Oaxaca City is one of my favorite cities in the world. Full of art, culture and architecture, and fantastic food, there is something for every traveler. A touristy place, there are some expensive restaurants, 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 unique and fantastic visual art, writing, textiles and creative discourse. Not to mention that Oaxaca is known internationally as the capital of Mexican cuisine, this city will 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. Colonial architecture and surrounding Zapotec and Mixtec archeological ruins, as well as vibrant Zapotec and Mixtec culture, seduces many travelers into coming …and often staying.
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 and Mitla, 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 Mexico City now) and Central America. (1). By the time the Spanish entered the scene, the Zapotecs and Mixtecs were involved 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 known internationally for its teachers’ protests, including work stoppage and occupation that shut down the city in 2006. Over 10 years later, the city has gained notoriety for its rebellious nature, which can be seen in their tradition of politically charged street art. It can, at times inconvenience travelers, but by no means should stop you from going. It’s really worth it.
I don’t know about you, but I love a good museum and Oaxaca is a great place for this. I’ve yet to explore all of their museums, but I’ve really enjoyed the ones I’ve been to so far. My favorite thus far is Culture Museum in the ex-convent of Santo Domingo.
Centro Cultural de Santo Domingo
Considered one of the best restoration works in Latin America (2), the ex-convent of Santo Domingo, connected to the Santo Domingo church and the surrounding grounds, Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca (botanical gardens of native plants), is one of the most exquisite spaces I’ve ever explored. An imposing open courtyard with regal columns and vaulted ceilings with a magnificent fountain in the center, then leads to intricate passageways with cupolas and superb views of the city and botanical garden below.
The museum charts the cultural trajectory of Oaxaca, showcasing pre-Columbian artifacts from Monte Albán, information about daily life in different periods of history, the Spanish conquest and its religious relics, as well as information about modern life and culture. One of the most interesting sections, in my opinion, is the cultural map of Oaxaca, showing 22 different cultural regions and languages.
El Centro Fotografico Manuel Alvarez Bravo (CFMAB)
This photographic center on the corner of Bravo and Garcia Vigil in the historic heart of Oaxaca City is well worth a visit. Its exhibits offer a window into other times and places.
Founded by Francisco Toledo in 1996, the Center works to preserve the visual record and foster the visual culture of Oaxaca through photography courses, exhibitions, and by curating an extensive photographic library.
Hours of operation: 9:30am to 8pm Wednesday through Monday; closed on Tuesdays.
Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca
The Museum of Contemporary Art (MACO) is in a building nicknamed the Casa de Cortés; though it’s one of the oldest buildings in the city, it dates after the death of the infamous Cortés. Two stories of a hacienda style building shelter 3 courtyards with beautiful wrought iron railings. The contemporary art appearing in the museum changes to show the work of different artists. When I saw it, the exhibit explored the technological future of an indigenous race that hadn’t been conquered by the Spanish. The art was deeply thought provoking, playing with logos and robotics as well as traditionally associated icons like feathers and representations of the gods.
The Museo de los Pintores Oaxaqueños
A small but truly beautiful museum, the Museum of Oaxacan Painters can be found in an 18th century mansion on Avenida Independencia, just in the heart of centro. As its name suggests it exclusively exhibits the work of some of Oaxaca’s greatest visual artists, like Felipe Morales, Rodolfo Nieto, Alejandro Santiago and Francisco Toledo. The museum is dedicated to Rodolfo Morales and his magic realism is on permanent display.
Institute of Graphic Arts
While this isn’t technically a museum, I am head over heels in love with this place. The Graphic Arts Institute of Oaxaca hosts an epic library of books on art and culture, as well as a large collection of graphic design past and present, and you could easily spend days there reading and discovering. Additionally, they have an exhibitions space which when I was there was focused on the cumulative body of work of Francisco Toledo. His pieces related to Zapotec culture were my favorite. This is one that I would not miss! Seriously, I might spend my whole trip there next time.
This is definitely a highlight of Oaxaca for me. Since the aforementioned teachers’ protest of 2006, there has been a boom in subversive street art in the form of printmaking and illegal pasting throughout the downtown area of the UNESCO World Heritage site. The art is intended to pass the mic to the oppressed, to allow their voices to be heard. Thought provoking black and white prints and vibrant, colorful graffiti make walking through the streets of Oaxaca like an art gallery of its own. (3)
The Mercado Benito Juárez
One block south of the Zócalo on Flores Magón starts the Benito Juárez Market; it takes the full city block to 20 de Noviembre and Aldama streets (where the other market is located). They sell fruit and flowers, as well as artisanal items and drinks. There is a little food in this market, but not much. We actually had some of the best tlayudas ever in this market… but typically, people go to the other market for food.
The Mercado 20 de Noviembre
Nicknamed the “Mercado de la Comida” (food market), anything you want to eat, you can find here. Raw food as well as food stalls offering every type of Oaxacan dish imaginable. This is one of the most talked about places to eat in Oaxaca. While mole is likely the most famous Oaxacan dish, don’t pass us a chance to try tlayuduas (like 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.
Teatro Macedonio Alcalá
The theater, named after the author of the national anthem, is magnificent architectural beauty, typical of the works of Porfirio Díaz period, the early 1900s. The beautiful building houses a collection of romantic art as well as hosting operas, ballets and a myriad of other events. Its iconic green cupola is instantly recognizeable.
Surrounded in gorgeous architecture like the churches and arched passageways, and often filled with events, music and other activities, the Zócalo (town square) is an obvious choice to visit and get your bearings in the city. Relax and have a drink, people watch or walk around to get a feel for the city.
Just out of town
Famous for its 40 meter tall mineralized stone waterfall, this destination offers cool mineralized pools to relax and refresh in, all the while soaking up the incredible view of the Oaxaca valley and the surreal waterfall, permanently frozen seeming, mid-tumble off the cliff ledge. Food and drinks are available here too. Read more about this epic destination by clicking here.
Mysterious Mitla, the Zapotec portal to the afterlife, is a unique archeological destination. Though small, it has a fascinating history as a religious center and later as a functioning capital, as well as some very unique details in its construction. Want to read more about Mitla’s sacred ruins? Click here.
The impressive capital city of the Zapotec, this mighty maze will impress even the most seasoned archaeologist. Seemingly never ending, the mountaintop ruins boast a particularly advantageous view of the valleys that surround it. Enormous structures conjure up images of a tie when the Zapotecs, and later Mixtec, held great power. To learn more about this exquisite site, click here.
We’ve only begin to scratch the surface of the small eco-villages, tucked away in Oaxaca’s temperate and sub-tropical forests. 1-2 hours outside of the city, these villages offer great outdoor opportunities, like hiking, cycling or camping, and also provides a unique cultural exchange while benefitting the village’s economy and nature conservation efforts. Want to know about the Pueblos? Read my story from a visit to Benito Juarez.
Where to stay
Where to eat
Delicious and reasonably priced, what feels like a 5 star restaurant won’t hurt your wallet at all (and we’re overlanders, so you know we have to pinch those pennies). Beyond their food being absolutely scrumptious, you can try high quality traditional dishes, or have ribs and mashed potatoes if you’re not that adventurous. Some staff members are of Mixe origin and so their unique dishes, like a spicy curative soup with, Ayuuk, appear on the menu as well. 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), brewed in house, where the menu is constantly changing. Mango wheat? ESB? Chocolate stout? The world is your beer stein.
So, those are my Oaxaca faves …for now. We’re always returning and seeking out more dynamite places to share with YOU! Have you been to Oaxaca? Experienced something you loved or hated? Share your stories below!
- 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.