Overview

Oaxaca is possibly the loveliest state capital in Mexico, with ancient ruins, colonial architecture, distinctive food and friendly, relaxed people. Oaxaca (pronounced wah-HAH-kah) also has several large markets where you can sample the local produce and unique indigenous crafts of the region. Much of Oaxaca's tourist activity is centered in the main plaza, the zocalo, which features many outdoor cafes and restaurants.

Although Oaxaca contains many signs of the modern world, from televisions and Internet cafes to McDonald's and denim, many of the traditional ways and dress are still evident. Along the streets, aproned women with long black hair braided with colored ribbons go to the market with baskets of tortillas, fruits and flowers skillfully balanced on their heads. Even in the Oaxaca city center, an occasional farmer on an alfalfa-loaded burro makes his or her rounds.

Oaxaca's historic center has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its Spanish Colonial street plan and buildings are still intact, making it compact and walkable. The city serves as a commercial center for the farming villages, or pueblos, of the region, and farmers take their alfalfa, corn and other vegetables there to sell. The town is a foodie's haven, with outstanding dishes made from mole that rival Puebla's, plus a local cheese called quesilla and rich chocolate, the best in Mexico.

Oaxaca is especially well-known for its distinctive artisan tradition, which produces pottery, handwoven rugs and textiles, wood carvings and other regional crafts. Tradition-minded residents successfully blocked a government directive to cut down the trees in the zocalo and put up fast-food chain restaurants in the historic buildings.

Unfortunately, Oaxaca experienced violence and civil unrest in 2006, starting with a teachers' strike in May and continuing with clashes between police and protesters in late October and November. Although the situation in Oaxaca has calmed down, many of the issues underlying the protests remain unresolved. (The national head of the teacher's union was jailed on charges of corruption in 2014). Although tourists have not been victims of violence there, travelers should check current conditions.

Popular mainly with Mexican visitors, Oaxaca still draws enough foreign travelers that English is spoken in many businesses in the historic center. However, stick to the big hotels for lodging because smaller inns may not have English-speaking staff.

Geography

The city of Oaxaca lies where three river valleys, called the Central Valleys, meet. Situated at an altitude of 5,000 ft/1,550 m, the valleys are surrounded by the high, rugged mountain peaks of Sierra Madre del Sur, Sierra Madre de Oaxaca and Sierra Atravesada. Lush vegetation and alpine forests cover the mountains, but the valley itself is desertlike except during the rainy season (June-September). The area is known for its temperate, year-round climate with warm days and cool nights.

History

The central valleys of the state of Oaxaca have been inhabited for more than 10,000 years. The Zapotecs began construction of the city of Monte Alban on a high plateau around 500 BC. From AD 300 to 850, Monte Alban was an advanced city-state and one of the most important trading centers in Mesoamerica. Around AD 1000, the Mixtecs from the north conquered the Zapotecs and dominated the region until the warlike Aztecs took over in the 15th century. Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Valley of Oaxaca in 1520 and, with the help of Zapotec allies, eventually defeated the Aztecs. The Spanish officially founded the city of Oaxaca in 1529.

For 300 years, until Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the colonial government and hierarchy took advantage of indigenous workers to process the native riches of the region, primarily silver, gold and cochineal—a red dye made from tiny cactus beetles. This period also saw the arrival of Catholic missionaries and the subsequent building of the magnificent churches and convents that dot the city today.

Since Mexico's independence, Oaxaca has produced two of the country's presidents. The beloved Benito Juarez was an orphaned Zapotec boy who came to the city from his mountain village at age 12. He graduated from law school, became governor of Oaxaca and served three terms as president of Mexico until his death in office in 1872. His successor, Porfirio Diaz, was also from Oaxaca. His dictatorial and violent leadership style provoked the revolution of 1910.

The indigenous people of Oaxaca have retained much of their traditional way of life, from language and farming methods to crafts. Peasant land cooperatives help farmers in their struggle to make a living. The state of Oaxaca is still one of the poorest in Mexico, and its government has received criticism for alleged suppression of democracy and free speech, as well as for various human-rights violations.

Sightseeing

A good place to start your tour of Oaxaca is Macedonia Alcala, a pedestrian street lined with galleries, restaurants, boutiques and gift shops. The entire center of town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is worth exploring: The original baroque town plan is intact, and it boasts many beautiful buildings, including more than two dozen churches from the 16th and 17th centuries. Must-see sites include the spectacular Santo Domingo Church, five blocks north of the Zocalo on Plaza de Santo Domingo, and the adjacent Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca.

Outside of the city, set high over the Central Valleys, ruined cities such as Monte Alban and Mitla reflect one of the oldest cultures of Mesoamerica.

Less dramatic but more important to local worshippers is the Basilica de la Soledad, keeper of the miraculous Virgin of Soledad in her trademark black cape. The church's large outdoor courtyard hosts concerts and fireworks displays on holidays.

Nightlife

Oaxaca has a growing number of bars, discos and venues with live music. The Zocalo also comes alive at night with concerts in the bandstand, marimba bands and strolling mariachis, often all playing at the same time. The Alcala pedestrian mall is another place to hear local musicians, especially on weekends. Most nightspots have a minimal cover charge or none at all.

Dining

Oaxaca's distinctive dishes are not what usually come to mind when you think of Mexican cuisine. Most prominent are its mole sauces, usually served over chicken or meat. There are seven different varieties plus dozens of offshoots, each painstakingly made from a dozen or so finely chopped ingredients.

Quesillo, a Oaxacan string cheese, is sold almost everywhere and makes a great snack to tote along on day trips. Other favorites are tamales, chiles rellenos (always spicy) and flavorful soups, such as flor de calabaza (squash flower). A tlayuda (big tortilla topped with beans, cheese and chicken or beef) is a meal in itself.

Hot chocolate (made from locally grown beans) is made with water or milk and is often served in soup bowls with sweet bread for dunking. Over the past few years, delicious organically grown coffee from the highlands has come of age, gracing cafes and restaurants all over town. Aguas are water drinks flavored with fruits such as watermelon, pineapple and orange. Aqua de horchata is a sweet rice-and-milk drink full of chopped fruit and nuts, served cool. Mescal, grown from a different species of agave than tequila, is Oaxaca's specialty liquor. It's a potent drink, but flavored versions made with orange, coffee and almond are lower in alcohol content.

And then there are the chapulines, dry-roasted or fried and salted grasshoppers. Legend has it that if you try the chapulines, you'll always return to Oaxaca. Sprinkle a few on a salad for starters.

Locals typically eat desayuno (breakfast) between 8 and 11 am and their main meal, the comida or cena, between 2 and 4 pm. At night, they eat a light meal around 9 or 10. Restaurants with hours more in keeping with tourists' expectations are in the center of town.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than M$60; $$ = M$61-$110; and $$$ = M$111-$220.

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