Charming and elegant with a thriving gastronomy scene, the city of Oaxaca (pronounced wah-ha-ca) has a Spanish flair flowing through its streets, but definitely remains true to its indigenous roots.
After the Spanish conquered Oaxaca in 1533, the city quickly took on a Spanish flavour, with ornate buildings, churches, elegant archways, balconies, decorative grill work and charming plazas. Yet despite its colonial heritage, the city remains basically Mexican Indian at heart, wherein lies its charm. Known as the ‘City of Jade’, Oaxaca seamlessly blends its native and colonial past in fine stone buildings set around the impressive Zócalo (Main Square), colourful markets and handicrafts and delicious regional cuisine such as mole, cheese and chapulines (grasshoppers).
The opening of MasterChef’s Oaxaca inspired chain restaurant ‘Wahaca’ arguably boosted the region’s popularity in the UK tourist market as it has commonly been associated with delicious street cuisine. Beyond its gastronomy scene, places of particular interest include The Santo Domingo Temple, the Government Palace, the Macedonio Alcala Theatre, the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Prehispanic Art and the House of Cortés.
Nearby are the sites of Monte Albán and Mitla; large archaeological sites dating back to the people of Zapotec (indigenous people who lived in the late pre-classic period from 500 BCE to 900 CE). Monte Albán was the capital of the ancient Mixtec-Zapotec Empire and is an impressive site for its majestic plaza, fine sculptures and northern and southern platforms from which you can see much of the countryside. The Zapotec people (also known as ‘cloud people’) built this site atop some of the highest mountains in the area. Unlike Chichen Itza, you can climb most of Monte Alban but you cannot enter any tombs. Mitla, originally meaning "place of the dead" in Zapotec, is known for its unique ancient tile work. Many of Mitla’s temples were destroyed by the Spanish and the stones were used to build the Iglesia de San Pablo, the Catholic Church that dominates the site but the ruins can still be visited and make for a wonderful day trip.
Oaxaca has plenty more to offer than just its capital city. If time permits, try exploring the beautiful natural spot of Hierve el Agua ‘the water boils’; the small village of Teotitlán del Valle famous for its textiles; some of the numerous mezcal distilleries and the stunning bays and beaches along the Huatulco coastline.
When to go: The Guelaguetza festival, which is celebrated in July every year, is a time when Oaxaca's cultural roots are particularly highlighted. If you are lucky enough to be in town at this time of year, then you will see great displays of music and dance performed by groups from Oaxaca and its surrounding areas. Rainy season is between June and October and the dry season is between November and May.
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