Mexico Trip - Feb-Mar 2012 - Holly's Blog

My version of the trip began at 5:20 am with a pickup from Don, followed by a visit to café SuPa (Sue & Pascal), where Sue had prepared drinks of our choosing to start our long travel day right.

It was fun meeting up with everyone at the airport and sitting down to breakfast together, pondering about the adventure we were about to embark on.

The travel day was a long one – 14 hours total – many of us on little or no sleep. We had some temporary worry about Joey, who was meant to meet us in Houston via Washington. Joey landed in Washington to find out he needed to switch not terminals but airports! Needless to say, he made it, but we were definitely all relieved when we met him in Houston!

Touching down in the tiny Oaxaca airport made the long travel day worth it – stepping outside to hear crickets on a warm evening! Travelling to the hotel, I felt elated and really excited. From the little I could tell from the van window, I loved Mexico already.

Hotel Azucenas was gorgeous – open air lobby and simple rooms, and the stunning rooftop patio. After getting settled into our rooms, we all met on the roof for cervezas and decided to head down to the Zocolo – the main city square. There we ate tostadas, tacos, and other local specialties, and began to get a sense for Oaxaca.

I think we all slept well…

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Day two began with breakfast on the roof - coffee, fresh fruit, yogurt, cheese and sweet breads. What a beautiful day. After breakfast we met Benito – our kind and fearless guide – and headed for Monte Alban.

Travelling to the historic site we got to see more of the city – the elaborate burial sites, the gorgeous flora (the purple jacaranda and fuchsia bougainvillea were my favorite), and the wildly varied and colourful buildings.

Monte Alban felt to me like a different world – it is so difficult to imagine life so very long ago! The sheer size of the settlement, and knowing everything was done by hand or with simple tools blew my mind. As a music lover, what will stick with me was Benito’s clapping up above the main gathering place – the acoustics were incredible.

After Monte Alban the group split – half going to see more city sights, and half going to a traditional steam bath. We’d heard a bit about the steam bath from Jeff – it certainly sounded interesting. That is was! I don’t recon there are that many Canadians who can say they paid to have mescal spit on them, be surrounded by smoke, and then sit in a tiny dark, hot, humid room and be beaten with chamomile. All joking aside, the steam bath was one of my favorite experiences. It challenged me to be open, trusting, and relaxed, in an unfamiliar setting where I wasn’t able to communicate verbally. It really set the tone for me – it felt spiritual and cleansing - a great introduction to our adventure.

The group reconvened for a lunch of mole and stuffed peppers at a nice restaurant in the city, and then we headed to the market and women’s cooperative for some touring and shopping. Don found a great hat, I bought some chilies, and Joey got some chapulines (grasshoppers). Sue picked up a lovely handmade tin angel for her Christmas tree and Jeff ordered an art print.

We met Donna, the owner of hotel Azucenas, and Benito for dinner that night on the rooftop patio at Casa Oaxaca. What a gorgeous spot! We had beautiful weather and the food was so fresh and delicious.

We ended day two in what had become our favorite gathering spot – the hotel rooftop.

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Day three – mountains! After another lovely breakfast, Benito arrived to load our things on the roof of the van and we were off to Chayotepec. First stop was to see rug weaving just outside the city. We were greeted and welcomed by lovely ladies who taught us about washing, carding, dying and spinning the wool. All the dyes are natural and come from the area – everything from marigold and indigo to barks and these tiny red bugs that infest the prickly pear. We learned about the looms – how they can take weeks just to set up the pattern, and then the wool is weaved over and under strings to make the design. What beautiful, skilled, and difficult work!

The road to Chayotepec was long but beautiful, changing from arid landscape to lush greens, pavement to dirt. The road is not for the faint of heart or those with a fear of heights – in the mountains, the one lane road twists and turns around steep inclines and several hundred meter drops…  

We arrived in Chayotepec after dark and settled into our lovely cabanas. I could see shadows of the mountains in the distance and couldn’t wait to see them in the daylight.

We met our hosts and had a tasty meal of tortillas with cheese and prickly pear, and decided on our agenda for our three days in the mountains – a nice balance of coffee, daily life in Chayotepec, and outdoor adventure.

Another sound sleep…

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Day four begins with the third straight day of beautiful sunshine – and my goodness, what a view! A breakfast of tortillas and huevos (eggs) prepped us for our trip to pick coffee.

A short drive and we arrived at a small community where an 84 year old matriarch was raking coffee to dry. She was so warm and welcoming, and seemed very happy. She had lived there all her life, and the entire community was made up of her children and those who had come from elsewhere to marry them.

We were led down a dirt road and into the forest to where the coffee was growing. It was the final pick of the harvest, so we were to take everything off the bushes and it would be sorted after. I was amazed by the steepness of the hill and how challenging it was to stay balanced – and I was wearing hiking boots! Most of the locals were wearing only sandals or very simple shoes, yet were far more stable and agile than I.

We tried eating the coffee cherries (which I found surprisingly tasty), and continued to pick (and photograph) for a short while before heading back to process the coffee.

Sue and I headed back to home base to learn to make mole and tortillas. Mole is made using chocolate, roasted peppers & chilies, garlic, onions, cinnamon, peanuts, sometimes fruit, and spices. It is quite a process, but so delicious. The tortillas were relatively simple – that is with the handy tortilla press they were using. Sue and I vowed to find presses to bring home with us. (And we did!)

That night we ate the delicious mole and then were joined by members of the community for storytelling. Benito did a wonderful job of translating the varied stories - from serious community and environmental issues to folklore. Two that most stuck with me were one about the deforestation of the area by a logging company, how it affected the water supply and wildlife, and that it changed the environment permanently; and a folk tale about the forest being mysterious and of horses emerging from the woods with braided hair, thought to have been done by fairies.

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Day five! An early start, and ride in the van to the neighbour’s. We arrived at a small ranch rich with fruit trees, livestock, and lush vegetation.. The family welcomed us and attempted to show us how to milk cows – a task much more difficult than it looks! Joey and Sue met with some success, I failed miserably. We had yet another lovely meal, and then we watched as the fresh cow’s milk was mixed with rennet from the cow’s stomach and then made into cheese. A very simple process – and the cheese was amazing. We spent some time with Hector, who showed us how to make a broom and a basket from palm fronds.

The dynamic of the farm was incredible – chickens roaming around with the cattle, children playing with the baby chicks, a mama kitty and her kittens playing and laying in the sun. The fruit trees (lime, orange, tamarind, and avocado) provided a nice shade.

Later that afternoon we headed to UCIRI to see the facility. I was surprised at what a community it is – with a health clinic, nursery for coffee plants, cafeteria, and other resources. We met with Frans, who gave us great insight into the current climate of Fair Trade – the issues surrounding Fair Trade USA, the emergence of the small producer’s symbol, and what these shape the movement may take in the future.

Unfortunately, processing had finished for the day, but we got to see the facility and highly specialized sorting equipment. So inspiring to witness what a group of small farmers can accomplish collectively.

That night’s dinner might have been my favorite – tostadas. Yum! After dinner we were joined by a traditional medicine practitioner, who described to us many native plants and their uses in treating common ailments. The members of the community do not visit a conventional doctor – they have illness treated locally and naturally (aside from extenuating circumstances.)