What is the best way to travel with a baby? Should comfort and convenience take priority? We considered this and envisioned ourselves in a tropical location, on a beach in an expensive resort. In this imaginary trip, I saw Ella, my six-month-old baby freaking out and saw our stressed out faces lacking a tan. She could only tolerate a specific location for minutes at a time and I predicted the futility of pleading with my infant daughter by asking her to feel fortunate for her slice of paradise.
So we decided to visit a destination that we had been drooling over for quite some time and planned a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. We thought this activity filled obstacle course through the markets, streets and sites would keep Mom, Dad and Baby happy. To add to the fun, we planned a road trip from Mexico City, as a car was a sleep haven for our little one and it would increase our options on the trip.
We first flew to Mexico City. We rented our car, threw our luggage in the trunk and readied to drive to the Hyatt in the Polanco district. There was one problem. I did not have a map, GPS, compass or any idea which direction to head. This would not have been so bad, except, we had a pending dinner reservation and no air conditioning in the car. With some controlled arguing and tactful driving, we eventually figured out how to get to the city center and located our hotel after asking for directions.
This allowed for the narrowest window of time to check in, drop off our bags, slide some deodorant and rush over with the stroller to honor our coveted reservation at Pujol. Holy crap, what an amazing seven course culinary intro to Mexican cuisine. My favorite was the baby corn smoked in corn leaves sprinkled with ant exoskeleton.
We started off the next day with a long walk through Chapultapec park and La Condesa, before heading in the car out of the city to Puebla.
Puebla is an old Spanish colonial city located in the valley of active volcanoes. The exterior of the city was a crowded, industrial urban sprawl that is uninspiring until you reach the historical center that was a yolk of romantic cobblestone streets, four hundred year old cathedrals and stall after stall of out of this world street food.
After two days of touring some of the sites, we then head out of the city, drove passed the distant Pico de Olizaba volcano, the tallest summit in Mexico, and through the Sierra Mixteca desert of Oaxaca state. A pleasant five hour ride lead us to Oaxaca City, the land where the agave nectar flows like a mountain stream before distillation into mescal. A home to traditional Zapotec identity that breathes flavor into the ubiquitous mole. Chocolate, cheese, and chapulinas are all readily available throughout the safe, clean and colorful streets.
The market at Oaxaca was the paradise we sought. We picked out our fresh veggies and meat for a smoky barbecue that stimulated our nostrils. The vendors were chill, low pressure and provided fare prices to take away the obnoxious game of barter. Political protesters reminded about the fight for indigenous rights, while the Mexican moms fixated on Ella with smiles.
At first is was funny to see how people flocked to Ella. We were at first okay with the oohs and aaahs and then concerned but tolerant that many held thin boundaries when it came to touching and holding babies. The final straw came when a group of locals produced a same aged male baby suitor and they tried to get the two face to face for a candid kiss. Missy wanted nothing to do with this and promptly extracted our daughter from this too close for comfort courtship.
One day we head by car outside the city to the surrounding valley to check out neighboring villages and landscapes in search for crafts, food and mescal. We made our culinary pilgrimage to Tlamanalli for ancestral Zapotec food and then searched for the smallest mescal distillery we could find. This popped up after we passed a courtyard with a mule hanging out in front. I slammed on the breaks cut the wheel and pulled up into a little compound that couldn’t be larger than a basketball court. A single family ran a small batch mescal operation and they showed us the production process that starts with a fire pit to cook their shipment of agave, this is carried over to the mule powered mortar that breaks the fruit into a pulp to allow for the fermentation in an open vat that bubbled like a witches cauldron and then finally this was distilled in a copper kettle. I sat down to sample the smoothest mescal that I came across and bought a healthy sized liter bottle for the price of two Starbucks lattes.
I don’t know any mass produced mescal. I was only familiar with the drink from the contrived bottles with scorpions at the base and thought of mescal as tequila’s dirty cousin. It was easy in Oaxaca to enjoy the refined nature of the spirit. It comes from the maguey plant, a type of agave grown in the region and the flavor variability comes from the different lands that it is harvested from. The valley grown Cuishe maguey was harsher than the smooth Tobala maguey that grew in the mountains. Rather than a dominant brand, most restaurants, bars and hotels carried “house mescal” as they contracted with the legions of small batch distillers to serve their own bottles of goodness. Mescal was not a commodity to be branded and mass produced but a drink to be loved and used to relax the rational function of the brain to allow appreciation for the beauty that exists everywhere.
My mescal moments occurred in the afternoon and ended early when Ella became tired of dancing on bar tables. This allowed for a hangover-free early wake up so we can focus on the Oaxacan sites like the Monte Alba archaeological ruins and the collection of Spanish cathedrals.
After a couple of days in the city, we drove back towards Mexico City and visited the Teotihuacan ruins. Then we returned back to the city to finish our first family trip.
In the end, we realized the perfect setting for travel with a baby. Each day offered fresh and new experiences. We toured an area that was impeccably safe and friendly, despite the mistaken association that Mexico equals narcotrafficking. Ella did have meltdowns, but they were expected and handled just like we were home.
Where we stayed:
Mexico City- Hyatt Regency. This was a stiff business centered hub that met all of our expectations.
Puebla – Hotel Andante. This was a kichy, classical music inspired botique hotel that may be a little dated in concept but provided a convenient and comfortable clean room for the stay.
Oaxaca- Hotel Blue Oaxaca. This was nice. It had a modern open compound design with a kick ass breakfast. We liked it.