In the world of booze trip bucket lists a trip to Oaxaca for Day of the Dead has to be right up there, I can now officially confirm that it is better than you could ever imagine.
The first sign that it was going to be something special happened approximately 48 seconds after we stepped out of the hotel and onto the streets of Oaxaca for the first time. We found ourselves in a market full of local handmade, colourful goodies but after a long journey from the UK it was a stall selling a frothy local soft drink that took our eye.
Bebidas del Cacao is a cold subtly sweet chocolate drink which is the perfect remedy to dismiss any lingering airline cobwebs. We happily wandered the market sipping on one of those and eating some spicy fried crickets which became a constant on the trip thanks to Sam Burke’s growing addiction.
This seems like a good time to introduce you to the gang on the trip. The aforementioned Samantha Burke is, as I’m sure you know, of Love Drinks fame the company behind this whole adventure. They put on a cocktail competition, which BarLifeUK judged, with their two Mezcals, Zignum and El Recuerdo, earlier in the year with the two winners getting this adventure as the prize. Our winners were Ellie Raeside from Hoot The Redeemer in Edinburgh and Zach Saparo from The Absent Ear in Glasgow. Love Drinks PR guru Sam Houston (who will be called Houston from here on in to avoid any Sam confusion) and fellow judge and professional trip getter oner, Jamie Mac, round out the UK contingent.
As this merry bunch stepped out of the market we were suddenly in the heart of the most beautiful town I have ever seen. The sun was out and the sky was blue, but it was the buildings, colourful and vibrant that demanded attention. The buildings and streets were also festooned with Day of the Dead decorations, equally vivid and colour filled, which made the spectacle even more breath-taking. Pictures were taken as we walked the streets towards our first meal (and mezcal) of the trip, I’m pretty sure I put my neck out spinning round to catch a look at everything I walked past.
As we sat down for our first meal of the trip we were like giddy kids at a Kinder Surprise factory, excitedly talking about what we had seen. Our wonderful host for the trip Jennifer Serrano from the distillery, took one look at us and, extremely wisely, decided to order for the table. As we chatted away the table began to fill with plates of delicious looking and smelling dishes and soon our attention was brought back to the matter in hand, lunch.
Over the next few days we were to eat some spectacular food. In fact this whole article could easily be just about the food. Everything we ate was full of flavour and colour, from street vendors to fancy Mexico City restaurants (Paxia is frickin’ awesome). Usually the dishes were served sharing style allowing us to try as many different things as possible, especially with Ellie at my side with her constant ‘wanna split this?’. There was not anything I ate that was less than superb. At every meal the food was accompanied by Zignum and/or El Recuerdo, inevitably served the traditional way with orange slices and spiced salt.
We got up to a lot on this trip and there is no way I can fit it all in here so I will stick to some of the highlights.
Day of the Dead
As many of you will be aware Day of the Dead is a holiday and celebration that takes place between October 31st and November 2nd. In this period people believe that the boundaries between the spirit world and real world dissolve, allowing the souls of dead relatives to come back. Over the days there are several different events including a parade on the last day.
On our first night a guide took us to a graveyard. My Western sensibilities immediately kicked in and I could see Ellie having a similar issue. On the way we chatted about whether this was disrespectful, to treat this special time as some sort of tourist attraction, to interrupt the time they are spending with their relative’s souls.
As we walked into the graveyard and saw the lights and pictures of the dead on the graves this feeling grew. We stopped next to a grave which was covered in flowers and pictures, with food laid out and members of the family sat around. Our guide started to explain the meanings of everything to us and my anxiety levels went through the roof…. then the most extraordinary thing happened.
A woman from the group, of what we would call mourners, around the grave got up and came towards us, in her hand she held a bottle of mezcal and some little tasting cups. Through our guide she explained she wanted us to have a drink with her to celebrate her husband (who it turned out had died from covid earlier this year). Suddenly mezcal was flowing, hidden speakers started to blast out one of his favourite songs and whilst we couldn’t understand each other a lick each other was saying we were smiling and laughing together.
As we moved through the graveyard all around us were similar groups having a grand old time. We reached one group singing and laughing, I had stopped to take a picture on route so I only caught the very end of the song. The group offered us a beer from the giant cooler they had with them, to my surprise everyone in our group declined. I did not, I thought I was being polite, I soon understood why the others had politely refused.
Turns out the song they were singing was a drinking song to accompany me as I downed the beer. This was explained to me after I had accepted the beer, so in the space of half an hour I had gone from being anxious about setting foot in the graveyard to downing a beer whilst strangers sang about me being their friend in Spanish. The whole evening was one of the most memorable experiences in my life.
A couple of days later we found ourselves standing on the side of a street in Oaxaca with a few thousand other people, yet it didn’t feel crowded, and whilst we waited for the procession to move our way Houston appeared with a supply of got beer. As we sipped we realised Zach had disappeared, we weren’t worried, for starters Zach was the only one of us who could speak Spanish, but we were intrigued. As the start time approached Zach still wasn’t back, then a thought went through our heads, has he somehow got himself in the parade? Another 10 minutes still no Zach, is he getting his face painted right now? Half a mile up the road we hear the parade start to move, still no Zach, he has definitely done it, this is going to be immense. The parade gets closer, we start to strain our eyes, is that Zach on the right hand side. Then….. Zach turns up behind us very pleased with the street food he is holding aloft.
Despite the lack of Zach the parade was fantastic, live music and dancers, painted faces and stilts, coffins and whips. It had it all and, like the town itself, was an explosion of colour and fun. We were inspired. Time to get our faces painted. Everyone got involved, Jamie spent nearly 20 minutes in the chair getting his done and still look liked a grumpy Scottish bloke. However Ellie managed to somehow insult the women doing the painting, it is the only explanation for what can only be described as the wonkiest face painting I have ever seen.
We walked the streets with other revellers, we watched drones do stuff in the sky and then we drank. Which brings me nicely onto:
There are by all accounts some superb bars in Oaxaca, I got a lovely long list before we went. We visited precisely none of them. Partly because it was so busy any nice looking bar was rammed and partly because we just went to places near where we were when we were thirsty. Various Mezcalerias were visited, a great place called Vino & Vinyl where you pick the music, Pulqueria Mayahuel for luminous margaritas, but there were two that stood out.
We stumbled upon and into Retro Bar on our first night, it was empty but it had a jukebox. We played music, we drank, some danced and by the time we left it was packed and we had completely ruined the bartenders breezy Monday night. It was not a fancy joint, but it was a hell of a lot of fun. We went back the following night.
The other favourite doesn’t have a name that I could find. It was a roof top bar on top of a backpacker hostel which we somehow managed to get into when someone left a door open. It was a party in full swing with people literally dancing on the tables. Soon Zach, Ellie and Sam were shaking their tailfeathers (or whatever the kids do these days) whilst Houston and Jamie stood very still, drank and talked about sport (probably).
In Mexico City we upped the fancy level with a visit to Limantour where serious cocktails were drunk and, following a top tip from Barrie Wilson, I had a very delicious Michelada. At this point we were joined by Daniel Kaizan who had a recommendation from now Mexico City local Megs Miller. We soon found ourself in a bar that had seemingly been carved out of the rock of the city, a dark cave like space with bartenders flinging out great cocktails and mezcal shots to the packed in crowd. Tlecan Mezcaleria is my kinda place.
All trip we were accompanied by a legend of a photo and videographer in the form of Mexico City local Fergo (whose superb work you can see at the end of the article), he wanted to know if we wanted to see where the locals hung out. You can bet your tortilla wrapped tush we did. Down a back alley we found a multi-floored extravaganza full of dancing, drinking and fun…. we had a late night.
I always feel sorry for people who travel to exciting parts of the world and don’t visit the distilleries of the local drop (although the rice wine ‘distillery’ in Cambodia may have been a stretch too far). Oaxaca gives a unique opportunity to see the two sides of the mezcal production process. There are the traditional style distilleries (or Palenque) and those embracing new technologies. Neither is better than the other (although I have a feeling accountants may disagree with that statement) but they are surprisingly different when you consider the core is exactly the same.
We were lucky enough to visit the two styles first stopping off at the Mal De Amor Palenque highlighting the traditional techniques such as the tahona being powered by horse, and old style stills set in cold water. It was amazing to see such ancient practices still being employed especially when you consider that Ilegal mezcal is produced here.
By comparison Casa Armando Guillermo Prieto, the distillery which produces both Zignum and El Recuerdo, is one of the most modern I have ever visited. We will be bringing you a separate article with a full breakdown of the distillery shortly but in the meantime I will tell you the fields surrounding the distillery itself are beautiful.
They are not only growing the type of agave used in their brands but are also planting rarer agave types to make sure that they do not go extinct, and having fun playing with them at the same time. The team that head up the growing and harvesting of the agaves are a highly knowledgeable and fascinating bunch. Their dedication to sustainability is evident in everything they do.
The team planted some baby agaves in a greenhouse which was similar in temperature to a sauna someone has set alight, I genuinely thought Jamie was going to spontaneously combust, I had the camera ready but alas he held out.
There were plenty of opportunities for our Scottish contingent to get their biennial sun quota and none more so than on our visit to Monte Alban. Even if you haven’t heard of Monte Alban you will have seen images of it before, it is one of the most famous of the ancient ruins that form the main tourism pull for visitors to this part of Mexico.
An ancient Zapotec metropolis which was inhabited for 13 centuries from 500 BC to 800 AD. During this time buildings were added until it sprawled across over 4 miles. As a UNESCO site it is wonderfully maintained but as a testament to the quality of the original build you can still walk on almost all of the structures gaining stunning views across the surrounding countryside.
Our lovely guide talked us through the processes not only to build it, but also to excavate it, as well as some of the ancient skills employed such as an understanding of acoustics which is still beyond my comprehension. We had a great morning wondering around and Sam celebrated with a handstand-esque yoga move, Monte Alban has seen a lot in its time but that may well have been a first!
There was a more surprising UNESCO treat in store for us on the last day of the trip in Mexico. Xochimilco is an area of the vast capital city which is famous for its waterways. Along these waterways you can hire colourful wooden boats by the hour, they come complete with a very strong man with a very long pole to move you around the M25 of waterways.
It is an attraction that is popular with tourists and locals alike and it’s easy to see why. Sit down our your boat, order some beers to take with you or just buy some from the smaller boats selling them on route. There is a whole lot more on offer than just some drinks, fancy a mariachi band? No problem they’ll float alongside and serenade you. How about some food? Easy, all the best street food has become boat food. In fact at one point we saw what looked like a wedding being catered for by one husband and wife on a tiny boat, providing fully plates meals.
It is one of the best people watching spots you could imagine. With beer. And food. And music. And you’re on a bloody boat.
There is so much more to mention, the most beautiful hand carved wood animals for starters. I haven’t even mentioned the carved monkey sex statues or the double snake reaction. Haven’t touched on the dozen times Houston disappeared to help someone in need push a trolly or build a house. The walking tours. The sinking city. The market challenge. Lava Ball. 2 more blocks. The endless group shots. My first cocktail competition victory.
What is worse is I know I haven’t done the trip justice. Like the pictures I took of Oaxaca that first day, sometimes you just have to witness it to really appreciate it. That would be quite something wouldn’t it? To be on a trip just like this. Well I’ve got some good news for you, a little birdy has told me the competition may well be coming back next year with another two chances to experience all this. Keep an eye on BarLifeUK in the new year for more.
For now a big thank you to all the team at Zignum and El Recuerdo. Also to our guides and constant photography friends Fergo, Alan and Mexico City Alan. Plus of course Double Snake, Wonky, Crickets?, Mr Helpful and Big Papi for being such great companions on the trip and making me laugh almost constantly. Mexico you are a truly wonderful place and Oaxaca you are its crowning glory.