Mexico's top culinary destination and one of Latin America's cultural highlights, Oaxaca proudly displays its indigenous heritage in its flavorful cuisine, fine arts and crafts, and ancient monuments. A far cry from Mexico's overwhelming capital city and overdeveloped beach resorts, Oaxaca's downtown is friendly and easy to navigate, with locals, natives from neighboring villages, and tourists mixing freely in the streets, markets, and open squares.
Dr. Sheri Rosenthal, founder of the spiritual travel company Journeys of the Spirit, recommends browsing a few of Oaxaca's indigenous and craft markets in the downtown area and trying your hand at Oaxacan cooking, which famously combines chocolate and chilies in some recipes. You can take lessons with chef Pilar Cabrera from La Olla, one of the top restaurants in the city. Shared classes cost $65 per person and include the preparation of a five-course meal. If you really want a concentrated experience, stay in the Oaxacan countryside town of Etla, with Susana Trilling, author of the Seasons of My Heart cookbook and host of a PBS cooking series. One-day group classes start at $75 per person and include transportation, shopping in the local markets, cooking the ingredients you purchased, and of course, eating them.
A tour of nearby ancient ruins is also a must, including the massive hilltop Zapotec ruins of Mont Alban and Mitla, a Zapotec and Mixtec palace with intricate mosaics and red-washed walls. Admission for both is just a few dollars.
"Do take time to visit the surrounding towns," says Rosenthal. "Each specializes in a different craft, whether that is black pottery (San Bartolo De Coyotepec), green pottery (Atzompa), hand woven rugs (Teotitlan del Valle), or alebrijes—imaginary animals carved from copal wood (Arrazola)." Most hotels can arrange full-day tours to these villages for about $30. Oftentimes guides will bring you right into the artists' workshops so you can watch the crafts being made and ask questions.
Women-only tour: Next June 13, Rosenthal leads the weeklong Women's Retreat to Oaxaca: Becoming the Supreme Artist of Your Life. The tour weaves together visits to some of Oaxaca's best cultural and historical attractions with daily classes in spiritual and creative arts. The $1,995 cost includes accommodations, classes and activities, some meals, ground transportation, and guides.
Do-it-yourself: For simple but friendly accommodations a short walk from the center of town, stay at the Hotel Casa Arnel, where prices start as low as $40 per night. During major festivals and holidays, the hosts usually arrange something special for guests, such as a caroling procession around Christmastime. If you'd prefer more upscale lodging downtown, you can't beat the elegant little Casa de los Frailes, which has rooms from about $84 per night or Casa de las Bugmabillias Bed and Breakfast (connected to the La Olla restaurant) which has rates from $60 per night.