Like every other vacation that comes and goes too quickly, I’m left to cobble memories and photos of my journey … this time, Mexico. Our travel gang again racked up a successful trip, from Mexico City to Oaxaca, then home in time for Election Day.
For a look inside our journey, watch my slideshow, then scroll down for storytelling.
First stop: Mexico City
Thumbs up: The metro … and a newfound interest in Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky.
Thumbs down: Ghastly transvestites strolling the park at high noon; vendors who got in my face and made me snappish; so much meat, so little fish.
Iris and I had heard all the scary statistics and warnings on traveling in Mexico City, dubbed “D.F.” (for its federal district status) by the locals. While the alerts put us on notice, they didn’t stop us from being our regular, happy-go-lucky selves. We mingled with the locals and enjoyed the landscape without fear. We saw zero aggression or threats from anyone.
Instead, the city folk were generous with their time and directions, and the food was delicious. The breezy, cool weather also worked to our benefit, despite the goosebumps. It blew any and all smog from the pristine blue skies. Our stay at the Sheraton downtown was sublime. The hotel was a sparkling, modern high rise in the Reforma district, smack in the city center. We strolled the Alameda, saw the zocalo daily and enjoyed fast access to the metro and various museums nearby.
I was fascinated by the story of Frida Kahlo and husband Diego Rivera. My history lessons from long ago had so many gaps (and still do). The same could be said for Leon Trotsky. Iris and I toured their homes and admired their grit and determination.
Would I do it all again? Claro! This city was full of intrigue and struck a chord with my European ancestry. There was so much history to explore, and it’s so close to home, flying for a visit is a snap.
Southern hospitality: Oaxaca
Thumbs up: The dead and (living) locals … our hotel … Monte Alban … and Daniele, our guide.
Thumbs down: Too much cheese, burp, and not enough cash.
After four days in Mexico City, Iris and I made our way to the airport where we met up with Marla, her two kids, and Laura, the wonder woman who connected Marla to her adopted children five years ago. The trip south to Oaxaca was fast. We were up, had a soda, then down in under an hour.
The temperature in Oaxaca was well improved from chilly Mexico City. I happily donned a sundress and made my way into some serious equatorial sunshine. We spent the first day in the historic town sitting peacefully at the zocalo, or square. Vendors young and old pestered us mercilessly from our sidewalk table, but we didn’t care. No work, no chores, just drink the local beer and eat whatever we wanted … bliss!
Speaking of food . . .
I am not a vegetarian. I eat fish, so that generally disqualifies me from any title that indicates “vegetables only.” In certain parts of Mexico (think coastal), there is fish aplenty. In Oaxaca there was little, so I ate a lot of cheese … string cheese or quesillo. Let’s just say I consumed enough string cheese to run a gooey, white line all the way home to Orange County.
I’m really over cheese.
That said, the food was fine. Not great, but fine. Marla now regrets not seeking out better restaurants around town. But with two children tagging along and begging for play time at the zocalo, we found ourselves tucking into the same mediocre tourist food over and over again. I grew weary of tortillas and cheese done every which way to Sunday.
But no matter, I wasn’t there for the food!
Ruins & lore
Thumbs up: Ancient science, beautiful vistas, Coyotl our guide.
Thumbs down: none I can recall.
If you have a thing for ancient ruins (as my Italian genes demand), Mexico is home to several. Iris and I had previously made our way to Teotihuacan north of Mexico City, and now we had more to explore in Oaxaca.
Not far from downtown is a mountain with its top chopped off. Some 2,000-plus years ago, the ancient residents of Central America carved up the land to bury their dead and worship the gods. Monte Alban was likely renamed by Spanish explorers after the Zapotec name and much of its history was lost when the site was abandoned. The mountaintop is immaculate, though, covered in soft green grass, herbs and flowers.
We hired a Zapotec guide to help us navigate the old stones. His name was long and complicated but he told us to call him Coyotl. Marla remembered him and thought perhaps he had helped her on a previous visit.
The angles and etchings in the stone structures were impressive. The residents here before Christ’s time were already performing surgeries and documenting breach birth, cesarean deliveries, dwarfism, mongoloid deformities and more. Archaeologists believe Monte Alban’s earliest residents received visitors from all over the world, thanks to land bridges connecting the continents eons ago.
We ended our tour, then frolicked on the rocks. The kids, Iris and I played with my camera’s timer and tripod. I spent several air-gasping minutes hauling my butt up and down steep steps to pose in time for the snapshots. We laughed, took more pictures, then made our way back to town.
Thumbs up: Attention to details.
Thumbs down: Not enough cash.
Marla wanted to share with us her love of folk art. I have quite a bit at home, thanks to my grandparents who were stationed in Central America in the 60s. I was eager to see what Oaxaca had to offer.
We rented a van and English-speaking guide and headed out for a day of shopping. My goal: find some funky wooden critters.
There is a lot of history surrounding the craft of carving and painting wood in Mexico. You can read about that here.
The colorful creatures of Mexico are generally called Alebrijes, and I fell madly in love with the style and odd forms. The goal is not to reproduce familiar creatures of the world. The artists instead twist and exaggerate the animals, then paint them in vivid colors with striking geometric patterns.
I have one big regret: I didn’t have enough cash with me. Maybe that’s a good thing. But next time I find myself in or near Oaxaca and the local artisan villages, I will have money handy. In the end, I purchased only one lone critter: a black cat, in honor of my boy at home, Mayo.
A day for the Dead
Thumbs up: Cute tour guides, mescal and Day of the Dead bread.
Thumbs down: crowds, camera-crazed tourists, vendors graveside.
Last but not least, the cemetery tours.
To honor the dead in Mexico, families decorate and spend hours and hours graveside on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1. Oaxaca is tops in this annual tradition. In our trek through three cemeteries, I saw amazing displays of devotion, and I felt halfway guilty trudging around, camera in hand.
Our guide was the oh-so adorable Daniele. He jumped into our van with a huge smile and a fantastic accent … and I was smitten. I was plotting his escape across the border before we made it to the cemetery gates.
There are several cemeteries in town, but the municipal location is most grand with its above-ground tombs and elaborate marble carvings. Daniele explained to us the difference between the Spanish-dominated city cemetery and the Indian burial grounds outside of town. We would later discover that while the city site was beautiful and hauntingly dark, the middle-class cemetery was the place to be.
Outside of town, the crowds were huge. We pressed shoulder to shoulder and struggled to follow Daniele down narrow streets crowded with vendors, tourists and residents bearing flowers, bread and chocoloate offerings. Marla had the look of panicked parent as she powered through bodies to keep up with her kids in the stifling crowd.
At the cemetery gates, Daniele gave us thimble-sized cups of mescal and we cheered the dead and life itself. Somewhere in the babble of conversation I learned that his father is from Rome. Ohmygod … pure karma, I was sure. I didn’t care to ask about family, wife, kids. For this tour, he was mine.
Thumbs up: Sales and torture in Oaxaca
Thumbs down: Eating bugs for a photo (I type this laughing because the bug tasted fine!)
We spent our last day in Oaxaca collecting tidbits for home. The downtown market was quiet, perhaps in the aftermath of Day of the Dead festivities. In between snapping photos of all the colorful food and garments, I managed to pick up some small gifts for friends.
Along our path we came along several women selling fried bugs. Yes, bugs … done crispy.
It’s common here to find salads garnished with chili-coated grasshoppers (crickets) of various sizes. We had already sampled tiny (practically tasteless) bugs at one meal earlier in the week. Now, I just wanted a photo of all the bugs, piled high in several bowls.
Not so fast, the woman said. She had a sly smile on her face.
I asked permission. “Foto?” I pleaded.
She pointed at the bugs and told me, “You want photo, you eat bug first.”
Oh geez …
So, the moment was too good to pass up on, and I took her challenge. Passing the camera to Iris, I hunched over the bowls and looked for a crispy-to-burnt bug. I was trying to avoid any squishy bug guts, with visions of Bear Grylls eating slugs dancing in my head.
I ate the damn bug. I tasted just fine. No offensive, squishy bits. I got my photo and the smile on my face couldn’t have been wider. Score!
It was a fitting way to end my adventure in Mexico.