After the hustle and bustle of Mexico City I was expecting a much quieter time in Oaxaca. The drive from the airport soon cured me of that notion. Traffic is heavy on the way into town and that continues to be the case on many of the streets around the centre though the main one Calle Alcalá is pedestrianised. Most people I met had complaints about the noise outside their hotels, but I found earplugs were pretty effective at shutting it out.
That said it’s a lovely town that’s perfect for strolling around and enjoying the local colour, culture and cuisine. Musicians abound and I saw and heard lots of bands, including a few that had set up simply to entertain the shoppers in different parts of the main market, Mercado Juárez.
Shopping is a worthwhile pastime in Oaxaca and there are plenty of stores to choose from. The stock includes local craft and artisan products; Mezcal, the Oaxacan alcoholic beverage of choice; and the many different types of the mole (salsa) that Oaxaca is famous for. It’s also known for the availability of fried grasshoppers which are sold from baskets in the market, but I couldn’t be tempted!
See and do
A slow amble up traffic free Calle Alcalá brings you to the beautiful Santo Domingo church. There’s probably no better demonstration of the excesses of the Catholic Church than this as the inside is covered in gold leaf…but it is stunning. The Capilla de la Virgen del Rosario is particularly elaborate and the family tree painted on the ceiling at the entrance to the church is worth craning your neck for. Attached to the church is a museum that offers an overview of the local history and ancient civilisation, but if you’ve been to the anthropology museum in Mexico City you could probably skip it.
About four blocks south of here is the cathedral which has a pretty carved outside, but the inside rather suffers by comparison after seeing Santo Domingo. Just beyond this is the main square or Zócalo which buzzes with life. Shoe shiners ply their trade in the centre, locals and visitors sit on benches to enjoy the sunshine, while others take time out to revitalise with a drink or some food at one of the cafes circling its perimeter.
Mercado Juárez is just a block further south and is worth a visit, though if you’re a vegetarian like me it’s best to avoid the meat stalls as well as the fried grasshoppers! There are also several museums around the town including one focused on textiles reflecting one of the main industries of the nearby villages. Galleries are plentiful too with some striking art works available to view and to buy.
Outside of the town the main attractions are the Monte Albán archaeological site and the many villages in the Valles Centrales that are mostly populated by indigenous Zapotec people. I spent a fascinating and inspiring afternoon in two of the villages visiting women who are receiving micro finance from Fundación en Via. If you’d like to know more about that fantastic scheme read my post A Foundation for the Future.
Eat, drink, sleep
There are some great places to stay in Oaxaca including a number of B&Bs in beautiful colonial buildings. I chose one of these as a change from hotels and it didn’t disappoint. Casa de los Milagros has just three bedrooms but a lovely large traditional kitchen where a gourmet breakfast is cooked and served every morning. There’s a lounge area for relaxing as well as a large patio and a roof terrace, perfect for some post sightseeing R&R.
Eating and drinking in Oaxaca is a treat too and I found myself spoilt for choice and wishing I had more than a couple of days to sample it all. One really great lunch spot is La Olla, Reforma 402, which is run by chef Pilar Cabrera, the sister of Rene who owns Casa de los Milagros. The set menu lunch was just 100 pesos (around £6) and included four courses, a soft drink and of course some Mezcal. Pilar also runs a cooking school and there are several others in the town.
Restaurante Los Danzantes, Alcalá 403, serves up delicious mains and desserts on a gorgeous patio while Vieja Lira, Garcia Vigil 409a, is a very good Italian. Although I didn’t get to them I also heard good things about La Biznaga and Casa Oaxaca – there’s a lot of talk about food when you meet people in Oaxaca!
There are plenty of places for drinks too, including the roof terrace at Casa Crespo, Allende 107 and El Olivio, Murguia 218, an upstairs bar a little away from the main drag that has great cocktails, beer, tapas and atmosphere.
So lots to recommend about Oaxaca and I could definitely see why its an essential stop on the Mexican trail for many fellow travellers.
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