Missives from Oaxaca – pt 3. A day in Veracruz

Part III 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. Click to read part I and part II.

Seriously, time is flying here… I cannot believe I’m down to my last 6 days.

The thing about Oaxaca is that the food rocks. I know I can’t talk about it enough. The night before I left for Pueblo, I met up with my friend Erin for a late dinner at what has now become my favorite place in the city – El Teatro Culinario (www.elteatroculinario.com). It has nothing to do with the fact that I adore the chef, or that my friends there provide me with a seemingly bottomless glass of really good mezcal.

El Teatro Culinario, Restaurante, Oaxaca
Chef Jose Luis is changing up his menu. That night he was trying out some new things and put together a tasting menu for Erin and I. This included a divine soup of creamy squash with a salt foam, dots of garam masala and an essence of goat cheese. That was followed by a nopales salad with a pomegranate reduced sauce, ginger/fig compote and some other amazing concoction of chickpea puree. A mushroom terrain was next with guajillo chilis, fried cheese with pureed black beans, sauteed amaranth leaves, then an egg and chorizo dish, two postres (a creme brulee-like dish with pureed strawberries and some kind of foam with hints of cinnamon). Finally, a chocolate ice cream.

I am sad to say that I didn’t have my camera with me and therefore unable to capture the artistic presentation of each of these dishes. It’s not surprising that Jose Luis will likely soon be named one of the top 10 chefs of Mexico. I’m trying to convince him to open a place in San Francisco (or Oakland.)

On the bus again

My love affair with the Mexican bus system continues. No sooner had I arrived back in Oaxaca from my Puerto adventure, than I was already planning my next trip – the crossing of the southern strip of Mexico to the gulf coast in Veracruz. It’s a testament Licence plate, Puebla, Mexico to an amazing transportation system that you can get anywhere in Mexico on comfortable (though over air-conditioned) near fully-reclining seats with movies for next to nothing – in first class, that is. Three days to acclimate myself back to the warm, dry weather of Oaxaca before heading out again—to cold weather as it turns out.

The ride was gorgeous. The sky was an amazing blue with occasional billowy white clouds that created patterns over the jagged crests all around us. We traveled on one of the autopistos— the newer highways built in partnership with the Mexican government and private companies. These are toll roads and expensive, but blasted thru sheer rock, smooth highways make all the difference in drive time. The scenery looked like northern New Mexico, until you saw a roadside cantina covered with brilliant paper flowers Local minstrel, Puebla, Mexico and oil cloth table mats, or the dirt trails with donkeys pulling carts into a canyon toward some tiny pueblo, the small plots of corn.

We descended onto a flat plateau and the semi-verdant farms that surround Puebla. As we got closer, the traffic increased, the sky went from blue, to a slight haze, to grey. And more traffic, and crazy lane changing, and then finally into the insanity of the Puebla bus station, CAPU. Thank god my friend Marco was waiting for me at the gate because if I had to navigate that place on my own I’d be lost for days. It is not for the faint of heart.

We got into his car and spent the next hour or so trying to get thru town, thru the center. I thought Mexico City was chaotic, but this took the cake. Puebla had once been a relatively normal sized city of about 500k people but in the last 25 years it’s become Mexico’s 4th largest city. More than 4 million people live there. There is no city plan and neighborhoods have sprung up willy-nilly, creating a traffic nightmare. It’s industrial and dirty, with an endless maze of roads.

After driving thru the center, with a detour to the Zocolo (for me, the tourist) we picked up Marco’s boyfriend and then headed to a birthday party with some of Marco’s ex-students (he teaches English to Volkswagen employees among others). We played cards – some kind of a gameStreet scene, Puebla, Mexico that I still don’t understand but involves symbols and numbers. Thankfully the host Abril finally took pity on me and helped me play my hand. Then of course, no Mexican party is complete without dancing – cumbia and salsa and a little bit of reggaeton. Because we had to leave for Veracruz early the next morning, we left “early”, around 1:30.

The next day, we picked up another one of Marco’s friends, so there were 4 of us in the car. Me, and three gay guys. Blas, Marco’s friend, was a trip. So very very gay, wearing all white, ready for his paseos on the malecon in Veracruz. I’m still trying to come up with more lyrics to a song – walking with the maricones on the malecon – it has such a nice phonetic ring to it.

Veracruz is only 2.5 hours from Puebla, but, again, it involves a trip thru the mountains. It was cold and grey when we left Puebla, and the mountain pass was thick with fog – a cold humidity – and it was nearly impossible to see the world around us. When we finally descended, we stopped in Cordoba and I could see how green and verdant it was now on the windward side of the mountains. Fields of bright green pastures with grazing steer, jacaranda trees, coffee trees, a mix of jungle and cowboy ranches. The sky remained grey and rain splattered across the windshield. It showed no sign of clearing, and it didn’t. We arrived in Veracruz just as a cold front had settled in.

Veracruz was the gateway for every conqueror of Mexico, beginning with Cortes and ending with the US, and battles with marauding pirates who would eventually sack the city. Gold and silver went out from the port, slaves and others came in. Today, I’m not sure what is unloaded from the tankers that steam in and out. My only cultural references were the films Danzon and La Tregua – both languid and lazy in mood. (The later Mexican version was not nearly as good as the original from Uruguay.)

We were starving so we went down in search of a place to eat by the beach – damn the cold and grey, we would have our mariscos! Only the city was deserted and nothing was open, despite it being 1pm, the hour of comida everywhere else in Mexico. We finally were lured into a place called Cantina de VeracruzBarba Negra (yes, black beard made his was to Veracruz at some point) and had what I can easily say was the most expensive meal I’ve ever had in Mexico. It also sucked. Who puts cheese on grilledhuachinango??? Where was the fabled a la Veracruzana style? A terrible michelada made with far too much Worcestershire sauce. We climbed into the car and went in search of something to do – the options are limited when the beach is cold and wet. We ended up in Boca del Rio, south of the city and found a stretch of beach to walk on before going to a bar for a margarita, or mojito, or something else that would make us feel like we were actually on the coast.

I’ll mention again that I was with three gay men, one of whom was gayer than gay. The place we went had a beautiful view of the beach, a live son jarocho band and more manly men than you could imagine. Initially we thought we had stumbled on some big mafiosa meeting, with the large cars and assorted bodyguards standing in front, and then the table of men in cowboy hats looking very very serious. And especially looking very very seriously at us. I whispered to Marco that dialing down the gay might be in order, especially with Blas in his all-white outfit and a walk that would out-swoosh any queen in San Francisco. And poor Blas desperately had to pee, which involved walking right by this group of men. We told him how to strut like a man, which was negated of course when he grabbed his purse. But somehow we all survived, and never had to hit the deck amidst a hail of bullets. They wrapped their meeting up not long after we arrived. Coincidence?

We found an inexpensive hotel, took naps and then re-emerged to a completely different city. There were throngs of people, I had no idea where they came from. There were rows of vendors along the malecon and a huge crowd in the zocolo. Apparently this is a city of vampires as no one leaves the house during the day. We had a coffee at the famous Cafe del Gran Portal and then joined the crowd along the Malecon, the lights ofVeracruz, Mexicoships and the cargo towers twinkling. The sky had cleared, the stars were out and it was beautiful, and much warmer than it had been earlier. Later, we dragged ourselves back to the hotel and woke up to sun.

In the morning, the decaying beauty of Veracruz was even more obvious, the colors of the painted buildings brighter, the water blue rather than cold grey. It’s hard to believe this is a major port in the Americas as there’s so little sign of modernity. Veracruz seems stuck in a past – decadent and moldy. It’s like Brigadoon—it seems it could disappear at any moment.

We drove back in sun, and the land was gorgeous. Again so green and such a contrast with the coffee fields and cattle and men on horses. And it was so clean – the air, the road. It was far too short a period of time to explore this area, but I am happy to have done it, to have had the privilege of seeing another coast. From the brilliant colors, we returned to the grey of Puebla and the chaos and traffic. I am down on Puebla, as you can tell, and perhaps another time will give it the opportunity to shine. We did see Popo (the active volcano) and Itza (the dormant one) as we came into town, the high peaks covered with snow. Both Mexico City and Puebla reside in the danger zone, and if the mountain has a serious eruption a little more than a quarter of the population of Mexico would be affected.

We went out for a big steak dinner and then drove to Cholula, once a separate city, but now Puebla now runs into it. Cholula is the site of the largest pyramid in Mexico. Of course the Spanish built a church on top, thinking it was just a big hill. In fact, underneath lays the pyramid which has been only partially excavated. It is really quite impressive, and I have to say, Cholula had all the charm that Puebla lacked. It also has the greatest concentration of Cupulas, which allows for a different saint day almost every day of the year, making it a true party town.

This morning it was back to CAPU, to the chaos of the bus station, watching the sun rise as the bus pulled out and headed back to Oaxaca. To reinforce the contrast between the two cities, I arrived home to clear air and friendly, smiling people. The flowers have been changed out at the Zocolo, now full of Noches Buenas (pointsettias) and the trees and surrounding streets strung with Christmas lights. There are even more tourists in town and the fiestas and posadas have begun. It is truly beautiful.

To the final week, to shopping, to the inevitable tears of departure.

Besos y abrazos,

Susan

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.

* photo credits RussBowlingTomate Verdephylevn