As soon as my flight landed in Mexico City, I found a bus that left from the airport to go to Puebla, spent the night there, then took a second bus to Oaxaca City in the morning. I never want to deal with huge capital cities on the first days of my vacations.

Oaxaca (the capital of the state of the same name) is a moderately large colonial city packed with tourists around the Zocolo. For me, the two most memorable things were the food and the folkcrafts.

Oaxaca has a huge per capita consumption of chocolate. Chocolate is native to Mexico, but it was the Spaniards who added sugar to it. It is frequently drunk hot (and sometimes cold) and is an essential ingredient in some of the ubiquitous mole sauces, especially the black (or Oaxaqueño) mole. A large portion of Oaxacan chocolate appears to be processed on Calle Mina, just a couple of blocks south of the Zocolo. As one walks by, the smell of freshly-ground cocoa beans is unmissable. Customers specified the desired proportions of cocoa beans, sugar, almonds, and cinnamon, and one of the molinos would grind it, as shown on the left. All the ingredients but the sugar are thrown into the top of the mill, and a brown chocolate sludge fell into the waiting heap of sugar below, which would be rapidly mixed with a metal scraper by the mill operator. The grinders, especially those at Chocolate Mayordomo, were very busy in the mornings. Slightly less popular were the mills used to blend the ingredients for mole. These mills were in separate storefronts, possibly to spare the chocolate customers from inhaling the freshly-ground dried chiles.
The southeast corner of Oaxaca state, featuring the cities of Tehuacan and Juchitán, are culturally distinct from the state capital. It is known as the isthmus because it is the narrowest part of Mexico, and high winds result from the proximity of the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. The land is much lower, so it has a more tropical feel. There were mangoes, pineapples, and iguanas in abundance. I was told by a local that iguanas taste like chicken. I went to the market to try iguana and saw lots of them stewed with tomatoes. The unfortunate result looked like chopped-up bright green and gray rubber lizards tossed into a pot of stewed tomatoes. I would rather not eat things that look so reptilian, so I decided to have chicken for lunch instead, which I understand tastes a lot like iguana.
The isthmus is known for being matriarchal, and the women of the region are known as tehuanas. Frida Kahlo adopted tehuana dress in many of her paintings. The older women wore embroidred huipils or floral-print blouses and skirts. For special occasions, the women wore intricately-embroidered dresses and blouses that could cost hundreds of dollars. Formal wear for men was a white guayabera shirt and black pants. The women shown here happen to be in Oaxaca City for an Istmeña celebration.

Puerto Escondido

I headed down to Puerto Escondido on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca, for the celebration for the Virgen de Soledad, the patron saint of Oaxaca and fishermen. The celebrations take place from December 16th to the 18th every year. At around 1:30am on December 17th, I heard the church bells clang wildly. The church was right across the street from my hotel, so I got dressed and went down. Large paper mache figures of George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden, and a woman who was presumably the Virgin danced around to the raucous sounds of a brass band playing what sounded suspiciously like German polkas. Lots of townspeople were milling about or dancing behind the church to another large brass band. About half an hour later everyone dispersed, and I was left wondering why everyone would get up in the middle of the night to celebrate for just half an hour.

On the evening of December 17th, Puerto Escondido had a torito, in which a stick-and-paper bull was loaded with fireworks and a young man would charge around the crowds with it. The bull would go quiet for a few moments, during which the braver children approached, then the fuse would hit another round of explosives, and the bull would emit a loud round of sparks and flame, scaring away the children. They also had a Castillo, which is a tall bamboo structure (perhaps four stories high), on which were mounted rings of fireworks that spun when lit.
On the evening of the 18th, the statue of the Virgin of Solitude was taken from her central place in the town church and placed on a small boat, which was followed out to sea by a procession of brass bands and the faithful in small launches. She returned to shore an hour later, and after she was placed back in her altar there was a long mass in the church.
The main reason people go to Puerto Escondido is for the beach. The beach right by the town looked crowded and a bit dirty, but a 20-minute walk got me to Carrizalillo, a calm, beautiful bay perfect for relaxing at one of the palapas or surfing. The beach is more crowded than it appears in this photo, and palapas lined the back edge of the beach to serve drinks and seafood. However, there were far fewer roving vendors than at other beaches, probably because the only access to this bay is a steep and narrow footpath.


I was impressed by the music, food, and archaeology of the state of Veracruz. The Veracruz region was the center of the Olmec culture, which produced wonderful sculptures, most famously the giant basalt heads. The one on the left was at the excellent anthropology museum in Xalapa, the state capital.
The best coffee in the country may be at the Gran Cafe La Parroquia, in the city of Veracruz. The most popular drink was the lechero, which is basically a latte. They give you a tall glass with a shot of thick coffee on the bottom, and you tap your spoon against the glass to get the attention of one of the roving waiters who will fill the rest of the glass with hot milk. I believe that the famous restaurant was once named Cafe Gran Portal and was on the Zocolo, but there was a rift in the family that owned it. One side got the name and the location, and the other side got the coffee machines and moved to the malecon.
The regional folk music was fantastic. The mix of Mexican and Caribbean culture produced jarochos, centered just a bit south of the city of Veracruz. The music is lively, and the most famous son jarocho is La Bamba, popularized by Richie Valens.
Standard jarocho dress for men is a white guayabera shirt, white pants, a red bandana around the neck, and a hat with four indentations. Traditional dress for women is a white dress, a colored apron and shawl, and a fan slung around the neck. This photo is from a performance in Tlacotalpan.
Tlacotalpan is a lovely little town south of the city of Veracruz. The whole town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. The houses and shops were mostly colonaded and brightly-painted. There was hardly anything over one story high. This was the only town I encountered that had no internet access, and I also could not find a newspaper or magazine shop. I believe that they suffer frequent floods from the river that runs along the side of the town. It is the setting of the movie Santitos.
  • Gran Cafe La Parroquia Gomez Farias No. 34
  • Museo de Antropologia (Av. Jalapa y Acueducto; daily except Monday, 9:00am - 5:00pm; N$15 / US$1.50, free on Sundays)
  • La Churreria del Recuerdo - Calle Guadalupe Victoria No. 158 - churros and cena


    Puebla is full of colonial architecture and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is Casa Alfenique.
    Due to the large immigrant Lebanese population, vertical spit rotisseries are popular in Mexico. This man is slicing thin strips of meat for tacos arabe.
    Puebla is famous for its candy. Most common are candied vegetables (such as squash and oranges) and camotes, which are sweet potato mixed with sugar and fruit flavor.

    Mexico City

    There was a lot of evidence from the lives of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico City. Diego's murals were all over the city. This one is at the Palacio on the Zocolo.
    This is the 1930's home of Diego and Frida designed by Juan O'Gorman. It consists of two separate houses connected by a bridge. The blue one on the right is Frida's and the other is Diego's. I understand that both of them had many affairs. The house(s) is now a museum that features some of O'Gorman's architectural drawings and photos as well as a few rooms preserving the personal effects of Diego's and Frida's.
    Another view of Frida's half of the O'Gorman house and the surrounding cactus fence.
    Perhaps the holiest place in Mexico is the Nuestra Bascilica de la Señora de Guadalupe. In the 16th century, Juan Diego, an indigenous Christian convert, saw the Virgin Mary on a hill near Mexico City. The Virgin asked him to tell the Bishop to build a church for her on the hill. The Bishop did not believe him and demanded proof. The fearful Juan Diego returned to the hill days later and told the Virgin about his meeting with the Bishop. The Virgin instructed him to gather up the roses blooming before her in the cold of winter as a sign. When he returned to the church with the roses, the authorities saw the image of the Virgin emblazoned on his cloak. The Virgin has mestizo features, with characteristics of European and indigenous people. The cloak is now in the Nuestra Bascilica de la Señora de Guadalupe.
    In front of the cloak were four people-movers, presumably to keep the faithful from spending all day in front of the sacred image.
    The cake showroom of the Ideal Pasteleria in Mexico City. These cakes appear to be for Quinceañeras and other festive occasions. Around the corner were dozens of giant completely white cakes for weddings. Walking into that section was like entering a blizzard - I was blinded by the white walls and whiter icing. Another section showcased children's cakes, which are a bit smaller and featured cartoon characters. I can not figure out how these cakes are transported - the layers must come apart, but there is so much icing under each layer that I suppose that it must be done on-site.
    Xochomilco is a suburb south of Mexico City and is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is famous for its canals. My family and I went there on January 1st because most of the shops and museums in Mexico City were closed that day. Boats and an oarsman were hired at one of the many docks, and you are taken on the canals, which are jammed with other tourists and merchants in boats trying to sell them things. Some of the boats were full of mariachis, which would pull along side a passenger boat and perform a few songs for a price. Many sold cold beer or hot corn. Xochomilco is known for its nurseries, and some passenger boats pulled up to the canalside ones to buy plants.


    All of the monarch butterflies east of the Rockies in the United States and Canada migrate to a small forest in central Mexico near the village of Angangueo. There were trucks for hire in Angangueo that would drive you up to El Rosario butterfly reserve, wait two hours, then take you back to the village for 350 pesos per truckload of passengers. I decided to try walking up with another American tourist. After a few tiring minutes of hiking up the steep hill at half past seven in the morning, a flatbed truck stopped and invited us to hop on. We gave the driver about twenty pesos when he dropped us off at a fork in the road near the top of the hill, and we walked the remaining flat stretch to the sanctuary.

    Guides are required once you enter El Rosario. A non-English speaking guide accompanied us up the forested path. The path had a handful of sleeping or dead monarchs on it, which the guide carefully picked up and tossed on the side where they wouldn't be trampled by early tourists. Near the top of the hill, trees were nearly completely covered with sleeping monarch butterflies. Because their wings were closed, they looked like dull brown dead leaves. As the sun warmed them, they awakened and flew off. The guide books suggest arriving early in the morning, but I think it would have been more interesting to see more of the monarchs in the air, perhaps around noon.


    Tepoztlán is a little over an hour south of Mexico City and is a weekend resort for those wishing to escape the city. It is a tiny town with cobblestone streets and low buildings. On weekends, the streets are packed with stalls selling hippie jewelry and Asian crafts to cater to the young visitors. For the rest of the week, the stalls are gone and many of the restaurants are closed. The most famous shop may be Tepoznieves, which serves the best sorbet (nieves) I had in Mexico. They had the usual (and unusual) fruit flavors, but also featured strange (such as figs in mescal, celery, and pine nut) and cryptic (Kiss of an Angel, Dream of the Sirens) varieties. There were three shops packed around the center of town.
    The Ex-Convento Domínico de la Natividad is in the center of town. The walls are covered with recently-restored murals.
    I was in Tepoztlán during the Día de los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day, on January 6. On this day, children would receive presents and people would eat rings of bread studded with dried fruit called Rosca Reyes. One little neighborhood had a large fireworks show that night. They set up a Castillo.
    Useful links:
    Oaxacan restaurants:


    Monarch butterflies (Angangueo village)

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