In the market, one can browse the glittering displays of mezcal bottles, many with gorgeous labels advertising their origin in small local distilleries. Agave, from which mezcal is made, is grown throughout the Oaxaca Valley and is one of its most important crops. Driving along the well-marked roads surrounding Oaxaca, one passes agave farms, lined with attractive orderly rows of plants that resemble a cross between an aloe and a pineapple top. Travelers with an interest in sampling the local product (served straight up or in elaborate cocktails) can do so at one of the many stylish mezcal bars that have sprung up throughout the centro.
Several smaller and more low-key markets selling crafts — beaded purses, embroidered shirts, woven belts, filigree earrings, as well as the painted, whimsical wooden animals made in the nearby village of Arrazola — are near the Templo de Santo Domingo, on the other side of the zócalo and a 20-minute walk from the 20th of November market. And throughout the centro are dozens of small, inviting boutiques featuring clothes, accessories and household goods that combine traditional craft with high design.
If one ventures further afield, it’s possible to visit nearby villages known for their particular specialties. San Bartolo de Coyotepec is celebrated for its unique black glazed pottery. In the village of Teotitlán del Valle, nearly every household appears to be involved in weaving gorgeous woolen rugs, and it can be visited on the way to Mitla.
Oaxaca is justly famous for its mole, a piquant sauce with a complex blend of spices and flavors including (in one of its more familiar iterations) chocolate. In fact there are many variations on the theme of mole that one can try around Oaxaca, where large numbers of talented chefs, inspired by the region’s culinary heritage, have dedicated themselves to reinventing traditional dishes, and to preparing elegant yet unpretentious food served in surroundings ranging from funky and cool to luxurious, stylish and ultramodern.
One of the most popular of the high-end restaurants (which, due sadly to the devaluation of the Mexican peso, are not all that expensive) is Los Danzantes. Housed is a spacious courtyard shaded by huge translucent panels that can be retracted at night, with a glamorous bar, the Los Danzantes is at once relaxed (our group of four adults, two children, and a baby in a stroller were made to feel completely at home) and elegant.
Among the dishes we tried were subtle little tostadas of tuna tartare, chiles stuffed with corn fungus, a green leaf — herba santa, which tastes a bit like shiso leaves — rolled around locally made white cheese, candied pork ribs and coconut shrimp. Slightly more formal but equally pleasant is Catedral, which, like Los Danzantes, is in the center of the city, and where a range of dishes sauced with a variety of moles can be ordered.
Locals flock, for breakfast, to the more casual Itanoní,where you can sit at shaded outdoor tables and enjoy handmade tortillas and dishes featuring hand milled, organic corn flour (masa). Among my very favorite restaurants was the inexpensive and friendly La Popular, low-key place also in the centro and open to the street, where Oaxacan families, writers, artists and expats gather for the fresh shrimp, seafood casseroles, fresh salads and house-made soups.
The first time I went to Oaxaca, I returned home with a heavy suitcase packed full of figurines, masks, woven shawls, rugs and dozens of those little boxes in which skeletons, traditionally connected with the Day of the Dead holiday — held annually around the time of our Halloween — enact little dramas. On this more recent trip, perhaps because, as I’ve grown older, I’ve gotten more reluctant to acquire and accumulate large quantities of stuff, I brought back a few gifts for friends, some notebooks with beautiful covers, the straw mask and the bright tote bags decorated with a smiling skeleton sporting a fancy hat.
But by far my favorite souvenir, which I bought in the central market, was a generous amount of the Mexican chocolate for which Oaxaca is famous. Cups of the steaming hot chocolate are among the most reliable ways I know to keep my spirits up during a cold winter and in this unsettling political climate.
Sipping the chocolate, I think about Oaxaca and feel ever so slightly warmer as I imagine walking its cobbled streets, past its painted houses, its shaded plazas and Baroque churches. And I watch the video which we took on New Year’s Eve in the courtyard of the Templo de Santo Domingo. Behind those bright swirls of light inscribed on the dusky twilight are two granddaughters with twirling sparklers, celebrating the joy of being in this magical place, with their family, on a perfect holiday evening.
IF YOU GO
There are several direct flights daily from Mexico City to Oaxaca, an hourlong trip.
Quinta Real Oaxaca. Formerly a 16th century Dominican convent, this luxurious and welcoming hotel is close to the zócalo and the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán. It has comfortable rooms, a swimming pool set in a beautiful garden, and serves a sumptuous breakfast buffet.
5 de Mayo 300; Ruta Independencia Centro 68000; Phone 52 951 501 6100; firstname.lastname@example.org
Calle Macedonia Alcala 403; Phone 52 951 501 1187; losdanzantes.com
Calle Manuel Garcia Vigil 105; Phone 52 951 516 3285; restaurantecatedral.com.mx
Av Belisario Dominguez 513; Phone 52 951 513 9223; email (via Facebook)