Magical Reality: One Day in Oaxaca

Magical Reality: One Day in Oaxaca

This story appears in SUITCASE Volume
14 The Art Issue

“I’m a poet.” The lie slips out of my mouth without a second
thought. What on earth has compelled me to tell the man who’s
trying to teach me to salsa dance that I write poetry for a living?
It could be that it’s 2AM, I’m a couple of mezcals down, and I’m
desperate to compensate for the fact that the whole courtyard salsa
club is moving to the rhythm in a way that I categorically cannot
manage. Even so…a poet?

I’m making this false statement on my final night in Oaxaca,
the capital city of the southerly Mexican state known by the same
name. Over the past three days I have watched artisans craft
fantastical creatures out of single pieces of wood, met weavers
practising centuries-old techniques and witnessed how the ancient
craft of mezcal distillation is being brought into the modern age.
I have come here to learn about Mexican folk art and its links to
indigenous cultures, but I have wound up discovering a creative
community more contemporary than I could ever have imagined – one
that I am now lying to be a part of.

Before my trip, a Mexican curator warned me against organising
her country’s culture into stereotyped motifs of magic, folklore
and myth, and her voice is in the back of my head as I arrive. I
try not to think of Oaxaca as magical, but the city resists my
efforts from the start.

Light pours across the whitewashed walls of an interior
courtyard as I check in at Hotel Azul, where it seems like the sky,
as though freshly washed, is being hung out to dry in the sun.
Leaving my belongings in one of the bedrooms, all of which have
been designed by local artists, the concierge welcomes me, handing
me a mezcal, and I wince as it burns the corners of my mouth. I’m
ready to explore.

A short walk away, I can tell the time of the day by watching
the movements of people across the Santo Domingo plaza, as though
the whole universe revolves around this one square-shaped pivot.
The city is in the middle of a post-lunch lull that first afternoon
– in front of the church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán that dominates
the square there is an an artist at work under a pink-and-orange
striped parasol. Nearby there is a man playing the accordion in
between tufts of yucca shrubs and a woman hanging white linen
dresses against a cobalt-blue wall.

The colours make a real impression on me. On one cobbled corner
an anonymous painter plays with a contrast that would never have
occurred to me, depicting a peeling, rust-orange wall interrupted
by turquoise pilasters; elsewhere, a green stucco-fronted house is
offset by borders painted lemon-yellow.

Macedonia Alcalá street connects the Santo Domingo plaza with
the zócalo (central square) and I spend that first hour darting in
and out of odd shops that line the pedestrianised road. I sift
through beautiful huipil blouses in a textiles shop called Los
Baúles de Juana Cata, and in the Contemporary Art Museum of Oaxaca
I find cutting-edge installations by the Spanish artist Eugenio

By the time I reach the zócalo, Oaxaca has woken from its
slumber. Shoeshine boys polish the boots of middle-aged men whose
heads disappear between flourished pages of newspaper print.
Children run around the curved bandshell stage in the shade of
laurel trees, ducking between balloon vendors whose heads disappear
into explosions of pink and silver.

It is the second week of December and outside the 20 de
Noviembre market, which lies just south of the zócalo, vendors are
selling nativity sets and fierce red poinsettias, known as the
flowers of Christmas Eve. At the entrance women flog bags of dried
chillies and crunchy chapulines (grasshoppers). Inside, the stalls
file off in straight lines: to the right, there are brilliant
fruits and vegetables; to the left, pillowy sweet buns; at one end,
woven baskets and at another, sandals and leather goods.
Everywhere, the imploring calls of “¿qué le damos?” (what can we
offer you?) are interspersed with murmurs of indigenous

As the light starts to fade, I walk back to the Santo Domingo
plaza where the vendors selling aguas frescas (‘fresh waters’
infused with fruit or herbs) are making way for mezcal stands. I’m
curious to know what all the fuss is about, so I make an
appointment at La Mezcaloteca, a reservation-only tasting room
dedicated to the spirit of the moment.

Inside at the dark wood bar, which is silent and illuminated by
green bankers’ lamps, the female proprietor takes me through a
tasting menu and explains that some mezcals are dry and smoky,
while others are fresh and herbal.

Once night has fallen and the air is cooler, I head to the patio
of Casa Oaxaca, widely believed to be the city’s best restaurant.
is serious about food
, and the state’s geographic and ethnic
diversity has gifted it with some of the richest and most varied
cuisine you’ll find in Mexico.

I start with a ribeye tlayuda, a crunchy tortilla spread with
refried beans, avocado and quesillo, a regional cheese that
resembles mozzarella. Next, I try turkey smothered in thick black
mole, the famous sauce that was first created in the 16th century
and contains over 20 ingredients. Eventually I start to taste
bittersweet tones of dark chocolate counteracting the spice of
peppers, but the complex flavours take some time to unpick.

Along the road back to Hotel Azul three women in indigenous
dress walk without talking in a single-file line with goods piled
in baskets on top of their heads. They dart in and out of my
vision, passing momentarily into the pools of light cast by
streetlamps, before quickly disappearing into obscurity.

Order SUITCASE Volume 14 to find out what happens