3 Days in Oaxaca

Oaxaca has been on my travel list for years, mostly because of the food. So while I was prepared to eat well in Oaxaca, I was completely unprepared for its beauty.

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Oaxaca is a lovely city with cobblestone streets and candy-colored buildings. In the distance, there are green mountains with big white clouds covering the top, which gives it the feeling of being both in the mountains and the tropics.

It’s also a city that manages to be historic and modern at the same time. Behind a traditional-looking exteriors, we found some modern courtyards and landscaping. One museum had a metal-and-glass library built right into the old stone building (second photo below). And while the city is well known for its traditional handicrafts, like ceramics and textiles, it also has a thriving street art scene.

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But what I really loved about Oaxaca is that it’s the kind of city that comes to you, and those are my favorite kinds of cities to visit. We didn’t have seek out anything in particular in Oaxaca — it seemed like where ever we went, there was something interesting to do or see, and usually something good to eat or drink, too.

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Our first day in Oaxaca was just one example: we didn’t arrrive until around 3pm, and on that first afternoon, we walked through two markets (20 de Noviembre and Benito Juarez); had a great meal at La Olla; discovered a Oaxacan beer that was so delicious that we sought it out all over town; wandered into a photography exhibit; and popped into a small mezcal shop where the owner led us through an extensive tasting.

On our walk back to the apartment we’d rented (which was perfectly located right behind Santo Domingo, pictured at the top of the post, and near a charming pedestrian-only street), we passed a parade of people in traditional Zapotec clothing, and by the time we were home, there were fireworks going off around us — and not little Piccolo Petes, but big Fourth-of-July fireworks. We’d only been in Oaxaca for a few hours, but we were already talking about coming back.

And that feeling was confirmed the next morning when we walked to the Reforma neighborhood for breakfast at Casa Oaxaca Cafe, where we had Oaxaca’s famed hot chocolate, a very good concha, and chilaquiles (although I’m still disappointed that they were out of the costillas, or pork ribs, that morning).

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We ate pretty well in Oaxaca. Thanks to our obsession with Primavera, the Mexican food stand at the Ferry Plaza farmers market, some of what we ate was familiar (tinga, jamaica, molotes, garnachas, enfrijoladas). But we also found new things to try, like tasajo, a thin, grilled piece of beef that was served with the enfrijoladas, and tetelas, filled tortillas that are folded up in a triangular shape. We had estofado at La Teca, a restaurant that operates out of a home just outside the center of town and specializes in food from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the skinny southern part of Mexico.

But I didn’t love everything we tried. The cream in Oaxaca, which was in the tetelas and in the sauce served with the molotes, made me gag. (Mr. WholeHog later described it as having a “blueberry yogurt” taste, which made me gag again).

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On our last day in Oaxaca, we went to Monte Alban, the ruins of what is said to be one of the first cities in the Americas. There was so much we still wanted to do in Oaxaca that we wondered if spending half of the day at the ruins would be worth it, but it turned out to be one of the highlights of our week in Mexico.

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Climbing the ancient stairs and wandering around the old stone structures gave us a chance to see birds (black vultures and gorgeous vermillion flycatchers), wildflowers, fruit trees, butterflies, as well as Oaxaca’s famed chapullines (grasshoppers). It was a reminder of the things that still live up amid the ruins of the old civilization. And a reminder to me that an ideal vacation often includes both time exploring a city and time outside the city.

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And soon enough, we were back in the city, eating tacos in an bustling, smoky corridor in one of the markets, and thinking once again about how soon we could get back to Oaxaca.

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