|Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times|
With Oaxaca's imposing Baroque churches, plant-filled courtyards and shady plazas perfect for people-watching, it’s tempting to see the city as a photogenic relic of Mexico's colonial past. But Oaxaca City, the capital of one of the country’s poorest states and a college town teeming with students, isn’t quaint or stagnant; it’s a small but dynamic city, still emerging economically from the social unrest that put it in the international spotlight, and crippled its tourism industry, in 2006. That uprising — a protest by striking teachers that was met with police violence and led to a protracted conflict — is now history, but its legacy is everywhere in a streetscape of politically inspired stencil art, which has turned adobe walls and concrete sidewalks into a public gallery. Combined with the city’s long-established studio art scene, a vibrant cafe culture, a mescal-fueled night life and one of Mexico’s most exciting regional cuisines, Oaxaca is as cosmopolitan as it is architecturally stunning.
1. SMOKE AND MEATS
Start at the culinary heart of the city, the Mercado 20 de Noviembre, which occupies an entire city block south of Aldama (between 20 de Noviembre and Cabrera), where family-run fondas — food stalls with colorful signs, long counters and short stools — sell Oaxacan staples like chicken with mole (40 pesos, or $2.90 at 13.50 pesos to the dollar) to campesinos, office workers and backpackers. Alongside the main building, a smoke-filled covered alley is lined with carne asada (grilled meat) vendors, each selling a selection of fresh cuts — thin-sliced beef or links of spicy chorizo (100 pesos per kilo). Your choice is tossed on the grill with accompaniments from the nearby vegetable stalls, where you’ll find onions and chilies to add to the fire, as well as prepared sides (12 pesos per small plate) like sliced radishes, guacamole, strips of nopal (cactus) or homemade corn tortillas.
|At La Zandunga - Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times|
2. CULTURE HOUR
Named for Mexico’s revolutionary hero, Espacio Zapata (Porfirio Díaz 509; espaciozapata.blogspot.com) brings Oaxaca’s radical street art indoors with prints of stencil designs and graffiti on canvas. It also hosts workshops, readings and music. Around the corner, in a series of high-ceilinged rooms set around a courtyard pool, the Centro Fotográfico Manuel Álvarez Bravo (M. Bravo 116; 52-951-516-9800; cfmab.blogspot.com) hosts photo exhibitions and screenings. Founded by the painter Francisco Toledo, the Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca (Alcalá 507; institutodeartesgraficasdeoaxaca.blogspot.com; 52-951-516-6980) has a library devoted to graphic arts. The institute’s exhibition space shows the work of influential designers like the artist and activist Rini Templeton.
3. SLOW FOOD
|Colorful Street Scene - Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times|
4. BOHO NIGHT LIFE
Across the street, La Zandunga (García Virgil and J. Carranza; 52-951-516-2265) is a little place painted in red and aqua and decorated with dangling light bulbs. It serves food that’s best suited to soaking up mescal and sharing among friends — doughy deep-fried empanadas (55 pesos) and molotes de plátano (fried plantain and cheese croquettes, 55 pesos). The bright, oilcloth-covered tables are perfect for lingering over an open bottle before hitting a dance floor. For that, head to Café Central (Hidalgo 302; 52-951-516-8505; cafecentraloaxaca.blogspot.com), a late-night spot with a stylized old Havana aesthetic — a stuffed marlin above the door, black-and-white tiled bar, red stage curtains — and live music or D.J.’d dance parties on weekends.
5. WHOLESOME DAY TRIP
For a quick breakfast, return to the market for pan de yema (sweet egg bread) and Oaxaca’s famous hot chocolate. Then, get a glimpse of the countryside with Fundación En Vía (Instituto Cultural Oaxaca; Avenida Juarez 909; 52-951-515-2424; envia.org), a local micro-finance nonprofit organization that helps rural women develop small-scale businesses. The tour functions as a cultural exchange between travelers and borrowers — often indigenous Zapotec craftspeople. The tour (650 pesos, or $50, including lunch) finances the program. For another kind of cultural immersion, try a four-hour cooking class (10 a.m.; $65) at Casa Crespo (Allende 107; 52-951-516-0918; casacrespo.com), in a converted colonial home, where you’ll learn to cook such local specialties as 17-ingredient mole de fiesta, incorporating chilies, spices and chocolate, and rose petal ice cream.
6. CAFE CON ARTE
For a house-roasted coffee and surprisingly authentic bagels, visit Café Brújula (García Vigil 409-D; 52-951-516-7255; cafebrujula.com) . First, drop by Amate Books (Alcalá 507A; 52-951-516-6960; amatebooks.com), an excellent English-language bookstore, for your requisite coffeehouse reading material. Then walk uphill to the city’s defunct aqueduct and the Instituto Oaxaqueño de las Artesanías, known as ARIPO (García Vigil 809), an emporium of crafts, including filigreed silver jewelry, etched leather bags and black pottery.
7. COLORFUL CRAFTS
The brilliant weavings of Oaxaca’s Teotitlán del Valle are among the most celebrated of Mexican artesanía (folk art). The Museo Textil de Oaxaca (Hidalgo 917; 52-951-501-1104; museotextildeoaxaca.org.mx) is devoted entirely to textiles. It has an excellent museum store and an in-house preservation workshop. The family-run shop Galeria Fe y Lola (5 de Mayo 408, No. 1; 52-951-524-4078) sells a gorgeous selection of wool rugs made with organic dyes. For those with a deep interest in the subject, the Oaxaca Cultural Navigator Web site (oaxacaculture.com) is a wonderful resource and sells a downloadable self-guided map ($10) of textile studios in Teotitlán del Valle.
8. DINNER ‘DE AUTOR’
It has crisp white walls and waiters who are a bit too aloof, but unlike many restaurants of its kind, Pitiona (5 de Mayo 311; 52-951-514-4707; pitiona.com) avoids culinary flamboyance. Instead, it serves well-made regionally inspired dishes — like an amuse-bouche of beef tongue and bulgur meatballs with chintextle sauce (garlic, vinegar and guajillo chili), venison with yellow mole (245 pesos) and mango tacos with pear mousse (85 pesos) — that hue surprisingly close to tradition. For the full experience, go with the ever-changing six-course tasting menu (470 pesos).
9. MAS MESCAL
The best way to understand Mexico’s mescal tradition is to visit one of the many pelanques (mescal distilleries), like La Destilería Los Danzantes (Calle Pino Suárez s/n, Santiago Matatlán, Tlacolula; 52-951-501-1184; losdanzantes.com), outside Oaxaca City, though typically open weekdays only. In town, one-year-old La Mezcaloteca (Reforma 506; 52-951-514-0082; mezcaloteca.com) is a wonderful alternative. Run by a pair of maguey-obsessed Mexico City expats, this dark, signless speakeasy-style mescal bar feels like a library devoted to the study of Oaxaca’s prized beverage. Try uncommon varieties like the rare, wild agave tobala as part of a three-tasting flight (100 pesos). Across town, Cuish (Diaz Ordaz 712; 52-951-516-8791; mezcalcuish.net) is less studious, but equally passionate.
10. BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS
On an out-of-the-way stretch of residential street in the Reforma neighborhood, Casa Oaxaca Café (Jazmines 518; 52-951-502-6017; casaoaxacacafe.com), a luxurious outpost of the recently renovated and reopened downtown restaurant of the same name, is the go-to brunch spot for the city’s elite. This courtyard restaurant has wooden furniture, trees strung with vines and a bamboo canopy. Guayabera-wearing waiters float between the tables and the open kitchen delivering chilaquiles with guajillo (55 pesos), omelets with huitlacoche (corn fungus, 75 pesos) and mole empanadas (49 pesos). The fresh fruit juices and coffee are excellent.
11. RETURN TO SENDER
The city’s new stamp museum, Museo de Filatelia de Oaxaca (Reforma 504, 52-951- 516-8028; mufi.org.mx), is a fitting send-off. A recent exhibition featured bicycle-centric stamps from around the world, using bike rims as makeshift frames for international postal art. For a final stop, grab a nieve (snow), a generic word for frozen desserts, at another museum of sorts, the Museo de Nieves Manolo (Alcalá 706; 52-951-143-9253). Flavors include pistachio, cheese with basil and mescal (from 25 pesos). Enjoy your cone next to one of the twin fountains at Paseo Juárez, a leafy square with orange-flowered flame trees and a white oak donated by Oaxaca’s sister city, Palo Alto, Calif.
IF YOU GO
The year-old Diablo y La Sandia (Libres 205; 52-951-514-4095; eldiabloylasandia.com) has imaginative touches like glass-topped tables made from converted Mexican-style parillas (barbecue grills), a blue-tiled kitchen in the courtyard and a roof deck rimmed by potted plants. Five rooms, from $75.
The 21 elegant, modern rooms (from $130) at the new Hotel Azul (Abasolo 313; hotelazuloaxaca.com; 52-951-501-0016) surround a stone-and-cactus courtyard and a fountain designed by one of Oaxaca’s best-known artists, Francisco Toledo.
Original article is posted here: http://travel.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/travel/36-hours-oaxaca-mexico.html