The Amateur Traveler talks to Sarah Menkedick about her adopted home town of Oaxaca Mexico.
Sarah talks about her love for this sunny tropical city with both colonial and pre-Columbian roots. Oaxaca has recovered from its political troubles but tourism is still down so this may be the perfect time to explore its markets, sample its food, marvel at its ruins, and relax in its public square. Sarah’s top three reasons to come to Oaxaca are all food: mescal, mole, and chile.
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Things to do in Oaxaca
Sarah’s blog about Mexico – Huevos a la Mexicana
Jorge Luis Santiago’s photography – Sarah’s boyfriend
Posada Don Mario
Oaxaca City’s Cantinas and Pubs
Restaurant Los Pacos – famous for molé
Las Mariposas hotel
Small Tripods / Equipment to Stabilize Your Camera – Road Gear – Video Episode 1 – new video podcast from the Amateur Traveler focusing on travel gear and gadgets
Stacey wants pictures
Chris wants help
Chris: I’d like to welcome to the show, Sarah Menkedick, who is coming to us from Oaxaca, Mexico. Although you’re originally from Ohio, I understand. Sarah, welcome to the show.
Sarah: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Chris: And Oaxaca happens to be a place that I am actually looking at going right now, so I was very excited to have Sarah come on and talk to us about this destination. Sarah, for those people who aren’t currently planning a trip to Oaxaca, why should they?
Sarah: Why should they go? Well, I was thinking about this and I thought really what Oaxaca has to offer. I mean it’s got the big tourist attractions and what not, but I think it’s the little things that are what draw people to Oaxaca. The coffee and the cafes and the empanadas and the local food and I think really the best thing about Oaxaca is just the ability to walk around and have amazing weather and awesome food and drink and just sort of get out of the whole rhythm of your daily life at home for a while.
Chris: Ok. Now I’m someone whose oddly enough been to Mexico 13 times and yet never really been to Mexico. I’ve just been over the border into Tijuana on some volunteer work.
Chris: What’s going to surprise me when I come to Oaxaca?
Sarah: Well, I think especially if you’ve been going to Tijuana, I think what’ll surprise you is that it’s so clean, at least in the city center. That’s what surprised me because I had been to Mexico City before. Mexico City, I like it, but it’s just total chaos. So Oaxaca is actually very clean, and orderly and the downtown is very sort of poetic and romantic. So, the only other places I have been in Mexico are Mexico City and in traveling around the state of Oaxaca. But that was the one thing that took me by surprise when I got off the bus here was I thought, wow, actually seemed very sort of laid back and ordered.
Chris: Now a lot of people probably in the US, for instance, who have heard of Oaxaca, and every time I say it I pause to try to make sure I say it right because we should mention how this is spelled for people who are going to try and look this up.
Sarah: Yeah. It’s tricky. It’s Wahaca. Like W-A-H. Wahaca.
Chris: But it’s spelled O-A-X-A-C-A.
Sarah: Yeah, yeah. It actually comes from a tree. It’s a oaxacy tree. It’s like if you come here, you’ll see a ton of them and they’re these trees that have these bean pods on them and they’re call oaxacy. So Oaxaca, the name Oaxaca, comes from that.
Chris: Oh. Ok. I did not know that. And, as I started to say, a lot of people who have heard of it from the US unfortunately heard about it from some of the negative press that it got what is a year and a half ago with the teacher’s strike.
Chris: First of all we should say that you talked about it being clean and orderly. So really, at least for now, those troubles are behind it.
Sarah: Yeah. Well, it’s a pretty shocking difference because I was here for all of 2006 and into 2007. And then I moved to Beijing for a teaching position over there in China and when I left I mean there were still charred buses on the streets and there was still the remnants of chaos. And during that time in 2006, there was really almost no tourism and there were barricades everywhere. The city was occupied by the Federal police. And then I came back from Beijing, when was it, in summer of last year 2008 and it was a completely different city. I mean still they say tourism is about 70% right now so not at what it was. But yeah very, I mean, if you hadn’t heard that in the news or you hadn’t been there during that year, then you really wouldn’t even know. So it’s slowly growing back, which is why it’s kind of a good time to come now because it’s not too crowded, it’s not too full of tourists and it’s just sort of starting to take off again.
Chris: And especially for people coming down from the United States, there are some amazingly cheap airfares, which is why I’m looking at heading down this time. Less than $300 from San Francisco, for instance.
Sarah: Yeah, it’s incredible. I got a fare $300 roundtrip to Chicago and my family’s coming down to visit in March and they got $500 from Columbus to Oaxaca and for like a six-hour flight, so a great deal.
Chris: Now you mentioned that besides the normal tourist destinations. We shouldn’t assume that everyone knows the normal tourist destinations. So if you have a friend who comes down to visit you or when your family comes down to visit you, what would you take them to see?
Sarah: Oh my gosh. There’s so much. Well, I’d probably spend just one or two days just in the city downtown just walking around. Because like I said, it’s really like the little things here that I think make it worthwhile. Going to cafes and the zocalo and having a coffee or going to have a beer some where on a terrace. Enjoying the weather, especially if you coming down now in the northern winter. And then enjoying just the architecture. And there are so many streets where you can just walk and there’s fantastic architecture and these old buildings. Then I would take them to the Santo Domingo Church and they have this amazing museum there. I mean you could spend hours and hours inside, about the history of Oaxaca. And that’s free on Sundays. So I would take them there. And then I would probably take them to the Ethno-botanical Garden, which is fantastic. And they have guided tours there in both in English and Spanish and they have all these crazy Mexican plants. So I would spend a few days just roaming the city. There are a couple of other museums that are really worthwhile.
Chris: Pausing just a second before you leave the city, which you are about to do. When we talk about architecture, we’re talking about a colonial city so the architecture is going back for 300 years?
Sarah: Yeah, yeah and even before that I think.
Chris: Even before that, ok.
Sarah: Yeah. I think Oaxaca was founded in what the 1600’s so…
Chris: Ok. I was off by a century there.
Sarah: They have all sorts of codes, like city building codes so that they can’t build anything over a certain height and there can be no billboards or anything like that. So…
Chris: And then you mentioned the zocalo.
Sarah: The zocalo is definitely sort of like the tourist center of the city. But that being said, it’s worthwhile to go there and have a beer there, have a coffee there just because there’s so much public life there and it’s something that I don’t think you get much of in the US. Because there’s tons of kids running around and people walking through there, musicians and what not, so it’s definitely worth spending some time there.
Chris: And that’s the central square or the downtown area? What does that define?
Sarah: That‘s sort of the central square. What I would say is you can sort of divide the city in two based on that. A little south of the zocalo, things are going to be like a little more chaotic, a little bit rougher once you start getting further south of the zocalo and then north of the zocalo you have the major sort of downtown area with the Santo Domingo Church and most of the restaurants and things like that and then even farther north are like the really nice neighborhoods and what not in Oaxaca.
Chris: Ok and then you started, I think, to go out of the city center.
Sarah: Yeah. My recommendation really would be that if you’re only going to be here for three or four days, then a lot of the guide books and things will tell you oh go here and here and here and this and this village. I think it ‘s worth it to just spend say three days walking around and sort of enjoying the city center. And there are some great neighborhoods right around the city that I don’t think the guidebooks really mention but that are within like a 15 minute walking distance of the city that are worth exploring. So you know I would recommend that if you are just going to be here for a weekend or something sort of sticking to that and then
Chris: What neighborhoods are those?
Sarah: There’s one called Xochimilco. Which is this old beautiful aqueduct there and it’s all cobblestone streets and these little alleyways with stairs and what not. It’s really romantic. And do you want me to spell that for you?
Chris: Sure, please.
Sarah: X-O-C-H-I-M-I-L-C-O Xochimilco.
Chris: And that explains why I wasn’t able to figure out what that meant in Spanish. That’s not a Spanish word.
Sarah: No. Yeah. The most difficult ones are not going to be Spanish words. And there’s another one that’s like within a stone’s throw of the Llano Park, which is right in the center of the city. That one is Tlaetleco, which is T-L-A-E-T-L-E-C-O.
And that’s another neighborhood that’s just little cobblestone streets and there’s like an organic grocery store there and a church. There’s usually never anybody there and so if you want to sort of get out of the traffic of Oaxaca, it’s a really nice place to just wander around.
Chris: And you said what the guidebooks usually recommend or what tourists usually do. What do the guidebooks recommend that you think you wouldn’t recommend personally – not worth the time?
Sarah: I found that like in the Lonely Planet, which is what I used whenever I came down here as a tourist a couple of years ago. The restaurant recommendations are really pretty bad and so I would sort of ignore that.
Chris: That’s interesting. That’s unusual.
Sarah: Yeah. Living here afterwards I was thinking, God, I’d never go to any of those places and not because they’re for tourists but just because I don’t think they’re that great. And they don’t include like some of the newer coffee shops and places that are
So I would sort of give that a pass. And then like I said if you are only here for a short period of time, I don’t know if it’s really worth it to go like racing around to all of the nearby villages. But that being said, if you are here for maybe five days or so, I think it is totally worth it to get out of the city and go explore the central valleys. And there’s some great things to do there. So..
Chris: And you’ve said they’ve got the wrong restaurants in Lonely Planet because they miss what?
Sarah: Aha, well. Umm. Well, one thing that they miss is there’s this phenomenon, I think throughout Mexico, but in Oaxaca as well where they have botana bars, which is sort of like the Mexican equivalent of tapas, Spanish tapas. See you go and with each beer that you order, they’ll bring you botanas which are could be like tostadas or tacos or soup or whatever it will be.
So there are a couple of those bars scattered throughout the city and I’ve never seen a tourist there but they’re definitely crammed full of Mexicans and the mariachis will come to your table and it’s chaos overall, but it’s great Mexican chaos. So I would recommend a couple of those that are sort of tamer and that are within the city center. There’s one that’s right next door to a hostel actually and right in the city center. If you are walking up Porfirio Diaz, which is one of the main central thoroughfares.
Sorry, I don’t know the exact street name. There’s a hostel there, Posada Don Mario.
And then there’s a botana bar right next door that’s called Tomas Inn. Like Tomas and then Inn I-N-N.
And so if you’re just walking down the street you would probably never really notice it because it’s pretty discreet. But if you go inside, there will be mariachis and with every beer that you have, they’ll serve you some sort of dish. It could be mole, it could be a tlayudas. It’s definitely worth checking that out. And there’s another one of those in the Llano Park, which is pretty much in the center of the city. A little bit to the east in the city. So if you’re walking up Benito Juarez. The street is Benito Juarez.
And you get to the Llano Park, there is a bar there called El Paseo.
That’s another bar where they’ll give you with every drink. They usually give you seafood botanas there like shrimp cocktails and fish of some sort and whatever, so that’s worth checking out.
Chris: And is there a particular cuisine. I think of Oaxaca as being a particularly foodie city, if I may. Is there a particular cuisine or dish that is signature to that area?
Sarah: Well the moles, of course.
Chris: That’s what I was thinking. Ok.
Sarah: Yes. Oaxaca has its seven moles. So…
Chris: Its seven moles?
Sarah: Yeah. There are seven traditional moles. The most popular and the most well known is the mole negro.
But there’s also the yellow mole which is fantastic and a green and sort of coloradito they call it, which is like a red mole.
Chris: A red mole, ok.
Sarah: One of the most famous places to go for that is a restaurant called Los Pacos.
Sarah: And that is on Abasolo ,which is just a block off of the main pedestrian street so really easy to get to. And there you can order a plate of like three different moles of your choice.
Sarah: So you can sort of test them all.
Chris: Now the mole negro. That’s the one that is made with chocolate or when I say chocolate – cocoa, unsweetened cocoa.
Sarah: Right, yeah.
Chris: But the other six are not?
Sarah: I think coloradito, the red one. That’s also made with chocolate. But it uses a different chile.
Yeah. And they all have dozen’s of ingredients: local spices and bananas and peanuts and cinnamon and just a ton of things so…
Chris: The other thing that I think of when I think of Oaxaca is the ruins.
Sarah: Yeah. It’s definitely a great place to come if you’re interested in archaeology and prehispanic culture. Monte Alban Zapotec Archeological site. It’s pretty amazing because basically the Spaniards didn’t find it when they came so it wasn’t discovered until long after the Spaniards had gone.
And so it’s really well preserved and it’s this incredible example of Zapotec architecture from around 900 AD and it’s within like 20 minutes of the city and so you get there, you can get there with a bus or with a tour and you would never know that you are in this colonial, pretty modern city. It’s definitely worth going there and then there’s also Mitla, which is about 45 minutes outside of the city and so you can get there again either with a tour or by car and that’s another Zapotec city. That one’s a lot more deteriorated because the Spaniards did discover it and so..
Chris: Got it.
Sarah: there was a lot more destruction there. Yeah. But both you definitely, definitely want to get a guide for both of them because
Chris: That’s just what I was going to ask. Ok.
Sarah: Yeah. It’s just so much more worth it with a guide. You can do it alone but unless you know a great deal about prehispanic archaeology you’re going to be a little lost. So..
Chris: And is that something you would get in town before you go up there or are there local guides there when you get there?
Sarah: Yeah, you could easily do it just getting a local guide when you get there. From Mitla, I would say it might be worth it to take the tour because
Sarah: They’ll take you like to a mescal factory before hand
Sarah: Which is pretty cool and they’ll take you to a couple of different places. And I didn’t see many tour guides wandering around when I was there. But if you go to Monte Alban, for example, you can easily get a bus or a taxi from the city center and then there are tons of guides there and they’ll all be wearing their like authorized passes and what not to show that they’re authorized guides and then that should cost you maybe 200 pesos or like $20 for a guide.
Chris: Ok. And one of the things that always impressed me with, I believe, the 2nd sight that you’re mentioning is the fact that they just took off the top of a mountain to put a city there.
Sarah: That’s Monte Alban.
Chris: Yeah, right. That really just gives you a better sense of what they were capable of, I think, then we sometimes give them credit for.
Sarah: Yeah. Yeah. It’s amazing and that’s actually what my mom and my stepfather came down and they were just stunned because you really don’t hear much about Monte Alban but when you get there the size and the scale I think are almost as impressive as some of the other major archeological sites that you see in Mexico.
Sarah: And then once you get the tour and you find out about all of this Zapotec astrological research and what not, it’s really fascinating. So.. definitely worth it to tour there.
Chris: And where would you recommend to stay?
Sarah: To stay, ok. I have a couple of places. There are a lot of great little hotels in Oaxaca.
These would be sort of mid range. So in the $40-60 range. And those would be a hotel called Las Mariposas which is, translates as the butterflies.
That is on Reforma. The street Reforma. And there’s actually another place right across the street from that hotel. They’re self-catering apartments and so if you come down for a week
Chris: Ok, for a longer stay.
Sarah: Yeah. That costs you about $400 a week, which is a pretty good deal because you get the kitchen and they do laundry and clean for you and what not. That’s a block from Santo Domingo and right in the downtown so really convenient. There are also other apartments on the street – Ma Bravo. So M. Bravo.
Sarah: And I think those are $200 a week and they’re a little less fancy. The other one is in this old sort of colonial building. But with a kitchen and an oven and all sorts of modern conveniences. And again a stones throw from the city center. So if you are going to come down for a week or so this is another way to make yourself feel a little bit more at home and I think it comes out a lot cheaper than staying in a hotel. And then yeah there are several hostels too I found.
Chris: And then you talked about taking a bus up to the ruins. Is that the best way to get around – public transportation?
Sarah: Yeah, by far I think. No, with taxi’s you need to negotiate the fare. So definitely you should not be paying anything more 40 pesos for a taxi.
So what you should do before you get into any taxi, you should definitely say, “How much will it be to go to such and such address?” and to say within 35-40 pesos this is the norm. So if you’re a tourist they might try and go for 50 or 70 or something like that. So, yeah, at night you could go in taxis but you really shouldn’t be going anywhere that would require a taxi if you’re in the city center. And then the buses are going to be about five pesos and they go pretty much everywhere. And if you want to get out to the villages outside of the city, you can also take a collective taxi, called collectivos. If you can figure that out, they’re better than buses because they’re a little bit more comfortable and they’re going to be about six or seven pesos. Maybe more if you’re going all the way out to Mitla or a place like that.
And they’ll have the destinations written on the front of the taxi and what not. So..
Chris: What’s the best day you’ve had in Oaxaca?
Sarah: The best day I’ve had? Oh gosh. That’s a hard one. Ok, so the best day I had recently was actually New Year’s because we went in the morning to the Merced Market and we ate chilaquiles, which are classic Mexican breakfast food. And so I got green chilaquiles there and they come in this like sizzling hot clay pot. So we ate chilaquiles at the market and then we drove up to the Sierra Norte, which is about an hour and a half drive from Oaxaca. And we went hiking in the cloud forest there and it’s like a completely different landscape from the city.
And they say that Oaxaca has some of the most biodiversity in the world. So you can see just these incredible flowers and trees and their maguey plants. They are agave plants, I guess. Which is what they make mescal out of in Oaxaca. But there in the Sierra Norte they are literally bigger than me. I mean they must be at least six or seven feet tall and about a foot or two thick.
Chris: Wow, ok.
Sarah: So they’re amazing. Yeah, so we went hiking up there and went to a little restaurant there and had some coffee and chocolate and then came back down to the city and went out and had a couple of beers. And so.. Walked around. That was my perfect day in Oaxaca.
Chris: One warning you would give before you go to Oaxaca?
Sarah: Warning? Definitely, like most places in Mexico you want to be warry of pickpockets especially if you’re going to be in the major tourist areas like the 20 de Noviembre Market and the zocalo and places like that. Crime wise, Oaxaca is pretty safe and pretty tranquillo in the center of the city. But at nighttime, you definitely want to be a little bit cautious. I mean you don’t want to be sort of walking around back streets with not a very clear idea of where you are. So if you are out past one or two, it might be a good idea to take a taxi back to your hotel and sort of take precautions.
And one more thing that’s important is a lot of buses and a lot of taxis leave from the Central de Abastos. Which is like the big sort of downtown bus station. You definitely want to be very careful there, wandering around because there are a lot of sort of petty crime that goes on there so they could steal your cell phone or your bag or whatever. So you just want to be really aware of what is going around you if you are going to go there.
Chris: Obviously would recommend people to learn Spanish or some Spanish before they go. If they don’t, if you just know English, get by ok?
Sarah: Uh – yeah. Oh yeah. You should have no problems in the city center. Yeah. There’s a lot of .. And they have little tourist booths stationed around the city so if you’re really lost you can go there and ask for help or information or what not.
Chris: The first time you went, what do you wish you had known?
Sarah: What do I wish I had known? I wish I had had a better sense of the geography of the city because I spent most of my time pretty much wandering around the zocalo and south of the zocalo. And had I known about well I guess the different restaurants and what not that are further north of the zocalo and had I known about the sort of other neighborhoods Xochimilco and Habra Blanco that are right next to the city but you just cross a couple of the periphery roads and you’re in these other sort of cobblestone old colonial neighborhoods. I definitely would have wandered around there and I would have wandered further north of the zocalo had I had a better sense of the layout of the city and what not.
Chris: And here is a sentence for you to complete. You really know you are in Oaxaca when ________what?
Sarah: You really know that you’re in Oaxaca when the mariachis come to serenade you and you take a sip of your spicy beer, your michelada with chile spice, and a big bite out of your tlayuda, which is a tortilla about the size of your head.
Sarah: Seriously, you’ll see when you come down here.
Chris: I have a rule never to eat anything larger than my head, I believe. One thing you should pack before you go to Oaxaca?
Sarah: Well, sunscreen for sure. Especially if you are a fair skinned northern type. Yeah, because the sun doesn’t get too hot here. It’s really not that sort of dense tropical heat. But the sun is really intense and so especially in mid afternoon if you are going to be roaming around, you going to want to have a hat or some sunscreen.
You should also bring a sweater or something chilly because it can get down 45-50 degrees at night. And sometimes especially in these months it can get pretty chilly. So…
Chris: As we go to wind this down, if you had to summarize Oaxaca in three words, what three words would you use?
Sarah: Hmm. Can they be in Spanish?
Chris: As long as you translate for us.
Sarah: Ok. It should be pretty obvious. I would say mescal, chocolate and chile.
Chris: All things to eat or drink. Ok.
Sarah: All things to eat or drink. That’s why I’m telling you that’s why you should come to Oaxaca – the little things.
Chris: Interesting. Ok.
Chris: Well, thank you so much for coming on the show. We’ll put a link; I think you’ll have a new blog up by the time this comes out. We’ll put a link to your new blog. I think you’ve got an article coming out about which cantina’s to go to. We’ll also put a link to that. Thank you so much for coming on the show and telling us about your current adoptive home city of Oaxaca.
Sarah: Well, Thank you so much for having me and enjoy your trip in Oaxaca.
In Internet resources today, I’m going to recommend a new podcast, which is focusing on travel gear and gadgets called Road Gear, and it’s from the makers of the Amateur Traveler. I’ve just put out the first episode today. It’s a video podcast. So check that out. I’ll put a link in the show notes or you can just go over to AmateurTraveler.com. Hopefully this is something I’m going to be able to keep up. I’m not quit sure – my schedule is very busy.
And speaking of busy, I got an email today from Stacey who says, “I’ve been listening to your podcast for quite some time now and I really enjoy it very much. I do however have one question. I often listen to your show on my iPod while driving so I don’t always have the opportunity to look at the photos shown during the podcast while listening. I have on several occasions visited the Amateur Traveler website to try and look back at the photos from a particular episode but I can’t seem to be able to access them. Am I missing something? It would be great if the photos were available to scroll through.”
And I had to write back to Stacey and say unfortunately I have not taken the time. It would probably take another hour at least to put the photos also up on the site so that’s not something that I’ve done yet. One thing I might suggest though is when you get home, get back from the gym or in Stacey’s case, home from your commute, you can bring up the show on itunes if you’re listening to the show that has the pictures and then just scroll through quickly. You don’t have to listen to it again but you can get an idea of what pictures I used and that would be one way to do it right now.
And then thinking of things that I don’t have time to do, one of the things that I’m looking at potentially doing. I talked to some of the other travel bloggers I know and one of them at least has a intern who helps her out with a number of things. I would love to do something like that and would be glad to train someone on Internet marketing and podcasting and blogging and those sorts of things. If you think this might be something you’re interested in, then lets have a conversation. Contact me and we can figure out whether it’s mutually beneficial. Probably I would be looking for something like a three-month commitment and could even do something where we sign papers if it was a student and you were trying to get credit for class. But I think we could do something that would be educational and helpful for me at the same time. I can’t really hire somebody right now because I haven’t got advertising revenue from the show to support that. So let me know if that’s something that is of interest to you.
Also, if you’re interested in blogging for the Amateur Traveler, I am always looking for guest bloggers. So again let me know if that is something of interest to you.
Thanks to Cindy the Amateur Traveler intern for transcribing this interview