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Exploring Oaxaca’s Cuisine and Culture
Oaxaca belongs at the top of the must-experience list for any traveler eager to gain a richer understanding of Mexican culture. The city itself has an enchanting historic center that’s been named—along with the nearby archaeological site of Monte Alban—a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s also celebrated as one of the country’s culinary capitals, known for its cheeses, mescals, tamales and a variety of rich, flavorful moles. All that good eating, plus the pleasantly mild climate, should also energize travelers interested in outdoor activities.  

The itinerary created by Katie Cadar of TravelStore, a member of the AFAR Travel Advisory Council, will immerse you in the rich traditions of Oaxaca and the surrounding area, from villages with craft markets to mescal distilleries to a waterfall with therapeutic powers.
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    Day 1
    Arrive in Oaxaca
    Fly into Oaxaca, where you will be met at the airport by a driver for your hotel transfer. Katie Cadar will reserve a room for you at one of her two favorite hotels in the city.

    The Quinta Real Oaxaca is not only near the city’s beautifully restored historic buildings, it is located in one of them. First constructed in 1576 as the Convent of Santa Catalina de Siena, the hotel combines centuries-old architecture and colonial-inspired design with modern-day comforts. Guests can choose from views of the atmospheric city streets or the building’s interior patios, with gurgling fountains and lush plantings.

    The intimate, nine-room Boutique Hotel Casa de las Bugambillas is near the city’s zocalo, or main square, with rooms featuring vibrant craft art. An extra bonus is the hotel’s temazcal, a traditional steam bath incorporating aromatic herbs that provides a relaxing detox treatment. You can also read up on local customs in the hotel library stocked with books devoted to Oaxaca.

    After getting set up in your room, wander the streets of the historic center to eventually find your way to Restaurante Catedral for dinner (just a block from its namesake building). The menu focuses on regional specialties—tender corn tamales, grilled Oaxacan cheese and, for the daring, grasshoppers served with guacamole and tortillas.
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    Day 2
    Explore Historic Oaxaca
    After breakfast at your hotel, head out to visit some of the city’s best museums. The Rufino Tamayo Museum is named for one of Mexico’s most renowned muralists and houses the pre-Columbian works that Tamayo, who was born in Oaxaca, collected. The pieces were organized aesthetically by Tamayo, creating connections across the various Mesoamerican cultures represented in the museum, which is housed in a colonial mansion.

    The Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca is a surprising botanical garden in the heart of the city. More than 900 different species of plants grow in what was once the farm of a Dominican convent built in the 16th and 17th centuries. Native cacti of Mexico, in an astounding variety of shapes and sizes, are especially well represented in the garden’s collection.

    Cactus also turns up at your next destination, Los Danzantes, one of Oaxaca’s most celebrated restaurants. The chef uses ingredients typical of Oaxaca—nopales (cactus), huitlacoche (corn fungus), and local cheeses—in haute-cuisine preparations. The drama of the restaurant’s design, with high earth-colored walls around a reflecting pool, competes with the remarkable dishes for diners’ attention.

    Skip dessert as your post-lunch stop is the Chocolate Mayordomo Factory. Chocolate is an essential ingredient to many Oaxacan dishes, and Chocolate Mayordomo is celebrated for creating some of the city’s best bar and drinking chocolate—mixing the highest quality cacao with cinnamon, almonds, and other ingredients. Spend the rest of the afternoon choosing from some of the historic center’s other highlights: the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures, the State Government Palace with its remarkable murals, or exploring local markets.

    Tonight you’ll dine at another Oaxaca restaurant that has become a destination for serious gourmets. Pitiona is presided over by Jose Manuel Baños Rodriguez, a Oaxaca native who has also worked in the kitchens of Europe, including the legendary El Bulli in Spain. His dishes reflect his background: a combination of traditional recipes and ingredients with the latest experimental techniques. The six-course tasting menu adds up to an unforgettable culinary experience.
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    Day 3
    An Artisanal Tour
    Today, a guide will meet you for a tour of some of the artisanal workshops and centers located near Oaxaca. San Bartolo Coyotepec is a small Zapotec community just eight miles of Oaxaca. The town is famous for its prized black pottery, formed by hand using techniques that are believed to date back at least 2,000 years. While you are there, you’ll have a chance to take a look at the city’s remarkable Baroque church, constructed in the 18th century by Dominican friars.

    Continue on to San Martín Tilcajete, another Zapotec town, famous for its alebrijes, wooden carvings of fantastic, multicolored animals. You’ll visit the studio of Jacopo and María Angeles, two of the most famous artists creating alebrijes, to learn more about this unusual craft art.

    Afterwards, you’ll return to Oaxaca where you will have the afternoon free at your leisure. If you want a small bite to keep you going until dinner, Katie recommends a stop at Café La Antigua, which roasts and grinds its coffees on site and has a menu of sandwiches and desserts. You will dine tonight at Origen, where chef Rodolfo Castellanos has become known for excellent renditions of classic Mexican dishes like stuffed chiles de agua and mole negro as well as his own new innovations using local ingredients.
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    Day 4
    A Mescal Tasting Tour or a Cooking Class
    After breakfast in your hotel, you’ll be met by a guide for a spirited tour of other communities outside Oaxaca. Mescal, a cousin of tequila, comes mostly from the state of Oaxaca. Both are made from agave plants, but mescal is known for its distinct smoky flavors.

    Before you start sampling mescals, you’ll stop in Teotitlán del Valle. This village roughly 20 miles outside Oaxaca is famous for its colorful textiles and rugs with vivd Zapotec designs, woven by hand on looms. You’ll have a chance to meet several weavers and shop for gifts before heading on to Dainzú, an archaeological site that dates from around 200 B.C.E., and San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya, with a number of historic buildings from as early as the 16th century.

    Today, however, the economy of the town revolves around the production of mescal and you’ll learn about agave cultivation and the distillation of the spirit on a tour of Casa Armando Guillermo Prieto, one of the country’s top mescal producers. The neighboring town of Santa María del Tule is home to another acclaimed mescal producer, Mezcal Benevá, whose facilities you’ll tour before sampling their line of mescals.

    Alternatively, you can spend today learning about Oaxacan cuisine through a class with Alejandro Ruiz, the chef at the Casa Oaxaca hotel. You’ll meet Ruiz in the morning for an excursion to one of the city’s markets, and then spend the afternoon learning the secrets behind moles, tamales, and other signature Mexican dishes. Whichever program you choose, you’ll cap off the day with dinner at Ruiz’s restaurant, Casa Oaxaca.
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    Day 5
    Hierve el Agua
    A guide will meet you at your hotel for a morning drive through the Oaxacan countryside to an unusual geological attraction: the Hierve el Agua. As you approach the formation, you’ll see what looks like an enormous frozen waterfall cascading down the side of a mountain. The white “falls” are, however, actually deposits of calcium carbonate that has dripped down the side of the peak, not unlike how stalactites are formed. Bring your swimsuit: The springs that are the source of the calcium carbonate are rich in other minerals believed to have therapeutic effects and they also offer panoramic views of the countryside below.

    After your soak, you’ll head back toward Puebla, with a stop at Santa María del Tule. As is true of many Mexican villages, a zócalo or plaza with the local parish church sits at the heart of the town, but unusually at the center of this plaza is an enormous cypress tree. Believed to be somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 years old, it has a circumference of 138 feet, making it the tree with the largest trunk in the world. You’ll have lunch at one of the cafés facing the zócalo. Make sure to leave room for dessert; Santa María del Tule is famous for ice cream in unusual flavors like cactus fruit and beso oaxequeno, or “Oaxacan kiss,” a combination of coconut, carrot, and pineapple.

    You’ll have this afternoon and evening free to explore Oaxaca on your own.
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    Day 6
    Say Farewell to Oaxaca or Head South
    After breakfast, you’ll have time for a final stroll around Oaxaca’s historic heart before checking out and transfer to the airport for your flight home. Or lace up your hiking boots and set out along the Copalita Trail, a scenic five-day trek that takes you through five types of ecosystems from the Zapotec Mountains around Oaxaca all the way south to Pacific beaches. Along the way, you’ll sample authentic local food and discover the lifestyle of native communities.