The state of Oaxaca (wa-ha-kah), bordered by the Pacific coast to the south, is an area of extensive valleys and mountain chains. It is located at the convergence of the Sierra Madre Oriental and the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain ranges, resulting in a rugged and mountainous terrain with a large temperate central valley.
Oaxaca has the largest ethnic population in the entire country and is home to sixteen ethnic communities, each with its own dialect or language, making it one of the most linguistically and culturally varied states in the country. Often referred to as the ‘Soul of Mexico’, this state has had a rich and colourful history. The ancient Zapotec and Mixtec Civilizations extended into the nearby and distant surroundings of the present-day Oaxaca city, the state capital.
This enchanting state was also the birthplace of Benito Juarez, a Zapotec Indian, originally a servant-boy to an affluent family, who eventually became the first President of independent Mexico. He is one of the most influential and revered personalities in Mexican history. Another President of the Republic to be born here was Porfirio Díaz, a mestizo (mixed-race) of Mixtec origin.
No other place has been so warmly spoken of by people, as Oaxaca. It hosts some of Mexico’s most vibrant natural terrain – from tropical forests, to high mountains, lush arable valleys, breathtaking rugged Pacific coastland and quiet coves offering tranquil beaches with soft sands. Besides the numerous important archaeological sites like Monte Albán, Cuilapan, Dainzú, Lambityeco, Yagul, Zaachila, San José el Mogote and Huijazoo, other areas of outstanding natural beauty include the 2000-year-old tree at Santa Maria del Tule; the Hierve el Agua (‘Boiling Water’) near San Lorenzo Albarradas; and the lagoons at Chacahua and Manialtepec. There are three principal beach resorts along the Pacific Coast – Puerto Escondido which is a surfer’s paradise, Puerto Angel with its famous Zipolite Beach, and the Bahias (‘Bays’) de Huatulco. The latter is a group of nine interlocking bays set against rainforest-covered mountains. These well-equipped resorts with charming secluded beaches and numerous luxury hotels attract many tourists from all over the world.
The cuisine of Oaxaca is famous throughout Mexico, mostly for its tamales, mole, and cheese and chocolate.
Famed for its seven moles, Oaxaca is called Tierra de los 7 Moles (Land of the 7 Moles). Yet, there are many more varieties of moles. The rich and smooth chocolate-based sauce with a variety of spices and chiles (chillies) is extremely popular in this region with its most famous variety being the mole negro (black mole). Mole is also available in markets as a readymade mix which has to be combined with chicken broth and a dash of oil and simmered with meat.
Quesillo Oaxaca or Oaxacan cheese is the famous string cheese used especially in quesadillas (keh-sah-dee-yahs). It is a white, semi-hard cheese with a mozzarella-like string cheese texture and is available in several different shapes.
Chocolate is of special importance to the people of Oaxaca. Commonly considered the best chocolate in Mexico, Oaxacan chocolate is a completely divine indulgence till the last bit. It is made with a special blend of cocoa, ground almonds, cinnamon or vanilla and sugar. Usually prepared with hot water or milk, it is served in large coffee cups with a local sweet roll. In the traditional Aztec and Maya form, cayenne pepper is added to make it a spicy chocolate drink. It is common sight to see people buying large quantities of chocolate bars in the specialty shops and markets.
The traditional dishes of this region include the nutritious chapulines (fried spicy grasshoppers); and the tlayudas, which are large crispy corn tortillas loaded with avocado, tomato, onions, and cheese.
The pre-Hispanic drink of Oaxaca is the tejate (te-ha-teh), which is prepared by mixing together the finely ground paste of toasted maize flour, fermented cacao beans, seeds of the native mamey fruit and flor de cacao (‘cocoa flower’). The paste is mixed well with water and served cold in a traditional tejate cup called jícara (hee-kah-rah).
While tequila is the most popular and renowned drink of Mexico, mezcal has gained its own identity as a distinctive, noteworthy spirit. It is produced throughout most of Mexico, but the best known mezcal comes from Oaxaca. This clear but deadly Oaxacan drink packs quite a punch and traditionally contains a worm in the bottle. The worm is the larva of one of the two moths that lives on the agave plant, maguey. The use of the worm is exclusive to mezcal. When a worm is included, the mezcal is known as con gusano (‘with worm’). But as a rule, top-quality mezcal does not contain worms. The reason for adding the worm to the mezcal bottle is obscure. But it is said that if the worm remains intact in the bottle, the percentage of alcohol in the spirit is high. So it serves as a proof of the high alcohol content. During parties, it is customary to pass the bottle around and the last person to finish the bottle has to eat the worm too. The maguey worm is considered a delicacy and can be found on restaurant menus throughout the country.
The state has an abundance of exotic fruits which include tuna, zapote, mamey and guanábana. These are readily available in the market and used in making cool refreshers. Tuna, the fruit of the nopal cactus has an unusual sweet taste to it and is very popular among Oaxaqueños while the large, avocado shaped brown fruit, mamey, with the texture of an avocado has a taste which is a combination of pumpkin, sweet potato, and maraschino cherries. Guanábana has a white pulp full of numerous large seeds which makes it somewhat difficult to eat and so is usually juiced rather than eaten directly.
Being an indigenous area, Oaxaca is the place for buying some of the best craftwork ever likely to be seen in Mexico. Shopping for arts, crafts, textiles, pottery and wood carvings in Oaxaca is a real treat. Most of the things that you see around here are made in the surrounding towns and villages by local artisans and craftsmen. Among the most popular are hand-woven and hand-embroidered clothing, beautiful black clay pottery, rugs, gold jewellery, woollen garments, tapestries, Huichol Indian beaded masks, swords and the colourful Oaxacan alebrijes.
Also known as animalitos, monos, or simply figuras, they are brightly painted wood carvings of animals, plants and mythological creatures which come in all sizes and shapes.
I hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it. You can read more about Oaxaca, my travel experiences there and at many other beautiful destinations in Mexico in my ebook Discovering Mexico
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