Artisans, markets and plenty of history make Oaxaca an ideal destination for tourists who want to see a different side to Mexico
The warm, dry climate, beautiful colonial architecture and indigenous culture all contribute to Oaxaca’s unique atmosphere. The beautiful capital of this southern Mexican state is surrounded by the Sierra Madre Mountains. It has a more chilled-out feel than other Mexican cities, allowing visitors to explore its many attractions at a relaxed pace.
Oaxaca has many churches, but Santo Domino stands out- it is the most beautiful church I have ever visited. The ceiling is covered in elaborate carvings and the gold leaf altar is spectacular. The church alone is worth a visit, but if you are lucky you may see a wedding or quinze años (15th birthday) ceremony. Families who opt to hold these celebrations at Santo Domingo are well-aware that they will be witnessed by half the city, so weddings are elaborate affairs, with firework displays, mariachi, dancers and giant paper-mâché effigies of the bride and groom. Guests dressed in their finery mingle with tourists and street vendors outside the church. If you want to view a wedding party from a distance, then grab an upstairs table at the Italian Coffee Company, which is directly opposite.
Next to Santo Domingo is the Regional Museum of Oaxaca, which holds artefacts from the nearby Monte Alban pyramid, including exquisite gold and shell jewellery. The museum is huge and well worth as visit. It has loads of interesting displays on everything from the Spanish conquest to the culture of the many ethnic groups in Oaxaca state.
Oaxaca is renowned for its artisans and much of the pottery, jewellery and textiles you see elsewhere in Mexico originates in Oaxaca. The best craft shop I have found is MARO (5 de Mayo #204, Centro Historico), which sells regional crafts and is run by a collective of women. Goods on sale here include beautifully carved nativity scenes, elaborately woven scarves and dresses and smooth black Oaxacan pottery. If you want to know more about handicrafts, I would recommend you spend a day visiting the villages of the Valles Centrales, which are a short bus journey from the city. Each village is dedicated to a particular craft, for example the people of Teotitlán del Valle are skilled rug weavers, a tradition dating back hundreds of years, as they were forced to weave for the Aztecs as a kind of tax. San Martin Tilcajete is known for brightly-coloured wooden carvings of animals. Whether or not you buy the finished goods, it is fascinating to walk around the workshops and see the craftspeople at work.
Oaxaca’s main square, or ‘Zocalo’, is surrounded by cafés, which makes it a great place to grab a coffee or lunch and do some people-watching. Weekends are particularly vibrant, as the square is packed full of Mexican families and small stalls selling jewellery, sweets, candyfloss and balloons. Musicians often play on the central bandstand, which adds to the party atmosphere. You will be hassled by shoe-shiners, mariachi and street vendors, but it’s all part of the fun and even the most cynical tourist will find it hard not to smile when they are serenaded by a group of portly, moustached mariachi! The best places to get a coffee or a snack are Terranova cafe (http://www.terranova-oaxaca.com.mx/) or El Jardin. Both are nestled underneath the stone arches of the Portal de Flores at the edge of the Zocalo, giving you great views of the action. The upper level of El Jardin is a more formal restaurant, El Asador Vasco (website: http://www.asadorvasco.com/), which has balcony seating with views across the Zocalo.
In the Zocalo, you will notice many people in traditional dress. Oaxaca is home to many different indigenous groups, who bring their unique language and customs to the city. It is estimated that at least half the population of the state speak an indigenous language in addition to Spanish. The two biggest groups are the Mixtecs and the Zapotecs, however the most easily identifiable group are the Triquis, as the women still wear the traditional huipil, a heavily embroidered red dress.
When you tire of sipping coffee in the Zocalo, head to Mercado Juarez, located a few blocks away. From stringy Oaxacan cheese to spices, fruit, clothing and flowers, there is a market stall for every item you could think of. If you are slightly squeamish then be warned - the sights and smells can be overpowering. The meat stalls in particular are a sight to behold, with carcasses of pigs and entrails of animals displayed proudly on the shop counters. There are numerous fast food stalls and an entire aisle is lined with smoking grills, cooking humungous chunks of meat. Expect to see baskets piled high with small brown grasshoppers, which are considered a delicacy in Oaxaca. I tried one and they were surprisingly tasty, similar in flavour and texture to a slightly over-baked kettle chip! Traditional crafts are also practiced in Mercado Juarez, for example, near the entrance to the market you will see groups of women weaving colourful baskets.
Mezcal and chocolate
There are two drinks in particular for which Oaxaca is renowned - mezcal and chocolate. Mezcal is made from the heart of the agave plant and is a rougher, though equally as potent, version of tequila. You can purchase a decent bottle of mezcal from one of the numerous shops surrounding the Zocalo, many selling hundreds of varieties, and most offering free samples. If you are not brave enough to try the real thing then ask to sample creme de mezcal instead. These are mezcal-based cream liquors, which are usually fruit or coffee flavoured. They are incredibly sweet and tasty, as the sugar masks the alcohol. La Cava (Jardín Conzatti, Gómez Farías 212-B, Centro Historico, website: http://www.losdanzantes.com/web/mezcal/cava/) stocks many different brands in all price ranges.
No visit to Oaxaca would be complete without sampling some chocolate. This is stronger and more bitter than European chocolate and is often flavoured with spices. The most famous producer, Mayordomo, has branches all over Oaxaca city (the most central branch is at Mina Esq. 20 de Noviembre, Centro Historico, telephone: 52 951 60246). Vendors use a wooden whisk to grind the chocolate into a cup of steaming hot milk. Your mug of chocolate will be accompanied by a slice of sweet bread - dip it into the chocolate to soak up the mixture.
If you’re inspired by the food and drink and keen to learn to cook some typical Mexican dishes, then visit the Seasons of My Heart cooking school (Rancho Aurora, AP#42 Admon.3, telephone: 52 951 508 0469). I have heard great things about this place, which is located just outside of the city and offers Mexican Cookery courses and bed and breakfast. A six-day cook course, including accommodation, meals and airport transfers costs MXN 19,000.
One final thing to note about Oaxaca is that in 2006, violent protests against the state Governor meant that Oaxaca was virtually paralysed, as riot police fought with protesters on the city’s streets. The city is now peaceful and I mention this only because when I recently visited Oaxaca, graffiti relating to the troubles was still scrawled on buildings, detracting from the normally pristine appearance of the historic centre, which is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Where to stay in central Oaxaca
The Camino Real (5 de Mayo 300, Centro Historico, telephone: 52 951 501 6100) is Oaxaca’s most luxurious hotel. It is a former convent, with a swimming pool and beautifully landscaped gardens. Many rooms have retained some of the decor from the original building, such as exposed beams and painted floor tiles. Every Friday, the hotel hosts a performance of the Guelaguetza, traditional Oaxacan dances depicting the conquest and the people’s conversion to Catholicism. Rooms start from MXN 3,800 per night.
When I stayed in Oaxaca, my budget didn’t stretch to the Camino Real, so I opted to stay in the Hotel Posada del Centro (Av. Independencia # 403, Centro Histórico, telephone: 52 951 516 1874). This is a pretty little hotel, with rooms situated around a tiled courtyard with a fountain in the centre. It was quiet, clean, in an excellent location and reasonably-priced rooms are MXN 500 per night in low season and half this price for a room with a shared bathroom.