Oaxaca de Juárez and Puerto Escondido, Mexico

Music rings from every street corner. The streets and plazas are alive with conversation and activity. Colour adorns every building, whether by paint or by nearby blooming trees or by street art. And in the background, mountains.

This is not what I expected from the state of Oaxaca, a place that’s forever been on my radar as a food destination. We’ll get to that point later, but this was literally the reason I came, and the only thing I knew. But food is only one facet of what Oaxaca really is — a shining showcase of every facet of culture in this state, one which holds on strongly to its traditions yet embraces new ideas.

There’s an immediate difference if you compare Oaxaca de Juárez (the state capital, also called Oaxaca for short) to Mexico City. Gone are all the skyscrapers or any semblance of a modern metropolis: brightly painted colonial-era buildings line streets of brick and vibrant cathedral-centered plazas. It’s a bit of a time warp. Oaxaca’s zócalo is the big hub of activity, packed with crowds under the shade of its many trees, doing everything from chatting to shining shoes to people-watching to idly strumming a guitar to enjoying whatever roaming live entertainment comes their way. Surrounding it all are snack vendors and sidewalk cafes. It’s just a thoroughly pleasant place to kill time, closely followed by the plaza surrounding the Santo Domingo cathedral, just a short walk away past a Semana Santa-special artisan’s market.

Oaxaca’s also in rather different natural surrounds: a mountain valley. Randomly joining a large, spontaneously-cobbled roadtripping group of Mexicans and foreigners (hello Bernise, Ile, Cris, Andy, Michelle, both Robs, Arturo, and Sebastian!) for a day, we drove two hours east through deserts, twisty roads, and fields of cacti out to Hierve el Agua (“the water boils”… which it doesn’t, but okay), a series of “petrified waterfalls” — rock formations created by natural springs with an overabundance of minerals that calcified. Some of those natural springs remain, with the calcification creating beautiful natural pools which some of us couldn’t resist taking a dip in.

The waters of Hierve el Agua were also channeled for irrigation purposes by the Zapotecs some thousands of years ago, the evidence of which is still quite visible when hiking through the area. And there’s many more remnants of Zapotec civilisation around too, namely in Mitla, where there’s an astonishingly well-preserved religious archaeological site, covered in zigzag stonework and columns entirely different in style from other Mesoamerican civilisations, like that of Teotihuacan near Mexico City.

Nearer to Oaxaca is Monte Albán, seat of power during the height of the Zapotec era, spanning over a millenium (500 BC/850 CE). Most of what’s left are pyramids, temples, and tombs, along with more irrigation canals and housing foundations, but more intriguing are astronomic observatories and a “ball court”, where the game’s losing team are sacrificed to the gods. Yikes. Housing around 17,000 at its peak, which is an enormous amount of people and a big show of power at the time, it just again goes to show how complex pre-Hispanic society was.

On a completely different topic, Oaxaca’s also home to a vibrant arts culture, with art galleries over the state capital. In the nearby town of Ocotlán, it’s all about the artisans, namely the Aguilar family, whose many members specialise in everything from Frida Kahlo-inspired figurines (depicting everything from Day of the Dead costumes to, uhhh, the “violence of abortion”) to swords to… of course, pulque and mezcal, two agave-distilled, tequila-like liquors famous in Oaxaca. And located in the former convent of the local church is a museum dedicated to the mixed-media works of internationally-renowned artist Rodolfo Morales. Being Easter, there’s a bit of performance art in the town too, with a full reenactment of the trial of Jesus and crucifix procession that certainly did not make me envy the probably-actually-suffering actor playing Jesus.

But of course, what I came to Oaxaca for is everywhere in the state: the food. It was certainly on display at Ocotlán’s Friday market, with comedores packed with diners sitting shoulder-to-shoulder noshing on enchiladas, entomatadas, tamales, and the bread served with their chocolate atole (local chocolate mixed with a type of corn flour, served as a hot drink) for a seemingly-neverending breakfast time rush that went well past noon.

Food culture is even more prevalent in the state capital: in the markets, grannies serve up piles of delicious, crunchy chapulines (fried grasshoppers, often coated in chili and lime), Oaxacan cheese, and local chocolate. On the streets, fast food joints open up late at night where families line up for tlayudas, giant football-sized folded fried tortillas stuffed with everything unhealthy. Fancy restaurants with their rooftop terraces offer Oaxacan dishes, from traditional to fusion varieties. Our group of 10 and permutations of it had a field day sampling things at the markets, relaxing over chocolate shakes, downing micheladas (beer + hot sauce + lime and sometimes with clamato) and hot sauce-slathered snacks, and squeezing in a dinner at one of the many traditional restaurants with live music and dancing.

But by far Oaxaca’s most famous export is mole, a sauce found in many disparate varieties — black, red, yellow, green, almond, poblano… — with the only unifying factor I see being how punchy and flavourful it is, and the sheer uncountable amounts of ingredients and long prep time. (And no, between mole and tamales, this time I’m not talking about Ghana.) You’ve got the ubiquitous, famous, yet most complex mole negro (black), a mix of spices and chocolate(!) making for a deep, spicy-sweet flavour perfect with meats. The red variety is heavy on the tomatoes; the yellow (but still quite reddish) variety aromatic with tomatillos and cumin; the green variety light and nutty. I only wish I stayed long enough to try them all!

Not to say I didn’t make a valiant attempt though! On my last day in Oaxaca de Juárez, I decided to “splurge” (it was still pretty cheap) and spend the entire afternoon and evening just…eating. After a fancy two-hour lunch of an enormous piece of steak in mole amarillo (yellow), I ran into Karl, another traveler staying at my hostel, and we proceeded to spend the next seven hours in conversation over food, savouring the atmosphere and the variety: a few hours at a beautiful cafe, sipping chocolate milkshakes and eating fancy croissants; a few hours at a bar going for Oaxacan craft beer; and finally, a few more hours at a fancy courtyard restaurant, serving up fusion flavour combinations I had never experienced — a cactus-and-steak-tip stirfry, a sharply tangy tamarind-chocolate mole, a guava-chocolate mousse, and a flan drowned in so much mezcal it practically made us drunk. As a foodie, this nine-hour food fest — or rather, doing nothing with my day and just committing it to food and leisure — was absolutely one of the highlights of any travel experience I’ve ever had. The local cuisine shines in every manner from cheap eats to elevated fine dining: I could see myself staying forever just to dive deeper and deeper, and I only wish I had time for a local cooking lesson. I don’t think I’ve ever said that for any place I’ve been.

Taking a nauseating seven-hour van ride the next day down twisty mountain roads to the Pacific Coast, I spent my last few days in Puerto Escondido (still in Oaxaca state) to enjoy the many beaches in the area, people-watching and chatting with the crowds on their Semana Santa vacation, and swallowing up tacos and horchata with Misael, a young Mexican backpacker I met on the van who’s taken a year to better know his own country. Playa Zicatela, a 2 km-long beach adjacent to the center of town, is perhaps best known as a surfer’s paradise, though as a non-surfer, it was probably best to just watch and keep distance from the absolutely enormous waves, some reaching maybe three metres in height!

It’s also in these warm waters and monstrous waves that every day, baby turtles crawl to be swept into the ocean: this is one of the most important turtle nesting sites in the world. Mothers dig holes, burying their 100+ eggs, before return to the ocean and leaving the future turtles to fend for themselves. Problem is, in an area like this — with so much human activity, along with plenty of crabs and birds preying on the babies, chances of survival are somewhere around 0.5%.

And so it’s through preservation and ecotourism efforts that workers dig up buried eggs, reburying them in a protected area away from predators, then digging them back up 43 days later when the babies hatch. After giving them about 10 minutes to gather their bearings, it was time to send them off! With each visitor carrying two or three turtles each from the protected area, we brought the babies further along the beach and released them to walk into the water on their own, as conservation workers chased circling birds away. It’s an incredible sight, but also quite distressing to imagine how arduous the journey is without help: having to crawl a pretty long distance with land-unfriendly flippers just after being born, exposed and vulnerable to predators, tossed around by waves that might end up sweeping turtles further away from the water instead of into it. For a total distance of maybe 50m, it took about half an hour before the last turtle disappeared into the water. Some turtles got lost and wandered in the wrong direction too — that would likely have been a fatal mistake had we not been there. I mean, I get that natural selection is a thing, but these are threatened-status animals we’re talking about, and they kinda need as much success as they can get to return to more sustainable numbers.

There’s so much more needed to be done with conservation efforts too: the sex of a turtle is determined by the temperature the eggs are kept, and at the moment, there are far more females hatching than males: the protected area is too hot. Due to graft, money dedicated for preservation efforts doesn’t quite trickle down to where it needs to, and temperature-cooling (and bird-protecting) roofs aren’t being built…

After sunset, I joined the Mexican tourist masses and headed to Laguna de Manialtepec, an inland lagoon not far from Puerto Escondido. We took a boat into the darkness, slowing down to a stop in the middle of the lake for one last treat. Dipping our hands into the water, shimmers of glowing silver surrounded our hands: bioluminescence. After jumping in for an all-too-surreal swim lighting up the water, our captain gave us an explanation (in Spanish, so who knows if I’ve gotten all of this correct): with sufficiently high water levels, algae in the water emits stored-up light (phosphorescence) when agitated, as a defence mechanism to get fish to eat the plankton that feeds on the algae. We saw the white variety; other varieties of algae glow blue or green.

Of course, being pitch black outside and floating in the middle of a lagoon, it was impossible to take any photos. (Every single person on the boat tried anyway, despite the captain’s insistence.) But that wasn’t a disappointment at all — if anything, it only forced us to slow down and enjoy the unique experience for what it was, floating in darkness and silence. That memory’s gonna stick around for a long time.

Hold that thought: Oaxaca’s gonna stick in my mind for a long time.

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