Experience the heart and soul of Mexico with a trip to Oaxaca, where the country’s indigenous roots have embraced ancient civilisations, Spanish splendour and modern Mexican spirit, creating a region rich in archaeology, history and culture, with a rugged coastline edged with wide sandy beaches and one of the most happening, dynamic and appetising food scenes in the world.
In the southwest corner of Mexico, Oaxaca (pronounced Wah-hah-kah) is a land with a wonderful climate and friendly vibe, full of handsome colonial architecture, ancient archaeological sites, lavish festivals, colourful handicrafts, artisan producers and a thriving culinary scene. The Spanish first conquered this region in 1533, bringing a touch of Hispanic flair and most small towns showcase this heritage in their elegant churches, palm-shaded plazas and vibrant markets, making it a wonderful city for those interested in exploring Mexico’s colonial architecture and history.
Yet despite the Hispanic influence, the indigenous roots of Oaxaca run deep. Over 17 languages are still spoken here and the region remains loyally Indian at heart. It is this weaving together of ancient culture and colonial flair that creates the charming and unique atmosphere, which many Mexicans believe makes Oaxaca the soul of the country. There is a strong regional influence in the many crafts produced by artisans dotted throughout the central valleys, which include painted wooden animals, rugs, wall hangings and the famous gleaming black Oaxaca pottery, which is highly-prized not just in Mexico but throughout the world.
This is also the only state to produce the smoky potent liquor, Mezcal and it is possible to visit one of the many family-owned distilleries for tastings and to learn how the drink is made. But the biggest buzz around Oaxaca is currently the food scene. This is the ‘land of the seven moles,’ the complex and legendary sauces that include many ingredients, most notably chocolate and chillies, which are developed over several days. Try them on tlayudas, thin Oaxaca pizzas, often topped with refried beans, cheese and salsa. Another culinary highlight is quesillo, a type of soft white stringy cheese like mozzarella, which is widely produced in the area and do try the toasted chapulines (grasshoppers), which have a crunchy and delicate taste.
Oaxaca also has two important archaeological sites: Monte Alban, which was the seat of regional government from 500 B.C. to 750 A.D. and Mitla. Both are close to Oaxaca City and contain lofty pyramids, ball courts and ancient tile work. For those who prefer relaxing beachside, Oaxaca enjoys a fantastic Pacific coastline with good opportunities for watersports, lagoon and bird-watching trips. We particularly enjoy Puerto Escondido, which is rapidly changing from a surfer town to a cool, artsy seaside retreat and we would recommend combining a stay here with four to five nights in Oaxaca City to get a real flavour of this magnificent area.
Alternatively, this is a great area for exploring by bicycle and we can arrange for a six-night cycling adventure tour visiting archaeological sites, Indian villages and incredible canyon scenery, suitable for beginners and intermediate cyclists who are moderately fit. But whether you travel by bike, planes or car, we think Oaxaca makes a fabulous Mexican holiday destination, offering history, culture, great food and a chance to chill out by the beach and it’s all just a 45-minute flight from Mexico City.