I’ve written before about how incredible gorgeous the state of Oaxaca is. Chiapas and Oaxaca are two of the most beautiful and amazing places to see. We’ve driven the coast, the mountains from Tuxtepec to Oaxaca and now from Oaxaca to Puebla. All of it breath-taking. I’m not sure the pictures and video below do it justice but we tried.

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Nestled a couple hundred feet above Oaxaca Centro is the rural suburb of San Felipe. Seemingly teeming with expatriate gringos from all over the globe, the rather affluent neighborhood is incredibly serene despite its 10-minute proximity to the heart of the city. Here, thanks to the Mexican Camping book, we found the oasis of Doug French, an American from New York by way of Menlo Park. Doug moved to Oaxaca 20-some years ago and started a textile business, which, he claims, was bankrupted by NAFTA. Instead of high-tailing it back to the states Doug switched his occupation to the now high-class distillation of Mezcal. Oaxaca is famous for Mezcal, it has surpassed even the most boutique Tequilas as the cocktail of choice for Mexico’s elite and the booming mixologist scene.

Doug has turned his 5-acre ranch into an agave experimentation resort of sorts. Five different varietals of blue agaves line RV style campsites, apartments and small haciendas. The campground is “self maintained” by the occupants but the extra work is well worth the view of the city and the view into the one of the regions more important artisan economies. Doug’s mezcal (mescal) is amongst the best we tasted further witnessed by his almost 100% export to Australia, the US and Europe instead of the lower profit Mexican market. We were lucky enough to buy a couple of liters right from the barrels in his garage. We may have inadvertently made enXco a little business, as Doug is potentially interested in off-taking some wind energy from the state’s projects in La Ventosa.

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We had one dinner to eat out in Oaxaca. I told Natalie that I want to eat at the place where Rick Bayless would eat if he had only one meal to have in Oaxaca. By pure luck, partial starvation and sheer desperation we decided on Casa Oaxaca. We had actually picked another spot out of the guidebook but we randomly found ourselves in the courtyard entrance to the hotel restaurant after staggering through yet another art gallery painfully in need of a bathroom. One look at the menu and I couldn’t leave. They had me at the molé rojo duck tacos, well actually I was reeled in at the squash blossom consomé which was the first thing on the menu.

For those of us that are indecisive or would otherwise order everything on the menu whether you could force-feed it down or not, tasting menus are a godsend. Casa Oaxaca has two, naturally we ordered one of each. I partook of the Tradicional, grasshopper taquitos, the aforementioned squash blossom soup, veal tongue with green molé, venison with red molé, a wondrously complex molé negra over a turkey breast and a classic Oaxacan corn pudding for postrés. As incredible as it was Natalie’s Contemporáneo tasting menu was superior, far superior, amongst the best I’ve ever had. Her courses started with a ricotta cheese stuffed squash blossom with honey and epazote, my goal in life is to one time, make something as delicate, sophisticated and as delicious. The second offering was the most complex and exquisite cream of corn soup ever – seriously, who knew that something so simple and common could be so incredible. The jicama taquitos, parmesan pescado, and thyme reduction duck breast could have been terrible and her meal would have been a wild success; of course they were extraordinary too. The Oaxacan chocolate mousse put the whole thing in another realm.

We didn’t even have the duck tacos with red molé but we did manage to suck down two bottles of the Valle de Guadalupe’s (Ensenada) finest Tempranillo. Rick Bayless would be proud.

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Oaxaca’s sprawling central market is a vast complex of modules and locales that takes up the equivalent of several city blocks. It is the busiest on Saturdays, the day we visited and the people watching rivaled the market itself. The only place that I have been in the world that rivals it is the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul Turkey. But unlike Istanbul’s equally labyrinthian shopping mecca, you can buy virtually ANYTHING at the Abastos market. Whether you are looking for a replacement remote control for your T.V., new lingerie, every kind of fruit or vegetable know to Mexico, a half a cow (butchered or un-butchered), live birds – cockatoos or turkeys?, mannequins, baked goods, licuados, chiles, spices, cleaning supplies, a new sombrero, new zapatos, a Mexican wrestling mask, or chocolate for the mole for your dinner party you can get it at the market – cheap.

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The city of Oaxaca was far and away our favorite urban center in all of Mexico. To be fair there are a few that we want to visit but won’t get to: Guanajuato, Leon, San Miguel de Allende, Distro Federal, and we aren’t really going to give Puebla a fair chance as we are camping in the suburb of Cholula and giving it a quick drive through. I fear that we will never make it to Guanajuato, Leon and San Miguel de Allende as I don’t think we’ll be doing a driving tour of central Mexico again, while the D.F. and Puebla are easy flights from Tijuana so they are doable on their own.

But Oaxaca is one of those places that I want to spend a month in.

The vibe of the city is amazing, the varied and diverse art that fills the city’s galleries and museums is incredible, the Spanish Colonial architecture is amongst the country’s best preserved and maintained, and the food is well… divine. We spent about a day and a half strolling the plazas, wandering into galleries, discovering the markets, and photographing the numerous cathedrals and iglesias, most notably the fascinatingly, verging on grotesquely, intricate Templo de Santo Domingo.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about Oaxaca that has us so transfixed, the vibe of the place is special. It has something of everything that we love about Mexican culture: indigenous peoples, rebellious politics, creative artisans, delicious cuisine, stimulating coffee… transpose the urban loveliness of Oaxaca to the location of the state’s wave blessed southern beach town of Puerto Escondido and I’m moving permanently. The pictures don’t do it justice but perhaps with the following posts on our adventures there you’ll be inspired to make the trek as well.

I included most of the pictures here but there are a more over on Flickr including a panoramic of the world’s largest nativity scene and the photos from all the other Oaxaca posts.

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Amazingly, Natalie rolled out of bed this morning at 7:15. It is a miracle. We opted for the rolling breakfast; coffee from hastily boiled hot water while we fill up at Pemex, some yogurt with granola deftly served from the back of the van between potholes and topes, and some fruit from the no-longer cat piss infested refrigerator. We had an incredibly long drive ahead of us, at least eight hours of rolling time, our longest yet and most likely the second or third longest of the trip. It was fairly uneventful, albeit bumpy and slow going. The cuota through Veracruz was in terrible shape and the road from Tuxtepec to Oaxaca is windy and steep. Really steep. So steep in fact that the van overheated about a kilometer from the summit. She up and quit, right in the middle of the highway, no shoulder, no turnout, just done right in the lane. We had to flag the passing motorists as they trudged up the hill. Luckily the road was so steep no one was going all that fast and the region is so remote that only five or six cars passed us in the 45 minutes and brand new 20 liter purified drinking water jug it took to cool down. Eight hours on the road turned into nine or ten by the time we added up our sojourn from just above sea level creeping up the mountains to about 9000 feet and traversing back down into Oacaxa at just about a mile high. We are camped at a really beautiful campground, slash agave farm, slash meszcal distillery and looking forward to hitting the world famous Oaxaca central market on Saturday, its busiest day.

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