September 23, 2013 at 10:56 AM
OAXACA, Mexico — You can still find the fabled “chicken bus” in Mexico, but if you’re traveling between sizable cities, that’s a long-outdated stereotype. Mexico’s modern intercity bus lines are among the best in the world — and also quite affordable.
Traveling overnight back and forth between Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas, I compared the two premium services offered by ADO (say “Ah-Day-Oh”), one of Mexico’s largest bus operators. The top-of-the-line “Platino” service, modeled after first-class airline comforts, has just about everything but a flight attendant plumping your pillow.
At the modern and shiny first-class bus terminal on the northern edge of downtown Oaxaca, I discovered the first difference when I made the mistake of trying to check my luggage at the “ordinary” bag-check counter. I was pointed around the corner to the private, guarded Platino waiting room with its own bag counter, private restrooms, big-screen TVs, water cooler and free coffee. As I boarded, I was offered a free soft drink or chilled water.
The bus itself had only three seats across the width of the vehicle, in a two-and-one (more…)
September 18, 2013 at 7:24 AM
SAN JUAN CHEMULA, Mexico — I spent time in a whole other world yesterday, wandering among shamans practicing their healing arts with sacrificial chickens and clouds of incense, and taking part in a ritual to make corn liquor to be consumed during a celebration this week of Jesus Christ and the autumn equinox — the “son” and the sun, as only a Mayan town in Chiapas could meld two ancient religions.
It was a short drive from the bustling city of San Cristobal de las Casas. The shamans were in the Iglesia San Juan Bautista, the town church in a municipality officially known as San Juan Chemula, but which the indigenous people call Mishik Banamil, or “navel of the world.” It’s ostensibly a Catholic church, and looks from the outside like many churches in many small Mexican towns. But a Catholic priest comes to this church only once a month for baptisms, and inside there are no pews, no seating of any kind, just aromatic pine needles spread thickly on the floor, and thousands of candles burning as a part of rituals aimed at everything from wooing more rain to curing depression. Supplicants prostrate themselves on the floor. (more…)
September 17, 2013 at 6:00 AM
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico — I didn’t get the fake mustache or the giant sombrero, as I’m told is the custom for celebrating Mexico’s Independence Day. (Darn, the stands were sold out of fake mustaches by the time I was ready to commit.) But I did put on a big hat. And I got my face painted. Sort of.
OK, I got my hand painted.
I guess I was caught up in the giddiness of the day. Or maybe it was the thin air in this mountain town at 7,200 feet.
It was a red, white and green Mexican flag on the back of my palm, with matching glitter, courtesy of one of the ambitious roving young boys at Monday’s Independence Day parade in this city, considered the cultural capital of Chiapas.
The boys toted cardboard boxes with pots of paint and glitter stuck to the top and scooted through the crowd collecting 5 pesos per paint job — about 37 cents U.S.
The parade, which featured high-school bands, angry teachers and what must have been just about every unit of the Mexican military, along with their mortars and bazookas, was the finale of a brisk 24 hours of Mexican patriotism. Mexicans reserve the biggest splurge of celebrating for the night before Sept. 16, their official day of independence.
The teachers were a part of nationwide protests against recently passed education reform championed by Mexico’s president. In Oaxaca, before I left on Saturday, teachers had blockaded streets leading to the zocalo, or city square, and there was evidence of a similar action in San Cristobal on Sunday. I wondered how passionately Mexico’s federal holiday would be observed in Chiapas, perhaps best known outside of Mexico for the 1994 Zapatista rebellion that saw the seizure of San Cristobal’s city hall. But by sundown Sunday, (more…)
September 15, 2013 at 6:43 PM
OAXACA CITY, Mexico — As it can be anywhere, life can be hard for some in Oaxaca. You see poverty here, in the street beggars. Urchins selling cheap crafts show a desperation sometimes. But there’s happiness, too, with the pleasures of good food, loving family and a beautiful place to live. A local program called En Via helps promote the well-being of women in Oaxaca Valley villages by providing microloans to help them start and maintain their own businesses, from weaving workshops to small tiendas or farm plots where they grow garlic or raise a pig or a few goats, spreading the benefits throughout their families.
Visitors to Oaxaca can help En Via’s efforts by taking a $50 half-day tour during which they get to meet and ask questions of loan recipients. In turn, proceeds from the tours go for more loans.
A face can tell a lot about a place. Here are a few of my favorites from (more…)
September 12, 2013 at 7:03 AM
Readers urged me to try the mole (“MOHL-ay”) at La Olla Restaurante on Calle Reforma (No. 402) in Oaxaca, and my Moon guidebook noted it has become a favorite with visitors and residents from the United States. The latter may be a plus or minus depending on whether you want to be with a local crowd or with other Estadounidenses. (That’s the preferred name here for folks from the U.S. — “estados” means “states,” and “unidos” is “united.” I’ve found that others who live in The Americas sometimes resent that U.S. residents claim “American” for their own.)
There was no crowd when I visited La Olla but the few who came in were not Latino, so maybe the guidebook is correct.
All that aside, the mole was the thing.
But first I have to rhapsodize about (more…)
September 11, 2013 at 7:00 AM
OK, so a reader in Oaxaca points out that there are a lot more ingredients than chocolate in mole negro. Be that as it may, it’s the chocoholic in me that doesn’t mind eating the same dish several days in a row.
Whether it was for the mole, with a sort of cinnamon shimmer among the coffee-colored pool of creamy goodness, or for the sweet proprietress, who urged me to have a little more after she saw me clean my plate, I got a big crush on Comedor Maria Teresa, one of a score of little sit-down food counters in the Mercado 20 de Noviembre (named for the street it’s on). In between bustling about like a happy free-range hen with plenty of hungry chicks to feed, the proprietress even offered to take my picture after spying me photographing my food. She reminded me of my Aunt Pat from Boise.
The mole was quite good, and the rice here was a step up from the white blight served in some of the fancy restaurants. Not only did it show some natural color, but there were a few things to add more character, including chepil, a wild local herb. My hostess brought a green sprig for me to taste; it was sort of a cross between arugula, maybe, and a weed that used to grow in the woods by Coal Creek when I was 7.
And while some guidebooks and people who’ve learned the hard way may discourage you from eating anywhere but (more…)
September 10, 2013 at 6:00 AM
OAXACA, Mexico — Like the other kind of mole (popping out of a front lawn), the edible mole from Restaurante Los Pacos Santo Domingo popped into my consciousness and took immediate frontrunner status in the Mole Challenge. Of course, the first contender naturally does that, but there’s serious star quality here.
Perhaps the sheer volume and novelty constitutes an unfair advantage, but the Mole Combinado (combination) platter (164 pesos, or about $12.50 U.S.) stole my heart (and put a serious waddle in my walk).
It was a six-mole sampler, including three sweet (negro, coloradito and estofado) and three savory (chichilo, verde and Amarillo), with ample tastes of each arranged on a bed of rice. On the side: tortillas, pickled vegetables, lime wedges and a range of salsas. My one transgression: I ordered all with pork rather than chicken or turkey, which are most “typica,” as Mexican foodies say. I like pork, and it soaks up flavors better.
I couldn’t resist, I had to start with the negro — almost black in color, as its name implies.
It was like a hit of Theo’s darkest chocolate morphed into a pork sauce with a wood-smoke character and a slight aroma of earthy loam, almost forest duff. Dark, dark, dark, in really good ways.
I plowed on through the sweet sauces, experimenting with salsas — hot and not-so — until my tongue glowed and my fingers were sticky and leaving brown stains on my pad as I scribbled notes, and I was only halfway through. (The waiter offered a linen bib, I accepted, and it was wise.) Note: Though the restaurant is fancy and the waiter asked about wine, this is definitely a meal for cold beer.
I moved on to the savory. The verde tasted green, naturally, like fresh celery but with a punch. By the time I worked around the plate to the (yellow) Amarillo mole, my tastebuds had been thoroughly chili-zapped, as if by phasers set on stun. But you don’t hear me complaining. (Just remember: cold beer.)
So do you have a Oaxacan restaurant challenger to suggest? Tell me and I’ll try to get there.
- Restaurante Los Pacos Santo Domingo, northwest corner of Abasolo and Reforma, Oaxaca City.
September 9, 2013 at 12:46 PM
OAXACA CITY, Mexico — OK, the challenge is on. The Mole Challenge.
I’m here for a week, in a place justly famed for its foodie delights, and the one thing Julia Child would have trilled about more than butter if she ever came here is the mole (MOH-lay). So while I’m here — and I have to eat — why not try to pick the best in town?
In the U.S. the chocolate-based mole, mole negro, is most commonly associated with this name. But in fact mole can be a sauce of varied colors and character, from sweet to savory, from black to green or yellow.
However, the negro — a bold, spicy and sweet mix of chocolate, chilies, garlic peanuts and other spices and flavorings — is so distinctive it has become the standard-bearer. It, ahem, puts the olé in mole.
In the public markets here, chilies are sold by the heaping mound. And a local chain of cafes devotes itself to things chocolate. The ingredients just lie in wait for the right chef.
ATTENTION READERS: If you know Oaxaca and want to send me to a favorite restaurant for mole, click on “comments” and let me know soon. The dinner bell is clonging, just like the off-key bell atop the Templo de Santo Domingo that rings every quarter hour over old-town Oaxaca.
September 8, 2013 at 4:23 PM
OAXACA CITY, Mexico — Sometimes when I travel I like to use what you might call culture-shock therapy to convince myself I’m not in Seattle anymore.
So today I ate grasshoppers for lunch. Yeah, that did it.
They call them chapulines here in Oaxaca, where I flew on Saturday to attend a week of Spanish-language school, fodder for a future travel story. Fried till they’re crispy, and served with a bit of guacamole on the side, the ‘hoppers are a local specialty.
I’ll be attending four hours of classes in the mornings starting Monday, but I’ll have afternoons to explore the city and nearby villages and report a few times in the Northwest Traveler blog.
Thursday, I’ll tour a nearby village with an organization that does microloans to local women to help them start their own businesses selling crafts, running a shop, making candles for the local church, etc. Proceeds from taking visitors to meet the aspiring entrepreneurs goes toward making more loans.
Next Saturday, I’m taking the night bus to San Cristobal de las Casas, a historical colonial hilltown in Chiapas, where I’ll join in the celebration of Mexican Independence Day, Sept. 16. Should be interesting in a place known for the Zapatista Rebellion of the 1990s.
Meanwhile — gustatory grasshoppers: They came in a mound inside a fried tortilla bowl. These were tiny grasshoppers, so I had to peer closely to see the legs and, uh, antennae. They were dark, reddish-brown with (more…)
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