I had visited Oaxaca once beforehand, all it took for me to fall completely in love. Descending into Mexico City for the first time was one of the most surreal moments of my life at that time. It made impressions that would change the course of my life in profound ways.
Oaxaca, Love at First Taste
At just 26 years old, despite working as a flight attendant, I had never strayed beyond the South Pacific.
I sat spellbound, watching the streetlights out of the plane window as they sprawled out further than I could imagine. Living in a small city on the other side of the world, where a drive across the full expanse of the city took under an hour, provided a sharp contrast.
Mexico had captivated me for the longest time – the colours, the sounds, the smells, and the music, but most importantly was always the food. I dreamed of sinking my teeth into fresh tortillas and devouring bright, unusually shaped fruit. I yearned to discover the delights of Mole pooling over black beans seasoned with avocado leaf.
One day, my Mexican dreams came true.
First Stop – Mexico City
Jolted from my slumber by the sound of Spanish chatter out in the corridor, I awoke in my small, central-city hotel room that first morning. I had arrived late the night before, muddling through broken Spanish with my taxi driver as we navigated the streets of Mexico City’s Distrito federal – DF to the locals. Despite being late, the streets were buzzing with life, and here I was, wide-eyed and fizzing. I had finally arrived in one of the most interesting & celebrated culinary destinations in the world.
A twist of fate and a last-minute competition entry is what first flung me into Mexico, I was joining as a part of a flagship food tour. The four of us set off, guided by a Mexican local who enraptured me with tales and mythology. She provided welcome glimpses into the past and present realities of Mexican life, language, love, and the culture of a country I’d long been in love with, yet never set foot on.
Each day brought new and delicious possibilities. With each tortilla, each pozole, each margarita, even each tiptoe into the unchartered territories of crunchy chapulines, I fell more and more in love. I found my nights spent plotting and scheming to move here, to live out my days in the colourful streets of Southern Mexico. Days spent eating endless configurations of maize off a smokey comal, evenings passed exploring the mezcalerias.
A Dream to Return, Realised.
On my return to New Zealand, days, months, and eventually years passed. The dream of living in Mexico still a tiny spark in an overcrowded mind. I often found my mind wandering back to the sounds, aromas, and vibrancy of Latin America. I had left the continent assuring those who would listen that I would be back to live here. No matter what it took, I’d find a way. There was no doubt in my mind.
The collectivo ride from Xoxocotlán airport sparked nostalgia in me, as well as an unsettling churning in my belly. Would it live up to my expectations? Had my nostalgia warped and moulded Mexico into an unattainable dreamland?
In many ways this city had barely shifted over the past five years I’d been away. The wide road in from the city lined with cantinas and taco trucks, taxis honked on the highway and the outskirts of the city dotted with derelict auto shops, and billboards promoting everything from corona through to lucha libre.
We wove through into the Centro Historico where wide boulevards gave way to cobbled roads and cacti, blue buildings with striking orange doorways, storefronts of every colour with rooftops of terracotta potted plants.
A Land of Many Cultures & Traditions
Oaxaca is a cultural, artisanal, and gastronomic heart of Mexico. The region brings together sixteen indigenous cultures, the remains of an ancient civilization, and the many languages, foods, traditions that come along with that.
The historic footprint here is enormous. The cultures here have survived better than most in Mexico, bringing an incredible richness. However, not without their own hardships too. Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in the country, and many live meagre lives dotted around the sierras. Lives that have suffered considerably at the hands of natural disasters, poverty, and discrimination.
It is the cultural diversity of Oaxaca that makes this mountain town quite so special.
Settling into Oaxacan Life
I transitioned from a starry-eyed tourist to a temporary local, savouring chocolate de agua and Quesadillas de Flor de Calabaza for breakfast each morning at a small local restaurant. The crumbling exterior and plastic chairs gave no sign to the delights it held inside.
The fridge was stocked with second-hand soda bottles full of homemade aqua frescas in every exotic flavour. To the right of the counter, an old lady perched in the wide open entrance sits curled over a large, round comal.
The fragrance of cooking tortillas was inescapable. I relished every moment spent watching the frothy cacao whipped into the steaming water. I sat tearing into quesadillas, with the queso Oaxaca stretched between my fingers, revealing the zucchini flower inside.
A Beautiful Home in Xochimilco
We moved into a two-storied bungalow, set in the most traditional of gorgeous Mexican neighbourhoods. Cobbled streets and colourful facades built up along the edge of a river accentuated the neighbourhood’s beauty. In the morning you could hear the clack-clack of the weavers crafting rugs amidst the call of elote vendors peddling hot corn from their handcarts. I was in paradise.
My return was everything I had hoped, and then a whole lot more. We rediscovered all my favourite spots – the carne hall lined with dangling meats served with piles of tortillas, salsas, herbs, and lime. The Zocalo, Oaxaca’s eternally alive town square. Punctuated by a spired cathedral, and flanked by restaurants serving margaritas to outdoor tables. The perfect spot for people watching, complete with live mariachi and pick-pocketing children selling chewing gum.
So much was the same it barely felt five years had passed in my absence. Still a haven of delicious flavours, an explosion of sounds, parades and fireworks. Still a small city filled with sweet, generous people. I left the first time suspecting six days wasn’t enough time for somewhere so wonderful, and I left the second knowing that neither was six months.