On to Oaxaca and the tasty grasshoppers

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The Zocolo area in Oaxaca City Center

DAY 8 — I pop the grasshopper right in my mouth.

It tastes kind of like bacon and is seasoned with chile and salt. Not bad! We are walking through a market in Oaxaca City where we’ve arrived just this afternoon to spend a few days touring this cultural center on a trip organized for us by Austin Lehman Adventures. Locals are selling the “chapulines” — there are big piles of them! Cheap too — just 3 pesos for a bag (about 40 cents).

Pinatas… piles of chilies of all shapes and kinds… spices, vanilla bean, nuts, mole paste, chocolate, (Oaxaca is famous for chocolate production) you name it, this market has it.

Oaxaca is in the southeastern part of Mexico and we’ve come here for a few days of cultural immersion. Oaxaca is famous for its food, its artisans (weavers, carvers, potters) and the beauty of its surrounding valleys where the Zapotecs, Mixtecs and some 14 other ethnic groups live and have preserved their culture for centuries.

Because we had fewer days, we’ve signed on for a “custom” trip just for our family of five. “The beauty of this trip is we can do whatever your family wants,” says our host Carl McLellan, who meets us at the airport along with our engaging local guide, Nicholas Garcia, who was raised here.

I feel like we’ve time traveled and in a sense we have — from a brand new beach resort to the 91-room Camino Real Hotel (www.caminoreal.com/oaxaca) smack in the middle of the historic center that is built in what was a 16th Century convent. The hotel has all kinds of nooks and crannies and a pool. Our room has a wooden ceiling, ceramic painted sink and wooden shutters. It couldn’t be any more charming.

There is just one problem. There was a mix up with our rooms. We were supposed to have one room with two double beds to accommodate my three kids but the hotel has given us two rooms with king sized beds and they’re sold out! The rooms are far too small to accommodate a cot.

This is where having someone else like Austin Lehman sweat the details makes all the difference. While we tour the famous 16th century Santo Domingo Church — the intricate gold leaf, the paintings, the architecture — one of our guides takes care of securing my 24 year-old son Matt a room at another hotel around the corner. After dinner, our guide walks Matt over there and makes sure he’s settled for the night. Hopefully, they’ll find a room for Matt here tomorrow but for once, I’m not worried or trying to deal with solving the problem. I can relax!

I think how much Americans miss by coming to Mexico and simply going to the beach.

There are 32 churches right in this historic center and all kinds of other structures that date back centuries. Wherever we look, is something interesting that begs to be explored — a shop, a courtyard, a restaurant.

The Zocolo is especially lively, our guide Nicholas Garcia tells us, because it is the weekend after Christmas. It’s a cacophony of sights and sounds — dancers performing, poinsettias planted all around the square, twinkling lights wrapped around the trees. One woman sells candied apples on a long stick. I’ve never seen so many colors of cotton candy (purple or gold) Vendors are selling bubbles and wooden back massagers… Kids are running and playing. Parents are laughing. There are lots of tourists but few Americans.

Oaxaca is famous for its chocolate so we stop in at a chocolate factory where we watch as people order their chocolate made to order (Cinnamon? Almonds? Vanilla?) And the workers mix it right in front of us, handing it to the customers as a big yummy blob in a plastic bag. At home, they’ll form it into their own shapes. My chocoholic daughters are entranced. The place smells heavenly!

We eat dinner overlooking the Zocolo at a restaurant called Como Agua pa Chocolate – “Like Water for Chocolate” – named after the book (http://www.oaxaca-restaurant.com/). Owner Chris Schroers , originally from Germany, tells us he was 27 and embarking on a South American adventure when he met a girl in Oaxaca. He never got any farther and now he and that girl — his wife Kanna — run this wonderful spot. We toast our vacation with margaritas and chow down on sizzling pepper steak and tequila soaked prawns cooked right in front of us. Desert is “Forbidden Love “chocolate cake with chocolate sauce, of course. I like Oaxaca.

Two years ago, what started as a routine teachers’ strike escalated into civil unrest that wrecked the burgeoning tourism scene here. It is just beginning to recover. “Tell people that Oaxaca is friendly and safe and it’s very colorful,” Chris Schroers says. We have seen nothing that contradicts him.

After dinner, we walk through the Zocolo where families are enjoying the holiday weekend — and each other. Many are eating street food (the giant fried potatoes on a stick look especially tempting). We stroll back to the hotel, about a 10 minute walk away, stopping at a shop here, an outdoor crafts market there. One daughter buys a scarf; the other a couple of strands of beads. The prices are so low I don’t even bother to bargain. I want to buy everything — the colorfully embroidered shirts and dresses, scarves of every hue, beads and bags… but I restrain myself.

I know there will be more markets to come.

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