The premise of my Cuban and Mexican extravaganza was simple – reunite a bunch of uni friends to celebrate our 30th birthdays, halfway between our respective homes of Auckland and London. Given the spread of birthdays, I just happened to be the lucky one who had their birthday on tour! And what a birthday it was – featuring street art, chocolate milkshakes, the incredible ancient ruins of Mitla, and tequila’s bad-ass cousin mezcal!
I started the morning with a sunrise run through Oaxaca’s quiet streets with Anna – start your 30s as you
hope mean to go on, I say! It doubled as a street-art tour, as we were amazed to discover incredible murals and graffiti all around town. This is just a small snapshot of the many gorgeous pieces we saw.
Anna even managed to snap me mid-stride and mid-photo!
After a delicious breakfast where I was surprised and serenaded, we hit the road… well, right after I requested a stop for another delicious Mayordomo chocolate milkshake. In my defence, it’s not often you find creamy dairy-free milkshakes like that! Plus it’s all healthy when it’s your birthday, right?!
Chocolate cravings assuaged, we headed to the small town of Teotitlán del Valle where many of the traditions of the native Zapotec are preserved, including weaving. We watched in amazement as vibrant dyes were produced from local fruits, plants and earths, to be used to tint the wool all the colours of the rainbow.
Hand-weaving in action
Colourful finished products
The next stop was possibly the highlight – the incredible ruins of Mitla. This was the most important religious centre for the Zapotec culture, accompanying Monte Alban, the political hub we had visited the day before. Mitla was a home for ritual sacrifice but also amazing stonework and mosaics, which are widely acknowledged to be unique in Mexico. And if that doesn’t grab you, how about dancing cacti?!
As you approach Mitla, the first building you see is the Church of San Pedro, like Cholula an example of the Spanish conquerors building right on top of sites that had been special to the native people. I loved all the different types of cacti scattered around the grounds!
Claire and Gin – so stylish
Around the corner from the 16th century church is the best-preserved part of Mitla, the Columns Group with its centrepiece the Palace. Dating from around 1200-1500, the Palace is home to Mitla’s unique mosaics, which fit together without any mortar. They’re hypnotising in their geometry and utterly beautiful.
Sideways up the steep stairs to Mitla’s Palace – we’re pros by this point!
Cesar told us the stairs were built so steep that those coming in to the religious centre could only approach by facing sideways in a more submissive manner. It certainly builds a strong calf game now!
This reminded me of nothing so much as a cactus conga line!
Mole mole mole!
After a delicious buffet lunch featuring many varieties of my favourite mole, it was time to head for another cultural highlight – a mezcal distillery!
So what exactly is mezcal you may ask, unless you’re an expert on moderately-obscure spirits. Well, I think I best sum it up by calling it tequila’s bad-ass cousin! They’re both made from the agave plant, but in many ways that’s where the similarities end. Mezcal has been made much the same way since the 1600s, and is now experiencing a resurgence in Oaxaca and further afield, with artisanal producers crafting new varieties and flavours in addition to the classics. Like tequila, mezcal is made from the ‘pina’, the centre of the agave plant. While tequila can only be made from the blue agave, mezcal can be made from nearly 30 varieties, and is baked in an underground pit which gives it the distinctive smoky flavour, before being distilled (more here if you’re interested!)
Agave varieties at El Rey de Matatlan
The finished product, including aged and flavoured varieties – of course I was made to do a shot of the strongest one for my birthday!
I really liked mezcal – although the smoky strong flavour wasn’t to everyone’s liking, it was a lovely balance to fruity cocktails, of which we tried a couple! After a few
cups sips, we headed back to our hotel for a refreshing swim and siesta before dinner.
Las Quince Letras was a stellar recommendation from our friend Nick – a gorgeous setting, delicious food… and tasty margaritas! I tried a plate of Oaxaqueño specialities, and was torn to pick a favourite between the mole (naturally), the fresh guacamole, and the melt-in-my-mouth beef. What a way to finish up my 30th!
Have you ever tried mezcal? Are you tempted now?