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Up Close and Personal: Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, Mexico
I spent 4 months in Mexico participating in an archaeological excavation of an Olmec site, Los Soldaldos. I arrived in Mexico with no Spanish capabilities to speak of, but left with the ability to hold a conversation (somewhat). We worked Monday through Friday, but had the weekends off. It gave us the chance to go out and see Mexico not many tourists see. My trip to Mexico off the beaten path.
We had a week off for Semana Santa, so I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity by going out and seeing as many ruins, museums, and site seeing venues as possible. Semana Santa takes place the week before Eastern and is a popular time to travel in Mexico. Reservations should be booked in advance, especially to places along the coast. My adventure took me on a whirlwind journey through the heart of Mexico.
English - Spanish Dictionaries
Oaxaca covers an area of approximately 95,364 square kilometers. It is bordered to the north by Veracruz and Pueblo, to the west by Guerrero, to the east by Chiapas, and to the south by the Pacific Ocean. It has a rich prehispanic (Mixtec and Zapotec) and colonial (Spanish) history that can be found throughout the entire state and in its people.
Map of Oaxaca with Oaxaca City Highlighted
I stayed in a little hostel on the corner of Independencia and Valdivieso, not far from the Zócalo. The hostel was cheap and in the heart of the historic district. It was the base for all my operations to go out and explore the colonial town established in 1529.
The Zócalo or Plaza de Armas is the center square of town. Numerous shops, bars, restaurants, and tourist sites are on or in close proximity to the square. One interesting aspect about the town is how the street names seem to just change. This is true for all roads except Independencia. Any road that passes from north to south (or vice versa) of the Zócalo will be different once past the center square. Same goes for roads heading east to west. For example, heading south from the Zócalo, down Valdivieso, the street would be called Bustamante. Traveling north, it is called Macedonio Alcalá. A long the Zócalo it is called Valdivieso. This can make getting around hard and a map should be carried at all times. I found out the hard way on my way to Monte Albán.
(The video below was uploaded to youtube by TravelVideoSource.)
MarketsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Oaxaca City is home to some of the best markets in all of Mexico. The largest, Central de Abasto (A), has everything the other five smaller markets have to offer, and then some, at more affordable prices. All of the markets that serve tourists and locals alike can be found in the historic center.
The smaller markets target specific items. The Benito Juárez Market (B) sells fresh produce, groceries, household goods, and flowers along with famous Oaxaca cheeses. The 20 de Noviembre (C) market sells handcraft goods and the items more likely to draw the attention of your average tourist. Mercado de Artesanías (D) is just that, an artisan's market. Items such as leather goods, knives, textiles, and rugs are sold. La Merced (E) sells food, flowers, groceries, chocolate, and mezcal. Sanchez Pascua Market (F) sells furniture, household goods, groceries, and meats.
All are unique in their own way and are a great place to get a meal or lose yourself for countless hours. No sense going to a restaurant when you have markets that sell fresh food. There are an assortment of fresh food vendors inside 20 de Noviembre. Try the hot chocolate. They serve it with bread for dipping in the drink.
(The video below is a video uploaded to youtube by Ron Mader.)
Oaxaca City's 2008 Easter Market
The Museums of Oaxaca take you through time as one explores prehispanic art, contemporary art, cultural diversity found in Oaxaca, and the life of a Mexican president. The museums are so numerous, they can be found at every corner.
- Casa Juárez Museo de Sitio (A) is the Oaxaca house of Benito Juárez, a human rights activist, one of few Native American presidents, and Oaxaca's most famous son.
- Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca (B) is located in a colonial house. Changing contemporary exhibits, including Francisco Toledo, the founder of the museum can be found inside (signs in Spanish only).
- Museo de Arte Prehispánico Rufino Tamayo (C) displays pre-Hispanic pottery and sculptures that can be dated back to more than 3,000 years ago.
- Museo de las Culturas (D) occupies two floors of the Ex-Convento de Santo Domingo. The first floor houses temporary exhibits a long with antique books. The second floor displays everything Oaxacan (music, medicine, indigenous languages, and pottery). All signs are in Spanish, but an English audio tour is available.
- Museo de los Pintores Oaxaqueños (E) blends old work with new. 18th-century religious paintings are masterfully blended with 20th-century pieces by indigenous people.
Even more abundant than museums are churches. I remember a conversation with my mom while I was in Oaxaca. I was telling her about all the beautiful churches and how amazing they were. She then proceed to tell me, "I hope you have been going to church."
I replied, "Of course."
She then asked, "Well, what did the priest have to say? Do you understand them when they speak spanish?"
"Oh mom, I don't go to mass. I go to churches to take pictures of the beautiful architecture."
Needless to say my mom was not impressed.
Some of the more notable churches are:
- Catedral Metropolitana de Oaxaca (A) was built in 1553. It was rebuilt in the 1730s after it was destroyed by earthquakes and fires. Above the door, on the facade, is a statue of the "Virgin of the Assumption" in whose honor the church was built. The only piece from the original structure is the crucifix of El Señor del Rayo. It survived a lightning strike on the original thatched roof that ignited the cathedral into flames. It can be found on the north side of the Zócalo.
- Iglesia de Santo Domingo (B) is arguably the most brilliantly decorated church in Oaxaca. Construction began in 1572 by Dominican friars and took over 200 years to complete. The adjoining monastery was active from 1608-1857. Upon entering the church, look up and be treated to the painted tree of Santo Domingo. The Museo de las Culturas and Jardín Etnobotánico are housed in former parts of the church and monastery.
- The Basilica de la Soledad (C),built between 1682 and 1690, it is the most important religious area in the entire state. It was built to house the patron saint of Oaxaca, the Virgin of Solitutde. The original 4 pound gold crown that sat atop the statue of the virgin was taken in the 1980s by robbers. A replica now sits on her head. There is a small religious museum in the convent attached to the church.
- Templo de la Merced (D) was built out of the need for a communication point by the Order of the Brothers. They needed this communication point between their missionary areas in Mexico and Guatemala. The original was destroyed and the present day church was built in 1646. Earthquakes have plagued the church over the centuries causing it to be rebuilt several times.
- Templo de la Compañía de Jesús (E) was built by Jesuit missionaries. Construction began in 1579 and underwent reconstruction after numerous earthquakes. In 1867, the temple was abandoned for more than 30 years. It was declared a historic monument in 1933.
- The Templo de San Matías Jalatlaco (F) was originally built in 1669 as a chapel dedicated to Santa Catarina Martyr. Between 1669 and 1700 the chapel was turned into a temple. In 1700, the temple was dedicated to St. Matthias the Apostle. It was declared a historic monument by the National Heritage Commission in 1941.
- The Templo de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (G) was originally built a church, Our Lady of Guadalupe, in 1644. Later (1650) it was expanded and turned into a temple and finally completed in 1707.
(The video below was uploaded to youtube by Tina Winterlik.)
Semana Santa/Easter - Santa Domingo Church in Oaxaca City (2010)
Gardens and Art Galleries
Walk anywhere in the city and you will find gardens and art galleries. Local artists will set up shop anywhere tourists pass.
One day, on my way north up Alcalá, I passed Parque Labastida with local artists displaying some of their handcrafted goods. Many of the items for sale were colorfully painted tapestries, wood carvings, and artfully wooven blouses. There was an artist in the middle of the road rendering his interpretation of the skyline surrounding the street using string and pegs. I didn't take a picture at the time and now regret my decision.
- Jardín Etnobotánico (A) is on the same block as Museo de las Culturas and Iglesia de Santo Domingo and continues the quant colonial feel of the cultural center. The garden was crafted from the existing one at the monestary. The only way to gain access into the garden, the first of its kind in the new world, is by tour. English tours are conducted on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 11 am. Spanish tours are on Friday and Saturday at 10 am.
- Jardín Morelos (B) is located by Basilica de la Soledad and is an extension of the church's beauty. Benches and vendors selling everything from magazines to little packets of gum can be found around the sparkling pool of water. A fountain drowns out the voices of the other visitors and fills the pond.
- Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca (C)
- The Zócalo (D) is located in the heart of the historic district. You will find everything around this center square. Entertainers will perform here, some of the nicest restaurants and bars are found within walking distance, and tour guide groups set up shop for the thousands of passing tourists. In the middle is an eloquent gazebo surrounded by trees, flowers, benches, and a labyrinth of paths zig-zagging through this social hotspot.
A rally was held in the Zócalo, as it is often the center for political activism. A few years ago it was the center of a teachers protest that essentially shut down the city. A friend and I walked past as the lady with the microphone. She looked at me and spouted off about something. I picked up every other word the woman had to say and found no offense to the words. However, I was dumbfounded by her use of the word, "Canadian." My friend, who happens to be Mexican, looked at me and apologized. I was confused and asked him why he was apologizing. He felt bad that some of the people from Mexico were not accepting of outside visitors. I laughed and said that it was alright, "I am not Canadian." We both laughed and continued on our way to the bar around the corner.
Gardens and Art Galleries
Oaxaca City Has Something For Everyone
Oaxaca City offers something to tourists of all ages with varying interests. From the traveler looking for the late night hotspots to the ones searching for a quite park to read a book. From the religious to the artist. Oaxaca provides entertainment to all its visitors.
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