The state of Oaxaca is one of the most enticing destinations in Mexico. The state capital, cosmopolitan yet utterly Mexican, encapsulates much of what the region has to offer. Here and in the surrounding countryside indigenous traditions are powerful; nowhere else in the country are the markets so infused with colour, the fiestas so exuberant, or the old languages still so widely spoken. There are traditions in the villages that long predate the Spanish Conquest; yet the city can also offer sophisticated modern dining, great places to stay and wild nightlife. The landscape, too, represents a fundamental break, as the barren deserts of the north are replaced by thickly forested hillsides, or in low-lying areas by swamp and jungle. On the Pacific coast, Puerto Escondido and Huatulco are established resorts with very different characters, while Puerto Ángel and its surrounds offer a more back-to-basics beach experience.
If you’ve come from Mexico City or the north, the physical differences of the region are compounded by its relative lack of development. Industry is virtually nonexistent, and while the city of Oaxaca and a few coastal hot spots have thrived on tourism, the rest of the state is woefully underdeveloped – the “Mexican economic miracle” has yet to reach the south. Indeed, the region witnessed considerable political disturbance in the early years of the twenty-first century, though for the moment the protests seem to have been subdued.
The city of Oaxaca is the region’s prime destination, close enough to Mexico City to attract large numbers of tourists to its fine crafts stores, markets, seemingly constant fiestas, cobbled, gallery-lined walkways and excellent restaurants. The church of Santo Domingo here is one of the region’s – and the whole of Latin America’s – most magnificent examples of Baroque architecture, fusing Spanish and native influences to spectacular effect. And it’s just one of many. Nearby, the Zapotec and Mixtec sites at Monte Albán, Yagul and Mitla are less well known than their ancient contemporaries in central and eastern Mexico, but every bit as important and impressive. All this is set among spectacular mountain scenery where the Sierra Madre del Sur meets the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca, the continuation of Mexico’s central volcanic belt.
On the coast, west of the mountains, lie some of the emptiest and best Pacific beaches in Mexico. The resorts of Puerto Escondido and Huatulco are now firmly on the map, though Escondido still has the flavour of the surfer hangout in which it has its origins, while Huatulco, conceived and purpose-built as an environmentally conscious resort, can still boast some wonderful and relatively empty sands. Between the two, around Puerto Ángel, are several tranquil beach villages with a distinct “alternative” vibe.Read More
Land of the seven moles – Oaxacan cuisine
Land of the seven moles – Oaxacan cuisine
Oaxaca is known as the “land of the seven moles” after its most famous sauces: mole negro or Oaxaqueño (the most popular, made with chocolate giving a distinct roasted flavour), amarillo, coloradito, mancha manteles, chichilo, rojo and verde. Moles are typically served with chicken or enchiladas, but you don’t have to go to one of the smart restaurants serving contemporary Oaxacan cuisine to sample them: mole negro is often better from street or market vendors. Other specialities include tamales, worth trying in any form, and chapulines, crunchy seasoned grasshoppers. Tlayudas, giant crisp tortillas dressed with beans and a mild Oaxacan string cheese called quesillo, are staples of cafés and street stands after dark.
The place to go for exceptional home-made ice cream is the plaza in front of the church of La Soledad, full of rival vendors and tables where you can sit and gorge yourself while watching the world go by. Flavours are innumerable and often bizarre, including elote (corn), queso, leche quemada (burnt milk; even worse than it sounds), sorbete (cinnamon-flavoured sherbet) and exotic fruits like mamey, guanabana and tuna (prickly pear; a virulent purple that tastes wonderful). There are also more ordinary varieties like chocolate, strawberry and coconut. At the opposite end of town, you can sample many of these flavours at Museo de las Nieves, Alcalá 706, just up from Santo Domingo.
Mescal (or mezcal) is the Oaxaqueño drink of choice, sold everywhere in bottles that usually have a dead gusano worm (actually a type of caterpillar) in the bottom. Tradition has it that the creature lives on the cactus-like maguey plant and is there to prove that the ingredients are genuine, although these days most of the worms are farm raised. You don’t have to eat the worm, though few people are in any state to notice what they’re ingesting by the time they reach the bottom of the bottle. Like tequila (which is technically a type of mescal), mescal is made from the sugary heart of the agave plant, which is baked, pulverized and then distilled. Many of the best mescal stores can be found around the Mercado 20 de Noviembre where you can taste before you commit to buying; good brands include Monte Albán, Rey Zapoteco, Benevá and Oro de Oaxaca.
Several towns produce mescal, but the original is Santiago Matatlán, 45km from Oaxaca City near Mitla . Mescal tours are advertised everywhere.
Fiestas in Oaxaca
Fiestas in Oaxaca
New Year’s Day (Jan 1). Celebrated everywhere, but particularly good in Oaxaca and Mitla.
Día de San Sebastián (Jan 20). Big in Tehuantepec.
Día de la Candelaria (Feb 2). Colourful indigenous celebrations in Santa María del Tule.
Carnaval (the week before Lent; variable Feb–March). At its most frenzied in the big cities – especially Oaxaca – but also celebrated in hundreds of villages in the area.
Día de San Isidro (May 15). Peasant celebrations everywhere – famous and picturesque fiestas in Juchitán.
Día de San Juan (June 24). Falls in the midst of festivities (June 22–26) in Tehuantepec.
Fiesta de la Preciosa Sangre de Cristo (first Wed in July). Teotitlán del Valle, near Oaxaca, holds a festival with traditional dances and religious processions.
Guelaguetza (last two Mon in July). In Oaxaca, a mixture of traditional dancing and rites on the Cerro del Fortín. Highly popular; tickets for the good seats are sold at the tourist office.
Fiestas (Aug 13–16). Spectacular festivities in Juchitán (Vela de Agosto) and Tehuantepec (Fiesta del Barrio de Santa María Relatoca).
Fiesta de San Bartolomé (Aug 24). In San Bartolo Coyotepec, near Oaxaca.
Blessing of the Animals (Aug 31). In Oaxaca locals bring their beasts to the church of La Merced to be blessed.
Fiesta del Señor de la Natividad (Sept 8). In Teotitlán del Valle.
Independence Day (Sept 16). Celebrated everywhere.
Feria del Árbol (second Mon in Oct). Based around the famous tree in Santa María del Tule.
Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead; Nov 2). Observed everywhere, with particularly strong traditions in Xoxocotlán and in Atzompa.
Día de la Inmaculada Concepción (Dec 8). Observed widely. There are traditional dances in Juquilla, not far from Puerto Escondido, and Zacatepec, on the road inland from Pinotepa Nacional.
Fiesta de la Virgen de la Soledad (Dec 18). Celebrations in Oaxaca in honour of the patroness of the state – expect fireworks, processions and music.
Fiesta de los Rabanos (Radish Festival; Dec 23). There’s an exhibition of statues and scenes sculpted from radishes in Oaxaca.
Christmas Eve (Dec 24). In Oaxaca there’s music, fireworks and processions before midnight Mass. Buñuelos – crisp pancakes that you eat before smashing the plate on which they are served – are dished up at street stalls.