Many people rate Oaxaca as their favorite city in Mexico, but often find it difficult to explain why. It has all the attractions of many other locations – ancient ruins, noble churches, colonial architecture and colorful local life – yet it also has a special atmosphere all of its own. This relaxed, easy-going ambience combined with the perennial spring climate make it a place in which to linger, to observe local life and discover its treasures almost accidentally, rather than rushing around with a guidebook.
There are tourists in Oaxaca, but they seem to blend in with the vibrant mix of cultures and languages here. Many years before the arrival of the Spanish, the ancient tribes of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs had learned to live together in the region, whilst the surrounding mountains protected its culture from domination by other powers. Even today, most of the population of the state of Oaxaca doesn’t speak Spanish as a first language and you’ll hear many different dialects in the city’s markets. The presence of many language schools as well as a respected University only add to the diversity of the inhabitants. It may be significant that many of the organized tours favor the out-of-town hotels, bringing their clients into the center for a rushed circuit of the sights and leaving the rest of us to relax in the zocalo in the evenings. (Oaxaca is a paradise for walkers and we can’t stress enough the advantages of staying in the city center).
There are nearly thirty churches to discover, streets of pastel colored houses with intriguing courtyards, welcoming cafes and discrete cantinas. Head to the north of town for the prettiest streets and craft shops, south of the zocalo for the market and provision stores.
We recommend sampling Oaxaca’s rich cuisine, a reason for visiting in itself. There are many restaurants ranging from the fairly expensive to the dirt cheap, but you’ll find it difficult to eat badly in any of them. Try a mole sauce at least once, if you find it too rich then there are many simpler dishes – one of our favorite lunches is quesadillas, enchiladas or tostadas at any of the cafes around the zocalo. Wash it down with a cerveza (beer), a margarita or even a mescal – Oaxaca is the best place to purchase this notorious spirit (complete with the traditional worm at the bottom of the bottle).
If you want to really experience Mexico, then some of the best nightlife is also found around the zocalo – and it’s free. Simply take a table at a bar, or join the locals on the benches in the square. On some nights an orchestra plays in the bandstand, on others mariachi players serenade those in the prime seats. Meanwhile jugglers, mime artists and lone musicians set up their stages around the square. Children are brought along with parents, teenagers assemble in groups and couples young and old walk arm in arm through the plaza.
In addition to the food, many people come to Oaxaca just to savor the shopping. The region is famous for the quality of its crafts – from rugs to pottery. Often a particular village is associated with a craft, and you can either buy at the source or visit an outlet in Oaxaca – many of the stores are exquisite and it is possible to spend hours browsing.
If you haven’t already realized, Oaxaca is not a place to rush. Allow several days here or you will regret your departure (until the next time). We’d suggest hiring a car for a few days too – not for the city center because you can walk almost anywhere – but to wander through the local villages with the satisfaction of being able to stop and look around at will. The major attractions of Monte Alban and Mitla can be covered by tour bus or excursion and it is also possible to combine visits to local towns by this method too – but you’ll find the flexibility offered by your own transport advantageous.