As a young hippy, he came to Oaxaca in search of magic mushrooms. As a lawyer, he returned for family holidays, and in retirement Alvin Starkman has embraced the opportunities this colourful Mexican town offers expats catering to increasing numbers of English-speaking tourists.
“Though I can’t always help those who contact me before every major holiday to ask where to find a Seder or a synagogue,” he laughs.
Despite its handful of Jewish residents, some of whom lit 15 menorahs in a joint Chanukah celebration last year, Oaxaca is a city of churches, even if the overwhelmingly Catholic population has bemusedly enjoyed a past performance of Fiddler on the Roof.
This lovely little town, less than an hour’s flight from Mexico City, attracts Jewish and non-Jewish visitors alike because it’s a microcosm of all the country has to offer, from world-class archaeological sites to charming colonial plazas, artisanal retail therapy — the area is known for its wood-carvings, hand-loomed textiles and punched tin — and the country’s finest ethnic food. This is a land of raw chocolate, courgette flowers, tortillas made from heritage corn and above all mole, the spicy sauce made from local chillis and herbs which has become a national dish of Mexico.
And Oaxaca is also the land of mezcal, rapidly overtaking tequila in trendiness as a tipple. Starkman and his wife used to run a B&B, but now he spends all his working hours taking visitors out to the agave plantations to see how mezcal is made, a process requiring smoke, sweat and a fair measure of talent.
We sipped a choice drop with him at La Olla, one of Oaxaca’s many delightful bar-restaurants; owner-chef Pilar Cabrera is an acquaintance of Thomasina Miers, who gave Britain the Wahaca restaurant group (as Oaxaca is pronounced) and who adores the city for its authentic regional cuisine.
It was Miers who pointed us also in the direction of the town’s best chef Alejandro Ruiz, whose hotel and restaurant, Casa Oaxaca, offer the town’s classiest traditional-style accommodation and its finest dining. Life doesn’t get much better than sipping a well-made margarita on the restaurant roof terrace overlooking beautiful Santo Domingo church, while guacamole is ground at the table precisely spiced to suit your particular tastebuds.
You could spend all your time in Oaxaca dining, shopping, admiring altarpieces and sipping mezcal, margaritas or the excellent local beer, but there is so much on offer beyond the church-lined streets and clutch of outstanding little museums, that you simply have to get out of town too.
The Zapotec site of Monte Alban, an ancient hilltop city dating back more than two thousand years, is less than half an hour southwest of the city. Most visitors combine a couple of hours here with a drive south-east along the Mezcal trail to Teotitlan del Valle, a town known for its weavers, where every family has a loom in the back yard. At the showroom of Isaac Vasquez, we found magnificent rugs, shawls, wall-hangings and bags in ancient designs woven by 23 members of the same family.
Less well-known are the beautiful church and cloister in which artisans shape intricate wax flowers for use in ceremonies, or the nearby town of Tlacolula, whose Sunday market is a spectacular treat for all who can arrange their trip over a weekend. For those who can’t, Oaxaca’s own covered market is a dazzling delight of produce, bowls of mole in almost every colour of the rainbow and the wonderful, slightly sour string cheese formed into balls from milky ribbons.
While it’s hard to beat Casa Oaxaca or its colonial-style rival, converted mediaeval monastery Quinta Real for luxurious digs, Azul de Oaxaca offers a more contemporary vibe with four artists asked to design a suite each, including the beautiful courtyard garden and its spectacular water feature.
As Brits need to fly via Mexico City, it would be unthinkable not to break your journey for a few days in the country’s world-class capital, taking a few short-cuts to do it justice in the time.
Stay not in historic downtown or posh-but-bland Polanco but in Condesa, the old Jewish residential neighbourhood which is now the hippest area in town, and where the convivial hosts of the Red Tree House B&B are a fount of local knowledge. At its nightly party, we met a Jewish-American girl who made us shakshuka with salsa verde next day as guest breakfast chef and discovered that the area’s hottest new restaurant, Merkava, is Israeli.
Meanwhile, a five-minute walk away is one of the city’s hottest spots, MeroToro, serving the most original fish cuisine in the capital, so we strolled there for dinner in elegant surroundings
And for the capital’s must-see sights, hop-on, hop-off open-top double decker Turibus also travels from Condesa to the downtown Aztec ruins and magnificent cathedral, along with Frida Kahlo’s house in the suburb of Coyoacan, a deep azure mansion she inherited from her family and shared with husband Diego Rivera, the most famous artist couple in the land.
A specialist tour operator like Journey Latin America can pre-book tickets to the Kahlo house to circumvent the crowds and also organise excursions to outlying but unmissable neighbourhoods like San Angel, home to a beautiful upscale craft market, and Xochimilco, where the Aztecs created an irrigation system still used to grow much of the city’s produce.
Today’s commercial nurseries are on show to visitors who come to party along the waterways in colourful boats, some carrying mariachi bands to serenade the promenaders. Xochimilco is also home to the mansion of Rivera’s mistress Dolores Olmedo, now a museum famous not only for the country’s finest collection of artworks by Rivera and Kahlo, but also the wild peacocks and hairless native dogs who roam its gardens.
Art, colour and the unexpected: it’s what Mexico is all about.