International Budget Guide 2013: Oaxaca, Mexico

If you are seeking an authentic and affordable taste of Mexico, look no further than Oaxaca.

The southwestern Mexican city has come a long way since the political protests of 2006, where non-violent activists clashed with corrupt government officials and militia in the streets. The protests led to a renewed sense of self-awareness and confidence for the city, and today, Oaxaca is once again a safe and welcoming place for tourists. The city boasts a strong cultural heritage, exciting contemporary art scene and deserved place as the gastronomic capital of Mexico. Central Oaxaca’s colonial buildings and cobblestoned streets have earned the historic district a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, and its many monuments are being spiffied up for the World Congress of World Heritage Cities, which the city will host in November.

Along with the old, there is also the new. Oaxaca’s universities imbue the city with a spirit of youth, creativity and entrepreneurial energy. In addition to the traditional markets and restaurants, there are plenty of exciting start-up businesses as well: affordable pop-up restaurants, yoga studios, mezcal tasting libraries and city cycling associations, to name a few.

Visitors to Oaxaca find a cultural experience that can’t be found in over-touristed resort towns like Cancun and Cabo. It is very much a city on the verge.

Budget Activities

The Zocalo: The historic Zocalo, bordered by the governor’s palace and main cathedral, can provide hours of people-watching entertainment. You could spring for a drink at one of the dozens of restaurants lining the plaza, or just buy a 10 peso (US$1.10) corn-on-the-cob and grab a park bench. Either way, there’s plenty to keep you busy in Oaxaca’s most famous plaza. On one side, activists protest peacefully for a change in government. On the other, small children push oversized balloons high into the air. And between, Oaxacans from all walks of life converge. It’s the true heart of the city. Between Hidalgo, Trujano, Flores Magon and Bustamente Sts.

Monte Albán: These ruins just outside Oaxaca once comprised one of Mesoamerica’s earliest and most important cities, said to be founded in 500 B.C. The impressive Main Plaza contains hundreds of carved stone monuments, with curious etchings that were once thought to be dancers, but are now believed to be tortured war prisoners. You can easily book a guided tour to Monte Alban from the dozens of tour offices across the city, but a cheaper option is to take the 50 peso (US$4) round-trip tourist shuttle from the Hotel Rivera del Angel, which departs every hour between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. http://www.hotelriveradelangel.com Calle Fransisco Mina 518

Bicycle Night Rides: Experience Oaxaca on two wheels by joining one of Mundo Ceiba’s “Paseos Nocturnos en Bicicleta” – nighttime bike rides sponsored by a local cycling association. The rides take place every Wednesday and Friday starting at 9 p.m., with meeting points in front of the Santo Domingo Church and on Macedonio Alcalá in the city center. Bicycles are available for rent between 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. at Mundo Ceiba’s headquarters at The Hub Oaxaca; bring 50 pesos (US$4) and prepare to leave your passport as a deposit. Quintana Roo 2011

Hotels

Hotel Azul Oaxaca: With 21 guest rooms designed by local contemporary artists, the stunning Hotel Azul Oaxaca is a concept boutique hotel aiming to combine art, design and comfort. The standard rooms are chic and clean, but the real treasures are the suites, like the minimalist Suite Dubon, the playful Suite Leyva and the geometric Suite Villalobos. If you’ve always sought a high-design hotel experience at an accessible price, this is your place. From US$130. http://www.hotelazuloaxaca.com Abasolo 313, Centro

Hotel Casa del Soltano: Housed in a historic colonial building, Hotel Casa del Soltano is a solid budget option that oozes Oaxacan charm, with its colorful yellow exterior, lush gardens and rooftop terrace overlooking the nearby Plaza Santo Domingo. The rooms are a bit cramped, but the outdoor ambience more than makes up for it. From 770 pesos (US$62). http://www.mexonline.com/sotano.htm Tinoco y Palacios 414, Centro

Hostal Casa del Sol Oaxaca: This charismatic hostel offers private rooms and dormitories – without the teenagers and tequila shots. Casa del Sol’s centerpiece is a bougainvillea-shaded courtyard that is perfect for enjoying a casual drink with fellow travelers. Its warm and welcoming atmosphere has earned it legions of glowing reviews and a spot on TripAdvisor’s list of top 25 Mexican bargain hotels for 2013. Dorms from 160 pesos (US$13), private rooms from 450 pesos (US$36). http://www.hostalcasadelsol.com.mx Constitucion 301, Centro

Eat & Drink

La Biznaga: Oaxaca’s artistic community regularly converges in the courtyard of La Biznaga, a popular restaurant serving creative, upscale Oaxacan fare. Chef Fernando López Velarde embraces the slow food movement, and he makes regular use of locally sourced ingredients. Prices are comparatively high but a bargain by American standards; expect to pay about US$20 a head for a multi-course dinner. Don’t miss the fried squash blossom appetizer, which pairs perfectly with the bar’s inventive mezcal cocktails. 512 García Vigil, Centro

Itanoni: The focus is on the corn at Itanoni, a humble eatery about a 15-minute walk from central Oaxaca. The restaurant specializes in tapas-style dishes featuring its famous house-made tortillas, made fresh in front of you from different varieties of local, organic, stone-ground corn. Alice Waters, the godmother of America’s farm-to-table movement, calls it her favorite restaurant in the city. Belisario Dominguez 513

El Olivo: The second-floor bar above the Meson del Olivo is a fixture on Oaxaca’s happy hour scene. Dark but atmospheric, it features an extensive selection of beers from local microbreweries, as well as a solid wine list and the requisite mezcal cocktails. The 100 peso (US$8) happy hour includes four small tapas and a beer or glass of wine. Murguia 218, Centro

Logistics

Get Around: The historic center of Oaxaca is very walkable, and it’s unlikely that you’ll require additional transport if you stay in the city. Oaxaca’s bus system is a safe and convenient option for inter-city jaunts. Buses are clearly and colorfully labeled with their destinations, and standard fare is 6 pesos (US$.50 – try to carry exact change). Taxis are also a decent option, but be sure to negotiate the fare before hopping inside. A ride within central Oaxaca shouldn’t cost more than 50 pesos (US$4), though fixed fares from the airport are significantly more expensive. Expect to pay upwards of 200 pesos (US$16) for the 20-minute ride into town.

Seasonality: Oaxaca’s southern location and high elevation provide it with pleasant temperatures year-round. Peak visitor season is from October to March, but it is also worth making a trip in late July for the famous Guelaguetza folk festival, with attracts cultural performers from across the region.

Safety: Oaxaca is a relatively safe place for visitors, particularly compared to other Mexican cities that have reputations for drug-related violence. However, you should still heed the precautions you would take in any Latin American city. Keep your belongings close to you, don’t flaunt expensive jewelry and be careful about walking alone at night.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user MichaelTyler]

Sunday At The Market In Tlacolula

“Donde esta el autobus por Tlocolula?”

The question was met with a quizzical look. Where was this gringa trying to go?

Perhaps I wasn’t pronouncing it correctly.

“Tloco… Toco… Tlaca…” I stammered.

“Ah, Tlacolula.”

Si. There.

I don’t suppose the makeshift bus stops on the highways of Oaxaca state see many tourists. But somehow, through a series of bumpy bus rides and a long stretch of walking along the side of the road, I had arrived at one.

Earlier in the day, I had decided to escape Oaxaca city for the villages of the Valle de Oaxaca, a vibrant region filled with talented craftsmen, small workshops and stunning scenery. I had discovered that the Tlacolula held a weekly Sunday market, but all attempts to secure a private bus in town had failed – not many tourists visit the small town, about an hour and a half east of the city.

So instead, I decided to try public transport. In time, I found the right bus, and after a cramped hour-long ride I disembarked at a small, dusty station.

%Gallery-181090%It was 10 a.m. and the streets were packed with pushcarts, pedestrians and small pop-up restaurants, with families packed into picnic tables eating tamales. Vendors sold everything from onions to electronics to handmade wooden furniture and gigantic aluminum cooking vats.

This wasn’t a market for tourists. This was a market for Oaxacans.

My tan coloring lent me a degree of anonymity, and I walked peacefully through the stalls, without the hawking and hustling I had become accustomed to in downtown Oaxaca. I stopped for a taco, and then for an horchata. I spent 30 minutes sipping mezcal with a third-generation distiller and another 45 learning about natural dyes and handlooms from a Teotitlan del Valle textile weaver. Enchanted, I left with a sweet passionfruit liqueur and a colorful Zapotec-inspired rug.

I continued through the food stalls of the covered market, where the scent of raw meats mingled with the charcoal from the BBQ pits set up to grill them. Tripe, chicken feet, whole rabbits with the fur still on. Your wish was their command. An old woman stirring a huge pot of stew reached out her fingers to offer me a bite.

Instead, I headed to the main plaza of Tlacolula, a peaceful spot bordered by the magnificent 16th-century Parroquia de la Virgen de la Asunción. Taking a seat, I breathed in the sights and sounds of the village: the meats, the heat, the bougainvillea. I watched as merchants chatted and children played and a single balloon ascended high into the sky.

The ride had been worth it.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

An Education In Mezcal

mezcal

I inhale. The scent is earthy, smoky. I take a sip, rolling the liquid around my tongue, exploring its flavors. Per instruction, I gurgle. My mouth explodes, the alcohol transforming into a liquid fireball that burns the insides of my cheeks. It takes a few minutes before the sensation expires.

There is a saying: “para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también.”

For everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good too.

In Oaxaca, mezcal is as much a part of the landscape as the mountains, textiles and colonial architecture. Legend has it that a form of the tequila-like liquor existed prior to the Spanish conquest of Mexico, but mezcal as we know it was first distilled by the conquistadors in the 17th century. It is a generic name for spirits distilled from the agave plant, or maguey as it is traditionally called, of which there are 11 types. The state of Oaxaca is the traditional home of mezcal, and the countryside is littered with small family distilleries.

But not all mezcal is created equal. There is a difference between artisanal mezcal and the touristy stuff sold in bodegas across the city. I learned the difference at the Mezcaloteca, a tasting library run by a group dedicated to the preservation of traditional mezcal production.

It turns out, pure artisanal mezcal isn’t brown – it’s clear. And those larvae at the bottom of the bottle? Pure marketing, intended to bait unassuming tourists with the promise of a G-rated “Fear Factor” experience. (“I can’t believe you actually ate the worm!” your friends back home will gape.)

No, the best artisanal mezcal is crystal clear and worm free. David, our bartender-cum-teacher, filled us in on some other ways to tell the difference.

  • Look for the words “100% agave,” which signifies that the liquor is pure and not mixed with cheaper additives.
  • Make sure that the stated alcohol content is 45% or greater.
  • Check the label for the state of origin, type of agave plant and name of the maestro mezcalero, or mezcal master.
  • Shake the bottle and see if bubbles arise – they should, unless it is a mezcal with more than 55% alcohol content, in which case the bubbles only arise when you stir it.
  • Do not buy mezcal that is reposado or anejado in barrels – the wood destroys the distinct flavors and aromas of the mezcal.
  • Rub a drop of mezcal between your fingers to evaporate it – the scent should be of cooked agave.

Now for tasting the mezcal.

  • Mezcal is traditionally consumed from a gourd or wide-mouthed cup.
  • Pour the drink from one cup to another to see the bubbles rise.
  • Inhale the mezcal. Try to find the aroma that you smelled when you rubbed the mezcal between your fingers. Then inhale with your mouth closed and try to discern other smells. You’ll notice that there is a difference.
  • Sip the mezcal and rinse your mouth for 10 seconds without swallowing. Exhale through your nose. Feel the flavors on your palate.
  • Take another sip, rinse your mouth for 10 seconds, then swallow and feel the burn.

According to David, these flavors are the essence of mezcal.

The Mezcaloteca is located at Reforma 506 in central Oaxaca. Tastings are available by appointment only, though you may be able to piggyback onto another group’s tasting if you swing by at the right time. Prices vary, but a basic four-pour tasting cost us 150 pesos (about US$12). Call +52-01-951-5140082 or email mezcaloteca@gmail.com for reservations.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Cochon 555 Pork Competition Turns Five, Kicks Off February 17 In Atlanta

baconMuch ado about pork products is made on Gadling, with good reason. Even if you’re sick to death of pork-centric eateries, and lardo this and sausage that, it’s hard to deny the allure of the other white meat (I can’t tell you how many vegetarians and vegans I know who still have a jones for bacon).

For those of you wanting to attend the ultimate porkapalooza, get your tickets for Cochon 555, a traveling, “National Culinary Competition & Tasting Event Dedicated to Heritage Pigs, Family Wineries & Sustainable Farming.”

The 10-city tour kicks off February 17 in Atlanta, and will include stops in New York; Boston; Chicago; Washington, DC; Miami; Vail; Seattle; San Francisco; and Los Angeles, before culminating in the dramatic Grand Cochon at the FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen on June 16. Notice that Colorado gets two Cochon visits? The South isn’t the only place that appreciates pork.

Cochon was created by Taste Network’s Brady Lowe to raise awareness about, and encourage the sustainable farming of heritage-breed pigs. At each destination, five celebrated local chefs must prepare a nose-to-tail menu using one, 200-pound, family-raised heritage breed of pig. Twenty judges and 400 guests help decide the winning chef. The 10 finalists will then compete at the Grand Cochon for the ultimate title of “King or Queen of Porc.”

Depending upon venue, attendees can also expect tasty treats like Heritage BBQ; butchery demonstrations; mezcal, bourbon, whiskey and rye tastings; specialty cheese sampling, cocktail competitions; a Perfect Manhattan Bar, raffles, and killer after-parties.

For additional details and tickets, click here. Partial proceeds benefit charities and family farms nationwide.

[Photo credit: Flickr user out of ideas]

A Guide To Drinking Tequila In Mexico

tequila While tequila is typically thought of as something you took too many shots of during a crazy night out, the drink actually has a deep cultural meaning, rich history and a proper way to be sipped. To help you get better acquainted with the libation, here is a guide to drinking tequila in Mexico.

History

Originating in the northwestern state of Jalisco, tequila is North America’s first distilled and commercially produced alcohol. It is distilled from the blue agave plant, which produces sugar and is native to Jalisco. Tequila’s roots reach back into pre-Hispanic times when the Aztecs fermented sap from the local agave plants, long before the Spanish arrived in 1521. Then, when the brandy the Spaniards had brought with them ran out, they began to distill the agave plant to make tequila.

By law, tequila can only be called “tequila” if it is made in Jalisco. The first qualifications for the drink were written in 1947, and have been constantly updated ever since. If you’re looking for top-shelf tequila, make sure it’s made with 100% blue agave.How It’s Made

According to tequila distillers Daniel Osuna and Alfonso Pelayo Osuna, there is a very specific process for making tequila. First, the agave is cultivated for seven to eight years, before the spines are cut off and the piñas are transported to the distillery. Once this is done, there are four steps in the production process.

1. The piñas are roasted in the oven. This is to change the starch into fermentable sugars and to soften the piñas’ texture to be able to extract their juice.

2. Now comes the sugar extraction, where the largest amount of sugar within the agave is extracted.

3. Fermenting is the most important stage in the process for obtaining the desired characteristics of the tequila. The sugar is isolated to allow it to change to alcohol and for the pleasant aromas to appear.

4. Finally, the product is distilled. This is when the tequila is refined for perfect flavor and aroma in oak barrels. The alcohol absorbs the oak, allowing the tequila to have perfect body, softness and texture.

blue agave Classifications

There are two basic classifications of tequila, “100% blue agave” and “tequila mixto” (mixed). Mixed tequila contains at least 51% blue agave, with the rest typically coming from cane sugar. Other ingredients you may find in this type of tequila include caramel color, oak extract flavoring, glycerin, and sugar based syrup. This type does not need to be made in Jalisco. The other classification, 100% blue agave, will read “Tequila 100% de agave” or “Tequila 100% puro de agave” on the bottle. If it simply says “tequila,” it’s probably mixed.

From the two classifications there are five sub-classifications:

  • Tequila Silver – Blanco – Plata – White – Platinum: This type of tequila is in its purest form. It usually isn’t aged, with the true flavors, intensity and sweetness being present.
  • Tequila Gold – Joven – Oro: This type of tequila is usually mixed, with added colors and flavors. Most times, this type of tequila is inexpensive and used for mixed drinks in bars; however, there are exceptions to this, like when silver tequila is mixed with a reposado and/or añejo tequila. By doing this, you’re still keeping the product 100% blue agave.
  • Tequila Reposado: Known as an “aged” or “rested” tequila, the drink is aged in wood barrels or storage tanks from anywhere between 2 to 11 months. It’s usually gold in color and has flavors of agave and wood. Sometimes, the tequila will be aged in a barrel that once contained a different spirit like whiskey or wine, giving it some of those tastes, as well.
  • Tequila Añejo: This “extra aged” tequila is aged for at least one year. The liquid usually takes on an amber color that is more smooth, dark and complex than the other sub-classifications.
  • Tequila Extra Añejo: Known as “ultra aged,” this tequila is aged for three years or more. The extended aging gives it a very dark color, and the flavor is often hard to distinguish between other high-quality aged spirits. After the aging process, distilled water is added to dilute the tequila.

The Difference Between Tequila and Mescal

Today, majority of mezcal is made in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Unlike tequila, there are five varieties of agave mezcal can be distilled from. Additionally, while tequila is double and sometimes triple distilled, mezcal is usually only distilled once to give it a stronger taste. Currently, more than 500 different brands of tequila are on the market, while mezcal boasts only 100.

To make mezcal, the sugar-rich core of the agave plant called the piña, is baked in a rock-lined pit oven over charcoal. It is covered with layers of palm-fiber mats and dirt, giving the drink a strong, smoky flavor. Locals in Oaxaca drink mezcal to calm their minds and lift their spirits, as well as stimulate their creativity. Moreover, the libation is made by hundreds of small family businesses called “palenques,” which preserve traditional methods of mezcal production.

barrels How To Sip Tequila

Typically, tequila is sipped slowly and enjoyed without salt and fruit. People began doing shots in this fashion because, in the past, the liquor was so strong drinkers needed to take the salt and lemon or lime to make it smoother. Specifically, tequila used to be made with 55 to 60º of alcohol, while today it is made with 38 to 40º, or 80 proof. To properly enjoy tequila, you should follow these steps:

  • Purchase the bottle of your preference
  • Pour a small portion into a globe glass, which keeps the aromas inside for you to enjoy
  • Swirl the drink around like you would a fine wine
  • Smell the tequila with your left nostril, then with your right nostril, to discover hidden scents
  • Tap a small sip and swirl it around your mouth, swallow and take a deep breath. You’ll hopefully be able to taste some flavors of wood and melchonte, or cooked agave.
  • Drink slowly and enjoy how the flavors and aromas interact with your senses

Distillery Tours

The Tequila Express (or Tequila Train) is a Mexican regional train service that operates from Guadalajara, Jalisco, to the municipality of Amatitán, Jalisco. Why is it called the Tequila Express? Because passengers will be given tequila tastings, ride through blue agave fields and end at the Tequila Herradura distillery at the San José del Refugio Hacienda. Prices are $850 M.N. (about $65 USD) for adults, and $480 M.N. (about $37) for children 12 and under. Children under 5 ride free. You can purchase tickets on Ticketmaster’s Mexico website or call 333-818-3802.

[Images via Photomag, Mexico Tourism Board, Mexico Tourism Board]