Oaxaca, pronounced wah-hah-kah, is a pleasant city situated in the dry mountainous state of the same name. The city has a colonial heart, a relaxed feel and a strong indigenous presence. Oaxaca is an important artists’ enclave and you will find many galleries and exhibitions on the streets. The handicraft shopping has been described as the finest in Mexico, and there are shops, markets and street-side vendors all over the city. Monte Alban, an ancient Zapotec city dating to 500BC, is easily accessed as part of a day tour from Oaxaca and has been rated as one of the most impressive ruins in South America.
Oaxaca’s zocalo (main square) is surrounded by the cathedral and government buildings and many of the colonial-era buildings, dating from the 16th century, have been lovingly restored and now house galleries, museums, hotels and restaurants. The Regional Museum of Oaxaca is one of the best regional museums in the country and houses a treasure-trove of information on Oaxaca. The Church of Santo Domingo de Guzman is among the most beautiful in the Western Hemisphere. Municipal Palace, Fountain of the Seven Regions and the Benito Juarez Market are all must sees as is a wonder along the Macedonio Alcala Walkway, a laneway with bookshops, craft shops, squares, churches and museums. Finally for panoramic city views head to Fortin Hill (the fort).
Monte Alban is an ancient city of the Zapotecs and a breathtaking archaelogical site with a spectacular mountain top location overlooking the valleys of Oaxaca. In 1987 it was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ruins of pyramids, temples, plazas, and other residential structures all center on the Great Plaza, a large open area on the flattened mountain top that offers excellent 360-degree views of the city and valleys below. San Pablo Villa de Mitla is a small town located 46 km southeast of Oaxaca city and is home to the impressive Mitla archaeological site. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. The site consists of a series of structures and patios adorned in stonework mosaics and are believed to date back to the last two or three centuries before the arrival of the Spanish. The site is made up of five groups of ruins with the two best preserved being the columns and church where stonework mosaics feature. Hierve el Agua are natural rock formations resembling a waterfall, with two rock shelves with amazing views. They are created by fresh water springs with an excess of calcium carbonate. Not so nearby is Playa Zicatela, a 3km long beach with cafes, restaurants, accommodation and the legendary surfing waves of the Mexican Pipeline. Great for surfing, not for swimming.
It seems every day is fiesta day in Oaxaca. Some stand outs are Day of the Dead, Guelaguetza and Noche de Rabanos (Night of the Radishes). Day of the Dead is celebrated throughout Mexico but is huge in Oaxaca. It is based on the belief that the deceased continue to exist following death and return each year to visit their families. Altars, tombs and cemeteries are decorated with flowers, candles and food to assist the spirits in finding their way home and to welcome them so that their family members may spend some time in their company. It's celebrated over several days in October/November each year. For weeks leading up to the fiesta families hit the markets for candles, chocolate, miniature skulls, skeletons and coffins. Tuxtepec Oaxaca, around 4 hours away from Oaxaca take it a step further preparing sawdust rugs days before the feast. There is also a Sawdust Rug contest held in the central square each year. Guelaguetza is a folk dance festival that takes places annually in July. It's a visual feast with theatrical dances and elaborate costumes. Noche de Rabanos, Oaxaca's yearly radish festival offers architectural wonders, cultural gatherings, mythical creatures and historical moments all reproduced in miniature using a root vegetable as the main building material.
Oaxaca is known for its culinary specialties including mole, a complex chilli-chocolate sauce with about 20 to 40 different ingredients; quesillo, a local type of string cheese; tlayudas, extra large crispy tortillas; and spicy grasshoppers called chapulines. Sample a traditional Mexican hot chocolate or mescal, an alcoholic beverage made from the agave plant. There are some world class markets in Oaxaca, the ideal place to sample these delights. South of the zocalo is the Benito Juarex market which contains handicrafts, clothing, fresh produce, piñatas and herbs. Nearby the 20 de Noviembre market has food stalls and a grilled meat (carnes asadas) section which takes centre stage. You can choose your meat of choice and have it grilled while you wait. A little further south there are several chocolate shops where you can see (and eat!) cocoa beans ground with sugar, almonds and cinnamon to make traditional Oaxacan chocolate.
If you are looking handicrafts, Oaxaca produces some of the finest in the country. Purchase crafts from shops and markets in the city or go to the villages surrounding Oaxaca to meet the craftspeople, who specialise in ceramics, textiles, wood carvings, and tin work, and see them creating their pieces. One of the most unique and sought after items are black clay pottery, or barro negro, which is a traditional Zapotec method of making pottery. The clay is molded and spun by hand, then polished. Visit family owned workshops where the traditions of barro negro continue in San Bartolo Coyotepec. The clay they use is found in the valley surrounding the village. Alebrijes, another favourite Mexican folk art, are colorful painted animal carvings. The village of San Martin Tilcajete is one of the best places in Oaxaca to visit for these delights and the residents here earn their living almost exclusively from producing these items.
The Infinity Experience
Church of Santo Domingo de GuzmanShutterstock
A city of fiestasShutterstock