25 Reasons We Love Oaxaca

Livia Corona

16th-century Santo Domingo church

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.

1. Altar of gold

The ceiling of the 16th-century Santo Domingo church, five blocks north of the zocalo (town square), is covered with hundreds of plaster figures (opposite) outlining the family tree of Domingo de Guzmán, founder of the Dominican order. Even more amazing is the church's over-the-top Virgin of Guadalupe altarpiece, gilded in 60,000 sheets of 23.5-carat gold leaf. An adjacent monastery houses the less flashy Oaxaca Cultural Center, which includes a regional museum ($4.30), a walled garden of cacti from all over the state of Oaxaca, and a library dedicated to books on Oaxacan history. Constitución 101, 011-52/951-516-3720.

2. Courtyards by the dozen

Many of the city's old colonial villas have been beautifully restored and turned into boutique hotels. Just two blocks east of the zocalo, Casa de Sierra Azul manages to keep the bustle of street life at bay with an ornate wrought-iron gate and thick adobe walls. As at many of Oaxaca's restaurants, galleries, and hotels, Sierra Azul's exterior hides a shady courtyard. Guests in many of its 14 rooms open their doors directly onto the quiet patio, where potted geraniums and ferns surround a gurgling, hand-carved stone fountain. Corridors around the courtyard are painted a pale yellow and host faded frescoes as old as the 200-year-old house. Hidalgo 1002, 888/624-3341, mexonline.com/sierrazul.htm, doubles from $124.

3. Corny festivals

Nearly 40 percent of the state's population is indigenous, and the ancient languages are still heard in markets, especially in outlying villages. The Zapotecs, the most populous of the 16 native tribes in the valleys around Oaxaca city, are credited as the first people to celebrate Guelaguetza, a festival honoring Centeotl, goddess of corn. These days, Oaxaca city welcomes thousands of Indians from several tribes for traditional dancing and music during the festival, which falls on two Mondays in July. Tickets go on sale in May, and hotel rooms should be booked three or more months in advance. Oaxaca Tourist Office, Murguía 206, 011-52/951-516-0123, aoaxaca.com, $40.

4. A new old town

The city's zocalo has always been considered one of the prettiest in Mexico, so Oaxacans were understandably shocked last summer when city officials closed it without warning for a five-month renovation. Workers replaced cantera stone pavers, replanted flowerbeds, and painted cast-iron benches a shiny black. But not everyone's a fan of "progress." Protest banners and kids' drawings of 125-year-old laurel trees killed during the renovation covered a corrugated metal fence that enclosed the project site. Reviews of the new zocalo are mixed--critics say it's too perfect--but it hums again with roving balloon vendors, mariachis, and teenagers out for a paseo, or stroll.

5. Chili power

Iliana de la Vega, a virtuoso of traditional Mexican cooking and a favorite of American celebrity chefs like Rick Bayless, teaches novices on Tuesdays and Thursdays at her top-rated restaurant, El Naranjo. Each cooking lesson varies, but students may learn to brew a tea flavored with hibiscus flowers, toast chilis and tomatoes on a comal (the clay griddle used to dry-roast ingredients and to make tortillas), and then use those chilis to make several salsas and a mole. After an educational walking tour of Mercado Benito Juárez, a daily market, the class indulges in a late lunch of all the dishes created that morning. When the last bite of flan has been eaten, de la Vega sends students home with printed copies of the recipes she's taught them. Valerio Trujano 203, 011-52/951-514-1878, elnaranjo.com.mx, $60.

6. Laundry like it's the Middle Ages

Originally built as a convent in 1576 by Dominican monks, Camino Real has served as a government office, a jail, and a school over the years. Now it's a five-star hotel where doubles start at just under $300 a night. But you don't have to stay there to enjoy the two acres of grounds, planted with soft grass and bougainvillea. Check out Los Lavaderos, the 16th-century equivalent of a laundry room, in the northeast corner of the property. In a hexagonal stone gazebo, water flows from a large central fountain to a dozen stone basins that were once used by the nuns for washing. 5 de Mayo 300, 011-52/951-501-6100, caminoreal.com/oaxaca.

7. Sweating like an oldie

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.

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.

22. Seriously crafty

Of the state's 3 million people, about 160,000 are registered artisans. Every village specializes in a different craft: In San Antonio Arrazola, phantasmagoric animals called alebrijes are carved from the soft wood of the copal tree. They're then painted in bright colors with tiny brushstrokes, creating geometric designs. The town of Atzompa is known for green-glazed pottery; Ocotlán, for clay figurines; and San Agustín Etla, for handmade paper. The Regional Association of Craftswomen of Oaxaca (or MARO) store in Oaxaca city sells crafts from all over the state. 5 de Mayo 204, 011-52/951-516-0670.

23. Lingo for gringos

The Instituto de Comunicación y Cultura de Oaxaca holds Spanish classes Mondays through Fridays, and a week's worth of instruction costs just $150. The institute also offers a popular immersion program, in which students live, eat, and play with Oaxacan families. The $450 weeklong package includes airport transfers, accommodations in a room with a private bath, all meals, five hours of daily language instruction, arts workshops (cooking, weaving, dancing), and a field trip. Macedonio Alcalá 307, 011-52/951-516-3443, iccoax.com.

24. Tomb raiding

Outside Oaxaca city, archaeological sites and villages are clumped together so you can see two or three in a day and not feel rushed. Mitla, 30 miles southeast of Oaxaca, is an ancient burial site for the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, with intricate stone mosaic fretwork covering the square tombs ($2.75). In the nearby town of Teotitlán del Valle, weavers such as Demetrio Bautista Lazo create much-coveted rugs with patterns that are inspired by the tomb designs (La Cúpula, Km. 2 Avenida Juárez, 011-52/951-524-4090, rugs from $170). No visit to Teotitlán is complete without lunch at the Mendoza sisters' Tlamanalli restaurant, where all dishes--squash-blossom soup, slow-cooked chicken stew--are made in the traditional Zapotec style (39 Avenida Juárez, 011-52/951-524-4006, from $6).

25. Chocolate for breakfast!

The art of Mexican chocolate-making has remained unchanged for centuries: Cacao beans are dried and cured, then toasted and ground by hand on a stone slab and mixed with cinnamon, sugar, and crushed almonds. The result is dry and chalky, but delicious. Oaxacans love their chocolate; they each consume an average of 5.5 pounds of it per year. Many start the day with hot chocolate, which is whisked until it froths like a cappuccino. One of the best-known brands, Chocolate Mayordomo, has a small shop outside Mercado Juárez. 20 de Noviembre 305, 011-52/951-516-3309.

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