By Jim Ferri
It’s often said you can’t return to a place you visited years earlier. “It never looks the same as you remember it,” people tell you.
They were wrong about Oaxaca in southern Mexico. It still retains the magic I remember from decades ago.
As back then, Oaxaca remains a kaleidoscope of colorful colonial buildings, a wonderland amalgamation of markets and galleries where artists and artisans retain the indigenous traditions that they’ve brought from their villages, a place where traditional cooking remains revered, resulting in little restaurants stuck seemingly everywhere you look.
It’s unlike any other city in Mexico.
The Colorful Historic Center
If there’s one word that best describes Oaxaca it’s “color.” Like few other places on earth it assaults your senses in the brightly colored façades of buildings all over the city, even in its dingy outskirts.
But it’s in the charming, well-preserved Historic Center, with its core of Spanish Colonial buildings, where it reaches its zenith. There no two buildings appear the same.
Oftentimes you’ll see a bright yellow building, next to a blue next to a green next to a white, a riot of colors that appears to have imbued itself into the local culture. Ask directions and not infrequently you’ll be told to walk until you see the blue building with white trim or the yellow building next to the green.
The colorful center has retained its charm through strict preservation of the old buildings. Beyond the façades of a many of these buildings, however, ranging from old homes to convents, you’ll find many have been re-utilized for other purposes, sometime a multitude of them. For example, it’s not unusual to walk into an old house and find a dress shop, an art gallery, or office with a restaurant or café in the garden.
As in most of Mexico, Oaxaca’s pedestrian-only Zocalo with its impressive Cathedral, is the center of the old city. Its Plaza de Armas is surrounded by arcaded buildings, their portals filled with restaurants and the occasional shop. It’s a large pedestrian zone but it is quite crowded these days as homeless people have moved in and pitched their tents in a political, though peaceful, protest.
We made a quick visit to the Cathedral and then wandered across the Zocalo to the busy streets beyond in search of several markets. We originally were going to visit the Central de Abastos, the large market on the edge of town, but were advised by our hotel against it, saying they said it could be unsafe, and suggested alternatives.
We soon found the artisan market, which didn’t evolve into much of anything, but found a colorful, down-to-earth slice of Oaxacan life in the vegetable and meat market. If you’re looking for street vendors you’ll find most of them on the periphery of the Zocalo.
On the other hand, you’ll find many of the city’s museums, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, scattered about in 16th-17th century buildings in the historic area. Most are an easy walk from the Zocalo area.
If you have only a day or two in Oaxaca, however, the one don’t-miss museum is the Museo Rufino Tamayo, which contains a treasure trove of pre-Columbian art. It’s a relatively small museum in which the “wow” factor is not only the incredible artifacts themselves, but also the clean and colorful layout of the galleries.
Tamayo, a renowned Mexican artist amassed the collection to stop the pieces from falling into the hands of thieves and illicit traders. Upon his death he left his collection to the state of Oaxaca.
Oaxaca’s Famous Cuisine
One of the most famous aspects of Oaxaca is its complex and sophisticated food and the city abounds in places to eat. While many restaurants and cafés are tucked away in the patios and gardens of old mansions, you’ll also find a plethora of street food.
On a street one Sunday morning, while waiting for the Rufeo Tamiyo Museum to open, we met a woman making fresh tortillas on a small sidewalk stove. She was offering three types – chicharrón (fried pork skin), another guiso (stew of chicken) and a third chile poblanos, cut up chili in a cream sauce on top of refried beans and a little corn – all prepared the night before, she told us, so she would be prepared to just cook her fresh sidewalk tortillas for morning church-goers.
Oaxaca is especially well known for its moles (the best are said to come from there), the spicy slow-cooked sauces popular all over Mexico. In fact, it has seven different kinds ranging from Mole Verde (made with fresh herbs) to the 30-ingredient Mole Negro.
One excellent, upscale restaurant is the Catedral Restaurant in the historic area. A large meal for two, with three glasses of wine, was about $60.
There are a multitude of churches In Oaxaca and if you’re there on a saint’s day you’ll hear explosions around the city as priests set off fireworks in honor of the saint. We were there on St. Valentine’s Day and the cacophony continued day and night.
The best-known of the churches is the Basilica de la Soledad with its impressive 80-foot tall Baroque façade. But its real attraction is the Virgin of Solitude, Oaxaca’s patron saint, which sits above the altar covered with 600 diamonds and crowned with a four-pound gold crown.
The Iglesia de Santo Domingo is another ecclesiastic standout with a gilded interior that combines Baroque, Romanesque, Gothic and Moorish styles. It took more than 200 years to complete after construction began in 1572.
Wonderful Pedestrian Streets
From the Zocalo you reach Santo Domingo by taking a 10-minute walk up Calle Macedonio Alcala (behind the cathedral on the Zocalo), a beautiful cobbled street lined with colonial-era buildings filled with government offices, as well as the occasional museum, gallery and shop. As opposed to the mostly shaded Zocalo, it’s treeless and you’ll often keep to the shaded side in the hot midday sun regardless of the time of year.
When you get to the plaza at the church you’ll be met by a platoon of indigenous peoples peddling scarfs, hats, tablecloths and numerous other things. Continue on by them and explore the interesting warren of streets about the church where you’ll find some galleries, shops and, of course, little cafés.
We came across one shop crammed to overflowing with what first appeared to be junk, until we realized many of its goods were antiques. We left with several old, colorful wooden masks used by Puerto Escondido Indians in their celebrations.
A Note About Hotels
At one time there were numerous convents and monasteries in Oaxaca and many of them have been converted into hotels since they have so many rooms.
We stayed at the Hotel Casantica (about $80 per night including breakfast for two), well located in the center of the historic district. It’s also a former convent, resulting in our room being a bit small for two people, although others were more spacious.
Nevertheless, it was comfortable and clean with a very helpful and pleasant staff and Its charming patio is used as part of the dining area. About the hotel you’ll see artifacts from the original convent.
If you go:
Mexico Tourism Board
José María Morelos 601, Centro
Tel: (52) (951) 516 2673
Museo Rufino Tamayo
Av Morelos 503, Centro
Tel: (52) (951) 516 7617
García Vigil 105, Centro
Tel.: (52) (951) 516 3285