Food, Culture and Art… Three Days in Oaxaca

Your plane has just landed, your taxi is waiting and you’ve got three days to spend in one of the jewels of Mexico, Oaxaca.

Located in the southern part of the country, Oaxaca is the cultural heart of indigenous Mexico.  Home to 16 distinct people groups, the area is awash in culture, color, food and music.  Sadly it is an area that many Americans, for a variety of reasons will never visit, forever missing a chance to experience one of the greatest cities in North America.

But you’re different.  You have checked into your hotel and are wondering where to begin in what will be a whirlwind tour of this magical land.  Here are my suggestions, guaranteed to insure that you return home longing for a quick return.

Day 1.  Take a walk on the wild side.

Leave the taxis behind today and get to know the city center.  Most of the architecture in this UNESCO World Heritage site dates from the 1800’s.Here are the must sees on Avenieda Valdivieso/Macedonio Alcala, a wonderful walking street in the heart of Oaxaca and the surrounding areas.

First up is the Cathedral of Santo Domingo.  Built by the Dominicans in the 16th Century, this church is still a popular place with locals for weddings and celebrations.  With a tree of life on the ceiling as you enter and more gold gilding than most will ever see, the inside of this cathedral must be seen to be believed.

As you exit the cathedral, take a quick right and visit the cultural museum of Oaxaca.  With an extensive collection of pre-Columbian artifacts and items from Tomb 7 of Monte Alban, this museum is not to be missed.

Heading left towards the Zócalo, make sure you get a map of the area from the tourist booth if you don’t already have one.  There are two stores you need to visit, but sotes does not eve begin to explain what you’ll find inside.  First up is Pajaro del Sol and the La Mano Magica.  Both are really studio/galleries featuring some of the best folk art Oaxaca has to offer.  Showing off the work of some of the grand masters of Oaxacan art, you’ll be amazed at the work of Arnulfo Mendoza, Omar Hernandez, Mario Perez, and Jacobo and Maria Angeles.

Before continuing to the Zócalo, don’t miss a chance to see the Museum of Contemporary Art of Oaxaca [MACO].  Juxtaposed against the walls and architecture of centuries past are works of Toledo, Tamayo, Morales and more.  This is well worth the two dollar admission fee.In the Zócalo, have a seat.  This is the premier place in Oaxaca to people watch and you won’t be disappointed.  Buskers, street performers and depending on the time of day, maybe one of the local rondallas, or men’s choirs will all be performing.  Add in the many vendors, the occasional protest and you’ve got an electric atmosphere.After you’ve given the feet a rest, take another two block walk over to Mercado 20 de Noviembre for some lunch.  In Oaxaca the star of the show is fresh grilled meat that you order by the kilo [1 kilo equals 2.2 pounds] and use to make your own tacos.

Pick out one of the stalls, place your order, sit back and experience the show.  In seconds vendors will be stopping by to sell you guacamole, tortillas, salsa, chiles and even sauteed grasshoppers, known locally as chapulines.  Don’t be shy and know that you will need to purchase all of the above to add to your soon to be made tacos.  Lunch for two or three, with all the trimmings will be about $20.00.After lunch it’s time to walk off a few calories.  Head over to Arteaga Street, one block south of the market.  This is a bustling main transportation street in Oaxaca and at first glance it may seem like a weird place to visit.  Yet that is what makes it special, because along this street are the famous Oaxacan chocolate vendors.  Watch as locals order their fresh ground chocolate for drinks and mole.  Ask for samples and if you know some Spanish, and even of you don’t and if you are lucky, you might get a demonstration.

Circling back to your hotel, you’ve got one more stop to make to finish off your day.  On Calle Independencia is one last cathedral you must see, the Cathedral of Soledad.  Always packed for mass, Soledad is more church than museum and normally missed by people who are focused solely on the city center.  The center around this cathedral is a huge gathering place for locals and an ice cream lovers dream in the evenings.

This is a great place to finish off your day with one of the many varieties of Oaxacan ice cream.  Made fresh daily, be adventurous!  Ask for a taste of some of the flavors you’ll never find anywhere else.  Cactus flower, papaya, mango, guava and even mezcal are all available.  No visit to Oaxaca is complete without a dish of one of these wonderful handmade flavors.

Day 2.  Monte Alban.

Get up, have breakfast and then head back to the zocalo to get a bus ride to Monte Alban, the ancient capital of the Zapotecs.  This immense site, dating back to 400 is still being excavated and is on every must see list.Transportation to and from Monte Alban is about $5.00 US and admission is about $6.00 US.  The bus will give you 2.5 hours to see the site, but you can always make a day of it and return on a later bus at no additional cost.

There is a great museum on site and a wonderful little cafe where, while charging more than in town, you can still get a good lunch or snack at a good price.

Once you get back into town, relax and get ready for the evening.

If you are lucky enough to be visiting in July, seek out one of the many local celebrations of the Guelaguetza, an explosion of local dance, color and tradition.  Otherwise, you can see a dinner show any night of the week at the Casa Cantera in Colonia Reforma, or on Fridays at the Hotel Camino Real in the center of town.Any taxi driver will be able to get you to these places for about three bucks and there are taxis running all night to take you safely back to your hotel at the end of your night.

Day 3.  Market Day

You’ve got one more day.  If you want to shop, this is your day and here’s your list.Oaxacan Rugs… you can get these all over town, but you can see them made first hand and get a great lunch in Teotitlan del Valle.

Alebrijes… you can meet and talk with some of the great Oaxacan wood carvers in the villages of San Martin Tilcajete or Arrazola.Black Pottery… Doña Rosa is the most famous maker of this pottery and her family’s shop is located in San Bartolo Coyotepec.  If you time it right, you can see a demonstration of pottery making in person.  If you are going to buy, make sure to shop around as price varies widely in this zone.You might also want to roam the rest of the city center or, depending on the day, head out to one of the many open air regional markets, but be forewarned, you are going to have to bargain to get the best price.

If you want one more cultural experience, head out to Mitla and see the ruins there.  Another of the great Zapotec sites, Mitla is totally different from Monte Alban.  Well worth the $5.00 US cost to get in, you can even enter two of the ancient tombs.On your way back to Oaxaca City, stop off at one of the local mezcal factories to see how this Oaxacan spirit is made and even get a few samples, or a bottle to take home.

For dinner head over to Pilar Cabrera’s La Olla or Alejandro Ruiz’ Casa Oaxaca for a great dinner showcasing the flavors of Oaxaca.  Both have some fantastic food offerings and some great mezcals from around Oaxaca as well.

So there you have it!  Three days in Oaxaca guaranteed to give you a real taste of the culture, food, art and the people of this great city.

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