being opened to reveal the occasional tiny shop and rustic cafes serving the locals with their morning coffee, this is a far cry from the crowded Zócalo and we love it.
We hail a cab and head out of Oaxaca and just 6km later arrive at Monte Alban, a Zapotec archaeological site, UNESCO heritage site high up in mountains overlooking the valley below and more mountains beyond. This site is just amazing, everything on a giant scale. The Grand Plaza 300 x 180 meters and the buildings surrounding it are just colossal. We are in awe of the sheer size of this place and the history of its origin. The sun is beating down, the vegetation so dry, the aroma of herbs fills the air, giant butterflies flit about as we climb the huge uneven ancient steps to the top of both the north and south platforms to give a birds eye view of the whole site and its surrounds, the vista is stunning.
Between us we’ve visited some of the World’s most remarkable ancient sites, and Monte Alban bears comparison with some of the very best. This mountain top remnant of an ancient city is wonderful, having been the home of the Zapotec people way before the Spanish came and conquered. In that prehispanic period, the Zapotecs were the most prevalent of 16 different tribes in the valley of Oaxaca, and Monte Alban was their statement of power; an enormous city constructed over a 300-year duration and placing the tribe at the highest point in the mountains, and, therefore, closest to the Gods. Rather wonderfully, and slightly incredibly, all 16 tribes survive to this day, each retaining their own dialect and customs, all still residing in Oaxaca and the surrounding valleys. And, equally remarkably, the Zapotecs are still the most populous of the sixteen tribes, some 2,000 years on. Wandering around this dusty relic of that ancient city, you can’t help but be in awe of those ancient civilisations.
The descent back to Oaxaca at 5000 feet, from Monte Alban at around 7000 feet, is via a rickety old bus through some poorer suburbs, the plethora of tuk-tuks making it look more like Asia than Mexico. On our brief visit at the start of this journey over two weeks ago, we spotted a very cool bar near Santo Domingo, so we retrace our steps to find lunch today, and boy were our instincts right; once again we delve deep into the local cuisine and enjoy grasshoppers with grilled cactus, beetle mole, and a glass of mezcal. The language barrier and the huge mezcal selection were overcome by a Mexican customer with translation skills who made his mezcal recommendations and conveyed them to the lady owner. Great fun. And so many things we’ve never eaten before; cactus is just the latest addition to the list.
Our new hotel is in the neighbourhood of Jalatlaco, where again tonight, for the second night in succession, the church congregation is overflowing the building, and the singing of the hymns is beautiful. Our destination local restaurant tonight turns out to be closed, so we take dinner on a rooftop right next to our hotel, with great food (again!) and great views across the city to the lights of the villages scaling the foothills. It’s extremely relaxing, and tonight is just a little warmer, the mountain air losing a little of its chill.
In terms of governance, poverty, socio-economic issues and corruption at the top, Mexico remains a volatile country with a widespread mistrust of authority. Within that context, Oaxaca is the second poorest state in Mexico and wages in the region are painfully low, even in professions such as teaching and the police. Unrest manifests within Oaxaca city in the form of amazing street art, brilliant art carrying socio-political messages via a large number of tremendously impressive murals.
Today is a day spent around the city, absorbing more of its colourful sights and character and discovering more and more hidden gems. We try the hot chocolate drink so loved here; we spend time inside both our local church, Santo Mattheu Jalatlaco, and the wonderfully decorated Santo Domingo; we buy stuff to decorate our own home – though frankly you could buy a million of the artesan indigenous creations here. Unique to Oaxaca are the alebrijes, brightly painted small wooden animals which are a pride of the city and its people, and are for sale by the thousand throughout. They are so much part of the culture here that even the city’s football team is called Alebrijes de Oaxaca.
We’re losing count of great eateries. Suffice to say we’ve added El Tipico to our list. Just two days left here now; we have a plan.
Another hidden corner
To get out to the villages and valleys surrounding Oaxaca by using public transport, you have basically four options, which are as follows, in descending order of cost:
Private taxi – a taxi the same you would know it anywhere else in the world.
Collectivo taxi – basically a taxi you share with other passengers travelling to roughly the same destination. Will take you to your door.
Collectivo bus – minibuses operating like a collectivo taxi, no timetable, they just leave when they’re full. May go to your exact destination but more often than not will drop you “somewhere close”.
Bus – very regular and surprisingly comfortable, if you can get a seat as they do get rammed. A bit slow as they stop regularly, but extremely cheap.
We use two of these today for our excursion to the delightful town of Ocotlan, some 35 kilometres from Oaxaca and in a valley high up in the mountains. The journey out, by collectivo taxi, is hilarious simply for the bodies the driver fits in to his beaten up old Nissan, Phil in the back with two burly Mexican guys, Michaela sharing the front passenger seat with a little old lady, so she is pretty much suspended between the two front seats. Our return is on the service bus, crammed with people, most of them loaded with their purchases of market produce, standing passengers cramming the aisle, and costs 25 pesos each (that’s about £1).
Ocotlan has its market day on Fridays so we’ve chosen the best day to visit. It’s also a town which has benefited from the fame of a local lad made good: the late artist Rudolfo Morales used his wealth and fame to set up a foundation to benefit his home town, and the cathedral, churches and other buildings have been tastefully renovated from this legacy. The Santo Domingo cathedral has a stunning exterior which presents a wonderful first impression. But we venture first into the market, and oh wow, what a market. It fills the streets and stretches for what seems miles, and shaded by colourful tarpaulins, row after row of stalls, charcoal grills, crafted displays and riots of colour.
We’ve visited a large number of markets on our travels, it’s one of our things, but Ocotlan is one of the most colourful, vibrant and busy markets we’ve ever seen. There are so many people here! Since arriving in Mexico we’ve seen, in markets and occasionally in the streets, a gruesome looking drink, stirred in great vats by the vendors, with an ugly sediment floating on the surface. They ladle it into cups or bowls, sediment and all, for the buyer to drink. Well, we’ve come to realise that the Mexican cuisine simply doesn’t do anything other than tasty, so we give it a go. It’s tejate, a delicious and sweet drink made from cocoa and maize. Wish we’d tried it earlier!
The church interior is as spectacular as the outside, the streets of this busy little town are full of life and colour. We take a beer in a bar straight out of a spaghetti western, saloon doors, long bar and drinkers with cowboy hats and all, where the arrival of a petite blonde causes much amusement and we are plied with free mezcal just so the punters can watch Michaela grimace at the taste! Lunch, inevitably, is from a market stall, madly tasty tacos and a deep purple juice.
Phil is acquiring the acquired taste when it comes to mezcal; Michaela’s not going to get there.
Anyone for chicken
Our time is nearly up and sadly this fabulous trip is almost over, today is our last full day here as the long trek back to England starts tomorrow afternoon, retracing the journey out, so Oaxaca-Mexico City-Amsterdam-Heathrow. We are inching closer now to our dream of finishing work and travelling long term; this trip has all but turned that dream into reality and the appetite and desire to make those dreams come true is ever stronger. Ordinary life will be hard, after a trip like this.
With the exception of one remaining food experience, today is simply about revisiting favourite spots and soaking up one last day of sunshine; so breakfast is grasshopper omelette, and our final tour is carefully organised to maximise sunshine, even down to once again playing the “mad dogs and Englishmen” role by drinking beer at a table in the bright sun while all others seek shade. This is at El Importador, home of what is undoubtedly the best draught beer we’ve found.
When we first arrived in Oaxaca almost 3 weeks ago, we stumbled across Mercado 20 de Noviembre, the food market and in particular one small section known as Pasillo de Carnes Asadas (Grilled Meat Passage); we knew that we had to return here and eat with the locals and so is the destination for today’s lunch. As we enter this one alleyway within the market and leading to the food hall the smell is delicious, the smoke so intense it stings our eyes, crowds of people are milling around, the noise is deafening. Butchers line each side displaying racks of chorizo, thinly pressed beef and pork some smeared with chilli, next to each butcher is a griddle over coals, women frantically fan the coals and throw meat and cactus onto the griddle, huge onions are scorching directly on the coals. We stare at this crazy spectacle and as we are wondering how to order or even what to order we are ushered to a small table and order for two, not sure what will come. A hawker carrying a huge tray with plates of accompaniments stops by, we choose a couple, she asks for money, and suddenly we understand, the side dishes are sold separately by another street hawker, so you pay the butcher for the meat, a passing hawker for the side dishes, and a third person for any tortillas. Our basket of meat arrives, we eagerly tuck in, this meat is so tender and simply delicious; all three meats fresh from the raging coals nearby.
Eating this unique and delicious food, in the smoke, the heat, the noise, the atmosphere, chattering locals all around us at the shared, and crammed, tables, is just brilliant, and fitting last day event for the “hungry travellers”.
And then it’s all about closure. Catch a bit more sunshine, out for our Saturday night, we actually take our last evening meal on a balcony above the Zocalo, watching the action and listening to the music, before cocktails (2 cocktails each, total bill under £10) end our last night.
Pasillo de Carnes asada
Pasillo de Carnes asada
The early morning sunshine is warm, the mountain air here, chilly early and late in the day, has noticeably warmed in the short time we’ve been in town. Our final breakfast is back at our favourite morning eatery, El Biche Pobre, in our neighbourhood Jalatlaco, and it’s delicious again; huevas Mexicana for one, huevas divorcionadas for the other. There’s little to do in the short time left other than hit the hotel roof and grab the last warm sunshine that we will feel for a good three months.
Somehow our farewell with our hosts Francisco and Marina sums up our time here, and how we have felt about the people of both Oaxaca and Puerto Escondido. Our leaving is an event, we hug and part as friends, and they stand on their doorstep waving, right up until the point we disappear around the street corner. As if leaving here wasn’t hard enough already…!
Twenty three days in and we don’t think there’s been a moment we haven’t enjoyed. It’s goodbye to this wonderful corner of the world, though it’s hard to believe we won’t be back.
And then there was the food. Did we mention how good the food was??