Travel Black Book Ambassadors Series

Oaxaca: Flavours of Mexico

The best of home: Ambassadors to Singapore provide an insider's guide to their favourite destinations

Who: Mr Rogelio Granguillhome Morfin, 56, Ambassador of Mexico to Singapore

Favourite destination in Mexico: The state of Oaxaca, pronounced "wa-hah-kah", located in the southern part of the country, has been inhabited since prehistoric times. It is not only an artistic and architectural treasure, but also a fusion of different ethnicities and traditions.

Oaxaca city, the capital, was founded by Spanish colonialists in 1529, in a small valley occupied by the Zapotecs, one of Mexico's indigenous groups. There are more than 1,000 historic monuments in Oaxaca, many of which are architectural gems that embody centuries of art and history.

SEE

One of my favourite places in the city is the Templo De Santo Domingo De Guzman, whose baroque architecture is one of the most stunning in Mexico. Construction of the church began in the latter half of the 16th century and took more than 100 years to complete.

Adjacent to the church is the Santo Domingo Cultural Center (http://bit.ly/2ifGAJq), which used to be a monastery.

This centre includes The Museum Of The Cultures Of Oaxaca and the Treasures Of Tomb 7, an exhibition of gold, silver and finery uncovered in the archaeological remains of an ancient Zapotec city about 9km west of Oaxaca city.


Oaxaca’s strong textile tradition has woven fabrics coming in colourful, intricate patterns. PHOTO: FLICKR

Oaxaca is renowned for its strong textile tradition and the Museo Textil De Oaxaca (www.museotextildeoaxaca.org.mx) is a great place to immerse oneself in the vivid colours of Oaxacan textiles and learn more about the weaving tradition in Mexican art.

Many of the artisans of this exquisite embroidery are from indigenous communities in villages surrounding the city.

The patterns on the fabric are so intricate that it can take many months to make a single dress.

I also enjoy visiting the Centro Fotografico Alvarez Bravo (www.cfmab.org), a photographic exhibition centre in the city that is named after pioneer Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo.

His work captures everyday life with a surrealistic feel and he is widely regarded as one of the most important figures of 20th-century Latin American photography.

Finally, take a walk around the Church Of Santo Domingo De Guzman and the Jardin Etnobotanico De Oaxaca (Ethnobotanical Garden) next door.

This garden showcases Oaxaca's rich biodiversity and a very important cactus collection. It is a lovely place to spend a few relaxing hours.

EAT

Oaxaca is often referred to as one of the culinary gems of Mexico due to its rich gastronomic traditions.

For street food, I enjoy going to Mercado 20 de Noviembre, the city's main food market, to soak in its liveliness and enjoy a delicious, local breakfast of pan de yema con chocolate, an airy bread made with egg yolks and paired with delicious hot chocolate for about 20 pesos (S$1.30).

For restaurants, Los Danzantes (www.losdanzantes.com) has great atmosphere and serves an excellent menu of traditional Oaxacan cuisine with a modern twist.

I recommend Huarache De Quesillo Fundido (85 pesos), an oval-shaped fried corn dough topped with nopal (cactus), huitlacoche (corn truffle), chapulines (grasshoppers), chicharron (fried pork rinds) and melted Oaxacan cheese; or the Memelas De Escamoles Con Mole Amarillo (125 pesos), flat, savoury cakes similar to corn tortillas that are topped with escamoles (ant larvae, which have a nutty taste), mole (a flavourful sauce similar to curry) and epazote (a type of herb).

  • Getting there

    The quickest route to Oaxaca, which takes about 23 hours including layovers, is via Tokyo's Narita International Airport. Fly directly from Singapore to Tokyo on All Nippon Airways, then transfer to an Aeromexico flight to Mexico City and, from there, hop on a domestic flight to Oaxaca.

    Aeromexico (aeromexico.com), Interjet (www.interjet.com/en-us) and Volaris (www.volaris.com) airlines operate more than eight flights a day between Mexico City and Oaxaca.

    Alternatively, travellers can fly to San Francisco - Singapore Airlines and United Airlines offer direct flights there - and connect to one of four daily flights between San Francisco and Mexico City. This route is about four hours longer.

Perhaps these dishes are for the more adventurous, but they are worth trying as they are made with uniquely Mexican ingredients.

For a main course, try the Tlayuda Con Camarones (195 pesos). Tlayudas are large, toasted white-corn tortillas covered with different toppings such as asiento (pork lard), col (cabbage), meat, refried beans and fresh Oaxacan cheese.

Los Danzantes also serves a high-quality mezcal. Like tequila, this alcoholic beverage is distilled from the agave plant that is native to Mexico and is best enjoyed sipped slowly instead of being downed like a shot. Orange slices are often served as an accompaniment.

SHOP

Oaxaca is home to several large markets, one of the oldest being the Mercado Benito Juarez. Built in 1893, it is an incredible fusion of the tastes, smells, sounds and textures of Oaxaca.

Some interesting market finds are mole sauce, fresh quesillo cheese, cacao beans, barbecued grasshoppers, woodcraft and huipiles (traditional garments). Moreover, the artisanal products and crafts found at markets make unique gifts and souvenirs.

La Casa De Las Artesanias De Oaxaca (http://bit.ly/2j3DUvL), located a stone's throw from the Church Of Santo Domingo, is a good place to shop for all kinds of artisanal crafts made by indigenous communities in the region.

  •  Tips

    • Oaxaca is one of the safest destinations in Mexico and Oaxacans are very warm and welcoming. Nonetheless, as with any city in the world, travellers should take precautions. Do not leave valuables unattended and do not dress in a flashy manner with jewellery on display.

    • Oaxaca has a mild, temperate climate year-round, with highs of 25 to 30 deg C during the day and temperatures as low as 10 deg C at night, so pack a light jacket or sweater to guard against the evening chill.

    • Peak travel season is during the city's driest months from October to March. Afternoon and evening showers typically occur during the wettest months from July to September.

    • A tourist visa is not required for Singaporeans visiting Mexico for a period of fewer than 180 days.

    • For more information on the region, go to www.visitmexico.com.

Besides textiles, ceramics and accessories, one can find other beautiful products of Oaxacan folk art such as alebrijes (brightly coloured sculptures of fantastical creatures) and laton (brass ornaments).

PLAY

The state of Oaxaca has magnificent beaches and it is worth making a trip to Puerto Escondido, a water lover's paradise about 290km from Oaxaca city.

You can surf, snorkel and fish, as well as spot turtles, dolphins and whales.

Rent kayaks or motorboats and venture 20 minutes north to visit Manialtepec Lagoon. There, you can view pelicans, hawks, hummingbirds and other fauna that inhabit the mangrove forests.

At night, when you return to Puerto Escondido, check out its vibrant nightlife. Bars and clubs are clustered around the main commercial area, known as El Adoquin.

STAY

I am fond of the Quinta Real hotel (www.quintareal.com/oaxaca-en).

It is located in the heart of Oaxaca, just a block away from the Templo De Santo Domingo De Guzman. Its colonial architecture reflects the Spanish influences in the region. Prices of rooms start at about US$150 (S$213) a night.

Though one could spend weeks in Oaxaca, three days are sufficient to get a good feel of the city.

Plan for a few more days to visit attractions outside the city such as the beaches and archaeological sites.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 15, 2017, with the headline 'Flavours of Mexico'. Print Edition | Subscribe