Oaxaca: Day 1 - Setting the Scene
Touching down into Oaxaca, you can see clearly the three valleys that make up the heart of the region; the mountains dividing the terrain into separate quadrants that even today are rarely breached. There are more than fifteen different indigenous cultures that live together within the state, making it one of the most culturally diverse regions of Mexico. Despite their close proximity, many of the villages scattered throughout the area do not interact with one other communes nearby; according to Jake they often prefer to keep to themselves.
Jake Lustig grew up dividing his time between his mother, who moved to Oaxaca City, and his father in the Bay Area. Thirty years later, after spending many a summer meandering through the eclectic and colorful streets, he is a veritable tour guide; a wealth of information about the many sights and sounds happening around you. He'll tell you about the beautiful Catedral Santo Domingo.
And about how the Spanish completely looted the south of Mexico so that they could line the inside of the chapel with pure gold, resulting in one of the most intricate religious artworks outside of the Sistine Chapel. Of course, we're in an old colonial town, so what wasn't originally taken by the former conquerors?
He'll also tell you that the new boutique mezcal business popping up around the city is brand-spanking new. "These stores weren't here six months ago," he mentioned as we popped by a fun little outlet near our hotel.
Yet, it appears Oaxaca knows the world is catching on to its delicious spirits. Gracing the stores of the tiny bodega were numerous brands I had never before heard of, with wonderfully-creative labels that were hip, fresh, and exciting. The wealthier part of downtown definitely reflects an up-and-coming trend towards metropolitan life -- small cafes, courtyard restaurants, and a variety of well-curated shops specializing in local crafts.
We had a lot of things we wanted to do today, but since Nicolas wasn't due in until later in the evening, we decided to take it easy and schedule most of the booze-related activities for Thursday. That meant it was time to kick back, order a Michelada and a shot of local Tobala, and order some of that famous Oaxacan cuisine. "Back in the day you would never have been able to find Tobala at a normal restaurant. It was something reserved for special occasions," Jake added. Of course, we live in the new world of drinking where everyone wants "the best." For that reason, supplies of Tobala -- a wild species of agave with limited availability -- are drying up more rapidly due to global demand.
Seafood sounded good. How about shrimp, scallops, and abalone smothered in a red chile sauce and served fresh from a wood-burning clay oven?
After lunch we decided to hit up the gigantic market downtown; a complex and dizzying maze spanning more than eight city blocks. Don't dare allow yourself to get separated within the narrow throughways and dark alleys because finding your way out may take hours, if not days. If you do get lost, however, just meet back at the carneceria.
Or near the counter with all the fresh chicken.
Or in the voodoo-esque vendor of the occult, equipped with a number of candles and potions you can use to appease the proper saint or spirit of the over-world. There are so many mercaditos scattered within this complex it's amazing that any one of them can survive. You could spend weeks in there and never see it all.
All that walking makes a man tired, so we needed to refresh ourselves with a delicious beverage that has nearly gone extinct in the modern era of distillation: pulque. Before the people of Mexico learned to distill their agave, they drank it like a typical fermented beer. However, because freshly-fermented agave doesn't hold very long before bacteria begins to set in (maybe two days max), you can't store it with pasteurizing it; hence, why few cantinas offer it as a regular option. We found a fantastic place that had plenty of pulque on hand, however, so we ordered multiple rounds. It looks like lemonade, but has absolutely no citrus character whatsoever; rather a slightly-sweet fermented flavor and a mild disposition. You can easily put down four glasses before you've realized what you've done.
As we continued to walk into the evening, I was utterly captivated with the vibrant colors and the electric energy of the Oaxacan streets. There is artwork on every corner; adorning the walls of every alley.
Everyone was out and about, the mountains looming behind them, enjoying the cool breeze of the afternoon. There's a lot of action in Oaxaca de Juárez; much more than simply mezcal. It has the traditional feel of a small Mexican town with the population and culture of a bustling city. I can see why it's long been a haven for adventurous tourists. I'm already in love.