Guide to Oaxaca City, Mexico
To many Americans, Mexico is like a hot humid life-threatening dungeon. They believe that the entire country is dangerous and that it is only filled with drug trafficking and violence. They don't consider that the United States has its own fair share of crime, and yet not all of America is a dangerous battlefield that tourists should avoid. Mexico is the same. If you stay away from certain border towns, the country is safe and full of culture and excitement. Oaxaca City, in southern Mexico, is a great area where you will not feel at all in peril. If you know enough Spanish to have a simple conversation, then Oaxaca will be a truly memorable trip. The Oaxacans are friendly people who are pleased to have you and will give you helpful tips on what to see, do, and of course comprar (buy).
Oaxaca City, located in the state of Oaxaca de Juarez, is rich in culture. One-hundred-year-old practices are still in vogue, such as using a comal – an unglazed earthenware hot plate -- to warm up tortillas and cook tlayudas (a Oaxacan-style pizza), instead of using a stove or microwave. Well preserved historic architecture, especially in the city center, give Oaxaca a colonial charm that led to its recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Of particular note are Oaxaca's Baroque Cathedral that was completed in 1554 and the adjacent Art Nouveau Plaza de la Constitucion, completed in 1884 during the Porfiriato era.
tlayudas, Oaxaca, Mexico
Oaxaca is also recognized for its contemporary art scene. Colorful and meaningful public art can be spotted throughout the city. This includes political sculptures and graffiti art murals, mostly created by student artists turned grafiteros. Tin Handicraft work, or hojalata, dates back to the 1500s but is still popular today. Known as the “poor man's silver,” this noble metal is still being shaped, stamped, punched, and cut into picture frames, jewelry, candlesticks, and ornaments. Some items are colored; others are left in their natural silver tone. These are great souvenirs to bring home.
Because there is always great, warm weather, most of the hotels have an open courtyard with lush greenery alongside a fountain and seating arrangements not far from a bar where refreshing drinks are served. You will definitely appreciate the detailed Mexican tile work with its colorful designs. Tile itself can be a great souvenir.
Fresh beverage, Oaxaca, Mexico
There are inexpensive taxis and buses, but in the center of Oaxaca City you can walk around anywhere and find what you are looking for. If you feel tired, the Zocalo is the area where you can socialize or relax. It is the town square and the main city park with immense trees stretching their branches over the stone walkways, where flowers bloom alongside tree roots. A large gazebo is elevated on higher ground in the center of the Zocalo, where bands can be found playing for the public on special occasions. Benches surround the gazebo, and shops and cafes circumvent the Zocalo itself. The best time to visit the Zocalo is during the Christmas holiday season. There is a huge parade where representatives from all the local church communities march through the Zocalo in enormous papier mache costumes with their children and animals – dogs, cats, even monkeys – dancing, singing, and playing instruments. Two-to-three foot long sparklers can be purchased from men and women selling them on the street. Don’t have a lighter on you? Not to worry, because you can go up to others with their fireworks already lit, and ask to put their sparkling sticks next to yours, so that your sparkler will be glowing with light as well. Real egg shells are also sold on the street. Yes, eggs shells only. The yolks have been cleaned out and replaced with confetti to throw and enjoy.
Long sparklers, Oaxaca, Mexico
From tiny vegetables to huge loaves of bread, all the food is fresh. Just the smell of the distinctive Mexican food will make your mouth water. The market in Oaxaca City is where the best ingredients can be found. Because all of it is fresh, the restaurants use these ingredients to cook great flavorful meals. You can also visit the market in the morning or at noon to have a meal. Tamales and spicy tomato soup will be made right in front of you.
Fresh tamales, Oaxaca, Mexico
Fresh bread, Oaxaca, Mexico
If you want a snack and the market is not nearby, don’t worry. The street food is just as good! Cups of fruit, tacos, and more are great to fill your stomach. However, some street vendors are on wheels; so don’t be surprised when that particular cart full of flan outside your hotel is not there when you return from your touring adventure.
Street vendor with fresh food, Oaxaca, Mexico
Finally, you can’t go to Oaxaca without having some chocolate. Chocolate originated in Mexico, because the cacao plant is native to this country. Near the market is a chocolate shop called Mayordomo. Here, you can watch how chocolate is made from its raw ingredients: cocoa beans, cinnamon, sugar, and nuts. No high fructose corn syrup or artificial flavors! The workers put all the ingredients in a contraption that grinds the mixture up into a gooey paste, which is then molded into the desired shape and voila! Your chocolate is ready. The texture is somewhat chewy and the taste is different from your average Hershey’s bar, but by that I mean, it's much better.
Mayordomo chocolate, Oaxaca, Mexico
Brianna Nema is a member of the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program
All photos courtesy and copyright Brianna Nema