The smell of spicy corn on the cob is in the air, it comes from a local puesto located right on the city’s zocalo. A lady wearing a colorful embroidered blouse that she might have sewed herself is walking past it, speaking in indigenous language, when the bells of a nearby church start ringing. The sun is getting down and it is time to drink some mescal on a cosy rooftop overlooking a cathedral built in colonial style or maybe is it time to eat some mole oaxaqueño at the stall of a market.
This is a typical scene in Oaxaca, a city that is so very Mexican by essence that it feels like its own miniature world. It is a world of contrasts, where pre-Hispanic traditions and colonial heritage go hand in hand, where old traditions set new trends, whether it comes to food, fashion or design. Oaxaca is a vibrant city indeed where fancy coffee shops and mescal bars, art galleries and fashion designer shops pop up on a regular basis. Yet, it is also a city where locals keep wearing their traditional garbs and speaking their native tongues and a region where you only need to drive for a few minutes to discover villages where ancient arts and handcraft are very much kept alive.
All the images and expectations that one can have about Mexico, Oaxaca brings them to life in an authentic yet modern way. Want to enjoy Mexican cuisine at its best? Look no further than Mexico’s food capital, which food scene is a true fusion of pre-Hispanic ingredients and colonial influences and can be enjoyed at the stall of a local market as much as in a Michelin restaurant. Want to experiment the genuine traditions of the Day of the Dead? Oaxaca is one of the regions where the celebrations of the Dia de los Muertos are the most vivid. Care to delve into the history of Mexico’s ancient civilizations or to take a nature break? There are plenty of sites around the city to keep you occupied for days as Oaxaca is an ideal base to explore the region.
Here is our top picks to make the most of Oaxaca and its region.
Church of Santo Domingo de Guzman
Oaxaca is a very pedestrian-friendly city and the best way to enjoy the diversity of its architecture as much as its laid-back atmosphere is by strolling through its streets, taking the time to fall in love with an old building or to take a break on a bench with a cup of freshly cut watermelon.
Yet, if there is one building not to miss in the entire city, it is the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzman. Even more so than the city’s Cathedral, this church has become one of the city’s most iconic landmarks. Founded by the Dominican Order, the church and the monastery that used to be included in this religious complex were constructed over a period of 200 years, between the 16th and the 18th centuries.
An early Catholic construction, it later went through the turmoils of Mexican history and was turned into staples then military barracks during Mexican War of Reform, before it went back to the Church and became the house of the Cultural Centre of Oaxaca, a museum displaying an important collection of pre-Columbian artefacts.
Oaxaca wouldn’t be Mexico’s food capital if it weren’t for its markets. The Mercado Benito Juarez and the Mercado 20 de Noviembre are where the city truly delivers on its foodie heritage, making it impossible to leave the city without taking the required time to soak in the atmosphere and get lost in a maze of food stalls but also handicraft and textile shops.
Of course, these markets are no strangers to selling overpriced and low-quality tourist trinkets but they have managed to keep their authenticity nonetheless and most importantly, they are a foodie’s wet dream. Imagine big chunks of white oaxaqueño cheese, plates full of delicious mole sauce mixing chocolate and spices and every color of the rainbow in the shape of bottles of mescal creams.
Imagine piles of chapulines, a local delicacy we known as grasshoppers and a one of a kind food experience that has made its way to the fanciest tables in Mexico and beyond. Markets are where the essential Oaxacan food experience is at, no questions asked.
Monte Alban isn’t the first name that springs to mind when it comes to ancient Mexican sites, overshadowed as it is by Chichen Itza or Palenque, but it is the most iconic in the Oaxaca region, cradle of the Zapotec civilization. Located a mere 20-minute drive away from the city itself, the site offers unparalleled views as it sits on top of a mountain, overlooking the countryside below.
Monte Alban appears to have been inhabited as early as the 5th century BC and gradually gained population to become one of the largest Mesoamerican cities of its time and an important political hub. By the end of the 11th century AC, it had been abandoned and remained so until the Spanish conquest.
Despite being abandoned so many centuries ago, most compounds were well preserved over the years and a wide array of monuments can be seen nowadays, including a ball court, several step pyramids and singular tumulus whose stones have been almost buried by vegetation. There is a small museum at the entrance of the site, which complements the visit by adding historical elements on the intriguing Zapotec civilization.
Hierve el Agua
Mexico has no shortage of incredible landscape and Hierve el Agua belongs to that list hands down. This incredible set of rock formations is an easy day trip from the city, whether it is by public bus or by car, which remains the best way to navigate in the area.
From afar, Hierve el Agua looks like a natural waterfall, which is why the place is also known as the cascadas petrificadas, the petrified waterfalls. There are different ways to enjoy the view onto the rocks and the most easily accessible is the cascada chicha, a platform also known as the Amphitheater, whose appeal also lies in its natural and artificial pools where visitors can take a swim while enjoying the surreal view in the distance. This platform is also the perfect place to enjoy a view on the valley.
Hierve el Agua can also be the start of a hike that goes on a loop and ends on top of the rocky formation but beware that heat can be quite intense in this part of Mexico and plan your hike accordingly.
Much lesser-known than Monte Alban, Mitla isn’t exactly the kind of sites you will put on your bucket list. There are much more impressive sites in Mexico and if you’re running out of time, Monte Alban has to top your list any time. Yet, very few ancient sites leave as much an impact as Mitla and it isn’t because of its size or because of its architecture but rather because of its history.
The site was indeed destroyed during the Spanish conquest and much of the stones that were used to build it were looted in order to build a church, which now stands a few miles away from the remains of the ancient Zapotec city. Both of the worlds that are now integral parts of Mexican history coexist in Mitla, making it a moving discovery for every history lover.
Mitla is also a good spot to explore the local villages in the surrounding area, which have kept an off the beaten path vibe. Among those villages, you can visit San Marcos Tlapazola and its refined pottery or Teotitlan del Valle , which is known for its traditional rugs and textiles.
Oaxaca is still somehow off the radar when it comes to mass tourism but the city and its region are a source of such amazing discoveries and a part of Mexico that deserves to fly across the world for.