It’s beyond me that the city of Oaxaca (pronounced “wa-HAH-ka”) is still one of Mexico’s best-kept secrets because it’s such an exceptional place, particularly if you’re into culture and atmosphere. The climate is sub-tropical and it is suppose to be pleasant all year around, although the first time I went there—at the end of December about a dozen years ago—it was cold and crowded and we couldn’t find a place to stay in the historic centre so soon retreated to the hot Pacific coast. This time I went in February and the weather was indeed perfect and I booked a wonderful B&B situated in a best part of town and stayed for a week.
The B&B, Ollin Oaxaca, is in the northern part of the historic city not far from a lovely green space called Jardin Conzatti. Each morning after a hearty breakfast I would walk down the block until I reached what I called “the wall”, peer through the gated window for a view of the Ethnobotanical Garden, round the corner and stroll down the pedestrian-only street (Andador Macedonio Alacalá) until I reached the zócalo or central park. It was a walk I never tired of.
The Ethnobotanical Garden is on the grounds of the Santo Domingo Church and the attached Museum of Oaxacan Cultures. Both are “must-sees”.
The upper floor of the museum is a perfect spot for an overview of the area. As you look around you’ll notice that most buildings are low, their walls thick because they were built to withstand earthquakes. The city lies in a valley with mountains on either side—the Sierra Madre Oriental and the Sierra Madre del Sur in fact. Just a few kilometers away, and over a 1,500-year history, the city of Monte Albán was carved out of one of those mountains by the Olmec, Zapotec and Mixtec peoples. Today the Monte Albán archaeological site and Oaxaca’s historic centre are UNESCO World Heritage properties. Many of the artifacts found at Monte Albán are on display in this museum.
From here it’s four blocks down the cobbled street to the zócalo. You’ll pass impeccably preserved shops and restaurants, painters, street merchants selling hats and shawls, a man playing a flute while his young son holds out a hat for coins, flirtatious schoolchildren and well-dressed professionals.
Although I always stroll down to the zócalo on the pedestrian street, I usually take a different route back, seeking out restaurants and shops. There are outstanding restaurants for Oaxaca is considered to be one of the two (the other being Puebla) culinary capitals of Mexico, especially famous for its moles—the spicy sauces that can be red, black, green, yellow and brown.
And the shopping! Top-of-the-line textiles here and all sorts of arts and crafts. Then there’s Oaxaca’s famous black pottery.
My destination each morning was the zócalo, a popular gathering place and the heart of the historic centre. It’s a lively place where ancient trees provide plenty of shade and everyone just seems to hang out and have a good time.
Every Sunday afternoon the State Band of Oaxaca puts on a concert of classical music under those trees and chairs are set out for the audience.
Bordering the south side of the square is the Palacio de Gobierno (Government Place) and on the north is the Catedral de Oaxaca. The Palacio has been converted into a museum and cultural center with murals about the history of Oaxaca including images of Benito Juárez who was Mexico’s only indigenous president.
There was a protest going on outside the Palacio when I was there, perhaps a hangover from the 2006 teachers’ protest that ended in violence.
Just south of the zócalo are two quite exceptional covered markets (mercados), Benito Juárez and 20 de Noviembre. The Mercado so de Noviembre is the food market and you can find a spot on a bench and have lunch there (I was too intimidated) or take home some grasshoppers (chapulines) and string cheese for an afternoon picnic.
One day I caught what I call the hop-on-hop-off bus (I’m not sure if you can actually hop off) to go further afield, past the grand theatre (Teatro Macadonio Alcalá) to neighbourhoods where regular people live. You’ll want to venture beyond the city too, to Monte Alban and some of the villages.
This time I made a point of seeing the giant tree in the small town of Santa María el Tule. You can go on a tour, which will probably include visits to markets and shops in a couple of villages, or simply engage a taxi for the return trip, which is what I did. This is suppose to be the most massive tree in the world and although it’s between 2,000 and 3,000 years old it’s not the oldest one. The circumference of the trunk is 58 meters (about 190 feet).
I’m already planning another visit to Oaxaca, for next year, in fact. I’m thinking about studying Spanish and this would be a perfect place to do it. I’ll need a month at least and that will be just fine for Oaxaca is truly Mexico at its best.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2014