WHY GO NOW
Equally cosmopolitan, but far more tranquil than Mexico City, Oaxaca is fast becoming the artistic capital of Mexico, drawing artists from around the country while shepherding its own to acclaim. It’s difficult to find a block in the Centro Histórico without an art gallery, many of them showcases for striking abstract and expressionist works, as well as indigenous folk art, including weavings, local black pottery and other handicrafts.
The area’s vibrant culture informs Oaxaca’s menus as well. Several recently opened restaurants have been using native ingredients like pumpkin blossoms and cactus paddles to invigorate international trends. The city is also seeing its share of makeovers. The renovation of the zócalo (or town square), is being completed, and just blocks away, the recently redone Teatro Macedonio Alcalá, a sumptuous Belle Époque theater, is once again open for concerts. The rainy season ended in September, taking away the only reason a visitor shouldn’t experience Mexico’s artistic and culinary capital in the months ahead.
WHERE TO STAY
The colonial-chic of the courtyard at Posada del Centro, Avenida Independencia 403, (52-951) 516 1874, www.mexonline.com/posada.htm, is so faithful to type – stone fountains, terra-cotta walls bordered by azure tiles, rows of potted ferns – as to make the simple guest rooms seem paltry. But they are comfortable, and, at 400 pesos ($36 at 11 pesos to the dollar), a deal, especially given their location, only a few blocks from the zócalo.
Casa de las Bugambilias, Reforma 402, (52-951) 516-1165, www.lasbugambilias.com/bed-breakfast.htm, is an enchanting bed-and-breakfast with eight doubles and a two-bedroom suite named after flowers. The Bugambilias (Bougainvilleas) room, with fuchsia walls, tin-angel wall-pieces, Talavera-tiled bathroom and private sun-dappled patio, costs $75 (this hotel, like some others, quotes rates in U.S. dollars).
The opulent Hotel Camino Real Oaxaca, Calle 5 de Mayo 300, (52-951) 501-6100, www.camino-real-oaxaca.com, began life as a 16th-century Dominican convent that later served as a prison, cinema and slaughterhouse. The convent’s frescoes hang in some of the high-ceilinged rooms. Today, the hotel – five courtyards of archways, gardens, and fountains – specializes in aristocratic serenity. Rooms are 2,800 to 4,400 pesos.
WHERE TO EAT
Where not to eat would make a shorter list. At Como Agua Pa’ Chocolate, Avenida Hidalgo 612, (52-951) 516-2917, www.comoaguapachocolate.com, inscriptions from Laura Esquivel’s novel “Like Water for Chocolate” make dreamy swirls on the walls. The cuisine includes a pork loin in blackberry sauce and a Caesar salad with a traditional anchovy-and-raw-egg dressing. Ask for a table overlooking the Alameda de León, a plaza where mariachi bands rove. A two-course meal with drink and tip is 200 to 350 pesos.
Set in the courtyard of a colonial mansion and named for the orange tree at its center, El Naranjo, Calle Valerio Trujano 203, (52-951) 514-1878, www.elnaranjo.com.mx, has earned renown for its moles, the complex sauces enriched by everything from pecans to chocolate. Entrees are $8 to $15.
The rusty fans lodged in mock windows glancing from the exposed-brick walls at Temple, García Vigil 409, (951) 516-8676, www.restaurantetemple.com, telegraph the obvious: This place would be at home in SoHo. The posters on the wall celebrating Mexican jazz troupes nod in a different direction. The menu draws a bridge: grilled prawns stuffed with eel come with fresh mango and nuts; cream of pumpkin-blossom soup hides a dollop of goat cheese. Entrees 90 to 200 pesos.
Los Danzantes, Calle Macedonio Alcalá 403, (52-951) 501-1184, is named for the enigmatic dancing figures carved into the Monte Albán ruins outside Oaxaca, and the restaurant’s two-story adobe walls and reflecting pools capture some of that settlement’s grandeur. And then there’s the food: chicken breast breaded with porcini mushrooms and sesame seeds and stuffed with goat cheese (130 pesos), or salmon wrapped in banana leaf, with green tomato, soy and chili sauce (120 pesos).
WHAT TO DO DURING THE DAY
Iglesia de Santo Domingo, Plaza de Santa Domingo, (52-951) 516-3720, constructed in the 16th century to honor the Spanish monk who founded the Dominican order, has an intricate webwork of carvings of his family, but go for the Baroque interior: the gilded and painted stucco is a riot of color.
The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca, Macedonio Alcalá 202, (52-951) 514-2818, features native and international modern art. The exquisitely distressed walls and wooden-plank ceilings make for delightful dissonance with the ne plus ultra modernism on display. Entry 10 pesos.
Because the food at La Olla, attached to the Casa de las Bugambilias B & B, is splendid, you may want to visit the chef, Pilar Cabrera, who holds cooking classes at Casa de los Sabores, Calle Libres 205, (52-951) 516-5704. Private lessons are $80.
If there is one amenity Oaxaca lacks, it’s a coastline. A unique substitute is closer by: Hierve el Agua (the Water Boils), a collection of pools fed by mineral springs used for irrigation more than 2,000 years ago. Perched on a cliff an hour from Oaxaca, half of the drive up vertiginous mountain switchbacks and unpaved local roads, its panoramic views include a cliff so thoroughly encrusted with petrified minerals as to resemble a waterfall. Continental-Istmo Tours, Macedonio Alcalá 201-101, (52-951) 516-9625, www.continentalistmotours.com, offers a full-day package that takes in the weaving village of Teotitlán; the geometric abstractions of the Zapotec ruins at Mitla; and Hierve el Agua for 300 pesos (entry fees of 30 pesos for Mitla and 25 pesos for Hierve el Agua are extra). If Hierve el Agua is all you want, a driver from Turismo Panorámico de Oaxaca, Independencia 308F, (52-951) 514-7543, www.prodigyweb.net.mx/panorami, will take you there for 120 pesos an hour.
WHAT TO DO AT NIGHT
Most of Oaxaca whiles away the evenings at home or cafes rather than at nightclubs. For a compromise solution, head to Comala, Calle García Vigil 406 (no phone), a dim, mellow hideaway where chilled shots of mezcal, a drink made from the agave plant, accompanied by a plate of chili-dusted limes, are always two for the price of one (20 pesos). The cantina La Casa del Mezcal, Flores Magón 209, is a more traditional experience, down to the swinging saloon doors and mostly male clientele. The diminutive Nueva Babel, Porfirio Díaz 224, alternates between jazz, trova and poetry readings.
WHERE TO SHOP
The Alcalá pedestrian artery has an array of turbo-priced boutiques, but try the crafts, food and leather stalls in the labyrinthine Mercado Juárez, between Flores Magán and 20 de Noviembre, a block southwest of the zócalo. A row of vendors by the entryway sell a local treat called chapulines – fried grasshoppers seasoned with salt, chili and lime.
A more polished presentation awaits at Mujeres Artesanas de las Regiones de Oaxaca, 5 de Mayo 204, (52-951) 516-0670, a female artisans’ cooperative with a dozen rooms of stamped-tin mirrors, black pottery, hammocks and clothing. Three Oro de Monte Albán locations are on Alcalá; for instance No. 22 Alcalá 503, (52-951) 516-4224, offers gold and silver in designs copied from jewelry discovered at Monte Albán.
HOW TO STAY WIRED
If you’re prepared to pay 11 pesos for an hour of Internet use at C@fe Internet, Valdivieso 120, (52-951) 514-9227, you can delete your spam while peering past a wrought-iron balcony onto the spine of the city cathedral and an edge of the zócalo favored by vendors with sky-high bouquets of balloons.
At Arte de Oaxaca, Murguía 105, (52-951) 51- 0910, www.artedeoaxaca.com, contemporary works and a hall celebrating the late Rodolfo Morales, who painted surreal scenes of rural Mexico, converge on a cool, stone-walled alcove shaded by a canopy of tree leaves. The showrooms at Galeria Indigo, Allende 104, (52-951) 514-8338, www.galeriaindigo.com , display a broad range of high-quality crafts, weavings and both abstract and folk art.
YOUR FIRST TIME OR YOUR 10TH
Shoppers will head up the cobblestones of Alcalá, lined with sublimely weathered buildings housing art galleries, restaurants and luxury boutiques. The courtyard in front of the Iglesia de Santo Domingo is a less bustling alternative, its expanse an ideal place to take in the inimitable silver-gray sky that settles over the city every afternoon. There’s not much to do here except eavesdrop on giggling teenagers and eye with increasing hunger the vendors selling papayas dusted with chili powder and ears of corn lathered with mayonnaise, lemon and grated Oaxacan quesillo. As night falls, a brass band may wander by.
HOW TO GET THERE
Continental, Aeroméxico and Mexicana tend to offer the most extensive service from the New York area. Round trips from Newark on Continental, via Mexico City, next month begin at $549.
The compact Centro Histórico is pedestrian-friendly, but for outlying destinations, cabs will go almost anywhere in greater Oaxaca for 30 pesos. Trips to villages outside the city originate from several bus terminals; taxis are more comfortable, at 120 pesos an hour. If your style demands a chauffeured Chevrolet Suburban, the travel agency Turismo Panorámico can accommodate at the same rate.