A Foodie’s Perfect Day in Oaxaca

Every time I’m in Oaxaca I feel more and more like it really represents the soul of México. It’s the birthplace of mezcal, indigenous cultures and languages are still very present and there are amazing mountains, beautiful beaches and pre-hispanic ruins to explore. In the capital of Oaxaca City, there are so many activities to keep you busy and not to mention amazing art and shopping but one thing really stands out for me: the delicious food. If you appreciate good food and drink and find yourself in Oaxaca, Oaxaca, try out these recommendations to create a perfect foodie day.

Breakfast at Boulenc

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If you’re not staying at a B&B that has breakfast and are looking for a lighter option to pace yourself through your foodie day, then Boulenc Pan Artesano is the perfect option for you. This hipster bakery specializes in sourdough bread, served as sandwiches or with eggs for breakfast. Their menu also includes pizza if you come here later in the day (or if you enjoy pizza for breakfast, who am I to judge?). Their coffee is also on point, I always appreciate a place that serves a good cold brew. They’ve done a great job with the atmosphere, it gives off a warm, homey vibe (though way cooler than any home I’ve lived in). When I was there a live band was playing and the brass instruments really completed the hip throwback vibe.

After breakfast you may crave some intellectually stimulation after the gastronomic experience so head over to the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca to learn about the original indigenous cultures in the state. It’s right next to the Jardín Etnobotánico so if you stayed too long at breakfast enjoying the live music and missed the tour of the gardens (the only way to enter), there’s a wonderful view from the back of the museum. While you’re there, pop into the church of Santo Domingo and marvel at the impressive gold plating.

Mid-Morning Refreshments at Oaxaca en una Taza

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Oaxaca en una Taza means Oaxaca in a mug, and that really is the best description for this little cafe. There is coffee and some assorted breads and small pies but the reason you come here is for the chocolate. Not bars of chocolate but refreshing chocolate drinks made the traditional way. You can get them hot or cold and with milk or water. I prefer the cold chocolate made with water, especially if you need a pick me up after strolling around in the sun. You can get it plain or with other spices mixed in and for an extra charge you can choose the cacao percentage you would prefer. It’s definitely a unique drink, and something you don’t even see that much elsewhere in Mexico. Be sure to give it a try!

In the center of Oaxaca, there is an art gallery practically on every corner so you can continue your cultural experience admiring local art. There is also plenty of places to shop for Mexican artesanía, especially the Oaxacan specialties of black pottery, wool rugs and embroidered tops and dresses. Lunch in Mexico isn’t until 2 or 3 so feel free to work up your appetite as your browse for souvenirs.

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Lunch at Casa Oaxaca

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http://www.casaoaxacaelrestaurante.com/php/spa/index.php

If you’re feeling a little fancy get a reservation ahead of time for this popular (and a little pricey) restaurant. Casa Oaxaca is noticeable for its bright blue exterior and the simple, sophisticated while still a bit traditional vibe continues inside. There are a few interior dining areas and a beautiful roof area overlooking Santo Domingo. The food is elevated traditional Oaxacan and you will not lack for options. It’s really a mind-body experience dining here, where you can feel like you enjoyed a delightful meal and took a deep dive into Oaxacan culture at the same time.

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If you’re impressed by the mole or Oaxacan cheese at lunch and would like to take some home with you, head to the mercado to get a feel for the local hustle and bustle and where you can also buy mole paste, crickets, local cheese, or almost anything else from Oaxaca. The paste will stay good for months even without refrigeration and only needs to be heated up with some chicken or vegetable broth to serve. It’s a great way to impress your friends back home with how much you learned about Mexican culture.

Pre-Dinner Cocktails at Praga Coffee Bar

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Praga Coffee Bar has one of the best views in Oaxaca, directly facing the church of Santa Domingo. Once the sun starts going down, the lights illuminating the church come on and the rooftop terrace becomes the perfect spot to enjoy the golden color of the church at night. With delicious mezcal cocktails, lots of wine and beer options and a selection of tapas and appetizers to whet your appetite, it’s a great spot to start off your night in style.

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If you haven’t walked through the Zocalo yet, you can stroll down the pedestrian road lined with galleries and cafes to get to the main square, where there are always crowds of people selling things and enjoying time with their families. If you didn’t have an appetizer at Praga, you can line up at one of the street carts for ezquites or elotes, my personal favorite street food. They’re corn off or on the cob served with mayo, cheese, chili and lime, which I agree sounds gross but just believe me, they’re amazing. But don’t eat too much, there’s still one more meal to enjoy in this beautiful city!

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Dinner at Zandunga

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Zandunga specializes in food from Istmo, a region on the coast of Oaxaca. The vibe is colorful and friendly and I’m always impressed with the wait staff’s knowledge and demeanor. It has your typical Oaxacan classics but with a bit of a twist. There’s understandably more seafood than you would find in a typical Oaxacan restaurant but even for non-seafood lovers like me there are plenty of options. Their homemade salsas are quite spicy and are served with freshly baked tortillas, I would also start out with their perfectly tangy guac. If you’re here for dinner then you could split a tlayuda or stick with something lighter, like one of their tamales. They also make delicious mezcal cocktails and have a good craft beer selection. Overall, I’ve really enjoyed myself every time I’ve come here, it seems to inspire great conversation and embodies the Oaxacan spirit that I love so much.

If you’re here with the whole family, then you may be ready for bed after dinner, as dinner is usually around 9pm. But if you’re still wanting to sample some of the local drinks to wash down all of the delicious food, there are plenty of options for drinking mezcal, the local craft spirit. Or, if beer is more up your alley, Oaxaca is starting to catch on to the micro brewery movement and there are some delicious craft beers local to the city.

Local Craft Beer at La Santísima Flor de Lupulo

La Santísima Flor de Lúpulo means “The very sacred hop flower” and there is even a hop spirit creature on the wall in the same sort of display that virgins and saints are normally displayed on in Mexico. They are a nano-brewery so there are only a few of their own beers on tap but they have lots of other Mexican and international options as well. And it’s one of the few breweries in Mexico that I’ve seen that has their own Saison! It wasn’t the best Saison I’ve ever tasted but I give them a lot of points for just having one in a country where craft brewing is still very much in the early stages.

Mezcal at La Mezcalerita

If you’re more interested in trying some mezcal, then head over to La Mezcalerita, a comfortable and quirky bar with plenty of options to get your mezcal fix. There’s also craft beer and other drinks if you want to mix it up but the idea is to order a shot of mezcal and a Mexican beer and to switch off sipping between the two. There are some different areas indoors and a giant roof terrace with tables and couches. If you’re there later at night and it starts to get chilly they even let you borrow a nice thick blanket to keep you warm and toasty.

If you’re full of energy and want to keep exploring the nightlife in Oaxaca, you can stroll back down past Santo Domingo until you hear thumping music coming out into the street. Otherwise, it may be time to call it a night so that you can get up tomorrow and continue enjoying all that Oaxaca has to offer you.

Oaxaca, Oaxaca

Oaxaca. Even the name draws you in. It has the highest indigenous population of any state in México with hundreds of indigenous languages still being spoken. Oaxacan restaurants are taking over the food scene in Mexico City and mezcal, the hipster tequila, comes almost exclusively from there as well. In my mind it seemed like Oaxaca represented the soul of México. So when my family suggested coming to México for our annual post-Christmas trip, I made the case for Oaxaca. We decided to spend a few days in the city and then head to the beach for an escape for them from the harsh New England winter.

We arrived a little haggard after a red eye complete with a baby who cried literally the whole flight (can I take this opportunity to say that if you are traveling with a baby, maybe don’t risk taking the red eye?) but when we walked into our B&B it was like stepping into an oasis. La Casa de mis Recuerdos has a beautiful stone-paved central courtyard filled with plants and color. Conchita, the owner, is a warm grandmother figure who doesn’t speak much English but is able to communicate the essentials (turn off the lights at night and here’s how to open the door). The rooms and common spaces are filled with Oaxacan handicrafts, almost to the point of overdoing it but the tasteful arrangement keeps it fresh and colorful, not tacky.

After freshening up a bit, we ventured out to find some food and see the city. Upon Conchita’s and a friend’s recommendation, we headed towards La Biznaga and Zandunga, which are next door to each other. There was a longer wait at La Biznaga so we entered Zandunga. I ordered and translated for my family, trying to get a good sample of Oaxacan food to start us off. We really enjoyed the veggie tlayuda (I like to explain it as a Mexican pizza) and the mezcal cocktails as well as their hip yet traditional vibe. Our waiter was very patient and dedicated to the cause of showcasing their cuisine, though when we decided to order another tlayuda, we ended up waiting about a half hour listening to the same jazz song on repeat. We finally escaped the musical torture to stroll around the city and see the sights. The street connecting Santo Domingo and the Zócalo is a pleasant pedestrian walkway filled with cafes and art galleries and we arrived at the Zócalo to a bustling maze of people, vendors of elote and artesanía, and even protestors camped out on the green spaces (Oaxaca is also known for its occasional political unrest).  We called it an early night due to our lack of sleep the night before and our early wake up the next day and headed back to the B&B.

Since experiences are scientifically proven to be better than physical gifts, my brother and sister and I had planned a tour in Oaxaca for my parent’s Christmas present through Zapotrek. I was really intrigued by their Hierve el Agua hike but I felt that while in Oaxaca we had to go see how mezcal was made so we were able to combine their two tours into a custom one for us. We got picked up early and ate our breakfast sandwiches from Conchita in the van on the way with our tour guide, Sergio, and driver. Our first stop was at a mezcal distillery which I originally thought was a strange choice for before a hike but we ended up appreciating our newly acquired knowledge on our hike when we passed by all the varieties of agave that we had just tasted. Real Matlatl Mezcal is a small, family-run place that sells their small-batch mezcal in México but even up in NYC. We saw their whole process and learned more about the drink here. It’s quite involved but I’ll try to boil it down for you here.

 An important thing to know is that mezcal is made from either farmed agave (of the espadín variety) or wild agave (many, many different varities). The wild agave is considered to be superior because of the richer flavor profile but the plants take longer to mature (15-20 years instead of 8-10 for espadín). It’s also more complicated to harvest as the land in this area is pretty much all divided up into communities, and to harvest from a community’s land you need to be a male resident who has completed their mandated year-long community service. Once you’ve managed to harvest some agave, they then hack off all the leaves to use the heart, or the piña (pineapple). The hearts are put into a pit filled with super hot rocks and covered with tarps and dirt to smoke for about a week. Then they´re broken up into smaller pieces by a giant gristmill being pulled around in a circle by a horse (how boring for that horse right?). Those pieces then get thrown into a giant tub with water to soak for a week or so (I might be getting the time periods for these steps mixed up, sorry mezcal experts). This is when the fermentation happens but the liquid is very very low in alcohol so they distill it by putting it in a closed pot with a fire burning underneath. When the liquid heats up enough to evaporate, it goes through a tube that comes up from the pot then coils through some cold water to cool the vapor into liquid again and what comes out is mezcal! So after seeing all the steps to this process and tasting the farmed and wild varieties in addition to some cremas (I had a delicious walnut one that I haven’t seen anywhere else), we headed out to our hike.

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We made a quick stop at a town market to pick up some fruit for snacks later and our local guides. It was my brother’s and parents’ first time at a Latin American market so that was quite the experience in itself for them. On our drive down to where we were starting the hike, our local guides showed us an old grave that they had found when working to expand the road. They had already taken a pipe they had originally found but the bones were still there, still mostly covered (apparently these indigenous communities have their own rules about archeological findings so taking the pipe was not illegal, maybe…).  We finally made it down the dirt road and got ready to start our hike but instead of heading out on the trail we took off our shoes and headed down into a mellow river bed. The rocks raising up on either side of us as we walked through the river were colored red, white, orange and green from the mineral rich water dripping down. We arrived to a waterfall surrounded by the same colorful rocks and took in the view. It was really incredible and my dad, a rock nerd, was really getting into identifying which mineral produced which color and explaining it all to our guide.

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After climbing out of the river bed, we started out on our hike to Hierve el Agua, another water feature on a cliff whose mineral-rich waters has turned the whole cliff face white. We walked through the dry landscape seeing patches of agave growing every so often and the wild varieties popping up along the way as well. It was quite a hot day and the climb up the Hierve el Agua was not easy, we definitely got a workout in. The views approaching the cliffs were beautiful and we crossed into another community’s land before arriving. When we crossed the boundary we went through a gate in the fence that stretched out in either direction as far as you could see.

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Hierve el Agua was impressive to see, with a natural infinity pool on the cliff’s edge and swirly white mineral deposits breaking up the water into smaller pools. Being the Sunday before New Year’s, it was quite crowded so it was impossible to get a clear foto of the whole area but we enjoyed our time refreshing ourselves in the water. After, we went to a comedor for lunch of quesadillas, the Oaxacan version of sopes, chorizo, carne de res, freshly made guacamole and agua de limón followed by a dessert of sugar cane sticks. It was maybe the first time my parents had seen someone cooking over an open fire and they were quite impressed by it. On our way back to Oaxaca, we stopped at another mezcal distillery, El Rey de Matatlán. This one was marketed for tour buses from Oaxaca but the lack of authenticity was partly made up for the wide variety of wild agave mezcales. We left feeling bad for the poor espadín who kept getting disparaged by the man conducting our tasting as having “absolutely no flavor!”

We got back to Oaxaca feeling tired though we rallied for New Year’s Eve and headed out in search of a place to ring in the new year. After trying at about 5 different places we finally made it in to what seemed like the only restaurant downtown that wasn’t exclusively taking reservations. We made it to midnight but shortly after headed back to the B&B to rest. The next morning was our first real breakfast at La Casa de mis Recuerdos which did not disappoint in flavor or presentation. We had decided that day to go to Monte Albán, an archeological site of a prehispanic city probably used for ceremonies and to house the ruling priest class. I thought that there would be tour guides available for hire there (like at some other archeological sites I’ve been to in Mexico) but there were not so we leisurely wandered around the city. Reading the signs explains a little but we definitely missed having more of a background of who these people were and what they did. Despite the lack of historical knowledge, it was quite impressive just seeing the carvings and climbing up the stairs built onto the buildings to admire the view.

Once we got back to Oaxaca, we headed to lunch at Sabina Sabe (not sure if the name comes from María Sabina who is the woman who made Huautla, Oaxaca famous for their magic mushrooms). We split lots of dishes again and for the first time my family ate chapulines, grasshoppers (though they were blended into a sauce so it doesn’t completely count), which is a traditional Mexican food. The restaurant itself is again a mix of hip with traditional with their drink list made up of mezcal and artisanal Mexican beers. With our bellies full, we headed out to explore the city and were immediately sucked in to the handicraft stores. Although we never even made it to the mercado, we stocked up on barro negro (a black ceramic typical to Oaxaca), rugs from Teotitlan del Valle (a neighboring town), and other Oaxacan handicrafts.

For our last night in Oaxaca, we learned from our New Year’s Eve lesson and made a reservation at Casa Oaxaca, a local culinary hotspot. We could see why a reservation was needed after our delicious meal accompanied by live music. We sat inside but snuck upstairs to the roof afterwards and were immediately jealous of the people who had been seated there. This was perhaps the tastiest food we had enjoyed so far in Oaxaca, which is saying a lot as we had eaten really well before this. Oaxaca certainly lived up to its culinary reputation.

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We spent our last morning enjoying squash flower omelets for breakfast and while my mom, Nick and Ally took it easy at the B&B, my dad and I did some last-minute rug buying and finally went inside Santo Domingo (so much gold!). We then said farewell to Conchita and her husband to begin our 7 hour trip to Huatulco.

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Our last B&B breakfast was delicious
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Santo Domingo
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La Virgen de Guadalupe

This part of our trip I had thought about a lot, looking into the different options to cross the mountain range to arrive in Huatulco. The bus goes on a less intense route but took 9 hours instead of 7 and had a limited schedule. I decided to go through Expresos Colombo to be able to have a little bit more time in Oaxaca and to save us a few hours. I had heard that this drive was quite treacherous and that some of these van drivers drove like crazy people so I tried to find a company that seemed a little more VIP. The trip started off well enough, the van was seemingly new and pretty spacious and after the first few hours I was wondering what everyone was making such a big deal about. After our halfway break though, the road really began to twist and turn, so much so that you had to have a death grip on the armrests to avoid getting tossed around with every curve despite our driver’s reasonable speed. Around this time they also started playing a deafeningly loud dubbed version of one of the Transformer movies and my dad really went over the edge. I had to yell at the driver to pull over as my mom was telling me my dad was going to throw up any second. Luckily, he ended up not vomiting but he and my sister both armed themselves with plastic bags for the rest of the trip and Nick tried to zen out with his noise cancelling headphones but still got a migraine. It was dark by the time we finally arrived in Huatulco and stepped out into the heat. When we arrived at our fancy resort, all dingy and nauseous from our trip, we had a bit of a mini culture shock as we as gringos once again became the majority and I stopped having to translate for my family. My brother turned to me then and said laughing, “Well I don’t think I’ll get the chance to practice any Spanish here.” Without even checking out the beach or the resort, we found the closest place to eat from our rooms and headed to bed, excited yet already missing Oaxaca.

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You can read about the rest of our trip in Huatulco over here. And if you’re thinking of going to Oaxaca and like to eat and drink (and I mean, who doesn’t??), check out my guide for a perfect foodie day in Oaxaca. Or, pin this article for future reference 😉