Feature: In the Heart of Mexico

Discover Oaxaca, Mexico’s food and design capital.

By Bree Sposato | Photographs and video by Matt Dutile

“When I give you this plate, I give you a part of me,” says Gabriella Gonzalez, sous chef at Casa Oaxaca, a stone’s throw from Oaxaca City’s Santo Domingo de Guzmán church. The 17th-century church is the city’s spiritual center, and it feels right that it should be so close to the restaurant responsible for returning the city’s food scene to its roots. Gonzalez, who has been cooking since she was 8, first alongside her grandmother and later under star chef Alejandro Ruiz Olmedo, sets down a tortilla cradling pork, crickets (a Oaxaca specialty) and curlicues of avocado and finishes her thought: “It is important to always cook with love.”

That loving touch is evident not only in this dish—which tastes deliciously earthy, as if you were biting into a garden—but in so much else here. Attentive craftsmanship is for many people a way of life. It all begins in the Oaxaca Valley—plentiful with family-owned farms, textile businesses and mezcal distilleries—in the shadow of the Sierra Madre mountains, which crinkle the landscape as far as the eye can see.

Add a dash of archaeological ruins, parades that seem to break out spontaneously, vibrant markets and reliably sunny days, and you have the makings of a vacation you won’t soon forget.

Get Your Bearings

Oaxaca City is the capital of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. You can get there by flying into Mexico City then connecting to Oaxaca City. Bring pesos (some shops don’t accept credit cards) and walking shoes for exploring on foot. This inland city makes for a great getaway on its own or paired with beach time along the state’s coast, on the Pacific Ocean. The coast is a one-hour flight from Mexico City to Huatulco or a six-hour drive south from Oaxaca City.

Into the Valley

Textile Traditions and Ancient Ruins

Spending a day exploring the highlights of the Oaxaca Valley outside of the city will heighten your appreciation for all that you’ll discover within it. You can rent a car from the Oaxaca International Airport (from $70*) or hire an English-speaking guide such as René Cabrera Arroyo (011-52-951-516-1165; tours, from $25 a person an hour). From downtown Oaxaca City, a 15-minute drive east on Caminos del Mezcal leads to El Tule (2 de Abril, Santa María del Tule; admission, $1), a 2,000-year-old cypress tree next to a plaza where trumpets often sound.

Passing agave fields and towns, it’s 25 minutes to Teotitlán del Valle, a hub of textile weaving. A few minutes’ walk uphill from the market and through a teal door leads you to Porfirio Gutiérrez y Familia (6 Simon Bolivar; 011-52-951-166-6216), a shop and education center named after its owner, a master weaver who travels the world spreading the word about Oaxacan textile culture. A grapefruit-laden tree rises from a courtyard where the Gutiérrez family makes rugs by hand, a skill their family has been practicing for generations. Porfirio Gutiérrez’s sister, Juana Gutiérrez Contreras, is the dye master, and her husband, Antonio Lazo Hernández, is a master weaver.

To make more than 40 shades of dye, Juana uses plants, insects and minerals in various combinations. Tiny cochinilla bugs that thrive on prickly pear cactus leaves, for example, are dried then crushed to form red dye; a squirt of lime turns red to purple. Wool is dyed in pots then woven into tapestries on a loom. “Many symbols you’ll see on our rugs are inspired by the Zapotec and appear on archaeological sites like Mitla,” says Claudio Gutiérrez, Juana’s nephew. Oaxaca’s heritage traces back to 1500 B.C. and the Zapotec civilization that flourished in this valley before the Spanish arrived, in 1521. At the gallery, some tapestries are tagged for museums in the States, while others are for sale.

Twenty minutes along Caminos del Mezcal lies the aforementioned Mitla (San Pablo Villa de Mitla; admission, $4). Built in 500 B.C., it’s where Zapotec and Mixtec peoples worshipped their dead. You could easily spend an hour walking through the sprawling complex, stamped with those same Zapotec symbols.

Mezcal Making

An hour east of Teotitlán del Valle, Matatlán is the mecca of mezcal, a spirit made from any of the 30 different types of agave plant grown in Oaxaca—plus serious labor, time and thought. In Matatlán (population about 8,000), 90 percent of working-age adults are involved in the production of mezcal, which has found footing on high-end bar menus around the world. Of the many palenques (distilleries) here, two stand out. From behind the wood bar at the no-frills Dainzú (Carr. Internacional km 48, on the corner of 21 de Marzo Rd.; tastings, $2), owner Leoncio Santiago Hernández will pour you a taste of an especially aromatic mezcal made of tepeztate, a type of agave that grows wild, while just paces away, more mezcal is mid-production: A horse pulls a stone to grind agave hearts that were roasted for five days in an earth pit. The mashed agave will next be fermented in wooden tanks and distilled into mezcal in copper stills before making its way to the bar and your glass. Mezcal Macurichos (Carr. Internacional N5; 011-52-195-151-8-3119; tastings, $3) offers a more refined experience: You can watch mezcal being made and do a tasting in a courtyard presided over by a peacock.

To lunch at picnic tables alongside families, stop by the roadside Comedor Jessy (near Dainzú, on Carr. Internacional 190; lunch for two, $6), where two women helm an outdoor stove to prepare tasty memelas (corn tortillas with Oaxacan cheese and black beans) and quesadillas stuffed with squash blossoms.

In the City

Oaxaca City titillates your senses: Low-slung buildings come in shades of electric blue, orange and green; firecrackers sizzle from somewhere far away at all hours of the day and night; markets overflow with sacks of chilies and displays of long-stemmed lilies; and parades with larger-than-life puppets and live music burst forth in the streets while bystanders clap and trail along. Walking is the best way to explore, keeping in mind a few places you’d like to visit but also being open to making your own serendipitous discoveries.

Where to Eat

Many visitors from other parts of Mexico and abroad come to Oaxaca specifically for the food. Chef Alejandro Ruiz Olmedo’s Casa Oaxaca (104-A Calle de la Constitución, Centro; 011-52-951-516-8889; dinner for two, $60)—where Gabriella Gonzalez spoke of cooking with love—is not to be missed. Feast on velvety mole negro on the stone terrace. For breakfast, try Olmedo’s Casa Oaxaca Café (518 Jazmines; 011-52-951-502-6017; breakfast for two, $10) to sip on Mexican hot chocolate (this is not the sweet stuff you’re used to) or freshly squeezed lime juice with chia seeds. Chef Luis Arellano interned at Casa Oaxaca then went on to cook at Mexico City’s Pujol—named one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2016—before coming home to Oaxaca and opening the sleek Criollo (129 Calzada Madero; 011-52-951-351-1908; site in Spanish; dinner for two, $50). “We use Oaxacan ingredients and then layer in traditions from all over Mexico,” Arellano says. “We want you to feel like you’re eating in someone’s home.” From the set menu, you may be served pork-filled green peppers or beef tamales while tortillas are prepared by hand at a station right in the dining room. Origen (820 Hidalgo; 011-52-951-501-1764; dinner for two, $40) looks like a Renaissance painting, with its peach banquettes and antique hutches. Chef Rodolfo Castellanos was born in the city and, of all his dishes, loves the ceviche smoked in corn husk most. The fish is delivered from the coast hours after it was caught, and his staff goes to the markets for corn, peppers and more three times a week.

Where to take in art

There are a startling number of museums here. Museo Rufino Tamayo (503 Morelos; 011-52-951-516-4750; admission, $5) displays pre-Hispanic art in colorful backlit cases. A small courtyard garden at the Oaxacan Graphic Arts Institute (507 Calle Macedonio Alcala; 011-52-951-516-6980; admission, free) is as lovely as the collection of Latin American works. And the cacti at Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca (Reforma; 011-52-951-516-5325; two-hour guided tours, $6) are walled in by Santo Domingo.

Where to Shop

Many of the crafts created in the valley make their way into the city, and for that reason it’s worth packing an extra carry-on bag; the goods you’ll find here are affordable and one of a kind. Lanii (302 Murguía; 011-52-951-351-5371) partners with artists on a line of tote bags that come in unique shapes, like a small square with a hand strap. Tienda Q (109 Manuel Bravo; 011-52-951-514-8880) stocks blouses and leather sandals. Ceramic bowls made by potters who mine clay in villages throughout Oaxaca fill Colectivo 1050 (800-C Xolotl; 011-52-951-132-6158). Around the corner, Grana (011-52-951-126-9425) carries shirts made by a women’s collective on Soyaltepec Island, in northern Oaxaca.

Where to Drink

At Mezcaloteca (506 Reforma; 011-52-951-514-0082; site in Spanish; 40-minute tastings, $15 a person), a bar and classroom with more than 100 varieties on offer, owner Rafael Bucio will teach you to swish the first sip around your mouth to get used to the high-proof intensity and pave the way to enjoy your next, real sip. Expendio Tradicion (corner of Reforma and Murguía; 011-52-951-501-1460; cocktails for two, $6) has a menu that’s 17 mezcal cocktails deep; meanwhile, Casa Estambul (316 Allende; 011-52-951-156-0321; cocktails for two, $8) becomes a scene at night with a DJ and dancing.

More Artistry

About 35 minutes south of downtown is Alfarería Doña Rosa (24 Calle Benito Juarez; 011-52-951-551-0011), in San Bartolo Coyotepec, one of the places Colectivo 1050 sources its ceramics from. In the 1950s, artisan Doña Rosa invented a technique that uses quartz to make barro negro, or black pottery, shiny; today, her descendants carry on that tradition and operate this enormous open-air store that practically overflows with plates and vases big and miniature.

Twenty minutes farther south leads to Jacobo & María Ángeles (9 Calle Olvido, San Martin Tilcajete, Ocotlan; 011-52-951-524-9047). The husband-and-wife pair carve impressive alebrije figures out of copal wood that are then dried for up to three years before being intricately painted using natural dyes. The couple’s endeavor has expanded into a compound centered around a courtyard flanked by apprentice workshops, education stations and galleries where you can view and buy the works. They are often crafted in forms—imagine jaguars, hearts entwined with tree limbs and more—to reflect the soul of whoever commissions them. Thinking back on the words of sous chef Gabriella Gonzalez, the exchange is, in a sense, a giving and receiving of souls—something truly Oaxacan.

RCI® affiliated resorts near the Oaxaca coast include:
Secrets Huatulco Resort & Spa by UVC C862

Every suite at this resort on Conejos Bay has a terrace with a Jacuzzi or swim-out access. Seccion Hotelera Bahia de Conejos, Lote 8, Bahia de Conejos, Huatulco
Member Review: “Impeccable grounds.”

Dreams Huatulco Resort & Spa by UVC C563

Bring the whole family: There are six pools to choose from and a full roster of entertainment, from musical acts to kids’ activities on the beach. Bahia Tangolunda Blvd., Benito Juarez No. 4, Huatulco
Member Review: “Amazing views.”

Dreams Huatulco Resort & Spa by UVC—3 Nights C933

Shares amenities with Dreams Huatulco Resort & Spa by UVC. Bahia Tangolunda Blvd., Benito Juarez No. 4, Huatulco
Member Review: Not yet rated

Dreams Huatulco Resort & Spa by UVC—4 Nights C934

Shares amenities with Dreams Huatulco Resort & Spa by UVC. Bahia Tangolunda Blvd., Benito Juarez No. 4, Huatulco
Member Review: “All on-property restaurants are excellent.”

Park Royal Huatulco D929

Let this all-inclusive resort be a home base for adventure on the nearby Bay of Tangolunda. Blvd. Benito Juarez No. 8, Tangolunda Bay, Huatulco
Member Review: “The staff was sharp and hospitable.”

RCI® Tip

Looking for a stress-free vacation? Booking an all-inclusive getaway is a great way to take out the guesswork when you are on vacation. All-inclusive packages vary by resort; however, many all-inclusive resort packages offer all meals and snacks, unlimited beverages and resort activities. To find out more, visit RCI.com/AllInclusiveSearch.

For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.

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Non-RCI affiliated resorts in Oaxaca City include:
Las Bugambilias

Request to stay in the main house of this B&B. Some rooms come with a terrace or patio. Reforma 402; 011-52-951-516-1165; lasbugambilias.com; doubles from $100 a night, including breakfast (minimum two-night stay)

NaNa Vida

Fourteen rooms with paintings by Oaxacan artists encircle a stone courtyard shaded by grapefruit and mango trees. 405 Murguía; 011-52-951-501-1285; nanavida.com; doubles from $87 a night

Quinta Real Oaxaca

A 16th-century former convent in the center of the city (close to Santo Domingo de Guzmán church) with up-to-date rooms and a pool. 300 Cinco de Mayo; 800-500-4000; quintareal.com; doubles from $145 a night

  • *Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Fall 2018