Once in Oaxaca after another long and very winding road we checked into our hostel and went on the hunt for some brekkie! After exploring the market for a traditional meal we quickly exited after walking past various animal hooves, crickets and other unsavoury things for 7am. We made a run for the nearest nice cafe and ordered some food. Although the food was fine we did realise the etiquette in Central America is drastically different from the UK and Australia. Firstly you do not remove a plate while the customer is still eating, secondly don't mop under the table the guests are eating at! Anyway, bill paid (no tip) and we were ready to explore the city.
We headed out in search of the artisan markets. Once we found these the day flew by. We both bought some more bits and bobs, with so many rugs, blankets and baskets which I really couldn't resist but had to tear myself away being a bloody 'backpacker'! We both got our late lunch/dinner in the market as well, having a tostada stuffed with lots of lovely things! On our way back we headed to 'la casa de la cultura' to see the traditional and recent exhibitions of Oaxacan culture. We were greeted by a pleasant surprise. The building was bustling with local people of all ages. Around the common areas were various exhibitions of 'now and then' photographs taken forty years apart plus recent artwork and modern photography of the local area. In each room surrounding these areas there were further modern art galleries, dance classes with both ballet and traditional dance, music classes, art studios with children from schools working on projects in their spare time. In the main courtyard there were adults practising some local dance and upstairs an orchestra rehearsing. The whole building had such a nice vibe and Cassie and I both felt inspired but also a little out of place!
The next day after a refreshing night of recovery sleep from the night bus and week in Puerto we headed to the art galleries and museums. We saw various different galleries and loads of cool art work. After pretty much gallery-ing ourselves out we headed back to the market to do the 'must do' thing in Oaxaca and try the local cuisine in the market. With our stomachs a bit more prepared we went back in. I had the cheese enchilada 'mole negra', which is the typical dish of the region. They use cocoa as the base for the sauce and cover the enchilada in it or cover chicken in it. It was nicer than it sounds but did taste a bit too much like chocolate for a main dish. After eating half the plate it was definitely too much for me but was very cheap and worth a try! Cassie had the local equivalent of meat and veg soup/stock and again half was more than enough for her. With this ticked off we didn't feel the need to try the crickets or worms on offer and both settled for some fruit. As it was late afternoon we headed back to the hostel and relaxed before exploring the Oaxacan nightlife. As it was a Tuesday this was not as happening as we would have liked! We strolled the streets enjoying the 'ambience' then went to one of the restaurants lining the main square. I enjoyed a bowl of ice-cream and Cassie had a chocolate cake! Satisfied with our evening we called it a day and headed back.
On Wednesday I got picked up from the hostel to go on a tour day of the sites around Oaxaca City. First stop was this huge Cypress tree in a local village. The tree was 180m wide and 2,000 years old! It literally was enormous. After a short stop here we headed to a local village famous for the handmade rugs. When we arrived it literally was "rug town", with all the houses having rugs draped outside their windows and in their porches for sale. We arrived at a local ladies house and had a brief talk and were shown how the wool is spun into twine, how the natural colours are made and a demonstration of the weeding technique. It all was really interesting and difficult! This puts into perspective the amount of work they put in for the little pay they get from the selling price of the goods. I got a cushion cover and throw for my bedroom which I loved but still really wanted a rug! Next we went to the Mezcal Factory. As explained in the Puerto Escondido blog this was a sister drink to tequila and I had had copious amounts just a few nights previously so the smell of the factory was not the most pleasant for me. The drink comes from a local cactus plant which is cooked, fermented then ground by horse. After seeing this process it was tasting time. So in the spirit of things we all had the "gentleman's" shot of 40+% which came in various grades, one of which contains the worm that is found in the root of the plant to add to the flavour. To drink mezcal, as with tequila, you shot it, take the salt (ground worm, chilli and salt) from your hand then suck on an orange. The orange at the end was the only saving grace for me. However the "'ladies" shots were a lot nicer with various cremes and fruit flavours.
Back on the road we headed to Hieve del Agua, seeing numerous horses grinding the cooked plants along the way. This was a natural spring and pools formed in the mountains. It was beautiful, bubbling from the earth and flowing down through different waterways to large pools. The water was clear and clean to drink, however it tasted slightly salty due to the mineral content. The views were spectacular and taking in the Oaxacan countryside while enjoy the pools was amazing. Others went in but feeling the chill from the altitude I decided to forgo the experience! Here I bumped in to some guys from Puerto so we sat and chatted until we were ready for the next stop - lunch!
Over lunch our guide told us a bit about the state. 70% of the 4 million population of Oaxaca is made up of indigenous people who speak 18 different languages. The languages are very different to Spanish and when written (which is rare) they use symbols similar to hieroglyphs. They live in the mountains in small villages and still mainly live off the land they farm. We then headed off to our final stop! This was the Milta ruins which were not Mayan - to my relief as I am definitely Mayan ruined out after the last few weeks of my trip! They were Zapatec, the indigenous tribes and were 1000 years old. Due to the interlocking brick structures they have survived numerous earthquakes and remain intact. 90% of the site is original with only 10% reconstructed. The buildings showed the clear carvings or mosaic tessellating patterns on the outside and in. They depicted the elements of water (oceans and rain) and earthquakes alongside animals such as snakes. At the site we could go inside two uncovered tombs which the emperors of the town were buried in with all their descendants. It was really interesting and amazing to be stood in the original structure and clearly see the carvings from 1000 years ago.
After this action and sight-seeing packed day I finally returned to the city at 7ish to relax before we headed out to explore the city at night. As it was early we were pleasantly surprised by the central park. It was bustling with locals, musicians, children, food stalls, shoe shiners and street sellers. We enjoyed some frozen yoghurt and sat in the square. With our cameras we headed out to capture the moment. After some very unsubtle stalking I ended up in the centre of a huge crowed been laughed at by a clown street entertainer. Once I knew I'd been spotted I tried to run away but there was no way I could hide with the crowd also forcing me in. Although this was probably the most inappropriate clown ever it was slightly amusing despite the embarrassment and I managed to get the perfect photo! With my balloon in hand, as a badge of honour, we explored further. After a few more streets we headed back once our camera batteries had ran out.
On our final day in Oaxaca we both took advantage of the amazing cafe selection. We took our laptops and with various different drinks, smoothies, cakes and salads we ate our way through the day sorting out various job applications and other boring tasks! I ended the afternoon in the market again trying to get some photos and reading in the square. I really enjoyed Oaxaca and its culture definitely shone through. With the promotion and wide resources for different arts, crafts and music the city is rich with cultural events and exhibitions. The wide range of food and drinks accompany these celebrations adds to the special vibe. Alongside this the central hub of the main square provides a great people watching spot to pass the days and evenings. We were won over by the city but ready to pack our newly bought souvenirs and head to the next town!