Oaxaca in a Day and a Half: Immerse Yourself in Culture, Cuisine and Charm on a Quick Mexican Getaway
Oaxaca in a Day and a Half: Immerse Yourself in Culture, Cuisine and Charm on a Quick Mexican Getaway - Discover the Vibrant Colors and Textures of the Mercado 20 de Noviembre
Step into the Mercado 20 de Noviembre and prepare to be dazzled by the vibrant colors and textures within. This bustling traditional market is one of Oaxaca's can't-miss attractions, offering an immersive glimpse into local culture.
As you wander the crowded aisles, bundles of fragrant herbs, piles of chilies in fiery reds and greens, and mounds of cornhusks for tamales jump out from every direction. Women in colorful aprons preside over stalls brimming with fresh produce, from fuzzy cactus paddles to giant pineapple-scented guavas. Meanwhile, the butchers beckon you over to admire mole-marinated meats and chorizo sausages hanging from the rafters.
Beyond the produce and meat sections, you'll find aisle after aisle of handicrafts. Intricately carved and painted animals crafted from copal wood, black pottery from San Bartolo Coyotepec finished with an unmistakable sheen, woven wool tapestries in vibrant geometric patterns - every stall overflows with Oaxaca's finest handiwork.
While scouring the handicraft stalls, don't forget to glance up. The market's steel-beam roof provides shade from the intense midday sun, allowing locals and tourists alike to shop in comfort.
Yet the colors and textures of the market extend beyond physical objects. Everywhere, tortilla makers clap balls of masa between their palms before placing them on traditional comals over open fires. The smell of those fresh tortillas mingles with the earthy aromas of cacao, chilies, and roasted meats. Vendors hawk their wares in rapid-fire Spanish while shoppers haggle for the best deals. Though you may not understand every word, the singsong melodies of these interactions complete the market's sensory experience.
For many visitors, their most vivid memory of the Mercado 20 de Noviembre involves its bustling food stalls. Grab a stool and join the hungry patrons slurping up bowls of rich, complex mole negro ladled over tender chicken. Or sip on a cup of champurrado, a thick chocolate-based cornmeal drink, as you watch the commotion around you. Don't be shy - interact with the vendors as best you can or simply watch as they banter with their regulars. The connection between people is the thread that ties this dizzying marketplace together.
What else is in this post?
- Oaxaca in a Day and a Half: Immerse Yourself in Culture, Cuisine and Charm on a Quick Mexican Getaway - Discover the Vibrant Colors and Textures of the Mercado 20 de Noviembre
- Oaxaca in a Day and a Half: Immerse Yourself in Culture, Cuisine and Charm on a Quick Mexican Getaway - Savor the Complex, Savory Flavors of Oaxacan Mole
- Oaxaca in a Day and a Half: Immerse Yourself in Culture, Cuisine and Charm on a Quick Mexican Getaway - Marvel at Monte Albán's Impressive Pre-Hispanic Ruins
- Oaxaca in a Day and a Half: Immerse Yourself in Culture, Cuisine and Charm on a Quick Mexican Getaway - Experience Indigenous Traditions at the Guelaguetza Festival
- Oaxaca in a Day and a Half: Immerse Yourself in Culture, Cuisine and Charm on a Quick Mexican Getaway - Wander the Charming Colonial Streets and Plazas of the Centro Histórico
- Oaxaca in a Day and a Half: Immerse Yourself in Culture, Cuisine and Charm on a Quick Mexican Getaway - Meet the Friendly Locals at the Bustling Zócalo Square
- Oaxaca in a Day and a Half: Immerse Yourself in Culture, Cuisine and Charm on a Quick Mexican Getaway - See Oaxaca Through the Eyes of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
- Oaxaca in a Day and a Half: Immerse Yourself in Culture, Cuisine and Charm on a Quick Mexican Getaway - Indulge in Mezcal Tastings at Traditional Destilerías
Oaxaca in a Day and a Half: Immerse Yourself in Culture, Cuisine and Charm on a Quick Mexican Getaway - Savor the Complex, Savory Flavors of Oaxacan Mole
Among Oaxaca's many culinary claims to fame, its rich, layered mole sauces reign supreme. Mole negro, mole coloradito, mole amarillo - each version boasts an intricate blend of ingredients that reflects the region's diverse cultural influences. When you sit down to a mole-laden Oaxacan meal, prepare your taste buds for a complex journey.
Oaxaca lays claim to seven distinct types of mole, though the chocolate-based mole negro and the reddish mole coloradito are among the most ubiquitous. Regardless of variety, every mole sauce contains four key components: chilies, spices, nuts or seeds, and a touch of chocolate. Yet the specific combination and preparation of these ingredients imbues each mole with its own unique flavor profile.
Mole negro, the darling of Oaxacan moles, relies on dried chilies like mulato, pasilla, and ancho for its rich depth, while spices like cinnamon, clove, and black pepper add warmth. Roasted peanuts lend a subtle nutty undertone, while the melted chocolate ties it all together. After toasting and grinding the ingredients on a metate grinding stone, the cook simmers them in chicken stock until the flavors meld into one cohesive, luscious sauce.
Meanwhile, mole coloradito showcases Oaxaca's Spanish influences. A heavy dose of smoky, dried guajillo chilies brings heat, while the addition of tomato, onion, and garlic adds a touch of acidity. Cumin and oregano provide a distinctly Mediterranean vibe. The crushed almonds and sesame seeds lend body and texture to balance the other strong flavors.
Beyond considerations of taste, mole symbolizes cultural fusion at its finest. The chilies, nuts, and spices all originated in Mexico prior to Spanish colonization. However, the addition of tomato, onion, garlic, and oregano reflect European influences. And without the arrival of chocolate from further south, mole as we know it could not exist.
That intertwining of cultures directly parallels mole's role in Oaxacan cuisine. A complex, labor-intensive dish traditionally reserved for celebrations, mole negro frequently takes center stage at weddings, baptisms, and other festive gatherings. Locals believe a good mole can make any occasion special.
While family recipes vary, most Oaxacans agree mole tastes best when made in large batches just like the old days. The care and tradition that goes into its preparation translates into a saucy, smooth texture and a harmonious blending of flavors. That painstaking process of toasting, grinding, and simmering makes mole a true labor of love.
Oaxaca in a Day and a Half: Immerse Yourself in Culture, Cuisine and Charm on a Quick Mexican Getaway - Marvel at Monte Albán's Impressive Pre-Hispanic Ruins
Perched on a flattened mountain peak overlooking Oaxaca, the expansive ruins of Monte Albán stand as a testament to the former glory of the Zapotec civilization. As you climb the steep path to the site entrance, the sheer scale of the ruins becomes apparent. Stone foundations and low walls extend for over a square mile across the mountaintop, waiting to share stories of rituals, celebrations, and innovations from Zapotec life over 2,500 years ago.
The genius of Monte Albán starts with its location. Built atop a easily defended 400-meter hill, the settlement could monitor activity in the valleys below. Yet the site also channeled runoff during the rainy season into a complex system of dams and reservoirs to provide year-round water supply. Talk about prime real estate!
As you enter the site, the Northern Platform spreads out before you. Massive plazas, elaborate tombs, and finely carved monuments leave no doubt this served as the ceremonial center. Intricate carvings of animals and rulers on the nearby Building of the Dancers suggest lively performances once animated these open spaces.
Climb the steps to the Main Plaza in the Central Platform, and you'll come face-to-face with Building J. Archaeologists believe this served as an astronomical observatory as well as a temple based on the 360-degree view and the structure's alignment with the sun. Just imagine priests studying the night sky then sharing wisdom of the cosmos and agricultural cycles with locals below.
While the architecture impresses, the intricately carved monuments scattered throughout the ruins offer insight into the Zapotecs themselves. The 12-foot tall Monte Albán Stela 1 depicts inverted figures with ropes around their necks - possibly defeated rival rulers. Other slabs portray stylized skulls or calendar glyphs. Each monolith provides a small peek into the history and belief systems that once filled this mountaintop.
For many visitors, the highlight comes from gazing northeast across the Great Plaza to see Ballgame Court 1. Imagine the spectacle of cheering crowds watching rubber balls bounce off stone walls and warriors compete in this ritual contest. Though rules of the game remain unclear today, its importance in Zapotec society rings obvious.
Oaxaca in a Day and a Half: Immerse Yourself in Culture, Cuisine and Charm on a Quick Mexican Getaway - Experience Indigenous Traditions at the Guelaguetza Festival
Dive into a kaleidoscope of sights, sounds, and stories by attending Oaxaca's famed Guelaguetza festival. Held each July, this vibrant gathering provides visitors an unparalleled opportunity to witness the diversity of indigenous traditions that intermix in Oaxacan culture.
As you join the throngs of locals and tourists arriving at the event auditorium, instrumental music and costumed dancers greet you at the entrance. The music accompanies the attendees to their seats, setting an upbeat, celebratory tone. Though the auditorium fills to capacity, an air of eagerness permeates the arena as the audience awaits the start of the performances.
The event officially commences with representations of rituals from the seven regions of Oaxaca. Each group of performers dons colorful, elaborate costumes and headdresses that identify their specific community. The dances showcase each region's distinct myths, history, and cultural practices through movement and music. Watch attentively, and you may recognize corn harvest rituals or wedding ceremonies brought to life through dance.
When the prestigious Santo Domingo dancers take the stage in their vibrant capes swirling with each step, pride in Oaxaca's cultural heritage becomes palpable. Their dignified yet energetic performance embodies the spirit of the festival. After their set concludes, the arena erupts in euphoric cheers and applause.
Throughout the event, teases of Oaxacan cuisine like chocolate, chapulines (grasshoppers), and mezcal keep attendees fueled for the spectacle. Meanwhile, handicraft vendors lining the auditorium's periphery offer the chance to take a piece of each region's artistic traditions home.
Yet the Guelaguetza offers more than entertainment alone. Locals celebrate the festival as a chance to honor their ancestral roots and pass traditions to the next generation. Young children gaze at the dances in wide-eyed wonder, their feet tapping out the rhythms. Teenagers record the music and costumes on their phones to share with friends unable to attend. Through the festival, Oaxaca's citizens sustain indigenous practices despite outside cultural influences.
Oaxaca in a Day and a Half: Immerse Yourself in Culture, Cuisine and Charm on a Quick Mexican Getaway - Wander the Charming Colonial Streets and Plazas of the Centro Histórico
Lose yourself in the maze of cobbled lanes and leafy plazas comprising Oaxaca's enchanting Centro Histórico. Just a few steps from the zócalo's hustle and bustle, you'll find yourself transported back through the centuries with every picturesque corner turned. Wandering these pedestrian-friendly streets offers an intimate glimpse into a bygone era of monasteries, mansions, and magnificent churches.
With map in hand, begin your stroll down the Calle Alcalá. Gaze up at the brilliant yellow façade of the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, its Baroque tower glinting gold in the afternoon sun. Let your eyes travel down to the handicraft stalls lining the sidewalk, overflowing with woven textiles, painted wood carvings, and shining black pottery. Meander through the labyrinthine Mercado Benito Juárez, scouring the flower-strewn stalls for the perfectalebrije statue or bundle of dried herbs.
When hunger strikes, duck into Itanoní Antojería for a taste of modern Oaxacan cuisine. Try the tetela – a triangular corn masa pocket stuffed with requesón cheese and chili pasilla – for a perfect pick-me-up. Or join the locals at a sidewalk table to watch the world drift past while you slowly savor your tlayuda loaded with Oaxacan string cheese, beans, tomatoes, and tender grilled beef.
After refueling, make your way to the ex-convent of Santa Catalina to witness a masterclass in Spanish colonial architecture. The towering central archway trimmed in burnished gold pulls you into a world of vaulted ceilings, ornate carvings, and tranquil cloisters. For a moment, forget you stand in the heart of modern Oaxaca. Linger in the stillness as the patios transport you to another time.
When ready, cross the street to the bustling zócalo and soak up the atmosphere. Marvel at the emerald facade of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, seemingly transplanted from a European city. Join the families riding the miniature train that circles the square or browsing the bookstalls lining the colonnade. Relax on a shaded bench with a fruit cup or agua fresca, watching as skateboarders show off new tricks and laughing children chase pigeons underfoot.
As the midday heat begins to fade, trace your steps back up Calle Macedonio Alcalá. Peek down the narrow alleyways beckoning you to explore just one more block as you pass. Inhale the sweet scent of tuberose drifting from the flower stalls. Soak up the relaxed pace of life that continues to pulse through Oaxaca's historic heart.
Oaxaca in a Day and a Half: Immerse Yourself in Culture, Cuisine and Charm on a Quick Mexican Getaway - Meet the Friendly Locals at the Bustling Zócalo Square
No Oaxaca experience feels complete without an afternoon soaking up the infectious energy of the zócalo, the heartbeat of the Centro Histórico. More than a mere plaza, this lively public square serves as the definitive gathering place for Oaxaca City’s residents and visitors alike. Spend a few hours mingling with the locals and you’ll quickly see why the zócalo earns its reputation as the crossroads of Oaxacan life.
Grab a shaded bench near the center and take in the scene. Besuited businesspeople rush past on their way back to the office, briefcases in hand, while uniformed students laugh and chat on their way home from school. Vendors’ singsong cries of “Helados! Churros!” mingle with the salivating scents of frying batter and melting ice cream. On the south side, indigenous Zapotec women in brightly embroidered huipils sell woven baskets and nuts dusted with chili and lime, smiling as they chat with customers in lyrical Zapotec.
For families and friend groups, the zócalo serves as the default hangout spot. Teenagers whiz past on bikes and skateboards, showing off tricks for groups of giggling classmates. Young couples stroll hand-in-hand along the sidewalks, stealing a kiss when they think no one’s looking. Mothers bounce babies on their knees as they supervise spirited games of tag. And everyone stops to smile at the dog walkers parading their prized Chihuahuas and xoloitzcuintles around the square.
Yet the zócalo teems with visitors and tourists too, not just locals. Backpackers sprawl across the steps people-watching with one eye and checking smartphones with the other. Guides shepherd photography tours through the plaza, pausing for the perfect Instagram shot of the imposing yellow cathedral. Quinceañera groups pose for portraits on the leafy median, smiling and adjusting glittering ballgowns. The shared public space welcomes all to relax and partake in the timeless tradition of people-watching.
When the sunlight begins to fade in late afternoon, the zócalo transforms once again. Musicians unpack accordions and guitars, treating onlookers to classic Oaxacan tunes. Children squeal as they climb aboard the mini-train for rides around the square. Lines form at the cotton candy carts and marshmallow stands, everyone craving a sweet pre-dinner treat.
At night, the zócalo still bustles but in a more relaxed, convivial way. Friends sit at sidewalk cafés nursing mezcal cocktails, their laughter floating through the illuminated plaza. Couples stroll hand-in-hand admiring the cathedral’s golden glow under the streetlights’ amber haze. Revelers pause their pub crawls to chat with the artisans packing up their wares after a long day. As Oaxaca’s residents bid the zócalo goodnight until the morning light, a warm contentment settles over the plaza like a well-worn blanket.
Oaxaca in a Day and a Half: Immerse Yourself in Culture, Cuisine and Charm on a Quick Mexican Getaway - See Oaxaca Through the Eyes of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
Step into the world of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera with a visit to two Oaxaca museums that capture the lives and artistic styles of Mexico’s creative power couple. Both artists drew inspiration from Oaxaca’s vivid cultural traditions, varied landscapes, and everyday people. Retracing their connections to the region through these museums offers insight into what captivated their brilliant artistic minds.
First, explore the Frida Kahlo Museum, located in the beautiful ex-convent of Santo Domingo. This intimate museum houses an extensive collection of Kahlo’s personal artifacts, photographs, and wardrobe pieces alongside replicas of her jewelry and prosthetic devices. Seeing examples of her Tehuana-style dresses and pre-Hispanic jewelry conveys her sense of Mexican identity. Her plaster corsets and leg braces provide a tangible link to the physical suffering she channeled into her self-portraits. Yet it’s the photographs that reveal Frida’s personal connection to Oaxaca. Images depict her laughing with friends in the zócalo in the 1940s and smiling during a family trip to Monte Albán, conveying her fondness for the region.
Next, visit the Rufino Tamayo Museum, located in the 17th century Palace of the Marqués de Valero. While small, the museum holds a significant collection of Rivera’s works. His pieces Produce Market at Oaxaca and Women Grinding Maize showcase his fascination with Oaxacan daily life. The saturated colors, simplified figures, and everyday scenes define his signature style. Meanwhile, the lithograph The Flower Seller captures his wife Frida amidst her favorite environment – a traditional Oaxacan marketplace. Seeing Diego’s depiction of familiar Oaxacan settings that likewise captivated Frida provides a window into the region’s influence on these renowned artists.
Oaxaca in a Day and a Half: Immerse Yourself in Culture, Cuisine and Charm on a Quick Mexican Getaway - Indulge in Mezcal Tastings at Traditional Destilerías
As the worldwide thirst for mezcal grows, curious imbibers often limit their Oaxacan mezcal experience to the bars and mezcalerías in town. Yet just a short drive into the dusty valleys and mountain villages surrounding the city reveals a world of traditionally-run artisanal palenques waiting to be discovered. Treat your tastebuds to the ultimate mezcal immersion by heading straight to the source – the destilerías crafting small batch mezcal the old-fashioned way.
Picture pulling up a rickety wooden chair at a makeshift tasting bar under the open-air palenque roof. The maestro mezcalero himself fills your copita with an earthy reposado straight from the barrel. As the first sip of smokey, complex flavors hits your tongue, his passionate stories bring the process to life. This personal connection with the producer creates an experience money can’t buy in the busy bars downtown.
At a no-frills village operation like Mezcal Artesenal Los Danzantes in Santiago Matatlán, the star attraction remains the mezcal itself. Grab your seat among weatherbeaten farmers and seasoned imbibers as the samples flow freely from giant ceramic jugs. Let your palate detect hints of sweet agave balanced by a lingering campfire smoke. While chaotic at times, the vibe bubbles over with joie de vivre fueled by good company and great mezcal.
Meanwhile, at a larger outfit like Mezcaloteca in San Baltazar Chichicapam, the educational component takes center stage. Their "Myth, Mystique, and Tradition" tasting includes four unique mezcals paired with botanas like cecina and bread with mole amarillo. Between sips, guides explain how factors like water source and distillation method shape each mezcal's profile. You'll gain an appreciation for the nuances distinguishing mezcal from other agave spirits.
For a deep dive into ancestral mezcal culture, don't miss Real Matatlán's tour in – you guessed it – Matatlán. After learning about the palenque's history, beeline to the agave roasting pit for the main event. Watch in awe as workers rhythmically swing mallets to break piñas from the hearts. Follow the sweet, smoky aroma trail to the grinding area where a stone tahona wheel slowly crushes the agave. At the tasting, the apparent care and tradition reflected in each mezcal will resonate after witnessing production firsthand.