Oaxaca, Mexico Travel Guide
One of the most frequently asked questions I get is “where do you get your inspiration?” It’s a great question and I ask it of others all the time, especially those who have been working in the same industry for many years. When you make your passion your career it’s vital that you continue to connect to the birth of the passion. As much as I believe in continuing to date your person I also am a firm believer in dating your creative self.
So my answer to that burning question; travel. There are other things such as reading cookbooks and going out to eat but for me nothing fills my soul like visiting a place that is unlike anything that exists in my day to day. All of my senses are shaken. I see colors brighter, I taste with more mindfulness, I’m like a little kid asking thousands of questions and delighted by all the newness. Coming home I have pages of notes and have gathered a long list of new-to-me ingredients that will permeate my recipes for years to come.
This trip’s purpose was purely for inspiration. I realize how delightfully dreamy that sounds and I feel the gift of it. Since the opening of the shop I’ve been so busy creating new recipes and menus to serve a crowd and I reveled in the thought of taking a trip to Oaxaca then coming home to fill the table with the food that inspired me on the trip.
Two of my dearest friends joined the adventure, Julie and Deborah. Julie and I are most motivated by food while Deborah was eager to learn about the art in Oaxaca. Each one of us walked away inspired.
Julie did the bulk of the planning for this trip so we have her to thank for all of the incredible information below.
WHERE WE STAYED
4 bedroom AirBnB about 8 minutes from the Zocolo (city center).
Our trip to Oaxaca would not have been the same without our incredible AirBnb host, Ainda. After a red eye flight we were greeted into her beautiful home with fresh squeezed orange juice, a plate of sweet, perfectly ripe fruit and memelas; a puffed tortilla topped with puréed black beans, queso fresco and the most incredible guacamole. In the very best Spanish I could muster I asked what was in that magical sauce. Estella, one of two ladies who served us breakfast every morning, assured me it was simply tomatillos, cilantro, onion, garlic, and avocado.
Staying in the home of a local is absolutely my favorite way to experience a place. Home food will always be my heart and speak to me in a way that towering and often over-complicated restaurant food can’t. Especially in a bustling city a peaceful respite is a gift for the weary traveler. Any future trips to Oaxaca will definitely be planned with Ainda.
WHERE TO EAT
At our beautiful home. Again and again the food we ate in our home away from home was my favorite. Simple and so very Oaxacan. From the fresh produce, memelas (the puffed tortilla and bean dish I mentioned above) to the tlayudas (crisp tortillas with black bean sauce, queso oaxaca – like a salty string cheese, avocado, lettuce, tomatoes and squash blossoms – basically like a Mexican pizza.
Ainda offers a mole class experience that for me was the highlight of the trip. Oaxaca is of course known for its mole’s and it is one of those dishes that you have to learn from someone rather than attempt to follow a recipe. There are subtle tips and techniques that flood this ancient sauce – like nearly blackening every ingredient to get a deep, nearly bitter char. And airing out the toasted chilies before softening in water. And those spicy seeds and veins of the chilies? Those sit on the grill (comal) until blackened and add a soft spice, roasted flavor and give the black mole that unmistakable color. And of course chocolate, which Estella makes herself with toasted cacao, almonds and spices.
Ainda and Estella escorted us to the market near their home and we followed them with mouths agape, eyes widened and asking over and over again, “what is this?!”
We enjoyed a few meals out as well but the food we ate in our home and the experience that surrounded it was my favorite.
Casa Oaxaca – My favorite margarita came from this place. I will forever be chasing their recipe for a passion fruit margarita. The rooftop at this restaurant is not to be missed, even with the occasional rain drops. It saddles up next to the church and the birds chirping in the nearby trees provide a lovely soundtrack to the meal.
We were greeted with a large, crisp blue corn tortilla topped with queso fresco and a tableside preparation of salsa seasoned with crickets (chapulines).
Don’t miss the guava and tomatillo salad, duck tacos, and black mole.
Criollo – Incredible setting but the food didn’t live up to our expectations.
For next time we’ll try: El Distilado for sure, and perhaps Pitiona and El Origen. They all came highly recommended.
THINGS TO DO
Monte Alban – one of the most significant archeological sights in Latin America. The site of a Zapotec city whose building began in the 8th century BC.
El Tule – The world’s WIDEST tree. A great pit stop on your way out to the weaving village.
Teotitlan del Valle – In a family owned weaving studio we watched the process from wool to weaving including the fascinating process of creating the natural dyes for the wool. Our guide took Deborah’s hand, the painter of our group, and showed all the ways they bring color to life using completely natural and local ingredients. Red from the bug that lives on the leaves of the agave then when lime juice is added it instantly becomes more vibrant. Yellow from dried and crushed marigold leaves. Indigo from a native plant and that mixed with marigold petals creates a luscious green.
From raw wool that is hand combed then spun then hand dipped with these natural dyes, then hand untangled (!!!) and weaved using patterns deeply engrained in their minds. The experience was somehow spiritual. I walked away with a stunning set of weaved coasters made by a 7 year old. This stunning tradition is alive and thriving in Oaxaca and although you can purchase weavings in the city it’s worth the 45 minute drive out of town to experience the process first hand.
Hire a driver or grab a yellow taxi to drive you.
Ethnobotanical Gardens – Great views from Santo Domingo but if you want to go in you’ll need to book a tour.
Mezcal Tasting at El Cortijo Mezcaleria. Don’t just stop at one mezcal tasting. Similar to wine there are thousands of varities and many ways of thinking around mexcal. We also visited the Mezcaloteca and while we didn’t love the mezcals the education was invaluable.
Santo Domingo de Guzman – Ornate baroque cathedral on the Zocolo – or main center square of the city.
Mercado 20 de Noviembre – Here you are completely surrounded by locals and the energy is infectious. Many stalls and small counter restaurants, serving all kinds of local foods, elbow to elbow with Oaxacans. Also bakeries and mezcal.
Mercato Benito Juarez – wonderful shopping for every kind of local artisanal product, from textiles, to shoes, to mezcal, to grasshoppers to snack on. The markets in Oaxaca are not to be missed and this central location and rows and rows of vibrant stalls makes it a must visit.
Our three days in Oaxaca were packed full but of course we left with a longer list of places to visit then we got started. A week is definitely recommended but no matter the length of the stay the impression of this city that is full of heart, warmth, and life will stay with you for a lifetime.
I can not wait to continue to see how this experience will unfold in my life and even in the recipes that I share here.