Oaxaca is one of the most beautiful and varied states of México, and is always mentioned as a "must see" destination. It's diversity spans not only geography - offering everything from cloud forests to arid semi-desert climates - but also culture and ethnicity, being home to a large and multi-ethnic indigenous population that remains the driving force of the economy of Oaxaca through their rich tradition of arts and handicrafts.
Getting to Oaxaca
Getting to Oaxaca from Mexico City has been greatly eased by the new highway 135D, offering not only little more than a mere 6 hour drive, but also some of the most spectacular scenery in Mexico. The road takes the passenger through deep mountain gorges, pine forests, and a haunting landscape dotted with 3 meter-tall cacti for as far as the eye can see.
The city of Oaxaca is in fact quite large, and expanding rapidly. Although the population has already reached nearly half a million people, the city has lost none of its rustic charm, especially in and around the colonial city center. Many of the roads around the Zocalo (central plaza) have in fact been closed to traffic, thus facilitating a very pleasant exploration of the city center on foot. The Zocalo is the hub of life and packed with tourists, locals, cafes, tacquerias and musicians. The cathedral is located just north of the Zocalo and it features some impressive baroque carvings on its western façade.
Just down the road south of the Zocalo are the many markets and plazas which offer not only excellent shopping opportunities, but also some of the best local cuisine Oaxaca has to offer. You'll find every type of meat, sausages, and local delicacies such as chapulines (fried grasshoppers). The 20 de Noviembre market is well worth a lunch outing. Oaxaca is however most famous for its variety of moles (pronounced mol-ay), an ancient and complicated chile sauce that dates from pre-hispanic times. Indeed, Oaxaca is known as the "land of seven moles" offering the most common black and green moles, as well as lesser known varieties such as the yellow and white mole varieties. The most recommended restaurants to try mole and other Oaxacan specialties are La Casa de la Abuela (Hidalgo 616), El Biche Pobre (Calzada de la Republica 600) and Restaurante el Naranjo (Trujano 203).
Things to See in Oaxaca
The most impressive building complex in Oaxaca would have to be the Santo Domingo Church and Ex-Monastery. This impressive church lies four blocks north of the Cathedral and was built for the Dominican monastery between the years 1570 and 1608. The interior of the church features exquisitely ornamented gilded and colored stucco, and the façade features an impressive carving of Santo Domingo de Guzman, founder of the Dominican order. Right in the same complex is the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, in the building that used to be the monastery. The museum focuses on the direct descent of modern Oaxacan culture and indigenous peoples from their pre-Hispanic roots spanning more than 3000 years and encompassing Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec civilizations, among others. Another part of the complex is the botanical garden that features all the state plants of Oaxaca.
Art and Museums in Oaxaca
Oaxaca city is rich in local art and the museums it offers reflect this rich tradition. Some of the most famous Mexican artists hail from this state, including Rufino Tamayo, Francisco Toledo, Rodolfo Morales, Rodolfo Nieto and Francisco Gutierrez. The Museo Rufino Tamayo (Morelos 503) offers excellent pre-Hispanic works of art in a building donated by the great Mexican painter of Zapotec origin, Rufino Tamayo. Another beautiful building and museum featuring modern works of art from Oaxaca is the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca (Alcala 202).
You can't go to Oaxaca city and not sample some mezcal, the notorious alcoholic drink that is indigenous to this state. Some of the better bars to sample a wide variety of mezcal are La Cucaracha (Porfirio Diaz 301A) and La Casa de Mezcal (on Flores Magon).
Archaeological Sites of Oaxaca
The environs of Oaxaca city are also chock full of interesting sites. The state is so rich in archeological and historic sites that it would take weeks to really get to know the full diversity and richness of what this state has to offer. The most important site of all is undoubtedly the ancient Zapotec capital Monte Alban, located a mere 20 minutes away from the city and offering a spectacular view of the surrounding area. The city dates back to 500 B.C., and besides some very well reconstructed and preserved buildings, it also features a small museum. Mitla is another popular archeological site, famous for its well-preserved mosaics. El Tule is another interesting site featuring a famed and massive 3000 year-old tree with a girth 58 meters around, and a height of 42 meters.
Beaches of Oaxaca
Oaxaca also offers some of the finest beaches and resorts in Mexico. There are daily flights to Huatulco and Puerto Escondido from Oaxaca and they cost around 120-150 dollars US. It would be worth a flight as the road is very winding and long, approximately 10 hours. However, the scenery is breathtaking. Puerto Escondido is a small tourist town and is a central point for those traveling to other beaches and lagoons along Oaxaca's Pacific coast. It's also one of the best spots for surfing in Mexico. While it's a nice town in the off-season (around November in particular), beware of holidays and especially Semana Santa (Easter) when hordes of tourists make the beaches quite an unsavory experience. A better idea would be to either go off to other outlying beaches and towns daily, or staying in one of them, such as Mazunte, Zipolite and a beautiful little village called San Agustinillo which lies between both of them. These towns all offer beautiful white sandy beaches and very cheap fare, with a very laid-back ambience. However, beware of the surf in Zipolite. These towns are all virtually next to each other and are about a 45 minute-drive from Puerto Escondido. Huatulco is a large resort area, if you're into big resort hotels. Also worth seeing are the lagunas (lagoons) of Chacahua and Manialtepec where you can take a boat trip in a wild jungle setting featuring crocodiles and all sorts of bird life.
November to May is generally considered to be the best time to go to Oaxaca, before the rainy season arrives.
By Carol Miller
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