06 Sep Oaxaca City: A Guide
Oaxaca City is one of my favorite cities in the world. Full of art, culture, architecture, and gastronomy, there is something for everyone. Since it is a relatively touristy place, there are some expensive five-star restaurants, high-end galleries and areas of town, however, under the skin of this city there is a true bohemian pulse. A history of protests against injustice, and respect for indigenous cultures, has produced powerful visual art, writing, textiles and inspiring creative discourse. Not to mention that Oaxaca is known internationally as the capital of Mexican cuisine, this city will surely leave you wanting more.
Oaxaca comes from the Nahuatl name for the place, Huaxyacac, which the Spanish later changed to Guajaca. A variation in spelling, Oaxaca became the modern name and “de Juárez” was added to honor one of Mexico’s heroes, Benito Juárez who hails from the state. His rise to power as a Zapotec man from a rural village in the 1800s is very representative of the ethos of the state, a constant push towards indigenous recognition and respect. Its mixture of elegant colonial architecture and Zapotec archeological ruins, as well as vibrant Zapotec and Mixtec culture, calls to many travelers. In a world where indigenous traditions and languages are constantly being lost, original languages are alive and thriving in Oaxaca.
A Very Brief History of Oaxaca
Zapotec and Mixtec peoples have lived in the Valley of Oaxaca for millennia, since before the start of the Common Era, and created impressive cities like Monte Albán, which still beckon to travelers today. The Aztecs appeared on the scene in 1440, using the area as a strategic military position to hold down the trade route between the valley of Mexico (roughly what Mexico City is currently) and Central America. By the time the Spanish arrived, the Zapotecs and Mixtecs were embroiled in one of their many wars. In 1521, Cortés sent Francisco de Orozco with 400 Aztecs to investigate the situation. Montezuma II had suggested that the Aztec’s gold came from this area. This later caused a power struggle between the two Spaniards.
Today, Oaxaca is remembered internationally for its teachers’ protests, including work stoppage and occupation of city streets that shut down the capital in 2006. Over 15 years later, the city has gained notoriety for its rebellious nature, which can be seen regularly in their politically charged street art. Far from a nuissance, we find it inspiring, seeing people rise up together for causes they believe in and demanding that their voices be heard.
It is precisely this rebellious nature that we love about Oaxaca. The wild beating heart of this city is unafraid to speak out against corruption and injustice. Don’t believe me? Walk down any street in the city center and you’re bound to encounter gritty, through-provoking images.
Since the aforementioned teachers’ protest of 2006, there has been a boom in subversive street art in the form of printmaking and pasting throughout the downtown area of the UNESCO World Heritage site. The art is intended to speak for the oppressed, to allow their voices to be heard. Provocative black and white prints and vibrant, colorful graffiti make walking through the streets of Oaxaca like an art gallery of its own. (3)
In keeping with this tradition, Oaxaca has a wealth of well-kept museums, full of art, history and more. Just as Oaxaca’s street art speaks for those who cannot speak for themselves, their museums speak to a complex and valuable history adorned with incredible textiles, intriguing art, and long-held traditions. I could honestly spend weeks just visiting their museums …(That is my dream week, btw.)
From the historied Cultural Center in the ex-convent of San Pablo to the highly-lickable stamp museum, from Toledo’s Institute of Graphic Arts accompanied by a curated library of pre-Colombian art book to the Juan de Cordova Library, an architectural gem with its various rotating exhibits, from the unique and beautiful Museum of Oaxacan Painters to the edgy Museum of Contemporary Art, which also hosts events like live ska concerts, the list seems never-ending.
Considering that Oaxaca is known worldwide for it’s incredibly rich and delicious cuisine, It’s no wonder that it also has some of the most colorful, fragrant and delicious markets in the world. A walk through one of it’s markets will leave you stuffed with scrumptious delights and weighed down with chocolate, spices, textiles and more. It’s a gorgeous wonderland! Dig in and take the time to savor the local specialties.
The Mercado 20 de Noviembre
Nicknamed the “Mercado de la Comida” (food market), anything you want to eat, you can find here. There is raw food, as well as eateries that offer every type of Oaxacan dish imaginable. This is one of the most talked about places to eat in Oaxaca. While “Mole”, a savory-sweet sauce boasting as many as 19 different ingredients, is likely the most famous Oaxacan dish, don’t pass up a chance to try tlayuduas (a giant stuffed crunchy quesadilla), tasajo (similar to beef jerky), pan de yema (a yellow egg-based bread) which tastes great accompanied by a cup of hot chocolate (made locally, usually having cinnamon and almonds), Oaxacan string cheese (quesillo), Queso fresco (a young, white cheese) and the famous chapulines (fried grasshoppers).
Annnnd, now I’m hungry. Thanks, guys.
The Mercado Benito Juárez
One block south of the Zócalo, on Flores Magón, starts the Benito Juárez Market; it covers a full city block to 20 de Noviembre and Aldama streets (where Mercado 20 de Noviembre is located). They sell fruit and flowers, as well as artisanal items like textiles, pottery and more. There is less food there, but we actually had some of the best tlayudas ever in this market. Typically though people go to the other market for food.
La Cosecha Mercado Orgánico (The Harvest Organic Market)
A delightful open air market with several organic restaurants, shops for organic food and artesanal items, like handmade organic toiletries, crafts, and ingredients. Sometimes they have live music and the atmosphere is relaxing. Large wooden tables offer shared seating and they serve many classic Oaxacan dishes, like tlayudas and huaraches (meaning sandal, it’s shaped like the sole of a shoe) topped with different guisados (seasoned and prepared stews or combinations of toppings).
More phenomenal things you won’t want to miss
Teatro Macedonio Alcalá
The theater, named after the author of the national anthem, is a magnificent architectural beauty, typical of the works of the Porfirio Díaz period. It was completed in 1909. The art-nouveau building houses a collection of romantic art and hosts operas, international ballets and other theater events. Its green cupola is instantly recognizable, as are its green cantera arches framing the main entrance.
Surrounded by Spanish colonial churches and arched passageways, and often filled with exciting events, the Plaza de la Constitución, also known as the Zócalo (town square), is an obvious choice to visit and get your bearings in the city.
The zócalo is lined with restaurants and shops, filled with ambulant vendors and locals spending time socializing. It is frequently the site of non-violent protests as well. Relax and have a drink, people watch, or walk around to get a feel for Oaxaca.
While you may be overwhelmed by the abundance of amazing things to do in the capital city, we are just getting started. Oaxaca is an enormous state, choc-full of nature, culture, and cuisine. Only a short distance outside of the city there are several worthwhile day trips to consider.
Start with the natural wonder, Hierve el Agua, a 40 meter tall mineralized stone waterfall adorned with turquoise bathing pools and surrounded by clifftop views of the Oaxacan Valley. Then visit mysterious Mitla, the Zapotec portal to the afterlife, an archaeological ruin with a fascinating history, located in a quaint town known for its textiles. And then there’s the all-impressive Zapotec capital, Monte Alban, a mighty maze of historic structures that will impress even the most seasoned archaeologist.
Another fantastic option is San Agustin Etla, home to Centro de Las Artes San Agustin, the first ecological art center in Latin America, guided by Toledo’s vision. From it’s architecture to its exhibits to the gorgeous village where its located, this dreamy artistic wonderland is not to be missed. And last, but never least, the nearly dozen eco-villages in the neighboring mountains, known as the Pueblos Mancomunados. There you can stay in cabins or camp, experience remote wildlife and landscapes, and support indigenous communities whose priority is to care for and honor the land which gives their villages life.
Where to stay
We adore this little unassuming hostel. While the hostel itself is quite basic, their staff is delightful and we always meet the coolest people there. It’s inexpensive, rarely full and a short walk down Porfirio Diaz to centro. It’s an easy and interesting walk into town, passing by several print galleries and good restaurants. The hostel has both private and dorm style rooms, includes breakfast, has a common area for meeting other travelers. They also organize tours for their visitors.
Want to read more on Hostal El Pochon? Check it out here.
Looking to size up a little? Located on Porfirio Diaz, very close to the Santo Domingo church, Oaxacalli is a small family-owned hotel. You can recognize it by its stark white facade and cursive logo. It shares the same walk to centro the we love from Hostal Pochon, just a bit shorter. The walk passes by Boulenc and Gourmand among others.
It’s reasonably priced, has a roof-top view of the city, and the family that runs it has been very accommodating when we’ve needed to leave bags at the front desk, for example. They also have a hacienda-style open courtyard in the center of the hotel, bringing in light and fresh air.
Where to eat
Delicious and reasonably priced, Don Juanitos is a favorite of ours in Oaxaca City. Beyond their food being absolutely scrumptious, you can try traditional dishes like Mole Mixe or have comfort food like ribs and mashed potatoes if you’re feeling less adventurous. The restaurant has an ample menu, including some dishes of Mixe origin, like the aforementioned Mole and a spicy curative soup called Ayuuk, which is my personal go-to. Don’t order it if you don’t like spicy food! It’s is hot and healing.
Read more about my love for Don Juanito’s here.
Gourmand / Santísima Lúpulo
Looking to tip one back? This is the place for delicious artisanal beer. Named Flor de Lupulo (Hop’s Flower), this local brewery has a menu that is constantly changing based on what’s new. Mango wheat? ESB? Chocolate stout? The world is your beer stein.
Gourmand, their connected restaurant cures it own meats, makes sauerkraut, chutneys, and various dressings. It’s a delicious deli, offering many homemade delights.
So, those are my favorite places in and around Oaxaca City … atleast for now. With such a vibrant and ever-evolving city, we’re always returning and seeking out more inspiring places to share.
Have you been to Oaxaca? Experienced something you loved or hated? Please share your stories below! We’d love to know about your experience.
- Oaxaca.org “Oaxaca cumple 476 años como ciudad”[Oaxaca celebrates it’s 476th anniversary as a city] (in Spanish). Retrieved 8 September 2009.
- Municipality of Oaxaca. “Museos”[Museums] (in Spanish). Oaxaca. Retrieved 8 September 2009.