By Lisa Loverro
There are often times while traveling that I come across a place that takes hold of my soul and sinks in deep, never leaving. As I look back on my travels I remember a few of these places; Colombia with its warm people, Bali with its lush landscape, and Jordan, mystical and welcoming. Well, I can now add the city of Oaxaca, Mexico to my list of special destinations on this planet. Last month, while touring with the Mexico Tourism Board through the coastal resort towns of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo I decided to venture into the interior part of the country. I have always loved Mexico and while, yes, I knew Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and Los Cabos as beautiful coastal cites, it wasn’t until I spent time in Oaxaca City that I began to realize the true beauty of Mexico and its people.
Oaxaca City, in the southern portion of Mexico, is a stunning Spanish colonial city tucked into the valley of the Sierra Madre mountains offering far more art, food and history than I could have ever imagined. Along with the quaint cobblestone streets, striking cathedrals and grand plazas there’s ancient ruins, majestic landscape and a culinary scene that will have you begging for more. The days are warm and sunny, the evenings cool and romantic.
Known for its cuisine and considered the culinary capital of Mexico, there are numerous markets here filled with local food stands offering just about any type of Mexican dish my gringo heart could desire. From Mole to cheese and chocolate, I began my food frenzy with a visit to the "20 de Noviembre" market where I indulged in everything! Tacos, Tamales and even Chapulines (seasoned and fried grasshoppers) were just the beginning of my love affair with this cuisine. The Oaxacan chocolate, combined with cinnamon and almonds was made fresh and the Oaxacan cheese, well, what can I say about cheese…bring it on. But it was the Mole that won my heart. As New Yorkers, we are all familiar with Mole served in our local Mexican restaurants, but the Moles in Oaxaca would put most of them to shame. The spices and sauces used here are distinctive to the region with so many types that I just had to try them all…Negro, Amarillo, Verde, and Coloradito to name just a few, each more delicious than the next.
Looking beyond the local street food (and there’s plenty of it) there's sophisticated restaurants and classically trained chefs who add a new dimension to its traditional cuisine. I had the pleasure of spending time with one these skilled chefs, Chef Jose Manuel Baños, for a fun and educational day of shopping and cooking. Accompanying him to Central De Abastos Market, we bought and sampled fresh produce, cheeses and meats from which we would later create a fabulous meal. Upon returning to his restaurant, Pitiona (www.pitiona.com), the cooking lesson began. Perhaps one of the most elegant restaurants in Oaxaca, Chef Manuel has infused a unique style into his cooking, using only local products and transforming them into a culinary work of art. Professionally trained in Mexico with a stint at the famed El Bulli in Spain, clearly evident with his liquid cheese and white bean foam, the Chef guided me through his kitchen as we roasted peppers, chopped garlic and sautéed grasshoppers while imbibing on his signature cocktail, the Pitiona martini. The restaurant itself pays homage to all things Oaxacan. The name Pitiona comes from a local herb used by his grandmother, the lampshades are tortilla-inspired and beyond the Mexican-only wine list, there are 36 different varieties of Mezcals; a potent potable, (think Tequila but more smoky) derived from the Agave plant and distilled primarily in Oaxaca. The day I spent cooking at Pitiona was to be one of my favorite days in Oaxaca. A must-visit if you make the trip down.
For a more traditional meal, but just as delicious, I dined at Los Pacos (www.lospacos.com.mx) as I heard it had some of the best Moles in town. I was not disappointed by this family-run restaurant that served up some of the best tacos and rellenos south of the border.
Food is only a portion of the overall appeal to Oaxaca. The culture is a mixture of various indigenous people including Aztec and Zapotec with the obvious Spanish influences. It’s a haven for high quality crafts, local artisans and fashion. Most impressive were the ruins of Monte Alban dating back to 500 BC. This ancient capital of the Zapotecs is thought to have been a gathering place for nearby communities where economic and political practices were exercised. Monte Alban is an ideal half-day trip outside of Oaxaca city as it’s only about a 20-minute scenic drive up through the mountains. Always looking for some adventure, I happened to be lucky enough to find myself on the back of a local’s motorcycle riding up winding mountain roads for a visit to view this spiritual site. Tourist crowds at the ruins are, thankfully, very few, as they are not nearly as popular as the Mayan ruins in the Yucatan.
The focal point of the city is the gorgeous Church of Santo Domingo de Guzman and its surrounding plaza. There are about 27 churches in Oaxaca, but none can equal the opulence and glory of this one. Built by Dominican friars in the 1550s but not completed until around 1608, its gilded walls, stained glass windows and baroque façade are a vision of splendor. The cobblestone streets surrounding the church are filled with unique clothing boutiques and art galleries. You could spend hours in this area alone…and that’s exactly how I spent one afternoon. My favorite shop along this area of town was Silvia Suarez, with embroidered fashions and one-of-a-kind designs.
Boutique Hotels and B&Bs
There are many options from which to choose when it comes to accommodations. I was lucky enough to stumble upon Casa Catrina (www.casacatrina.com.mx), a charming 6-room boutique guest home located close enough to town but far enough away to enjoy peace and quite. Owned by noted Oaxacan artist, Rolando Rojas, their colorfully named guest rooms reflect his interpretation of contemporary design and art. This was perhaps my favorite hotel while in Oaxaca. My room, the “Red” room was largest on property complete with private terrace and picturesque views of the surrounding mountains and stunning cathedrals. There’s no pool, no fancy restaurant…just warm, friendly people serving a scrumptious breakfast. For a quaint B&B option, Casa de las Bugambilias (www.lasbugambilias.com) located downtown in the historic district of Oaxaca showcases local folk artwork in their 8-room home, including a two-bedroom suite. One of the better-known properties in town, Casa Oaxaca (www.casaoaxaca.com), is a converted 18th century house offering 7 spacious rooms and suites with exquisite design interiors. There's a small pool in the rear of the property and they offer on-site cooking classes with another local master chef, Alejandro Ruiz.
Outside of town in a quiet, residential area, there’s the 18th century Hacienda Los Laurels (www.haciendaloslaureles.com), a five-star property with 23 guestrooms, pool and Temezcal. I preferred to stay inside town to really soak in the flavor of the city. The nightlife brings a wealth of cool bars such as Café Central, a hip and funky spot known for fashion, art, and unique music and Casa Mezcal a small storefront/bar offering Mezcal tastings.
And, by the way, don’t order Tequila in Oaxaca…you’ll likely get some not-so-friendly looks as it’s Mezcal that is held near and dear to the locals’ hearts. And speaking of heart, they’ve got plenty of it here…a stroll on a Friday evening while watching couples embrace and street music playing will make you never want to leave this magical Mexican city.