December 19, 2022
If people know Oaxaca, they immediately think of food and mezcal. If they don’t, they wonder why on earth you’d go to Mexico and not have a beach. If your love language is beaches lined with tanning bodies and all-inclusive resorts, chances are Oaxaca is a mystery.
Oaxaca is a beautiful town in the mountains of central Mexico with a historic Centro city dating back to 1529 filled with incredible churches, restaurants, bars and markets. Around the perimeter of the city is a shopper’s paradise with small villages filled with artisans that specialize in black or clay pottery, wood carvings or textiles.
And it’s the mothership of mezcal. Even if you think mezcal is jet fuel (I’m still on the fence, David pretends to love it), it’s fascinating to learn how it is made.
The weather is 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, dropping to a crisp 55 degrees at night.
What we didn’t know:
The history of the area and the Zapotecs. A pre-Colombian civilization (2500+ years old) which is still alive and well, including the language. The Zapotecs are responsible for the earliest writings and speakings in Mesoamerica, even earlier than the Mayans and Aztecs. It was a tribe that became a society that became a civilization that still exists today, including a very well intact archeological site, Monte Alban, that dates back to 500 BC.
Second, the cocktail culture in Oaxaca plays a strong ground game.
The perfect trip:
Four or five nights.
Arrival: Stay in the city at a funky boutique hotel like Pug Seal, Sin Nombre or Escondido. Or, you can split the nights between one of the central city hotels and Flavia Luxury Hotel, about 10-15 minutes outside the city center.
If you have time upon arrival, have a dinner reservation set up and walk a bit of the city center before it starts to get too dark to orient yourself. Grab a drink, then dinner (or dinner, then drink depending upon time).
First day: Spend an hour or so walking the city, then grab breakfast from a street vendor, the market or your hotel. Mid-morning, head out in the direction of San Bartolo Coyotepec, San Martín Tilcajete and Ocotlán de Morelos to explore the villages. Each village has a specialty, from clay pottery with the well-known blind potter, Manos que ven, to black pottery (San Bartolo) to the incredible wood carvings in San Martin. Lunch or snack at the Ocotlán market or one of the small local restaurants, followed by a mezcal tour and tasting. Our recommended tour is Lalocura. This tour included everything from an explanation of the difference and ages of agave plants to the smoking, fermenting, distilling and, of course, tasting. It was amazing. Then back to town for clean up and dinner.
Second day: Tour the city, including the markets Benito Juarez and Mercado 20 de Noviembre, and the many food stalls. Break up the eating and drinking by touring the incredible churches, including Santo Domingo. If you need a little exercise before diving into more food and cocktails, walk up the Escaleras del Fortin (stairs accessed from Crespo) to walk up to the auditorium and beyond to the planetarium and cross for views over the city.
Third day: Head out mid-morning to Hierve el Agua, the petrified waterfalls about 70-90 minutes from the city. On your way to or from, stop at the textile village Teotitlán del Valle.
Fourth day: In the morning, head to Monte Albán to walk through the remaining pyramids, houses and tombs dating back to 500 BC. It’s only a 20-minute drive and you enjoy the most incredible views of Oaxaca city below. Lunch back in the city and more exploring fill the rest of the day.
If you have a fifth day, it’s dealers choice. With learnings of the last few days, some revisit the artisan villages. If you want to stay out of the car and stay away from the speed bumps (seemingly every 20 meters) just enjoy walking the historic center and hit the food stalls that by now you’ve learned even more about.
The beauty of Oaxaca’s restaurants is that they are all outdoors in beautiful, central courtyards or on rooftops. The lighting and ambience seem to be magical in all of them, and we didn’t experience anything but incredible service.
- Casa Oaxaca El Restaurante: Probably the best known. Worth it for a dinner on the beautiful rooftop under the moon and stars, eating the fresh table side salsa. The dinner won’t change your life, but it’s worth being on the list.
- Los Danzantes: Again, not life changing, but a beautiful interior courtyard with great service and fresh fish. Also, a sister to the best cocktail bar in the city, Selva, which is found on the second floor of the front of the building.
- Criollo: From the owner of Pujol in Mexico City, this was by far the most memorable, creative meal. But it is a tasting menu. They also do have a casual walk-up window with daytime treats and coffees.
- Humar: A crowd pleaser with good seafood selection.
- Levadura de Olla: The story of the young female chef from Oaxaca is reason enough to visit. The space is pared back and basic, but the food is very good.
- Origen: From known Oaxacan chef, Rodolfo Castellanos, who also won Top Chef Mexico about five years ago. Definitely worth a spot on the must try list.
For lunches or casual dinners: Humar, La Popular, Boulenc (don’t miss the bakery/coffee shop at Boulenc for breakfast either)
The two best things we ate (with the exception of Criollo meal) were from a taco stand and a torta truck. The taco stand is owned by three sisters near Templo del Carmen Alto on Calle Jesús Carranza (across from La Popular and can be found on Instagram @carmentacosdel). It’s only open until about 2:00pm (and not on Wednesdays), but don’t miss it. For breakfast or lunch, several times. And tortas from La Hormiga Tortas, a truck on Conzatti Park also not to be missed. But be prepared and be hungry.
We tried many and our favorites were (in order) Selva, Sabina Sabe, the street level bar in Sin Nombre (Cantinita) and the hidden five-seat gem of a bar behind the restaurant Boulenc.
In summary, no beaches (get over it), but the weather is perfect and I’m not sure you’d want a swimsuit with all the incredible eating and drinking.
Central Mexico is really magical.