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The Cultural Highlights Of Oaxaca

Nick Nomi

Senior Contributor

In Oaxaca, ancient traditions have survived the Spanish conquest like nowhere else in Mexico, and yet modernity is ever-present, with elegant restaurants, grungy cocktail bars and chic hotels scattered across the city. Modern Oaxaca is a culture lover's dream, a cosmopolitan and complex city whose busy plazas — filled with boisterous hawkers selling locally weaved bags and rugs — and inspiring architectures have earned it UNESCO World Heritage status. The diverse culinary scene has also quickly sealed its status as Mexico’s best foodie destination.

Wander The Zocalo

The vibrant cultural centre of Oaxaca is a huge square filled with melodious buskers, happy-hawkers, brass bands, gawping tourists and energetic locals. Towering trees provide shade, while elegant arcades and the ornate Oaxaca Cathedral provide the visual stimulation. Take an alfresco seat in one of the cafes that fringe the square to watch the world go by in a blur of colourful chaos, or head inside the cathedral to soak up its atmospheric neoclassical interiors. 

Oaxaca Cathedral in the Zocalo

Credit: Jess Kraft

Wake Up Like A Local

Skip your usual morning coffee and opt instead for local favourite Tejate, a robust and extremely flavoursome drink made from toasted corn flour, fermented cacao beans, mamey fruit, and flor de cacao. All of this is ground into a thick paste, mixed with water and kneaded by hand until a smooth texture is achieved. The result is a light brown, chocolate tasting cereal-like drink that’s topped with a decadent layer of white creamy foam.

Tejate, a local favourite

Credit: Sofia Felguerez

An Architectural Icon

At the iconic Templo de Santo Domingo, an ornate ceiling adorned with painted statues flourishes from atop grand columns all wrapped up in an incredible Baroque exterior that merges Spanish and pre-colonial influences to wondrous effect. It dominates central Oaxaca and is a pleasure to explore for the architecture alone, but there’s also a museum full of pre-colonial artefacts, as well as a tranquil ethnobotanical garden nearby. 

Templo de Santo Domingo

Credit: mini_malist

A Natural Masterpiece

Hierve el Agua is home to an otherworldly duo of what looks very much like frozen waterfalls, but are in fact the result of years of calcium-rich springs dripping down the side of a mountain and creating a pair of petrified waterfall-like rock formations.

The result is equal amounts bizarre and beautiful, and is best enjoyed from inside the two clifftop infinity pools that offer astounding views of the mountains (the views of the “waterfalls” are better from the bottom of the cliffs). It’s a bit of a trek from Oaxaca, but the ninety-minute drive is more than worth it for the mineral waters and the Instagram-worthy views.

Hierve el Agua

Credit: Carlos Adampol Galindo

An Evening In A Mezcaleria

Never mistake Mezcal for Tequila. Especially here in Mezcal country. To get to know the smoky spirit a little better, take a tasting in a mezcaleria like the rustic La Mezcaloteca in Xochimilco — but avoid the sales-orientated distilleries unless you have a real passion for the spirit or if you want to support local producers.

To give you a start, simply remember that where tequila is made from slowly baked Blue Agave hearts (piñas), mezcal starts life with piñas from any agave that are then roasted in a fire pit before being distilled, which gives it its complex and smoky flavour. This strict adherence to tradition has ensured that Mezcal retains its artisanal nature, and Mezcal tastings are almost as prominent here as wine tastings are in Bordeaux.

Smokey Mezcal

Credit: Aaron Rodriguez

The Zapotec Capital

Just a twenty-minute drive from central Oaxaca and renowned for being continuously inhabited for 1500 years by Zapotec, Mixtec, and Olmec people, the UNESCO site of Monte Albán is one of Mexico's most evocative ruins. The former capital, with its ancient pyramids and an observatory embedded in the hills above the lush Oaxaca Valley, is especially beautiful when looking back over the ruins at sunset.

Ancient ruins on the Monte Albán plateau

Credit: Dmitry Rukhlenko

More Than Mole

Alejandro Ruiz has almost single-handedly put Oaxacan cuisine on the map over the past twenty years, and his first restaurant is still one of Oaxaca’s best. Dine at Casa Oaxaca for a delicious mix of tradition and innovation, a fusion of ancestral technique, beautiful local ingredients and striking modern presentation. Dishes are varied, everything from Coloradito mole with suckling pig, and enfrijoladas, to tamarind mezcalini (a mix of a margarita and a mojito made with Mezcal) served alongside seasonal wild game.

Traditional Mexican enchilada with mole salsa

Credit: Playa del Carmen

A Local Delicacy

Dried, crispy rust coloured Chapulines (grasshoppers) have been eaten in Oaxaca for 3000 years. They are most often served dried in a bold mix of lime, chillies, onion, garlic, and salt and sold in bowls by street vendors. But you’ll often find them in tacos dressed with a spicy sauce and guacamole too. While it may sound unusual, Chapulines are a perfect example of a real and enduring local food experience. 

Chapulines, grasshoppers and guacamole snack

Credit: Marcos Castillo

An Evening At The Theatre

Completed just a year before the Mexican Revolution, the grand Macedonio Alcalá Theater boasts a striking Renaissance-inspired façade with Juliette balconies and ornamental columns rising to a shiny green dome. The building is easily one of Oaxaca’s prettiest in the colonial centre, and today it hosts an exciting mix of Latin American Art House films alongside Opera and an eclectic year-round festival calendar.

The Macedonio Alcalá Theater

Credit: Eduardo Robles Pacheco

A Place For Everything

The chaotic Mercado Benito Juárez is a warren of busy halls filled with market stalls selling a vivid mix of pre-prepared mole powders, freshly ground local coffee beans, flowers, Mezcal, baskets full of chillies, freshly baked breads, woven accessories, Chapulín tacos, exotic juices and just about anything else you can think of. Visit around lunchtime for a boisterous mix of locals haggling for fresh cuts of meat, and tourists getting their first tastes of proper Mexican cuisine.

Mercado Benito Juárez

Credit: Eddy Milfort

Getting There

To get to Oaxaca, take a flight from Mexico City to Oaxaca International Airport (direct flights). But bear in mind that Oaxaca airport gets limited international service, and while it’s easy enough to fly direct from the USA from the south, you’ll need to connect from the USA (Dallas is the best option with daily London - Dallas flights) if flying from Europe. 

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