Public Transportation in Oaxaca: Hmmmm

The city of Oaxaca within the limits of the periférico isn’t very large.  After a week of walking around inside the “boundaries” of the city, I could navigate the streets here without much difficulty.  The streets are well marked and in grids, making it very easy to find one’s way.  Having figured out more or less where everything is, I decided to take a side trip out of the city.  It started with my new friend E., who suggested we visit a little town called Santa María Atzompa about 20 minutes northwest of the city.  There wasn’t much written about the place from what I could gather and that intrigued us both.  Since there wasn’t much I could find, I did a little bit of footwork in advance to see if I could figure out how to get there and back using local public transportation.

I’ve taken buses, taxis, and colectivos in other Mexican cities, but I found that things work a bit differently in Oaxaca.  To reach the smaller towns outside of the city, most people take buses or colectivos from the 2nd class terminal near Abasto market.  It puzzled me exceedingly when I walked over there though because I couldn’t actually SEE a terminal.  What I found there were just streams of buses and taxis that seem to be coming and going in all different directions.  I had to cross the busy periférico to get to where all the buses, taxis, and people were, which was rather chaotic.  I actually climbed up a pedestrian overpass to get a better view but honestly, it didn’t help me very much.

The maroon and white taxis serve as “colectivos” where up to 6 passengers share a ride to a specific destination.  You have to stand along this road and wait for the colectivo headed to the place you need to go (or at least in the direction of where you want to go).  If the car isn’t already full, you hop in.  Yup.  This scene = stress for me.

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Buses weren’t much better either.  Basically the same principal applies there where when you see the bus with the name of the destination written on its windshield, you flag it down and get on.  It looked like most of the buses had a guy who yells out the destinations as well, but if you’re not used to hearing the names of the villages, the way they refer to that particular town (how the villages are named and called are two different things), or if you don’t know which village is where, it’s rather daunting to figure out which bus to take.  My solution?  I asked a friendly police officer and stood there next to him until he pointed out the bus and colectivo headed to Atzompa appeared so that I knew what they looked like.  He told me that the bus to Atzompa was blue and green, and the colectivos to Atzompa could be found on the north side of the terminal. He thought I was headed out just then so he even hailed one down for me.  What a nice and helpful guy!  Of course I was only checking things out so after making a mental note of everything, I thanked him and left.

IMG_3627Things were slightly less “chaotic” up north by the baseball stadium.  One block east of the stadium, there is another terminal stop for the buses and colectivos headed east of the city.  Again, I was looking for a structure, something with signs or numbers but none could be found.  What I saw was a group of people with the identical tilts in their heads all searching for a glimpse of their ride.  Having already been to the larger chaos over in Abasto, my confusion by the baseball stadium was brief and quickly overcome.  I had plans to visit the small town of Tule and check out the tianguis in Tlacolula on Sunday, and this recognizance mission allayed my fears of hopelessly getting lost even before reaching my destination.  Always to be better prepared when traveling solo, you know?

As far as I can tell, there are no published timetables or routes for buses and colectivos in Oaxaca, and some bus companies don’t operate or stop at Abastos or by the baseball stadium.  They have their own garages somewhere in the city where they set off to various destinations, weaving out like a giant spider web.  With such lack of organization, the saving grace I suppose is how affordable it is to travel by public transportation here.  A ride in a colectivo to Atzompa was 8 pesos, which meant that my excursion outside the city cost me about $1USD round trip.  A bit farther out to Tlacolula on Sunday was 20 pesos one-way but the distance traveled was longer than Atzompa.  Buses are even cheaper than colectivos– a bus ride to Tule is 6 pesos vs. 11 pesos for a colectivo.  It feels like the system here is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from a place like Stockholm where last summer I marveled at how efficient everything was.  I could plan out my route in advance on the web, use a mobile app to predict when the next bus/metro will arrive and track its movements, easily bought and topped-off my transport card to pay for my rides.  Heck, I could even have my ticket texted to me.  But for that convenience and organization, I easily paid 5X what Oaxaca offers.

Is one better? Or worse? Well, had I been able to plot everything out by searching the internet, I would have never talked with a Oaxacan police officer for 15 minutes and get a great real-life Spanish lesson. I think maybe I would settle on “different” rather than comparing the these two vastly different places. I try to take them all without judgement so that they add up to the sum of my traveling and learning experience. I suppose that’s one of the reasons why I can never say where my favorite place in the world is…

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Pochote Xochimilco: Organic Market in Oaxaca

I love a good open air market.  If food is sold there, even better.  If there is organic food and produce?  Fantastico!  Every Fridays and Saturdays, the courtyard of the church in Xochimilco (simply called Iglesia de Xochimilco) becomes a fun organic market for a few hours.  I’ve been going there every week to get my tomale fix, and to buy fruits and vegetables.

IMG_3620All last week I had been dreaming of this delicious mole negro tamale from this sweet lady but when I arrived little after 13:00, she had already sold out of ALL of her tamales.  NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!  Of course there were other options for food and I could have had a memela or a tlayuda, but I had my heart set on those tamales!

In the photos below, tlayudas are the big ones, they’re like Mexican pizzas found everywhere around Oaxaca. For a quick snack, I get its cousin, memelas or memelitas that are much smaller in size. They lay out all these different ingredients and you get to choose the topping/fillings you want.  At this market, I tried a memela with frijol (black bean sauce), huitlacoche (a type of fungus that grows on corn, totally edible/yummy) and quesillo (Oaxacan “string cheese”).  They are quickly grilled on a comal (a flat griddle) until the cheese melts.

IMG_3611 IMG_3612 IMG_3613 IMG_3614 IMG_3615 IMG_3616The ladies there told me that their salsa de tomate asado (roasted tomato salsa) was spicy so I put that on top of my memela.  If I had more courage, I would have tried the salsa de chapulín though (salsa made with ground grasshoppers).

IMG_3617Not wanting to give up on my tamale quest, I walked over to a different open air market (tianguis) in Parque Llano (it’s only open on Fridays), but sadly they weren’t as good.  So I returned again on Saturday to Pochote Xochimilco for another try.

I have now tried all 4 types of tamales this lady makes, and my favorites are chepil (a local herb used in Oaxaca- photo of tamale de chepil is below, it’s also known as chipilín) and mole negro with chicken.

IMG_3618Yes, that’s right. For all 4 tamales it would set you back 31 pesos, about $2USD at present.  2 tamales is quite enough to fill me up, but I get greedy and buy at least 3…

IMG_3619 I don’t have a kitchen here so I’m not able to cook at all, but I love buying these small heirloom tomatoes to munch on.  I got this giant bag full of them for 10 pesos ~$0.67 USD. I love this country!

IMG_3622There are also artisans that sell their crafts at the market and one can easily find beautiful tapetes (rugs), huipiles (traditional blouses), and ceramics, etc.  But well, as my interests are usually on the food stuffs I skip most of those.  I wonder if I’d ever get tired of tamales….???  Can’t wait for Friday!

 

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Remains of Old Aqueducts: Los Arquitos

When I spent a month in Puebla almost 10 years ago, a lot of people I met there were traveling through Puebla on their way to Oaxaca. I didn’t know much about Oaxaca then.  When I was living in Mérida a few years back, there was a group of artisans and vendors from Oaxaca that came for a festival.  There I got a little taste of the famous Oaxacan chocolate, mole, mezcal, and saw a bit of the fantastic crafts that came from Oaxaca.  I always knew I would visit Oaxaca one day and well, here I am. Usually I do a lot of planning and research before visiting a new place but with Oaxaca, all I did was pick a Spanish school I wanted to enroll, check the weather for the month of April, and buy my plane tickets.  I didn’t even invest in a guide book.

I know for a fact that this way of traveling would not have gone down very well with me 4-5 years ago, but so far it’s working out just fine.  I’m learning about great restaurants, places to visit, and museums to check out by talking to people and the fact that I don’t have a set list of places and things to do is kind of liberating.  I’m beginning to think that maybe a “type A” person can change… a little??

I’m staying about three quarters of a mile north of the zócalo in a quiet residential area on a hill (it’s not San Francisco steep but steep enough to want to walk it not more than 2-3 times a day).  I’ve been taking different routes back home from here and there of course, and discovered this small area below the hill where a series of old stone arches run up north towards the mountains.

IMG_3537It turns out that a few centuries ago the Oaxaca’s city founders had an aqueduct built to bring water down from the natural springs up north in Cerro San Felipe.  While the ancient aqueducts are no longer in use, the town where the aqueduct begins is still called San Felipe del Agua and these arches (los arquitos) still stand.  The fun thing is that the inhabitants of Oaxaca have utilized the spaces behind the arches to build various stores and houses.

It’s a nice stroll from the famous Iglesia y Ex-Convento de Santo Doming up to Los Arquitos, and there are plenty of quaint little nooks to explore along the way.  I usually take Acalá part of the way or just follow García Vigil to the arches.

IMG_3540A little panadería (bakery) tucked behind one of the arches.

IMG_3539Restaurant El Pavito, another business under the arches.

IMG_3530Door to a house.

IMG_3535A couple of the arches actually lead to a small enclosure, plaza, or another street.  This one has the Archangel Gabriel looking over the little plaza.

IMG_3532 IMG_3529I’ve walked past the arches farther north to see this bit of the old structure but one morning maybe I’ll make it all the way over to the source, San Felipe del Agua, way off the beaten path.

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Breakfast of Champions: Mexican Edition II

I have professed my love of breakfast many times in the past and one of the reasons I decided to stay at a bed and breakfast in Oaxaca was so that I would get a delicious desayuno Oaxaqueño everyday.  Now a week into my month-long stay in Oaxaca, I can say how glad I am I made that decision.

My first morning, I was greeted with this Oaxacan dish called mollete con chorizo.  It was cooked chorizo, some beans, cheese, and fresh salsa on a piece of bread.  The green bits are really spicy peppers and they made me perk up!

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The next morning, it was molete de plátanos.  Mashed plantains stuffed with green chiles formed in oblong shapes, served with mole negro and cheese.  I really liked the sweet and savory combination of this dish.

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Here is something I’ve never head and really enjoyed.  It’s a popular local Oaxacan dish called tlayuda.  You can find this everywhere in this city, all over the zócalo and the markets. This large tortilla is made by hand, and it was filled with cabbage, black beans, chorizo, avocado, tomato, and quesillo (queso Oaxaqueño, delicious stringy cheese).  Unlike the quesadillas I had in the past, the tlayuda was grilled and crispy on the outside.  It was served with homemade tomatillo salsa.

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If you’re thinking the portions are huge, well they are.  I have been eating such large breakfasts every morning that I’m rarely hungry until well into the afternoon.  It’s just as well since the big meal of the day, la comida is lunch and I’ve learned to eat around 3PM and forgo having dinner altogether.

Sunday was chilaquiles day.  Crunchy pieces of tortillas topped with a sauce made with guajillo peppers, melted cheese, and shredded chicken.  I really should not have eaten the whole dish but I did…

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The hits keep coming!  This was yesterday’s breakfast of burritos packed with scrambled eggs and green beans.  The ladies busily made fresh guacamole in a large molcajete next to the breakfast table just before adding it on top of the burrito.  Oh, and there was some black beans and cheese, too.

IMG_3556I neglected to take a photo of the breakfast area but the kitchen and the dining area are both outdoors in the courtyard.  That means I get to sit right next to where they made the food and watch what goes into each dish.  Maybe the ladies will teach me how they make all these salsas and moles?!  I can’t wait to see what’s waiting for me tomorrow morning.

 

 

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Hola Oaxaca

I realize that I left off  way over yonder in Spain but here I am in sunny Oaxaca!  I do hope to record my journey in Europe so I will work on that.  Right now, I’m taking my time getting settled and figuring out where things are in this city. I knew that the weather would be hot but didn’t realize it would be so cool/cold in the morning. I could have brought another long sleeve shirt or two, but I’ll manage. I’m having a bit of trouble with the internet connection where I’m staying so what I’ll post may be somewhat limited. But I’m going to do my best to write something down each day since I have a very leisurely schedule here. I arrived a few days before Easter and was able to take advantage of some of the Semana Santa activities in Oaxaca. So far, I’ve eaten very well and have found the city to be rather clean and orderly.  I’m a bit surprised by the amount of foreigners (tons of Americans and Canadians) but I’m speaking only in Spanish so that I accomplish what I came here for, a refresher for the language I love and to fix my hankering for all things Mexican.  Needless to say, I’m very happy to be here.  On that note, I’m off to have la comida.

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Barbate: Tsukiji’s Charming Spanish Cousin

Discovering new spices and local foods gets me excited about a foreign country.  It’s one of the ways I learn and get to know a culture and its people.  I usually eat whatever the locals eat wherever I am but as I tend to stay in one place for 3-6 months sometimes I take “risks.”  I’ve had pizza in Seoul (served with tabasco sauce and sweet pickles), masala dosa in Paris (I needed something spicy), sushi in Buenos Aires (supposedly the “best sushi place in Argentina”), and tacos in Melbourne ($15 USD for 2 tacos).  With the exception of a pretty good dosa in France and fancy tacos in Oz, all the others were….  well, less than stellar.  What was I thinking eating raw fish in Argentina?!  I knew better than that.  So when señor Jorge suggested we take a road trip up the coast for a few days, what I actually heard was “let’s go eat good local Spanish food!”  You see, señor Jorge is a locavore like me who likes to eat and drink what the locals do.

As I packed a small overnight bag the night before the trip, I felt as if I was Anthony Bourdain in one of his travel shows.  Here I was in the south of Spain with my long-time resident of Andalucía “fixers” who were going to take me to their favorite spots, restaurants, and bars.  And I should note that they also acted as “producers” of these next few blog posts, having arranged for all of our accommodations and even driving me to and from locations.  If anything, I failed them by only having my smartphone to record our trip…

Nonetheless, here we are on the road from Marbella to Tarifa looking ahead towards the Strait of Gibraltar.

IMG_8571We stopped at a beach (I think it’s called Playa de los Lances) on the outskirts of Tarifa for a stroll.  Almost immediately, George spotted a couple of fishing boats not too far out at sea.  And with a delighted excitement in their voices Sally and George exclaimed, “Almadraba!”  Almadraba, they explained to me, is the word used to describe the ancient technique of setting up a maze with nets to catch Atlantic bluefin tuna during its migration season.  I found out later from a quick wiki search that this old Mediterranean fishing method was introduced by the Moors.  It’s only in the months of May and June that the tuna pass by this part of the world and the people of Barbate near Cádiz have been catching tuna here for 3000 years.  They use nets and lines to create a central pool where once the fish enter it, they cannot escape.  We just happened to be at the right place at the right time to see the boats out in person!  George even had an old newspaper article he had saved for me to read and learn more about this operation, and said we were heading to Barbate to have a tuna feast for lunch.  Yay!

IMG_8572The white blob on the horizon is an almadraba boat.

P1130362Having driven all the way down to the southern tip of Spain, we got back in the car and headed up the west coast.  The distance we needed to cover wasn’t much so we moved at a leisurely pace.  George had us stop at this beautiful hotel by the sea for our morning coffee break.  The beach resort was buzzing with Brits and locals on holiday, some riding horses on the beach.

IMG_8574Hotel Dos Mares, our rest stop.

IMG_8576Back on the road, we passed by hundreds of wind turbines, and field and hills covered in sunflowers.

P1130363P1130364Upon arriving in Barbate, we went directly to Club de Pesca Deportíva “El Atún.”  No explanation needed here, the name of the restaurant is “The Tuna.”

IMG_8580I was told that there are fancier seafood specialty restaurants in Barbate (the most famous one being El Campero) but “The Tuna” was exactly the kind of places I love.  Casual, full of locals (we didn’t see any other foreigners), and delicious.

Instead of sitting inside, we opted to dine out in the courtyard under a large canopy.  We took a cursory scan of the regular written menu but our attention was on the daily specials featuring the seasonal almadraba tuna.  I think we ordered everything on the board, except for the mini burguer (ha!) with a bottle of chilled white wine and some Cruzcampos.  Why does a caña de cerveza always taste so good in Spain!?

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IMG_8582Because the canopy over us was this deep shade of blue, all of my photos from our delicious tuna lunch look purple.  I suppose if I were more serious about taking good pictures, I would have taken the plates away for better lighting but that thought never crossed my mind.  I had freshly caught tuna in front of me.

An assortment of various tuna parts.

IMG_8583Tuna belly.

IMG_8587Tuna heart.

IMG_8588We had more drinks and more tuna, and by the time we finished our meal almost the entire restaurant was nearly packed.  When I saw our bill at the end, I had to laugh a little- for everything we had, it came to just about $20 USD per person.

We were full and happy, ready to hit the road again but señor Jorge had one more tuna stop on the agenda.  Just down the street from the restaurant, there was a store run by the company Herpac where you can stock up on all things tuna.  I read later in the newspaper article that one can also take a tour of the factory if you so choose.

P1130368 IMG_8595 IMG_8596Tuna museum??!!

IMG_8597At the store I bought the most expensive can of tuna of my life (it wasn’t the most expensive one on offer by the way).  I also got a small chunk of mojama, which is cured and dried tuna using local sea salt.  Deep red in color, it’s not as dry and hard as the Japanese katsuobushi, and is eaten like a piece of ham.  George told me to shave it thin, drizzle with some good olive oil and eat it with bread.  I ended up carrying around the can of tuna and the vacuumed sealed mojama throughout my summer journey through Amsterdam, all over Northern Ireland, and up to Stockholm.  I can honestly say that I have never had a better can of tuna than the one I got from Barbate.  It just simply melted in my mouth like butter.  Even the olive oil the tuna was submerged in was amazing!

IMG_0996 IMG_0997I saved the mojama until I was in Copenhagen.  One evening I sliced it as thinly as I could to have with some dark bread and a glass of red wine.  It had an intensely concentrated tuna flavor but in every other sense, it ate like jamon.  When I shared some with P and K a couple of weeks later, that’s exactly what they said to me.  It’s tuna ham!

IMG_1959 IMG_1960 IMG_1978 IMG_1979Tsukiji may be the first place that comes to mind when it comes to great fish, but Barbate and its atún rojo thoroughly charmed me.  I hope one day I get to return to Barbate and see the locals continue the tradition of alamdraba.

 

Hotel Dos Mares: Ctra. N 340 Km 79.5, 11380 Tarifa, Spain.

El Atún: Calle Ancha 39, 11160 Barbate, Spain

Herpac: Poligono Industrial El Olivar, 11160 Barbate, Spain

 

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Paella and Vino for Everyone!

I am once again basking in the warmth of Southern California.  Knowing full well how cold it is in New York I have no right to complain about the weather here.  It’s beautiful.  But I wake up every single day looking up at the cloudless blue sky and it feels as if I’m living a sunnier version of Groundhog’s Day.  Everyday looks exactly like the previous day and there is no reason to check the weather forecast at all.  Why is there even a weather person on TV?  At least in New York or San Francisco, everyday and sometimes every hour things can change.  But honestly, I’m not complaining.  It’s beautiful.  And this gorgeous weather is taking me back to where I left things off in Spain.  Looking back at the photos, I can hardly believe how much we packed into I ate and drank in a day.

I woke up without a trace of jet lag.  Much like the deep blue skies I’m blessed with here in SoCal, I looked out to a stunning view that morning and started the day with a quick practice.  When I walked out to the patio by the pool, this lovely spread was already waiting for me.

IMG_8526IMG_8528It included plump figs and these adorable paraguyayos (Saturn peaches, also known as donut peaches) that were just perfectly juicy and delicious.  A few days later we spotted a nectarine version (donut nectarines, if you will) that are called plateniras (article in Spanish with photos here).

IMG_8529As I hadn’t seen much of the town of Marbella when I arrived the day before, the good señor took us down to the beach for a stroll and a mid-morning coffee before heading over to check out his golf club.  I made the faux-pas of being underdressed for the golf club so I sneaked in after making sure no one was around.  Oops, lo siento!

We would have lingered but there were bigger plans in the works for the day…

IMG_8533 IMG_8535Over the years I had heard much about G & S’s busy schedule in Marbella but seeing it for myself really impressed me.  There was tennis, golf, Spanish lessons, visitors from near and far, Sunday lunches, weddings, trips up and down Europe, and it went on!  They are such gracious and generous hosts, and they make everything look so easy that all seemed to just flow effortlessly.  Today was no exception.  When we returned from our excursion, preparations were already underway for a large paella luncheon.  Appetizers were made, wine was being chilled, jamon was expertly sliced by señor Jorge, and he also got the grill fired up to cook the paella outside.  If that doesn’t put a smile on your face, I don’t know what will.

IMG_8539 IMG_8551 IMG_8550 IMG_8547 IMG_8544There was enough to feed an army!

IMG_8553Sally’s delectable cucumber and yogurt salad.

IMG_8556 IMG_8554Setting of our lovely luncheon.

IMG_8552Need I say more?

IMG_8555I had the pleasure of dining with some of G & S’s friends most of whom were from the U.K, and were spending the summer in Marbella.  Great food, wonderful Spanish wine, and fabulous company made the afternoon fly.  I think I counted 16 bottles of wine…???

IMG_8568Oh, but there was more…  After all the guests left and we took a much needed siesta, somehow we got back on the patio and thought…  yes, we could have a bite to eat.  And as if by magic boquerones, cheeses, avocado and tomato salad, lovely eggplants, and even salmorejo (thicker, richer version of gazpacho local to Andalucía) appeared, along with this crisp dry jerez.

IMG_8561And of course that torta del casar cheese…  I still dream about it.

IMG_8563This photo does not even come close to capturing how beautiful an evening it was but I’m happy to have relived it today.  Thank you George.  Thank you Sally.  ¡Salud!

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