December 10—getting up early we finished packing, ate our grocery store breakfast and took a cab to the bus station. 9:30 bus left at 10:00. Talking to a nice Mexican young lady with her Spanish husband, clarified where the bus would depart. Bus trip included three generation families, couples and single ladies. Our bus drive showed us a cross section of Mexico out of the cities. The trip started in a dry jungle with bushes full of white/yellow tufted flowers. We drove along the coast to Santa Cruz and in land to Tehuantepec and then back into the mountains.
We saw people’s houses and businesses. some rundown. The dominant culture of the taxi in the cities existed even in some villages. Small eateries with plastic tables and chairs set along the bus route.
Colorful clothes hung on lines. I felt right at home because I love to hang my clothes outside. We saw farms with some crops growing and some fields resting. Green starts of vegetation apparent in some areas such as young seedling corn and more mature corn in other areas. I saw a field of palm trees where coconuts grew. Many agaves lay row after row even on steep hillsides.
Out our window we observed a big body of water. It seemed like a lake but we realized we were near the ocean. Some areas sectioned off with low water. It looked like rice production. Later on we saw a few rivers and greenery lush near water. Cows and horses grazed in fields. We’d see a large flat area and mountains rising from all sides. Once in the mountains we observed unusual red clay rock formations.
The bus rode on a very treachous two lane highway. It felt especially tense following a 16 wheeler. When driver passed the truck, it scared me because no clear straight away. I since learned that bus drivers use a radar system to know when it’s safe to pass. At half way point on our bus trip, we stopped for 30 minutes at rest area with a restaurant and gardens. We got a new driver. I can see why.
We both felt car sick from mountainous roads. There were many cut backs. Pete took Dramamine and I used a lot of peppermint oil and licorice root to keep my stomach calm. At sunset we drove through steep mountains streaked with sharp shades of pink.
Once in Oaxaca City we experienced bumper to bumper traffic. We took a taxi to the hotel. This hotel’s Spanish architecture consisted also of a large number of rooms centered about a courtyard–an indoor courtyard this time. It was a relief to make it safely to our room and get settled in for the evening. We ate big salads at the bar in the hotel. Full of fresh lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and avocados. We began to realize this type of delicious salad fit for royality was the norm.
December 11—up early and ate in restaurant courtyard at our hotel, down from our second story room. We once again ate frutas salad—bananas, cantelope and papaya. Next we filled up on fried eggs on a tortilla with salsa on top with an avocado—always with every meal.
First order of business was changing $1,000 pesos to smaller bills. I asked clerk at desk and no speak English, so another woman came to tell us where a bank was. We couldn’t find bank so headed to El Centro(Downtown area) and found a bank.
Walking down Biento Juarez we saw crowds of people like a holiday. We discovered a huge Mercado with lots of tents and booths—a combination of a big flea market and farmers’ market.
The crowds celebrated the feast of Lady of Guadeloupe. It was festive with balloons everywhere in different shapes. Little children dressed up—girls like peasant girls and boys like miniature matadors. We saw lines of people filing into the Guadeloupe Cathedral. We walked inside and found walls covered with ornaments—cloth and lots of gold. Parents were having their dressed up little children blessed by the priest.
We strolled up and down the aisles of the Mercado—lots of loud Mexican music and men selling items on loud speakers. We saw flea market booths with such things as Sponge Bob t-shirts, jazzy sunglasses and American CDs. Clothing booths had beautiful embroidered blouses and dresses. I found a blouse with butterflies I bought. Mexican polica with guns lined up along the Buento Juarez Mercado street.
Many tables set up to eat next to food booths. Mexican ladies made burritos in kitchen areas. The women first rolled the dough into a ball with their hands and then put it in a press to flatten. Next they cooked the tortillas on a little wood burning stove. As the dough cooked they added a filling such as beans, rice and vegetables and folded burrito in half and pinched the edges to keep it together. Smells of beans, rice, corn flour and meat permeated the air. Big piles of meat hung on spindles in the cooking areas. Families sat and ate at the tables near the cooking.
We observed streets full of people on sidewalks in El Centro. Taxis and other cars moved fast through the streets. We had to be careful when walking to keep away from fast moving vehicles. One cobblestone street between buildings where no cars allowed, offered a more relaxed walk through El Centro.
At the Visitor Center an outgoing young Mexican man who spoke English gave us a map and directions to the EthnoBotanical Gardens. We also learned about a shuttle from an El Centro hotel to Monte Albans, an archeological site.
We located the EthnoBotanical Gardens and learned of an English tour the next day from 11-1. So we decided to return instead of touring on our own. Walking around we found public bathrooms–five pesos for a visit.
Back to hotel for a rest, we headed out again to find a grocery store. Looking up directions on Internet was misleading but we asked on the street and we found a huge department store with groceries—all in one store.
We ended the day with a meal at the bar in the hotel. Again we ordered big fresh salads like the night before. Rice pilla and a tiny plate of seafood came on the house. Chef Victor did a demo for Pete’s salad preparing it at the table. He minced the garlic and smashed peppers and added anchovies. He explained he lived in San Marcos, near San Diego for awhile but moved back because his family lives in Oaxaca.
December 12—after eating our grocery story breakfast early, we walked again to El Centro to an open plaza area near Santo Domingo Cathedral. We saw a wedding party dressed up in long dresses and tuxedos, a young man playing guitar, beggars, streets vendors selling colorful bookmarks and a festival with booths celebrating Mezcal.
At a little before 11 we headed to the EthnoBotanical Gardens to go on an English tour. We learned use of plants and trees for such things as medicine, dyes, liquors and soap. We saw corn, beans and squash growing together in stone raised beds like the Indigeneous people farmed.
I saw only two plants I recognized from USA—Horsetail and Touch me nots. Once again we observed the Gringo tree with red peeling bark.
Two fifty year barrel cauti set along the zig zag walkways.
Much caution was used in moving these cauti to the gardens when it was re-stored. One tree called Elephant foot looked just like its name. Morro trees grew in the garden and were used to make cups and bowls.
Originally the gardens were part of the Santo Domingo Catherdral grounds. When Spain left the country, the Mexican army took over the gardens as a camp destroying the vegetation. The artist Francisco Toledo petitioned the Mexican government to restore the gardens. The government accepted his request and work began on restoring the gardens. Toledo, motivator of gardens, designed much of the gardens. He created a square red sculpture 8 foot by 8 foot made of Cypress for courtyard with running water over it. All plants and trees benefit from water from a cistern system. The cistern collects and stores water under the gardens. Now thanks to Toledo’s work, the gardens are back to being gardens again. Many cauti and agaves grew in garden. Agave, a succulent aloe plant with many uses from sweetener to clothing to soap. Large amount of agave grew near the bathing/washing pit at EthnoBotanical Garden because used for soap.
We learned how Indigenous People created Mexican red. The intense color came from cochineal insects that lived on prickly pear bushes. When crushing the insects it made the red so known today in Mexican fabric. The book “A Perfect Red” gives the history of Mexican red. Spain found the use of this native red when they invaded in 1500.
In the middle of the garden lay a two story modern glass greenhouse made of glass. Rare plants and their seeds are stored here. We walked the stairs to the top and saw 360 degree view of Oaxaca City.
After the garden tour we hung out at a lush green park with big low hanging trees. Tiny poinsettias to celebrate Christmas set in the dirt surrounding Zocalo Park.
The park filled up with Mexican families, children, lovers, musicians, beggars and street vendors selling crafts and pastries.
Next day we planned to visit the ruins of Monte Albans, so we needed to find the hotel where the van left to take us to the site. We walked through tiny streets with lots of produce vendors. Regular cars and taxis speed by so we had to be on our toes to not get hit. We’d heard about Oaxaca chocolate before coming to Mexico at home in NC. On way to hotel we passed along a narrow chocolate factory with bags of chocolate beans and machines churning out chocolate. What a sweet robust cocoa smell engulfed us as we passed.
On returning to Zocola Park, we found a place to eat at one of the eateries that surrounded the Square with a view of the park from our table. Again we ate fresh beautiful salads. I enjoyed black bean mole and rice and Pete ate pork enchaloto. From here we walked the half hour to our hotel to rest from another full day of exposure.
December 13—up at 6 and ate our fruit, nuts, cheese and crackers for breakfast and took a quiet walk to El Centro. Being Sunday less traffic to hotel. We hooked up with van at a hotel that drove us to Monte Albans archeological site of Indigenous People at time when Jesus walked the earth. Roads climbed treacherously back and forth through Oaxaca City rocking over bumpy earthquake cracks in the pavement. But views breathtaking as we climbed up, up, up. We could see Oaxaca and surrounding mountains.
The van dropped us off with other visitors at picnic area and we climbed up hill to museum. Here we saw drawings of high Pyramid type structures like found in Egypt that existed during the pre-Columbian period. Big stone carved statues depicted Indigenous men of this period. There were examples of pottery in glass cases.
Many Mexicans with their families and other groups made a Sunday outing out of visiting Monte Albans. From the museum we walked up to the ruins site. Here we observed a big flat area bigger than a football field surrounded by the pyramid structures. The place felt deep with spirits from another era. On tablets we learned animals played a key role in the life of the people who lived during the Zapotec civilization. Foxes, birds and other animals were sacred and used for food, clothing and tools. One tablet told of burying the dead in the walls of houses the people lived in. More carved stone structures depicted Indigenous men. We learned from the tablets that conquered tribes were used as sacrifice for fertility rites. Another tablet told about Ball courts. The Ball court existed as an I shape with angled roofs merging up from the ground up. These bowling type games were part of the rituals where major decisions of life and death were made.
At North and South end of Monte Albans we climbed to top of mountain and could see for miles around Oaxaca City. We observed trees covered with cotton like we saw before in Huatulco National Parque.
Waiting for van to return to city, we watch a little Mexican boy go through the trash to feed a stray dog wondering around the picnic area.
When I think about our trip to Oaxaca, I think about the fresh flavor of all the food we ate and the people who helped us find our direction. We learned about the plants used by native people who lived in Mexico before the Spanish. We indeed were exposed to the Mexican culture of people of long ago including our last day visiting the Monte Albans, a civilization from many centuries ago.