A Trip to Oaxaca: the Exotic Land of the Cactus

Oaxaca is a place of many faces, an ample and rich world in its own right. There, one can find an incredible diversity of cultures, climates, impressive geoformations, and a large variety of plant and animal species. In addition, Oaxaca is known for its fiestas and a complex tradition of gastronomy


Monstruosus in white planter
Monstruosus in planter

Oaxaca has become renowned for its art, history, cuisine, textiles, handicrafts and ceramics. However, this state has an exquisite natural richness that sometimes gets overlooked, for example, its plant diversity. Plants in Oaxaca are not only unique and exotic, but have attracted many visitors from far away because of their different uses and their healing attributes. Let’s take a deeper look at each of these.


Their Cultural Footprint and Diversity

The earliest evidence of plant domestication in America (the continent, of course) has been found in Oaxaca and dates some 10,000 years back. Given the uniqueness of Oaxaca’s history in botany and crafts, a group of artists approached the government to create the Jardín Etnobotánico, a fantastic assortment of plants that are endemic to various regions of the state; from arid to humid climates. The Garden thus represents the great diversity of climates and varieties of vegetation that characterize Oaxaca.


Their Taste

Oaxaca’s plant species are at the core of this state’s gastronomy. For example, avocado leaves are often used to make bean paste, a popular dish in the region. Another example is: hoja santa, which has been used since pre Hispanic times to make their famous tamales, poultry, fish and meat dishes. Nopales, a type of cactus, which is very common in the area, can be enjoyed as a stand alone dish or it can be used to garnish stews and dishes. Other plants and herbs such as epazote, pitiona, or chepiche have very strong flavors that give a special touch to Oaxaca’s amazing gastronomy.

Their Medical Benefits

Most of Oaxaca’s population is of Zapotec ancestry and have a deep understanding of traditional natural medicine. Before going out to the closest pharmacy, native Oaxacans look in their own garden to find the cure for many common illnesses. By making an infusion of basil leaves, one can relax a sore muscle or target indigestion. Basil can also be used as medicinal oil by mixing it with a little olive oil to obtain an antiseptic.  Peppermint serves as a sedative, as a digestive, or to help out with deworming. Some even say it acts as an aphrodisiac when taken as an infusion. Aloe, known as sábila, protects the immune system from infections. It works as an anti-inflammatory and an analgesic by regulating tissue regeneration and it is also very useful in the treatment of bronchial and pulmonary conditions.


Their Spirit

Lastly, one of the reasons many people have rediscovered Oaxaca in recent years is for its infamous tradition of mezcal. Out of close to 210 varieties of maguey that exist around the world, approximately 60 percent can be found in Oaxaca. Actually, only in this state can we find over 600 brands of mezcal, almost all of them made artisanally. This involves cutting the agave, whose core must be slowly cooked to turn its natural sugars into a caramel, which is then fermented and distilled in a process that takes around 10 to 15 days. If this seems like a long time, then get this; every agave requires a period of maturity of 10 to 12 years before cutting them to start the process. Mezcal is without doubt a great reason to visit the land of the cactus.


So whether you are travelling to Oaxaca to admire its history, culture, colors, gastronomy or landscapes, don’t forget to take a close look at  its botanical richness and all it has to offer.

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