Our Exposure to Oaxaca, Mexico: Oaxaca City, Huatulco, and Tehuantepec

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.

Us with Paulina, our AirBnB host, before leaving Oaxaca City

Washing clothes in the kitchen sink – Real life on the road! 🙂

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.

The main square in La Crucecita during the day on Dia de los Muertos – Looks like this was prepped for the evening festivities on November 2nd!

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.

Our bedroom at the La Crucecita accommodation
Our bedroom at the school in Tehuantepec
The bathroom was most challenging for me to get used to for the week during our volunteer opportunity. I believe it was our first experience (that’s lasted to-date) where we had to throw away our toilet paper into the trash can instead of into the toilet. And that piping is the shower. The water was warm though, we think because the weather heats up the tank outside.

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.M. Siempre Cafe

Prices in Mexico feel like a great deal as an American – The exchange rate when we were there was about $20 MX to $1 USD!

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.)

Agua Fresca – Fresh water blended with fresh fruit then strained plus a little sugar
Tortillas con salsas, quesillo, y champulines (grasshoppers)!
Ceviche – This is different from the type we’re accustomed to, as it included chopped olives, and the lime juice the fish cooks in is drained rather than included
Creama de Aguacate – Avocado soup
Mole con pollo – Mole with chicken

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. 🙂

Holy mole!

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.

Calle Macedonio Alcala – The main, pedestrian-friendly street that leads to the Zócalo, or main square
Street art
The Zócalo
Park bench
My new friend
A peek into a local market
So many dried chiles at a local market!
Champulines, anyone?! 🙂
We ventured out to check out another local market, El Pochote, which turned out to be an organic food market! We were pleasantly surprised, uncertain of what type of market awaited us, but assuming something more typical that we’d already experienced throughout the city. There wasn’t produce for purchase at stands, but rather a bunch of small establishments featuring organic food and drinks on their menus.
Fresh salad from a vendor at the local organic market
Quiet walk back to our accommodation – I know, it looks a bit off-putting, but it is actually a safe neighborhood where locals live.
View from part of our walk back to our accommodation, below the stairs in the previous photo
More street art
Where we conveniently got our laundry done near our accommodation
A local handicraft I bought

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”.

Patiently waiting outside of our accommodation for our transport to the day tour we signed up for
Arbol de Tule, apparently the widest tree in the world!
Rug-making in Teotitlan del Valle
Mezcal-tasting at Fabrica de Mezcal
Where they roast the agave plants to make mezcal
Mitla – An archeological site that is of upmost importance in the Zapotec culture – Apparently also a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Hierve el agua – Natural rock formations that resemble cascades of water

There are also mineral pools you can swim in (but we didn’t – it was our last stop of the day and too cool for us to want to by that point, but others who were there earlier than our group were bathing in it when we arrived).

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!

Our plane, the smallest I’d ever been in (no standing room), which took us on a less than one-hour flight from Oaxaca City to Huatulco
One of Aaron’s shots from the sky – This area of Mexico is very mountainous, and I wanted to avoid the curvey roads encountered by overland travel before having to teach the next day to make sure I would feel my best to kick off the week! This was the only flight we took within Mexico and Central America.
View of the resort from our balcony!
My fitness studio hut for the week!
My first students and I after our first Zumba class together!
After a morning class together – The guys on the ends work on the Entertainment Team at the resort. They were comical to have in class with all of their cheering and movements!
After an afternoon class together – This group has ladies from Argentina, Mexico, Canada, and the U.S.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, three of these guys are professional dancers who performed for the resort guests that night! They of course were good dancers in class, but I felt humbled they chose to take my class!
My elevator selfie with my flyer advertising my classes for the week!
View of the resort from the onsite gym up on a hill – Aaron’s view for most of his workouts!
Me and my mudslide at the swim-up bar (I’d never been to one before)!

We took this same photo pretty much every night, lol
Chillen in lounge chairs on the beach
The classy way to dry laundry 😉
Out at the resort entrance
Dance performances from around the world
Willard had a good time at the resort, too!
This tub is great for relaxing or washing clothing!
Where we had some of the best showers we’d had in a long time!
And we each got our OWN sink – What a luxury!

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.

Ricky, the family parrot

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.

Gracy and her mom at the cemetery
Us with our gracious host!
While we waited at their family house for a ride back to La Crucecita, we were treated to traditional tamales with mole negra and pan de muerte. We also practiced our Spanish while Gracy’s mom practiced her English with us by pointing around the room to items and saying both the English and Spanish words for them. Also, hammocks are popular to have in homes in Southern Mexico and throughout Central America. We may have to buy one for ourselves and install it in our future home in Sacramento; it will certainly fondly remind us of our travels in this part of the world!
Willard likes to chill in hammocks, too!
Our apartment in La Crucecita – Not the most comfortable in our travels due to the heat, no air conditioning, and lack of screens on the windows in this area where there are mosquitos. It was worth it though for the overwhelmingly positive experience we had with our host family!
Laundry area
I developed a liking for guava fruit during our time in Mexico. They were more plentiful and fresh in the Central and Northern parts of Mexico we visited, but we found these in Oaxaca and still enjoyed them.

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.

Street the English school is on
Outside of the English school
One of the students plays in a mariachi band and treated us to his talents on his trombone. He had a performance with his group later that night.

I was really tickled because when I was writing the script from the book on the board, I changed the last sentence (it had agreed with going to get the junk food, and I didn’t like that and wanted to send a healthier message)… 🙂 Here’s Aaron teaching it to the class for them to repeat!
We were taken to a nearby puebla, San Blas, where one of the students lives. We had already eaten at the local cafe on our free night, but Victor found us there and invited us to go with a few of the students. We were full, but we shared a tlyuda, a local specialty that many of the students had been talking about.
Agua fresca from a bag and bucket. Most places that sell this popular drink on the street sell it in a plastic baggie with a straw in Mexico.
On the Saturday we were there, our host gathered his students for a group run. Apparently they do this every so often (according to one of the more seasoned students I spoke with, it’s when they have volunteers visiting). 🙂 We didn’t move much while volunteering since we were so busy at the school and going with Victor, his nephew, and his students places in most of our time outside of that, so we were looking forward to this active workout (especially Aaron, who loves to run and hasn’t had the opportunity to as much as he normally does back at home). Some walked, some jogged, some ran. I was invited to lead the group in some warm-up stretches and halfway point exercises. We ran into the countryside on an unpaved road, so we were careful where we stepped and took in the scenery as much as we could. 
Afterwards, individuals, pairs, and groups of students came up to us and asked to take photos and selfies with us! We felt like mini-celebrities! LOL
We loved the back of the t-shirts!

This was our first exposure to tuk-tuk type vehicles on this trip (my first ever).
The center of the main square in Tehuantepec
The “most important building” (says Victor), a.k.a. the municipal building, in Tehuantepec from the back side.
Street art
More street art
The main cafe eatery in town, which was a short walk from the school. We frequented this place whenever we could and enjoyed their fresh fruit and smoothies the most.

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,
Elena 🙂