Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca

One of the most informative tours in Oaxaca for me was the one at Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca. I waited until I had been living in Oaxaca for about 2 weeks before taking the tour and I’m glad I did, because by then I knew a bit more about some of the more commonly used herbs, vegetables, and plants in the region. The tour gave me a chance to learn more about them and also see how they grow.

I went to the earliest tour offered at 10AM to avoid the heat as much as possible. I had my hat with me but the office had plenty of sombreros for those in need.

IMG_3940When I arrived I visited the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures and Santo Domingo Cultural Center next door, so I had already seen how lovely the grounds were at this garden. I think even if you’re not a plant-lover this would be a great place to spend an hour or two. Note that you can only see the garden with a tour or when they have special events. Here is our tour guide-

IMG_3945He started us off with some of the native plants like chipilín (totally new to me but used often in Oaxacan cooking),
IMG_3949 amaranth,

IMG_3950and chia. By the way, chia is everywhere in Oaxaca and my favorite little courtyard cafe served a refreshing lemon-basil-chia drink. Thanks to E. for introducing me to the place!

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We passed by some very large pumpkins and new squashes.

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Pochote tree with sharp thorns!

IMG_3961 IMG_3962Giant biznaga cactus. Biznaga was also the name of one of the restaurants I went to often for lunch in Oaxaca.
IMG_3963Cactus tree. This tree was tremendous.
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Copal wood is used for alebrijes in Oaxaca. Alebrijes are brightly painted sculptures, usually of animals. Here is more info on alebrijes from wikipedia.

IMG_3970 IMG_3971Beautiful grounds of the Ethnobotanic Garden of Oaxaca. IMG_3972 IMG_3973 IMG_3982 IMG_3984 IMG_3985 IMG_3986Cactus fruit, prickly pear, or in Spanish, tuna. It’s a popular ice cream flavor in Oaxaca in the summer time but they can be consumed in variety of ways.

IMG_3989IMG_3991 IMG_3990 Plumeria or flor de mayo. Our guide told us that there are over 100 names for this flower. In Zapoteco, it’s called cacaloxóchitl. I had to look up the spelling…

IMG_3999I had a great time walking through the garden. I’d love to return and see what the garden looks like in the fall or winter…

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Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca: Reforma s/n esq. Constitución, Centro, Oaxaca, Mexico;  www.jardinoaxaca.org.mx

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Textile Museum of Oaxaca

Here is another little gem of a museum in Oaxaca that I visited multiple times during my month-long stay. Maybe it’s because I grew up watching my Mom sew, embroider, and knit, but I am fascinated by textile art. Whenever I was in centro my feet would automatically head towards the textile museum to take a closer look at a few huipiles and marvel at their beauty.

IMG_4720The pieces they have on display are from various regions of the state of Oaxaca and the flow of the rooms (or the staff will direct you) have you follow in a chronological order.

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Often times I was the only one in the museum so the staff trailed me from room to room.

IMG_4708 Each indigenous group has its own distinct designs and patterns, and different ways of stitching. The museum shop has a poster that shows all the different huipiles and dresses from various regions of Oaxaca. On a side note, the textile pieces they have for sales are expensive, but gorgeous and of great quality.

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IMG_4713 IMG_4714 IMG_4715 IMG_4716 IMG_4717 IMG_4718Every time I went I would find something else to stare at for a while.

IMG_4719 On Wednesdays at 17:00 they’re supposed to have a guided tour but there was never enough people (minimum of 5 visitors) to hold one. I kept showing up every week asking about the tour and the same security guard would shake his head to tell me to try again the next week. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be…

IMG_4709They also offer textile workshops where you learn to dye fabrics or weave. Again, my timing was off and I was never able to take a class. Maybe next time?!

 

Museo Textil de Oaxaca: Exconvento de San Pablo Hidalgo 917, Centro, Oaxaca, Mexico

 

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Auditorio Guelaguetza

The city of Oaxaca is relatively flat, but one clear days the hills and mountains surrounding it look close enough to touch them. In certain neighborhoods that are on higher grounds you get a wonderful view of not only the mountains in the distance but also the city itself under your feet. One of the first things I noticed when I arrived in Oaxaca was this white structure that look like some futuristic helmet. It looms over the city below and is visible from almost everywhere so I would sometimes use it as my compass. Funnily enough some locals call it Tanga de Hercules or Hercules’ thong.

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I’m always looking for a trail or places I can walk to explore and nearly everyone I talked to recommended that I climb up to Cerro del Fortín. Well, Cerro del Fortín turned out to be where this white structure was built and my skeletal helmut was an auditorium specifically built for the big pre-Hispanic festival of Guelaguetza which takes place every July.

I read later that in the recent years the auditorium and the festival itself have become quite controversial as more tourists and commercial endeavors are associated with them. For me, however, the auditorium was a destination for evening strolls and a way to get some exercise into my day. To get up there, I would run slowly walk up these stairs…IMG_4028There are usually runners, local residents walking their dogs, children playing around, and a few vendors selling soft drinks and snacks along the way. A few little streets branch off of the stairs into other neighborhoods, but this little alleyway always made me smile because of the helpful sign that says “alley with no name”

IMG_4180IMG_4181At the top of the stairs, there is a tunnel that goes below a major highway (highway 190). A few people warned me it could be dangerous up on Cerro del Fortín so I was mindful in the beginning to pick the time of the day when I thought there would be more people around.I think what they were referring to was the area behind the auditorium in the hills but I did find the tunnel a bit creepy. It could have been better lit, but I’d pass through it quickly and it wasn’t such a big deal.

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I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of murals inside the tunnel though.

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Once outside the tunnel, I was greeted by more murals.

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A few more flights of stairs later, I was rewarded with a panoramic view of the city of Oaxaca.

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You can walk further up the dirt road and get to the planetarium.

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Rather than taking the same road back down, I would follow the path in the back towards the parking lot. It gave me a chance to say hello to the large statue of Benito Juárez..

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IMG_4053A nice way to work up a sweat and enjoy the view..

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Itanoní: All Maíz All the Time

I had high expectations for food in Oaxaca and it didn’t disappoint. There was a great mix of old restaurants doing traditional Oaxacan foods and an impressive new wave of modern Mexican cuisine being created by talented young chefs. I had a tough time deciding where to eat everyday, but one of the places I wanted to visit was a small neighborhood restaurant north of the city called Itanoní. I knew the food there was local, organic, and all made from scratch with maíz as its base. It wasn’t until later I found out it was Alice Waters’ favorite restaurant in Mexico (per Travel + Leisure, 2009); given how Itanoní epitomizes “slow food” it makes sense she liked the place.

The first time I visited, I was accompanied by Alix so we were able to try a few different items. The second time I was lucky enough to have Elise with me so again, share-sies!

I tried atole (hot corn and masa based beverage) for the first time at Itanoní. It’s usually served at breakfast but since I’d never had it before, I thought I would give it a go. It was very mild, neither salty nor sweet. It would have been better had it not been 90+ degrees out but I followed it with a cooling agua, so all was good.

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Itanoní had a seriously extensive drinks menu! Not everything was available but you get the idea. Along with the typical tamarindo, papaya, etc aguas, they also had refreshing herb based beverages.

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But the real deal here was the tortillas. The ladies who worked there told us that they get different corn each day. They grind the corn using the traditional metate, make the masa and tortilla all by hand, and then grill them on a giant clay comal.

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That explained why the first time we went I only had white corn tortillas and on my second visit all the tortillas were made from blue corn. It depends on what kind of corn the restaurant gets each day!

With the tortilla of the day, you have a variety of fillings to choose from.

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On top we have the “antojadiza” (ground chicharrón, cream, cheese, and salsa), the bottom one has frijol, hierba santa, cheese, cream, and salsa.

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These tubular things below are what they called “tacos”- not exactly what I typically imagine “tacos” to look like. The left on has chicken (tinga de pollo al chipotle), mushroom taco is on the right (champiñones con cebolla y ajo).

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What was also interesting here were these triangular quesadillas called tetelas.

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Every combination we tried were delicious and I really liked the chill atmosphere. It may not boast the most amazing mole sauce or the spiciest chilies, but Itanoní hit the spot for me.

IMG_4222 I look forward to returning again to this little gem in the Reforma neighborhood.

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Itanoní: Belisario Dominguez 513, Reforma, 68050 Oaxaca, Mexico; www.itanoni.com

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Museo de la Filatelia de Oaxaca: An Unlikely Gem

A friend of mine is in Seoul today despite all the warnings about MERS. While he’s the one in the densely populated city of South Korea where they just reported the 23rd death from this respiratory virus, I’m probably a bit more worse for wear than he is. I woke up with a dull head, a sore throat, and a flurry of sneezes this morning. I suppose being in airplanes for so long and so often last month (10 flights, with the longest one at 12+ hours) was going to catch up with me eventually. It actually looks like a beautiful day here in Manhattan but I am putting myself under a quarantine, hoping whatever is ailing me will get out of my system quickly and I don’t infect anyone else. That means I am picking up where I left off in Mexico.. to a few places in Oaxaca that I really enjoyed visiting. One of them was a stamp museum.

Yes, I went to a stamp museum in Oaxaca.  And no, it’s not what most people who visit this lovely city typically put on their agenda. I was originally heading towards the gardens but I knew I would shrivel up like a raisin within minutes in the sun and humidity of midday Oaxaca. So I walked across the street and opted for the cool (and practically empty) stamp museum.

The security guard seemed a bit surprised to see a visitor but quickly waved me in saying entrance fees were donation based. The temporary exhibition was about humorous stamps, some with child-like cartoon images, some with deeper political messages.

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IMG_3803I noticed this set which depicted the mothers and grandmothers in Buenos Aires (Asociación Civil Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo) who since 1977 have been protesting in front of Casa Rosada for their children who “disappeared” during the Dirty War. When I lived in BA back in 2012 I learned some of Argentina’s history and of these women who still make this protest march each week wearing head scarves which have become a symbol of their fight.

IMG_3802The scarves are painted on the ground permanently in Plaza Mayor so even when the women are not physically there you are reminded of their cause.

P1050611I spent some time looking at stamps from all over the world and saw that they also had a nice library. The museum was larger than I thought! There was a lovely outdoor area in the back as well. It had a small cafe and there were a couple of ladies who were taking a tea break while a child did his school work. It was very peaceful and tranquil.

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Another room in the back had an exhibit entitled Arte Correo or Mail Art and the offices for the institute of historic organs of Oaxaca was next to it. But it was closed so picked up a pamphlet to learn more about it; they are dedicated to restoring and protecting old organs in Oaxaca. Their website is full of interesting information about these musical instruments that date back hundreds of years. There is even a map of where the organs are are in the state of Oaxaca (70+ of them) but now I’m way off the course. Back to stamps…

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While I liked the museum overall, the room I was most fascinated by was the bóveda, the vault where there were a number of letters Frida Kahlo wrote to her friend and doctor Leo Eloesser.

IMG_3810In these letters you can read about some of her medical problems (spine issues, inability to have children, etc) but also about her plans, her daily life, relationships, and her well-being. What a gem, right?  Perhaps if I knew about its existence beforehand, I wouldn’t have been so delighted to have stumbled upon it…

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But I hope more people will discover this place and enjoy it as much as I did. The stamp museum in Oaxaca is absolutely worth a visit!

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Museo de la Filatelia de Oaxaca: Reforma 504, Oaxaca, Mexico. www.mufi.org.mx

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Sunday Fun Day: Tlacolula and El Tule

Oh boy, am I really behind… Since my month-long trip to Mexico in April I went to California, Hawaii, Japan, and Singapore and now I’m in New York having a busy week catching up with friends. I really want to journalize my visit to Oaxaca and sort through my photos, so I will go back in time now and try my best. Here we go.

By the end of my third day in Oaxaca it became obvious that I was the only person who hadn’t seen or even heard of THE TREE. At school, my classmates shook their heads and laughed when I asked “what is this tree? it’s a tree?” I guess that’s what I get for not doing any research before coming down here. But I learned quickly enough that this tree in Tule must be visited and since I was heading out east, I decided to add a stop to my outing.

My primary destination for the day was the town of Tlacolula where each Sunday all the people in and around the village hold their tiangui, an open air market. There are tianguis in different villages on different days of the week. For example, San Pablo Etla has their market day on Wednesdays, Zaachila on Thursdays, Ocotlán, San Bartolo Coyotepec, and in the city of Oaxaca in Llano park there is a weekly Friday tiangui. I’ve been to my share of open air markets in many parts of the world so I thought I had a general idea of what I would see in Tlacolula, but what I saw and experienced there was so much better than I could have imagined. The colors, the smells, the sheer size and the vast number of vendors at the market were absolutely fantastic.

I knew it was going to be a hot day so I tried to leave relatively early, aiming to arrive in Tlacolula by 10:30. I caught a taxi colectivo on the corner by the baseball stadium and we took to the road headed directly east of the city.

IMG_3680The taxi colectivo dropped me off right in front of the market so I didn’t have to wander around (not that I would have, given how large the market was). Some vendors were still setting up and there weren’t a lot of people there yet. The first thing I saw were these large pieces of chicharones being fried up in large vats of oil.

IMG_3681 IMG_3682Sal de Gusano (spicy sea salt with toasted and ground agave worms) typically served with an orange wedge for mezcal.

IMG_3683Chicks and chickens for sale.

IMG_3686 IMG_3687Knife sharpening service. He was very happy to get the wheels going for me to take my photo.

IMG_3688Lots of ladies from nearby indigenous villages in town to sell their products and shop for what they need.

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IMG_3709Tejate, a pre-Hispanic drink popular in Oaxaca, is made with toasted corn, nuts, cacao, cinnamon, mamey flowers and seeds (see the ingredients on the watermelon in the photo), and served in painted gourd bowls (the bright red bowls in the photo below). All the ingredients are carefully toasted, ground into a paste using a metate, and mixed by hand with water and ice until it’s foamy and liquid.

IMG_3698Lovely church in Tlacolula.

IMG_3699There was a line of these ladies with live chickens and turkeys for sale. When I returned about an hour later, most of them were sold.

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A mountain of chili peppers… also all sold in a few hours.

IMG_3716There were plenty of yummy eats to choose from at the market. This squash blossom and quesillo combination is always hard for me to pass up.

IMG_3718These three siblings are happily munching on giant lollipops made of jicama, covered in lime juice and chili powder. When I asked their mother about the spiciness of what they were snacking on, she looked at me as if I was crazy for asking such a question. She shook her head emphatically and said “of course it’s not too spicy for them!” then offered to buy me one. I love Mexican kindness!

IMG_3720Along with the open air stalls and vendors, there were large covered areas as well. This one was all about bread.

IMG_3721In this section, you can buy whatever cut of meat you want and grill it to your liking in front of the stall where hot coal and grills were available. You would buy some green onions, peppers, tortillas, salsa, etc to make your bbq lunch right then and there.

IMG_3726 IMG_3729 IMG_3730 IMG_3731As for my lunch, I opted to find myself a home-cooked meal indoors, with proper tables and chairs. I ended up having a delicious stew and met a couple of local Oaxacans with whom I share a table.

I didn’t know which sauce was what and which stew had what meat. I chose the green stew in front and it was delicious.

IMG_3740 IMG_3742 IMG_3747After I walked back and forth a few times and poked around in all the nooks and crannies of the market, I got myself back in a taxi colectivo going to Oaxaca. I asked the driver to drop me off in Tule so that I could finally see The Tree.

There was a small fee to get in (I don’t know, the tree is so huge that you could easily just look at it from the plaza) and you could also pay a small fee to have a short guided tour by little kids who pointed out various animals figures you can make out in the formation of the tree.

IMG_3750IMG_3752Here you have it, a gigantic tree that’s more than 2,000 years old.. IMG_3757I took a break from the hot day sitting with some of the local residents taking refuge in the cool shade cast by the tree.

IMG_3758 IMG_3762With a bit of distance and the church building next to it, I could really see how large this tree is. It was a nice way to cap off a day of fun in Oaxaca. I hope you will continue to grow and flourish!

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“New” Ruins of Santa María Atzompa

After my mission out to Abasto, I felt fairly confident that I could make it to Santa María Atzompa on Saturday without getting into too much trouble.  We decided to get an early start to avoid the midday sun so I reluctantly skipped breakfast and went to meet E and N. When I got there I saw that our little group grew to 6 (more the merrier of course) and with me leading the way we headed to towards Abasto.  Because there was 6 of us, I thought it would be more comfortable if we took the bus.  But a bread vendor at the terminal kept telling us how there weren’t any buses to Atzompa and that we needed to take a colectivo.  Since I had seen a bus to Atzompa, I was inclined to wait for one but in the end we decided to just take a car.

The problem was that there were 6 of us plus the driver.  We were more than willing to split up and take 2 colectivos but at the firm insistence of our driver, we did one of those “this would NEVER happen in my country” thing.  E and N sat in the front seat next to the driver, and the rest of us (that’s 4 people- a 6ft+ guy, a tall Dane, a healthy ice hockey playing college student from Canada, and myself) squeezed together in the back.  Seat belts were out of the question but I noticed that there weren’t any anyway. If I had any freedom to move an arm or even a hand, I would have tried to take a photo of this ridiculous/hilarious/semi-dangerous situation, but I was too preoccupied with trying to balance my butt on a tiny bit of real estate available to me.  20 minutes of bumpy road later, we were dropped off in Atzompa.

A colectivo to Atzompa- imagine 7 people riding in this car…

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It was not yet 9AM on a clear Saturday morning but it looked like half the town (at least the female half) was outside sweeping the main road.  I wondered if this happened everyday or just on Saturdays…

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As I wrote yesterday, I found very little information on Atzompa so I really didn’t know how long of a walk it was going to be to reach the ruins.  But there was a hill in front of us so we followed it up.

IMG_3634And up,

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and up past a lady with her goats,

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and walked up some more.

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We began to rise above the little town and soon the valley of Oaxaca laid below us. I knew we wouldn’t see a lot of people there but I didn’t think we would see no one else along the way. The air was still cool and fresh, and I was thrilled to see the snaking mountain ranges surrounding us.

We finally arrived at the entrance of the ruins of Atzompa, and from the sign in sheet I saw that there was just one other person there (we never saw this guy though).  Woo hoo!

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There were still some section of the ruins in restoration and we were asked not to take photos there.  It felt a bit odd to be in the ruins but to see how “new” these ruins looked. Later, P, a local woman agreed with me and said that in a few years the ruins of Atzompa will appear more “authentic.” 

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What was also interesting about Atzompa is that the ruins here were of the people who lived there, a place of normal everyday life.  It wasn’t filled with religious symbols, carvings of gods or sacred grounds for worship.  

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I tried to imagine myself walking between the structures, carrying a basket of vegetable or perhaps a jug of water.  

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I squinted southward to the peaks in the distance trying to find Monte Albán.

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The vast valley below us looked peaceful and still.  I wondered what it would be like to stand there at night with all the starts shining above.

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Maybe it’s the small size of the ruins at Atzompa but I had a sense of comfortable rather than awe.  Unfortunately the museum wasn’t open (E. had found out that it’s run by the community unlike the others that are managed by the state) so we couldn’t visit, but I certainly enjoyed the experience.

We stopped at a tiny restaurant back in town for a late breakfast and much needed shelter from the unrelenting sun.  The 3 younger ones had enough energy to forge ahead to Monte Albán but the 3 of us (the original crew of E, N, and me) were done.  Done, as in “we can’t tolerate any more heat but we could stroll through the mercado de artesanía” kind of done.  So that’s what we did.  After all, Atzompa is famous for their green glazed pottery (which I found out later is the most popular in Oaxaca) and we were at the source.

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Even though I’m no longer “homeless” and now have a permanent place to live in New York again, it still feels odd for me to shop for real things.  Not that I was ever an enthusiastic shopper… So I had fun browsing at the market but no purchases were made by me.

We were able to find a colectivo heading back to centro right on the main street, and before we knew it we were back in Abasto.  Easy peasy, pan comido as they say. Santa María Atzompa may not be well-known but it was definitely worth checking out, especially since I was headed to a really famous place the next day…

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