The lovely buildings, clean streets, and peaceful plazas of Oaxaca would be a joy to visit even if the city didn’t have any museums (plenty), churches (too many), food (delicious), or lovely hotels (almost too many) to tempt you. But it does, and it’s all in our city travel guide.
Getting to Oaxaca
We arrived in Oaxaca (pronounced Wuh-hawk-ah) after a dramatic 50 mile (80 km) journey along highway 175 during which we gained more than 8,000 feet (2,400 meters). This little-used (thankfully) road curved and climbed through rainforest that looked like something out of Jurassic Park with orchids, ferns, and plants with leaves that nearly dwarfed our truck. The curves were reminiscent of a stretch of road called the Devil’s Backbone which we had to drive to reach Durango, Mexico and the in-famous Dragon’s Tail on the North Carolina/Tennessee border in the US, only way steeper and narrower.
After clearing the crest of the mountain range and descending a bit we arrived in the town of San Pablo Guelatao in the foothills above the Oaxaca valley. This is the birthplace of Oaxaca’s first son: Benito Juarez who was a Zapotec Indian, orphan, shepherd, bookbinder, and governor of Oaxaca state and the first (and only) indigenous President of Mexico (so far).
Benito’s hometown is marked with somber statues (there’s Benito as a child shepherd, there he is as the state’s governor) and his tiny childhood home is frozen in time and on display beside a concrete covered plaza. It’s weirdly soulless given the amount of adulation Benito inspires.
Even today, Benito is revered across Mexico as one of the few politicians whose reputation has remained unmarred and as a symbol of what’s possible for the country’s many indigenous groups. We defy you to find any self-respecting Mexican town that does not have a major street named after Benito Juarez.
What to do in Oaxaca
Part of what we loved so much about our first whirlwind visit to Oaxaca more than 10 years ago was the legend and legacy of Benito Juarez. Returning now, we found a city that’s larger and even more exciting than we remembered, but no less in love with Benito.
The city’s full name is Oaxaca de Juarez and one of our first stops we made was at the Museo Casa de Juarez, a small museum in the house Benito grew up in after being essentially adopted by a local bookbinder. The museum is charmingly domestic and imparts a real sense of Benito’s pre-politics everyday life, though a bit pricey by Mexican standards at 50 pesos (about US$4).
A visit to the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzman kills three birds with one stone. It’s a gorgeous church. It’s also a massive museum grandly called the Cultural Centre of Oaxaca which Oxacan-born artist Francisco Toledo helped found. Here, displayed in what used to be the monk’s cells in the monastery area of the massive church complex, you’ll find artifacts from the archaeological sites in Oaxaca Valley, Spanish colonial art, and much more.
Then there’s the Jardín Etnobotánico on the church grounds. We did not tour this garden of indigenous plants when we were there because the area was bustling with workers setting up huge tents, outdoor formal dining rooms, and dance floors in preparation for the marriage of the Governor’s daughter.
Another highlight was the Museo Rufino Tamayo which houses the pre-Columbian art collection of Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo. It features many unusual pieces that we’ve never seen before despite all of our time in Mexican museums–many of them collected by the artist before regulations were in place. Items are also displayed in well-lit cases with subtle colored backgrounds (not the usual white) which enhances the beauty and visibility of each item. Trust an artist.
The former Palacio de Gobierno, on the south side of the main plaza, has been converted into a world class interactive natural history and science museum. Hands on displays demonstrate basic scientific principles and deliver lots of biological, astronomical, and historical information without ever feeling educational. It’s just plain fun and we were thrilled to see so many Mexican families taking advantage of it.
Eating & drinking in Oaxaca
The food in Oaxaca is a reason to visit in and of itself and ranges from high cuisine to affordable eateries and street vendors. We were especially tickled by a guy with a cart labeled “Mr. Potato Face” adorned with a logo that looks suspiciously like Mr. Potato Head, doling out freshly made potato chips and other potato snacks. There’s even a true artisanal bakery in town called Pan y Co which produces European style breads, great pastries and delicious sandwiches.
The enormous markets in Oaxaca are also a foodie fantasy with everything from fresh fruits, vegetables, and spices at the Mercado Juarez (there’s Benito, again) to the massive food hall that is the Mercado 20 de Noviembre right across the street from it. Here you can get anything from full meals to a simply perfect cup of hot chocolate (made with milk or with water) accompanied by a light round bun that’s a bit like a brioche and perfect for dipping into the hot chocolate.
Attention vegetarians: stop reading NOW!
Our favorite section of the Mercado 20 de Noviembre was the area we dubbed the Meat Market. You’ll smell it before you see it and don’t be put off by the bbq smoke or the sizzling sound or the hordes of people and apparent chaos.
There is a method to this meat madness, and it’s delicious. Just cruise the dozens of meat stands with their freshly sliced wares (beef, pork, sausages, etc) on display. Pick one (they’re all good) and order what you want by weight. While they cook it up, find a seat at one of the communal picnic tables. Each table is administered by a different vendor who sells you your beverages, condiments, tortillas, etc. It’s part theater, part dinner.
Another great use for meat is in a tlayuda, one of the signature dishes of Oaxaca. Take a large four tortilla, smear it with refried beans, then layer on freshly grilled meat, mild, stringy Oaxacan cheese, and anything else your heart desires. Some people serve it open-face (like a Oaxacan pizza) and others fold it over.
No one does a tlayuda better than a woman and her sons who have been making tlayudas just north of downtown on a residential street called Avenida Mexico in the Colonia Infonavit 1 de Mayo neighborhood for years. Every night around 8 pm they set up shop under a tarp. Look for the crowds and join them for a homemade super-thin tortilla topped with a smear of beans, a handful of chopped cabbage, your choice of succulent fresh chopped meat, and Oaxacan cheese.
Once on the grill, the tortilla is folded in half and the ingredients meld into a kind of Mexican Philly cheese steak. Topped with homemade salsas, this has the fun-factor of a snack with the staying power of a meal and for less than US$3.
Chef Ruiz from Casa Oaxaca hotel tipped us off to this foodie find and we ate here three times. In fact, we could go for one right now…
Hotels in Oaxaca
As followers of our Trans-Americas Journey know, we spend a lot of time in a lot of hotels. We love hotels and much of the work we do for magazines, newspapers, and websites revolves around knowing the best and newest hotels. Oaxaca has so many hotels in all price points that the job of sifting through them all was, we admit, a little bit daunting. We finally singled out three hotels in Oaxaca, each interesting in very different ways.
Casa de Sierra Azul is a multi-level home and interior courtyard turned into a tranquil 15 room hotel just a few blocks from the main plaza. It’s got an atmospheric mix of renovated old bones (bits of original adobe poke through new walls) and modern amenities like Wi-Fi. What really got our attention, however, is that the hotel has recently hired a new general manager who claims to have had experience at Las Mananitas in Cuernavaca–a Relais & Chateaux ranked hotel that’s one of Mexico’s icons of luxury accommodation.
The Italian owners of the Palacio Borghese Hotel get an A for originality. There is no other Italian-themed hotel in all of Oaxaca. Only here can you stay in the Firenze or Venezia rooms and sleep and dine surrounded by Italian art and antique.
The hotel that really captured our hearts (and stomachs), however, was Hotel Boutique Casa Oaxaca. There is something magical about the combination of art and local textiles, modern interior design, historical architecture, seamless service, and damn good food at Casa Oaxaca. We felt it the moment we walked through the (unsigned) front door and we’ve been missing it ever since.
A large part of the charm can be attributed to celebrated chef Alejandro Ruiz who is the energetic, talented, innovative head poobah of the Casa Oaxaca organization which now includes the seven room boutique hotel, the nearby Casa Oaxaca El Restaurant and the more casual (but no less gourmet) Casa Oaxaca Cafe in a residential part of town. All three are guaranteed to please.
Here’s more about travel in Mexico