Oaxaca, Mexico – The mezcal capital of the world!
This trip was a birthday gift for my at-the-time fiancé, for his birthday earlier in September. He loves mezcal and expressed how he wanted to go to Oaxaca and/or Jalisco. I chose Oaxaca, as it is known as the mezcal capital of the world.
Not a lot of people know about this magical place, let alone where Oaxaca even is. Oaxaca de Jaurez is inland, there are no sandy beaches in sight – hell, there aren’t even many margaritas on the menu in any restaurant we dined at. It is a city of mezcal. The city itself is so unique and charming, we were instantly captivated by its beauty, particularly in its smaller towns within the city like the Jalatlaco neighborhood, and places outside of the city like Santiago Matatlan; the town that has over 140 distilleries!
Adrian’s birthday was a week before we left, and I had kept the details about the trip a total surprise until his actual birthday. He only knew we were leaving town, he just didn’t know where. I was dying inside trying not to spill the “Oaxaca beans”. On the day of his birthday, he was slap-happy with delight as he pulled a nice bottle of Montelobos out of the bag with a card attached to it with a map of Oaxaca on it. Major snaps to myself on that one, thank you.
The second we landed in Oaxaca, we began our non-stop tour and consumption of local mezcals (duh) and delicious food. Anywhere and everywhere we walked, we stumbled upon an amazing mixology bar or a delicious restaurant (the city is filled with them) that would make any establishment in New York City with a 5-star menu blush…and everything was in pesos. Adrian and I love to travel for many reasons and one of the main ones is FOOD. We’ve been to a handful of countries and cities now and we always leave talking fondly about the food.
The first night we were in town also happened to be the weekend of the actual Mexican Independence Day so this city by nightfall was literally booming. It was almost a little too much to handle but eventually simmered down until the next day. Mexicans sure love their fireworks. Streets near the Zocalo were filled with parades and people celebrating. Elotes and esquites to our right, stray dogs and Mexican flags waving on our left. It was hard to not want to take home all the dogs. All of them were friendly.
After drinking and eating heavily ALL day and night, our friend Ashley met up with us later in the evening. She went to Paris with us two years ago on our trip to Europe and thought it would be fun to do it again! Once she met up with us, we went back out on the hunt for more food…and mezcal.
Day 2 (Sunday):
Unsure how we didn’t wake up hungover, we decided to hit up the Mercado Tlacolula 30 min outside of Oaxaca City since Sundays are the best days to visit the markets. Adrian and Ashley were in search of chapulines (grasshoppers) but were unsuccessful, which resulted in us buying more bottles of mezcal. We then walked over to the Church of La Asunción de Nuestra Señora and checked out the Baroque altar area of the Capilla del Señor de Tlacolula.
On our way back into the city later, we decided to have a taxi drop us off at one of the mezcal distillieries on the side of the road. We ended up at Don Agave. Being that this was one of the first actual fabricas we have visited, we thought this one would be a great way to get our feet wet, so to speak. A very nice employee of the distillery named Mando gave us a tour and talked about the different types of agave plants, Coyote being the one I remembered the most as it’s grown in the same region as mushrooms and is known to have hallucinogenic properties. After we did a brief tour, we sat down and tasted all their mezcals and ended up ordering a bottle of Arroquenño to take home with us. We also ended up ordering a large food plate to share with different kinds of Oaxacan cheeses and…..chapulines. We ended up teaching them how to make a “typical craft cocktail” by mixing mezcal with cucumber aqua frescas and fruits. They topped it with a maraschino cherry garnish. Adorable.
The drive back home was an interesting one. While driving back up the 190 in pitch black darkness except for oncoming headlights, you could see the lightning storm in the distance behind the mountains. It was so hypnotizing to watch. What a beautiful place!
Today is the day for Santiago Matalán; the mezcal capital of the world! A town of 140+ distilleries about 45 min south of Oaxaca. We had a mental (and paper) list of fabricas we wanted to visit, Gracis a Dios being my number 1. Check out their clever marketing and website – www.thankgad.com.
The reason I desperately wanted to visit was because of the types of mezcal AND gin they distill and bottle on-site. I drooled at the idea of mango and pineapple-infused mezcal, along with gin made with 32+ herbs and botanicals. I’m not a huge gin person, but this is by far my favorite. I was drinking it straight! After the tastings, we bought box fulls of bottles. The Tobalá was my favorite, and Espadin was Adrian’s favorite.
Fun fact: when sipping mezcal, hold on the tongue for a few seconds, swallow, inhale through the nose and exhale out the mouth.
The person on site at the distillery was named Emmy, who wasn’t there at the time we arrived but would return later and she was fantastic! Knew enough English (not that we didn’t know Spanish), very knowledgeable, and very kind and welcoming. Knowing GAD was going to be our main visit in this town, we briefly checked out a few other local fabricas and restaurants on the main drag. It’s a very quiet town. All distilleries, all privately owned. We managed to see a nearby agave field and decided to frolic around in it. One of my main goals on this trip was to find a really good agave field and do my own version of the “lavender fields in the French Riviera” – Google it or look it up on Pinterest. Ashley and I channeled our inner “travel blogger” and did a mini shoot in this little pocket of agave heaven. Not quite what I had in mind, but I’ll take it because the lighting was CRAZY good. We also had a bonus model, Bingo, the local pup who followed us everywhere. I wanted to keep him!
Back to Gracias a Dios where Emmy was waiting for us:
After our GAD visit, we walked away with a few boxes with bottles of mezcal. I have to be honest, this was probably one of my favorite moments of the trip. I found it really funny as we were walking down a dirt road just as the sun disappeared, realizing we have no way of hailing a taxi or knowing when or if another bus is going to come. This town is so eerily quiet and there’s hardly any electricity so there aren’t many street lights other than the occasional solar-powered streetlight. I regret not (somehow) taking a photo of us carrying our boxes in the dark down a dark street, lit only by the few solar-powered lights. It was pretty comical because we didn’t really have a plan on what to do next.
We decided to buy a day tour with stops to Monte Albán (pre-Colombian ruins, 500 B.C.!) an artisan village, a cool restaurant with the 7 different moles, and a few other stops. Sounded like a good idea prior to being up til 3am and finishing one of our bottles of mezcal the evening before. ROUGH! The drive in the van up the curvy hill had us all practicing our ability to suppress our up-chuck refluxes. Once we arrived, we were completely mystified. This was built before Christ. The Zapotecas put so much into how they built this city, like how the sun hits it, how sound travels through it. It was so quiet standing in the middle of it, you could hear conversations taking place 300ft away from you. Only 10% of it is discovered. It was magic! Watching Ashley geek out over it was fun.
Next visit was the woodcarving village of San Martin Tilcajete, which is about 15 miles south of Oaxaca City. The artisans in the craft are insanely talented. It’s tedious, it’s time-consuming, not at all rushed or likely to be duplicated.
Lunchtime! The 7 moles! I’m not going to lie, I’m not a mole fan but when in Rome…I could enjoy it in small doses…with mezcal.
After the day-long tour, and falling asleep in the van many times, we had the driver drop us off at the best ice cream spot in the city that they knew of and they didn’t disappoint. I got a piña colada/crema mezcal scoop and it tasted how euphoria feels. To just simply say “it was good” is not enough. I could have eaten the entire gallon.
Cuilápan de Guerrero – Bascilica of Cuilápan
Today was a day for Tule, home of the 2,000 year old tree. It reminded me of the majestic weeping willow tree from the Disney film, Pocahontas. It sort of made you want to bow in its presence.
After Tule, we took a visit to another artisan village where they hand-make rugs and other textiles. Everything is 100% hand-made on-site, which doubles as a shop/cafe and their private home. It’s incredibly humbling watching these artists work and create these intricate pieces with their hands.
Adrian and I left Ashley to go escape for some adventure. We were determined to find a really solid agave field that we could access. Most fabricas don’t have a large field on-site. These huge farms are usually fenced and guarded by jimadors so we knew we’d have to talk to some locals who knew the area well. We ended up finding a cool taxi driver named Sergio who was willing to drive around and show us some fields he knew of and found one with a jimador who happened to be sitting on the ground, outside the fence. He had one hand missing, and was carrying a machete in the other, and he looked a lot like the character Fausto in the FX show The Bridge. If you ever watched the first season of that, you’d know who I’m referring to; he was the antagonist. I got a little nervous when he and Sergio were speaking back and forth pretty fast, as at that point, I couldn’t really understand what they were saying and therefore couldn’t decipher if it was good or bad. Moments later, he hops in the car and they circle around onto a dirt road to access the gating with locks, to which the jimador has all the keys to. He opens up the fence gate and we drive into the field, which looks as if it goes on forever. The next thing I knew, we were in standing in the agave field that we had been lusting after. This, to me, was like the Mexican version of the lavender fields in the south of France. Of course we were going to take photos here. I was equal parts slap-happy and also a little on high alert as these two strangers could have easily jacked our gear and hacked us into bits and bury us way out here and no one ever would find us. Turns out, the locals and residents are QUITE friendly. We tipped them heartily for their generosity and time. Sergio invited us back to his home to meet his family and try some of his private stash mezcal that was made out of cactus. We had to decline and head back to the city, but that was something I wish we did do.
I had to be my own model for these, so Adrian took the ones of me. I love everything about these. The diffused lighting, the clouds, the colors, the mountains…my outfit even looked like it matched with the scene. So worth it. If you ever travel with Adrian and I-
On our final night in Oaxaca, we decided the only way to spend was to eat and drink as much as we possibly could. We were treated with an especially gorgeous sunset while we dined on the rooftop of a place that overlooked the city with a 360º view.
On our way to get a cab to the airport, it was SO hot out and our luggage filled with bottles and bottles of mezcal wouldn’t really ride easily over the cobblestone roads out to the main street so Adrian had to schlep our haul on his shoulders. What a guy.
We left with full tummies and fuller hearts. We were so grateful to have spent a week in such a beautiful place that seems untouched by tourists yet very welcoming by the residents. It’s easy to navigate, it’s safe to cross town on foot in the middle of the night, it’s bustling when the sun is out, and somber when the sun sets. There are enough local bars that specialize in nightlife to remind us that this is a fun city to be in but won’t turn into a totally westernized/commercialized tourist trap anytime soon. It’s a perfectly and tastefully “humble-meets-modern” lifestyle and anyone who visits will pleasantly find this to be true. We’ve made many friends and see no reason to not return.
*Bonus! On the plane ride back home from Mexico City to LA, we were treated to a light show brought to you by Mother Nature and flew over the lightning storm that was happening and I was getting fed up and irritated at not getting a cool lightning shot with my iPhone. Adrian reminded me that I have a camera with a fast lens in my carryon and that being I’m a professional photographer and all, I should maybe possibly just use my actual camera and not my iPhone. After guessing a decent exposure and focus, I started snapping at an attempt to capture something, anything with the lightning in the clouds right beside us. I kept it all on manual, even the autofocus so I don’t miss a shot from the lens trying to autofocus in the dark. After snapping away, I looked through the previews on my LCD and BAM! This was like the 10th exposure and the one that was just really the icing on the cake of this entire trip. I had always wanted to photograph lightning, but I never thought it would be better inside of a cloud and from a plane!
“I don’t wanna come back down from this cloud”
All images are property of Kelli Hayden of Kelli Hayden Photography / Kelli Bee Photography. All rights reserved, 2018.
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