Finding The Perfect Cup Of Coffee In Oaxaca

Open the scene with the incandescent glow of the morning sunrise. A creamsicle orange blanket covers the far away Sierra Madre mountains overtop a golden bulb that is starting to crest. That is a Oaxacan sunrise and, if you managed to snag a bit of a snooze between the all-night barrage of firecrackers, is your signal to wake up.

Some of us run off the magic of a good night’s sleep. Others – the sane among us – fuel our sputtering engines with some sort of caffeine. In this case, a nice cup of the dark, steamy bean juice called coffee.

A Brief History

When people think of global coffee producers, most don’t include Mexico on their list of quality growers and at first glance, you can understand why. Specifically talking about Oaxaca, less than 10% of its land is arable for growing crops due to its mountainous terrain. But if we remember anything from our tour of a coffee plantation in Costa Rica earlier this year, high-elevation makes for great coffee. Late 17th century Europeans understood this when they introduced the arabica bean to Mexico and, through the labor of indigenous people, founded cities such as Pluma Hidalgo specifically because they were on land idoneous for cultivating coffee.

A cup of Oaxacan coffee.
A cup of Oaxacan coffee, por favor.
Types of Coffee Drinks

Our first cup of coffee came at 5:25am the morning after we arrived in Mexico. Semi-stranded at the bus station (our check-in wouldn’t be for another 7.5 hours) and devoid of any energy to plan out our day, we needed a pick-me-up. I opted for a cortado, which is a shot of espresso with steamed milk on top. It doesn’t pack much in flavor, but it’s a punch in the arm to wake up. Rachel tried out a café de olla – a traditional Mexican coffee drink. Often made in a clay pot to infuse additional flavors, the ground is blended with cinnamon and whole cane sugar. This would be a much sought-after drink in our days and weeks to come.

As the days ended and began, we worked our way through the menus of beverages, trying out new drinks until we found our favorites. A cappuchino, or basically a cup of different temperature milks with a little bit of espresso at the bottom, seemed to be a popular order by those around us. I don’t get it.

If I was feeling like just an espresso but I wanted to drink it for a long time, I ordered an americano, which is just diluted with hot water, a technique introduced around WWII when American G.I.s wanted to make the Italian espresso they were given taste more like what they were used to at home.

The final staple you’ll find on most menus is the mocha (or moka.) Local Oaxacan coffee already has a fruity, chocolatey taste to it, making it ideal for turning it into a mocha, which is coffee beans blended with chocolate and topped with steamed milk. What makes it better is the prevalence of high-quality chocolate to add to the drink. Oaxaca City lays on a pre-Hispanic trading route that saw vast amounts of chocolate transported along its roads. You can see evidence of this in the traditional drinks of the area such as tejate, chocolate de agua, and champurrado. While those are delicious, we’re going to add the chocolate to our coffee.

It should be noted that you can order just about everything caliente (hot), frio (cold), or in the form of a frappe.

Where To Get Coffee In Oaxaca

There is no shortage of cafés in the city of Oaxaca and most offer the same menu. This doesn’t mean they’re all created equal.

Among the first that we stopped at is called Oaxaca en una Taza, which has a simple coffee menu along with French-style pastries. There are several of these around and often in high-traffic areas making them easy to find and stop in.

Cortado and pastry from Oaxaca en una Taza
Cortado and pastry from Oaxaca en una Taza. Ask for Stevia if you want the added sweetness without the blood-sugar affecting carb count.

Café Caracol Purple is a heavily recommended place. Rachel got her first mocha of the trip here, the wifi is solid, and it has a nice vibe inside. I can’t not suggest trying it out.

On the go? Cactus Café sells some solid drinks, including a really good dirty horchata drink. This menu is one of the pricer options, but still good and on our way to a few landmark locations.

Cactus Café.
Cactus Café.

Boulenc offers really solid coffees with incredible foods. Neither of these first two offer traditional, local cuisine, but Boulenc does have a super delicious (and healthy) menu to grab for any meal of the day.

Stray outside of the centro zone up to the Xochimilco neighborhood and stop in A.M. Siempre or Chepiche Café for good drinks and a local breakfast. Try the huevos oaxacantinos from A.M. Siempre which is poached eggs topped with chapulines.

Okay, so I just listed off several places without suggesting one is superior to the others. That’s because I saved the best for last.

What happens when you combine incredible coffee with tasty food, an inviting atmosphere, a super-friendly owner, and the lowest prices yet? You get Xocolatl Café. Owner José Carlos always had a big smile on his face when we stopped in, excited to share his menu with us. We worked our way through several drinks before settling on our favorite. It is super hard to not list his Taro Latte as my favorite (it might be cheating as I think it’s just a delicious, sugary drink). Rachel and I both loved his version of the moka. Whenever we ordered it, he would serve us the cups and proudly declare that the chocolate inside was a local oaxaquena kind, noting that many other places serve theirs with Hershey’s syrup or something similar. If you’re in Oaxaca, do yourself a favor and stop in.

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