After a week of healing our weary bellies on the white sand beaches of Playa Estacahuite, we were ready for a change of pace. For the past two weeks, Oaxaca has been giving that to us in abundance. I find this place to have a very unique energy. It’s lively yet mellow, gritty but safe. It’s steeped in tradition, but it’s on the cutting edge of cool, and it’s food and drink are legendary. For us, it was the culinary delights that drew us in and kept us anything but bored during our stay here. There are multitudes of restaurants and street food vendors, and it would take years to discover them all. We made a decent dent over our relatively short visit, but what really impressed us and kept sucking us back in day after day, deeper each time, were the markets.
Oaxaca has at least eight major mercados spread out all over the city, but for geographical reasons, we focused our attention primarily on three of those. By far the largest market in the city is Mercado De Abastos. You can find anything here from high heels to iguanas, toasted grasshoppers to sofas, cell phones to bicycles and everything in between. A great deal of this market focuses on wholesale, and seems to be more geared toward locals than travelers. That and the fact that it’s on the exact opposite side of town from our stylish, little Airbnb made it not one of our mainstay markets.
Closer to the center of town is the Benito Juárez market. While it’s not the behemoth that De Abastos is, it’s still the size of a good sized American mall, with a stunning number of goods, services and edibles that would match or better any mall. What’s missing is that weird, stale, soul-sucking vibe in every mall that always leaves me glazed over and stupified whenever I have the misfortune of finding myself inside of one of those places.
In stark contrast, Benito Juarez invigorates, awes and sometimes challenges me. While you can certainly get a watch, a pair of pants or a piñata here, this market is a haven for the delicacies and culinary delights of Oaxaca. There are restaurants and snack shops scattered throughout the hundreds of retail food vendors selling fruit, veggies, meats, cheeses, fish, baked goods, spices, mezcal, sweets and beverages of all sorts. Chapulínes (toasted grasshoppers) are a local favorite snack here, but our favorite stop at the market is the Chaguita ice cream stand. After a spicy tlayuda, tamale or taco, nothing hits the spot like a frosty níeve. The wide variety of flavors covers all the basics like vanilla, chocolate and peach, but then you get into the more interesting stuff like corn on the cob, mezcal, rose petal, burnt milk (tastes like cigarette butts), mango/chile, cheese or tuna (prickly pear). Our favorite is mamey, which is a fruit similar to paw paw.
Across the street from Benito Juárez is the 20 de Noviembre Mercado. This is basically an enormous food court packed with small restaurants featuring the full gamut of Oaxaca cuisine. The classics here are tamales, tostadas, tacos and tlyudas (like a mexican pizza with a tortilla as the crust, refried beans as the sauce, string cheese instead of mozzarella, a variety of veggie toppings and often a big slab of meat on top). However our favorite Oaxaca cuisine is mole on pretty much anything. There’s a nice variety of this epic chocolate/chile/sesame based sauce here including Rojo, Negro, Verde, Amarillo, Coloradito, Chichilo (very spicy) and Manchamantel (greasy and rich). The mole in Oaxaca is out of this world, at the dining selection at 20 de Noviembre Mercado offers a fantastic cross-section of Oaxacan taste treats under one roof.
For us, being on the eastern side of the city, La Merced Democracia is our local market that we frequent the most. In contrast to the hustle and bustle of Benito Juarez, this market has a mellow, laid back vibe and a nice enough variety to make it a one-stop shopping spot for food. It also has some good restaurants interspersed throughout, and because it’s in east Oaxaca, it doesn’t tend to draw nearly as many foreigners as the other markets, which gives it a really sweet, local feel.
For Haruka and I, Oaxaca has basically been about two basic activities…eating and walking. Besides being a great way to digest a heavy, local meal, Oaxaca is a very walkable town with all sorts of colorful nooks and crannies to entertain even the most jaded pedestrian. We rarely ride in taxis and we only take buses to get out of the city, so we walk… everywhere. The notable exception being one Friday evening when we joined a night bike ride with Mundo Ceiba. This is a non-profit organization that is promoting healthy and eco-friendly transportation means around the city by leading bi-weekly night rides through the city streets. While geared toward local Oaxacans, we felt very welcomed by the group, and we had an absolute blast! Picture 50-60 bicyclists rambling behind a cyclist towing a cart with a giant speaker jamming heady beats while the group takes over the streets from gutter to gutter, meandering through the city from 9:30 pm to 11. There’s a certain sort of beautiful recklessness to it (kind of like most things in Mexico), but it was reasonably safe enough, other than a few drunk people crashing into each other. We certainly pissed off a few car drivers who apparently feel that they own the road, but we were wildly cheered by onlookers everywhere we rode.
Today was our last day in this true gem of a city, so we treated ourselves to Temazcal, a traditional, Aztec herbal steam bath and massage performed by a shaman. It was ritualistic as much as healing, and more spiritual than spa-like. It cleansed our toxins, set our lights on high and made it easy for us to realize how grateful we are to this very special city for a truly magical time.