Describing Oaxaca is like trying to describe a whole country — the 36,000-square-mile coastal state is a bit like a nation unto itself inside of Mexico. There are more than 15 Indigenous groups represented here and countless small villages, all with their own distinct cultures, traditions, and cuisines. While Oaxaca is well-known for its impressive variety when it comes to food, its lineup of traditional drinks is just as awe-inspiring. And not just the mezcal.
There are dozens of beverages made using corn, chocolate, agave, and various native fruits that quench the daily thirst of Oaxacans and make for a delicious drink or snack for visitors. Many of these beverages are specific to a single town, while others can be found statewide; some are seasonal, a key part of annual celebrations and rituals, while others are used mainly for medicinal purposes. No matter the cause of your thirst, in Oaxaca, there’s a drink for that.
Café de Olla
Coffee arrived in Mexico at the end of the 18th century, when the Spanish brought plants over from Cuba, but it didn’t make its way to Oaxaca until another century after that. Even then, Oaxacans mostly preferred to drink their traditional atoles and chocolates rather than the bitter African beans. The land, however, loved coffee — its ideal climate and topography nurtured what’s now a booming coffee-growing industry, known for distinct, high-quality beans.
Today many locals start their day with a cup of café de olla, a delicately spiced coffee drink emblematic of Oaxaca. It’s most often prepared in a clay pot over a wood fire with a mixture of ground coffee beans, anise, cinnamon, panela (unrefined cane sugar), cloves, and a little pemienta, or pepper, for balance. You can find café de olla in other Mexican states, but Oaxaca’s version is unique. That’s thanks to the particular qualities of the local clay, firewood, and Oaxacan panela, which produce a light but still intensely flavored cup. Some recipes add orange peel; others tweak the spice mix just so. But no matter how it’s made, it’s best enjoyed in a clay cup to warm your hands and your body with every sip.
Where to try it: La Olla
Chocolate de Agua
Despite how much coffee is grown in Oaxaca, mornings here still more often than not begin with chocolate. The Olmecs of ancient Mexico were using kakawa (cocoa) for drinking chocolate as early as 1000 BCE. Oaxacans continue this tradition today, grinding cacao with a stone metate or electric grinder and mixing it with cinnamon, panela (unrefined cane sugar), and sometimes other spices before it’s formed into a disc and dried. Just drop one of these rounds — called barra de chocolate — into a clay jug with hot water (traditionally never milk) and whisk vigorously with a wooden tool called a molinillo to achieve the characteristic foam that lends a luscious body to the drink.
Where to try it: Mercado 20 de Noviembre, or make your own at home with solid chocolate from El Rito Chocolatería or Mamá Pacha Chocolate
Atole de Maíz
Atole de maíz (corn atole) is consumed throughout Mexico and rounds out the varied lineup of morning beverages you’ll find all over Oaxaca. The word “atole” comes from the Nahuatl atolli: atl, meaning “water,” and tolli, a noun derived from the Spanish todo, “all.” The most popular take is a thick, white mixture of cornstarch diluted in water that is enjoyed for breakfast alongside a warm tamale. Atole de maíz starts with corn kernels that are soaked in water for 12 to 24 hours and then boiled, ground, and boiled again — the final consistency varies depending on the maker, but the sweet spot is somewhere between a cream and a porridge. Atole de maíz can be made with just water and corn kernels, but some people like to add a touch of cinnamon or panela, a type of unrefined cane sugar.
Where to try it: Any stall in the food court or IV Centenario market
Corn with cocoa is one of Mexico’s greatest culinary combos, and the champurrado is one of its finest examples. Born alongside the atole, champurrado was invented by the Aztecs, who, it’s believed, added cacao to acorn atole for sweetness years before sugar cane was introduced. Today’s champurrado starts with a barra de chocolate that’s whisked into an atole of yellow corn with a molinillo until the mixture is thick and frothy. It’s traditionally served in a clay cup with a side of bread and can be found in the morning at street stalls, markets, and restaurants throughout Oaxaca. Take heed: Champurrado is served nuclear-level hot, so a bit of patience will do you, and your mouth, well.
Where to try it: Las Quince Letras
Atole de Trigo
Oaxaca might be known for corn, but wheat is grown here, too — planted on the slopes and valleys of the Mixteca region, where it’s cultivated for a multitude of uses, including, yes, another atole. Rarely found outside of the Mixteca region, atole de trigo resembles a corn atole in consistency only — the taste is far sweeter, with a cinnamony, bready, yeasty aroma that pairs well with the inevitable bread that’s served alongside it.
Where to try it: Masea Trigo y Maíz
Afternoon / Evening Drinks
Tejate is one of the cornerstone pre-Hispanic drinks of the Oaxaca Valley. Typically made with cocoa, corn, mamey sapote seed, and rosita de cacao — an edible flower that’s often used to season chocolate — it’s renowned for its energizing properties and was originally served to field workers in need of a boost. Today it’s an everyday drink for many Oaxacans, but the process of making it is anything but basic. Ingredients are laboriously toasted and ground to form a paste that’s ultimately added with water to a wide pot, traditionally made with green glazed clay from Atzompa. The mixture is then whipped by hand for an hour or more until a thick layer of chunky foam forms at the top. The result, though, is worth the effort — light and chocolatey, with a slight floral note on the tongue and a thick, foamy finish with all the refreshing appeal of a milkshake. Tejate is typically served in a hollowed-out jícara (drinking gourd) with a wooden stick for scooping the signature foam.
Where to try it: La Flor de Huayapam at Mercado Benito Juárez
Horchata con Tuna (Red Prickly Pear)
The sweet, spiced, rice-almond drink known as horchata is a favorite throughout Mexico — and much of the world at this point — but Oaxaca has a uniquely delicious variation made with the tart red fruit of the prickly pear cactus, or tuna in Spanish. Casilda Flores is credited with creating the drink in 1926 while selling aguas frescas in the Zócalo. Nearly 100 years later, Flores’s granddaughters run the iconic Aguas Casilda chain of juice stands, where they maintain Casilda’s original recipe. The process is all done by hand, including soaking the rice and cleaning roasted almonds one by one. Here, when the horchata is served over ice, a scoop of crushed prickly pear is added to the glass along with some melon and a sprinkling of crunchy pecans for texture.
Where to try it: Aguas Casilda in the Mercado Benito Juárez
Agua de Chilacayota
The chilacayota is a type of large squash similar to a watermelon, with greenish-yellowish skin and white fibrous flesh studded with jet-black seeds. Its name comes from the Nahuatl word “tzilacayotli,” from tzilac (“smooth”) and ayotli (“pumpkin”) — meaning “smooth pumpkin,” though others say the name comes from the word “tzilictic” (“something with a clear sound”) for the pleasing, vibrating echo the chilacayota makes when thumped. The pulp is used in many sweet preparations, including a drink that cooks it down along with panela and fresh lime zest. While technically a beverage, agua de chilacayote is so thick and stew-like, you can eat it with a spoon.
Where to try it: Aguas Casilda in the Mercado Benito Juárez
If you go to Oaxaca, you’re likely drinking mezcal — and if you’re drinking enough of it, you might require a cup of poleo the next morning. Poleo is a wild, bushy herb with a minty aroma that’s as renowned for its medicinal hangover-curing properties (its nickname is satureja laevigata, or “herb of the drunk”) as its culinary ones. It’s a sacred plant for the Zapotecs and often used during celebrations and as an offering for guests. As a tea, it’s prepared like any other infusion, using fresh or dried leaves steeped in hot water. With no caffeine and an intoxicating minty scent, it’s a warming sip for anytime of day, and you can find it served in restaurants and market stalls across the state.
Where to try it: Tizne
Agua de Maíz Tostado
While mornings are for atole de maíz, afternoons are for a cold agua de maíz tostado, made with corn kernels that have been roasted over a comal before grinding. Too much heat will burst the kernels and too little will leave them flavorless, but just the right roast caramelizes the sugar and adds some smoky depth to the refreshing drink that’s as much about the texture — pleasingly chunky and grainy — as the taste.
Where to try it: Levadura de Olla
Aguardiente de Caña
Mezcal gets all the attention, but there’s another locally made spirit worth paying attention to in Oaxaca: rum. Sugar cane first arrived in the Americas from the Canary Islands in the 16th century, spreading via the Spanish from the Caribbean through the rest of the continent, including Mexico and, of course, Oaxaca. Oaxacans began distilling the fermented cane juice into rum, or aguardiente de caña, soon after its earliest cultivation here, and the spirit remains central to many rural communities in Oaxaca’s eastern highlands. Compared with mezcal, only a relative handful of distilleries bottle aguardiente de caña for commercial production, let alone export it, but you can try a number of them, like Rey Eteco, at better bars throughout Oaxaca.
Where to try it: Maguey y Maíz
Shava Cueva is a photographer based in Ensenada and Oaxaca, and the author of Bebidas de Oaxaca.