Oaxaca Survival Guide
by Vanessa Johnson on Thursday, August 9, 2018
Oaxaca is about as far as you can get from the typical Mexican beach destination, but what it lacks in waves and sand it more than makes up for in culture. This culinary dreamscape weaves traditions going back thousands of years into the colorful patchwork of a modern city renowned for its unique blend of contemporary art and ancient craftsmanship.
Known as the land of the seven moles (pronounced MOH-leh), Oaxacan cooking attracts tourists to the city from all over the world. If you’ve tried the dark brown, chocolaty mole sauce outside of Mexico and have concluded that mole is not for you, we encourage you to give it another shot. You have seven delicious types to choose from: negro (the most famous), amarillo, coloradito, verde, chilchilo, rojo (the spiciest), and manchamanteles (the “tablecloth-stainer”). Contrary to popular belief, not all moles contain chocolate, so if you don’t have to mix sweet and savory if you don’t want to!
Speaking of chocolate, Oaxaca is a haven for chocoholics. Although it’s not a major growing region, Oaxaca has a love for cacao that dates back thousands of years. The ubiquitous Oaxacan hot chocolate is a drink for both special occasions and everyday life, and it’s guaranteed to warm your heart. Mayordomo and La Soledad are two chocolate institutions with stores and stands where they will grind the cacao beans for you.
Try these and other local treats — tamales, tlayudas (sometimes called Oaxacan pizzas), chapulines (spicy grasshoppers!), quesillo string cheese, and so much more at one of the local markets in Oaxaca.
If you’ve got food on the mind and want to get a good look at all the options, head to Mercado de Abastos, Mercado de Benito Juarez, or Mercado 20 de Noviembre and prepare to be amazed. Meat lovers won’t want to miss this last market’s pasillo de carnes asadas (grilled meats aisle), where you pick out the raw meat and spices you want and watch as they get cooked over hot coals with vegetables and served in a basket with salsas and fresh corn tortillas. Markets often sell colorful handicrafts, flowers, and other products in addition to food, making them the perfect place to go shopping before and after your meal. You should also check out the busy Central de Abastos, an enormous, bustling open-air market.
Thanks to its large indigenous population, Oaxaca has a vibrant folk art tradition. You’ll find beautiful black pottery, colorful woven rugs and textiles, and cheerful alebrijes (brilliantly painted wood carvings in the shape of fantastical animals) being sold in markets and stands around the city. The Mercado de Artesanías is a good place to start.
As you walk around the city, you’ll find a lot of modern street art, much of which is political. Even if you don’t speak Spanish (which you can remedy by taking classes at don Quijote in Oaxaca!) and can’t fully understand the message, you’ll enjoy the bright colors and passion that comes through visually. Espacio Zapata, founded by the Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca (Asaro) during major political turmoil in 2006, is a workshop and gallery that hosts exhibitions, events, and workshops, and the murals decorating the outside of the building are in constant flux.
You’ll also find many art galleries with a mixture of traditional and contemporary art, which you can pop in and out of when they cross your path. If you like to have an exact destination, set your sights on one of Oaxaca’s many art museums, with collections that range from the pre-Columbian era to the futuristic.
Dazzling Day Trips
If you want to take a swim overlooking a luscious green valley, soaking in natural springs and contemplating a petrified waterfall in the distance, you’ll be happy to hear that the infinity pools of Hierve el Agua are only an hour-long bus ride away. This is perfect place to cool off and take in the natural beauty of your surroundings.
To learn about Pre-Columbian civilizations, Monte Albán is a spectacular must-see. Located less than half an hour from Oaxaca, this city was home to the Olmecs, the Zapotecs, and the Mixtecs over a period of more than one thousand years and had more than 25,000 inhabitants during its peak as the Zapotec capital.
Remember, these suggestions are just the beginning — we haven’t even mentioned Oaxaca’s central plaza, colonial architecture, festivals, or mezcal culture. You’ll have to go to Oaxaca to discover it for yourself!