Missives from Oaxaca – pt 2

Part II of our series of guest posts from San Francisco native Susan Coss as she returns to Mexico after a year-long hiatus.  Missives from Oaxaca documents her month-long stay in the southern Mexican town. You can read part I here.

Oh the time is passing too quickly!!!

I am happy to report that the GREAT OAXACAN REPAVING OF THE STREETS PROJECT is continuing at a furious pace. Apparently, The federal government gave the city a grant three years ago to do this project, with the stipulation that it must be complete by the end of 2009 or they have to return the money. There is round the clock working, streets that were re-paved three years ago are being dug up and re-paved, and conveniently, the brother in law of the governor is the owner of, you guessed it, a cement factory AND a quarry.

The past ten days has been a whirlwind of food, art and beach. I am trying to hit as many street food stands as possible, cramming in as many tacos and tlayudas and tamales a girl can eat. It is truly the best way to experience food in Mexico… I share my dietary secret with you:

  1. Yogurt and fruit every morning – preferably with banana. There are about a thousand different kinds of platanos to be had – small yellow and red ones, medium sized sweets and of course the large ones we get in the US (pass on these – the little ones are where it’s at)
  2. Healthy sprinkling of lime and chile salt throughout the day
  3. 3. A shot of mezcal every night

When scoping out street food, I always look for places with a line, or ask for recommendations from the locals. My Spanish teacher Efraín is a big aficionado of the tacos and has sent me to a few absolutely divine places, and I have feasted on tacos al pastor, papas con chorizo, nopales y res, and sangre (blood sausage). If there’s a line of cabs parked by the carts, chances are it’s a good stand. Note: never bypass a cart that has a line of people for one that is empty, as there’s probably a reason no one is frequenting that place. Upset tummies are not the strict domain for foreign travelers. Bad food is bad food.

TlayudaI’m also blessed with a cart only 4 blocks away that serves up the most amazing tlayudas (think big mexican pizza folded over). I think their secret is the lard they spread on the giant tortilla before adding the pureed black beans, avocado, tomato, quesilla (the delicious Oaxacan string cheese) and choice of meat or no meat. It’s then grilled over hot coals and served piping hot with a green salsa to die for. This is also best washed down with a steaming bowl of chocolate. They only come out at night, and the fun is sitting on one of the benches and listening to the conversations all around. The clientele is a mix of cabbies, shop keepers, and the occasional working girl. The woman who runs the stand is able to keep track of 20 orders simultaneously, and pumps out fresh made tortillas like there’s no tomorrow.

A pause here to acknowledge the beauty of a fresh made tortilla. There’s nothing like the smell of it, a mix of mesquite and corn wafting to your nose, and then the flavor of a crisp outside and a warm soft inside. What we call tortillas in the US, the ones that come wrapped in plastic bags, taste nothing like the real thing, something I’ll miss most when I am back in the States.

The ambulantes, as street vendors are called, have been forced to unionize/organize to protect themselves against the usual shakedowns from the police, etc. Though of course, there’s plenty of shaking down inside the different organizations, which ultimately are aligned with the different political parties. There has been a crackdown Ambulante a Mexicoon theambulantes by the municipal government. This is most evident in the Zocolo where the number of vendors selling sesame sweets and popcorn have been drastically reduced. It is expensive to run a formal business, and given how bad the economy is here, none of those businesses want to see their meager earnings diminished by informal businesses that don’t pay taxes. Shockingly, the leader of one ambulanteorganization was murdered yesterday (he was aligned with the PRI) and rumors abound as to just why that happened. Efraín pointed out in the picture in the paper (oh how they love to show the bloody corpses in the Roja section) that he was wearing a necklace with the saint worshipped by the narcos, though that could be neither here nor there. Regardless, politics, and especially corrupt politics, exist at every level

Interspersed with the forays into the street food are the comida corridas at restaurants – a menu of the day that includes 3-4 items and usually a mezcal for anywhere from 35-65 pesos. Tacos for breakfast, comida corrida for a late lunch, and then a very light dinner, if one at all. I had the extreme pleasure last week of eating at a new place – El Teatro Culinario, run by one of the guys I met on my crazy Saturday night. He is a fabulous chef, doing amazing and beautiful culinary art with the food, and trying like hell to use nothing but local ingredients. It’s harder than you might imagine. (I was disappointed to learn that some of the chefs at the top restaurants actually buy their produce etc from Sam’s Club, which of course does nothing to keep pesos in the local economy.)

There are so many things to do in Oaxaca – there must be an art opening every night, or a free film, or a lecture or play or a band playing in the Zocolo. And usually all for free. I saw a great exhibit the other night of photography of street art. A professor from Southern Florida became active in an organization that was tracking street art around the world. He came to Oaxaca in 2003 and started shooting. This was a collection of work from 2003-2008. It was fascinating to see how political the art became in 2006 (when there was the uprising here) and what it has looked like since. He suggested I check out the wall by the baseball stadium to really see the best stuff. Apparently the city officials are very quick to cover it up in the centro – bad for tourism they seem to think.

To Puerto Escondido

And so my plans changed of traveling to Veracruz over the weekend. I decided rather last minute that I would do a trip to the west coast – to Puerto Escondido, probably my most favorite beach town in the world. There are three ways to get to Puerto from Oaxaca – drive thru the mountains, fly, or take the first class bus that goes all the way down and around to avoid as much of the mountains as possible. Puerto is only 120 miles from Oaxaca. The flight, in a small plane that literally skims the tops of trees, is a mere 35 minutes. The drive, 6.5 hours, and the first class bus, almost 11 hours. After hemming and hawing, I decided to do an “express” service bus – basically a mini-van. I’d go on Sunday and come back Tuesday night in order to have two full days on the beach.

The climb up out of Oaxaca was long and steady. The terrain changed more, the road seemed well paved, wide enough for two buses to pass each other comfortably. As we climbed higher, the trees grew taller and became more alpine, which is to say pine. Cactus gave way to shrub. The chicken remained silent. More people got on. We passed fields of corn the plunged straight down. How the hell were they planted – there were no terraces. The air became cooler, the road windier, narrower, rougher. But then it would open up again and you could see for miles the mountains, the ravines, passing into the wetter side and rivers and waterfalls. It was so beautiful and I congratulated myself for this choice. Then more waterfalls. The chicken got off the bus, a young family got on. The son sat beside me. More curves, steeper declines along the road, no guardrails, seriously washed out road sections. The boy turned first white, then grey, then green, and he opened the window wide and puked his brains out. Not a good sign, so I popped a 2nd Dramamine, and gave him one to boot.

Again, the terrain changed and became more tropical. First one, then two banana trees. We must be getting closer, but with each curve, all I saw were mountains ahead. We entered a cloud forest. More banana trees, coffee trees, heavy vegetation. We passed pilgrims, who were on their way back to Puerto after making the annual trek to Juichilco to see the image of the Virgin. A few bicyclists here and there, then more, then even more. And then what seemed like a thousand, careening down the mountain. The sky began to shadow, the road became more washed out. And then suddenly, in the distance, I saw the ocean. Thirty minutes later, we were in Puerto, just in time to get stuck in the parade of the returning pilgrims.

Puerto Escondido, MexicoI jumped out of the bus, grabbed a cab and made it to the Flor de Maria in time to grab a beer and watch the sun set over the water. It was beautiful.

The only time I allow myself to indulge guilt free in eating Huanchinango (red snapper) and Camarones, cause I know they are being caught just off shore by small boats and not huge commercial fleets. Sit on the beach and lick your fingers after eating the fish or shrimp grilled to perfection. Watch the sunset from a restaurant a mere 20 feet from the water’s edge, your toes still sandy from the walk down the beach to eat there. Drink a mezcal, suck on an orange, and think just how lucky you are to be here.

On my last day, I couldn’t get out of the ocean. I swam and floated until my whole body had turned into a big giant salt laden raisin. I have no idea when I will next be in warm ocean water.

I decided to take the first class bus back to Oaxaca. The thought of doing the drive thru the mountains, at night, was just too much. I wanted to sleep, so that when I arrived in Oaxaca at 7am, I’d be ready to drop my bags and then go out and eat some more tacos. For the most part, the plan worked.

I am off to Veracruz this weekend, and think I am so very very lucky to on one trip be able to drop my body into 2 of the 4 seas that border Mexico (Pacific, Gulf, Caribbean, Cortez.)

To paved roads, to chilis, to sweet bananas and limes,
Besos y abrazos,


Susan Coss organizes the Bay Area’s Eat Real Festival, a social venture created to “inspire eaters to choose tasty, healthy, good food” with a focus on “delicious and sustainable ‘street food’ options.” She is a perennial traveler, completely obsessed with Mexico and can be contacted here.

* photos by travelinknu, Daquella manera & Cocayhi