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Traveling Mexico - Oaxaca City

"Do not miss strolling around the many markets of Oaxaca, so many foods and smells and crafts to delight any traveler."
K.L. Moore

Mexico is a country that is so diverse, I have no doubt that one could spend a lifetime trying to see all the places and peoples and still not come to know the country completely. Oaxaca City is just another example of the diversity of Mexico. Many people told me to go there. So I went, and I was amazed, I will be heading back soon....a few days there is not enough. A month or so, might just give you a taste into this fabulous place.

It not only is known for its beautiful architecture, people, churches and food, but for its history. Originally a Zapotec Indian settlement called, 'Huaxyacac', Oaxaca City became the most important Spanish settlement in Southern Mexico. The city had a strong Dominican religious influence helping to convert the many surrounding Indians. Unlike the Spanish settlements of other parts of Mexico, Oaxaca City grew rich on the export of a red dye called 'cochineal', not silver. 'Cochineal' comes from tiny insects and was very popular in the Old World as a dye color of aristocratic clothing. Oaxaca City also became a huge exporter of textiles, as it is today. Oaxaca City is also famous for its native son, Benito Juárez. Juárez was a Zapotec Indian trained as a priest and a lawyer who became the president of Mexico 1861. Juárez is perhaps best noted for his establishment of free primary education. He is so famous that almost every Mexican town has streets in his name and statues of him in squares, Oaxaca is no exception.

When first arriving in the city, head to the Zócalo. It is the center of town and the location of several of the best sights of Oaxaca City. Churches and government buildings are situated around a shady square filled with cafés and strolling musicians. Here, you can spend the day watching people, sipping coffee, and taking in the pulse of the city. An interesting note, no gaming of any kind is allowed in the cafés. This includes cards, chess and backgammon. We were never told why, exactly. To the south of the Zócalo is the Palacio de Gobierno, the location of one of the many beautiful historical murals of Arturo García Bustos. If you get the chance to see the mural, try and see if you can identify who is who. The cathedral stands in the north of the Zócalo and is very impressive with its baroque carvings. Also impressive is the fact that it was finished at all, due to the fact that the area has suffered some of the worst earthquakes in Mexico. The theater, Teatro Macedonio Alcalá, is a beautiful landmark, with its magnificent marble entryway and five tier seating area. To leave the Zocalo, stroll down Calle Alcalá for more quaint shops and cafés. Four blocks from the center you will come to Iglesia de Santo Domingo. Built in the late 15th century by the Dominicans for their monastery, it was designed to withstand the tremendous earthquakes of the region, with thick stone walls surrounding an immense courtyard. At this writing, it was still undergoing reconstruction, but the church itself and the Museo Regional de Oaxaca, housing many of the artifacts of surrounding Mixtec and Zapotec sites are open to the public.

There are many churches and Basílicas in the city. There is also a museum dedicated to the early life of Benito Juárez. Strolling and discovering the city as it unfolds under your feet, is the best way to discover Oaxaca City. It's history and architecture amaze even the most well-versed traveler. However, there is much more to Oaxaca. Culture, society, night-life, shopping, and, of course, food. Oaxaca City is considered the place in Mexico for the connoisseur of cuisine. Local specialties include mole amarillo, chapulines, coloradito, mole oaxaqueño, tasajó, and tlayuda. Try the Mercado 20 de Noviembre for the best representative taste of these superb local dishes. Also, of note for the foodies in our bunch, is a cooking course offered by American food expert, Susan Trilling, at her ranch outside of the city. She takes you to the market, teaches how to find and buy all of the local ingredients, and then the preparation of the dish. Courses can be weekly or daily; contact Seasons of my Heart, at fax # 6-52-80 (a local number).

Oaxaca City is also the world producer of mezcal, a liquor derived from several species of the maguey cactus, much like tequila. In the market, you will find a booth run by Isabella and her daughter, which houses over 150 different varieties and flavors of mezcal. My personal favorite was the flavor jamaica and almendras (almond). Stand there and taste, walk away in a zig-zag pattern, your arms full of bottles. It happens to the best of us. To sample the mezcal at a traditional Mexican atmosphere, try La Casa de Mezcal, one of the oldest bars in the city. It is a great place to sample some of the finer mezcals, as well as to dance the night away.

Another great way to spend your day in Oaxaca City is to shop. The area is known for several popular folk art pieces, black pottery from San Bartolo Coyotepec, blankets and rugs from Teotitlán dal Valle, huipiles and other types of Indian clothing, and stamped and colored tin products. The vibrantly colored rugs are the best in Mexico and shopping and bargaining for them is a treat for any shopper. For the best variety of all of the above, try the Mujeres Artesanas de las Regiones de Oaxaca (MARO), a cooperative of craftswomen of the region. Many of the craft shops along the Calle Alcalá are of a higher-end quality and will mail items home for you. Do not miss strolling around the many markets of Oaxaca, so many foods and smells and crafts to delight any traveler.

In and Around Oaxaca City

Monte Alban

The premiere Zapotec ruins of Mexico are located about twenty minutes above the city of Oaxaca and are a must for any visitor to the area. To get there by bus, go to the Hotel Mesón Ángel at Mina 518 and take one of the tourist buses to the site. To get there by cab will cost you about 3 USD and walking there from the center of town takes about an hour and a half. The views from this high hillside city are breathtaking and the ruins themselves are very historical. Monte Alban was the center of a society dominated by priests and very very organized. It is amazing to see how their buildings are constructed and how many interconnected tombs there are. In the valleys below the town, remnants of a superior irrigation system can be seen today. Although most of the treasures are now found in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City, there are some remaining artifacts at the museum on-site. The ruins are laid out around a Grand Plaza and Ball Court. Many various tombs and pyramids surround the general areas, and like the Mayan ruins, were painted a blood red color in their day. The frescos in Tomb 104 are very beautiful and resemble those in other ruins of the Aztecs. Unfortunately, may of the other ruins and buildings are being excavated and entry at the time of this writing was limited.

El Tule

One of the biggest trees in the Americas, El Tule is a type of cypress called 'ahuehuete'. It is revered as place of sanctity and is located in front of a 17th century church. The tree makes the man-made church look very small. The tree is so big that it takes about thirty adults holding hands to circle it. The tree's age is said to be over 2000 years old. The old trunk is gnawed and gnarled and some strange tree sculptures can be found; there is a crocodile, a lion, a ram, and an elephant, all around the trunk and up into the branches. A visit here definitely puts your life into perspective. It is an awesome site.

Teotitlán Del Valle

This little village can be reached from Oaxaca City's second class bus station and is well worth the visit. It is the village known for its weaving and textiles. The variety is amazing and just looking around can fill a whole day. It is a quaint village with yummy restaurants and a quiet square. If you have a day or two, venture here for a taste of the quiet life.

Traveling Mexico is always an adventure and one that is always a surprise. Oaxaca City and the surrounding areas just exemplify, once more, that Mexico is a grand country waiting to be visited over and over again.

January 2001

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