The year wasn’t without its complications and we had some disruption to travel plans, but managed to rescue the year pretty well in the circumstances. We suffered two bereavements during the year; in June Phil’s Dad died, then at the end of November, Michaela’s Nan passed away. Both of them had helped shape our love of travel: see Michaela’s story and Phil’s story.
Despite these sad losses causing one cancellation, and one delay, of holidays, it was still a pretty spectacular year, and one which has further fuelled our appetite for retiring, giving up the day job, loading the backpacks and going off to see the world. It’s going to happen, soon.
England wise, we had stays in Thame, Oxfordshire: a terrific little town with a great selection of pubs, but a weekend spoilt by the incessant rain; two walking weekends in Phil’s Derbyshire homeland; two weekends in Padstow, and visits to London and Birmingham. Padstow is a place very close to our heart, and one we are very familiar with.
March saw a terrific break in La Palma in the Canary Islands, in a terrific little place called Puerto Tazacorte. This was a backpacking trip, something we always love, nothing booked but the flights. Puglia was booked for June but was the trip which suffered cancellation, though we have now resurrected the plan for 2019.
Next up then was a fabulous trip to Asia, taking in Kuala Lumpur, Jungle trekking in Malaysia, the paradise island of Tioman, and the thrilling experience of seeing Singapore for the first time. All of it was brilliant, but Singapore in particular is unfinished business.
Our only foreign city break this year was Geneva, in November.
We finished the year in Mexico, partly in Oaxaca and partly in Puerto Escondido, both truly wonderful destinations in their own right, but with a foodie experience well worthy of the title of our blog! Mexico overlapped into 2019, so we’re up and running.
So what’s in store in 2019 now? Well, there’s a Budapest weekend; a 10-day trip to Jordan, and the resurrected Puglia trip already on the calendar, but there’ll be plenty more, plus, all things being equal, this might just be our last year at work before that travelling dream becomes reality.
Well, it’s over. Our journey home, unlike the outward voyage, was uneventful and so we’re home from what has been one of our very best travel experiences so far, and that’s saying something. There were a lot of firsts: our first 3-week trip; our first Christmas out of the UK; our first time in Latin America; and so many new food experiences that we lost count. And there was so, so much more. What a wonderfully colourful, vibrant country Mexico is, judging by our experience over the last 3 weeks.
We won’t feel the warmth of the sun for 3 months now, but we have inspiring travel plans for 2019. After that, the real journey begins. “Mature backpackers” like us can’t keep putting it off for ever, so we will soon be swapping our day jobs for the trip of our lifetime. Putting our plans together is almost enough to compensate for the lack of sunshine.
In the meantime, we have the fabulous memories of Puerto Escondido and Oaxaca, both of which we loved, two of our best places visited so far.
Behind the main market in Oaxaca (Mercardo Benito Juarez) lies Mercado de 20 Noviembre, a frantically busy food market which is full of life. One narrow entrance here leads into a corridor within the market nicknamed locally “Passila de carnes asada”, which translates as “grilled meats passage”, and is a brilliant experience, though perhaps not if you’re vegetarian. It works like this.
Narrow passage, rammed with people walking each way. Butchers line both sides, strange cuts of raw meat hang from rails and sit on counters. Between each butcher there’s hot coals, roasting meat to order. A handful of tables are wedged between some grills, at right angles to the alley, so diners have to move to let you in. You order your meat from a butcher’s runner, who shouts instruction to the women fanning the coals and to the butcher himself. Separate vendors patrol the corridor, trays balanced on their heads; one selling veg and moles, the other tortillas. They are independent vendors needing to be paid separately, but their wares are essential for your meal.
Noise and smoke fill the air. Manic activity surrounds you. Your platter arrives. You indulge.
First off, it’s a wonderful place, full of life and colour and food and traditional Mexico. Here’s our introductory guide to this lovely city.
The city is for the most part built on a grid of roadways, making navigation on foot very easy; you will be given directions such as “walk two blocks past the market, turn left and walk three blocks, it’s on your left”. The city radiates around and way from the main square, the Zocalo, and nearly all of the main sights are within easy walking distance of the square. The Zocalo itself is incredible, loud and colourful, restaurants on three of its four sides, teeming with life and oozing Mexican spirit; the cathedral, the wonderfully intense markets, Santo Domingo and many other sumptuous buildings are within just a few minutes walk of the Zocalo, as are craft shops and mezcal bars, both in abundance.
Aromas of food permeate the senses; sometimes taco stalls, sometimes grilled meats, but the most intense are those occasional streets housing the chocolate makers, the whole street full of deep scent of chocolate.
The madness of the Zocalo is one thing; but perhaps the true Oaxaca is to be found in the calmness of its quieter neighbourhoods, cobbled streets separating the rows of low aspect houses, houses in ochre and primary colours, leafy lanes, trailing flowers, cafes, shops and bars anonymous by day then open at night (and vice versa), smiling faces, friendly chatter. Our own neighbourhood, Jalatlaco, is a former Zapotec tribal village now absorbed by the city, retaining a peaceful character yet just 15 minutes walk from Santo Domingo. Characterised by the distinctive wall art which decorate several of the quaint buildings – a modern twist brought about by socio-political unrest – Jalatlaco has a charm all of its own.
But don’t ignore the Zocalo, or the two major markets next door to each other, just being part of the verve and the madness is stimulating and exciting. The city’s leafy squares and tree lined streets and the archetypal low slung characterful Mexican buildings are so endearing, yet the dual existence of the craziness of the centre and the serenity of the outer neighbourhoods, so close together, provides the travelling visitor with a sumptuous mix. Add on the incredible food, the obsession with mezcal, the huge numbers of places to eat, the mountains towering above, and shielding, the city, and you have a destination which once visited will never be forgotten.
Our time in Puerto Escondido comes to an end after a brilliant couple of weeks where the joy of being in this wonderful corner of the world has been surpassed only by the incredible food experiences. We are moving on now, to the city of Oaxaca, where a different type of adventure awaits. Catch up with the journal at The Americas/Mexico; Days 14 & 15 bring our coastal time to a close.
One of the joys of this lovely place is that each of the beaches has a very distinct character, meaning in reality that there is a beach here for everyone. Here’s a brief guide to them all, starting at the western end and moving through the town to the eastern tip. Some things in this list are relative; for instance, the seas are powerful everywhere, so if we say it’s calmer, it’s still a very strong current. Most have a steep shelf fairly early, so waters become deep, close to the shore. Expect large numbers of hawkers and vendors: the busier the beach, the more there are. Sands throughout are soft, fine and golden. In brief then:-
Playa Bacocho. This is where to go for peace and privacy. An amazing huge stretch of soft sand mixed with coral shards, backed by lines of palm trees. A few miles out of town, and therefore quieter than the town beaches, with masses of space given its size. No facilities other than by paying to enter a private beach club; not even a drinks bar. Huge waves; powerful seas, but not surfing territory due to the last minute breaking of the waves. Seas too strong for swimming but OK for “surf play” as long as you’re fit and can cope with the power. Bacocho is home to the turtle project (see Day 13). Accessible by car.
Playa Coral. Small cove separated from Bacocho by rocks. We didn’t actually visit Coral but viewed it from Bacocho and it appears to be a scaled down version with similar characteristics, and no facilities other than a club with a fee. Accessible by car.
Playa Carrizalillo. Without doubt the most picturesque of them all, set in a gorgeous cove, cliffs above, palm trees at beach level backed by deciduous hillside behind and above. Quieter than the town beaches but can still get busy. Accessible only by 160-odd steep steps down the cliff which is probably why it’s quieter. The tight cove makes for a calmer sea and swimming is good, rocks at the sides make for outstanding snorkelling. A handful of beach bars (palapas), including one with a chilled drinks platform upstairs.
Puerto Angelito. Small cove beach but much loved by Mexican families so gets utterly rammed. Don’t let that put you off; watching the fun had by these colourful and entertaining people makes a visit here worthwhile, regardless. Seas are calm, swimming easy and snorkelling good. A mass of palapas cover over half of the sand bringing noise, colour and pizazz to this beach. Home to many boat trips so there is constant coming and going of small boats, making boat trips easy but dirtying the water a bit. Accessible by car.
Playa Manzanillo. Separated from Angelito only by a short path across rocks, yet that seems enough to deter many families and consequently is quite a bit quieter than its noisy neighbour. Same sea condition as Angelito but without the boat trips. Smaller number of palapas but still plenty of nice shady bars. Is accessible by car in its own right so it’s strange that it’s quieter, but good that it’s different.
Bahia Playa Principal. The main town beach and home to the fishing fleet, flocks of pelicans, and sun seekers galore. Seas are calm enough for children to be safe if accompanied, and the beach is alive with hawkers, vendors, food offers and pretty much all of human life. Many of the bars have a double frontage on to both beach and street and therefore feel a bit more like a restaurant than a palapa, unless you take a beach table. Amazing to watch the sheer volume of fish being caught, by fishermen, kids with basic lines, pelicans, gulls and even herons. Is right in town so is easily accessible by any means.
Playa Marinero. The scarcely definable stretch which separates Principal from Zicatela and home to the set of rocks which give the beach its name (Marinero means sailors, and the locals say the rocks resemble the wizened faces of old sailors). For fun in the sea, the perfect blend, in between the calmer waters of Principal and the Pipeline rollers of Zicatela, Marinero has powerful waves which can knock you off your feet but surf which can carry you in at speed even without a board. Large expanse of sand, quieter than Principal and with very pleasant palapas along the back. A 5-10 minute walk along the sand from town.
Playa Zicatela. Home of the colossal Pipeline surfing waves. Swimming is barred as currents are far too strong, but well worth a visit to watch the world class surfers perform amazing twists and somersaults inside the tube of crashing surf. Large expanse of sand but largely empty due to the strong waters. 150 metres back from the beach is the Zicatela strip, a street lined with bars, restaurants, cocktail joints, hotels, night clubs. At night, music is everywhere and the quasi Bohemian atmosphere of the surfing fraternity holds sway. It’s the closest you get to a resort feel, but is never tacky – in fact, the area has a certain laid back quality vibe and you would have to be a proper misery to not feel good sipping a £3 cocktail to a soundtrack of lounge music and crashing surf. Easily accessible from the strip.
Punta Zicatela. Final easternmost point, beyond surfing and into backpacking territory. Actually is still good surfing but not quite Pipeline. Has cheap accommodation and backpackers’ hostels. Is a couple of miles out of town but is accessible by road beyond the Zicatela strip.
We really don’t know whether, even in our committed search to uncover local food specialities, we would ever find anywhere as good as here. Not just fabulous food, but constantly surprising, continually exciting, flavours and experiences that are not only setting us alight but are genuinely different from anything we’ve tasted before. Yes, all of us know that Mexican food is good, but the twists on the cuisine that you find here in Oaxaca state, and on the Pacific coast, just take everything to another level. Ceviche, tlayudas, pescadillos, quesadillas, fresh fish with wild accompaniments, so much to eulogise. It’s as unique as it is fantastic.
Go to our current open blog at The Americas – Mexico – and read through this incredible culinary experience. We are currently up to Day 11.