My husband and I have been traveling through Latin America for three months now, and by far our favorite place has been Oaxaca. A colorful and safe city bursting with rich Mexican food, art, and fashion traditions, Oaxaca is a place to go when you want to get away from American tourists and really immerse yourself in a new place. Our 10 days there were not enough to do everything! But let me share with you the highlights of our time there, including sustainable food, artisan shopping, and activities that support the local community.
01. Mezcal Tour
For the past two years, I’ve been ordering any beverage on the menu that uses mezcal, the artisanal cousin to tequila. Partly because it’s delicious, with a complex, smoky flavor, but also because I honestly believe that mezcal does not give you a hangover. And Oaxaca, where mezcal is sacred, is also the only Mexican state that is legally allowed to call this hooch by the mezcal name (sort of like Champagne). I got a private tour of the new sustainable palenque (or mezcal distillery) of the large brand Sombra, but there are plenty of other day tours of various palenques you can opt to take around Oaxaca city. Oaxaca tours comes highly recommended.
TIP: Mezcal is a precious liquid, made for sipping, not shooting. So if they hand you a shot glass, treat it with reverence and savor it slowly!
Get out of Oaxaca City and visit the famous Zapotec community of weavers. You can download a map for $10 from Oaxaca Cultural Navigator. This map of Teotitlan de Valle, last updated in 2016, exclusively features Zapotec weaving workshops that use only natural dyes, plus places to eat and stay while you explore the valley. Of course, every workshop will have things for sale, and you know they are getting all the money from your purchase!
03. Microfinance Tour
En Vía is a local tourism-supported microfinance program. Founded in 2010, this organization gives interest-free loans to 250 local women in six communities to expand their small businesses. The program is funded by tourists–you pay a fee, and spend half a day visiting with several women who have received and successfully payed back several increasingly large loans, ranging from 1,500 pesos to start, up to 7,000 pesos. (About USD $115 to $530.) The fee goes toward paying the driver and lunch, with the rest going into the microloan fund.
Tours change all the time, but I can give you a sense of what a typical one might look like. First we headed to a tiny village of 500 people for lunch at the restaurant of one of the lendees, where we chose from a lunch of either chicken mole or squash blossoms. Then we headed to a hair salon owned by a young women named Karen, and then visited with her mother, who sells chickens to other villagers. We finished our day in Teotitlan, a city of 6,000 people, where we visited with two different Zapotec weavers, who showed us their family looms and demonstrated natural dyeing techniques. At each stop, we were given the opportunity to ask questions of the women, with the help of a translator. I can be a bit cynical, but by the time the tour was finished, I was feeling hopeful about the power of a program like this to change lives for the better.
Get a solid grounding in local and Mexican fashion and folk art traditions at this famous museum in less than an hour. The day I visited, they had exhibitions of tapetes and their uses and traditions, antique Mexican embroidery contrasted with modern handiwork by master Mexican craftspeople, “moles” from the San Blas islands of Panama, and quilts by a recently deceased American quilter who had taken up quilting after moving to Oaxaca and being inspired by the local art.
TIP: After you absorb information about Oaxacan textiles, check out the museum shop for examples in natural materials, plus exquisite carved crossbody cork-stopped jugs, and colorful jewelry.
05. Cooking Class
Oaxacan is famous for its rich food culture and mole, a spicy and savory chocolate-based sauce that they pour over chicken for special occasions. You could pack it home in liter bottles (like a friend did) or you can learn how to make it yourself! We signed up for a cooking class with Agustin, and had an amazing time. There is free-flowing mezcal and beer, and plenty to cook and eat leading up to the finale of the mole. By the end, our group was rip-roaring drunk and in great spirits.
06. Spanish Lessons
There is a large community of snowbirds in Oaxaca, who come to the city for months at a time in the winter. Hence, there are also great Spanish classes. I signed up at Instituto del Sol, and my Spanish improved quickly in private lessons with a great Oaxacan named Chris. Even better, they are super flexible about scheduling and your level. I went for five days total, but skipped a day here and there for an excursion or another tour, and they had no problem with that at all. They also do immersives, where you live with a Oaxacan family. Something I might have tried if I wasn’t already living with a Venezuelan, my husband!
07. La Cosecha
At this outdoor organic market, you’ll find prepared food–juices, smoothies, tlayudas, tacos, and other lunch items–coffee, fresh coconuts, and ice cream, plus some basic organic groceries, like cheese, eggs, granola, coconut milk, honey, and citrus fruits. If I had known about this market earlier, I would have come here our first day for groceries, and every day after that for lunch! And it’s a low-waste spot, too. I got a smoothie for USD $1.50, and they brought it to my shaded table in a glass with a metal spoon. It’s open Wednesday through Sunday, and is located at Macedonio Alcalá 806.
A humble outpost of the A-list chef behind the Mexico City restaurant Pujol (Enrique Olvera) this serene restaurant in a modern setting outside of the city center adheres to the same farm-to-table concept as his other restaurants. Your only choice is to get the seven-course tasting menu, filled with fresh takes on Oaxacan comfort foods. Yes, mole is in there, and freshly-pressed tortillas, spicy sauces, a salad, a soup, and bruléed citrus fruits for dessert. Make sure to ask for a recommendation of a good mezcal to slowly sip alongside your meal.
TIP: Go for lunch and leave some time to hang out with the animals after your meal. The restaurant has a pet rabbit and a empty hammock for an after-meal siesta. This is slow food at its finest.
This beautiful little gem in the center of Oaxaca has a more traditional architectural vibe, but gets more adventurous in the cuisine, with ingredients like flying ant salsa and toasted agave worms in the greens salad. All the ingredients are local, and you can even enjoy a drink if you’re not into alcohol, because the sodas have flavors like passionfruit from Vera Cruz, and quinine from Colombo.
A must-visit if you’re at all interested in bringing home a gorgeous artisan-made textiles of the highest quality. You’ll find whole walls full of textiles in every color, but it’s all organized neatly, and the staff eager to help you find the perfect thing. It’s located at Calle Macedonio Alcalá 403, Ruta Independencia.
Next stop by Huizache. A large, bi-level store, it’s a bit more curated than other local artisan markets, while still selling a wide assortment of local goods, like leather Western style hats, painted figurines, black pottery, colorful sneakers, rugs, purses, jewelry, and more. You’ll find the staff here are happy to let you peruse at your leisure. It’s located at Murguia 101 esquina Macedonio Alcalá.
This small boutique features ethically made, colorful, lushly-embroidered clutches and fashion with a modern twist. You can even find a crop top that’s been embroidered Mexican style! It’s located at Porfirio Díaz 404.
This famous family-owned shop sells Zapotec, naturally-dyed, woven rugs. It’s located right downtown at Cinco de Mayo #408.
14. Casa Allende
A local family of art collectors has opened up their hacienda to guests, so you can live like a (wealthy and well-connected) local. There’s a pool in one of the courtyards (yes, there are two courtyards) as well as Mexican art hanging off every available surface. It’s a quiet respite located a three-minute walk from the main square.
For a proper hotel, head 10 minutes outside of downtown to Hotel Los Laureles, a beautiful eco-friendly hotel with a heated pool, and restaurant serving locally sourced Oaxacan and international food. They compost all their food waste, and heat their shower water with solar power, then feed the greywater to the lush garden. While you’re staying there, sign up for a temazcal spa treatment, a traditional steam bath involving aromatic herbs.
Layers! Even in the hottest months (March through May) the temperature in this desert city gets down to the 50s at night. And in the coldest months, the midday sunshine can still make you strip down to a t-shirt. Natural fibers like cotton, silk, and merino wool will serve you well.
Alden Wicker is the editor in chief of EcoCult. A blogger, and freelance journalist, with bylines in Glamour, Quartz, Newsweek, Fast Company, Rodale’s Organic Life, Refinery29, and Racked. She’s currently traveling for a year around the world with her husband, and she’s deepening her understanding of sustainable travel in developing countries and artisan and ethical fashion. You can find Alden on Instagram and on her website.