Oaxaca is a city that is truly blessed. Blessed with a climate that is like an eternal springtime, blessed with friendly residents that take great pride in their beautiful city. Oaxaca is blessed with a creative, artistic atmosphere that sets the city apart from all other cities in México. The quality of life in Oaxaca just seems to be on a level above the other cities of southern México. It has been said that you haven’t really seen México, until you have visited Oaxaca.
The rich history of the Oaxaca valley, which dates to around 1000 B.C., is revealed in the beauty and variety of the areas many archaeological sites. There is enough history in the ruins among the hills and valleys around Oaxaca to keep even the most dedicated archaeologist busy for life, this translates into an incredible visual and cultural experience, which is easily available to any Oaxaca visitor.
Many people do not even think of beaches when Oaxaca comes to mind, but the incredible beaches of Oaxaca’s coast, although 100+ miles distant, are some of México’s finest. It is really easy to combine the cultural experience that Oaxaca offers with the resort scene of Huatulco or the more relaxed settings of Puerto Angel, Manzunte or Puerto Escondido. See our Beaches of Oaxaca section for more information.
Oaxaca is a city of almost constant celebrations and festivals, a city of traditions and a city of people who keep ancient cultures thriving in their everyday lives. This is a city that celebrates the dead, yet is vividly alive with subtle and, not so subtle, references to the traditions of times long past. Oaxaca’s history dates to the 16th century, the Oaxaca valley much earlier than that, and the customs and heritage of the past are evident everywhere you look.
Several of Oaxaca’s many celebrations and festivals have gained a global following, with visitors arriving from all over the world to be a part of these special occasions, which are played out with quite a bit of drama and imagination.
Guelaguetza is the grandest of all of Oaxaca’s festivals, and has become extremely popular in recent years. Also known as, Lunes del Cerro (Mondays on the hill), this festival brings together people from all regions of the Oaxaca valley with the purpose of keeping the gods happy and therefore blessing the valley with enough rain to provide a bountiful harvest.
When the Spanish arrived and tried to convert the indigenous people to the catholic religion they tried to tie the Guelaguetza into the celebration of the feast of the Virgin of Carmel, therefore the dates of the festival coincide with this religious holiday. The roots of the celebration are pre-Hispanic and the centuries old festival has managed to retain much it’s original flavor and meaning.
The seven regions of Oaxaca are each represented by dancers in elaborate costumes performing their age-old ceremonial dances. This colorful event is a grandiose celebration of music and dance and the the traditions of times long past. Oaxaca has built a large, open-air auditorium, specifically for the Guelaguetza, and this event always plays to standing-room-only crowds.
Guelaguetza is officially celebrated on the two Mondays following July 16th, but local events, tied to the Guelaguetza actually start a few days earlier and the city fills up days in advance of the actual festival. Tickets are offered for sale at the tourism department (516-0123) beginning months before the festival.
There are also free seats available on a first-come, first-served basis. If you can’t get tickets or if you prefer to avoid the large crowds (the amphitheatre holds over 11,000), there are lesser, but no less colorful, Guelaguetza celebrations in the nearby towns of Etla and Zaachila.
Probably the strangest of Oaxaca’s celebrations is the “Night of the Radishes”, which takes place on December 23rd each year. People from all over the valley bring to the zócalo, the largest of their homegrown radishes, which have been lovingly carved into sculptures representing almost anything and a little bit of everything imaginable.
Street vendors and restaurants sell delicious buñuelos, which are similar to a fried pancake. Oaxaca tradition dictates that you ceremoniously throw the dish they were served on into the air – to fall and break on the ground – but only after you have eaten everything. The following day is marked by Christmas parades, which precede a grand fiesta and the traditional Christmas dinner. On this night many people flock to the zócalo to watch the parades, a fireworks display and to get a close up look at the extravagant floats.
The Day of the Dead, which is the Mexican equivalent to Halloween, is celebrated, on November 2nd (and the night of Nov. 1st), and there is no better place in México to take part in this holiday than in Oaxaca. Much of Oaxaca’s art, and many of the crafts produced here are based around a Day of the Dead theme. The souls of the dead are believed to be able to return to earth on this happy and festive occasion, which actually mocks death. In México, death is a very real part of life.
Families of the deceased prepare the favorite meals and drinks of the departed, lavish alters and decorations are readied, all to make the deceased feel at home during their brief return. The celebrations carry on into the cemeteries, with entire families spending the day and night next to graves, to be a closer part of the return of the deceased.
All of Oaxaca becomes thoroughly engrossed in this holiday and this is a really great place to witness this festive occasion. Be aware that Oaxaca becomes a very popular destination during the Day of the Dead holiday and advanced planning is advised, if you wish to visit around this time of year.
Oaxaca can boast of at least twenty-seven churches, and by far the most spectacular is Santo Domingo de Guzmán, which was built entirely by Indian labor, in the 16th and 17th centuries. The exterior is incredible, the interior is truly a work of art; don’t pass up the chance to view the interior of this local treasure.
Directly beside the church, in a former monastery, is the Centro Cultural de Santo Domingo, a museum housing a fine collection of native costumes, incredible gold jewelry and other objects which were recovered from Monte Albán, the nearby ancient Zapotec city.
The Oaxaca area has produced some of México’s most famous personalities. Two of México’s presidents came from Oaxaca, Benito Juárez and Porfirio Díaz both hailed from this area. Rufino Tamayo, one of México’s most famous artists, was also from Oaxaca and the contents of the museum that bares his name, features a large part of his incredible collection of pre-Hispanic artifacts, which are on permanent display.
Oaxaca is also famous for it’s ice cream, which may just be the best in the world, the wonderful string cheese produced locally, rich, flavorful chocolate, the delicious variety of mole sauces that find their way into many of the local dishes and grasshoppers. Yes grasshoppers, or as they are called locally, chapulines. Fried, sometimes with garlic, and supposedly very tasty, chapulines are considered a local delicacy. They are eaten straight when sold by vendors on the streets and in the markets of Oaxaca. Chapulines are also included on the menu of some of Oaxaca’s finer restaurants, as an appetizer or sprinkled on salads.
Centro Histórico & Zócalo
Things to Do and See…near the Historic Center
Attractions near the zócalo.
- Alcalá Tourist Walk Santo Domingo Church
- Mercado Benito Juárez Centro Cultural de Santo Domingo
- Rufino Tamayo Museum Contemporary Art Museum
- Relaxing at one of the many sidewalk cafes on the zócalo.
A must on any visitor’s list of things to do in Oaxaca is a visit to the zócalo, or town square. The zócalo is very the heart of Oaxaca and the city’s undisputed social center. Most visitors to Oaxaca find themselves constantly returning to the zócalo. The cafes that line two sides of the zócalo are perfect meeting places and combine to make one of the greatest spots for just plain people watching in all of México. The harmonious mix of cultures that is ever-present in this area is on constant display in the foot traffic that passes through the zócalo, every day of the year.
There are many concerts that take place weekly, sporadic fireworks displays, a seemingly ever-present protest by some group of disgruntled citizens and the intense color of Oaxaca’s diverse cultures going about their everyday life. The landscape of the zócalo is dominated by the city’s colonial cathedral. Oaxaca’s cathedral is a great starting point for a leisurely stroll through this city’s historical and cultural center.
The zócalo is surrounded by the Centro Histórico district, with it’s many restored colonial era buildings and early México atmosphere making the area like a magnet, it us constantly pulling you back. Many of the streets in Centro Histórico are closed to traffic making it very easy to navigate. This is a great place to get acquainted with Oaxaca and take in the ambiance of the city that many feel is “The Real México”. Walking around the Centro Histórico district is an easy task, if you should find yourself in need of a taxi, they are plentiful and very reasonable.
The state tourism office is located across from the cathedral at the corner of Av. Independencia and García Vigil, (tel. 516-0123), they will give you free maps and brochures, that focus on the tourist attractions of the area. Allow at least one full day for exploring Oaxaca’s Centro Histórico, although you will probably end up spending much of your time in and around the heart of Oaxaca.
The Oaxaca Valley
The Oaxaca valley is one of México’s natural wonderlands. Mountain peaks reach 10,000 feet into the sky and overlook the beautiful valleys that appear to be a giant patchwork painting of earth-tones and greens because of the many farms and ranches. The surrounding mountains and valleys contain villages that have become famous the world over for their beautiful art and the unique crafts that they produce.
Thousands of years of mysteries are revealed in the valley’s many magnificent archaeological sites, Monte Albán being the most well known. One of the great advantages to this region, as far as tourists are concerned, is the ability to combine visits to the many archaeological sites along with tours of the fascinating crafts villages, as many are very close together and on the same general route.
The Oaxaca valley is also a haven for the active or adventurous traveler.
Beaches of Oaxaca
The beaches of Oaxaca, which are quite a distance from the city, include some of México’s most beautiful and pristine beaches. Oaxaca’s beaches have somehow managed to remain relatively unspoiled, even though some have been popular with adventurous travelers for many years.
Bahías de Huatulco, which is one of México’s newest resort complexes, really still in it’s infancy, has some bays and coves that are sure to impress anyone, no matter where they have traveled. Puerto Angel and Manzunte could both pass for a distant South Seas paradise. Puerto Escondido, a sleepy fishing village just a few years ago, is famous for huge surf and is slowly waking up to tourism.
There is so much to see and do, in and around Oaxaca, that the choices can become downright overwhelming. Cultural activities can keep you occupied day and night, there are live concerts in the zócalo almost daily. There are also daily announcements of new art exhibitions, visits to the city’s great museums, the unforgettable experience of the Benito Juárez market (Try the wonderful Oaxacan ice cream at Chaguita, this family has been making their incredible product for over 200 years), or just browsing the many small shops and galleries are just a few of the activities that will keep you busy in the city.
Activities in the area around the Oaxaca valley include horseback riding, exploring the areas many archaeological sites, visiting the world’s largest tree, Santa Maria el Tule, hiking, mountain biking, hang gliding, parasailing, side trips to the many crafts villages, rides in a hot air balloon or the simple pleasure of visiting one of the surrounding villages on their market day.
You can even arrange to do some bass fishing in some of the lakes and rivers in the outlying regions. Refer to our Activities or Tours and Travel pages for more information on how to arrange your favorite activities. You will find more about the archaeological sites in our Great Side Trips section.
The Oaxaca area is known throughout the world for it’s, locally made, arts and crafts. With over 500,000 artists in the valley of Oaxaca it is no small wonder this area is so famous. The unique surrealistic, brightly colored wood carvings called Alebrijes can be found in museums and galleries in other countries.
The famous black pottery from another nearby village, San Bartolo Coyotepec, is sold all over México, and has become one of the areas most popular crafts. Hand woven rugs and other textiles from another nearby village are much sought after as collectibles. Many of the villages surrounding Oaxaca specialize in a craft, which is particular to that village.
Add into the mix a significant number of artists practicing more conventional forms of art, such as painting, sculpting or creating original pieces of jewelry or ceramic art, and you have a very real shopping paradise. One of the advantages to shopping in Oaxaca is that most of it is done in small to medium sized shops, in the setting of colonial México.
No grandiose shopping malls here, shopping is more of an adventure in Oaxaca. From original art to beautifully embroidered dresses and blouses, extraordinarily wood carvings or that, one-of-a-kind, outrageously painted ceramic skull, Oaxaca will surely live up to any preconceived shopping visions a visitor could possibly imagine.
Golf and Tennis
The weather in Oaxaca is certainly conducive to outdoor sports, most of the year. It is too bad that there aren’t more places to enjoy a round of golf or a brisk tennis match. It is not impossible to enjoy your favorite sport in Oaxaca, but things could sure be better. The beach resort of Huatulco, just 40 minutes away by air, has a beautiful golf course along with some really nice tennis facilities.
Oaxaca offers it’s visitors a splendid variety of dining choices. Spicy, though not necessarily hot, local specialties, invite you to try something different at every meal. Oaxaca is famous for it’s incredible variety of mole sauces that can find their way into many of the different dishes served here.
Tamales are another local specialty, and are prepared with special care, usually wrapped in banana leaves. Pork seems to be served every bit as often as beef, as a main course. Meals in Oaxaca, customarily begin with some flavorful appetizers that may contain some of the areas famous cheeses. Meal prices in Oaxaca are mostly reasonable, and in some instances, downright cheap.
The nightlife scene in Oaxaca is diverse and mostly centered in Centro Histórico, which makes it easy for most visitors who wish to enjoy a pleasant night out. Smaller clubs, bars and restaurants prevail and many offer nightly shows and live entertainment. Folkloric shows, jazz, salsa music and even blues seem to be as popular as rock or disco. Late night disco and dance establishments are, of course, available, but they are not as obvious in Oaxaca.
Various cultural offerings, in the form of small concerts and recitals and even street performances seem to be every bit as common as the high energy disco establishments. This makes for an enjoyable and diverse nightlife scene, which can be a pleasant change for travelers. Be assured that after the sun goes down you will have a widely varied choice of entertainment.