Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxaca Mexico City Guide Santo Domingo Church Oaxaca

The quaint colonial city of Oaxaca is thoughtfully preserved and full of tradition. Its rich history, cultural heritage and terrific indigenous cuisine make it the perfect destination for a visit, as does its proximity to nearby villages full of artisans fashioning unique crafts.

By turns picturesque and pedestrian, full of life and oddly deserted, Oaxaca is a surprising and rewarding destination for visitors. The city is at the center of many things Mexican – food, history and crafts being at the top of the list. Unfortunately, in late 2006, it was also at the center of a violent series of protests that resulted in a government crackdown. Thankfully order was quickly restored and visitors are now venturing back.

Set in a valley amidst some of Mexico’s most famous centers of art, as well as artisanal black pottery, woodcraft, weaving and silver jewelry, the town is well located for a stay that includes out-of-town trips to the spectacular ruins of Monte Alban, the Ocotlan market and more. Oaxaca itself is eminently walkable, with several pedestrian zones to facilitate movement given the extremely narrow sidewalks. The town is made for rambling, with tons of shops, galleries, markets and churches to visit. The best strategy is just to take a few days to explore.

Oaxaca Mexico City Guide Oaxaca Street

The main area of interest for visitors is fairly compact, centered around the primarily pedestrian street of Macedonio Alcala that leads from the Santo Domingo Church down to the Cathedral and the Zocalo, or town square. The Cathedral, started in the 16th Century, sits on Plaza de la Independencia adjacent to the Zocalo. It has a distinct Gothic façade with carved figures and two towers. Inside the room bursts with color, highlighted by the large gold altar.

The center of town is the lovely Zocalo, beautifully restored and brimming with people. Surrounded by restaurants and cafes, its energy seems to draw you down the narrow streets. The leafy plaza has plenty of seating and is the central gathering point for Oaxacans in the evening. The requisite bands are playing and vendors with everything from treats to balloons circle the park plying their trade.

Oaxaca Mexico City Guide Oaxaca Cathedral

Nearby is the Rufino Tamayo Museum (Av. Morelos 503) which houses the collection of pre-Hispanic art amassed by the artist over a 20 year period. Open Wednesday – Monday, closed Tuesday.

Taking Alcala north, what locals call the Andado Touristico, leads you to the Santo Domingo Church. On the way, you will pass Plaza Labastida, which hosts a variety of local craftsman, artisans, musicians and food stands in a small rectangular plaza. The area has a host of giftshops and antique stores, the best being Plata de Oaxaca y Antiguedades (Abasolo 107) which rambles over several rooms and has everything from jewelry to old telephones.

The most important church in Oaxaca is undoubtedly the imposing Santo Domingo Church, founded by Dominicans in 1572. Similar on the exterior to the Cathedral, inside the church is a lavish interior with intricate ceiling details. Next door, housed in the former monastery, is the Cultural Center of Santo Domingo. The center houses a museum focusing on pre-Columbian artifacts including pieces from Tomb 7 on Monte Alban. The multiple courtyards of the complex have been turned into gardens. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am – 7:45pm. Admission about $4.

While Oaxaca is an interesting destination with plenty to see and do, there is a lot more to explore outside the city. The city is a great jumping off point, especially for the impressive Monte Alban site sitting on a hill just to the west.

Oaxaca Mexico City Guide Monte AlbanOut of Town Sights

The area’s biggest attraction, Monte Alban, sits high on a plateau overlooking the Oaxaca valley and surrounded by mountains. This spectacular Zapotec archeological site spreads out across the plateau, with well preserved temples encircling a large main plaza. Much of the site remains unexcavated even today and additional hilltop cities are rumored to be buried on neighboring mountains. Much is unknown about the Zapotec peoples but their achievements, dating back to 500 BC, are impressive. Expect to spend about two hours on the site and be prepared – it can be hot and sunny on top of the plateau so bring water and wear a hat and sunscreen. Also, expect hawkers selling all kinds of knick knacks and local crafts from the parking lot to the entrance.

Hours: Open daily from 8am – 5pm.

Oaxaca Mexico City Guide Monte Alban

Admission: About $4; guides are available at the front gate to take you on an hour tour if you are interested in getting background on the site – expect to pay about $15 to $20 per person though this is negotiable.

Another archaeological site, about 30 miles to the south, is Mitla located in the town of San Pablo Villa de Mitla. This site was a Zapotec religious center and five buildings remain, including the Grupo de las Columnas, a former palace. Mitla is also famous for its well preserved mosaics.Getting There: To get to Monte Alban, take a taxi from downtown for about $8 to 10 or grab one of the buses from Hotel Meson del Angel on Mina 518 (about $4).

Oaxaca Mexico City Guide Quesadillas at the Ocotlan MarketThe small town of Ocotlan is most famous for its Friday market that sprawls over the main plaza and through several adjacent buildings. The market is a bit off the tourist path, but worth a trip as it features everything from crafts to food. Look for the old lady making quesadillas across the street from the southern side of the plaza. Her zucchini blossom quesadillas are fantastic. Also, if you see it, try pulque, Mexico’s unique and traditional drink made from the maguey (agave) plant, from one of the vendors in the plaza. Once commonplace in rural areas, this refreshing and delicious low alcohol brew (3- 4%) is, unfortunately, vanishing.The town also has a small museum dedicated to the surrealist artist Rodolfo Morales, which is in a former cloister on the edge of the plaza and one of the many town buildings Morales helped restore. Behind the cloister, the Dominican church dominates the town skyline and has been recently restored with a vibrant powder blue and yellow exterior.

The region is famous for its artisanal crafts, but to visit craftsman and women in their studios, you will need a car. Hiring a driver and car is affordable and convenient, and your hotel wiOaxaca Mexico City Guide Ocotlan Churchll be happy to put you in touch with a driver, if not arrange one directly. Crafts Oaxaca is famous for painted ceramic figures by the four Aguilar sisters and their families who live and work in houses side by side just outside of Ocotlan. San Bartolo Coyotepec is famous for black ceramics, with several shops selling them. The shop of Dona Rosa (Benito Juarez 24) is the best known, with a huge variety of vessels, animals, religious figures and more, all set around a picturesque courtyard. The town of Teotitlan del Valle is known for its weavers – try the Mercado de Artesanías and the nearby studios, while the villages of Arrazola (website), San Martin Tilcajete (website) and La Union are home to master carvers, who create stunning wood carvings that vary from small inexpensive items to collectors’ pieces that cost thousands of dollars.

Eat & Drink

Oaxaca is one of the food capitals of Mexico, with delicious indigenous cuisine. Some of the dishes may seem extreme (hello, grasshoppers), but they can be quite delicious. The most famous local specialty is mole (pronounced mol-ay), a thick, complex sauce made with as many as 15 ingredients that include chocolate, spices and chiles. While mole negro (black) is considered the king of moles, there is a wide variety of flavors and colors from amarillo (yellow) to coloradito (red) to mole verde (green), and more. Chapulines, or fried grasshoppers, are a regional specialty and worth trying – they are pleasantly crunchy. Huitlacoche is also popular – it is a kind of corn fungus that will most likely be described as similar to a mushroom or truffle. Of course, Oaxaca is also known for chocolate, which is sweet and lightly spiced. Nearly everything you order will come with a side of fresh avocado.

Oaxaca Mexico City Guide View from Casa de la AbuelaFor drinking, try a local beer concoction such as suero, with lime juice, or michelada with lime juice and chiles or hot sauce. Locals enjoy mezcal, which is similar to tequila with a smoky flavor and produced in the state. A few good Mexican wines will be available as well. Mexicans like their coffee and locally grown beans are the way to go.

The biggest meal of the day in Mexico is the comida, generally served from 1pm till 4pm. However, since restaurants in Oaxaca are accustomed to serving tourists, they will generally also be open at night with some exceptions such as Los Pacos. At night, Oaxacans often grab a tlayuda, an oversized charred tortilla stuffed with cheese or meat.

Casa de la Abuela (Hidalgo 616, 52-951-516-3544) is a lovely old-fashioned restaurant at the edge of the Zocalo. Walking up the stairs and emerging into the dining room, you will feel like you are stepping back in time. Known for its traditional food, the standout dish is the chapulines, but everything is good and the views from the window-side tables can’t be beat. Dinner for two about $50.

Los Pacos (Belisario Domínguez 108-1, website) is known for its excellent moles, which you can order in a mole sampler. If the weather is right, enjoy the intimate roof seating. Open for breakfast and comida, 8:30am – 6pm Tuesday – Sunday. Around the corner, La Olla (Reforma 402-1, website) is run by the sister of the owner of the Casa de las Bugambilias B&B and serves hearty rustic food. The set menu for comida is a steal (about $6) and includes salad, soup and a choice of entrée followed by dessert.

Casa Oaxaca (Constitucion 104-A 951-516-8889) is owned by the hotel of the same name, which also has a restaurant at the hotel location only for guests, just to be confusing. The location downtown across from the Santo Domingo Church is a restrained, elegant space set next door to Galeria Quetzalli(which represents local artists and in itself is worth a visit). The cooking is light and modern with vibrant flavors. Try the fantastic bean soup with hierba del conejo (a red-flowered herb), ceviche with chile de aqua or the shrimp. Servers bring the seafood of the day – beautiful fish and prawns – for you to choose. The restaurant’s bar has excellent cocktails and snacks such as octopus tostadas.Oaxaca Mexico City Guide Casa Oaxaca Grilled ShrimpDinner for two in the restaurant will run about $100.

Los Danzantes (Macedonio Alcalá No. 403-4, 951-501-1184) has excellent mezcal drinks as can be expected since they own a mezcal distillery. The eye-popping design of the partially-outdoor room include a large pond and leafy trees. While the food is generally good, some dishes can be more successful than others – the goat cheese wrapped in hoja santa and huitlacoche ravioli in squash blossom cream were both delicious but the fish carpaccio was bland. Open daily from 1:30pm – 11:30pm. Dinner for two about $80 – $100.

Tlayudas Dona Martha (Libres 200, between Morelos and Murguia) is the late night choice of many Oaxacans. Tlayudas are giant tortillas smeared with beans and cooked over wood, folded in half and topped with the meat of your choice. Try the cecina, or aged beef. The place opens around 9pm every night and fills up fast so expect a line. Just step inside and take a number, which is the order in which you will be served. Then find yourself a table in the back room and admire the décor by Coca Cola. You can also take yours to go. Keep in mind the wait can be long (45 minutes or more). They serve soft drinks and hot chocolate but no alcohol.

Oaxaca Mexico City Guide Tlayuda at Dona MarthaLa Capilla in Zaachila is a large outdoor space with a long open kitchen. The feeling is a little touristy as it seemed set up for tourist buses. The moles were good except for the underwhelming mole verde. The barbacoa lamb was decent, if fatty, but their version of tlayuda was terrific and the favorite part of the meal: billed as “tortilla gigante,” it was topped with cheese, chorizo and finger-licking mole coloradito. You will be hard pressed to spend more than $25 a person here.

Tlamanalli in the town of Teotitlan del Valle (Avenida Juarez 39) is a highly regarded restaurant owned by the Mendoza sisters, serving Zapotec food for comida only. Famous for their chicken dishes and moles, it is worth making a special trip.

Café la Antigua (Calle Reforma 401), across from Casa de las Bugambilias, is a great little café with courtyard seating and a view of beautiful blue-purple jacaranda trees in the distance. The owner is a coffee grower so their coffees are excellent and they sell beans you can take home. Open Monday to Saturday from 8am to 10pm, it serves drinks and snacks such as crepes with caramel and omelets.

To truly experience the food of Oaxaca, you will need to wander around the 20 de Noviembre Market (b/w Calles Aldama, Cabrera, Mina and 20 de Noviembre). Stand after stand sells local meats, produce, breads, chocolate and mole paste. In one area of the market, stalls are equipped with grills that will cook the meat you pick to order. Just north of it is the Benito Juarez Market, which sells crafts as well as food.

Oaxaca Mexico City Guide Casa Bugambilias B&BWhere to Stay

Oaxaca has a high standard of accommodations and a good selection of options, though it can be a bit pricey since the town draws many tourists. Rooms can be scarce during the Christmas, Easter and Day of the Dead holidays so book well in advance. Prices below include tax.

Editor’s Pick: Casa de las Bugambilias (Calle Reforma 402, 866-829-6778, website) is a lovely two-story B&B with a large courtyard and a couple of cats. The English-speaking owners provide top-notch service and will even organize “Day of the Dead” tours in-season. Rooms are decorated with art and several have outdoor seating areas. A computer is available for guest use and there is wi-fi as well. Rooms start at $65 or $70 depending on season, most doubles are about $85 – 95. They give a 10% discount if you pay in cash (either pesos or dollars). A bountiful two-course breakfast is included. On premises is their own restaurant, La Olla, which serves local specialties. They also own a Temazcal or bath house (website) for a traditional cleansing and purification, as well as full body massage (by appointment).

The family also has two other small B&Bs nearby, Casa de los Milagros (Matamoros No. 500-C, corner of Crespo, 52-951-501-2262, website) and Casa de los Sabores (Libres No. 205, 52-951-516-5704, website). The former has four rooms while the latter has five.

The Hotel de la Parra is a boutique hotel just off the Zocalo at Guerrero 117 (52-951-514-1900, website). The 14 nicely appointed rooms all have air conditioning, safes and satellite TV. Free parking and the use of the swimming pool are great amenities. Rates are reasonable, doubles are $130 in low season and $150 in high season (November – January).

For a splurge, the Hotel Camino Real (Calle 5 de Mayo 300, 800-722-6466) is a gorgeous hotel set in a former convent with courtyards and gardens. Deluxe queen and king rooms are about $225. (website, choose the English version and search under Colonial Hotels).

Another elegant small hotel is Casa Oaxaca (Garcia Vigil 407, 52-951-514-4173, website). The hotel has seven rooms, with a single at $177 and several doubles at $253. Rates include tax, evening cocktail, continental breakfast, internet access and parking. Guests have the privilege of eating in the restaurant onsite (as opposed to the one across from Santo Domingo, which is open to the public), as well as the opportunity to visit a market with the chef and take part in a cooking class for $75 per person. Dinner for two in the hotel restaurant is about $50, not including alcohol. No pets and no kids under 12. Be aware that the hotel does take a first night deposit and has a 15 day cancellation policy.

 Practical Tips

Weather: Oaxaca is generally very warm, in the 70s and 80s, with abundant sunshine. The rainy season is May to September but generally rains come in short bursts in the afternoons. Nights cool off pleasantly due to the high altitude. With the strength of the sun, strong sun protection is a must during the day, especially when visiting outdoor attractions such as Monte Alban.

Safety: Tourism is the lifeblood of the town so expect good service and friendly faces. Crime against foreigners is nearly non-existent but do watch your wallet or purse in the busy markets.

Visas: Americans do not need visas to visit Mexico but passports are now required for entry via air (passport cards are acceptable if arriving by land or sea)

Currency: The Peso. People will accept dollars and sometimes give a discount so it does not hurt to ask. Credit cards are widely accepted and there are a bunch of ATMS in the immediate center of town.

Tipping: Generally 10 – 15% of a restaurant bill. Tipping in taxis is not required, merely round up the bill. Tip in hotels as you would in the U.S.

Water: It is recommended you drink only bottled water and brush your teeth with bottled water. Good restaurants will use filtered water for their ice cubes but it doesn’t hurt to ask how they are making your margarita.

Holidays: There are numerous holidays when Oaxaca comes alive, including the Christmas season with its nine nights of posadas (caroling), the Christmas Eve procession and feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. December 23rd is the Noche de Rabanos, the “radish festival”, when large radishes are carved into sculptures and scenes – both religious and non-religious – definitely something to behold. The Day of the Dead (November 1st), when Mexicans honor their departed ancestors, is still a very traditional experience in Oaxaca. The town is gussied up with playful skeletons, and though this is the day families visit the cemetery, it turns into a fiesta. Mole negro is the dish traditionally associated with the Day of the Dead, as is the pan de muertos (bread of the dead) found at the bakeries around town. Holiday periods are tremendous draws and you can expect crowds and difficulty getting reservations in hotels.

Getting There

Oaxaca is just a short one-hour flight from Mexico City. The trip is quite spectacular as you swoop over the mountains and land on the plain home to the city. Prepare for a few bumps on the way due to air currents over the mountains. From the airport, take a taxi for about $15. Colectivos (vans) cost about $4 – 5 per person. Just pay at the window as you exit the airport and specify which you want.

Many sights and artisanal centers are outside of town, so consider hiring a car and driver. This is preferable to renting a car as the roads are in poor shape, with frequent and not always well marked speed bumbs. There are no real highways and the road south of Oaxaca often has a police checkpoint looking for drugs coming from Central America. Fear not, they don’t stop drivers ferrying tourists to the sights.

Drivers cost about $20 – $25 an hour, vans are $30 – $35. Inquire with your hotel before you arrive and they will recommend an English speaking driver. Your driver will suggest set tourist itineraries so be clear about what you want to see and how long you want to hire them.

Oaxaca Mexico City Guide San Bartolo Coyotepec Black PotteryShopping

The creations of local artisans are instantly recognizable and unique, from black pottery to colorful wooden animals to tapestries to jewelry, Oaxaca is one of the leading crafts centers in Mexico. You can visit crafts centers by hiring a driver who will suggest an itinerary for you, or you can buy their products in the many stores around town. Just north of the 20 de Noviembre Market is the Benito Juarez Market, which has vendors selling crafts, leather and clothing in addition to food.

Food-wise, the local specialties offered in markets that will travel back home include a variety of chiles, Mexican chocolate, moles and even the crunchy chapulines, or grasshoppers.

Antiques shops abound in Oaxaca, as do small jewelers. If you’re paying in cash, you can expect some flexibility in price but don’t expect outright haggling. Oaxaca Mexico City Guide Artisanal Craftsman in Arrazola

Art galleries are also plentiful. Galeria Quetzalli (Constitucion 104-1) represents many Mexican artists and has a space next to Casa Oaxaca restaurant, as well as a large gallery at Murguía 400. Arte de Oaxaca, located at Murguía 105 (website), is another gallery that promotes local artists. A good resource for galleries in Oaxaca is this website.

La Cava, the shop operated by Los Danzantes is a good place to pick up mezcal, and they will be happy to let you taste the varieties they sell. They also specialize in Mexican wines. It is located at Gomez Farias 212-B and is open 10am – 3pm & 5pm – 8pm Monday to Friday, 10am – 3pm on Saturday. +52-951-515-2335

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