There is much more to Mexico than fun in the sun. If you are among the "experiential travelers" looking to soak in the heart and soul of a country, look no further than Oaxaca.
Located 340 miles southeast of Mexico City, Oaxaca is a colorful blend of pre-hispanic traditions and Colonial architecture, art and other treasures. The city is known for its cuisine, which blends cultures and is centered around seven types of mole—a savory sauce made from dry chiles, nuts, spices, vegetables, chocolate and seasonings. Oaxacans are happy to share their cooking knowledge, and a proliferation of cooking schools hosts both amateur chefs and enthusiastic foodies.
Know Before You Go
Armed with a bit of insight into the local culture, you can explore this city's gastronomic bounty on your own. First, look to your travel agent for assistance in arranging your Oaxaca lodging; accommodations range from luxury hotels to simple inns.
Next, learn the locals' eating habits. Oaxacans enjoy their main meal, or comida, between 2 and 5 p.m. Inquire at your hotel for high-quality local restaurants, or try the list at right. The Oaxaca Tourism Board recommends Casa de la Abuela, Fonda Santo Domingo, Los Pacos, Casa Oaxaca restaurant, Los Danzantes and La Olla.
In the evening, mingle with locals in the cafes ringing the town square, or Zócalo. Oaxacan delicacies include quesillo, a soft, nutty cheese; tlayudas, flat tortillas spread with refried beans, topped with cheese, salsa, and strips of chicken or pork; and tejate, a beverage made from the flowers and seeds of the cacao tree and sweetened with corn, coconut milk, sugar and spices. These cafes are the best places to try mezcal, a distilled liquor made from the blue agave cactus. Myth has it that one taste of chapulines—fried grasshoppers with chili and lime—will assure your return to Oaxaca. Restaurants
Consider visiting during the city's annual Food of the Gods Festival on Oct. 7-14. This offers the chance to experience this city in all its glory while dining at some of its most acclaimed restaurants and taking cooking classes from skilled instructors. Ask your travel agent for details on festival travel packages. Another option is participating in the La Cocina de Oaxaca tour offered by culinary tour company Epiculinary. The seven-day tour includes accommodations in a charming bed and breakfast, plus intensive instruction and market trips with cookbook author and cooking instructor Susana Trilling.