Logbook: Oaxaca City, March 22-26, 2006
Several Mexicans and cruising friends recommended that we visit Oaxaca City. Oaxaca City is the beautiful, colonial capital of the State of Oaxaca. It lies at the meeting point of three valleys, which are full of thriving village markets and spectacular ruins of pre-Hispanic towns.
Oaxaca City's present population is about 260,000. It's elevation is 1550 meters (just over 5000 feet), so the climate is cooler than the coast. The city was established by the Spanish in 1529, grew and became quite prosperous in the 1700's, but suffered major setbacks from earthquakes in 1854 and 1931, both of which destroyed much of the city. Today, Oaxaca's primary industry is tourism. The surrounding areas also grow coffee beans and cacao beans (for chocolate), and they have a weaving industry (rugs, blankets, etc.) that dates back hundreds of years. The city has some first-class museums and galleries, a number of beautiful old churches, and the best handicrafts shopping in all of Mexico. Its narrow, streets are lined with lovely stone buildings, and life here (as in many Mexican cities) centers around its Zócalo, or town square.
The architecture and atmosphere of Oaxaca reminded Jan of New Orleans, and Rich was reminded of Italy (where he lived for a couple of years while in the Navy in the late 1960's).
Benito Juarez, Mexico's president in the 1860's, was a Zapotec Indian born near Oaxaca. We were aware that his birthday (a national holiday) was celebrated a few days before we went to Oaxaca; however, we were not aware that this was his 200th birthday. Oaxaca had organized special celebrations during the entire month of March to honor this local hero's landmark year.
We traveled by bus to Oaxaca City from Huatulco with our cruising friends Bill and Linda (s.v. Creola). The bus was "primera class" (first class), very comfortable, and it took 8 hours, leaving in the morning and arriving at dinner time. When we arrived, we found a hotel room, went out for dinner, and then hit the sack.
Day 1 - Walking Tour. For our first day in Oaxaca, Jan suggested a walking tour that was outlined in her "Moon Handbook" travel guide. We thought this would be a good way to orient ourselves to the city. Sights along the walking tour included:
All this wandering around took several hours and made us thirsty. One of the restaurants we passed along Calle Alcalá was advertising a 2 for 1 happy hour, so we decided to check it out. The Passion Bar inside the Mayor Domo Restaurant had a very pleasant atmosphere, and we became quick friends with our waiter Rene. The beer was cold, and their happy hour included great "snacks" - peanuts, cheese and cold cuts and other Mexican fare. We really didn't need much dinner after leaving there!
From the Passion Bar, we headed to the Zócalo and arrived in time to hear a few numbers played by a small symphony. We enjoyed a light dinner at one of the restaurants along the Zócalo, but the music went away when rain arrived.
Day 2 - More Walking, Santo Domingo Church and Museum of Oaxacan Cultures. Bill and Linda signed up for a cooking class, and they spent the morning of our second day learning how to make mole, a traditional Oaxacan sauce. While they were cooking, we did some more wandering around the city. On the northwest edge of the downtown area, we found the Escaleras del Fortin (Staircase of the Fort), and climbed it to an outdoor amphitheater, planetarium and observatory, which were situated on top of a hill with good views of the city. After our walk, we did a little shopping and enjoyed a coffee at a cafe along the Zócalo. Just as we sat down to enjoy some "people-watching" time, a water truck parked right in front of us and blocked our view. It spent the next 30 minutes filling the water tanks of the adjacent restaurants. Oh well!
That afternoon, the four of us visited Iglesia Santo Domingo and Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca. According to our "Lonely Planet" guidebook, Santo Domingo is the "most splendid" of Oaxaca's churches. It was built mainly between 1570 and 1608 and has a lavish interior, reminiscent of European churches. Monastery buildings adjoining Santo Domingo Church house the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures, which takes you through the history and cultures of Oaxaca State from pre-Hispanic times (Zapotec and Mixtec Indians) up to the present day. One of the displays, Mixtec treasures from a tomb at Monte Albán, dates back to the 14th century.
After our visit to the church and museum, we headed back to the Mayor Domo Restaurant and Passion Bar to visit our friend Rene. Unfortunately, we were too late for their 2 for 1 Happy Hour, but we enjoyed their steak dinner special - $8 US for a steak dinner, including either a glass of wine or a beer - delicious and quite a bargain!
Day 3 - Monte Albán. Monte Albán is one of the most impressive Indian ruin sites in Mexico, and it is located just a few miles outside Oaxaca City. The site was first occupied around 500 B.C. by the Zapotecs. The city was at it's peak from about AD 300 to 700, when the main and surrounding hills were terraced for dwellings, and the population reached about 25,000. Between about AD 700 and 950, the place was abandoned and fell into ruin. AD 950-1521, Mixtecs arrived and reused old tombs here to bury their own dignitaries.
At Monte Albán, we hired a guide, Jorge, who gave an excellent tour and commentary. We spent about an hour with Jorge, climbed some of the pyramids and visited a museum on the site. As the afternoon passed, we saw dark rain clouds headed our way. The rain arrived about 15 minutes before our return bus to Oaxaca. The bus waiting area offered no shelter from the rain, and of course, the bus was a few minutes late, so we were pretty cold and wet by the time we got back to the city. None of us expected rain on this trip, so we were not prepared at all.
When we got back to the city, we changed into dry clothes and headed for an early dinner at the Zócalo. It was Saturday, so we figured there would be some good entertainment. When we arrived, we found a stage setup and bunches of little kids (maybe 5-8 years old) dressed up in all kinds of outfits - bumblebees, flowers, soldiers - and putting on a show. They were as cute as can be. We had no idea what the show was about, but we assumed it had something to do with the Benito Juarez celebrations.
After dinner, we visited the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca (Contemporary Art Museum), which was showing a display of modern art sculptures relating to immigration of Mexicans to the U.S.
Day 4 - Tour of Surrounding Valleys. This was our last day in Oaxaca, and we'd heard there was lots to see in the outlying valleys. We decided the easiest way to see a number of sights was on an organized tour. We managed to book on to a small tour of only 6-8 people. Rosario was our tour guide for the day, and he did a great job of showing us around. We visited:
This tour day was a long one, but we saw a lot and really enjoyed it. When we got back to Oaxaca City, we visited the Zócalo one last time, enjoyed a coffee and people-watched, went out for dinner and then caught an overnight bus back to Huatulco.
We packed a lot into the four days we visited Oaxaca, but there was a lot to see and do. We thoroughly enjoyed this trip. Oaxaca is one of our favorite places that we've visited in Mexico.