Oaxaca, one of the 31 states in Mexico, lies in the south-central part of the country. The state is primarily known for its Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations (a folk/pagan festival celebrating death and afterlife) occurring on 1st and 2nd November when thousands throng the streets to partake of the festivities. The state also wears the crown of being Mexico’s food capital and has been attracting foodies and gourmands from all over the world for its moles (sauces) and unique, complex Mexican cuisine, bursting with flavor. Despite these highlights, Oaxaca generally lies low under the tourism radar and is not a travel hotspot, unlike the Riviera Maya or Baja California or Mexico City. Based on the recommendation by my dear friend, we decided to explore Oaxaca, specifically Oaxaca city for its culinary scene. AND, we were NOT disappointed. The city has such wealth of sights and food that I decided to split the Oaxaca city travelogue into two parts. Part 1 is about exploring the city, travel tips and sightseeing and starts right now!
OAXACA : WHERE TO STAY?
Old town part/ Zone 1 of Oaxaca city, unlike the sprawling Mexico City or the resort infested Tulum, is a relatively small place. There are many beautiful hotels in Oaxaca and you are best advised to make your reservations in Zone 1/Zona centro, which is the closest from the airport and near Plaza de la Constitución or Zócalo (city plaza). We stayed at the centrally located Hotel Trebol, which had beautiful rooms, great wifi and complimentary breakfast. Trebol boast of old Spanish colonial style architecture and is decorated with traditional Oaxacan handicrafts. I highly recommend this hotel if you are visiting Oaxaca city for a comfortable stay and convenience of sightseeing.
OAXACA: GETTING AROUND
Given the cobbled streets and narrow alleys, its best not to rent and drive around in Oaxaca city. Granted the cabs don’t have meters and you have to kind of rely on the cabbie’s word for the fare, but because we used a cab only a few times and the exchange rate was favorable for the US dollar, we did not mind. We did spot a few buses, but they seemed pretty sparse. Honestly, Oaxaca city is pretty walkable and its best to explore everything on foot within Zone 1. At least for us, most of the attractions were within walking distance, since we were right next to the Zocalo. A pair of sturdy footwear and you can fearlessly roam around everywhere, even till late at night (its pretty safe). Finally, always get a taxi voucher from the official taxi stop at the airport for your shared taxi. Our hotel called a cab for us on our way back to the airport.
OAXACA: THINGS TO DO
A) Local architecture and sights
If you’ve been to Old San Juan or read my previous travel post on Puerto Rico, you will get a major bout of nostalgia. The beautiful buildings and homes lining the street adorned with a rainbow of colors and boasting of colonial Spanish style architecture, seem straight out of a street scene in Old San Juan. Add to this the narrow stone cobbled streets, painted street signs and banners and you have rows and rows of postcard worthy scenes laid out in front of you. The quaintness and old charm of Oaxaca city, the shops in the tiny lanes, the beautiful local boutiques and restaurants big and small tucked in every corner provide a visual treat, everywhere you go.
Oaxaca is renowned worldwide for its arts and crafts, the most prominent ones being its rich tapestry of weaving, textiles, pottery and the most famous of all, wooden figures called “alebrijes” which consist of whimsical creatures (mostly animals) that are then painted with intricate designs. There are many independent stores along the cobbled alleys of Oaxaca city selling many of these items, but your best bet in terms of price, supporting local artisans and getting a wide variety of handicrafts on display is at co-operatives or artisans collective selling a mind-boggling array of traditional arts. The three places where we shopped the most were Mujeres Artesanas de las Regiones de Oaxaca,La Casa de las Artesanias de Oaxaca and the most famous of all, Huizache Arte Vivo de Oaxaca on Avenida Independencia. Besides getting several wooden figurines, a few garments, cloth slippers and wooden jewelry boxes, we also snagged two wooden Mexican masks from an antique store which accepted dollars, much to our delight. We also found a few other cute boutiques and a textile store in the surroundings selling local handmade items and garments.
Oaxaca city is famous for its churches and a visit to the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán is a must. A former monastery founded in 1575 by the Dominican order, this Baroque style building is a visual wonder and boasts of a highly decorated interior comprising of more than 60,000 sheets of 23.5-karat gold leafs. The interior is dazzling, but the exterior, with its etched domes, towers over its surroundings. Right next to it is the former monastery garden called the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca, which is maintained over 2.32 hectares of land by the state government. The church was declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987 and is one of the major attractions of Oaxaca city. The church stands amidst a plaza where festivities and parades begin or come to an end, such as the one we saw one night for the Virgin Mary. Other churches, although less resplendent, are the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad and Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, which we either marveled at from outside or peeked in.
Oaxaca has several small museums, of which we chanced upon the textile museum in one alley and spent some time in the Cultural Centre of Oaxaca, which is actually the monastery of the Santa Domingo church now repurposed into a museum housing several artifacts from the pre-Columbus era, contemporary paintings on world political ideologies and political movements in Oaxaca, exhibits on Oaxacan socio-political life and origins and Oaxaca history. A walk up to the second floor and you will get to see the botanical garden and a spectacular view of the domes of the Santa Domingo. The descriptions of all the exhibits are solely in Spanish so if you are really keen on learning more, better get a guide or enquire for an English audio guide equipment. The textile museum was tricky to find because although all the guidebooks and websites clearly mention the presence of the textile museum of Oaxaca, Google maps says otherwise and takes you straight to its namesake somewhere in Mexico city. Oaxaca is known for its varied styles of textiles and looms and so when we stumbled upon an art fair in an alley that was right next to the museum, we took some time to wander around to discover the different styles of weaving and the arrays of beautiful shawls, skirts and blouses on display.
E) Monte Alban
The ruins of Monte Alban (White Mountain), a mere 6 miles from Zocalo are a must visit and can be either reached via a cab ($ 120-150 pesos) or via buses. Like the Mayans on the Yucatan peninsula and Aztecs in what is present day Mexico City, the pre-Spanish conquest era saw the Zapotecs in this part of the country and their organized city ruins are still in Monte Alban, sprawling across huge expanse of a region nestled atop a low mountainous range. It is one of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica and continued to be the socio-political and economic center for the Zapotecs for about a 1000 years. The city was founded toward the end of the Middle Formative period at around 500 BC and lost its importance as the seat of power towards the end of the Late Classic period (ca. AD 500-750) after which it was mostly deserted. You can hire a tour guide outside the ticketing booth for a more immersive experience, but we had no such luck in doing so; thus we simply wandered around and read the bilingual signs. Half a day can be easily spent around the ruins and this being the closest historic spot to Oaxaca city, comes highly recommended. Moreover, since the ruins are spread out, it does not feel crowded at all. A fantastic view of Oaxaca city can be seen from atop the ruins, some of which you are allowed to climb.
F) Art and Murals
Oaxaca has a very vibrant and edgy art scene, so much so that the whole movement seems kind of misplaced in this quiet little town. But it makes its presence felt via the many print shops in and around Avenida Independencia and there is a print making workshop and art walk from time to time, which we seemed to have missed narrowly, much to S’s dismay. Disappointment aside, we did manage to visit some very cool print shops and a small exhibit at the Institute of printing and graphic design where we were greeted with rows of edgy and might I add, racy prints and photos, heavily influenced by Japanese Anime and Manga. We also visited a print shop doubling as a cafe and despite the language barrier, were given a map of all the neighboring print-making stores.
The mural scene in Oaxaca is pretty impressive as well and you can download a Google map showing the different locations of the murals (most are walkable from the Zocalo). Although we found quite a few that had been whitewashed or painted over, there were several very eye popping ones that we encountered. Overall, the art scene in Oaxaca left us pretty flabbergasted, albeit in a nice way, because it is nowhere as subdued as the rest of the city. An art walk or a mural tour would be a good idea if you ever visit Oaxaca.
That brings me to the end of Part 1 of this Oaxaca travelogue. Hope you enjoyed this post! A few things to remember: Post Nov 2nd, there are not many tourists around and so that makes for a good time to visit. Also, its best to pay in Mexican pesos (more economical) even though many places may accept American dollars. Finally, here is a list of some other attractions in Oaxaca and ideas for day trips outside the city. We were mostly on foot and due to lack of a car and fortuitous planning, did not get to visit a few other attractions beyond Zone 1 or make day trips out of the city. Our primary purpose was to eat our way through this town, which we did. Read part 2 here which is the ultimate food guide to Oaxaca.
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