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Food and Female Empowerment in Oaxaca, Mexico

I’m still processing the experience I had in Oaxaca, Mexico. As my first real trip away from my daughter, I was all around feeling anxious – and guilty. Was it OK to start traveling again? Did I deserve it? Is seeing the world still important to me when a bigger piece of my heart is at home?

Every second was worth it.

Purposeful Nomad: Travel with Intention had us deep diving into the spirit of women in Oaxaca, who celebrated their Zaptoec and Mexican heritage through talented artisan skills. But that really simplifies all that encompasses these communities, born from true grit and passion to not just survive, but thrive in their industries and personal lives.

From rug weavers and ceramic masters to candlemakers and chocolate connoisseurs, each visit shed light onto the amazing stories, failures and successes each women-own business has endured. Not only was I humbled to be invited into homes, but I felt encouraged as a new mom to keep my own identity and passions alive too.

Not to mention, the Purposeful Nomad team sprinkled amazing city tours, food, history, and fun throughout the trip too. I’ll never be able to cover it all, but here’s an introduction to all things Oaxaca City and beyond!

Respecting the past

Zona Arqueológica Dainzú

danziu archeological site near oaxaca city mexico

Sometimes this beautiful site is overlooked by visitors. As a sacred place specifically for women and divine feminine energy, I’d encourage anyone to come respectfully and feel a connection to the land and people. Just to note, sometimes Dainzú is closed to the public, so have an alternate plan if you do venture out that way on your own.

With Purposeful Nomad, we embraced a welcoming ceremony and offering in this space. As a group of women, we asked for a positive experience in Mexico and to learn from this special trip.

Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman

templo gizman oaxaca city mexico

Life has been centered around spirituality and the church for millenia in Oaxaca. But not often the indigenous traditions – moreso, the Catholics. In 1537 the Spanish came and introduced Christianity to Oaxaca. There’s lots of fascinating history there about the struggles of the indigenous Oaxacqueno populations to continue their livelihoods with ongoing invasions of European and even the neighboring Aztec.

Benito Juarez, who was Oaxacaqueno, created new laws to separate church and state. He was the 26th president of Mexico and the first indigenous man to lead. Obviously, the Catholics didn’t like any of this! However, that began the independence talks of Mexico and molded the melting pot of influence that is current-day Oaxaca.

Through a collaboration with ONCE Journeys and Purposeful Nomad, our highly knowledgeable guide named Flor told us about the city’s past. She keeps the stories alive in the present day. 

While hearing Oaxaca’s history, we visited several churches, including The Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman. It’s the main church and square in the city center. It’s also part of an official UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassing all of historic Oaxaca City.

Staying somewhat central

El Diablo y la Sandia

el diablo y la sandia oaxaca mexico

Oaxaca makes taking photos easy. Especially when roaming the streets of old town, or staying in beautiful boutique hotels. Purposeful Nomad chose the ideal sanctuary in Oaxaca City called El Diablo y la Sandia (The Devil and the Watermelon!). There are two properties; I was at the Boca del Monte property, complete with courtyards bursting with flora and a cozy, family-style lobby/breakfast area. A few minutes’ walk takes you to all the downtown action, and your room provides respite after a day of sightseeing in the sun. I loved it.

Mole mole mole!

mole maker near oaxaca city mexico

Mole was born in Oaxaca. If you’ve ever tried mole, you probably have had a sauce that’s very rich, dark brown and with a hint of chocolate. However, mole is up for interpretation in many different Oaxacan dishes and varies from an almost jet-black color or deep red to yellows and bright greens.

Here’s just a small list of a few ingredients in some moles. But oftentimes there are dozens more surprising flavors incorporated:

  • Tomatoes
  • Chilies
  • Sesame seeds
  • Cinnamon
  • Toasted bread
  • Chocolate
  • Sugar
  • Thyme

You can order a mole dish at most of the restaurants in the city, but there are also opportunities in the neighboring villages to learn more about the process from scratch. At one home, we learned that it can take a whole week just to roast the chiles when cooking for a large crowd.

Speaking of mole, if you want to take home any herbs, spices, or cooking utensils, check out the Oaxaca City market. It’s a maze of the good, the bad, and the tacky souvenirs, but the local crafts and good definitely outnumber the imports. Find everything from stone chile grinders to lovely embroidered dresses and aprons.

More time celebrating the delicious

El Sabor de Cecy

Enjoy a few upscale meals that feature Oaxacan delights, but don’t forget a quick taco too. Or two! Near the hotel is a tiny restaurant called El Sabor de Cecy, cooking up delicious tacos with fresh ingredients made right in front of your eyes. The squash blossom and soft cheese was memorable, eaten right at the counter, washed down with a hibiscus drink.

squash blossom burrito taco in oaxaca mexico

Levadura de Olla

At the time, this restaurant was featuring the Mexican tomato in all its colorful forms with a rainbow-like appetizer. While waiting for your dishes, you could walk into the front room to see a whole table full of tomatoes while a server regaled us in how this fruit is used best in Oaxacan cooking. He exclaimed, “Tomatoes are one of the most tenacious fruits there is!”

Another feature in the starters was crickets. Insects might be something new for you, but people have been eating them for centuries all over the world. Cricket flour is starting to become a bit more mainstream because of the protein and health benefits. You can order your guacamole with a side of deep-fried critters.

Hierba Dulce 

salsas and dishes at hierba dulce in oaxaca city mexico

Women-run establishments are the pride of this city, especially Hierba Dulce. The all-vegan menu highlights many traditional styles of cooking. They pride themselves in using hyper-local ingredients to combat over-industrialization of agriculture. Have a meal in the sunny courtyard and don’t miss the chance for some homemade mole and fresh salsas. 

Puro Burro

This laid-back atmosphere feels a little more local than other establishments nearby. The steak burrito paired with cold beer was a perfect later-night dinner within walking distance from our hotel.

Oaxaca Brewing Company

Like most major cities, Oaxaca is riding the beer brewery train too. Don’t make the mistake of ordering wine there like I did, rookie mistake. But the beers on tap are tasty and the vibe is intimate.

Sur a Norte

sur a norte oaxaca

You’ll find a fun cocktail culture in Oaxaca, especially along the rooftop bars near the main church square. Enjoy the view and a sip or two under the shade, with a bird’s-eye view of the city.

Cozana

A bit kitschy and a lot of fun, this rooftop bar and restaurant boasts some wonderfully strong cocktails and fusion appetizer-like food.

La Olla

A cute and colorful place to sample some more moles and fresh seafood. There were some vegan options here as well, plus spicy margaritas. Upstairs is nice and away from the crowds, especially for an early dinner.

Boulenc

chocolates with tejate and mezcal

If you need a coffee and sweets fix, this is your spot. Get there early for the best selection from this bakery, as there’s often a line. They did have some bottled cold brew coffee if you are painfully American like me, and some tasty pastries. We stopped once in the evening too and I took home some mezcal and tejate chocolates. Tejate is a non-alcoholic corn and cacao drink that honestly wasn’t my favorite when I tried it at the market, but was great as a truffle!

Supporting local women

After indulging all Oaxaca City has to offer, it’d be a huge miss to not venture outside city limits. I wish I could cover every single experience on the whirlwind tour. Here’s a few of the wonderful artisans and business owners we met in person. 

(If you’d like to read a more in-depth look at the story of the rug co-op, feel free to visit this post on Crooked Flight!)

Mujeres del Barro Rojo

Mujeres baro rojo oaxaca group

Red clay is gathered from the nearby mountains and molded into gorgeous works of art that are practical too. The founder’s story offered drama and success, as she broke free of village norms and became an educated businesswoman instead of a wife and mother. Her whole extended family benefits from the ceramic products she sells, which is a full-fledged operation using traditional crafting tactics. Her pieces have been featured in museums and they sell some wares at her massive home and workshop.

Candlemaking

Candles play a large role in many matrimonial ceremonies throughout Mexico. In Oaxaca, these intricate candles are carved and dipped, representing the love a spouse has for his (traditional) bride-to-be. This women-owned business makes such candles for display, then the wax is repurposed again for future use to avoid waste. Several generations have mastered the art of candle making, and each has a role in the process. If you visit the workshop, you can also take home candles that are size-friendly for suitcases.

Decadent chocolate

roasting cacao near oaxaca city mexico

All good things take time, right? We spent a morning observing a local chocolate maker and the results were heavenly. Cacao beans are roasted over an open flame, then ground by hand into a super fine paste. You know it’s done when the chocolate turns shiny! LOTS of sugar is thrown in, along with cinnamon sticks too. The block of drinking chocolate dries and can be used to make a super-rich and delicious chocolate beverage enjoyed at all times of day in Oaxaca. The woman  let us know she used *slightly* less sugar for the tourists, as local people love their drinks achingly sweet.

Colorful rugs

Vida Nueva Women’s Weaving Co-Op

I go deep into the story behind the Vida Nueva Women’s Weaving Co-Op on Crooked Flight, but this is a must-visit co-op when you’re near Oaxaca City. See the magic behind the tradition of Oaxacaquenos who weave these gorgeous rugs, all made from natural wool and dyes. It took decades to perfect the art and take charge of this women-owned business, who now use profits to create betterment projects in the village too.

Purposeful Nomad: Travel with Intention

If you’d like to have a similar experience in Mexico or in any of a number of global destinations, Purposeful Nomad is an incredible option. Rates vary as well as what’s included, but overall, it’s so worth putting your trip in the trusted hands of Caitlin and her collaborative teams around the world.

Incredibly, this guide is just the tip of the iceberg! The trip went further into the mountains to partake in a traditional cacao ceremony, visit mezcal distilleries and enjoy the beautiful nature of Mexico too.

Other journeys coming up with Purposeful Nomad include The Galapagos (a co-ed trip), Indonesia, Greece, and Tanzania in 2022. Or plan ahead with future trips in 2023 to India (the most popular experience) and Morocco.

Eileen Cotter Wright

Author Eileen Cotter Wright

Eileen Cotter is a freelance travel journalist and owner of Pure Wander. She's our resident expat extraordinaire and falls down a lot in yoga class. Follow her on Twitter @Crooked_Flight

More posts by Eileen Cotter Wright

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