The city of OAXACA sprawls across a grand expanse of deep-set valley, 1600m above sea level. Its colour, folklore, numerous fiestas, indigenous markets and magnificent colonial centre make it one of the country’s most rewarding destinations. The city has recovered from an outbreak of violence in 2006, when teacher protests escalated into bloody conflict, and it remains a safe destination, though tensions do persist (see The new millennium).
Once central to the Mixtec and Zapotec civilizations, the city had a limited role during the early years of the Spanish Conquest. Cortés, attracted by the area’s natural beauty, created the title of Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, and until the Revolution his descendants held vast estates hereabouts. For practical purposes, though, Oaxaca was of little interest to the Spaniards, with no mineral wealth and, due to the rugged mountain terrain, no real agricultural value (though coffee was grown). This meant that the indigenous population was largely left to get on with life and did not have to deal with much outside influence beyond the interference of a proselytizing Church. Nevertheless, by 1796 it had become the third largest city in Nueva España, thanks to the export of cochineal and, later, textile manufacturing. An earthquake destroyed much of the city in 1854; another quake in 1931 hampered the slow rebuilding process.
Today Oaxaca is well on its way to becoming an industrial city – the population is over 250,000, the streets are choked and noisy and a thin veil of smog often enshrouds the valley – yet it remains easy to navigate. In the colonial centre, thanks to strict building regulations, the city’s provincial charm is hardly affected and just about everything can be reached on foot. Oaxaca is widely seen as the artistic centre of Mexico, with several state-run and private galleries, craft and jewellery masterclasses and regular exhibitions. You’ll also see the state’s most famous son, Benito Juárez, commemorated everywhere in Oaxaca, a privilege not shared by Porfirio Díaz, the second most famous Oaxaqueño, whose dictatorship most people have chosen to forget.
Surrounding Oaxaca is some extraordinary topography, making an impressive backdrop to the city skyline at sunset. The Sierra Madre del Sur enters Oaxaca state from the west, while the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca runs down from Mexico’s central volcanic belt. The two ranges meet in the centre of the state and between them, converging in Oaxaca city, lie the three Valles Centrales.Read More
Land of the seven moles – Oaxacan cuisine
Land of the seven moles – Oaxacan cuisine
Oaxaca is a wonderful city for gourmands, while the state is known as the “land of the seven moles” after its most famous sauces: negro or mole 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 specialties 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, peanut and coconut. You can buy local organic coffee at Café de Oaxaca Orgánica opposite Casa de las Bugambilias at Reforma 401, and drink it next door at Café La Antigua.
Mescal and cacao
Mescal and cacao
The markets are the best place to indulge in two of Oaxaca’s favourite treats. Mescal, the Oaxaqueño drink of choice, is sold everywhere in bottles that usually have a dead gusano worm in the bottom. Legend has it that the creature lives on the cactus-like maguey plant (it’s actually a type of caterpillar) and is there to prove that the ingredients are genuine (this is debatable; these days most of the worms are farm-raised and inserted as a marketing ploy). 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. Mescal and tequila are similar drinks – tequila is simply a speciality type of the more varied mescal. True tequila is made only from the prized blue agave species, while mescal may be a combination of a number of types of maguey. Both alcohols are made from the sugary heart of the plant, which is baked, pulverized and then distilled. These liquors were developed around the same time, when the Spaniards introduced distillation after the Conquest. Surrounding the Mercado 20 de Noviembre are clusters of mescal stores where you can, rather dangerously, taste before you commit to buying; good brands include Monte Albán, Rey Zapoteco, Beneva and Oro de Oaxaca. Some of the best shops are El Famoso at J.P. García 405, Mescal Don Agave at Aldama 209 and Mescal Tobala at 20 de Noviembre 606–608. Most shops are open daily 9am–9pm, and sell small bottles from M$70.
Several towns produce mescal, but the original is Santiago Matatlán, 45km from Oaxaca City. You’ll see mescal tours advertised everywhere, but one of the best guides is Canadian expat Alvin Starkman, owner of the Casa Machaya B&B (t951/132-8203, wwww.oaxacadream.com).
On the south side of the market, your nose will lead you to Calle Mina, which is lined with spice vendors selling plump bags of the chile-and-chocolate powder that makes up most Oaxacan moles. Cinnamon-flavoured chocolate powder is also available, for cooking or making into drinking chocolate. One of the best places in this area to try a mug of hot chocolate laced with almond, cinnamon, sugar or chile is Mayordomo, the Willy Wonka of Oaxaca. The main branch is at the corner of Mina and 20 de Noviembre; luscious hot chocolate served with bread is M$15, malts are M$10, and you can buy pure cacao served by the kilo (M$60) and all sorts of boxes of chocolates (M$50 for a large one). Nearby La Soledad at Mina 212 has a row of old bean-crushing machines and is drenched in the overpowering aroma of sweet cacao – choc addicts beware.