Oaxaca City
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  Posted July 20th, 2016 by Zdenko  in Travel | 16 comments

Traveling Mexico

By: Zdenko Kahlina

Capital city of the state of Oaxaca
Finally we arrived in Oaxaca city. Immediately we got stuck in a hectic Oaxaca traffic. But I’m a fast learner, so I quickly managed to find a small street and bypass the problem on the main road. Still the area around Zocalo was very busy and parking was hard to find…

San Juan De Dios, Oaxaca 

In a busy Oaxaca traffic especially around the centre, it wasn’t easy to find hotel which I picked over the Internet. But, almost every house close to Zocalo is a hotel… small B&B places, but nevertheless hotels. So, we changed our plans and since we didn’t have reservation anywhere, we randomly picked one B&B that had indoor parking and WI-Fi internet included for free.

Hotel Villa Vazari… only two blocks away from Zocalo

So we decided to stay in hotel Villa Vazari, which is located in the Historic Center of Oaxaca, one of the most beautiful colonial cities in Mexico. This hotel is a local historic landmark, but for a tourists like us, it was a small purple building in a busy street. Hotel is located on Ignacio Aldama Street No. 409, just two blocks from Plaza of Constitution (Zocalo) Catedral and the tourist walkway. The things we liked the most about this hotel, was its location and how rooms were at the back of the house structure, far away from the street noise. Considering the low price, it was an excellent choice for us, as we were planning on staying there only for two nights.

Rooms in this hotel are away from the busy street at the front

Busy street close to our hotel

Oaxaca is the capital city of the state of Oaxaca and is located near the center of the state in a high mountain valley (5100′), with a population of about 250,000. The climate is spring like during most of the year with warm days and cool evenings. The region is generally arid with a rainy season beginning about July and lasting until October.

Oaxaca is a cultural intersection that brings together many aspects of Mexico, mixing them together like a delicious, complicated mole. The city itself is full of the gorgeous colonial style architecture that you see in many beautiful cities throughout the Mexican heartland, such as Morelia, Puebla, Guanajuato and Queretaro. The atmosphere is relaxed, and in the main square on weekends the cafes are full of people drinking coffees and micheladas, and families and children with balloons out for a day at the park. Although Oaxaca is well known to Mexican tourists, there are relatively few international tourists there, the majority of which are European families and student backpackers.

Numerous cafes are around Zocalo

What to Do in Oaxaca
Oaxaca‘s best Time To go is for the Festivals that are important Events in Oaxaca. The November Day of The Dead and the Easter Semana Santa being two of the important times. Christmas is a festive time in Oaxaca and the July regional dances the Guelaguetza are festive times. The weather of Oaxaca is nearly ideal year round because Oaxaca is at 5000 feet elevation in a valley surrounded by mountains that go to nearly 10,000 feet. 

Zocalo is always full with people

Most Mexicans buy food from street vendors

Vera and I walked all the streets around the Zocalo mixing with locals. But venturing beyond the main square and the quaint colonial streets, Oaxaca also has one of the richest arts and crafts traditions in Mexico, where indigenous groups still make many beautiful handmade goods such as green glazed and carved black pottery, colorful wool tapestries, clothing, jewelry and art.

You can also buy snacks on the street

There is plenty of restaurants around Zocalo

Zócalo
Oaxaca is rich in history and culture. The zócalo (main square) is the heart of the city and has been so since 1529. On the south side of the zócalo is the state government building*; on the north side is the Cathedral of Oaxaca which dates from 1535. The thick stone walls are designed to withstand the earthquakes of the region. To the northwest is Alemada de Leon. A number of cafes surround the zócalo and sitting at a sidewalk table and watching the activities in the square is a popular pastime.

Zocalo at night

Zocalo at night – there is always something happening

Vera in front of the Cathedral by Zocalo

More street vendors on Zocalo

You can get your shoes shine on Zocalo

The band which plays at frequent intervals in the plaza, is one of the best bands in Mexico. When it plays, the plaza, particularly on Sundays, is a wonderful sight. Here you will see the Mixtecan and the Zapotecan Indians, the men in their spotless Sunday white and the women often wearing the elaborately embroidered huipil.

Numerous cafes are around Zocalo

Under the portales around the plaza are numerous cafes, and at the one outside the Bar Moctezuma, where you are in an excellent position to hear the band, they serve a divine, but powerfully strong drink known as the pablo. The bartender refused to reveal the secret of the concoction, but it tastes as though every known kind of fruit juice-all good-had been mixed into a perfect blend and then treated with some other wonderful flavors. It is served in rather small glasses with tiny tortillas which act as a sort of hors d’oeuvres, or cocktail snack. They are the best tortillas I have ever eaten anywhere.

We had a dinner in “La Casa de la Abuela” restaurant with the view on Zocalo. Food was excellent and from the second floor we could see everything that was happening on the square bellow us. The zócalo is also the site of frequent political rallies and protests, which turned deadly in 2006. I will use the location of the zócalo as a reference to describe the locations of other points in the city. See also this article about the zócalo by Stan Gotlieb.

 Santo Domingo church – Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán 
The great architectural sight is the old church of SANTO DOMINGO, founded in 1539. A great many people consider this the outstanding church of Mexico. The style is baroque, and because of its massive construction, has remained in an excellent state of preservation in spite of the earthquakes from which Oaxaca has so often suffered. The monastery adjoining the church once covered ten acres, but it is now being used as barracks. The exterior is splendid in its architectural strength, but the great feature of the church is the interior.

Santo Domingo church – interior

Santo Domingo church – interior

The interior of the church of Santo Domingo is said to be the most magnificent interior of any church in Mexico, and according to some, in the world. It is decorated with inconceivable richness, and yet, instead of being merely rich, as so many of these baroque interiors are, it is also amazingly beautiful, with its walls and ceiling covered with gold and polychrome ornaments in high relief.

The church is attached to its former cloisters which today house the Centro Cultural de Santo Domingo. Founded as a Dominican convent, construction began in 1570. Despite damaging earthquakes in 1603-4, it was consecrated in 1608. The cloister was completed in 1619, damaged by an earthquake in 1660 and rebuilt in 1661. The nave, interior stucco and façade were completed during 1657-1675.

The church is adorned with paintings and frescos that depict passages from the Old and New Testaments. The main alter is a reproduction of the original, covered in gold-leaf and constructed in 1959 by Oaxacan craftsmen. The Capilla del Rosario (Church of the Rosary), constructed in 1724-31 and connected to the main temple, is dedicated to the Virgen of the Rosary. The nave, vault and side walls are decorated with images that depict the mystery of the Rosary.

Capilla De La Virgen Del Rosario
The eighteenth-century Capilla del Rosario (annexed to the church) is an architectural jewel dedicated to the Virgin of the same name. The finest part of the church and the most elaborately decorated is the CAPILLA DE LA VIRGEN DEL ROSARIO. This is almost a separate church. Although the style is fundamentally the same as that of the much-admired chapel of the same name in Puebla, it decidedly was not done by the same artist. This one has a homogeneous design with a tree motif, and the richness of its ornamentation, instead of seeming studied and tortured appears to be quite natural. Most of the high relief is not appliquéd, but is built directly into the brick walls as a protection against earthquakes.

The walls of the main building are six yards thick, and the side chapels are built into the wall. The old MAIN ALTAR was made of gold. It was melted by Diaz in 1866, and a columned horror has been substituted in its place. The railings in front of the main altar and the altar in the chapel were at one time of solid silver, but now iron ones have been substituted. Another interesting feature of the church is the wonderful CHOIR LOFT over the central door.

One of the most colorful markets takes place only in May and June and is not held in the market place at all. This is the little BIRD MARKET along the side of the plaza, where an unbelievable variety of singing birds is on display.

Cathedral de Oaxaca – La Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción
This dominant church is also referred to as The Cathedral of the Virgin of the Assumption. Located just off the Zócalo, this is the third to be built after fires and earthquakes in the 16th and 18th centuries destroyed the first two. Construction began in 1702 and was completed consecrated in 1733.

Cathedral de Oaxaca

Its Baroque façade is made of the quarried green stone commonly found in Oaxaca’s buildings and includes a relief over the central door of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary with stylized clouds and cherubs. The interior was plundered during the Wars of the Reform so is less elaborate. It is Neoclassical with a bronze altar crafted in Italy during the Porfirio era that features a statue of Nuestra Señora de al Asunción (Our Lady of the Assumption).

A small chapel near the alter houses the one piece that survived when the first structure was destroyed by lightning-induced fire, the Crucifix of El Señor del Rayo (Our Lord of Lightning). You can read more about this church here.

San Juan De Dios
Near the market the old church of SAN JUAN DE DlOs marks the site of the first straw, bamboo, and thatch church built in Oaxaca. This one dates from about 1600 and was built to mark the spot where the original church stood. There are some excellent native paintings of scenes of the Conquest in the church, but otherwise, except for historical and sentimental reasons, it offers nothing of particular interest.

San Juan De Dios, Oaxaca 

Although there are some twenty-five churches in and around Oaxaca, these are the principal ones, and after you have seen Santo Domingo, any other church would be an anticlimax. If you want a short, pleasant drive, follow the old AQUEDUCT out of town. The aqueduct is still in use, and homes have been built right into its arches. Follow the aqueduct out into the country until you pass the atrocious pseudo-Greek structure erected as the HOUSE OF THE GOVERNOR arid then comes back by way of Main Street.

There is a nice little park beside this street with whitewashed trees and the inevitable basketball court. BASKETBALL has become practically the national game of Mexico, and there is hardly a town or village in Mexico without a basketball court.

Having admired the park, we walked up the hill toward the Juarez statue. Juarez, one of Mexico’s great men, was a native of Oaxaca, and they have erected his statue on a most commanding position overlooking the town. As far as I know, there is no statue dedicated to Diaz, who was also born here, and who studied law under Juarez and through him acquired the revolutionary ideas which in his later life he forsook for extreme conservatism. The statue points to Monte Alban, and the little bumps on the hill which you will see far across the valley are all parts of that great Archaeological Zone which covers some eighteen square miles. The statue is also said to point to the railway station and to show you the way out of town if you don’t like the place!

Convent and Church of our Lady of Solitude
You can also get a good view of the CONVENT AND CHURCH OF OUR LADY OF SOLITUDE from this vantage point. The convent has been unroofed by time and earthquakes, but in the church there still stands the miraculous statue of the patroness of Oaxaca. She is famous as the patroness of sailors and has a beautiful pearl in her forehead which was given her by one of her admirers. There is a rather touching story of how this sailor once prayed to the Virgin of Solitude to save him when he was in peril at sea. She heard his prayer, and when in later years he became a pearl fisherman, he found this wonderful pearl and as an old man returned to Oaxaca and presented the pearl to the Virgin in fulfillment of his vow to give her the most valuable thing he had in return for saving his life.

They tell another story about this church. On the outside of the church there is a replica of the miraculous statue of the Virgin which stands on the altar. The church used to be the favorite place of worship for mule drivers, who would tie their pack animals outside, go in to worship, and then come out to discover that their goods had been stolen. The replica on the outside of the church is said to have been placed there so that the mule drivers could worship and keep an eye on their property at the same time.

Oaxaca – local mama

Food
And how could I forget the food? We wandered through the huge markets, getting lost in the winding corridors that were full of the sweet and spicy scents of fruit, nuts, chiles and herbs, and stopping to sample strange traditional snacks like chapulines (fried grasshoppers with chile and salt). We watched artesians mixing and grinding Oaxacan chocolate, infused with cinnamon and spices. We tasted Oaxacan mole, sampled mezcal, and of course, enjoyed a few Indio micheladas.

Dancing in front of church in the evening 

Dancing in front of church in the evening 

The Ladies of Isthmus

Lesser Traveled Places of Oaxaca, Mexico 
The city of Oaxaca and surrounding area have so much to offer that you can’t see it all in one trip. Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s most intriguing destinations, offering a rare natural beauty, dynamic culture, magnificent Zapotec, Mixtec, Monte Albano and Mitla to name just a few, archaeological sites, and some of this country’s finest and most varied regional cuisine. The vibrant festivities in the city traditionally attract thousands of international visitors and participating ethnic groups from all seven regions of the state. Fireworks, music, age-old dances, magnificent costumes and more offer an exciting glimpse into well-preserved traditions, many followed by Oaxaca’s indigenous groups to this day.

The countryside around Oaxaca, Mexico is dotted with small archaeological sites and villages, and the most important are easy to reach. The landmark ruins in the region are Monte Albán (30 min.) and Mitla (1 hr.). If you’re heading toward Mitla, there are some interesting stops. A number of interesting villages in other directions make good day trips from Oaxaca, Mexico. The State Tourism Office will give you a map that shows nearby villages where beautiful handicrafts are made or ask them for the Travel Guide. They told us where the bus is that will take us to Monte Alban for only 40 pesos/person. Vera and I did visit Monte Alban (by bus) and Mitla (by car), but this will be covered in my next blog…

Typical street in Oaxaca

Promenade – Street in Oaxaca without cars

Conclusion
The city of Oaxaca is not on the coast. It is only 147 miles (237 km) from the city to the coast, but the road crosses the Sierra Madre del Sur, making this an 8-hour drive. Nevertheless, hwy 175 is a world class drive through gorgeous tropical forests and I highly recommend it for the adventurous traveler. Vera and I are going to do it after we leave Oaxaca. Many travelers combine visit the city of Oaxaca with a trip to the coast.

Anyhow, Oaxaca City was beautiful. Its only drawback was the smelly traffic and clogged streets with cars that are barely moving. The streets are filled with the sweet, sweet smell of exhaust, pretty much at any given time. Our lungs have probably blackened…

Overall, that was a small annoyance. Oaxaca is very picturesque with cobble stone streets, large cathedrals (it’s not a Mexican city without at least one cathedral) and many restaurants and street fare (yes, we’re still stuffing our faces). The city is Mexico’s centre for handicrafts, chocolate, coffee and mezcal (tequila’s dirtier cousin with the worm).

It is in this city where I have fallen in love with coffee. Never much of a coffee drinker (prefer beer) but there’s something about Oaxacan coffee that I love. Oaxaca City is a much smaller city compared to Mexico City and Puebla; in both square kilometers and population.

Have a good and healthy season.

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16 comments to “Oaxaca City”

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