We haven’t done much land travel since heading out on our cruising journey over two years ago, likely from a combination of having a small pony aboard (Great Dane) who requires kenneling and COVID-19 limiting our desire to travel. One place I had really looked forward to exploring was the cultural epicenter of Oaxaca, so we figured out a plan. Why Oaxaca? From artisanal crafts to ancient indigenous culture, to historic ruins and did I mention amazing cuisine?…This region has it all. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredible surfing and beautiful beaches the state is also known for, but since we get enough coastal time, we were looking for something different on this trip. So, we found a great vet in Huatulco who literally created space at the kennel for Quincy after realizing her size and the fact that she was not going willingly into a cage. We rented a car and set off on our adventure!
After spending so much time in the beautiful but warm coastal climates, getting away into the mountains was epic. Of course, I was not the driver, so my experience was no doubt much more pleasurable than Chad’s. Within 2 hours of driving on windy mountain roads, the banana trees and lush jungle vegetation turned into pine trees with crisp mountain air bringing smiles to our faces. We passed by fruit and succulent stands, signs for Temezcals (traditional Zapotecan sweat lodges) and various artisanal stands along the way. To accompany this mountainous drive on roads with no shoulder, we experienced the joy of frequent topes and reductors, AKA speed bumps. For some you have fair warning and others…SURPRISE! Believe me, we felt EVERYTHING in our tiny little shockless wonder of a rental car. If making the drive, along with the beautiful vistas, prepare for the bumps!
After a long drive, we checked into our huge “compound like” AirBnB, I lovingly referred to as the Brady Bunch House and scrambled to find a restaurant within walking distance, knowing that rain was forecasted. It’s not often that a “what’s close and easy” restaurant turns out to be such a treasure. Casa Taviche was just that. We were welcomed in along with friends from S/V Kyrie and were given their elegantly hand-written menu of the day. The Mezcal cocktails were well deserved after our long drive with my mediocre navigational skills. I have a natural affinity for scenic routes and will manage to take you through every small town along the way while missing key turn-offs making for an adventuresome journey – so yes, drinks were in order! Oaxaca is known as a gastronomy hub and we found the flavors to be complex and fresh in all our meals. We followed up with some late night mezcal tasting and agreed it made for a great first night out.
Three things topped our list for Oaxaca beyond the culinary experience: 1) Rugs 2) Alebrijes and 3) Monte Albán. I’ll start with Monte Albán and work backwards.
Monte Albán is a Pre-Columbian city located on a mountaintop high above the now bustling capital city of Oaxaca that traces its roots back to 500 B.C.. It is thought to be the first urban complex in Mesoamerica and a site of economic, political and religious importance to the ancient Zapotec civilization. This was the first visit to Mesoamerican ruins for the girls and I, so we were awe-struck. Even Chad, who spent much time in the Yucatán Peninsula exploring famous Mayan ruins as a kid, was impressed. To walk the sacred grounds and just attempt to envision what life was like when this civilization was thriving and then take in the mystery behind why it suddenly vanished in the 7th century is a reflective moment. The high stepped pyramids make for a humbling climb especially in the altitude – time to get back to running. The girls admit that at first they were like “yeah, ruins” then once we climbed over the first hill and looked down on the immense size of the city and intricate designs of the ancient structures, they were astounded. (plus they collaborated with friends on S/V Kyrie to think about recreating the ruins in Minecraft – whatever motivates you – go with it!)
The next day we decided to dedicate to visiting the two outlying artisanal districts of San Martín Tilcajete and Teotitlán del Valle. They are on opposite ends of the “X” of roads that intersect the main city and therefore, taking them both on in one day was a bit much for all but the extremely motivated shoppers (sorry kids). Once again we loaded up the shockless wonder and embraced our topes and reductors and marginal navigational skills. What drew us to San Martín Tilcajete were the alebrijes. These are crafts designed as mythical creatures with vibrant colors and intricate patterns. Originally made of paper maché and designed by artisan Pedro Linares in Mexico City, the local Oaxacan artists carve these ones out of copal wood from the surrounding mountains. We parked just outside the church in this small town and were able to stroll through the homes and workshops of the local artists. The colors and designs are so fantastical it becomes overwhelming, but eventually one…or two will speak to you. The girls even found an alebrije painting kit so they can get creative with small figurines back on the boat. In the middle of shopping, we heard a loud BOOM that interrupted the critical decision of which alebrije to bring home: the octopus or the coyote. Then more BOOMs. The church just across the street was setting off fireworks in celebration – welcome to Mexico!
We planned for lunch and rug shopping for the afternoon, much to the kids’ chagrin. The Oaxacan rugs are hand made using a foot loom from wool dyed traditionally with local vegetable and animal dyes. Teotitlán del Valle is the historic weaving center to find them, but unlike San Martín Tilcajete, the workshops and showrooms are spread out, necessitating a drive between shops. We decided lunch was a priority if any deals were to be made, and started at Tierra Antigua Restaurante and Galería. Arriving from the hustle/bustle of Oaxaca city, this patio out in the country was reminiscent of visiting wine country back in California. As a bonus, they also had a rug showroom and loom. Diego was kind enough to provide a weaving demonstration as well as an explanation about the meaning behind the various designs. Once again, the food was superb. Mole was not something that appealed to me initially, but when in Oaxaca, you must try the mole. The complexity of these various sauces was worth the hype! We drove down cobblestone streets into the fairly desolate town until we found Isabel Gutiérrez Pérez’s shop near the church. Similar to rug shops in the Middle East, purchasing a Oaxacan rug is all about the experience. Leave your sense of urgency at home and prepare to be overwhelmed with color and design! Thank God she had two cats to entertain the kids who were now ready to hitch-hike back to the Brady Bunch compound. We embraced the visual demonstration of the natural source of the dyes, history of the rug making in her family, were offered Mezcal, and learned to say thank you in her native Zapotec language. There was some haggling, then in order to pay by tarjeta (credit card) Chad had to drive her to a location known to have a better cell signal in order for the transaction to go through. She told the girls and me to man the shop and make some good deals with any passersby and off they went. Again, welcome to Mexico!
With treasures of Oaxaca packed into our trunk and complete uncertainty as to where they would be stored on the boat, it was time to head back. The drive home was full of our familiar topes and reductors, but with a stop for succulents we promised the girls. They already had two named Bob and Charlotte from Banderas Bay who were getting lonely, so why not add some more? At the equivalent of .50 cents each, they were worth every peso and are one of the few types of plants we can manage on our boat. We now have a small garden and yes, all the succulents have names.
The trip to Oaxaca offers a cultural experience that should not be missed. Every cruiser in Huatulco who returned from the road trip had a different adventure, from mezcal making tours, to historic city tours, to ecolodges in the mountains, there’s a lot we didn’t explore, but saved for “next time”. We find in order to be a true vacation, we need to factor in some down time and somewhere between rest and the sightseeing, we strike a balance. We enjoyed being able to share time away from the boat with friends from S/V Kyrie and it was nice to relish “luxuries” like a private shower with hot running water…wow how life has changed! We took a side trip to Zipolite, one of the nearby beach communities for one more night of relaxation and its very own unique culture before returning to the boat (We’ll cover Zipolite in a separate post). The state of Oaxaca offers such diversity in landscapes, indigenous culture, and beautiful beaches. Put it on your bucket list!
We have done some great land travel in Mexico and have loved our trips. From our numerous road trips up and down the whole of Baja California to driving to Tequila and Guadalajara to Oaxaca and now the highlights of Chiapas, we’ve had a blast with our roadtrips. Wanna read more about our trips, click these links: