The city of Oaxaca is one of those places that gets under your skin–pretty but not prettified; vibrant with a twist of grit. It’s a place where ordinary people rub shoulders with tourists on the plaza and in the markets. A parade or street dance may pop up at the least provocation. Women wear traditional dress, and it actually looks comfortable and attractive. In fact, it was that flounce of skirt peeking out from a huipil that induced me to buy, not one, but two of them.
Oaxaca ticks all the tourist boxes: a unique and authentic cuisine; an artisanal tradition that is amazing both for its variety and quality; a distinct folkloric tradition that is seen in the dress and dance I mentioned.
Oh, yeah. And world-class ruins.
So, folks, this is the wrap-up post. Here’s all the stuff I haven’t yet mentioned that you should be sure to see when you visit Oaxaca. Because…why would you live on this earth and not go there?
#1: Monte Albán. I should have done a whole post on this World Heritage Site that sits atop a small mountaintop right outside Oaxaca.
The Zapotecs, who are still around and are still speaking their own indigenous language, built it around 500B.C., making it one of the oldest such structures in MesoAmerica, (I just looked up MesoAmerica. It’s the land between southern Mexico through Central American where several advanced civilizations, like the Maya, Aztec, and Olmec independently and spontaneously developed. This is one of only six places in the world where that has happened.)
Monte Albán lasted for 1000 years and was abandoned long before the Spaniards arrived. You really can’t go to Oaxaca and miss this attraction. Buses make the 10-mile ascent regularly. The small museum is first-rate, and the site is expansive and interesting.
Word to the prudent: the mountaintop is completely exposed, and it’s hot. Go early. Wear sun-protection. Bring water.
#2: A guelagetza. You won’t see the huge blowout festival of traditional dance unless you visit Oaxaca in July. That’s when dancers from all the many traditions in the state converge on the city of Oaxaca for a dance extravaganza.
But since traditional dance has such a presence in the city, you can catch a mini-guelagetza several days a week. The Quinta Real hotel, located in a beautifully renovated historic convent, offers a buffet dinner along with the dances. The old Hotel Monte Albán just gives you the dance, which I hear is about the same quality. The old convent courtyard is a prime venue, but the Monte Albán Hotel has a lovely ambience as well. Plus it’s cheaper.
#3 Mitla. Forty-some miles southeast of Oaxaca, just down the road from Teotitlan del Valle the rug-weaving community, are the ruins of Mitla. If Monte Albán was the Zapotec community center for social and political affairs, Mitla was the religious center. It’s unique for its finely cut stonework friezes that create borders and sometimes fill whole walls. These decorative friezes are unique to this site and were fitted without mortar.
True to their MO, the Spanish destroyed most of the structures, building their own churches on top of them and transplanting some of the intricate stonework.
It’s a World Heritage Site,as well, and I can’t believe I missed it.
#4 El Tule. On the way back from Mitla is the village of Santa Maria del Tule. It’s a pretty little village with paved streets and a manicured look that signals tourist money. The reason for the tourist hubbub is the Arbol de Tule, a massive ahuehuete (Montezuma) cypress that is bigger around than a giant sequoia and anywhere from 1400-2000 years old—just a shrub when the Spanish arrived in the 1530s.
The tree dwarfs the normal-sized church it completely overshadows. When school is out, kids take tourists on a guided tour of the creatures they’re imaginations have discovered on the gnarly trunk of the tree. When I visited several years ago, the kids ended with a special treat for our little group, pointing out “Monica Lewinski’s butt.” Such were the times.
#5 Templo de Santo Domingo and the attached Museum of Oaxacan Culture (Museo del Cultura de Oaxaca). This isn’t the main cathedral on the Zocalo, this is yet another magnificent edifice just to the north. It’s very fancy and baroque inside. The museum, which used to be part of the monastery, is helpful in coaxing out an understanding of what you see around you. Because the perpetual challenge anywhere you go is, What happened here? And in Mexico particularly, the answers are complex and grand in scale. Although the museum is large and mostly in Spanish, it at least helps out into perspective some of what you see around you.
Next: San Cristobal de las Casas, a place that doesn’t feel like Mexico