25 Reasons We Love Oaxaca
If one walk through the romantic old streets doesn't leave you infatuated with Mexico's colorful colonial city, a little mescal usually does the trick.
For a traditional temazcal steam bath, taken in a small adobe sweat lodge, a bouquet of herbs--eucalyptus, mugwort, rosemary--is placed on heated rocks, and water is poured over it. The scented steam has been clearing minds and purifying bodies since the days of the Aztecs. Shaman Mariana Emilia Arroyo Cabrera can be booked through Casa de las Bugambilias Bed & Breakfast. A two-hour treatment in her garden sanctuary 15 minutes from the hotel includes an aromatherapy steam, a few gentle whacks with a juniper branch, and a massage ($65, or $120 per couple). Reforma 402, 011-52/951-516-1165, lasbugambilias.com, doubles from $65, includes breakfast.
8. "Stain the tablecloth" is a flavor
Known as the Land of the Seven Moles, Oaxaca receives accolades for its complicated chili-based sauces, which often require chocolate among more than 20 ingredients and take many hours to prepare. You'll never find a consensus on exactly what the seven are, but many agree on negro (black, the richest and most complex), amarillo (yellow and very spicy), coloradito (rust-colored and medium hot), almendrado (mild, flavored with almonds), rojo (very red, quite spicy), verde (green, light, and full of herbs), and manchamantel (literally "stain the tablecloth," sweetened with fruit). Restaurante Los Pacos, with a rooftop dining area, offers a great three-mole sampler. Mariano Abasolo 121, 011-52/951-516-1704, $11.
9. Worm chasers
Tequila is king in the state of Jalisco; Oaxacans prefer mescal. Both are made from agave (different species), and it's the processing that gives each its unique taste. Agave hearts are steamed for tequila and roasted in fire pits to make mescal. That's why mescal has an earthy, smoky flavor that tequila lacks, no matter how old or expensive it is. Mescal is traditionally served in small earthenware cups, with lime wedges and sal de gusanito, an orange-colored salt spiced with smoked, ground worms (the same kind that are found at the bottom of many bottles). Mezcal Benevá, in the nearby town of Mitla, offers free tastings and tours; bottles of mescal start at $13. Km. 42.5 Carretera Oaxaca--Istmo, 011-52/951-514-7005, mezcalbeneva.com.
10. State of the arts
Some of Mexico's most famous contemporary painters, including Rufino Tamayo, Rodolfo Morales, and Francisco Toledo, were born in the state of Oaxaca, and museums and galleries crowd the city center. In terms of size, scope, and popularity, you can't beat the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre-Hispanic Art (Morelos 503, 011-52/951-516-4750, $3) and the Oaxacan Museum of Contemporary Art (Macedonio Alcalá 202, 011-52/951-514-2818, $1). But smaller treasures, like the Museo de Filatelia, which exhibits Mexican stamps from as early as the middle 19th century, are worth seeking out (Reforma 504, 011-52/951-516-8028, mufi.org.mx, free).
11. Underground movies
Back in the 18th century, Dominican monks built an aqueduct to bring water from the Sierra Madre mountains to Oaxaca's north end. In the neighborhood of Los Arquitos, restaurants, shops, and apartments have sprouted under the defunct structure's archways. Among them is El Pochote Cine Club, part of Oaxaca's Institute of Graphic Arts. El Pochote screens classic and contemporary films from around the world--most dubbed or subtitled in Spanish. Schedules are in the English-language Oaxaca Times, available at Amate Books or oaxacatimes.com. García Vigil 817, 011-52/951-516-2045, free.
12. Down = South
Oaxaca's streets slope gently downward from north to south toward the zocalo, where the city flattens out. Everything's within walking distance, and if you're ever turned around, just remember that north is uphill.
13. Open-air prayer
Construction on the Exconvento de Santiago Apóstol church began in 1535, but King Charles of Spain stopped footing the bills in 1550 after costs skyrocketed. What remains on the site in the small town of Cuilapam de Guerrero (southwest of Oaxaca city) is an elaborate facade, with flying buttresses, arches, and frescoes--but no roof. A second-floor window frames a perfect view of the entire valley. Admission $3.
14. Doorway to heaven
Swing by Amate Books for its extraordinary selection of English titles on Oaxacan history and Mexican street art, but also for the one-of-a-kind doorway lined with a foot-wide border of dried red, orange, yellow, and white marigolds. It's sometimes guarded by a nattily dressed Day of the Dead skeleton. Macedonio Alcalá 307 #2, 011-52/951-516-6960.