DETAILS: Oaxaca

Sunday, November 25, 2007

GETTING THERE: The month of December, with its many religious and nonreligious festivities, is among the most popular times to visit Oaxaca. Flights for December and January from Reagan National Airport are averaging about $750 round trip on sites such as Expedia.com and Travelocity.com. Last-minute deals are often available. Most flights from National connect through Chicago or Dallas.

There are also affordable one-hour direct flights from Mexico City. Mexicana has several round-trip flights a day for about $245; http://www.mexicana.com has an English-

language search function. The bus ride from Mexico City is about six hours and averages $40 round trip.

GETTING AROUND: A rental car is not necessary in the walkable city of Oaxaca. A taxi from the airport to the center of town costs about $14 (buy a voucher at the booth in the airport); a shuttle bus into town averages $3. If you want to explore the surrounding villages and ruins such as Monte Alban, hire a car and driver; negotiate for a price around $15 an hour.

WHERE TO STAY: With Oaxaca still in recovery mode, be sure to negotiate for unpublished discounts. If you can snag one of the two rooms at the Casa Crespo (415 Calle Crespo, telephone 52-951-514-1102, http://www.casacrespo.com) bed-and-breakfast, you're in luck. Take breakfast in the garden or by the fire inside Oscar Carrizosa's fully restored house. Room rates between $90 and $110 per night.

The newer Camino Real hotels in Latin America don't live up to their high prices. But the one in Oaxaca (300 Calle Cinco de Mayo, 800-722-6466, http://www.caminoreal.com/oaxaca), built in a magnificent 16th-century former convent, is worth every peso. Even if you can't afford to stay in one of the opulently renovated rooms, stop by for a drink or meal. Rates fluctuate, but expect to pay at least $200 a night.

I stayed at the comfortable, well-located Hotel Casantica (601 Avenida Morelos, 52-951-516-2673, http://www.hotelcasantica.com), where the $110-a-night price is a bit high for what you get. It has clean rooms with modern amenities such as air conditioning, phone and television; a small pool; and a pleasant courtyard with tables.

Casa de Sierra Azul (1002 Hidalgo, 888-624-3341, http://www.mexonline.com/sierrazul.htm) is a charming 14-room hotel a few blocks from the Zocalo. Rates start at $119 double.

WHERE TO EAT: One of the best deals for a full Oaxacan meal is La Olla (402-1 Reforma, 52-951-516-6668, http://www.laolla.com.mx), a two-story spot where the menu of the day is generally under $9. El Catedral (105 Calle Garc¿a Vigil, 52-951-516-3285, http://www.restaurantecatedral.com.mx) is a grand building just blocks from the Zocalo. Traditional Oaxacan cuisine (think suckling pig, pumpkin-blossom soup and mole) and some international dishes (steaks and grilled salmon) are served by knowledgeable waiters. An appetizer, entree and glass of wine goes for under $20, but you can easily spend more.

Don't be deceived by the Web site featuring former owner/chef Iliana de la Vega at the internationally acclaimed El Naranjo (203 Calle Valerio Trujano, 52-951-514-1878, http://www.elnaranjo.com.mx). The restaurant has been sold and recipes changed. But new owner Andrew Peterson is a friendly host who aims to please, and he's bringing in consultants from neighboring villages to refine his traditional Mexican menu even more. Dinner for two with drinks is about $56.

When you tire of mole and enchiladas, try the fish and salads at La Biznaga (512 Calle Garcia Vigil, 52-951-516-1800). Fresh, innovative dishes are posted on seven-foot-tall chalkboards in a funky setting. Depending on how many drinks you quaff, a meal runs about $16 a person.

Temple (409-A Calle Garcia Vigil, 52-951-516-8676, http://www.restaurantetemple.com) is a hip spot with a long bar that's great for hanging out, especially if there's jazz. Food here hits some high notes, but there are also some disappointments.

For a truly special occasion, head to Casa Oaxaca (407 Calle Garcia Vigil, 52-951-514-4173; Casa Oaxaca el Restaurante, 104-A Constitucion, 52-951-516-8889; http://www.casa-oaxaca- reservations.com/restaurant.htm). This small restaurant with two equally pleasing locations serves high-end Mexican and international dishes. Be forewarned, however: There is no wine menu. A waiter wheels a cart to the table and rattles off names without prices so quickly you might accidentally drop $100 on your beverage. Expect to spend about $110 for dinner for two with wine.

WHAT TO TAKE: Good walking shoes and a hat are essential. Take or buy plenty of bottled water -- even for brushing teeth.

WHAT TO DO: Oaxaca is a trove of architectural wonders, museums, galleries and shopping spots. Some of the highlights include the Church of Santo Domingo at Alcala and Gurrion, with an adjacent museum that charges less than $4 admission; the Basilica of the Virgin of Solitude at Independencia plaza; and the Rufino Tamayo Museum (503 Morelos), admission $3.

Oaxaca's several markets offer a range of products, including fresh produce, local cheese, hand-woven tapestries and ornate hand-painted carved animals. Casa de las Artesanias de Oaxaca (105 Matamoros, http://www.casadelasartesanias.com.mx) has perhaps the largest, highest-quality offering of crafts in the city, at reasonable prices. The new Dise¿ador Industrial (412 Calle Cinco de Mayo, near Santo Domingo Church) is a small shop featuring products handmade by natives of the state of Oaxaca. Pick up some funky jewelry, ingeniously designed furniture or a work of art and know you are helping the local economy.

Galleries abound in the city, with small ones opening and closing constantly. One of the larger, more established venues is the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo at 202 Macedonio Alcala.

PARADES AND FESTIVALS: December is an active season in Oaxaca. Posadas (neighborhood processions) are held in the evenings, Dec. 16-24; the Virgin of Solitude festival is Dec. 18; and the Night of the Radishes on Dec. 23 features an astonishing display of figures carved from the vegetable.

INFORMATION: Go-Oaxaca ( http://www.go-oaxaca.com) is a relatively new tourism site edited by Casa Crespo owner Carrizosa. For more info: Mexican tourism office, http://www.visitmexico.com. -- C.C.


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