10 things to know before your next trip to Oaxaca
by Stephen Satterfield
EATING & DRINKING
1) Emerging microbrews — One of the biggest (and most pleasant) surprises about dining out in Oaxaca is the emerging microbrew culture. Like many urban and cosmopolitan cities around the world, a cluster of small-scale brewers are propelling a craft beer movement. One of the best places to taste the local movement is Mezcaloteca. As the name suggests, it’s a great place to enjoy mezcal, but also, in the front of the bar, they keep an impressive fridge of many of these breweries, so you can pick with your eyes. It’s a helpful way to wade through a long list of otherwise unfamiliar beers. One of my favorites is La Tienda. It’s a plush mouthful, dry and frothy with great aromatics. They people are very helpful, too.
2) Delicious, local and modern coffee — For coffee lovers, traveling abroad is a concession of one of life’s great joys. We are usually beholden to mediocre, watered-down commercial roasts. Oaxaca boasts a notable coffee culture. Not only are there multiple places to get a decent cup, many offer a variety of brewing vessels, from French press, to Chemex to AeroPress — even siphon! The coolest part is, unlike in America, when the baristas talk to you about the coffee, they’re talking about something that was locally grown. I had a wonderful experience with this at Coffeterika.
3) Markets — In the weeks and months leading up to your trip, when you dream of Mexico, you will likely conjure images of bright and bustling markets to enjoy in Oaxaca Centro and nearby. One of the best in town is the unassuming Mercado Porfirio Díaz. There you will see the full-spectrum of your desires from freshly blended juices, to whole-animal butchering, exotic fruit and a breadth of options for some form of slow-cooked deliciousness.
4) Tlacolula Market — Tlacolula, which is about a 25-minute drive from Centro, is said to be one of the oldest in Mesoamerica. The Market is on Sundays. While it’s currently undergoing renovations, it remains a worthwhile destination for its incredible origins (founded by the Zapotecs around 1250 A.D.) and impressive vendors serving quintessential Oaxacan delicacies from tejate (a non-alcoholic maize and cacao beverage) to tlayudas.
5) Transportation — There are lots of taxis around, and if you’re staying in Centro, it is definitely walkable. There are also a few bike rental places that also sell coffee. If you do find yourself behind the wheel, remember that passing people is totally a thing there. Turn signals often indicate not just a move to the side, but a desire to move in front too.
6) Pedestrians — While this can be said of many places, it can’t be overstated: Cars (especially cabs) need to be given the right away — if not they’ll definitely take it!
7) Beautiful buildings (bad graffiti) — The buildings in Oaxaca are notable reflections of the immense diversity of the city. Like its inhabitants, the buildings are colorful, extroverted and diverse. With the exception of the crown-jewel, the 16th-century Santo Domingo Iglesia, the buildings aren’t particularly old, but they are they beautiful. Oaxaca’s bohemian vibe makes it an obvious home for artists native and foreign, which is why the terrible graffiti on many of the Centro and Zocalo’s most charming buildings are particularly heartbreaking.
8) Courtyards — One of the defining qualities of downtown Oaxaca (Centro and Zocalo) are the arrestingly beautiful of courtyards and rooftops. Even the most mundane looking buildings, upon a little inspection, reveal their own respective oases. You may be discovering a cafe, a museum or just a dental office, but it’s still worthwhile to peer into every nook. You’ll often be rewarded with lovely gardens, fountains or masonry. In some cases, you will discover a place to prolong your enjoyment of the environment over coffee or cerveza. The same can be said of the rooftops, or mesas, in Oaxaca.
9) Noisy churches — In the US, when we hear fireworks, our natural inclination is to assume that it is the work of youngsters or an isolated holiday, like July 4th. In Oaxaca, they take fireworks to an extreme — and it’s not the kids, it’s the churches! Many of the locals noted that the fireworks (which go off all hours of the night and into the morning) are indicative of the holidays around Dia de los Muertos (late October/early November). However, after two weeks there, it seemed more like the norm than anomaly. The explosions are loud and can be jarring, while the locals hardly notice.
10) Goat’s Horn With all of the gourmet coffee and and craft beer, it’s easy to mistake it as a scene from a California dream. Then you walk outside of the courtyard to find federales yielding what’s known locally as the Cuerno de Chivo (“Goat’s Horn”), also known as an AK-47. Since tourism is the cornerstone of the Oaxaca’s economy, most of the cops — though a menacing presence — are pretty indifferent to tourists.