36 hours in Oaxaca, Mexico

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36 hours in Oaxaca, Mexico
A wide variety of meats at a market in Oaxaca, Mexico, Nov. 7, 2023. Attractions in Oaxaca are multiplying and tourists are packing its new hotels and upscale restaurants, but the southern Mexican city has preserved its character. (Luis Antonio Rojas/The New York Times)

by Elisabeth Malkin



NEW YORK, NY.- As Oaxaca’s attractions multiply and tourists pack its new hotels and upscale restaurants, the southern Mexican city has preserved its character. It’s common to hear the brass band and drums of a calenda, a street procession that is accompanied by dancers, giant puppets and enormous spinning balloons, to celebrate a wedding or baptism. The city hosts festivals year-round, but it’s especially joyous in December, when residents honor Mexico’s patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the city’s patron saint, Our Lady of Solitude. During the whimsical Night of the Radishes, held annually on Dec. 23, artisans transform giant radishes into elaborate sculptures.

Meanwhile, Oaxacans are constantly innovating, reworking their traditional cuisine or adapting their ancient textile heritage. The city’s arts scene draws young people, giving Oaxaca a vigor that similar small cities would envy.

ITINERARY

Friday

3 p.m. | Make your own mole


Take a cooking class at La Cocina de Humo, a tiny restaurant that opened in 2021 in the historic center. The wood-fueled clay stove, wooden tables and adobe walls re-create the village kitchens of chef Thalía Barrios’ hometown in the state’s mountainous south. Grill tomatillo and chile costeño on the clay comal, or griddle, and then smash them in a mortar and pestle; you’ll swear there is no other way to make salsa. Plunge your hands into cornmeal for the tamal, and add cumin and cloves to a mole. Book ahead. The 90-minute classes in Spanish — only at 3 p.m. — cost 2,620 Mexican pesos (about $150) a person. An English translator is an extra 300 pesos. A few blocks away, Barrios’ other restaurant, Levadura de Olla, is one of the city’s new hot spots.

5:30 p.m. | Explore print shops

Mexico has a long printmaking tradition, and Oaxaca emerged as one of its centers in the 1970s. A 2006 civil conflict in the state gave the politicized art movement new drive. Small printmaking studios double as galleries, displaying the woodcuts, lithographs and engravings of local art collectives. A helpful map called Pasaporte Gráfico details several of these studios’ locations; pick up a free paper copy at any of them. Start at Taller La Chicharra and work your way north to Burro Press. One workshop worth visiting that isn’t on the map is La Máquina Taller de Gráfica, which features a giant 1909 electric lithography press from France that is used daily by local artists. Many studios offer classes, like Taller Artístico Comunitario. The Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca, founded by artist Francisco Toledo, is the center of the city’s printmaking movement and hosts courses and exhibitions. It has a magnificent library of art books.

8 p.m. | Join the Zócalo dancers

Most nights, the Marimba Orquesta “Hermanos Carreón,” a nine-piece band featuring percussion and brass instruments, sets up outside on the sidewalk terrace of Del Jardín Café Bar on the Zócalo, a plaza lined with arcades and shaded by giant laurel trees that is the heart of the city. The family band plays salsa, cumbia and danzón from 7:30 to 10 p.m., and dancers gather spontaneously to step to the beat or glide with grace. Even the most rhythm challenged are welcome to join in — or simply watch with a snack and a drink from the terrace of El Asador Vasco, the restaurant upstairs from Del Jardín.

The Zócalo, framed at one end by the 19th-century state government building (during the day, you can visit its courtyards and murals depicting Oaxacan history), is regularly packed with families enjoying ice cream and vendors selling balloons — and sometimes, in this politically volatile state, with protesters.

9 p.m. | Dine Oaxaca-style

Start your evening at Origen, a restaurant one block from the Zócalo, by sipping Cómplice, a smoky mezcal produced from tobalá, a rare type of agave (315 pesos). The first-floor dining room, with its high, beamed ceiling and clay-tiled floor, is simply decorated, a contrast to the complex, experimental dishes offered by chef Rodolfo Castellanos. Plantain dumplings are bathed in a sauce of native heirloom tomatoes, dried shrimp, chilcostle chiles, cream and local cheese. Pork tenderloin is served with hoja santa (an anise-flavored herb), bacon, seasonal mushrooms and a velvety corn-and-chile sauce called chileatole. Dinner for two (with mezcal) is about 2,000 pesos.

For a nightcap, head a few blocks north to Sabina Sabe, where the wide mezcal selection, cocktails (all 190 pesos) and the hipster décor of exposed brick walls, patterned floor tiles and metal chairs attract a festive crowd.

Saturday

8:30 a.m. | Sample a Breakfast


Since Boulenc opened a decade ago on a side street a few blocks north of the Zócalo, it has become Oaxaca’s breakfast mecca. The shabby-chic décor may be just a little too fashionable and the crowd just a tad touristy, but the conchas, croissants, cinnamon rolls and other breakfast pastries, baked in-house daily and not too sweet, strike just the right balance. The coffee is excellent, and the breakfast options range from shakshuka with a touch of chile (106 pesos) to French toast served with dulce de leche (130 pesos). Sandwiches made with Boulenc’s signature sourdough, focaccia and ciabatta are available all day (95 to 180 pesos). Get there before the doors open at 8:30 to beat the line.

11 a.m. | Learn about corn

The Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca, behind the baroque Church and Convent of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, highlights the region’s plants for their role in Oaxaca’s cultural heritage. The 5.5-acre botanical garden can be visited only with a guided tour, and there is one English tour daily at 11 a.m. (100 pesos); arrive early to secure a place. You will see corn’s wild ancestor, teosinte, a thin stalk with two rows of tiny hard kernels, which was first domesticated in Oaxaca. Look at red frangipani trees and indigo plants, both endemic to the region, as well as a vanilla plant, which was first domesticated in Mexico. Pluck a tiny cochineal from a prickly pear cactus: The insect produces a bright-red dye that was prized in Europe for two centuries.

2 p.m. | Lunch in a courtyard

Take a taxi about 20 minutes south to the village of San Juan Bautista La Raya to Alfonsina, the restaurant chef Jorge León opened five years ago on the site of his childhood home after working in Mexico City and New York. For lunch, León’s mother, Doña Elvia (as her staff respectfully calls her), cooks a five-course menu of small dishes (600 pesos, without drinks) served in a courtyard canopied by a mulberry tree. A bean soup with wild mushrooms is accented by broccolini leaves in citrus juices. Native tomatoes, chile de árbol and epazote (a pungent herb) lift a pork tamal. Two moles — black and red, both based on the local chilhuacle chile — are served over chicken for the main dish. The dinner menu, prepared by León, is more elaborate and based on fish and vegetables.

3:30 p.m. | Tour artisans’ studios

Continue in a taxi south to the village of San Martín Tilcajete, some 20 miles from Oaxaca, where artisans have been carving and painting the colorful fantasy animals called alebrijes for decades. The figures are derived from the fusion of two Zapotec animal spirits, the toná and the nahual. The best-known producer is the Jacobo and María Ángeles Workshop, where a free one-hour tour in English demonstrates how the paints are produced from plants, minerals and the cochineal. The artisans at Una Inspiración de mi Vida workshop delight in merging tails, wings, tortoise shells and hoofs to create custom hybrid creatures. Ask for Miguel Ventura, who gives an excellent explanation in English. At Alebrijes Amaltea, owner Francisco Fabián Ojeda paints some of his alebrijes with fluorescent colors and sells DIY kits of coyotes, rabbits and dogs to paint yourself (1,000 pesos).

6 p.m. | Shop with a purpose

Back in Oaxaca, discover the region’s rich tradition of handicrafts and textiles. Visit shops that feature work by cooperatives or that collaborate closely with communities. 1050 Grados is a cooperative of potters from villages in Oaxaca, Puebla and Chiapas states. Its small shop, a few blocks north of Santo Domingo, displays minimalist designs using traditional techniques, including elegant plates (360 pesos; the shop closes at 7 p.m.). A few blocks south, Los Baúles de Juana Cata, piled high with woven tunics called huipiles (1,500 to 55,000 pesos) and shawls (2,000 to 42,000 pesos), is a Oaxaca institution. Nearby, La Casa de las Artesanías de Oaxaca is an emporium with a dizzying mix of handicrafts, textiles, pottery and rugs that is run by several collectives of artisan families. (Both are open until 8 p.m.)




8 p.m. | Listen to live music

See an intimate concert at Humito Cocina y Foro 8 Temblor, the restaurant opened last year by Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Lila Downs with an inviting performance space upstairs. The program at the upstairs stage sweeps across different Mexican genres, boleros, Cuban music, cumbia and jazz. (Performances Wednesday through Saturday; cover charges range from 70 to 200 pesos.) Pizzas (120 to 195 pesos) or more elaborate meals (300 pesos) are available. Ask the restaurant to call a taxi when you leave because there are few street taxis in the neighborhood.

10:30 p.m. | Enjoy a snack

The Chávez family has been serving tacos filled with lechón (chopped suckling pig) from El Lechoncito de Oro, a nighttime stand on the corner of Libres and Murguía, for three generations. Just a couple of blocks east of the historic center, the neighborhood is quiet at night, its stores closed. Tacos are 17 pesos each; sandwiches (tortas) stuffed with lechón are 40 pesos. Enhance the flavor by adding chicharrón (crispy pork rind) and a helping of spicy salsa. Open till 3 a.m.

Sunday

9 a.m. | Step back in time


In business since 1948 in a commercial district a couple of blocks west of the Zócalo, the restaurant Coronita is known for its moles. Its breakfast classics include a red mole over enchiladas filled with tasajo, a dried and salted beef cut, and a black mole over enchiladas with Oaxacan cheese or carnitas, crispy pulled pork (both 189 pesos). If you are hankering to try the ancient delicacy of chapulines (fried grasshoppers), you can order some to go with your eggs. Look around to see original works by Oaxaca’s most famous artists, including Rufino Tamayo.

11 a.m. | Visit a museum

The Museo de Arte Prehispánico de México Rufino Tamayo reopened in August under the management of the state government after it closed during the pandemic. Tamayo and his wife, Olga, amassed around 1,000 pre-Hispanic artifacts from across Mexico, choosing them for their beauty rather than their archaeological significance, and donated them to the state in 1974. The collection of figures — human and animal, deities and warriors — spans more than 1,500 years and is housed in a handsome 18th-century limestone mansion. Admission, 60 pesos.



KEY STOPS

La Cocina de Humo, a tiny restaurant, offers an introductory cooking course that teaches how to prepare classics like Oaxacan moles, salsas and tamales.

Jardín Etnobotánico, a botanical garden, features the lush biodiversity of Oaxaca state and shows how it influenced the development of pre-Hispanic civilizations.

Humito Cocina y Foro 8 Temblor presents live jazz, boleros, cumbia and other genres in a cozy performance space.

Museo de Arte Prehispánico de México Rufino Tamayo houses a vast collection of pre-Hispanic figures chosen for their aesthetic qualities.

WHERE TO EAT

At Origen, inventive chef Rodolfo Castellanos fuses traditional Oaxacan flavors with other cuisines.

Alfonsina is the singular vision of chef Jorge León, who returned to his hometown to explore the essence of Oaxaca’s biodiversity in his recipes.

El Lechoncito de Oro is a late-night taco stand serving chopped suckling pig to after-hours revelers.

Boulenc is a bakery and breakfast spot with delicious pastries and unbeatable sourdough bread.

Restaurante Coronita is a restaurant where diners have been sampling moles and no-frills classics since 1948.

WHERE TO STAY

La Danta is a luxury Airbnb. Four limestone bungalows are set among the dense vegetation of a garden built into an 18th-century aqueduct. The bungalows range from 3,000 to 6,000 pesos (about $175 to $350) a night.

Hotel Casa de la Tía Tere, in the city center, is a popular family-friendly hotel with a swimming pool. A standard room costs 1,520 pesos and a bungalow is 2,620 pesos.

Casa Las Mercedes is a centrally located small hotel with simple rooms starting at 1,350 pesos.

For short-term rentals, look in Xochimilco and Jalatlaco, two picturesque neighborhoods just north and east of Oaxaca’s historic center.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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