Before we left on our trip, people used to ask us what city in Mexico we were most looking forward to. No brainer: Oaxaca. In our minds it was a quaint food lover’s paradise. We imagined strolling around, sampling mole, eating at the best street carts in all of Mexico, and giving casual high fives to Rick Bayless. Everyone we asked in Mexico prior to arriving in Oaxaca had egged us on. “What’s your favorite town in Mexico?” we would ask. “Oaxaca!” they would scream.
As we entered Oaxaca state, two things changed; the topes were no longer painted, making it nearly impossible to avoid the Nacho-killing road hazards, and the verb tense on the anti-litter road signs changed from the third person formal to the second person informal. “No tires basura”. Google Maps said the trip from San Miguel de Allende would last 9 hours, 3 minutes. A mere 19.5 hours of driving later, we arrived in Oaxaca city and staked our claim at the campground. The first thing we saw when we got off the bus at the food market in downtown Oaxaca city, after noting the eardrum-piercing noise of the place, was a very dirty Aboriginal-looking black man lumbering out of the raw meat section of the market without any pants on.
“I don’t think he’s supposed to be doing that”, Sheena whispered.
Apparently the road signs aren’t the only thing in Oaxaca that had gone informal.
To our dismay, Oaxaca was the polar opposite of our expectations. We passed the nude-bottomed man just as we entered the market. After swallowing the vomit from that encounter, we were met with the stench of a hundred kinds of rotting meat. The tables were stacked high with parched, fly-laden, wretchedly stinking chicken, beef, pork, and sausages. It’s a miracle that I didn’t ralph up the rest of my breakfast. The city’s apparent specialty snack is the chapulin, or fried grasshopper; a food that Mexican health officials agree is a serious health hazard due to its exceedingly high lead content, but don’t know what to do about it. The halls of the food market are packed with baskets full of the fried heavy metal insects.
Still believing that Oaxaca would pull through for us, we made for the market’s food stalls. Nothing looked very appetizing, but we wandered over the stand with the most Mexicans at it and ordered per the waiter’s recommendation. The pollo con mole was mediocre, and the chicken soup was palatable, but boring. Dinner was no exception; we spent two thirds of our daily budget on dinner at a place overlooking the zocalo, or central square, but went away disappointed. On the bright side, our dinner table was situated on the second floor at an open window, which gave us a nice vantage point to watch the very picturesque zocalo while a band played and people strolled.
After a mere day and a half in Oaxaca city things weren’t improving, so we decided to cut our losses and head out to the surrounding smaller towns. We’re not big on complaining, but given our Mecca-like expectations for Oaxaca, I thought this was a worthy exception. So far we’re the only people we know who have felt this way about Oaxaca. More than anything it reaffirmed our distaste for big cities.
The surrounding towns turned out to be more rewarding. First we headed out to San Martin Tilcajete, a town of just over a thousand inhabitants, where the locals specialize in carving and painting wooden figurines. Ever the figurine lover, Sheena couldn’t help herself and popped for a small wooden pig. Our beer and coffee cabinet is getting empty, so Sheena has decided that a better use for it is to store various miniature animals and other artisanal doo dads in it. Until we arrive in a country with good beer, I’ve decided to let her go wild.
Next we made our way back into Oaxaca city to get the final installment of our hepatitis A and B vaccinations. This involved going to a hospital, where we had to procure surgical masks in order to be let inside – quite a good idea we thought – and then had a consultation with a doctor. He didn’t have the right vaccinations, as hepatitis shots aren’t normally given to Mexican adults, so he sent us deeper into the city where we got our shots at a vaccination specialist.
The final stop on our Oaxaca whirlwind tour was the town of Teotitlan, where the specialty is weaving. We found a B&B that would let us camp in their courtyard, use their showers, their bathrooms, and their kitchen for around $5 per night.
By day, the air was filled with the sound of a Mexican band marching through the empty streets. We saw them pass by a few times, apparently playing to nobody. Later we saw that they had made their way onto the roof of the church, where they continued playing their songs before eventually coming down to eat ice cream popsicles in the shadow of the church. The randomness of the whole ordeal seemed to be the planking equivalent of marching bands. Teotitlan was quite nice, and we ended up staying two nights. Oh, and in the interest of acquiring more local handicrafts, we bought a naturally-dyed and hand woven wool rug for Nacho.
While we had tentatively planned to spend at least four days in Oaxaca, we weren’t enjoying ourselves so we left. All in all Mexico has far exceeded our expectations, and there have only been a small handful of places we haven’t liked. If Rick Bayless had been there to give us a high five, maybe things would have turned out differently.