Journey to Oaxaca

Over Thanksgiving, Alex and I went on a research trip for our book. To get the rest of the family to join us, we called it a “family vacation.”

We spent four days in Oaxaca City, Mexico.

We knew there would be a few challenges—none of us know any Spanish (except the little Alex has learned so far at school), and we are still developing a taste for Mexican cuisine. But Alex and I were excited to see where the characters in our book travel.

My husband and I quickly learned that our plan of relying on Alex to translate was not going to work. I knew Alex wasn’t fluent, but figured he would have some Spanish basics down. The first time we looked at him for help, however, he simply shook his head and said: “I just know Spanish songs!” (I’m pretty sure that’s not true, but it meant we were left to muddle through on our own.) Luckily, all of the Oaxacans we met either spoke English or were pretty good at interpreting hand signals!

Oaxaca was simply fabulous! We stayed in the beautiful Hotel CasAntica, which is close to many of the Oaxaca sights, including the Zócalo, the Oaxaca Cathedral, and Iglesia de Santo Domingo.

Hotel CasAntica
Hotel CasAntica
Iglesia de Santo Domingo
Iglesia de Santo Domingo

Oaxaca was founded in the late part of the 15th century by Aztec warriors. It is a gorgeous old city. In the heart of the city, where we were staying, some of the streets are even cobblestone.

As wonderful as Oaxaca City is, the reason for our trip was outside the city, near the little town of Apoala. Even though it is small, Apoala is very important to Oaxacan culture. Oaxacan legend says that Apoala is where the Mixteca people were created.

Looking at Oaxaca and Apoala on a map, they seemed pretty close—just 125 kilometers (a little over 75 miles). So I thought this would be a perfect day (or half-day) trip. But the map didn’t tell me that we would need to drive 42 kilometers (26 miles) of that on a narrow dirt road through the mountains. We drove between 10 and 30 kilometers/hour (and held our breath every time there was a car coming from the opposite direction)! It took three hours to get there.

We finally arrived in Apoala, and a guide took us on a hike to the Cave of the Dark Snake. As soon as we got inside the cave, Alex declared that the long drive was “totally worth it!” After the kids had explored the cave for a while, we continued on to the base of a narrow canyon. A picturesque sight.

After lunch, it was time for a hike to the waterfall—the reason for the research trip. The waterfall was just as amazing as the Oaxaca tourist guide pictures promised. A straight-line waterfall that gushes down to a pool at its base. And that is just one part of this waterfall, which starts higher up the mountain and also continues flowing down the mountainside in smaller waterfalls.

Apoala waterfall

Another highlight of our trip was searching for alebrijes. An alebrije features in our book, and we wanted to find one like it. After searching in many market stalls for a donkey with wings, we finally came upon a donkey (without wings). We explained what we were looking for, and the stall owner said he would just make wings for the donkey and told us to come back the next day!

Here is my donkey alebrije!

My custom-made alebrije
My custom-made alebrije

Alebrijes are wood carvings created in the State of Oaxaca and sold both locally and internationally. They were named after the paper-mache alebrijes of an artist named Pedro Linares (who claimed to be inspired by a dream he had while ill). In creating alebrijes, the Oaxacan wood carvers adopted some of the fantastical influences and bright colors used by Linares in his paper-mache art.

The primary source of income for residents of the State of Oaxaca is tourism. A number of families rely on the proceeds from selling alebrijes to tourists. Wood carving—and now alebrije-making—is a craft passed down through generations, and is something that all members of the family can help with.

Tourists can find alebrijes for sale throughout the markets and at many of the stalls up in the streets.


Our trip was way too short. We missed out on the other great part of Oaxacan tourism—visiting archeological sites. There are many sites in the mountains around the city.

Alex summed it up perfectly on our last night: “It’s too bad we have to leave so soon. Oaxaca is such a beautiful city!” I guess we’ll just need to visit again soon!

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