A Latin Affair: Exploring delicious Oaxaca
IT seemed like a typical Mexican village.
It had primitive roads and basic housing with a blue mountain backdrop dwarfing everything beneath it.
But behind one big brown gate was the inspiring story of adversity, growth and eventually triumph.
About a dozen single women, none by choice, had to find a way to make an income without their menfolk.
That was 20 years ago when it was still not acceptable for women to work.
Their place was in the kitchen only.
Sure, in the nearby city of Oaxaca things had progressed a bit more but not in the outlying indigenous areas.
Many women in the village spoke only their native tongue, not Spanish, because they had little or no education outside the family unit.
They united to share their skills and produce whatever they could to sell - holding workshops in income-generating projects such as raising chickens and pigs, sewing, baking and weaving.
Pastora, who is a founding member of the Vida Nueva (new life) women's co-operative, says the women who set up the group faced many, many challenges before the community would accept them.
In the early days, when they met, they would cop backlash from their families.
Once they gained the respect of their families, they had to deal with ridicule and malicious gossip about why they were meeting from the community.
The women in Teotitlan del Valle were buying wool from a nearby town, then working the wool until it was ready to dye.
They used natural products such as bark, insects and leaf compounds combined with lime juice, limestone or potassium to create hundreds of different colours.
The women use weaving looms to magically work the wool by hand into incredible rugs - which tell stories of the Zapotec culture and history - to sell.
Through the training classes and some ambitious community projects - such as a sweat lodge for men and women, recycling and environmental education - the Vida Nueva women were able to win over the community.
Journeys Beyond offer tours to lots of off-the-tourist track places around Oaxaca.
The half-day tour east of the city to the women's co-operative also includes a stop at the "world's biggest tree".
The people in El Tule believe they have the stoutest tree in the world and it has been considered for a UNESCO heritage listing.
El Arbol del Tul is about 11m in diameter, 42m high and dwarfs the neighbouring 17th century church which has a bunch of hedges expertly crafted into animals.
Market days in nearby Tlacolula are busy and full of locals, especially on Sundays.
Lamb tacos, made from meat softened in big boiling pots of broth, are to die for.
You'll also catch men in sombreros everywhere and women in traditional dress but be careful, they might hunt you down if they catch you taking photos of them.
Another highlight of Oaxaca state is the nearby Monte Alban ruins which you can easily reach on a local bus and hire a guide at the site.
Perched high above the Oaxaca valley, Monte Alban was the spot the Zapotecas chose to build their ancient village.
Archeologists have recreated the town centre to what it probably would have looked like between 500BC and 900AD.
The ruins include temples, palaces, stepped platforms and a ball court.
The buildings were once coloured with cochineal, blue-green, yellows, oranges and browns from minerals and natural colours from around the area.
Hector, the tour guide, was adamant the Zapotecs did not perform human sacrifice at the site, that Monte Alban was already abandoned when other cultures, like the Aztecs, took such "aggressive" measures to please the gods.
"They offered food - such as fruit, flowers, plants, maybe animals - but never humans," he said.
Oaxaca city itself is also charming and well worth a wander - especially for its street art.
The cathedral and zocalo (central square) come alive at night with markets and stalls.
A great place for people-watching is a restaurant - called Casa de la Abuela - which overlooks the area.
It also has great mole poblano - the savoury chocolate sauces well known in the area.
Los Danzantes is a little pricier but has a lovely setting and creative recipes.
Templo de Santo Domingo has an impressive baroque facade but the intricately decorated interior that really wows.
Oaxaca's markets are the real winner in town, though, especially the meat alley in Mercado 20 de Noviembre.
Amid the swirling smoke, you can get your meat - beef, chorizo, pork, you name it - cooked on the spot using grills over hot coals.
Want some greens too, just move down the alley and they'll throw a few veggies on the barbie too.
Just around the corner in Mina St you'll find Oaxaca's other gem - hot chocolate.
Sip this spicy delight from a bowl for the perfect dessert, or snack.