A primer on visiting Oaxaca
I’ve been getting a lot of requests recently about what to do when visiting Oaxaca. I love being able to share my experiences because I want people to love Oaxaca as much as I do. Please note that this is by no means a comprehensive list – I barely scratch the surface.
I first went to Oaxaca in 2003 because I’d heard it was beautiful and that the food was amazing. It did not disappoint and I was completely blown away by the street and market food stalls. Because I am an adventurous eater, and have no desire to suffer consequences from my food choices, I have developed a set of informal dietary rules when traveling in Mexico:
- Plain yogurt with banana and honey in the morning.
- Plenty of lime and chili through out the day. They are common condiments, use them because they make things taste better and there’s some evidence that they may help stave off digestive distress.
- At least one mezcal every night.
- If it smells bad (as in rotten) don’t eat it.
- If it has a peel on it, or is fruit on the street, squeeze lime over it.
- If you can’t see a water source, don’t eat or drink it.
- And of course, keep some Pepto Bismol on hand, or, charcoal tablets. It is more for psychological purposes than actual need.
If I could spend my days just perusing the markets in Oaxaca I would. They are chaotic and colorful and odiferous and gorgeous.
Abastos is the main market in the city of Oaxaca. Go on Tuesdays since there is lots of local produce on the perimeter. In general, buy from the ladies on the floor or the ones without permanent stalls – this will be the most local, seasonal and fresh stuff. Abastos is huge and sprawling and totally overwhelming, and even more so on Saturday, the main market day. Eat at the market stalls – the food is good and it is a chance to try things you never would (like chapulines, the roasted grasshoppers.) Be aware of pick-pockets. It is in a semi crappy part of town so don’t go after dark.
Benito Juarez/20 de Noviembre is the downtown market. Any day is a good day there, and a visit to the carniceria is a must do experience. It’s smoky and the women behind the counters will vie for your attention. Just pick one and go with it. First, pick your meat: There is generally the local small chorizo sausages which are no where near as spicy as those found in a standard taqueria in the United Space, a spiced carne asada and a few other things. Second, pick your sides. You can choose from salsas, onions, peppers, avocado, radishes, cucumber and nopales to name just a few. Then you grab a table and wait for your food. Did I mention, it is a must do. This exists in every market so just DO IT.
Other favorite markets include the town of Tlacolula on Sunday (see this article for more info) and Ocotlan on Friday. These markets are very local and indigenous and you will have a chance to hear the melodic language of Zapotec.
I am going to go out on a limb and actually name a favorite tlayuda stand – the equivalent of naming your favorite burrito place in San Francisco. It is located on the corner of Bustamante and Arteaga, just southeast of the Zocolo. La Señora sets up at about 6 every night and goes till midnight. Her lard is divine, her beans are transporting, the hot chocolate amazing and her Chile de Agua salsa is a flavor explosion.
Restaurants are everywhere in Oaxaca. All serve a comida corrida in the afternoon – usually 2-5pm. They are 3-4 courses and cost anywhere from 25-100 pesos depending on the restaurant.
Good restaurants on the higher end – La Biznaga (they also have a great mezcal selection – go for the house mezcals! Stay for the food), Los Danzantes (great for a drink cause it is really expensive, but really really beautiful), La Olla, El Origen and Zandunga (Isthmus style food – good and different.) These are in all the guidebooks. Biznaga is great for micheladas and appetizers. Other good places for comida include La Jicara, Maria Bonita, Gio, Comala. A really interesting place that focuses on heirloom varieties of maiz is Itanoni – it is in Colonia Reforma, a neighborhood just north of the centro. Fridays at El Llano park (also known as Benito Juarez) feature lots of good tacos, et all.
And for you coffee people that cannot live without your espressos and drips there is Lobo Azul. They roast in house with fantastic results. They also have pretty good breakfast stuff and awesome political poster art on the walls.
Fun nightlife stuff – Cafe Central (Bar Central) has music, movies, art, dancing and a very mixed crowd. It is my top choice of a nightclub. FYI – Candela, the salsa club, is oft mentioned in the guide books and is total gringoland. Another place is El Olivo. They have a restaurant downstairs, and a bar/terrace upstairs. Gozobi has a bar with a great roof terrace. It is on the corner of Garcia Virgil and Allende. I do not recommend eating there as the food is so-so and a little on the pricier side. The Zocolo is a great place to drink and watch the people go by. Any of the places are fine. Another good bigger bar is Txalaparta. My favorite dive bar is Cafe Mundial.
Now for mezcal. Casa de Mezcal can be fun, but know that they don’t have a big mezcal selection – in fact they only have four. If you want to do mezcal tastings here are three mezcalerias: Los Amantes, Mezcalateca, Cuish. They actually educate about mezcal in addition to doing the tastings. We have a list of the other mezcalerias here, with addresses and hours. Just know that you’ll need a reservation at Mezcalateca and if you really get interested in the process ask to see if they will take you to the palenque, the place where they distill the mezcal.
For you art people, here are my favorite museums – Museo de Textiles, Museo Alvaro Brava (photos), Cultural Center at Santo Domingo, CASA in San Agustin, and the stamp museum. There is so much good art to be had both inside museums and on the street.
Here are a couple of other links for info about the beaches of Oaxaca, art, and what to do if you only have 36 hours (the horror, the horror!) in Oaxaca. And feel free to email me if you have more questions.