Whoever we spoke to about going to Oaxaca said something like “I’ve always wanted to go there.” Oaxaca is a city within the state of Oaxaca — think New York City, New York — a 400 year old colonial city, magical and mystical.
We scheduled our visit for December, a month of celebrations. In addition to the advent of Christmas, there are celebrations for Mexico’s Virgin of Guadalupe and for Oaxaca’s Virgin of Soledad (solitude). I would also suggest the end of October to experience the celebration of dias de los muertos. Each season is filled with festivals.
The history of Oaxaca goes back between 3,000 and 11,000 years. The Zapotecs, an early people, established themselves in the mountains in an area now called Monte Alban. These people settled and built solar and lunar observation structures. One huge structure is placed so precisely the sun shines exactly on its corner on December 21st. A tour to the ruins of Monte Alban is a must.
The city itself is cobble-stoned and lined with a calliope of colorful buildings with iron-worked balconies painted in every spectrum of the rainbow: orange with green trim next to a cobalt blue. Street doors open onto hidden, picturesque courtyards. A cathedral, a basilica and churches abound. Church bells ring and echo.
Oaxaca is a shopper’s paradise filled with small shops; artisans selling beautiful woven rugs and wall hangings or painted wooden nativity scenes or animals playing instruments. Gourds and tin art abound with fantastical alebrijes, those supernatural dragon-like creatures, and others more realistic: armadillos, iguanas, lizards, elephants, and giraffes.
The center and focal point of the city is a gathering place called the Zocolo…a city block lined with restaurants. The center of the block is criss-crossed with walkways, a fountain, a bandstand, and trees. A canopy of stringed lights hangs from tree to tree. Musical entertainers stroll by and stop to play. Vendors. A festival and feast for the pallet, soul, and senses. We were mesmerized by it all. Sitting in our upper balcony looking down at the activity below we imagined being Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in an Alfred Hitchcock movie. A procession of people carrying the Virgin of Soledad passed in celebration — joyous and peaceful at the same time.
And the food! If you think you’ve tasted mole and rejected its sometimes pungent taste, wait to try the sweet, spicy mole in dozens of different taste combinations in Oaxaca.
Small villages in the surrounding area are each famous for their own craft: weaving, tin art, or black pottery. Tours to these are available at very reasonable rates.
As with many places, we couldn’t take it all in with one visit and we’ll return to soak in more of its unique energy and charm. We now understand why it holds a special place in the hearts of so many Mexicans.