Our travel to the state of Oaxaca was without a doubt a major highlight of our time spent in Mexico. We spent about a week in Oaxaca City before flying over the mountains for a week at Secrets Huatulco, where I taught two Zumba® classes per day, fulfilling a personal dream experience of mine, and we chilled out in paradise and enjoyed the luxuries the resort offered, a break from life on the road. Then we took a taxi to spend several days nearby in the smaller communities of La Crucicita and Santa Maria to celebrate Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, with a local family. We ended with a week in the small town of Tehuantepec to assist in teaching English at Total English Institute.
In Oaxaca City, we stayed in an AirBnB accommodation in a barrio, or neighborhood, that was about a 30-minute walk to the main part of town. While walking around felt like it should be a bit off-putting at first (and I did feel that way our first night there, trying to navigate from our place to closer to town without a phone or map in the dark), we were assured by our host of how safe it is there. She was the best! Upon our arrival, we were greeted with hugs and an offer to make us quesadillas (which consisted of quesillo cheese, which is locally produced in Oaxaca, and thinly-sliced deli ham). She had a flower arrangement waiting for us inside our apartment, along with a bowl of fruit. Over the time we stayed, she brought us treats on a couple of occasions; both times, we enjoyed Oaxacan hot chocolate, which was accompanied once with churros and another with pan dulce. When I asked about a place nearby where I could print flyers to promote my classes at the resort the next week, she personally walked me over to her nephew’s print shop. The apartment was comfortable and we enjoyed our time there.
What stands out for us primarily during this time was our curiosity and excitement we felt around spending the weeks leading up to Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, and being exposed to its traditions for this holiday time for the first time. The bakeries prepared pan de muerte, or dead bread, there were displays on the streets, and I even bought a pair of skeleton earrings from a local market to be festive! Most striking was helping a local family prepare for and joining them to celebrate in their home and at the cemetery, where our AirBnB host’s brother and grandfather are buried.
These experiences, while highlights, were not enjoyed without struggles. It was extremely hot and humid at the resort, and I was exerting myself twice per day in the midst of it outside in a hut, unacclimated to exercising in these weather conditions. Thankfully, I had pools, showers, and ocean to retreat to and plenty of water to drink and stay hydrated, after some trial and error on the first day. La Crucecita and Santa Maria were just as challenging heat-wise, except our accommodation didn’t have air conditioning or screens on the windows (thankfully there was a ceiling fan in the bedroom and a floor fan). I got so many mosquito bites! Finally, during our volunteer teaching gig, I struggled with not being on my own schedule and rather on someone else’s (albeit well-intentioned), not being in control of when and what we ate (although much of what we ate was traditional and delicious!), as well as the machismo culture, the first time I had really experienced it personally.
For us, dining-wise in Oaxaca City, it’s all about A.M. Siempre Cafe (you can read more details within my Yelp review) within Barrio de Xochimilco, where our AirBnB accommodation is located within a family compound. A close second, and Aaron’s favorite, is Boulenc (you can read more details within my Yelp review) within the central part of town.
A highlight activity for us is the cooking class we took from Oscar, a chef that specializes in the local cuisine and owns his own restaurant, Casa Crespo, where we took the class. It ended up being a private experience! He gave us options of dishes we could make and took us with him to the market and other nearby shops to purchase ingredients needed. We made agua fresca, tortillas de masa (three types), ceviche, creama de aguacate, salsa (three types), mole, and flan (for dessert)! The best parts were that he sent us the recipes afterwards, so we can try (our best, with the ingredients we can find) to replicate them at home, and that we got to eat everything we made after the class! Que rico! (How rich! Which is how most people comment on how delicious something is in Mexico and Central America.)
We tried a restaurant that was a bit of a walk off of our typical path, Los Pacos, which had the promise of authentic cuisine where locals dine. We were interested in eating typical food. I thought it was okay, but Aaron really liked it! We enjoyed sampling more mole, and the best part, I think, were the bibs we got tied onto us before eating. 🙂
We ventured out at night in Oaxaca City on a couple of occasions, which is a rarity for us. We first checked out a live salsa band where nightlife-goers danced to the music in the small but packed dance floor space and then went to a larger night club with a huge dance floor that played music videos and had lots of lights shining onto the dance floor, but there were only a handful of others there. I enjoyed watching everyone dance and it made me want to (but Aaron doesn’t feel comfortable enough to), so I lived vicariously through them and moved my feet a bit, too. 🙂 We even “got dressed up”, which for me, meant putting on a jeans, wrapping a piece of material over me like a shawl, and wearing makeup for the first time since I could remember, potentially since leaving the U.S; for Aaron, he got out good ole collared shirt!
Most of what we did in Oaxaca City itself was walk around and check it out.
We decided to join a packaged tour group for a day to experience some sites near Oaxaca City rather than trying to arrange to get to and from them on our own, which would have been much more complicated logistically and time-consuming. There were teacher protests in this area due to pension cuts, which only ended up affecting us in that our tour schedule was behind due to this activity blocking traffic on the main highway, so the driver had to take an alternative, slower, round-about route to our first destination. This type of travel really isn’t our cup of tea — Being transported from site to site with limited time at each and being taken to a place to have lunch that we don’t choose ourselves (which is often touristy, overpriced, and not the best tasting or quality). The day was long and honestly felt rushed and not very authentic. While it wasn’t a trip highlight for us, we were glad we did it because we otherwise wouldn’t have experienced where we were taken; perhaps just one place, if we’d decided to make the effort. And we did get to practice our Spanish, as other than one bilingual couple, we were the only English speakers. Our main guide and driver spoke only Spanish, and a bilingual guide from another group with the same company hopped onto our bus and joined the tour for only a short time. One neat thing we learned was that we visited areas where Spanish is a second language and an indigenous language, Zapotec, is primarily spoken. We learned a few words, which now escape me, except for, “Zac xtili“, which means, “Good morning”.
I pre-arranged for my first fitness teaching vacation through Fit Bodies, Inc, before we left for our trip. Essentially, in exchange for a discounted, lump-sum payment to this company, a monetary gift to the resort, and teaching two fitness classes per day for six days, Aaron and I were guests at Secrets Huatulco. The resort was a nice, welcome treat to have for a full week, especially coming off of being on the road for awhile. While we enjoyed consistently warm showers (though cooler showers were often preferred here) with two nozzles (one overhead and one at chest-level for the body), a soaking tub with jets (which I loved getting into for 15-20 minutes most mornings before breakfast and my classes), a big, comfy bed, the freebies the hotel provides and replenishes, and having a “day” maid and “night” maid (who didn’t come every night, but we did get our bed covered in rose petal arrangements a couple of times), our resort experience was mixed overall. I enjoyed it much more than Aaron did, probably because I reported to teach each day twice per day, met a lot of people, had many opportunities to practice my Spanish, and was ready to fully embrace doing nothing but relaxing by enjoying the resort amenities after 2 p.m. each day, such as getting in the pool and enjoying a mudslide at the swim-up bar (which I did almost every day). For Aaron, it was difficult being confined to the resort for seven days straight, where there wasn’t much to do except the same thing every day, although he very much enjoyed the nice gym facility up on a hill overlooking the resort. I was happy to get into a routine that was pretty much wash, rinse, and repeat! It was fun to get dressed up for dinner each night, where Aaron wore his nicest collared shirt and I creatively changed my HipKnoTies material into various shirts and dresses I wrapped my body in. We loved that the resort was not full, as it seemed to be about at half-capacity or less this time of year in October (we later learned the high season is December-May). We were a bit disappointed by the food at most of the restaurants, which was advertised as gourmet. The exceptions were the breakfast and lunch buffets and a seafood restaurant. Other than that, most food was bland and not what I expected (although apparently Aaron says he expected this), especially when it came to international food choices. For example, we sent sashimi back and refused to eat it (for the first time in my life!); it was unflavorful and warm! Anyway, I am grateful for this experience and appreciated it in many simple ways that wouldn’t have felt as exaggerated if we hadn’t been coming from our basic travel style up until this point (such as not having to figure out any logistics, having reliably warm showers, having access to a blowdryer, sleeping in a SUPER comfortable bed, having a huge bathtub to soak and do our laundry in, etc). And most significantly, I had the opportunity to teach and have students again for a week, meeting a lot of nice people from various countries and having fun dancing together!
The family we experienced Dia de los Muertos with was very sweet. We especially enjoyed practicing our Spanish with the mother and father, who are both learning English. We enjoyed a breakfast with the family on their farm and helped prepare the altar, where photos of their loved ones, their belongings, and food are displayed underneath an arch of marigold flowers, which they grow on their land for this purpose every year. The petals are arranged on the floor in a path to the doorway of the home, which calls the spirits of their loved ones home to be with them for a 24-hour time period. November 1st is for children and November 2nd is for adults who have passed.
We felt terrible for being late to meet Gracy, our AirBnB host, who was going to meet her parents at the cemetery, because we were having trouble navigating back to her family’s home in Santa Maria. When we were dropped off by our taxi, we tried to find the landmark school she had referred to, but because of our developing Spanish, we got confused with a high school and primary school and it took us longer to find it. Gracy was gracious about it, although we felt terrible for being an hour late and not having a way to communicate since our phone had just been stolen recently in Guanajuato and there wasn’t a place we could connect to WIFI there with my iPod.
The cemetery was PACKED with people, candles, flowers, and offerings. A few small instrumental bands played music near gravesites, although there was no dancing due to the somberness of this event, although people were happy, celebrating the lives of their loved ones. Walking around in the dark was a challenge on uneven ground, and often times there was no choice but to step on graves, which felt awkward, of course. We sat with our host family for periods of time and also walked around a bit on our own and with Gracy. We learned so much from her narrating and showing us around, as well has from interacting with her parents. We had never seen or experienced anything quite like this before and think it’s a special holiday to dedicate to and remember loved ones who have passed.
We volunteered at an English language school, Total English Institute, in a small Oaxacan town, Tehuantepec, assisting the teacher and owner, Victor, as native English speakers. We found this opportunity through HelpX, a volunteer and work exchange site with listings from around the world. At the school, we had classes with varying levels of proficiency from elementary school to adult ages for 4-6 hours per day in exchange for authentic meals and modest accommodations. It was our first experience teaching English and a unique opportunity for cultural exchange. We enjoyed getting to know the students with basic questions on the first day, learning where they are from (mostly from that area in Tehuantepec or surrounding pueblas), what types of music they like (they were so tickled that I like reggaeton, and I was surprised to learn that one student felt strongly that he hated it — most like or hate banda, and pop music was on the top of their lists), how many siblings they have, whether they play any musical instruments, what they like to do for fun, etc. Our main contribution seemed to be that because we are native English speakers, we can model and correct pronunciation. Outside of the classes, which had set times but usually started later, as with most things in Mexico, Victor took us to dine at various local places, sometimes with his students, others with friends or family members. One of our favorites was when we went to his sister’s home with him and his nephew, who helps him out at the English school, to eat garnachas, among other cuisine, from a nearby vendor. Garnachas are a specialty in Tehuantepec, although we also encountered them in Chiapas, Mexico, and Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala, later. Overall, we got the sense that Victor was very proud of where he comes from and lives and was enthusiastic about introducing and sharing it with us. He also seems to really care about his students and helping them learn English to enhance their opportunities in life.
Overall, we had a variety of travel experiences in Oaxaca and look back on it as one of our favorite parts of our travels in Mexico, mostly for the diversity of experiences and opportunity for cultural exposure we engaged in.
Until next time,