Trip Report: Beautiful, Colorful, Delicious Oaxaca!

Mar 9th, 2019, 01:21 PM
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Trip Report: Beautiful, Colorful, Delicious Oaxaca!

Preamble: One of my New Year’s resolutions was to catch up on my Trip Reports. Unfortunately, I’m ten years’ behind. And I’m sorry, because I took some fabulous trips, thanks to the info I got here from you. So I resolve to post at least a short blurb about my recent trips, and to begin with a real report from my last trip, to Oaxaca, just two weeks ago. It was wonderful!

My husband and I spent a full week in Oaxaca. While planning, we worried it was too much time (nope), or that we’d miss having a pool (maybe a little.) If you take a tour or hire a guide, as we did, for day trips to the fabulous ruins and markets and towns just outside the city, you will have plenty of things to do. And see. And eat!

The weather in February was ideal—mid 80’s in the day, and low 60’s at night. We ate almost every meal outside—my idea of heaven. The people were lovely, warm and friendly; the streets were a riot of color yet absolutely immaculate ( at least north of the Zocalo); there were parades and music at every turn, small museums and art galleries every few feet; there were fascinating ruins and spectacular hikes; we felt safe at all hours; there were NO bugs or mosquitos; and most important to us, the food was every bit as fantastic as we’d heard.

Our first choice of hotel, Casa Oaxaca, was booked, but we were more than happy with our next choice, La Casona de Tita. We felt so peaceful inside the courtyard walls of this beautiful, small (6 room) historic hotel, yet we were just blocks from the center of everything, and very close to the nicest restaurants and shops, located on the north side of town. Breakfast outside in the pretty, art-filled courtyard was a treat, with fresh fruit and breads, delicious eggs and Oaxacan specialites (Eggs with grasshoppers! Surprisingly good.), and juices and coffees all freshly made to order. Our room was huge, immaculate and quite comfortable. The staff was welcoming and kind, recommending great restaurants, cooking classes and our wonderful guide.

We absolutely loved our guide, Edgar Mendoza of Oaxaca Tour Leaders. We spent one full day and two half days with him, and it really made our trip. The first day, we hiked the gorgeous Hierve el Agua, with its petrified rock falls and colorful springs. The big tour buses only take you to look and/or swim at the pools, but if you are up to a somewhat strenuous hike, the views above and below the pools are spectacular. We hiked for about two hours, then went on to see the weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle (great), the famous Tule tree (meh), and the ruins at Mitla (great again). The following day we toured the spectacular ruins (from 500 BC to 800 AD) and museum at Monte Alban. This is a don’t miss if you are into ruins and history. The final half day we went to the enormous Sunday market at Tlacolula (so much fun), with a stop for a Mezcal tasting at a tiny distillery and my favorite, a visit to two lovely Zapotec sisters who made red clay pottery in San Marcos Tlapazola. Edgar knew everyone, everywhere we went. And he seemed to know everything ABOUT everywhere we went, too. We appreciated that he took us to small, local crafts workshops vs. large factories--he is a real ambassador for his Zapotec culture.

There’s a ton to see in town, too. The historic center is a Unesco site, with charming, colorful architecture—just strolling around it was an event. The stunning Santo Domingo de Guzman church was so beautiful we visited it twice, and its adjacent Museum of Cultures of Oaxaca, in an ex-convent, is world class, although we did wish it had explanations in English. We must have popped into a dozen other small museums, each in a beautifully restored old convent or building; some took no more than half an hour to tour, but all were very artfully done. The Museo de Arte Contemporaneo featured a very moving performance-art piece right outside its entrance: a young man, dressed as a topless Frieda Kahlo, wore a face full of pain and a sign publicizing the disappearance of a friend. One by one, spectators took turns sitting next to him, as he slowly, painstakingly handed each one a white rose of remembrance. Some of the spectators chose to get dressed in matching Frieda costumes—one middle aged woman even went topless—but all took their role as witness to the young man’s pain very seriously.

We shopped along the streets, where we bought an enormous hand-woven rug; watched the elderly locals in their finery slooowww dancing in the Zocalo; viewed several indigenous parades and one very fancy black tie wedding marching down the streets; hit the local markets (although the big one at Tlacolula was much better), and took a day-long private cooking class .

Our cooking instructor, Karla Maria, was recommended by our hotel. What a fun way to spend the day! She picked my husband and I up at 10 am, and for the next 5 hours was ours alone, as we shopped her small local market, learned about various chilis and other ingredients, chopped and cooked at her expansive outdoor kitchen, then enjoyed our delicious meal on her patio, with Mescal, beer, chapulines and our own home-made juice. We made a nopales (cactus) salad, fabulous Manchamantel (translation: dirty tablecloth) mole, chayote, rice, tamarind juice and guava dessert.

Which leads me to what we really came to Oaxaca for: to eat! I’ll post restaurant reviews next.
hax is offline  
Mar 10th, 2019, 07:24 AM
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We were there in December and had a great time. Looking forward to the rest of your report.
Paqngo is offline  
Mar 11th, 2019, 03:08 PM
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Wasn't it a great town, Paqngo? May I ask where you stayed? We have friends going in a few weeks, and they just switched hotels. Ours is already booked.
hax is offline  
Mar 11th, 2019, 09:02 PM
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Nice report on Mexico's #1 destination. IMO.
baldone is offline  
Mar 12th, 2019, 06:31 AM
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>>>Nice report on Mexico's #1 destination<<<

Is that so?
Fra_Diavolo is online now  
Mar 12th, 2019, 12:41 PM
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Originally Posted by hax View Post
Wasn't it a great town, Paqngo? May I ask where you stayed? We have friends going in a few weeks, and they just switched hotels. Ours is already booked.
We stayed in an Air BnB a couple of blocks from downtown. There were 8 of us so it was a large house. We definitely want to go back.
Paqngo is offline  
Mar 13th, 2019, 01:35 PM
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Thanks, Baldone. We almost went to San Miguel, but are glad we chose Oaxaca.
hax is offline  
Mar 14th, 2019, 08:04 PM
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And now for the restaurants....

Day 1:

The food in Oaxaca had us swooning. But our very first lunch at La Popular had us swatting—bees! This little art-filled spot was very inexpensive, and like it’s name, seemed popular day and night, full of mostly young travelers from all over the globe. My husband loved his first chicken with black mole. I couldn't enjoy my lunch because there were so many bees buzzing our table. Lots of dogs laying around, too.

But then! We were lucky enough to have our first dinner on the rooftop at Pitiona. The views of a spotlit Santo Domingo on one side, the twinkling lights of the hillsides on another, and the stars above had us pinching ourselves. Service was professional and very charming. And the food! The chef has worked at El Bulli and offered a fabulous-sounding tasting menu, but we just split a heavenly ceviche and then each had our own main. Everything was excellent and quite modern in presentation. My husband enjoyed his fish with a Pipian mole, and I loved, loved, loved my duck with peanut sauce. We didn't want the evening to end, so my husband had another drink, and I had a hot chocolate. Just perfect.

Day 2:
I won’t detail breakfast at our charming little hotel, La Casona de Tita, but suffice it to say we had a delicious full breakfast, cooked to order every day. Yet because Oaxacans don’t eat lunch until 2pm, we were hungry and able to enjoy a full lunch and dinner every day. Thank goodness. Who wants to miss a meal in Oaxaca?

Lunch this day was at La Biznaga, a casual open-air courtyard with a blackboard menu, cool music, huge beer list and what they advertise as “very slow food”. Another fish, with another yummy green mole. Simple but good.

On to a very romantic dinner at La Catedral. Oh my, the duck confit in black mole with plantains. To die for. The shrimp taco appetizer. So incredibly fresh. The baby goat--like butter. The food here is fantastic, and the atmosphere beyond romantic--IF you snag the beautiful courtyard. The rest of the restaurant looks beautiful, too, but was way too brightly lit. The courtyard, on the other hand, was low-lit, under starry skies, with a tinkling fountain and a fabulous guitarist crooning love songs in Spanish. A special night. Service was fine, though not as polished as at Pitiona.

Day 3 began with our fun and informative private cooking class with Karla Maria, which I already detailed in my first post.The manchamantel mole lunch we cooked on her patio was delicious, plus we sampled chapulines (grasshoppers), chicharrones (fried pig skins), nopales (cactus) salad, and mezcal with worm salt and grasshopper salt. Would we really have room that night for dinner at the toughest reservation in town?

We would. Of our seven dinners in Oaxaca, Casa Oaxaca was our very favorite. While many consider it the best restaurant in town, I’ve also read some carping that it is overpriced. We thought it was a steal. Our server was charming and helpful. The rooftop setting was romantic and stylish, with beautiful views of Santo Domingo and the square. In the courtyard just below our table, a terrific trio gave a latin bent to jazz standards. And the food was... spectacular. The table-side salsa was fresh and flavorful, and I especially loved my shrimp aguachile appetizer and mahi mahi with tomato jam. I could drink that jam. What a great experience!

More later.
hax is offline  
Mar 15th, 2019, 12:23 PM
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Restaurants, continued:

Day 4:
Lunch this day was a cute spot on the road with our guide, Edgar. Don’t remember the name, but I had very good chile rellenos.

After hiking Hierve del Agua, touring Mitla, rug shopping, and giant Tule tree viewing, we were beat. We opted to take a break from all the fine dining and had a quick dinner at Boulenc. This two-story hipster coffee/pizza/sandwich shop is adjacent to the best bakery in town. While the pastries and fabulous bread cue French, the chef is Oaxacan, and the look is straight out of Brooklyn. We shared a great mushroom pizza and to-die for ham and cheese sandwich. We liked it so much we went back another day for coffee and croissants, and we heard several people raving about their breakfast.

Day 5:
When we told our hotel concierge how much we loved our lunch at Las Quince Letras, she nodded almost apologetically and said "It's local food." Exactly! We visited on a Saturday, and the pretty, covered patio was full of large families -proud grandmothers, middle-aged couples, teens and little kids--all enjoying their weekend lunch together. My husband and I each had the trio of moles--negro, red and almond-- and we couldn't stop exclaiming to each other how good all three were. The service was very friendly and helpful. This was our favorite lunch—casual, inexpensive and mouthwatering good. Highly recommend for an authentic experience.

Dinner was at the highly regarded Origen, a short walk from the Zocalo. I’d read great reviews about it here, and seen tempting pictures of their food online. But…… we left feeling a little meh. Maybe it’s because we went here on our fifth night, and had been so blown away by other restaurants. Or maybe we ordered wrong (ceviche, fish of the day in Chorizo broth, a beef dish—all good but uninspired). The room was attractive. The service was excellent. I wouldn’t say avoid it. I just wouldn’t run here.

Day 6:
You win some, you lose some. As it was a Sunday, and many restaurants were closed for lunch, our guide recommended Expendio Tradicion, a sleek and modern bar/restaurant. My husband’s shrimp with guajillo and black rice was absolutely fantastic, but my octopus with poblano cream was chewy, tough, and unappetizing. Oh well.

For dinner our hotel recommended Zandunga, for its Istmeno cuisine. We wanted to like it—it’s very attractive, with a buzzy vibe. My husband loved his mezcal margarita. And I have to say, my pork main dish (conchita horneada) was excellent. Sort of like a rich pork stew with mashed potatoes. BUT--the hostess (who took our order) insisted one starter would not be enough for us to share, so we ordered two (even though we shared one appetizer everywhere else.) We were surprised (not happily) when those unshareable appetizers turned out to be five garnachas (small tortillas with a ground beef topping) and two huge fish tamals—enough for 4-6 people. The garnachas were okay—nothing special--but the fish tamals were tasteless and mealy— not good at all. The main courses were delivered while the unfinished appetizers still sat on our table. We felt extremely rushed and it was hard to enjoy the rest of the meal. This was our least favorite dining experience in Oaxaca.

Day 7:
By now we were finally ready to brave the famous hall of smoky meats at the Mercado 20 Noviembre. Was this lunch deeply rich and layered like the mole negro at Catedral? Or fresh and surprising like our aguachile at Casa Oaxaca? No. But it sure was fun. There are so many vendors selling and grilling beef, pork, chorizo and other meats in this long, smoky hall, it can be quite overwhelming to know where to start. Our guide, Edgar, had told us to search out the guys in the blue shirts labeled “ Irving”. They were more than helpful, and we ended up ordering a mixed plate of tasajo (beef) and chorizo, with huge tortillas, grilled onions and peppers (I asked for nothing raw), and guacamole on the side. We found seats at a picnic table next to a nice Oaxaca family, rolled everything together in our tortillas, and dug in. Delicious!

We had a great final dinner at Los Danzantes. The enclosed and private patio is stunning. The food was lovingly presented and prepared, the piped in music was cool and interesting, and service was professional and kind. We enjoyed two fresh and flavorful salads—one with watermelon—two fine, if simple, fish main courses, and an absolutely delicious flan for dessert. It didn’t quite match our first three dinners, but it was pretty darn lovely, and we didn’t want to leave—the restaurant or Oaxaca.

Next up: Some final thoughts on shopping
hax is offline  
Mar 16th, 2019, 07:26 PM
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very detailed and useful review!!!
julianna8181 is offline  
Mar 21st, 2019, 10:18 AM
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Excellent! My friends were there when you were and echoed your thoughts about Origen.
Oh, that duck mole at La Catedral sounds divine!! Always a good place to keep in mind.
ekscrunchy is offline  
Mar 22nd, 2019, 10:31 AM
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Thanks, eks! I'm sure you don't know this, but I always search for your posts first for restaurant ideas when I travel!
hax is offline  
Mar 22nd, 2019, 11:08 AM
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Shopping and schlepping tips

We didn’t go to Oaxaca to shop. We went to eat. But the indigenous handicrafts, both in Oaxaca city and in the surrounding villages, are so colorful and beautiful, it’s hard not to take home an extra carryon or two. Which we did.

While the two main daily markets, the Mercado 20 de Noviembre and the Benito Juarez Market, are a ton of fun to browse for food, (and to eat in the alley of smoked meats), I did not really enjoy shopping for handicrafts there. They are both indoors, and we found them too hot and claustrophobic to linger at and enjoy.

On the other hand I loved, loved, loved the enormous Sunday market at Tlacolula. First, it’s outdoors in the glorious weather. Second, hundreds of indigenous peoples, dressed in their colorful traditional finery, come from all over Oaxaca state to eat barbacoa, shop and sell their wares, and attend Mass at the gorgeous Santa Maria de Asuncion Church. You see a huge variety of foods and goods, and you often get to meet the actual artisans or their family members. Here, I bought a beautiful handwoven wool tote, colorful dishtowels and napkins, and some pottery. TIP: If you go, don’t miss the beautiful baroque side chapel of the church, the Capilla del Senor. Stunning!

On the same day as the market, our guide took us to visit a red pottery workshop in San Marcos Tlapazola, where we met two lovely Zapotec sisters who made a pot start to finish right before our eyes. One sister was very shy, the other quite chatty (in Spanish) but both were so proud of their craft that I had tears in my eyes as I watched them work. One sister used a small piece of quartz that had been handed down by her mother, and her grandmother before her, to polish the clay. They create salsa bowls and other things for Casa Oaxaca. Here I bought four charming footed bowls, and they gifted me a cute pig-shaped toothpick holder.

The hand-crafted rugs from the weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle are gorgeous, and we enjoyed our visit there to watch them being woven and dyed with natural dyes, made from indigo, corn, and all sorts of plants. Shopping tip: Our guide warned us that while most sellers will tell you their rugs are made with natural dyes, since the 1980’s, about 80% of the rugs sold there or in town are now actually made with synthetic dyes. You can tell because the synthetic colors are much brighter—unachievable in nature.

We did not buy a rug at the workshops, but we did buy a beautiful blue and aqua 6’8 by 10’ rug later in town from a tiny shop near Casa Oaxaca. It is certainly wool, and certainly hand-woven, but is it really naturally-dyed with algae and indigo as he promised? We’ll never know, but we love it. Schlepping tip: Our seller said he'd take an extra 1000 pesos off if we carried the rug home instead of shipping it. We thought it was too big, but he wrapped it up tight with rope handles and we took it on the plane as an extra carry-on.

We enjoyed browsing among all the sellers on the street, as well as the many beautiful little shops clustered around the Plaza de Santa Domingo. Among the gifts I purchased (for others and myself) were Day-of the Dead skeleton mugs and Christmas ornaments, tin masks, a beautiful shawl, embroidered wool charms and a hip T-shirt from the Museum of Graphic Arts.

Tip: We also encountered many wandering sellers at sites like Monte Alban. Our guide said the merchandise they sell is most probably made in China. My husband bought two colorful masks for our daughters that our seller swore were semi-precious stones, like lapis, jade and abalone, but our guide said were resin. My husband bought them anyway--just so you know what you’re getting!

We bought two small bottles of smoky Mezcal from the tiny Mezcal distillery we visited on the road to Mitla, and carefully packed them in our checked luggage. We also purchased one last bottle at the duty free shop past security in the Oaxaca airport, and put them in our carry-on. Stupidly, I didn’t pay attention to how they wrapped it, and when we went through security again in Dallas on our way home to Chicago, the Mezcal was confiscated because it wasn’t in an officially sealed Duty Free bag, as I had assumed. Oh well. Schlepping tip: If you are transferring planes, make sure your duty free alcohol is officially sealed, or transfer it to your checked luggage when you recheck, as I should have done.
hax is offline  
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