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.
15. Trunk show
Many day trips to the east of Oaxaca city begin with a stop in Santa María del Tule, a small village named for the massive 2,000-year-old cypress at its center. More than 130 feet tall, with a trunk that's 46 feet in diameter, El Tule is regularly described as the largest tree in Latin America. Local children dressed in green sweatpants are the official tour guides; they use pocket mirrors to reflect the sun at different knots that look like an elephant, lion, waterfall, King Kong, Jesus, or various body parts. One particular bump brings to mind a woman's backside, which your guide may say resembles that of anyone from Monica Lewinsky to J. Lo. Eight miles east of Oaxaca, admission 25¢.
16. Serenity and spice
Named for the monoliths carved with dancing figures found at the famous ruins of Monte Albán, Los Danzantes is a hip restaurant set peacefully back from the street hubbub in Oaxaca city, just beyond a small koi pond. Two-story walls in various shades of ochre ring the restaurant's patio, and a long reflecting pool runs the length of one wall. The eclectic menu might feature roasted hierba santa (a wide leaf that tastes mildly of anise) stuffed with goat cheese and quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese) in a spicy tomatillo sauce, or duck enchiladas in green chili sauce. Hand-rolled organic cigars are for sale at the bar, where glass shelves are set into adobe. Macedonio Alcalá 403--4, 011-52/951-501-1184, entrées from $8.
17. Not everything's colonial
Though it occupies a historic villa, Casa Oaxaca is a hotel with a minimalist, contemporary design--a refreshing change. Local artists' abstract paintings, on loan from a nearby gallery, dot whitewashed walls in the central courtyard and, in an adjoining garden, a blue-tiled pool makes a sharp contrast to bright red walls. Chef Alejandro Ruiz Olmedo runs the hotel's small, excellent restaurant. His nuevo-Mexican fare has proved so popular that Casa Oaxaca recently opened a restaurant in town. García Vigil 407, 011-52/951-514-4173, casa-oaxaca.com, doubles from $149, includes breakfast, entrées from $14.
18. Grasshopper poppers
Men pushing what look like ice-cream carts hit the streets in late afternoon selling elotes: roasted corncobs topped with a dash of lime juice and chili powder. After a night on the town, Oaxacans head for their favorite tlayudera, a stand that sells giant crispy tortillas topped with bean paste, chopped spiced beef, and cheese. Chapulines (fried grasshoppers) are still considered a regional delicacy. They're sold at Mercado Juárez, and can even be found on the menu at some of the city's best restaurants.
19. No bifocals necessary
At La Biznaga, Mission-style wooden tables are arranged on a courtyard patio, and the menu is written on huge chalkboards that hang from the arches. Chef Fernando Lopez puts a modern twist on traditional mestizo cooking with a salad of watercress, pears, pistachios, and Roquefort in a mango dressing, and grilled fish marinated in a sauce of pineapple, onion, and cactus paddle. It's also a fine place to taste a variety of mescals. They're usually served with orange slices in place of lime. García Vigil 512, 011-52/951-516-1800, entrées from $7.
20. Really super markets
No matter when you're visiting the region, it won't be difficult to find fantastic shopping opportunities. Vendors take over outdoor squares somewhere in the state of Oaxaca every day of the week: Mondays in the village of Ixtlán de Juárez, Tuesdays in Atzompa, Wednesdays in Zimatlán, Thursdays in Zaachila, Fridays in Ocotlán and San Bartolo Coyotepec, and Sundays in Tlacolula. Oaxaca city's Abastos market, though open seven days a week, triples in size on Saturdays, with hundreds of stalls under a makeshift roof of plastic tarps. The pickings include exotic fruit such as cherimoya (with a white flesh that tastes like a tropical fruit smoothie), soursop (related to the cherimoya, but more bitter), and mamey (reminiscent of pumpkin pie). In other aisles, you'll wander past handmade pottery, burlap sacks overflowing with dried chilis and herbs, and veladoras (religious candles) stacked in colorful pyramids.
21. Home of the cloud people
Oaxaca's largest and best-preserved archaeological site, Monte Albán, is eight miles west of the city ($4.30). It's easy to see why the Zapotecs built their fortress-city on a mesa more than 1,300 feet above the valley floor: The 360-degree view is ideal for spotting would-be intruders. In its heyday, around 800 a.d., 40,000 Zapotecs--known, not coincidentally, as the People of the Clouds--lived in Monte Albán. Surrounding the enormous grassy plaza are earthquake-resistant temples and tombs, built in perfect alignment with the sun and stars. There's very little shade, so go early to avoid the scorching sun (and the crowds). Monte Albán Tours runs four-hour trips in Suburbans or minivans to Monte Albán (011-52/951-514-1629, $17, includes hotel pickup/drop-off). If you plan to visit the ruins and several towns in one trip, and don't want to be held to a schedule, you might think about hiring a car and driver ($20-$25 an hour) through your hotel or the tourist office.