Oaxaca is home to Mezcal, pulque, cacao, coffee, awesome food, an explosion of colour in every direction, not to mention all the amazing and skilful artisans. There is just so much to see when visiting this magical city.
Here I will share with you my two jam packed filled days in Oaxaca. Although I really did need a week or two for sure.
In two days I was able to touch on the delicious street food, a road trip in the countryside tasting mezcal and visiting one of the most beautiful places on earth, Hierve el Agua.
I will share an insight into my experience in the streets of Oaxaca city and my thoughts about the food, the people and the culture.
If you are travelling to Oaxaca for a weekend or a couple of days, you will also find my tips and advice on the best things to do and see.
The hotel in Oaxaca City where I stayed on my first visit.
First of all, Oaxaca is pronounced…. WA HA KA.
It took me a little while to get that one too.
In South Central Mexico, sits Oaxaca, flanked by rugged and rolling mountain ranges.
Oaxaca is a state rich in cultural heritage populated with proud indigenous people who still celebrate their way of life.
When you are in Oaxaca City, you really do get an instant insight into why people flock to this charming city, for its history, gastronomy and vibrancy.
My feelings about Oaxaca
What a magical feeling it is. I fell in love with Oaxaca City the first time I visited whilst travelling with a very good friend of mine. We were in ore of this beautiful city. It was instant love at first sight.
Second time around, this time with Carlos, a local and my love, I got to experience Oaxaca in a different light. Getting around was much easier and I was able to explore places and get immersed with the local people more so than the first time around.
Of course, travelling with your life partner is always something special. As I travelled Oaxaca like a local, not only did my eyes and taste buds fall in love but I also had a different appreciation for the mezcal, the countryside and the local people.
Overall I felt safe within the centre of Oaxaca City. Just like any city, of course, you would take precautions depending on the time of day or the location. One thing I did notice is that the city seems to be home to many protestors which can leave the city feeling a little unsettling. From what locals say, they protest for their rights regarding welfare programs in several contexts such as health, education and indigenous rights etc. When I look around I can’t help but notice another side of this beautiful and handsome city.
There is a certain “heaviness.” Why?
When walking down the streets or whilst enjoying a coffee in a cafe, many children are found begging for money, playing instruments or even singing- sometimes alone and sometimes as a whole family. The worst part… it is midnight and they are still on their feet walking up and down those streets.
I am aware that this is not something that can be answered in one way. However, I can’t help but wonder about these children and their families.
I think about what they have been stripped away from. I wonder were their lives like this centuries ago?
No child or person for that matter should live like this.
I have also seen this in other destinations such as South East Asia or even Eastern Europe. As a professional with children in the past, it breaks my heart. I even shed a tear each time.
Have the people been forgotten about?
As I am aware, it goes deeper than that so I will stop here but I do think this needs to be addressed regularly.
What do you think? Have you been involved or seen programs that are implemented in other countries to support the people/children who are less fortunate?
On another note…
In this article, I now want to bring your attention to the skilful and wise people of this incredible city. They are the people that worship the Earth, the water, the air. You can see this through their production of mezcal, through parades, their food etc- which I will touch on below in my story.
Day 1: Eating Quesadillas and drinking mezcal
Street Food in Oaxaca
As I step onto the cobblestone roads, I look around, my eyes perceiving something like a child seeing all the exciting cotton candies for the first time. Every sense is heightened. Colours surround me. It is like a peacock had spread her wings over the town for us to admire her beauty. Then the backdrop of Oaxaca City- rugged mountains, spread out across the state as so to hug the beautiful peacock. The air is crisp and fresh which I welcome as I am coming from the humid Merida (South East Mexico).
As we walk through the wide streets, Carlos is ahead of me, he cannot wait to get to our breakfast point. I cannot keep up with him. “Wait!” I yell.. Nope he is committed.
My eyes open wide and I actually gasp out loud as we arrive.
There are three or four ladies wearing aprons under a small tent in the corner of the street. Perfect for attracting anyone that walks by. It definitely caught my attention.
They remind me of my great Aunties from Italy gathered together doing exactly what they love to do best. For these women, it is quesadillas and tacos.
Oh the smell.. which I will cherish forever, the sound of the sizzling on the largest pan I ever did see and about 10 quesadillas rolled up like a blanket and lined up waiting to serve the hungry by-passers.
As I watch like a curious little school girl or maybe a desperate tourist with her camera, I record the ladies in their element, manipulating the maize so skillfully to make the extra-large tortillas (could have been almost a pizza).
One lady turns to me and with a certain abruptness and sternness
– ¿De dónde es usted?
She looks at me and continues, I am a little confused. Did I offend her?
Although for only a few seconds, this was a perfect exchange of culture, she was intrigued by my world and vice versa.
One thing I instantly noticed in Oaxaca is that the people seem to be very different from the people in the Yucatan Peninsula. I have become accustomed to the friendly, light and laid back Meridians.
Ok, going back to the quesadillas… WOW! I don’t think I have had any as good as these since Valle de Bravo, a magic town in Mexico State. Another region nearby the centre of Mexico (about 2 hours from Mexico City) to definitely include on your bucket list. The mushrooms and flor de calabaza they use for their quesadillas were to die for.
Carlos notices that I do not have any salsas on my quesadilla. He is a little shocked- of course, a taco or anything in Mexico without a salsa does not make sense. It is all about the tortilla, the filling and the salsas.
The magic of Oaxaca is definitely the food.
What are quesadillas?
Let me tell you something, there are two types of people in Mexico. The people who believe that quesadillas should always have cheese and then those who believe the opposite (Country vs City respectively). There seems to be a political issue around this.
Ok, according to some country people the word quesadilla derives from the word “queso” (cheese). The Chilangos will tell you that it somehow comes from the word “doblar” (fold).
And so the quesadilla debate continues…
One thing they can both agree about this “issue” is that most of the times the tortilla is made from corn and sometimes flour (depending on the region or the occasion) and it is filled with a variety of fillings such as meats, beans, vegetables and of course salsas for the final touch.
In Oaxaca, it is common to find quesadillas with ingredients such as flor de calabaza, mushrooms, Oaxacan cheese and different meats.
Diana Kennedy, the author of The Cuisines of Mexico and Mexican cuisine ambassador, states that “cooking quesadillas on the griddle is the method embraced by those who love the rustic flavour and texture of ground maize.” She also suggests serving them immediately, otherwise, they become leathery if they stand for too long. The other favourite filling she suggests is the exotic ingredient, “huitlacoche,” a corn fungus she describes as the ambrosia of the Aztec gods.
This region’s diet features a long list of delicious ingredients which make every dish fresh and especially unique. The main ingredients in the Oaxacan region are amongst others, corn, cheese, chiles and cacao.
If you are visiting Mexico, and really want traditional Mexican food, Oaxaca state is a must. It’s people have mastered how to use their unique ingredients, to create delicious and interesting dishes.
The State of Oaxaca is one of the most diverse in Mexico with many different cultural and linguistic groups and each encompasses its own distinctive cuisine.
Now, of course, I couldn’t go past talking about Oaxacan food without mentioning mole at least once.
Perhaps you have heard about the mole?
Chef Enrique Olvera defines the mole as a technique rather than a dish and it varies depending on the region, family and even the season.
Amongst other dishes, Oaxaca is also famous for its seven classic moles- complex sauces compromising of 15-30 ingredients. Now that is impressive.
This is why, while in Oaxaca, I encourage you do try as many different moles.
Some to look out for are: mole negro, mole rojo, verde, amarillo, chichilo, manchamanteles and coloradito.
Have you tried mole before? What were your initial thoughts about it?
For the vegetarians
I didn’t want to miss out on including a little note here for the vegetarians, Sometimes in Oaxaca, it can be a little tricky when eating on the streets or in restaurants. So here are some things to look out for.
- Tlayuda- you can ask just for vegetables. Ask “sin asiento de puerco” otherwise, you will get it with pork fat
- Oaxacan tamales- with beans. This can be cooked in pork fat, however.
- Quesadillas with flor de calabaza, mushrooms or even nopales
- Tejate – a cacao drink you will remember forever
- Mole- check out this recipe for vegetarians
For more recipes on Mexican cuisine, definitely check out Chef Olvera’s cookbook for his take on traditional and contemporary Mexican cuisine. Or to really get to know the cuisine, I always love doing cooking classes in that city/region. I believe it is the best way to get to know the people, the food and the culture. You can also check out my story about the Mayan food experience that I created on the other side of Mexico.
Off to the mezcal distillery, we go
Although you will find mezcalerias in every corner of Oaxaca City centre, I believe the best place to try mezcal is actually from the source. This is why I recommend leaving the city and heading out into the countryside.
I recommend renting a car to witness the spectacular, picturesque countryside of Oaxaca and go mezcal tasting. You will find palenques all along the countryside. It is totally worth it. However, if you are driving, make sure you bring a designated driver, this alcoholic spirit is strong!
But.. what is mezcal?
Like tequila, mezcal is also made from agave. However, while tequila is made from a certain type of agave (blue agave), mezcal can be made from any type. The most common agave used is espadin, and it is usually produced in the Oaxaca region. Phil Bayley, the ambassador for mezcal states, that in contrast to tequila, mezcal is predominantly made using tiny and artisanal processes which are typically done in indigenous communities in remote villages.
Drinking the mezcal
I must tell you, due to certain circumstances, I did have the pleasure of having my very own tour around a beautiful distillery, learning about the process in the production of mezcal from the harvest to the preservation.
As I step out onto the patio, I am enchanted by the impressive mountains that stand before me. The wind softly blows across my cheek, the warm sun shining down on me, or perhaps it is the mezcal in my system that makes me feel a little warm and fuzzy.
I am captivated by the fields filled with beautiful agave plants of various sizes, some look like flowers, others stand tall and proud like strong soldiers. They are preparing for their harvest to be turned into one of Mexico’s favourite spirit.
It fascinates me to know that beneath these plants, is where the pot of gold lies or “the heart” as they say.
The best part of the whole process is of course drinking the mezcal. With every sip, the taste changes to suit my taste buds.
The expert is fantastic as his explanations allow my mind to wander off with the maestro’s journey of creating the mezcal.
“How do I know what is a good mezcal?” I ask him.
“There is no bad mezcal- its personal, its a matter of taste, trying many and seeing what your preference is. Besides, how could you possibly know what your favourite mezcal is when each batch varies from one to the next.”
How can you book a Mezcal tour in Oaxaca?
So you may not have the luxury of knowing locals in Oaxaca or perhaps the idea of driving around in a foreign country isn’t your thing. Then why not do a mezcal tour?
I have done many wine tours in Florence, Italy and Hunter Valley, Australia and there is something really great about sitting back, watching the scenery while giggling in the back seat and not having to worry about a thing.
That said, if you do decide to take a mezcal tour, I highly recommend Mezcal Educational Tours.
From 1-3 day mezcal day tours, mezcal expert Alvin Starkman will take you on extraordinary excursions through the palenques that not many people can do. Alvin has established loyal connections with the maestros, you will learn about all the methods involved in a relaxed and authentic environment while sampling the mezcals. Definitely check them out.
He also has pulque day trips which is also pretty cool.
Day two in Oaxaca city
From Oaxaca city to Hierve el agua
As we leave the city into the countryside, my eyes are in love with the mountainous scenery before me. There is a blanket of different shades of browns, splattered (randomly and accordingly) with Agave plants of every size and colour. It reminds me of the times I went driving through the countryside of Tuscany, only this time with agave plants.
Two hours later we arrive in a cute, well-kept country town, San Lorenzo Albarradas where the famous Hierve el Agua lies and what a stunning sight it is.
About Hierve el Agua
Although Hierve el Agua means the “water boils,” this breathtaking natural attraction is actually not a hot spring, the water in fact, runs cool. Hierve el Agua is one of the only two known petrified waterfalls in the world- the other one is called Pamukkale and is situated in Denizli, Turkey. This wonderful formation occurs when mineral-rich water bubbles through the rock over centuries, then drips back over a cliff face to form stalactites. From a distance, the open-air stalactites in Hierve el Agua look like gushing waterfalls. So Fascinating and beautiful.
I am in love with the pools here, refreshing and you can’t beat that view.
How to Get There
Hierve el Agua is located about 70 kilometres east of Oaxaca City.
If you are not renting a car to drive there (an easy drive), you could find it easier to reach the site in an organized tour that includes round-trip transportation. My friend did this last time we were here. So if it is your first time or not wanting to take the highway alone, I definitely recommend taking the day tours.
Public transportation options: although it is more affordable it is very complicated and time-consuming. From Oaxaca City, you can catch a bus to the Mitla archeological site (which leaves from just outside Estadio Eduardo Vasconcelos in Oaxaca City), then once there, look for shuttles to Hierve el Agua. The whole journey takes about two hours.
I also wanted to note that some full-day tours not only visit Hierve el Agua but they also pass through Teotitlan del Valle too, definitely worth if you want to see the wonderful handcrafts by the talented artisans.
When to get there
Hierve el Agua is open daily from morning through early evening, all year round. As a popular day trip destination, Hierve el Agua gets busier as the day goes on, so arrive early to avoid the worst of the crowds. We went midweek and it was still really busy at around 11 am. Regardless the place is so beautiful you will almost forget all the people there.
Walking tracks in Hierve el Agua
There are also so many walking tracks in the area. I know I will be back to do some. Check out the walking tracks here.
Back on the road to Oaxaca city
Children skip across the narrow hilly, dusty roads as they make their way home from school A shepherd walks up the dirt road with his entourage of about 12 goats, followed by what you would expect to be a shepherd dog, but nope, it is a tiny little dog, a size of a sausage dog, leading the pack. See… even the small things are the best leaders.
We continue driving and I am so eager to stop on the side of the road as we notice a “real-life” palenque. Much different to the perfectly designed distillery we encountered the day before.
I am so fascinated by this almost ancestral process. The horse rotates, he crushes the already cooked sugar-packed “hearts” to prepare for the production. The maestro’s wife greets us with a warm smile and she offers us a taste of their freshly made mezcal, which is still pouring out of stills and into the containers. Mezcal anyone?
Fresh, sweet with a bit of a kick. They say the first one is the intense one and then after that, just keep on sipping as your taste buds likes what it sees (or tastes) and with each tender kiss, the taste becomes smoother and even more delicious.
The maestro’s wife informs us that the horse works hard for 36 hours over 4 days, then it’s rest for 2 months after that as they do not have enough agave to continue with production. So… this is it. This is their baby for the next couple of months.
Seeing all of this in action with the maestro and his wife, sharing their treasure with us felt like an honour. It is far more impactful than the day before at the beautifully designed palenque. The feeling here is like I had stepped into their home, their culture, their history. It actually brought me back to the days I watched my grandfather handcrafted his wine in his own backyard. Just like the wine for my grandfather, the mezcal for this family is their soul. They cherish and worship the agave plant. It is in their blood and I was part of that, even if it was only for one minute. What an honour.
They are not just maestros, they are alchemist, they feel and connect with the soil, with the climate, the earth to understand when and how to harvest. I am just amazed at how these maestros discover that from a beautiful plant, there grows a “sweetheart” to produce this unique powerful elixir.
Maybe it has something to do with the pulque, the prehispanic fermented beverage also from the agave plant.
MY Final thoughts
Now after visiting these two very different palenques, from boutique to rustic, it made me wonder.
With so many new palenques being developed, I only hope the families behind each mezcal are being appreciated for their work and recipes.
I also wander..
Will mezcal be exploited so much that mass production spoils the quality and exclusivity of it?
Oaxaca’s weather is dry and with more mezcal being produced so quickly, and it’s requirement to utilise water, wood and soil in the production process, I question how will this affect the availability of resources for the people in the local towns.
I think it is important for us, as consumers, to understand why mezcal was made in the first place and to appreciate and admire the culture and people behind it.
For the people, it is a way of life, a celebration of birth, life and death.
So I want to leave you with one note, next time you drink mezcal, buy that beautifully handcrafted Oaxacan dress, or rug, or eat that simple yet delectable quesadilla; we need to express admiration and appreciation of the wonderful and vibrant culture of Oaxaca. There is so much to see, taste and learn from the people behind each of these gifts.
If you have been to Oaxaca or just Mexico in general, perhaps you have been to a similar place in your travel, I would love to hear about it, so leave me a comment or get in contact with me.
I can’t’ wait to hear your stories.
Where to eat in Oaxaca
Here you will find fresh produce everywhere you look- from vegetables, fruits to chiles and spices.
Towards the back, there are many kitchens with local women cooking a variety of Oaxacan dishes.
This place is only opened from Wednesday to Sunday 8am-6pm.
Such a cute space, with an open courtyard, offering fresh produce, delicious juices and traditional dishes. You will find handcrafts and produce such as honey.
A great spot to come for breakfast or lunch.
As a coffee snob, I can say this is one of the best coffees I have had in Mexico. Yum. With a cute and cosy decor, it is a great spot to sit for a coffee or pastry or for a freshly baked baguette with their homemade jam.
They do say they open at 7 am but they shouldn’t as we missed out on our last morning coffee before our flight at 7.30 am.
Vegan/vegetarian casual dining- Breakfast/lunch/dinner
This was one of my favourites for lunch or breakfast. An open seating plan, amongst trees, this vegan/vegetarian cafe serves tasty Mexican food, the servings were generous, especially for the price and there is a great selection.
As far as vegan and vegetarian places in Oaxaca, there isn’t really a great option. So I highly recommend this place.
We ate here for breakfast. Although the house/restaurant is architecturally beautiful. It honestly felt like I had entered my grandparents community club with all their friends, except these are the owners of all the restaurants, hotels, mezcal brands all in the one room. These are apparently VIP people.
A great place for a traditional mexican menu but the quesadillas were nowhere near the same delectable taste as the ones from those rocking cooks on the street.
Highly recommend this place, the food is absolutely divine. They do have a vegetarian menu, however, ordering a few appetisers and one main vegetarian meal seemed more appealing to us. I can say this was probably my best Mexican restaurant I have been to by far in Mexico. Love it! I do recommend, however, booking in advance. We did not do this and even on a Tuesday night, it was completely booked. Lucky for us, they were happy to accommodate and seated us in the bar area. Although I will be going back just to get the rooftop experience (for the view of Santo Domingo Church) and that memorable meal again.
**Disclosure: Please note that some of the links above may be affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you make a purchase. I recommend only products and companies I use and the income goes to keeping the site community supported and ad free.