Mexico is littered with stunning landscapes, delicious food, vibrant culture, and interesting history, but you need to travel to the southern end of the country in order to find one of the most fascinating regions: the Oaxaca Valley.
Oaxaca (pronounced Wah-haak-kah) means several things. In the largest context, it is one of 32 different states in Mexico covering just over 36,000 square miles making it one of the smaller in the country. It is known for its indigenous cultures and spans areas as diverse as Oaxaca City at 5,100 feet in elevation to the glorious beaches of the Pacific Ocean.
Much of the state exists high in the Sierra Madre mountains and known settlements date prior to 500 BC. Along with stunning archeological ruins, the Oaxaca Valley is blessed with dozens of artisan villages, the center of mezcal, and the birthplace of flavorful mole sauces. With such a bounty of riches, here are some suggestions for experiencing all this valley has to offer.
Step Back in Time
The Oaxaca Valley is surrounded by the past and as the home to the Zapotec civilization, it was the site of one of the earliest complex societies in Mesoamerica. The stunning artifacts of this advanced civilization remain today found in the national treasures such as Mitla, Yagul, San José El Mogote and, of course, the UNESCO site of Monte Albán.
Unless your time is unlimited, it is best to choose two or three sites to visit. One idea is to check out a smaller and less touristed site such as Yagul before heading over to the big draw at Monte Albán. This ensures a broad scoop of knowledge on the valley.
Occupied from 500 BC until around 1520, Yagul is a lovely, and yet quiet, set of ruins in the outskirts of the Oaxacan Valley near Tlacolula. It houses the most important ball court in Oaxaca and consists of three sections offering lovely views of the lush countryside. Although located on the way to the more popular Mitla, Yagul appears less busy than other ruins, allowing for a remarkable visit where you can envision what life must have been like here.
After enjoying the solitude at Yagul it is imperative to head to Monte Albán, truly one of the marvels of Mexico. Set high above Oaxaca City, Monte Albán was the center of political and economic control over the surrounding communities for nearly 1,500 years. Previously occupied by the Olmecs, its heyday was under the rule of the Zapotecs, when the population of the city swelled to over 18,000. The stunning city continues to be excavated but it is easy to understand the importance of the impressive structures, underground walkways, and artwork from the time.
Throughout the city, it is easy to grasp how skilled the Zapotecs were in their knowledge of astronomy and engineering. When the Mixtec people came to the city in the 9th century they brought with them their skill in metalwork and jewelry, and the remains on display in the onsite museum are indeed impressive. As with so many ruins throughout the country, there is no clear evidence why such a skilled society collapsed, creating a mystery all its own.
The Land of 7 Moles
Stepping back into history can work up your appetite and there are few places around better to assuage your hunger than the Oaxacan Valley. The city of Oaxaca is world-renowned for its complex cuisine, featuring such delicacies as chapulines (roasted grasshoppers), but the moles are what truly put the area on the map.
Do you have four or five hours? That is about how long it takes to create one of the culinary marvels of Mexico, the mole sauce. Negro is the most familiar and the one most travelers to the country might have already tried. It’s filled with five types of chilies, two types of nuts, tomatoes, tomatillos, vegetables, and an endless array of spices. And chocolate. That is right, part of the complexity of a mole sauce comes from the addition of unsweetened Mexican chocolate. This cuisine is not for the faint of heart.
The other six traditional mole’s range from roja (red) to verde (green) to amarillo (yellow) to the “stain the tablecloth” manchamantel, where red chorizo grease, tomatoes, and ancho chilies will have you hiding your white napkins. All are labor-intensive, stunningly complex, and, despite many of the same ingredients and techniques, offer up very different taste sensations.
For visitors wanting to experience a taste of nuevo Oaxacan cuisine, several restaurants now offer innovations such as beet or mushroom moles, much to the consternation of traditionalists.
Follow the Artisan Trail
Even non-shoppers will likely fall under the spell of the dozens of local craft villages radiating from Oaxaca proper. Each village seemingly specializes in a particular form of art, all of which are stunning and range from rugs to pottery to alebrijes, fancifully painted wooden animal sculptures. There are several villages that are the most popular for discovering your perfect travel memento.
For spectacular woven items, head to Teotitlan del Valle, where shop after shop beckons you inside with weaving demonstrations and intricately designed rugs, shawls, and table lines. The shops are happy to show you the process as well as the natural ingredients used for the dyes such as marigold petals for yellow and orange, cornflowers for blue, and the cochineal bug for red. These insects live on nopales, or cacti plants, and are raised for this purpose. The crushed bugs mixed with lime juice create brilliant shades of red.
Along with woven products, one of the stars of the valley is the unique black pottery. Travel to San Bartolo Coyotepec, where you will find craftspeople using millennia-old traditions in making pottery. The dark pottery was originally a somewhat dull sheen when, in the 1950s, a young woman named Dona Rosa discovered that rubbing a piece with a smooth stone before firing produced a shiny black color, and revolutionized the market. While the famous black pottery is still the best known, gorgeous green pottery comes from the village of Atzompa, while red items can be found in San Marcos Tlapazola.
To bring out the child in everyone, head to Arrazola to shop for the famous alebrijes, carved wooden animals painted in dazzling colors and a very popular purchase throughout the country.
Drink the Land
Many travelers arrive in the Oaxaca Valley hearing tales of the mysterious mezcal and believing it is the same thing as tequila. These travelers are wrong. While both drinks derive from the agave, all tequila is made with blue agave and generally originates in the state of Tequila and its surrounding areas.
For mezcal, you need to head to Oaxaca, where dozens of varietals of agave thrive. While some are now cultivated, one reason mezcal is prized as artisanal is the rarity of some types of agave used that only grow wild in the hillsides. Agave plants can take from 8 to 30 years to mature, lending to the mystic of the final drink and is generally harvested by hand. Once harvested, the pinas, or hearts, are roasted on fire before being crushed under stone wheels pulled by a horse or donkey and then distilled in clay pots. This process is what encourages the deep smokey flavor of a well-distilled product.
Although nine states of Mexico are permitted to call their products mezcal, Oaxaca is often considered the central hub for the spirit. In case it isn’t yet obvious, the cultivation and production of a fine distilled mezcal is backbreaking work, but one of the true joys of traveling to the region is to meet the fine men and women who are willing to follow age-old traditional means of producing small-batch mezcal. Mezcal is certainly the smoky, sippable, grown-up version of tequila.
A journey to the Oaxaca Valley is monumental. It involves stepping back into the history of a land that has thrived for thousands of years. It involves using all of your senses to be able to fully take in the scope of craftsmanship that exists in everything, from the majestic ruins of former occupants to the quality of handmade artisan crafts to the taste of a complex mole and smoky mezcal, for Oaxaca is all of these things.