Your 2-minute guide to Oaxaca city, Mexico

A quiet cobbled street in Oaxaca Mexico
A quiet street

First off, it’s a wonderful place, full of life and colour and food and traditional Mexico. Here’s our introductory guide to this lovely city.

The city is for the most part built on a grid of roadways, making navigation on foot very easy; you will be given directions such as “walk two blocks past the market, turn left and walk three blocks, it’s on your left”. The city radiates around and way from the main square, the Zocalo, and nearly all of the main sights are within easy walking distance of the square. The Zocalo itself is incredible, loud and colourful, restaurants on three of its four sides, teeming with life and oozing Mexican spirit; the cathedral, the wonderfully intense markets, Santo Domingo and many other sumptuous buildings are within just a few minutes walk of the Zocalo, as are craft shops and mezcal bars, both in abundance.

Aromas of food permeate the senses; sometimes taco stalls, sometimes grilled meats, but the most intense are those occasional streets housing the chocolate makers, the whole street full of deep scent of chocolate.

The madness of the Zocalo is one thing; but perhaps the true Oaxaca is to be found in the calmness of its quieter neighbourhoods, cobbled streets separating the rows of low aspect houses, houses in ochre and primary colours, leafy lanes, trailing flowers, cafes, shops and bars anonymous by day then open at night (and vice versa), smiling faces, friendly chatter. Our own neighbourhood, Jalatlaco, is a former Zapotec tribal village now absorbed by the city, retaining a peaceful character yet just 15 minutes walk from Santo Domingo. Characterised by the distinctive wall art which decorate several of the quaint buildings – a modern twist brought about by socio-political unrest – Jalatlaco has a charm all of its own.

But don’t ignore the Zocalo, or the two major markets next door to each other, just being part of the verve and the madness is stimulating and exciting. The city’s leafy squares and tree lined streets and the archetypal low slung characterful Mexican buildings are so endearing, yet the dual existence of the craziness of the centre and the serenity of the outer neighbourhoods, so close together, provides the travelling visitor with a sumptuous mix. Add on the incredible food, the obsession with mezcal, the huge numbers of places to eat, the mountains towering above, and shielding, the city, and you have a destination which once visited will never be forgotten.

Mezcal y moles: Oaxacan cuisine 22/12/18

Moles in Puerto Escondido market Oaxaca Mexico
Moles in the market

Both the city and state of Oaxaca are considered culinary destinations even within Mexico, having a reputation for its own twist on Mexican cuisine. Oaxaca food is a series of specialities in its own right, but two of its biggest sources of pride are mezcal and moles – that’s mole pronounced not as in the small mammal, but as the “mole” in “guacamole”.

Mezcal is a strong shot drink, in the same ballpark as tequila but with a distinct flavour, and is distilled from the agave plant. It is clear in colour and served in a tubular shot glass, usually in quite a large quantity for a strong shot. The flavour of the agave within the spirit is a little unusual, and Michaela in particular finds it a challenge; the afterburn is not too ferocious. Now, the way to drink mezcal is to first put a powder on the tongue, in the same way as you take salt with tequila, except this powder is ground dried chilli and ground moth caterpillar. We’ve done it, and assume that the powder we’ve been given is that one as described, and were excited to try it. It’s rather unpleasant though, and has almost a disinfectant type taste which we don’t find palatable in the slightest.

So, on to the “moles”. Moles are the sauces which throughout Oaxaca state are added to, or available with, virtually every dish, as the different flavours of the moles compliment different dishes. They are mostly hot in terms of chilli flavour (piquante is the right word) but are quite different in character. Basically they are…

Mole negro – deep brown, almost black, contains chilli, spices and chocolate, but is savoury

Mole amarillo – yellow in colour, tomatillos and spices

Mole verde – green; corn, pumpkin seeds, nuts, spices

Mole colorado – brown; chillis and cinnamon

Mole coloradito or mole rojo – red; tomatoes and chillis

Mole manteles – red; the chilli sauce served over pineapples etc

Chichilo negro – three types of chilli plus avocado leaves and tomato, the least common mole.

You can’t help but enjoy moles whilst in Oaxaca, to Oaxacans, these sauces are what defines the meal. For us visitors, part of the delight is that the recipes vary from restaurant to restaurant, meaning no two moles are ever identical. All part of Oaxaca’s stimulating cuisine.