Oaxaca

The menu offers a rich selection of Oaxacan and Mexican dishes, an assortment of international cuisine and delicious vegetarian options. Breakfasts are a feast of freshly baked pastries and breads served with organic, locally grown coffee.

There’s also a swimming pool, a spa, a fitness center and guest programs ranging from ecotours to cooking classes that teach the art of preparing mole—a centuries old, intrinsically Mexican, chocolate-based sauce with a multitude of spices. Mole is to Oaxaca what gumbo is to New Orleans, what deep-dish pizza is to Chicago.

A popular spa treatment at Los Laureles is temazcal, in essence a wood-fired sweat lodge that sits in a corner of the woodsy courtyard near the swimming pool. The treatment entails a shaman rattling gourds and singing primeval meditative chants while shaking herbs and flowers over guests who claim to go into a trance as they receive advice to forget the past and live in the present.

Another delightful Los Laureles touch is its cooking class, held for individuals or groups (price varies by season, but generally runs about $100 pp). During the first phase, the hotel’s chef escorts the students to the central market to select ingredients for the class while explaining the intricacies of local organic food like Oaxaca’s celebrated cheeses, chocolates and produce. The group later returns to the hotel’s kitchen to prepare the meal, often consisting of mole-based dishes.

Indeed, food lovers from all over the world make pilgrimages to this food-mad city—the place some haute cuisine circles call “the land of seven moles”—to study mole’s intricate preparation.

Oaxacan food is unlike anything found in Mexico. There are restaurants specializing in chile rellenos stuffed with ceviche; some serve duck tacos, while others offer delightful fusions of European and pre-Hispanic cuisine.

Some of the most exotic dishes are found in the stalls of the huge Benito Juarez Market in the heart of the city where adventuresome gourmands sample chapulines (crispy, fried grasshoppers) with Oaxacan chocolate. It’s delicious, really.

The market also houses a large number of stands specializing in tlayuda, Oaxacan’s beloved street food, something akin to New York City’s Central Park hot-dog carts. Tlayudas look like pizzas. In reality they are thin, crispy corn tortillas cooked on a clay griddle and layered with refried beans, string cheese, sausage or beef. After garnishing a tlayuda with salsa, the first taste explodes in the palate in a delicious burst of flavors.

Oaxaca’s historic center is a bustling swarm of color, sound and movement. Visitors who prefer such things should consider Camino Real Oaxaca, easily southwestern Mexico’s most mesmerizing hotel, a fascinating property with deep roots reaching almost 500 years.

It’s not easy to find a hotel anywhere in the western hemisphere to rival Camino Real’s colorful and enthralling history. It can boast without blushing of having been founded by conquistadors. In fact, it was.

Its main building was built in 1540 as a Dominican convent, remaining in this role until 1861 when its cloistered nuns were forcibly evicted, as Mexico nationalized all church properties and converted the nunnery into a prison.

Through the ensuing centuries the Camino Real has been a school, a warehouse for government-seized goods, a tax collector’s office, a slaughterhouse and even a Masonic Lodge.

Today, it’s Oaxaca’s premier hotel, a stunning colonial palace where guests can marvel at 16th century religious frescoes left by nameless nuns, wander through a chapel that once housed prisoners condemned to death (their desperate pleas can still be discerned on the walls as faded graffiti), or sit in the corridors facing immaculately kept gardens and a fountain where mestizo nuns once learned to sing hymns in Latin.

The Camino Real is a Mexican heirloom with 91 rooms and suites ranging from around $295 for a deluxe room, to approximately $445 for a suite. All rooms are contemporary and well-appointed with the latest technology and modern features.

A top-of-the-line restaurant occupies the old refectory. Savoring authentic Oaxacan dishes like mole tamales and sipping chocolate while listening to Gregorian chants, can be a moving experience.

The classic facade of its Las Novicias Bar, a cell where novice nuns once meditated, adds a pleasant counterpoint to the modern swimming pool just outside its doors.