Devil Fish

My First Two Days in Oaxaca: A Story of Chocolate and Adventure
by Emma Kelley -- March 19th, 2015

It looks like spring is finally in North Carolina, so naturally, the CEM students are all flying off on travel courses. I spent this past week in Oaxaca, Mexico, studying community-based environmental management with Liz Shapiro.  Over the course of one week, we explored the capital city and municipality of Oaxaca de Juárez, traveled up into the mountains to San Juan Lachao, then drove down to La Ventanilla on the Pacific coast.  Before those adventures all began, I arrived two days before the class started to explore Oaxaca and get a feel for the city. This blog is about those first two days.

A group comprised of myself and five other students arrived in Oaxaca on a Friday, along with our instructor, TA, and the DEL program coordinator, who all happened to be on the same flights down to Mexico. I got my first view of Oaxaca de Juárez from high up in the plane – a city nestled between tall, green mountains. Stepping out from the plane and into the warm sunlight was a refreshing break from the cloudy cool of Beaufort.


To Oaxaca! Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


Driving through the city, surrounded by mountains. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley

We arrived in the late afternoon, which meant I didn’t have to wait long for my first delicious dinner in Oaxaca.  I choose a plate with three different kinds of mole to try and also ordered my first mezcal drink.  Mezcal is alcohol made from the maguey plant, a type of agave.  It is made in Oaxaca and I can best describe it as tequila with a smoky flavor.  We also ordered an appetizer of grasshoppers, which are surprisingly delicious.  I’d tried dried grasshoppers while traveling in Cancun. They were salty and crunchy, like chips.  Truth be told, I probably could have eaten an entire bag of them! The grasshoppers at our first dinner in Oaxaca were different, cooked in chili oil, giving them a spicy flavor. Yum!

The next morning, my five travel buddies and I set out to explore the city. Oaxaca de Juárez is very different from most other cities I’ve visited in Latin America. The woman seated next to me on the plane described it as slightly European. This had very little context for me at the time, given I’ve never been to Europe; however, walking the cobblestone streets, with lush flowers adorning gated windows, past ornate cathedrals, I started to understand what she meant.


A one-way street in Oaxaca de Juárez, lined with colorful buildings and greenery. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


The sculptures decorating the Cathedral of Oaxaca. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


El Teatro Macedonio de Alcala. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley

We wandered around the city that morning, hoping we could find ourselves a tour to Monte Alban, famous Zapotec ruins located near by. We were successful and found ourselves on a bus with a few other tourists, winding our way out of the busy city.


To Monte Alban! Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


A view of Oaxaca de Juárez, a city surrounded by mountains. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley

Monte Alban was one of the earliest cities in Mesoamerica and served as a Zapotec political and economic center for almost a thousand years.  The ruins themselves are breathtaking – so many large buildings give us a glimpse of what this city must have looked like at it’s peak.   After touring ruins in Belize and Guatemala, I have learned that many of these ancient cities remain buried due to a lack of resources and funding to both unearth them and maintain them. Monte Alban was surprisingly open; however, it still remains only a partially excavated site.


Welcome to Monte Alban! Photo Credit: Kati Moore


Artifacts inside the Monte Alban museum. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


The view from one building over-looking Monte Alban. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley

When we returned from Monte Alban, we found our way to a highly recommended chocolate shop – Mayordomo. We sipped delicious chocolate smoothies and watched the process of making the hot chocolate mixture.  That evening at dinner, I treated myself to a delicious mug of Oaxacan hot chocolate.  It was sweet, frothy, and amazing.  I ended up returning home with a box of Mayordomo hot chocolate mix and a molinillo, a whisk-like apparatus used to froth the hot chocolate.


Chocolate Mayordomo. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


My new molinillo. We’ll have to see if I can make myself some Oaxacan hot chocolate! Photo Credit: Emma Kelley

At dinner that night I also tried tlayuda, which I can only describe as something like a pizza, but also completely different from a pizza. A large corn tortilla is covered with black bean paste, then smothered with Oaxacan cheese and vegetables. I added chorizo to mine. What a meal!


Tlayuda and hot chocolate. Yum! Photo Credit: Emma Kelley

We started early the next morning with a drive out to Mitla, another set of Zapotec ruins. Unfortunately, these ruins were mostly destroyed when the Spanish tore down the Zapotec buildings in the 16th century to build a cathedral. In the 19th century, one of the buildings was restored.


To Mitla! Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


The cathedral constructed by the Spanish in the 16th century. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


The restored ruins, surrounded by the remains of the buildings torn down for materials for the cathedral. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


Fun at Mitla! Photo Credit: A friendly tourist

After exploring Mitla, we went to a local market per Liz’s advice.  Exploring this market was perhaps one of my favorite parts of the trip. When traveling, it’s sometimes hard to escape from the tourist markets, with stall after stall of handicrafts. The market we explored that afternoon was where Oaxacans actually buy and sell food and other goods. There were piles and piles of fresh vegetables and fruits, large turkeys and chickens being traded, freshly butchered meat on display for sale, and so much more.


Green pottery for sale. I purchased a mug for my hot chocolate. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


Produce anyone? Photo Credit: Emma Kelley

After meandering through the market, we drove down into another valley, past fields of agave plants, to the village of Teotihuacan, known for its beautiful rugs.  Shop after shop along the streets of Teotihuacan sold piles of colorful rugs. I ended up settling on an intricately patterned blue rug.


Rugs! Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


A rug shop run by a women’s cooperative in Teotihuacan. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley

Our last stop on our second day was the Tule Tree, known as the fattest tree in existence. It was so gargantuan that I could barely fit it in a photo frame.


The Tule Tree. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley

That evening, our actual travel course began with a class meeting and a delicious group dinner at La Casa de Abuela, with more mole, mescal, and grasshoppers.


Four different kinds of mole and a mescallini. Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


Grasshoppers for dinner! Photo Credit: Emma Kelley

Stay tuned for more posts about Oaxaca! (Spoiler alert: community forestry, sea turtles, and mangroves)


  1. Tawnee
    Mar 30, 2015

    Hi Emma,

    I’m a little behind the times because I had some foot surgery recently, but I just loved this account of your first few days in Oaxaca! Fantastic, vibrant photos — I love all the colors in the city. Also the molinillo is a hilariously specific cooking tool. Reading about your amazing Mexican hot chocolate is making me a -little- envious. Hope you’re having a great time on all your travels!

    • Emma Kelley
      Emma Kelley
      Apr 17, 2015

      Thank you, Tawnee! I’m so glad you enjoyed it and I hope your foot surgery went well!

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