Oaxaca Trip Report
Oaxaca was the perfect mid-winter getaway for our family of four – my husband, myself and our two adult children in their mid-twenties. We spent 10 days (January 14-24) wandering the galleries and museums, taking in the sights around the Zocalo, stumbling upon festivals, touring ancient sites and eating fabulous food all in gorgeous spring-like weather.
We flew Continental from San Francisco through Houston and in to Oaxaca, arriving at our inn around 9:30 p.m. – too late for most restaurants except those around the zocalo. From that point forward we never lacked for something to do. If you go I recommend traveling on Sunday as the town is fairly sleepy then. That way things will be bustling on your first full day. Following are details and some highlights.
Las Bugambilias is a well located inn across the street from the botanical garden, close to Santo Domingo Plaza and the State Cultural Museum, near the pedestrian Alcala and a short walk to the Zocalo. The staff is friendly and helpful, the breakfasts are good, the rooms are impeccably clean and comfortable, and the art work is fanciful. We booked both the Margaritas room with its balcony and the Girasoles suite for our children. Both rooms were spacious and comfortable. The Margaritas room was a bit dark due to the orientation of the balcony, but there was plenty of privacy. It was directly across the courtyard from the suite. The suite was beautifully decorated, but it shared a hallway with the restaurant and the stairs to the rooftop bar. It was also directly above the restaurant’s kitchen and one walks through the kitchen’s passageway to reach the stairs to the suite. This arrangement was a bit awkward, and my gradschool kids with teenagers’ sleep patterns complained of early morning noise from the kitchen. If you need a quiet siesta time, be sure to ask for a room that is not on the courtyard as there seemed to be quite a bit of activity there in the afternoons. One day it was small boys playing while their parents worked, another day it was workmen fixing something, and yet another day it was two girls playing music on their phones. However, by late afternoon the courtyard was a pleasant space to have a drink, relax and share a few tips with fellow travelers. Given the location, price, staff and overall comfort level of the inn I would definitely book again. Just be aware of what your needs are and discuss them with the staff when you book.
Take advantage of all the museums in the area. Some are small enough to view in less than an hour, others take much longer depending on level of interest and energy. We missed only a few. We resorted to making a grid of sites and which days they were closed in order to plan our time efficiently.
We spent the bulk of a day in The Santo Domingo Cultural Center with a break for lunch. There was a special photography exhibit at the time of work by Flor Grudino which we revisted on another day. The morning was spent touring the pre-colonial exhibits which include antiquities from nearby Monte Alban. After lunch we toured the colonial exhibits, but they did not hold as much interest for us.
Another impressive collection of pre-colonial artifacts is at the Rufino Tamayo Museum. This was my first exposure to pre-colonial art and I gained a deep appreciation for it viewing this collection.
The stamp museum (just down the street from Las Bugambilias), the textile museum and the contemporary art museum are all worth a visit. Each one is in an impressively restored building. None take a tremendous amount of time and a visit to each is easy to work into a schedule of other sites to see. The textile museum was premiering an exhibit of Moorish pillows, rugs and saddlebags that were outstandingly beautiful and imaginatively displayed. The photography museum and the Museum of Oaxacan Painters turned out to be disappointing to us. None of us enjoyed the particular show of photographs exhibited at the time in the one case, and only a few paintings were displayed in a mostly closed off space at the Oaxacan painters musuem.
The Ethnobotanical Garden requires that you sign up for a tour. They are offered in Spanish and English and last about 2 hours. I found it fascinating and I am glad that I took the time. This is something each person needs to decide for them self.
Perhaps my favorite part of Oaxaca was just hanging out in the Zocalo. There was always something happening, always somebody to watch. By day it was a restful place for a break under the shade trees and by night it was filled with the energy of families and friends enjoying some free time. The Cathedral was spot lit at night while young children ran after their huge, pencil shaped balloons they propelled off its walls. There was music in the Zocalo every day. Weekdays a band was set up in the evenings as people gathered to listen, watch and dance. Things got a bit more formal on the weekend afternoons as a symphony orchestra appeared, chairs were set up, and television cameras rolled.
We fit visits to Yagul, Mitla and Hierve el Algua all in one day by hiring a driver recommended by Las Bugambilias. This was a great, reasonably priced way to go about touring the countryside without the worry of driving and route finding. We left the city a half hour earlier than planned as our driver showed up warning of a taxi strike that would close the roads in town. Possibly due to the early hour, we had Yagul to ourselves. While small compared to many other sites, it has an impressive ball court and well preserved adobe. It is a very short distance off the main highway and well worth the detour if you are going to Mitla. We pretty much had Mitla to ourselves as well. The mosaics are impressive and you are allowed to walk on the ruins and enter some of the rooms. After a quick lunch we continued down the road to view Hierve el Algua, a calcified “water fall.” There are pools at the top of the hill where you can swim, and a trail that leads down and around the calcified fall. Our driver was from a village nearby so knew quite a bit about the area. It was a full day, but one well-worth the time.
Monte Alban is the ancient city site that lies about 15 minutes outside of Oaxaca. Guidebooks will tell you far more than I can about this site, but I will say “Definitely go, definitely go in the morning as it gets hot, definitely take water with you, definitely walk the entire space and climb all the stairs.” If you have already visited the Cultural Museum and seen the works of art that came from the tombs here you may be even more impressed, as I was.
We all agreed that the order in which we saw these ruins, from smallest to largest, was best.
Restaurants in the order in which we visited
Marco Polo had been highly recommended to us and was filled with large parties enjoying their Sunday repasts. We were not entirely pleased with what we ordered, but the menu was almost overwhelming so perhaps we miss ordered. Chile rellano stuffed with calamari, octopus and mushrooms was lovely save for being overly sauced with a too sweet guallio sauce. Our daughter had a lengthy conversation, in Spanish, with the waitress and got roasted octopus with a diablo sauce on the side. It was cooked to perfection but without the conversation it too may have been overly sauced. A cazuela with shrimp was too rich, had too much zucchini and was too overcooked. I would go back with a regular who knew what to order.
Los Danzantes This is a beautiful restaurant. As we had eaten a large, late lunch we ordered appetizers for the most part. Rib eye doblados were good, the duck tacos were quite good and the flank steak was flavorful, but a bit too rare. The bread pudding was a disappointment, but the mezcal caramel sauce accompanying it was a hit. I would go back to enjoy the ambiance, if nothing else. While covered, it is open air so take a wrap.
La Biznaga This became our favorite go-to restaurant. The food was good, the prices were great, and the atmosphere was fun. It is in a sunny (by day) courtyard and always seemed to have a happy energy. We ate several lunches, some snacks and one dinner there.
La Casa de la Abuela Again, this restaurant had been recommended to us as authentic Oaxacan. The appeal to us was the fact that it was upstairs on the Zocalo so was great for people watching. We had a very nice Almendrado and the empanadas were tasty. This wasn’t a gustatory high light for us, but we did return one afternoon as we wanted to listen to the band concert, but all were hungry.
Los Pacos Our favorite spot for moles (sauces, not rodents) – especially the estafado. We were all happy campers and returned twice. They sell their moles, and we would have checked our luggage with these sauces if they hadn’t been out of the estafado.
Origen Our favorite overall. This is a newish place just off the Zocalo that will be big once the buzz hits, I suspect. The restaurant has casual tables of rough hewn wood in an open air patio of a restored building. The menu is enticing. The staff was somewhat inexperienced, but not afraid to go get help. The chef? owner? manager? was helpful in selecting our wine once we described our tastes. We ordered appetizers to share and an entrée each on our first visit. Both the ceviche and the octopus salad were beautifully seasoned. Mains of pasta, pork loin, lamb and rib eye were artistically presented, and more important, tasty. The pasta was on the salty side, and the portion of lamb was small. The rib eye was the best steak I have ever eaten. I am not a big meat eater but I would order that many times over. We returned for another dinner and had an equally nice experience. We also picked up sandwiches here for the plane trip home.
Pitiona I say “forget it, in spite of the New York Times.” This is a lovely restaurant that beckons you to enter, so we did. The food seems more form over substance – lots of gels and foams - is expensive, and we did not find it to be good.
Casa Oaxaca The bloom is off the rose. Rumor has is that the chef left so perhaps they are in transition. Casa Oaxaca is certainly a pretty restaurant and it would make a romantic spot to have a cocktail on the rooftop at sunset. It is expensive. The tableside making of salsa to order is a fun touch, but our meals arrived before we had a chance to enjoy this appetizer. The salads were very good and were large enough to share. The duck tacos were overly rich and the mole tasted like Chinese plum sauce. I would consider returning, perhaps for a light lunch, to see if they have had a chance to polish their reputation.
la Mezcaloteca Not a restaurant, but just down the street from Los Bugambilias at Reforma 506, is an appointment-only mezcal tasting bar. I didn’t think I liked the stuff until I tried it here. The four of us purchased 2 tastings of 3 shots each so we had quite a few tastes to compare. It was an informative, fun way to spend a bit of time before dinner. Ask your inn to make an appointment for you well in advance as they get booked up.
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Oaxaca Trip Report