There were many things we’d been looking forward to in Mexico, but top of the list was the food. We’d had a taco or two during our stopover in Mexico City, but Oaxaca was where the real feast began. With local delicacies all around, Oaxaca deserves its title as the culinary capital of Mexico; chocolate and coffee are grown nearby, along with agave cactus used to make mezcal, freshly made cheeses are piled up on street stalls, as well hundreds of chilli varieties found only in Oaxaca state. These and more are all ingredients in the many dishes for which Oaxaca is famous, and the best place to get stuck in is in the local market.
We first headed to Mercado 20 Noviembre, where we began our quest to try the ‘big 7’ moles of Oaxaca: Rojo, Coloradito (Rojo-lite), Amarillo, Verde, Mancha Manteles (‘Tablecloth stainer’), Chichilo (named after its main pepper ingredient), and the hardest to make, but most popular, Negro – made by blending 6 types of ultra-slow roasted chilli with spices, bread, avocado leaves, and locally grown chocolate. We ticked off negro, amarillo, coloradito and rojo easily enough, as sauces on plates of enchiladas and entomotadas, but chichilo, verde and macha manteles were proving harder to find. In the end, a walk through Beninto Juarez market stalls took us past mountains of chilli powder and huge shiny blocks of chilli paste, ready to be diluted into mole sauces at home, and the market traders were happy to let us taste each of the 7 for a couple of pesos.
Oaxaca has much more on the menu than just moles. We found this great run down Oaxacan dishes, so used the ADO bus ride from Mexico City to make our hitlist of things to try. The breakfast included with our room at Parador San Fernando turned out to be a great way to get started. Each morning we came down to the courtyard where Fernando would serve a different home-cooked breakfast, along with coffee, chocolate con leche and fresh juices. It’s too hard to pick a favourite from the tlayudas, huevos con salsa, omelettes, club sandwiches and enfrijoladas, but, after over 100 hotels so far on this trip, it’s very easy to say Parador San Fernando had by far the best breakfast.
Between the delicious memelitas, chilaquiles and tacos available all over town, we had to save room for some street food too. Predictably, Rebecca went for chocolate – a huge chunk of chocolate that was almost definitely meant to be diluted with milk for drinking, but tasted pretty great chomped down in one gulp too. Less predictably, Timian caved in to the street vendors’ cries of ‘chapulines!‘ with their buckets of deep-fried crickets, divided by size and flavour. Turns out they taste mainly of chilli and also a bit of soil.
Back in Mercado 20 Noviembre, we had one of our favourite meals of the trip so far: carne asada. One of the passages leading into the market is filled with barbecue smoke, lined with stall after stall piled up with cuts of meat, and open coal barbecue grills. We chose a mix of beef, pork and chorizo from one of the meat guys, who handed it to a grill lady, who beckoned over a fresh veg and tortilla lady. We found seats at the shared tables, and soon after everything then arrived in one delicious basket; spicy chorizo, tender beef, marinated pork, warm tortillas, fresh salsa, guacamole and chillies, and cold refrescos, all for about 140 pesos.
After having munched our way around the Benito Juarez and 20 Noviembre markets, we set off to find Pochote, a smaller organic market. Our first – failed – attempt to find it had a silver lining that showed us Oaxaca could be a feast for our eyes as well as our stomachs. The walk took us north out of town along the old aqueduct, along quiet cobblestone streets, past some beautiful street art and intriguing hobbit-esque doorways to houses built into the arches of the aqueduct. The street art here was a contrast to the surprising amount of graffiti we’d seen in the centre.
Oaxaca is incredibly photogenic; the buildings are brightly painted, inside and out. There are art galleries and artsy cafes up and down cobbled streets dotted with bright red blossom trees. There are balcony bars with perfect people-watching views down the pedestrianised Calle Macedonio Alcala, rooftop bars with views of Santo Domingo church, hidden courtyard bars with art installations, and a disproportionate number of tiny mezcalerias (mezcal distillaries) complete with cosy tasting bars.
We cleared an evening and picked Los Amantes for a tasting session. We worked our way through 6 bittersweet shots ranging in age, agave strain, and casks, while the chatty owner talked us through the production process, and his mate reeled off a few Mexican folk tunes in the background. It’s much nicer than tequila, and whilst T was happy to sip it straight, R preferred it in a cocktail.
Oaxaca’s main square – the Zocalo – was always packed, day and night: with friends and families; with buskers; with shoe shiners and balloon sellers; with fast food stands and drink stalls. We also saw it host a children’s dance performance, a protest, and a handicraft market selling traditional woven rugs and ponchos, lucha libre masks, pinatas, Mexican hammocks, and the Oaxacan black pottery.
From the Zocalo, Macedonio Alacala runs up the hill to the ex-convent and church of Santo Domingo. The inside of the church was like the inside of Aladdin’s lamp; every inch covered in gold. Intricate carvings, glinting statues, and neck-craningly high floor-to-ceiling facades.
The ex-convent next door is now home to a very well-reviewed cultural museum, but the captions are only in Spanish. At first, unsure how much we would get out of it, we were going to give it a miss. In the end we decided to road test our basic (but improving) Spanish vocab with descriptions of ancient Zapotec cultural traditions, colonial clashes and modern day Oaxacan ethnography. Too much too soon? Possibly. Although we were probably missing a lot of the finer details, it was still very interesting. Zapotecs worshipped a god called Pije Tao, until Spanish invaders brought Catholicism to Mexico. These conquistadors did not use any cruxifixction imagery in the churches, for fear of depicting a defeated god or encouraging the idea of human sacrifice.
There were also several exhibits of things recovered from archeological digs at the nearby Zapotec ruined ancient city, Monte Alban, which we visited the next day. Here, explanations were in English. In the ruins of a ball court we learnt that the ball games weren’t just for entertainment, but also played at religious celebrations and to resolve disputes over land ownership and trade. As well as worshipping the god Pije Tao, animals like bats, jaguars and snakes were considered gods, whilst turtles, hummingbirds, owls and lizards were believed to have magic powers and their bones used to predict the future.
Despite having eaten everything in sight, we left Oaxaca hungry for more. For more of the Oaxacan delicacies, of course, but also for the city’s laid back atmosphere, beautiful streets and friendly people. We could easily have spent longer there and definitely plan to go back.