A Perfect Day in Oaxaca

Sample local specialties, sip mezcal, learn about Oaxaca’s history at the Museum of Cultures, and enjoy the scene in the Zocalo... Here’s the recipe for an idyllic day in Oaxaca.

No trip to Oaxaca is complete without spending at least a few hours sitting in one of the outdoor cafes around the Oaxaca city main square (the “Zocalo”). It’s the perfect spot to watch the street scene: couples and families walking by, vendors selling their wares, shoeshine boys offering to polish your footwear to a gleam. Strolling musicians wander by and perform a few songs in exchange for a handful of pesos. Balloon sellers with their colorful merchandise suspended above and around them entice passing children. In the morning enjoy a frothy hot chocolate with pan de yema, a local bread made with egg yolk. In the afternoon, sip a cold beer and snack on some spicy peanuts or chapulines, spicy fried grasshoppers. Any time of day, this is a wonderful spot to enjoy the bustling but unhurried pace of life in Oaxaca.
5 Flores Magón
Walking through Oaxaca‘s markets, it’s hard not to be a little overwhelmed by the abundance and diversity of items on display. Piles of fresh produce, quantities of beautiful handcrafted objects, baskets of spicy chapulines (grasshoppers), stacks of dried chiles, and mounds of mole paste. There’s also the food to consume on the spot: women calling out to you to purchase their empanadas, tamales, or tortillas. Then the juice and fruit stands running a steady business throughout the day dispensing freshly prepared juices of all colors, and plates of beautiful cut fruit. Just one block south of Oaxaca city’s main plaza, the Benito Juarez market takes up a full city block. The next block south is occupied by the Mercado 20 de noviembre. This market has fruit and vegetable stands as well as sections for handicrafts, leather goods, fresh flowers, and a few food stalls. The 20 de noviembre market has mostly bread and chocolate vendors, and food stands.
Plaza de la Constitucion, lado sur Zocalo
The building in which the Museo del Palacio is housed was the main building of the Oaxaca state government until it was converted into a museum in 2008. Located on the south side of Oaxaca’s Zocalo, the green quarry stone building itself is quite lovely. There’s a mural on the main staircase that was painted by Arturo Garcia Bustos that depicts three phases of Mexican history, with the prehispanic period depicted on the far left, the colonial period on the right and independent Mexico in the central panel. Benito Juarez and his wife Margarita Maza figure prominently in the central panel, and other important figures in Mexican history are depicted below them. The museum has many interactive exhibits that are good for kids, as well as some interesting displays about Oaxaca’s natural and cultural diversity.
Macedonio Alcalá s/n, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca, Oax., Mexico
Housed in the former Dominican convent of Santo Domingo, the museum of Oaxacan cultures offers a glimpse at the state’s history from ancient times through the colonial period, and into the modern day. The building was beautifully restored and opened to the public in 1998. You should go in even if just to see the interior of this stunning building, but the exhibits are also excellent. The highlight of this museum is the Treasure of Tomb 7, an offering that was found in a tomb at Monte Alban archaeological site. This is the greatest treasure ever found in Mesoamerica, and contains exquisitely crafted gold jewelry, as well as precious stone, intricately carved bone and more.
105 Matamoros
This shop offers a wide variety of high-quality handicrafts from all over Oaxaca. You’ll find a room devoted to woolen rugs, one to woodcarvings, and several to ceramics. On my most recent visit, I couldn’t resist picking up a “Catrina,” one of the female skeletons associated with Day of the Dead festivities, as well as some decorative cut paper.
253 Francisco Javier Mina
As you approach Mina street, just south of the 20 de Noviembre market in Oaxaca, the smell of chocolate fills the air. There are several chocolate grinding shops along this street. One of the most popular is Chocolate Mayordomo, where you can almost always see cocoa beans being ground to make the Oaxacan chocolate that is frequently consumed here. The shop attendant puts the cocoa beans along with some cinnamon sticks and almonds in the top of the machine and out the bottom comes a thick, rich paste, which he mixes with sugar. This is the very simple process by which Mexican chocolate is made. It creates a somewhat gritty product which is more suited to making hot chocolate than to consuming on its own, but since they’re giving out free samples, you may as well have a few pieces while you decide what kind you want to purchase to take home with you.
Democracia 18, PRIMERA ETAPA, Ricardo Flores Magon, 68058 Oaxaca, Oax., Mexico
Breakfasts in Mexico are a lot more interesting than eggs and toast. Start with a cafe de olla (coffee made in a clay pot with brown sugar and cinnamon) or hot chocolate with bread to dunk in it, then move on to the main course. A lot of the popular Mexican breakfast dishes are tortilla-based. These chilaquiles are made with crispy fried tortillas that are drowned in spicy tomato sauce and topped with queso fresco, onion and parsley. A breakfast like this will give you plenty of energy for a day of sightseeing. The markets in Oaxaca offer great breakfast options, especially if you’re looking for a large meal that will fill you up and keep you satisfied until the late lunch that is customary in Mexico. The Mercado de la Merced has a few good options, including Fonda Florecita and Fonda Rosita, which both offer delicious breakfasts.
Reforma No. 506, RUTA INDEPENDENCIA, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca de Juárez, Oax., Mexico
Just down the street from where we stayed in Oaxaca there was a mezcal bar called Mezcaloteca. It was staffed by one woman, very studiously sharing her love of mezcal. She poured us a tasting of three different mezcals into the little gourd cups: an espadin, a madrecuixe, and a tobala—all different agave plants, different producers. She told us how to warm up our mouths with the spirit, how to rub a little bit between our fingers to get the aromas. She didn’t need to tell us how to drink it; that we knew. Reforma No. 506, Col. Centro, Oaxaca de Juárez, C.P. 68000
Macedonio Alcalá s/n, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca, Oax., Mexico
On a walk through Oaxaca‘s Centro Historico any evening, you’ll come across carts selling steaming corn. Order an elote and you’ll get the corn on the cob on a wooden stick. If you request it “con todo,” the vendor will squeeze some lime juice on it, slather it with mayonnaise, and add crumbled cheese and chile powder. If you prefer your corn in a cup, ask for an “esquite” and you’ll be served a cup of corn with the broth it was cooked in, and the garnishings will be added on top for you to mix in. Any way you like it, this makes a great snack to eat while you’re enjoying the street scene.
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