Travel tips and advice for Oaxaca, Mexico: Six of the best things to do

TRY THE SEVEN MOLES

The people of Oaxaca city revere three things – football, family and mole, a sweet and spicy sauce that looks like molten chocolate and tastes like peppers. Pronounced moh-lay it can be found all over Mexico, but only in Oaxaca is it worshipped like a deity. The seven standard moles include negro (black) rojo (red), coloradito (brown), verde (green), amarillo, chichilo and manchamantel. Restaurant Azucena Zapoteca is famous for creative moles or try your hand at a local cooking class. See azucenazapoteca.com

DANCE WITH THE DEAD

If you only go to one Mexican festival in your life, it should be the Day of the Dead. And not just anywhere, but in Oaxaca, where traditions are still intact and largely unexploited by commercialism. While the main festivities take place from October 31 to November 2, the entire week is filled with life-affirming rituals, all-night cemetery vigils, parades and celebrations. Paint your face, buy a costume and take to the streets like there's no tomorrow. See gadventures.com.au

CLIMB RUINS

The region around Oaxaca was developed by two of the most advanced pre-Columbian civilisations – the Zapotecs and Mixtecs. The best example of Zapotec architecture can be seen at the Monte Alban ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage site less than 10 kilometres from the centre of Oaxaca. Carved into a mountainside, Monte Alban was once the political and economic capital of the Zapotec empire. The sprawling site is dotted with the remains of altars, temples, terraces, platforms, palaces and an observatory. Climbing the steep pyramidal steps is a workout for the legs and lungs, but well worth it for the views across the city and mountains. See whc.unesco.org/en/list/415

BROWSE LOCAL MARKETS

Central de Abastos (open Saturdays) may be the biggest market in Oaxaca city, but there are also dozens of smaller ones. Try Mercado Benito Juarez for everything from buckets of marigolds to bottles of mezcal, mole pastes to grasshopper tacos (open daily from 7am-9pm, Miguel Cabrera, Centro). Carnivores will be in their element next door in the grilled meat passage of Mercado 20 de Noviembre​, and lovers of handicrafts should head to the nearby artisans markets for weaving, linen and woollen products. Night markets materialise from nowhere each evening, selling tourist trinkets and street food. The open-air Thursday markets in the village of Zaachila are a traditional Zapotec market famous for pottery and well worth a visit for the atmosphere alone.

COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS

The most beautiful church in Oaxaca – Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman, to give it its full title – was built in the 16th and 17th centuries as part of the city's Dominican monastery (corner of Alcala and A Gurrion). With its baroque exterior, gilded interior, cloisters, courtyards and decorative ceilings it's easy to while away the hours. Add a visit to the attached Ethnobotanical Garden – once the realm of the friars, and the adjacent Museum of Cultures, with its 14 permanent exhibitions which show the political, religious and military history of the region – and you can easily spend half a day. See jardinoaxaca.mx

GET YOUR ART ON

The best way to understand Oaxacan culture is through its folk art. From woven goods to woodcarving, embroidery to ceramics, the diversity and beauty is a reflection of the region's 16 indigenous groups. The town of San Martin Tilcajete​ is best known for its colourful alebrijes, which are Zapotec figures carved in copal wood. Local artists Jacobo and Maria Angeles have opened the doors to the their home and workshop, welcoming visitors to learn about the intricate process of carving and painting, as well as the Zapotec calendar where 20 days are represented by 20 animals. It's fun to find out if your animal personality is a jaguar or a chameleon and then buy the relevant keepsake. See jacoboymariaangeles.com

Kerry van der Jagt travelled as a guest of G Adventures and United Airlines. See gadventures.com.au; united.com

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