Oaxaca, the beautiful Mexiacn state with so much to offer—here are all the best things to do and see
From the chaotic inner sanctums of the historic 20th November Market, to the economical three-course menu del dias and the city’s esteemed fusion restaurants– Oaxaca is a world-class foodie destination.
For local favourites such as tlayuda (pizza-style crunchy fried tortillas spread with refried beans, lettuce, avocado, pork, salsa and white Oaxaca cheese), chapulines (fried grasshoppers with chili and salt) and tamales (spiced chicken boiled in banana leaves) head for Mercado 20 de Noviembre.
The market, named after the start date of the Mexican revolution, is characterised by thick smoky air and the incessant hissing of carne asada (grilled meat).
Directly outside the market you’ll find a selection of lunch restaurants serving: soup, mains, dessert and an agua fresca (fresh fruity water) for about the same price as half a pint of British beer. At night Calle 20 de Noviembre becomes the battleground of various taco, burger and hotdog vendors; each vying for the custom of those returning from the bars.
Oaxaca is famed for its variety of moles–complex sauces made from distinctive Mexican chilies and herbs. While the state of Oaxaca is known as ‘the land of seven moles,’ some Oaxaqueños boast of over 200 different recipes. The dish, in its many incarnations, features on almost every menu in town.
Perhaps most impressive of the moles is upscale restaurant Los Danzantes’ fish of the day. Set within a shaded patio in an oasis of vines and leafy palms, amid the chit-chat of excited diners and trickling water, freshly caught Pacific coast fish fillet is coated in a black chichilo (an intense beefy mole) rub and served on a bed of steamed vegetables swimming in an amarillo mole (a delicately spiced savoury yellow sauce).
Other recommended dining spots include Boulenc–the stylish Mexican-Mediterranean fusion café that every hipster coffee shop in London, Berlin and New York wishes it was–and Casa Oaxaca–the city’s most celebrated restaurant.
Oaxaca, the state and the city, has a rich craft tradition. Descended from Zapotec Indians, who lived in the region over 2,500 years ago, Oaxaca is home to Mexico’s largest indigenous population. Many work in artisanal studios to create textiles in a similar fashion to their millennia-old ancestors.
Cotton is cultivated, spun into fibre and coloured with natural dyes made from local plants, insects and minerals. Pericón marigolds turn the cotton skeins buttercream, crushed female cochineal beetles create the brightest reds (once coveted by royal families the world over) and potash, a mineral found in the Oaxacan mountains, is used to bind the dye to the yarn.
Zapotec motifs–striking geometric forms, diamonds, zigzags, lizards, serpents and other jungle animals–are woven into rugs and serapes, just as they were thousands of years ago.
The small village of Teotitlán del Valle, just outside of Oaxaca city, is home to a cluster of artisanal weavers. Here, it is possible to visit a weaving studio to learn about the craft and purchase textiles directly from the artists who produce them.
More can be gleaned from the Textile Museum of Oaxaca, which features an absorbing collection of local artefacts and features striking exhibitions from artists influenced by Oaxaca’s prestigious textile heritage.
This smoky Mexican sipping spirit is served at all the bars in Oaxaca.
“Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, tambien.” (For everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good as well).
While mezcal can officially be produced from agaves (also known as magueys) in several Mexican states, the majority is made in Oaxaca. El Rey de Matatlán is an excellent distillery that offers tours–and plenty of samples!
First, the 40kg maguey plants are harvested and the piña (heart) is extracted. The piñas are then cooked in earthen pit ovens for around three days. This crucial stage gives the mezcal its distinctive smoky flavour. Next, the roasted agaves are crushed and mashed by a stone wheel turned by a horse and then left to ferment in huge barrels. Finally, the mash is distilled in clay pots before bottling. Without aging the mezcal is classified as joven (young), but distillation can last for up to 12 years for a mellower, more complex, less smoky taste.
Top spots to enjoy a glass of mezcal, or a mezcalita (mezcal, Cointreau, lime juice, salted rim), include: the sumptuous patio at Los Danzantes, the hip terrace at Boulenc and the unassuming El Importador, which is perfect for people watching in the frenetic zocalo (town square).
The capital of the Zapotec civilisation, which flourished from 700 BC to 1521, was the city of Monte Alban, an impressive ancient pyramid complex 1,300-feet high in the mountains, overlooking the valley of Oaxaca.
It is believed that Monte Alban may have been the site of the first written word in Mexico and one of the earliest examples of a centralised state governing a large area. At its peak, from 300 to 700, Monte Alban’s population reached 25,000 and the society controlled at least 200 other settlements and ceremonial centres in the central valleys of Oaxaca.
The site is a real spectacle: dusty ochre pyramids, bearing the same geometric, diamond and animal motifs as the local textiles, surround the central courtyard. In the distance, gigantic mountains are reduced to silhouettes; squiggly lines of varying boldness. All beneath a sky painted the deepest of blues.
Originally called Los Danzantes (the dancers), a series of carved stones depicting naked men in contorted poses is now seen to represent the captured, and mutilated, leaders of rival tribes. The morbid conquest slabs are an interesting insight into the city’s expansionist ‘foreign policy’.
Another interesting archaeological site in Oaxaca state is the religious centre of Mitla. Seen as a gateway between the world of the living and the world of the dead, Mitla is situated in an area prone to earthquakes. However, the site’s temples were constructed with a unique and ingenious technique.
By crafting each individual, geometrically styled, stone to a specific and unique size and shape, the architects were able to build temples without the use of mortar. This brilliant feature allows the structures to shake, not break, during quakes.