A mere two-and-a-half-hour flight from Houston delivers you to the fertile crescent of the New World, a valley isolated in the Sierra Madre mountains of southern Mexico. Oaxaca, the vibrant capital city (of Oaxaca state) with colorful colonial buildings interlocking like a line of Legos, sits at the nexus of the Y-shaped valley. It’s one of the most diverse places in the world, with at least 15 indigenous tribes, 16 languages, 154 dialects, and more kinds of native cacti than anywhere else—not to mention a different mole sauce for every day of the week. Read the rest of Francesca Mari’s account of unwinding in Mexico’s fertile crescent of arts and crafts (and moles) from the May 2014 issue.
SEE + DO
Monte Albán // Founded around 500 BC, this astonishing pyramid complex just six miles west of the city was one of the earliest Mesoamerican cities and served as the economic and political center of the highly sophisticated Zapotec society. The grounds include remnants of stunning palaces and a ball court for only the most fearless contestants—it’s believed that winners of the ceremonial game were sacrificed. Six miles west of Oaxaca.
Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca // Excellent docents will bring you up to speed on the fascinating history of human ingenuity as told through the wild plants that people have conquered—everything from gourds to corn. Created by famed local artist Francisco Toledo, the garden isopen to the public by tour only (tours in English are currently on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings at 11). At the corner of Constitución and Reforma, just behind Santo Domingo church.
Tlacolula Mercado // Every Sunday, the city of Tlacolula de Matamoros, a quick twenty miles from Oaxaca, holds one of the largest and busiest markets in the state: eight blocks of vendors hawking everything from peppers to pottery to pigs’ tails beneath colorful tarps. Be sure to get goat barbacoa, served in a broth with cilantro and onions, after picking your favorite vendor based on their samples. Tlacolula de Matamoros, twenty miles east of Oaxaca.
Tienda Q // Train your eye with the minimalist artistic interpretations of local craft—corn husks strung into necklaces, palm baskets turned into tote bags—at this airy boutique. M. Bravo # 109 Col. Centro, [email protected]
ARIPO // A series of government-run crafts shops oriented around a gated courtyard offer a tasteful selection of regional and indigenous crafts including alebrijes, black pottery, tapestries, palm hats, and metalwork. García Vigil 809, Col. Centro (+52 951 514 1354)
EAT + DRINK
La Teca // Specializing in Isthmus cuisine from the southern tip of Mexico, Deyanira Aquino is known for absurdly delicious specialties like rich estofado de bodas (hand-pulled beef in red mole), tamal de elote con crema (simple sweet corn tamales with queso fresco), and garnachas, which should be enjoyed at least twice. Ask to eat in the backyard, which requires meandering past the display cabinets in Aquino’s living room. Violetas Street, no. 200-A (+52 954 515-0563)
El Pochote Mercado // Tucked away in the courtyard of a small church in the Xochimilco residential neighborhood, this joyful natural food and crafts market is a community affair and just a fifteen-minute walk from downtown. Order memelas off charcoal griddles and try a cup of tejate, an earthy regional drink made from maize flour, fermented cocoa beans, and an effervescent, white flower called fleur de cacao, which rises to the surface of the drink as a curdled-looking foam. Behind the Santo Tomas Xochimilco church
Casa Oaxaca Restaurant // Located just a couple of blocks from Casa Oaxaca hotel this restaurant lays claim to having both the perfect mezcalini (try the gingery “Casa Oaxaca” or the apple and passion fruit “Dos Passions”) as well as an ideal view of the sunset from its contemporary terrace overlooking Santo Domingo. Constitución 104-A, Centro (+52 951 516 8531)
Los Danzantes // This vine-filled atrium anchored by zigzagging earthen brick walls is an oasis in the heart of Oaxaca’s colonial Centro district. Known for its mole, Los Danzantes also serves a superb house brand mezcal. Macedonio Alcalá 402 (+52 951 501 1184 or +52 951 501 1187)
Itanoni // Here’s a restaurant that seems to exist solely to celebrate the countless native corns that are available only in Oaxaca, and the humble, fresh, and toothsome corn tortillas that come of them. This is the sort of organic concept restaurant that one might find in San Francisco, but for the language barrier and the reliably warm weather. Be sure to also order a superbly satisfying agua fresca. Belisario Domingo 513 (+52 951 513 9223)
Casa Oaxaca // Beyond its discreet sky blue façade, this cloistered Eden contains a peaceful courtyard, stunning Azul-colored pool, and impeccably designed rooms. It’s the sort of boutique hotel that turns down the sheets before bed and serves a breakfast of Oaxacan hot chocolate, fresh juices (order the sweet, milky carrot), and the best mole cheese enchiladas in town to help ease you into the morning. Garcia Vigil 407 (52 951 514 4173) [email protected]
Casa del Sol // Clean rooms, a pleasant leafy courtyard, and an unbeatable price make this a wonderful budget option. 68000 Oaxaca de Juárez (+52 951514 4110) [email protected]
BEFORE YOU GO
Passport still valid? Got some pesos knocking around your desk drawers? Dial up your cell phone company to see what sort of deal is on offer for a bundle of international text messages then ring your bank to ask about exchange rates and debit and credit card fees to determine whether it’s easier or more economical to get your pesos here or down south. Money matters out of the way, whet your appetite for traditional interior Mexican fare with Diana Kennedy’s Oaxaca al Gusto and brush up on your elementary Spanish to minimize any obstacles when it comes to ordering a small feast at any of the local restaurants.
Souvenirs: Snag a small black pottery budvase, an easily packed woven hammock, and few fanciful wood-carved animals painted in neon acrylic. If you’re checking a bag, bring home a bottle of joven (or young) mezcal, or grab a few shot-size bottles if you’re not.