Molé, Chocolate and Grasshoppers. When our bus pulled in at 5am the station was abuzz with travelers, but once we left the station the roads were dark and quiet. We made our way downtown stopping for our first Oaxacan hot chocolate (it was yummy!) and prayed that the hostel would let us check in at such an early hour. We were in luck and spent the next two hours warm in our bed catching up on much needed sleep. What awaited us when we awoke was not the same sleepy Oaxaca we walked through two hours before but a city very much alive with color, noise and movement.
Oaxaca is a big tourist destination, our first since Baja, and we were a little surprised at the number of gringos wandering around. We knew we were in trouble when the restaurants had menus in English, and lets just say when the bill came we found that we had eaten the most expensive eggs and beans on the planet. Nevertheless, Oaxaca was a site to see. We wandered through the city, taking in the markets (if there is ANY DVD you want – in theaters or out on DVD – it’s in Oaxaca), and the energy that is in Oaxaca. No matter what time you were there (except maybe at 6am, but even then there were people out), the main square or Zocalo, had a carnival like atmosphere. Candy sellers, balloon sellers, ice cream vendors, shoe shiners, musicians, clowns, mimes and florists wandered the Zocalo day and night selling their wares or performing for the crowd. To say it was a shock after being in completely non touristy areas is an understatement. We had clearly entered the tourist circuit and were unprepared. After being in quiet cities and towns without gringos, the carnival atmosphere and nightly cultural performances sponsored by the state really made us feel overwhelmed. We spent hours in the Zocalo just trying to take it all in, and just when we thought we’d gotten a grasp of the place a new musician or a new vendor would come by. It was a whirlwind of a place.
Outside the city we took a day trip to ancient Zapotec capital, Monte Alban (white mountain), our first ruins in Mexico. Pretty much deserted on the day we were there, Monte Alaban is perched on a hill overlooking Oaxaca. The “two” lane road leading up the mountain is barely passable by two sedans let alone tour buses so we said a prayer when we made it to the top. I’ve only been to the ruins at Tulum (yes, it was a spring break trip to Playa del Carmen, yes we’ll leave it there) and I’d never even heard of Monte Alaban so I was a meso-american neophyte to say the least. Monte Alban was not at all what I was expecting, it sits atop a hill where the land is clear of almost all vegetation. The ruins are closed for security and preservation purposes, so we weren’t able to climb through any tunnels nor up several of the towers. Needless to say, we were uninspired by the ruins and headed back down the mountain before our allotted time.
Travelers along the way raved about the hot chocolate, the molé and of course mentioned whether they’d tried the insects or not. Yes, insects. Oaxacan cuisine is known for these three things and as adventurous travelers we had to try all three. The hot chocolate was easy, no big surprise there. Different than the swiss miss in the US, hot chocolate in Oaxaca has a spicy cinnamon taste to it and can be made with either water or milk. Either way it was yummy and we bought a block of the cinnamon chocolate just to munch on. 🙂
The molé on the other hand was questionable, made from chocolate and spices, it tasted more like chocolatey barbeque sauce to us than a chocolate molé. Molé is a bit like bbq sauce actually, every town or village has its own molé recipe and secret ingredients. We had molé negro, but there are numerous types of molé available in Oaxaca. The sauce we had would hardly pass the first round at a bbq contest in Texas and though not exactly what we were expecting, it went down easy.
The third specialty was the hardest. We spent our days wandering the markets looking for chapulines (grasshoppers) in tacos or quesedillas or cooked in anything. Turns out that you pretty much have to eat them alone. I know, had I stopped to think about it before we bought them it would have turned my stomach.. Like everything though, I thought about it after the grasshopper was already in my mouth. This being Mexico, and the delicacy being insects, we purchased the smallest amount we could (about 50 grams) and made sure they were the kind covered in chili powder. I’ll let the video speak for itself, but I will say they were salty and tasted mostly like chili. Hopefully some of you have tried chapulines. Please don’t tell me I’m the only one!
After the adventures of the chipolines, we decided a real adventure was in the cards. We rented mountain bikes through Zona Bici and a guide and headed to the hills surrounding Oaxaca. Although the tour was a complete disappointment in almost every aspect (price, experience, guide, location, etc.) getting out and stretching our legs on the bikes was a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of the city. Thankfully after banging myself up in Jalapa’s whitewater, Oaxaca was injury free and in that sense uneventful!
Not surprisingly although definitely not on account of the insects, we both fell slightly ill in Oaxaca. It’s bound to happen sometime right? After the bike tour the most we could muster up to do was to sit in a french cafe using the wifi all afternoon. Overall Oaxaca was an assault to our senses. Unlike any other place we’ve been to in Mexico, we wandered through Oaxaca enthralled by the sites, colors and sounds, but ready to go once our time was up. It definitely wasn’t our favorite place in Mexico, but it was well worth the trip.