25 Reasons We Love Oaxaca
If one walk through the romantic old streets doesn't leave you infatuated with Mexico's colorful colonial city, a little mescal usually does the trick.
1. Altar of gold
The ceiling of the 16th-century Santo Domingo church, five blocks north of the zocalo (town square), is covered with hundreds of plaster figures (opposite) outlining the family tree of Domingo de Guzmán, founder of the Dominican order. Even more amazing is the church's over-the-top Virgin of Guadalupe altarpiece, gilded in 60,000 sheets of 23.5-carat gold leaf. An adjacent monastery houses the less flashy Oaxaca Cultural Center, which includes a regional museum ($4.30), a walled garden of cacti from all over the state of Oaxaca, and a library dedicated to books on Oaxacan history. Constitución 101, 011-52/951-516-3720.
2. Courtyards by the dozen
Many of the city's old colonial villas have been beautifully restored and turned into boutique hotels. Just two blocks east of the zocalo, Casa de Sierra Azul manages to keep the bustle of street life at bay with an ornate wrought-iron gate and thick adobe walls. As at many of Oaxaca's restaurants, galleries, and hotels, Sierra Azul's exterior hides a shady courtyard. Guests in many of its 14 rooms open their doors directly onto the quiet patio, where potted geraniums and ferns surround a gurgling, hand-carved stone fountain. Corridors around the courtyard are painted a pale yellow and host faded frescoes as old as the 200-year-old house. Hidalgo 1002, 888/624-3341, mexonline.com/sierrazul.htm, doubles from $124.
3. Corny festivals
Nearly 40 percent of the state's population is indigenous, and the ancient languages are still heard in markets, especially in outlying villages. The Zapotecs, the most populous of the 16 native tribes in the valleys around Oaxaca city, are credited as the first people to celebrate Guelaguetza, a festival honoring Centeotl, goddess of corn. These days, Oaxaca city welcomes thousands of Indians from several tribes for traditional dancing and music during the festival, which falls on two Mondays in July. Tickets go on sale in May, and hotel rooms should be booked three or more months in advance. Oaxaca Tourist Office, Murguía 206, 011-52/951-516-0123, aoaxaca.com, $40.
4. A new old town
The city's zocalo has always been considered one of the prettiest in Mexico, so Oaxacans were understandably shocked last summer when city officials closed it without warning for a five-month renovation. Workers replaced cantera stone pavers, replanted flowerbeds, and painted cast-iron benches a shiny black. But not everyone's a fan of "progress." Protest banners and kids' drawings of 125-year-old laurel trees killed during the renovation covered a corrugated metal fence that enclosed the project site. Reviews of the new zocalo are mixed--critics say it's too perfect--but it hums again with roving balloon vendors, mariachis, and teenagers out for a paseo, or stroll.
5. Chili power
Iliana de la Vega, a virtuoso of traditional Mexican cooking and a favorite of American celebrity chefs like Rick Bayless, teaches novices on Tuesdays and Thursdays at her top-rated restaurant, El Naranjo. Each cooking lesson varies, but students may learn to brew a tea flavored with hibiscus flowers, toast chilis and tomatoes on a comal (the clay griddle used to dry-roast ingredients and to make tortillas), and then use those chilis to make several salsas and a mole. After an educational walking tour of Mercado Benito Juárez, a daily market, the class indulges in a late lunch of all the dishes created that morning. When the last bite of flan has been eaten, de la Vega sends students home with printed copies of the recipes she's taught them. Valerio Trujano 203, 011-52/951-514-1878, elnaranjo.com.mx, $60.
6. Laundry like it's the Middle Ages
Originally built as a convent in 1576 by Dominican monks, Camino Real has served as a government office, a jail, and a school over the years. Now it's a five-star hotel where doubles start at just under $300 a night. But you don't have to stay there to enjoy the two acres of grounds, planted with soft grass and bougainvillea. Check out Los Lavaderos, the 16th-century equivalent of a laundry room, in the northeast corner of the property. In a hexagonal stone gazebo, water flows from a large central fountain to a dozen stone basins that were once used by the nuns for washing. 5 de Mayo 300, 011-52/951-501-6100, caminoreal.com/oaxaca.
7. Sweating like an oldie