Oaxaca (pronounced wa-ha-ca), an hour’s flight south east of Mexico City, has long been one of Mexico’s most popular inland ­destinations. The laid-back town, with wide streets and colourful Colonial facades and baroque churches, has long been a bohemian honeypot for local artists, university ­students and upcoming chefs honing their culinary skills with Oaxaca’s legendary ­recipes. Oaxaca straddles both ­contemporary and traditional lifestyles.
While there’s a vibrant evening scene with packed music venues, ­restaurants and cutting-edge museums, on the other hand a connection with the past can be seen in the local food ­markets and indigenous folks whose festivals and customs are a part of the daily fibre of life.
While the hip boutique hotels and slick restaurants were enjoyable, they’re not what attracted me to Oaxaca. Here, the nectar lay in ­experiencing a bygone way of life and the chance to peer into Mexico’s soul.
Florencio Moremo, a local historian, explained how this area in Meso America is where the local tribes tamed corn eight millennia ago. Unlike the North American Indians, they became ­agriculturists, stayed rooted and soon pottery and ceramics­ developed, along with temple architecture, ­culture, religion and rituals.
Besides corn, amaranth, ­chillies, avocados and cocoa were some of the early crops cultivated in central Mexico. A great place to try some of the famed cuisine of this area is the open-air food stalls in the Zocalo, the heart of town and the adjoining markets. At a stall next to Alameda Park, a woman squished fresh corn dough, and placed the roti-like tortilla on to a large skillet covered in lime. She added some bean paste, chicken strips, avocados, string cheese and put the empanada on a plate, dousing it with the famous black mole sauce, which has chocolate as one of the ingredients. I really enjoyed the sizzling dish.
Steps away, at the Benito Huarez Market, we tried aguas typicas (fresh fruit ­juices). Tejate, the local corn drink, is definitely an acquired taste. There are as many as 16 ­distinct tribes in the greater Oaxaca area, and many of the folk sell their local produce and crafts here. There were heaps of roasted crickets and dried chilli ­peppers, along with woven baskets and embroidered ­textiles.
In the adjoining 20th November ­market, lots of locals relished hand-selected barbecue and tripe soup in a smoke-filled alley. The tasting session ended at Le Soledad, a ­chocolateria nearby, where I selected from a dozen flavours and finished with a cup of hot chocolate served with a bun. On the other end of the ­spectrum was chef Alejandro Ruis’s Casa Oaxaca ­restaurant, where traditional recipes are served with a ­modern twist.
One can spend hours at artist Rufino Tomayo’s pre-­Columbian museum or see the gold, obsidian and ­turquoise ornaments ­uncovered from the Zpotec ruins at the beautiful Santo Domingo monastery. There is also much to experience in the hills and villages just ­outside the town. The Ocotlan market is where one can mingle with farmers and villagers in their ­traditional clothes. The ruins at Monte Alban are well ­preserved, and you can perch on a grassy step ­pyramid and visualise the mysterious tribes of yore — the Mayas, Aztecs, Zapotecs, Mixtecs and others, who worshipped the jaguar and built temples for their gods.