Oaxaca Region

Leaving Mexico City behind we continued our journey towards Oaxaca! We were so excited to discover further the interior of Mexico and its fascinating indigenous culture and heritage.

Pre-Colombian populations such as the Zapotecs and Mixtecos survived even after the arrival of the Spaniards due to the rugged and isolated terrain of Oaxaca, many managing to maintain their culture and traditions alive.

Oaxaca’s authenticity, mixed indigenous identity, food, art, textiles, archeological sites and beautiful beaches make the region a very charming location and a world class destination for tourists. We were keen to experience all these, especially indulging ourselves with the spices of its exquisite cuisine.

Templo Santo Domingo, Oaxaca City
Templo Santo Domingo, Oaxaca City

It took us a day to get to the neighborhood of Oaxaca City from Mexico City. To our surprise the road was in good shape and we were pleasantly greeted by chains of mountains and hills covered with cactuses. The weather became drier and hotter. We stopped to camp overnight in a mountain village, San Agustin Etla, part of the Central Valley of Oaxaca, located few kilometers away from Oaxaca City. 

San Agustin Etla

What a peaceful and genuine village, and to our luck we found a very relaxing camping spot. It had a large garden surrounded by banana, mandarin and orange trees located just at the foot of a mountain covered by jungle vegetation. It was a refreshing and pleasant stay.

We took the opportunity to walk around the picturesque village and sneak into the locals’ day to day life. I remember a friendly and silent atmosphere, not even the dogs were barking, while the people were greeting us with humble smiles and “buenas tardes”.

We climbed up to the top of the village where we visited a beautiful Catholic church, a museum exhibiting Frida Kahlo’s native inspired artwork, a cultural center and a lovely plaza which was surrounded by gorgeous mountains covered in tropical forest. We didn’t expect to meet such peace, beauty and tranquility in San Agustin Etla. It was so welcomed after a full day on the road.

Atzompa Archeological Site

Before entering Oaxaca City we headed towards Atzompa archeological site, a former local settlement of about 1200 years old, once part of Monte Alban neighborhood. Monte Alban was one of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica inhabited by the Zapotec civilization. The Zapotecs were at that time one of the most prominent indigenous population of Oaxaca region.

It was interesting to observe that the former settlement was positioned on top of a steep hill, on a commanding position, like most of the sites in the region. It was clear to us that this was a form of defense keeping their enemies at distance, being capable to defend themselves from the top from the attacks and invasions of other indigenous populations and later on the Spaniards.

We were lucky to arrive early that morning to enjoy the tranquility and positive energy of the site just by ourselves. As most of the archeological sites we visited, it was also built around a temple, followed by the residential areas of the elite, then the areas reserved for servants. However, what was interesting and new was the dedicated area for the “Ball Game”. It was not football, but a ball game played at that time called “juego de pelota”. The game was played with a ball and the players would only use their feet, not being allowed the touch the ball with their hands. They believed that playing with the ball had a direct connection with the cosmos, that they can influence the movement of the stars, the sun and the moon through the movement of the game, therefore influencing the life of the community, the life cycle. It would challenge the dual entities like the life and death, the day and night, the summer and winter. It was at the center of their culture and traditions.

Oaxaca City

Fantasizing and picturing how the atmosphere and buzz of the village would be when the “Juego de Pelota” was played over 1000 years ago we left and headed towards Oaxaca City.

Oaxaca City
Oaxaca City

The entrance of the city was chaotic, with busy traffic through narrow streets. We soon found our campground which was nothing more than a fenced parking lot in the center of town. Gladly, we were welcomed by Juan, our camping host with a nice glass of “mezcal”, the local spirit made of agave. Juan, greeted us and mentioned, “tranquilo amigo, pues que para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, tambien” which translates like “if all goes wrong, mezcal and if all goes right, mezcal as well” 🙂 This is what JP wanted to hear, to instantly relax after the chaotic entrance of town :-)) It was a truly warm hearted welcome.

Just at a walking distance from our camping we discovered a local market well known for its traditional “comedores”, which are tiny restaurants located inside the public market. We were excited with the idea of eating what the locals eat and were so hungry to seat and order at one of the comedores. We just could not decide in which one. We were in unknown territory and wanted to have the best of it and had no idea what to order. In the end we settled for a random comedor and ordered beans with sausages and a locally spiced omelet. To my taste it was delicious, fresh, homemade, simple and very economic. Exactly what we needed.

With our bellies full we shoot off to discover the rest of the market. There was food and local produce everywhere, from thinly sliced pork, yellow chicken, local made cheese, honey, mezcal, grasshoppers, warms, fried garlic, to exotic cactus, fruits and vegetables. After some time enjoying the colorful market with its exotic scents it was time for a break and we headed towards Zocalo, the main plaza of the city, to check it out.

Zocalo is one of the main attractions of Oaxaca City, a vibrant central market located around Spanish colonial buildings and catholic churches. There was a mix of everything there, from vendors of native art craft and colorful carpets to beggars, locals wondering around, tourists, musicians, authentic restaurants, cheap eats, everything together at the same time. We sat down, ordered a coffee and just watched the Mexican scene of Oaxaca City.

The Temple of Santo Domingo, the biggest church in town was just nearby. We headed to the temple passing through the popular and artistry Calle de Macedonio. Here one can admire more sophisticated art galleries, boutique stores and handicraft shops. We were charmed.

After touring inside the Temple Santo Domingo we left to experience the tasting of different types of mezcal at a traditional “mezcaleria”. There we savored five different versions of mezcal, one stronger than the other. It was a bit too much, a bit hard-core, but it was fun. Once in Oaxaca City one shouldn’t miss a mezcalero, so we did. 

The following day we continued our tour by visiting the Ethnobotanical Garden and the Museum of Oaxaca Culture. At the Ethnobotanical Garden we learned more about Mexico’s diverse ecosystems and how the locals relate to them. The concept is to show the interaction of the plants and people. The garden is divided up into ecological and cultural themes and the plants are organized accordingly.

Mexico is really blessed with a variety of plants and animals. Only in Oaxaca there are about 8400 species of plants, 700 of birds and 1400 of vertebrate, encompassing about 50% of Mexico’s species. Oaxaca is the nation’s second highest producer of grains and agave, the third in production of peanuts, mango and sugar cane, while other crops include coffee, sesame seeds, rice, sugar, pineapple, corn and beans. As you can imagine the visit at the Botanical Garden was a must see for us. It was our chance to understand more about how the people relate and used for centuries this biodiversity.

We learned about the different types of cactuses, from the ones the Mexicans eat as side dishes to main meals to those tall types of cactuses that form huge natural farm fences. We saw for the first time the chia seed plant, we got familiar with the importance and significance of corn in the Mexican ancient and contemporary culture, the numerous types and their utility.

Corn is almost like a sacred grain for the Mexicans, first domesticated by the indigenous about 10,000 years ago and nowadays used for everything in the Mexican kitchen: from the famous tacos, tortillas, enroladas, tortillas, tamales, and so on.

Each section is dedicated to a region with its type of plants and vegetation as well as its use and significance for the locals. Pretty insightful experience.

Impressive tall cactuses at the Botanical Garden, Oaxaca City
Impressive tall cactuses at the Botanical Garden, Oaxaca City

We continued visiting the Museum of Oaxaca Culture, which gave us a perspective on the history of Oaxaca, its people and culture. The museum was hosted in a beautiful old colonial building, while the exhibition was scattered in various large and distant rooms. It was approaching lunchtime, so we chose to try a local restaurant with menu of the day. It was a simple, tasty and fulfilling. We were happy and relaxed for a while, regained our energy and were off to continue exploring Oaxaca City’s streets and markets.

While JP continued tasting some more mezcal in another local market I bought some local honey, peanuts, fruits and veggies. Of course, we wanted to try some spicy fried grasshoppers which are considered a delicious snack by the locals. So here we go, bought a small bag full of fried grasshoppers along with some fried garlic and of course, some more mezcal. We decided to skip the worms this time. 

Back in the truck we arranged our snacks: fried grasshoppers, garlic, peanuts and the mezcal. We were ready for the degustation and I must confess I was quite excited to try it. Although they had a weird taste JP ate a bunch of them until he got disgusted :)) I tried a couple, and to be honest the taste is not too bad. It’s just a crunchy snack with a spicy taste and I didn’t feel I was eating an insect. Having said that, it is not something I would incorporate in my regular diet :)))

Grasshoopers! Great snacks in Oaxaca :)
Grasshoopers! Great snacks in Oaxaca 🙂

The following day was time to visit the archeological site of Monte Alban situated at just 10km from Oaxaca City. Monte Alban was the capital of a large-scale civilization in the Oaxaca region, which was dominated by the Zapotecs around 500 BC to 750AD.

As most of the settlements of that time it was composed by a central market, which was the heart of the ceremonial activities, surrounded by nearby residences, space for juego de pelota, dancing courts and complexes.

It was interesting to learn about their skills managing the resources around them, how they built the pyramids, the housing systems, a sustainable agriculture network, and what was even more fascinating to absorb was their passion and culture for astronomy.

Daily astronomical observation enabled the prehistoric society of Monte Alban to calculate agriculture cycles predicting the changing seasons and collecting medicinal plants. Based on the astronomical observations the priests would make prophesies and would orientate the streets, avenues and plazas towards the cardinal points.

Our next stop was at Hierve el Agua, a set of natural rock formations about 70 km east of Oaxaca city, past Mitla. We were advised to go and as worth seeing but it wasn’t. It could be very nice, as it has potential, but the place is badly managed, and pools are in bad shape and there was trash everywhere. Having said that, the landscape around it was beautiful. It was getting colder outside so we called the night.

The next morning we were up early and headed south towards Oaxaca’s coast. On our way we stopped at the famous village San Jose del Pacifico, which is well known for its shamanic mashrooms and temazcals, a traditional native ceremony used for physical well-being and natural healing. We wanted to stay for at least one night there, in the heart of Sierra Sur mountains, but after so much driving there was nowhere to camp! We walked around, and the village was very tiny, cut through by the highway and cramped in between the mountains. There was very limited space for Brutus. So, after some logistic analysis we realized that we better depart towards the coast before sunset to reach the next campground on iOverlander. Pity! I was keen to try the temazcal, while JP the mushrooms 🙂

The road through Sierra Sur mountains
The road through Sierra Sur mountains

As we drove down the mountains late in the day on a curvy and dangerous road we asked ourselves if we shouldn’t have stayed in San Jose. With the night closing on us fast we felt the omnipresent danger. If we missed one turn we would be doomed. We were in the middle of nowhere, alone. Was that the right road? It couldn’t be. We realized we missed one turn and soon we were in the heart of the Oaxacan jungle on an unsafe off-road full of pot wholes and land slides. In that moment my legs went weak and I felt truly afraid.

Road through Sierra Sur mountains, Oaxaca
Road through Sierra Sur mountains, Oaxaca

It was one of our biggest mistakes overlanding, and one that could cost our lives. After various attempts, we eventually found a spot to turn. Luckily with JP’s great driving skills we managed to turn in a narrow area. We felt relieved to be able to go back, but we still needed to cross through the same areas of damaged road and huge gaps to get back safe again where we started. We had a guarding angel that evening and soon we saw each other back on the main road. We felt relieved and lucky.

With this problem solved now we needed a place park for the night. We were too far from any established campground, and we could not find any place elsewhere. JP was getting really tired and wanted to stop. First rule in overloading is: don’t drive at night. We needed to find urgently a safe place and we had no options.

JP was tired and nervous so we decided to stop on a side road convenience store which would sell tires, gas and some local products. We asked them nicely if we could camp in their courtyard overnight. To our surprise they were very nice and allowed us in.

They started asking the price of our truck, how much were our tires, where were we headed, for how long and so on. Then we became suspicious and the paranoia started. We locked ourselves inside and slept the whole night with one eye watching, fearing about anything bad crossing their mind. The night passed by without any incidents. We got ourselves sorted early in the morning and off we went. The moment JP started the engine and we drove off that courtyard I felt incredibly relieved. After all they were just curious, and we were very tired. No reasons for being paranoid.

My memory is of a gorgeous morning. The sun was up and we could see the reflections of the sunrise through the jungle. It was so beautiful. For the first time I saw an extensive jungle from the top of the mountains. Simply magical.

View from the top to the jungle of Sierra Sur mountains, Oaxaca
View from the top to the jungle of Sierra Sur mountains, Oaxaca

On the side of the road there were households selling banana, coffee, honey, citrus fruits and coconuts. It was fascinating to observe that each village had their own products to offer: from mezcal to chilies, magic mushrooms to corn and coconuts. Wondering about the vast jungle, looking curiously in people’s houses as we crossed through the small settlements, time passed and very soon we were by the coast.

The road through Oaxaca jungle
The road through Oaxaca jungle

We soon reached Zipolite, a quiet beach east of Puerto Escondido, at the Pacific shore of Oaxaca. We checked out the options to camp and decided for a campground just about 100m away from the beach, located in the middle of a mango tree plantation. This was probably one of the best campgrounds we ever stayed at. It was ample, spacious, and we were under these large mango trees, and all sorts of other tropical trees, and there were iguanas hanging around and jumping from tree to tree. All sorts of birds, well, it was quite something. They also had a swimming pool, a bar and full hookups at site. The weather was great, and the atmosphere was calm and pleasant. It was an excellent vibe. We couldn’t believe it.

As soon as we had the time to park and unwind we met Lindsey and Doug, the American couple and fellow travelers we met in Mexico City, at Ms. Mina campground in San Juan de Teotihuacan. It was great to see them again. We were camping relatively close to each other and it was awesome to have friends nearby. As it was very hot JP went to buy a couple beers and we had a great time with our friends next to our truck. We spent the whole afternoon talking, drinking and laughing. The fun times were back on!

Just outside our campground on our way to the beach we found a whole new universe: a vibrant hippie village, with many small restaurants and bars, mostly for alternative low key tourism. It was a relaxed and funky atmosphere. Freedom, peace and love was felt everywhere. The beach was 3 minutes away, with perfect waves and sand. Perfect place for a morning run, and to practice yoga. We couldn’t wish for more. 

We planned to stay few days, but we ended up staying ten. We just loved the place. Time stopped, and we were not in a rush to leave. We were living the moment, relaxing, reading on the hammock in the shade of the mango trees, sunbathing, practicing yoga every day, running by the beach, enjoying the little restaurants, indulging at the local eateries, buying fresh fish from the fishermen, eating exotic fruits and spending time with friends like Patrick, Celine, Lindsey and Doug, Elly and Jos. It was everything that we wished for at that moment.

We would wake up every morning saying: “ We are in paradise” and “we don’t want to leave”. Sharing our time and having dinners with Lindsey and Doug and Celine and Patrick were all part of this amazing experience. We were in a little community of travelers, eating great food, relaxing and enjoying a gorgeous beach location.

Probably one of the most inspiring people we met here were Elly and Jos, from Belgium. Just two days before our departure they parked their expedition truck, a 4x4 sprinter build by Jos, at the camping spot just next to our truck. Interestingly, Elly recognized Brutus, our truck, from when we were in Europe, as we crossed with each other when JP was on his way to ship Brutus from Antwerp to Halifax. What a coincidence, coming across with each other in Mexico after 9 months of traveling! How random is that!

Elly and Jos are retired and enjoy life traveling around the world overlanding with their Sprinter truck. What is special about them is not the fact they are on the road for over ten years, but the fact that they decided to travel and explore the world after Jos had a spinal cord injury which paralyzed him below the waist. Jos keeps on exploring on his wheelchair and driving his truck which is adapted to his needs. This was the second expedition truck he built for himself, and he has a third one in Europe which he built with a few improvements. As Jos mentioned, “We learned what we need and what we don’t need living on the road. Our first truck was not ideal, this one is better, but the third one we have in Europe is even better. One said once something I agree, that you build your first truck for your enemy, the second for your friend, and the third for yourself”. We all laughed about it as it is so true. Elly is a wonder woman and a great partner to Jos. A strong lady with a great personality, contagious vitality and a tremendous sense of humor. She had her own challenges as she cured herself of breast cancer. We were truly touched, inspired, moved, and a bit shocked by the challenges they overcame to be able to follow their dreams overlanding with their health condition.

Probably the most inspiring travelers, Jos and Elly!
Probably the most inspiring travelers, Jos and Elly!

We had a great time with our new friends. It was as if time stopped. However after 10 amazing days we had to continue our adventure. Our plan was to head towards San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, then to Yucatan peninsula and Rivera Maya. It was time to say goodbye to Jos and Elly, Lindsey and Doug, Celine and Patrick, and with our hearts somehow broken for leaving Zipolite we went off our way east towards Chiapas.

The happiest in Zipolite!
The happiest in Zipolite!

Oaxaca region was a beautiful, peaceful and a magical experience. Although we encountered our challenges crossing Sierra Sur mountains and dealt with scary situations, we found beauty in its authenticity, indigenous heritage, culture, colorful lifestyle, diverse kitchen and relaxing beaches. Zipolite was probably one of our most favorite beach spots, a timeless place where we wish to return one day.

About the author: Ioana Marins

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