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Colorful Oaxaca


A visit to Oaxaca is truly a feast for the senses. Stopping at a street vendor selling hand-woven rugs, you graze your fingers over the textiles' patterned ridges. Walking on, you pass vendors who advertise crunchy, meat-covered tlayudas or yell, "Chapulines! Chicatanas!" as they offer you baked salty bugs—a favorite snack of the locals.

The colors are vivid, too. If you aren't basking in green at the Jardín Etnobotánico, you're tasting your way through a dozen shades of mole or strolling down long, color-blocked streets, noting that no two homes are the same in their color scheme. Anywhere else, this would look tacky. But here in the flavor capital of Mexico—a distinction that might make Oaxaca the flavor capital of the world—these painted boxes are one more dimension to a weekend dream state.

Besides a possible day trip to the Zapotec archaeological site Monte Albán, you need not stray from Oaxaca's center city to be spoiled. Book a room at Hotel Casa Oaxaca: It's the Oaxaca of Oaxacan hotels in that it's the most charming, colorful and authentic. (The sun-soaked pool doesn't hurt, either.) Or stay at Hotel Azul, which makes you feel like you're tucked inside a cactus garden or a Richard Linklater film set, with rooftop dining at your disposal.

Then dive into the city and its markets. Immediately accessible is Mercado Benito Juárez, where you can buy dried peppers, Oaxacan black pottery or locally distilled mezcal. (Though, to be clear, almost all mezcal is made in Oaxaca.) In one wing of the market, you'll make a feast of huitlacoche, enfrijoladas and tamales wrapped in banana leaves. You also can meander to the Zócalo, where you can buy goods from all around Mexico, including silver from Taxco or gemstones from Jalisco. On weekends, a live orchestral performance might provide the soundtrack to your alfresco shopping.

Save your visit to the wholesale Mercado de Abastos for Saturday, when vendors come from all over Mexico to sell their fresh produce. (You can visit any day, but the weekend bustle is not to be missed.) Lose yourself in the rows of produce, herbs and spices, only to land among table makers, wood carvers, fishmongers and shoe peddlers. You can spend hours here—as you should—humbled by the talents of Mexico's best artisans and farmers.

Next, make a dent in your restaurant checklist. On a cloudless night, eat in the foyer of La Biznaga, and if you're there in late summer, ask for the seasonal Chiles en Nogada—a stuffed green pepper covered with white walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds—to commemorate Mexico's September 16 Independence Day. The next day, try Pitiona Cocina de Autor for its inventive presentation of local fare or get a late lunch next to the aesthetic pool at Los Danzantes, so long as you sample your way through its renowned mezcal menu. (The brand's dark añejo mezcal, aged 16 months, is my favorite.) Book your final dinner at Restaurante Casa Oaxaca and order something, anything, covered in mole.

For a nightcap, stop in at the aptly named La Mezcalerita to sample the various agave spirits. Wake for a breakfast of baked goods or shakshuka with poached eggs at Boulenc or make a quick stop at Cafe Brújula to caffeinate while answering emails or composing colorful Instagrams.

The only thing missing from your weekend is a dose of culture—as if you haven't been swimming in it at each corner. You can quickly tour the Museo Textil de Oaxaca for a showcase of traditional Oaxacan garments throughout the years, followed by a self-guided walk around the Centro Cultural San Pablo, with its stunning interiors and garden displays. Even on a quiet day, it's worth seeing. Save a few hours to visit the anthropological Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca and the adjacent greener-than-anything-you've-seen Jardín Etnobotánico, as well as the gold-lined church, the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán. It's best to go when the weather cooperates as the gardens often close on rainy days and you'll have to settle for seeing them from above, in the museum.

Or just settle for a return visit to Oaxaca, which seems more like a guarantee.

Where to Stay

For homey alternatives to Hotel Casa Oaxaca and Hotel Azul, try Casa de las Bugambilias, a family of bed and breakfasts that includes three properties: the colonial Los Milagros, El Secreto with its rooftop deck and spa, and the art-covered Las Bugambilias. Each is a short walk from the city center. Relax with a massage and temazcal (an herbal steam bath) or arrange a Monte Albán tour through the main office at Las Bugambilias. 

Where to Eat

If you'll spend the day walking, start off on the right foot with breakfast at Restaurante Catedral; the chicharrón casserole will fuel you well until lunch. Or, if you go for dinner, start with the house soup, which blends zucchini, poblano chili and pumpkin flower. For the main course, it's obviously mole—though you'll have to choose from eight unique recipes. 

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