When friends visiting Mexico for the first time ask me where to begin, I tell them: Go to Oaxaca, one of the most scenically beautiful, historically interesting and simply enjoyable cities south of the border. Go now. It’s never seemed more important than it does at this moment, to enjoy, to admire and to learn about our nation’s near neighbor to the south.
I can’t think of a better way to counter the “alternative facts” we have been hearing in the political discourse about Mexico and Mexicans than to go there and see for ourselves, to experience the country’s physical beauty, its rich traditions, the hospitality and kindness of its people. And I can’t think of a better place to start than Oaxaca, less than an hour, by air, from Mexico City. At least partly because of its pleasant climate, temperate all year round, Oaxaca has become an appealing tourist destination.
A lovely colonial city that has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, located in the scenic highlands of the Sierra Madre del Sur, Oaxaca (where archaeological ruins, churches and museums range across the centuries of the country’s past) offers a concentrated education in Mexico’s culture and complex heritage, an immersion course sweetened by a succession of pleasures and delights — brightly colored houses, pleasant public squares and stately churches, all set in the midst of a gorgeous desert landscape.
Oaxaca has become particularly popular during the holiday season, when the reliably perfect weather, the wonderful food, the Christmas lights and decorations, and the celebratory spirit that overtakes the city attract travelers from elsewhere in Mexico, from the United States and from the wider world. The most wonderful spot I can imagine in which to ring in the New Year is the plaza of the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, where vendors sell sparklers that children light and twirl in the darkness against the gorgeous backdrop of the dramatically floodlit Baroque church.
Oaxaca was the first place in Mexico to which I travelled with my family, 30 years ago, and the place to which I returned most recently, with husband, our grown son, our Mexican daughter-in-law and three grandchildren in tow — a city that seems remarkably unchanged, despite the fact that its area and population have grown over the decades.
There’s a lot to see in Oaxaca, but it’s a place that can also be enjoyed by those with only a limited interest in archaeology, history, architecture and art. (Shutterstock)
Even at the busiest times, the mood — in this city of fewer than 300,000 people — is relaxed, the traffic manageable, and one never feels mobbed by hordes of sightseers and shoppers. Although there are periodic eruptions of political tension — several buildings, including the law school, still bear the scars of a teachers strike in 2016, and seven months of unrest accompanied a strike in 2006 — Oaxaca continues to feel friendly and safe. The recent earthquakes that so damaged Mexico City and its environs (including Oaxaca state) shook buildings in Oaxaca city but failed to do serious damage, and the city continues to welcome tourists, on whom a significant portion of its economy depends.
In Oaxaca and its environs are several of Mexico’s most important archaeological sites. Half an hour away by car (most hotels can put guests in contact with safe, reliable, English-speaking drivers with whom travellers can arrange reasonably priced excursions) is the ancient city of Mitla, which functioned as a religious centre for the Zapotec civilization, which predated Christ by centuries, and later for the Mixtec people, who ruled the area until they were conquered by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.
Although the exact date of its initial construction is uncertain, Mitla thrived from the eighth century until the Spanish conquest. Yet what’s most striking about Mitla is not so much its age as its beauty. Decorating its walls, its pillars, lintels and archways are fragments of brightly painted frescoes, as well as remarkably well-preserved and stunningly elaborate geometric designs made of mosaics of small stones set into the stucco around them — an architectural feature unique in all of Mesoamerica, the area encompassing much of Mexico and Central America. Even the grandchildren were excited by Mitla, by the sensation of being able to move from one enclosed space to another, almost like going from outdoor room to outdoor room in a magnificent ruined house.
On the outskirts of the city and easily accessible by road atop a mountain overlooking the suburbs that have sprawled out to meet the site, Monte Albán — also built by the Zapotecs and dating from 500 B.C. — is a vast complex of pyramids, a palace, a shrine, a ball court and a variety of carved bas-reliefs. Standing in the central plaza, it’s impossible not to feel awe-struck and even slightly overwhelmed by its sheer monumentality, its grandeur and its scope. A museum, near the entrance to the site, contains a small selection of artifacts and documents the history of this archaeological marvel.
In Oaxaca itself, most notably in the city’s hilly, cobblestone-paved historic centro, are dozens of churches that exemplify the ways in which the Spanish conquistadors imported their religion and culture, while employing the talents (and in some cases the imagery) of the indigenous population. The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, on the edge of the city’s pleasant, shaded zócalo — which is itself a terrific place for watching local families and groups of teenagers — is by far the largest, the grandest and the most exuberant of these structures.
But arguably the most beautiful (and certainly my favorite) is the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, which was built by the Dominican friars in the 16th and 17th centuries. The ornately gilded interior of the church features a ceiling decorated with bright polychrome figures, including a lively representation of Santo Domingo’s family tree that evokes pre-Columbian images of the Tree of Life. The bas-reliefs on the western facade were done by local sculptors, descendants of the artisans responsible for the carving at Mitla, and in one chapel is the statue of a saint dressed in an indigenous costume.
The church complex includes a convent, a library, a botanical garden and a museum that exhibits some of the most significant treasures — gold jewelry, jade figures, stone statues, ceramics and masks — discovered at Monte Albán. The plaza that fronts the church functions as a fascinating and vibrant public space, filled with families, musicians, vendors selling souvenirs and snacks. A few blocks from the cathedral, the Rufino Tamayo Museum showcases an extensive and exquisitely curated collection of pre-Columbian art, gathered over a lifetime by Tamayo, one of Mexico’s most celebrated 20th-century artists — another reminder of how deftly and how frequently the cultural riches of Oaxaca bridge distant and disparate eras.
There’s a lot to see in Oaxaca, but it’s a place that can also be enjoyed by those with only a limited interest in archaeology, history, architecture and art. Above all, Oaxaca is a wonderful place to be, to stroll, to shop, to spend time in the food, flower and handicrafts markets, and — not insignificantly — to eat. And it’s a great walking town. Around nearly every corner in the historical center, you may come upon a bright blue, yellow or orange wall, stenciled with the inventive advertising posters for which Oaxaca is known.
By far the most crowded (and to me, the most colorful, vibrant and thrilling) section of the city is the covered 20th of November market, a few blocks from the zócalo, where, amid a circuslike atmosphere of smells and sights and sounds, one can buy spices, vegetables, tropical fruits and even roasted and ground crickets, a local delicacy.
I bought several woven tote bags decorated with Mexican folk motifs — perfect for carrying books, papers and (small amounts of) groceries. I also found a mask made from straw that, as the vendor helpfully showed us, could be rolled into a sort of tubelike parcel and easily stowed in a suitcase without damage. At one end of the market, farthest from the zócalo, is the section where — as in all the greatest Mexican markets — one can eat at counters and small stalls. Here, the adventurous can sample tropical fruit juices and an enormous range of delicious foods.
Driving along the well-marked roads surrounding Oaxaca, one passes agave farms, lined with attractive orderly rows of plants that resemble a cross between an aloe and a pineapple top. (Shutterstock)
In the market, one can browse the glittering displays of mezcal bottles, many with gorgeous labels advertising their origin in small local distilleries. Agave, from which mezcal is made, is grown throughout the Oaxaca Valley and is one of its most important crops. Driving along the well-marked roads surrounding Oaxaca, one passes agave farms, lined with attractive orderly rows of plants that resemble a cross between an aloe and a pineapple top. Travellers with an interest in sampling the local product (served straight up or in elaborate cocktails) can do so at one of the many stylish mezcal bars that have sprung up throughout the centro.
By far my favourite souvenir, which I bought in the central market, was a generous amount of the Mexican chocolate for which Oaxaca is famous. Cups of the steaming hot chocolate are among the most reliable ways I know to keep my spirits up during a cold winter and in this unsettling political climate.
Sipping the chocolate, I think about Oaxaca and feel ever so slightly warmer as I imagine walking its cobbled streets, past its painted houses, its shaded plazas and Baroque churches. And I watch the video we took on New Year’s Eve in the courtyard of the Templo de Santo Domingo. Behind those bright swirls of light inscribed on the dusky twilight are two granddaughters with twirling sparklers, celebrating the joy of being in this magical place, with their family, on a perfect holiday evening.