Let’s Go Exploring! Oaxaca: The Chiang Mai of Mexico

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FIRECracker is Canada's youngest retiree. She used to live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, but instead of drowning in debt, she rejected home ownership. What resulted was a 7-figure portfolio, which has allowed her and her husband to retire at 31 and travel the world. Their story has been featured on CBC, the Huffington Post, CNBC, BNN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance. To date, it is the most shared story in CBC history and their viral video on CBC's On the Money has garnered 4.5 Million views.
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“What’s your favourite city in the world?”

We get asked this question a lot. And after travelling to over 30 countries, you’d think we have trouble just narrowing down a favourite country, never mind a favourite city.

But in my case, it was easy.

Chiang Mai, Thailand.”

I’m not sure if it’s the adorable elephants, the highly-skilled masseuses, the more-addictive-than-crack food, or the soft-spoken, always-smiling, Thai people, but of all the places we’ve travelled to, Chiang Mai keeps pulling us back.

So when we went to Mexico, I immediately started looking for a place that oozed the Chiang Mai charm. My thinking was that if we ever needed to stay close to Canada for family, we’d have a semi “home-base” we could stay in for 6 months at a time.

But after traipsing around Merida, Cancun, Chichen Itza, Tulum, and Mexico City, none of them had that magical “Chiang Mai” feeling.

Merida was super safe, but too hot in the summer.

Chichen Itza scared the hell out of me .

Tulum and Cancun ticked off the “awesome places to swim” checkbox but missed the “great value” one.

Mexico City was just too big.

But then we came across a place known as the “culinary capital of Mexico”. A place written about by food bloggers the world over, but is still relatively unknown to the casual vacationer. A place whose name we couldn’t even pronounce.

That place was…

Oaxaca.

(it’s actually pronounced “WAH-HA-KA”, but we kept confusing the locals by idiotically calling it “Ogzaka”)

It was in Oaxaca that we found the one thing we craved the most:

More-addictive-than-crack food.

Other places in Mexico had good food, but not Chiang Mai level good. That all changed when we arrived in Oaxaca.

Immediately, I had a 1st trimester food baby (good thing I wore stretchy pants) after just one hour in the “20 de Noviember” market.

You would too, if you saw all this:

Ceviche:

This is, hands down, the BEST ceviche I’ve ever had. I’m not a big fan of sour unless it’s balanced with sweet, so this had the perfect balance I was looking for. That, plus the fact that it had generous portions of plump oysters, soft melt-in-your-mouth octopus, and juicy shrimp for only 70 pesos ($3 USD), how can you go wrong? Note, if you end up going to the November 20th market, look for a place called “Mariscos Don Baldo” and ask for the “mixto” (mixed seafood).

Mole Negro:

Mole Negro is a delicious sauce that is Oaxaca’s specialty. A complex concoction that consists of at least  20-30 different ingredients, this was our 2nd favourite thing we ate.

Asada:

Grilled meat and veggies. This was our favourite thing. The best part is that you get to go into the smoke house section of the market, pick your favourite meats, veggies, and they’ll cook it for you right over the fire. So good!

Tlayuda:

This is basically Oaxacan pizza. You can pick the meat and sauce, and the stringy Oaxacan cheese makes everything taste amazing.

Pozole:

This is another one of my favourite things. It’s a basically a hominy soup topped with delicious pig parts. So you can see why I love it…it reminds me of Thai soups. Yum!

Chocolate:

This is basically warm chocolate you eat with bread. I had a lot of fun drinking chocolate with my meal but after a while it was a bit too indulgent and I went back to healthier fruit smoothies.

Elote:

Grilled corn covered with a shitload of cheese and spices. They don’t seem to like putting butter on corn. Weird.

Nopal:

Grilled cactus. Weird food that’s surprisingly tasty and even weider that they taste like Chinese bamboo shoots.

And of course, Wanderer’s personal favourite:

Chapolinas (fried grasshoppers):

photo credit: william.neuheisel @ Flickr

The first time a Oaxacan lady shoved a basket of chapolinas in Wanderer’s face to try a sample, he politely responded to her generous offer by screaming at the top of his lungs and running away.

So of course I bought a whole bag when he wasn’t looking and tried to sneak a handful into his breakfast cereal the next morning.

After that, he wouldn’t speak to me for a whole week.

This was my apology:

Wow, hon! Look how many grassth-hopper legs I have thstuck on my tongue! Give us a kiss! *mueh mueh mueh mueh*

 

For those of you who are wondering what a fried grasshopper tastes like—no, they don’t taste like salt and vinegar chips. Don’t believe the rat bastards who tell you that (*cough* Justin from root of good *cough*).

They taste exactly like what you’d think they taste like.

A super sour, squishy bug.

So on that one…not a fan.

But other than the chapolinas, the food in Oaxaca is the main reason why we started calling it the “Chiang Mai of Mexico”.

That and this natural infinity pool we found in Hierve El Agua:

This sweeping view from a ruin in the mountains called “Monte Alban”.

One of the biggest differences living in Chiang Mai versus Oaxaca is that in Chiang Mai, you don’t really need to know any Thai to get by. Pretty much everyone speaks English, and there were enough expats around that it wasn’t hard to find an English-speaking community. In Oaxaca, you have to know some basic Spanish or get a lot of confused looks from the market vendors.

Fortunately, we did manage to find this awesome place for expats called the Oaxaca Lending Library, or the “OLL” as the cool kids call it. This is less of a library and more of a community hangout where you can find language exchanges, volunteer opportunities, and lots of other fun activities with other expats. This is where we found a local Spanish teacher who gave us Spanish lessons for a couple of weeks. This helped us a TON. Instead of just assigning chapters to read in a Spanish textbook, she actually spent most of our lessons speaking to us slowly in Spanish, which was disorienting at first but helped us learn super fast. We’re still not fluent in Spanish but we can read and understand way more than when we first started.

So when it comes to that “Chiang Mai” magic, Oaxaca is the only place that even came close. And the prices were super great too. You could get a full buffet lunch for only 40 pesos ($1.80 USD) and our apartment only costs us $430 CAD/month ($326 USD).

Here’s how much we spent in Oaxaca:

Category Cost in CAD/couple Notes
Accommodations: $14/night We stayed in an AirBnb an apartment for $430/month. As far as amenities go this one was pretty bare bones compared to the fancy condo we stayed in Chiang Mai. But on the plus side it was walking distance to the markets and the Chedraui grocery store."
Food: $29/day $18 for eating out, $11 for groceries. We mostly ate out for lunch and cooked every other day for dinner. Some restaurants and markets tend to close around 6pm so it was more difficult to find cheap food for dinner.
Transportation: $6/day We spent $84/person flying from Mexico City to Oaxaca, but other than that very little on transportation since the airbnb was walking distance to everything. So average over the month, that's only $6/day.
Entertainment: $5/day There so many cheap or free types of entertainment all around Oaxaca, the only things we had to pay for was the trip to Hierve Agua, which was $28 USD/person. Entry to Monte Alban was 70 pesos ($3 USD) per person. We also paid 100 pesos ($5 each) for 2 hour tour around the San Domingo gardens. Averaged over the month we only spent $5/day on entertainment. Just like in Chiang Mai, the main attraction was the food.
Education: $1.40/day Our private Spanish lessons cost 180 pesos ($8 USD) per hour for the 2 of us. Since we started late during the month, we only managed to get 4 lessons in before we had to leave.
Total: $55.40 CAD/couple/day ($42 USD/couple/day)

Now, that is a ridiculously low daily cost, but had I found the Spanish lessons earlier, we would’ve happily spent more money. Also, the next time, we’d probably want to find a slightly more expensive Airbnb with more amenities (like aircon).

So there you have it. I finally found my “Chiang Mai of Mexico” in Oaxaca, and if we were ever to home-base it in Mexico, we’d definitely stay in Oaxaca.



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18 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Oaxaca: The Chiang Mai of Mexico”

    1. Haven’t tried Peruvian mole or ceviche but would love to try it some day! (Machu Picchu is on our list).

      The grasshoppers were SO sour. I think it wouldn’t have been as bad if it were crunchier and less sour, but there was many other types of better food, it didn’t stand a chance.

  1. This is boss. You and W travel the world, looking for the BEST FOOD and value, and I can simply add them to my list. Thanks!

    If you go to Taiwan, I’m heading there in November, so please pass on any tips. Love you, MR!

    1. Happy to spread the food coma! Hope you go check out Oaxaca some day.

      I haven’t been to Taiwan yet, but you may want to ask Winnie from GoCurryCracker, she’s Taiwanese and has lots of good tips. I’m going to have to pick both your brains when you get back. Taiwan is very high on my list.

      Love you too, Melissa! (But totally not in a creepy way…ok, maybe a little bit in a creepy way)

  2. Wow, Oaxaca is seems very affordable! Those food pictures look delicious too! Definitely adding this one to my list.

    Is there enough to do there (other than eat) for a couple months?

    I’m wondering if it could be a good “summer adventure” location for the family when school gets out.

    1. There are a TON of fun things to do in Oaxaca. You could take the kids out on a day trip to Hierve El Agua (petrified waterfall and thermal pool), a trip to Monte Alban to see ruins, the museum and garden in Santo Domingo and markets all around the city. The Zocalo is also very pretty and lots of kids there playing with balloons and toys.

      There was also this nice big park about 15min walk from the center that had lots of rides and games for kids.

  3. I said they tasted like chile limon chips 😉 Sour, tangy, spicy, crunchy roasted goodness. Not something I’d go for everyday but definitely something I’ll sample next time I’m strolling the aisles of the market in Oaxaca. And my 3 year old loved them so I figured others might too. And would you have tried them if I told you they tasted exactly like roasted grasshoppers would be expected to taste? 😉

    Sounds like you guys had a good time in Oaxaca, and I’m glad you got to experience it. I think we ate and explored about the same stuff you did. No disappointments there 🙂

    Was it really hot when you were there? We didn’t have AC either (it’s pretty rare apparently) but only needed it for a few hours per day just a couple of days while there, so no big loss.

    1. “Sour, tangy, spicy, crunchy roasted goodness.” LIES LIES!!! 😛 Next time someone asks how it tastes, imma tell them it tastes exactly how you think it tastes :P.

      There were a couple of days when it was really hot. The room was actually pretty cool because it had this recessed “cave” feel, but I think I may splurge for aircon next time because it will likely get hotter in the summer. Finding a place with a pool nearby helped.

  4. Really enjoyed your trip report. It is a place I have always wanted to go and experience Dia de los Muertos. And I hear right before that is a huge food festival with lots of cooking classes. But its Mexico… media has claimed fear in all its citizens. One day I hope to get past that cuz I really want to go. Trying to get my cousins (world travelers) to take me. Somehow I got left out of that family equation.

    No grasshoppers for me. Thank you. 😉

    1. Oh I’ve heard Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca is super fun! Lots of dressing up and yummy food. (though the dressing part wasn’t part of their tradition, more like something they put together for the tourists because of the Spectre movie).

      Hope you get to go to Oaxaca sometime! It’s a gem.

  5. Ok, I’ve been to Mexico a bunch of times and never to one of these gems you speak of. Guess that means I need to go back. And eat ALL the food. I love me some Mexican food!

  6. “I’m not sure if it’s the adorable elephants, the highly-skilled masseuses, the more-addictive-than-crack food, or the soft-spoken, always-smiling, Thai people”

    What if you could ride an adorable elephant while getting a massage and eating more-addictive-than-crack food with a soft-spoken, always-smiling Thai person? Paint that in your mind’s eye. Heaven?

    1. BOOM. The sound you just heard is that sound of my head exploding. If that ever happened, everything will be a downward slide from there. And then I’d need to go to another Chautauqua just to feel normal again.

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