Mexico has many beautiful colonial towns, but none perhaps as diverse and colorful as Oaxaca.  Maria and I took the three-and-a-half hour flight from Tijuana International Airport (park your car on the US side at CBX - Cross Border Crossing) and enjoyed a week-long vacation in this friendly and historic city.  Rated as the third most popular city in Mexico by visitors (after San Miguel de Allende and Mexico City), Oaxaca was absolutely enchanting.  I recommend a week-long visit.

As all colonial towns, Oaxaca has a lively zocalo or town square.

     Oaxaca is special for its beauty and diversity.  For me, there were five aspects that make it so unique: 1) a walkable, culturally rich city; 2) excellent museums;  3) rich tradition of art, crafts and textiles; 4) numerous indigenous cultures; 5) wonderful food (mole) and drink (mezcal); 6) fascinating pre-hispanic ruins; and 7) colorful indoor and outdoor markets.  And don't forget, you must always add the grace and friendliness of the Mexican people.  

1) Walkable, culturally-rich city  

Oaxaca was laid out by the Spanish with an easy to negotiate grid street pattern.  As with all colonial towns, the building facades come all the way to the sidewalk, creating intimate public space.  In addition, the town has a large zocalo or town plaza surrounded by interesting markets, restaurants and stores.
Notice the grid streets and buildings which come all the way to the sidewalk.  This creates better urban space for pedestrians.
The continuous row of colorful buildings is typical of Mexican colonial towns.
There's always lots of action in Oaxaca's zocalo.  I wish American cities had more town squares like Savannah, Georgia

2) Excellent Museums - I was pleased to find that Oaxaca has lots of centrally-located, first class museums.  From our short stay, I recommend the Museo de Textile, Rufino Tamayo Museum of Indigenous Art, the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures, and the Contemporary Art Museum.  Rufino Tamayo, a native son of Oaxaca, was a modern artist of international fame.  He donated his collection of pre-hispanic art to the city.

3) Rich Folk and Modern Art Traditions - Oaxaca is the number one state in Mexico for folk art.  Its many indigenous cultures combine traditional and modern methods to create beautiful pottery, textiles and paintings.  We didn't have time to explore the region's ceramic art but both green and black pottery are renown in the area.  We were particular interested in the cottage textile industry and the beautiful rugs, clothing and fabric they produce.  The artist below - Maria Luisa -told me that tourism enabled her family to continue their generations-long tradition of dying and weaving fabric.  Check out the family's TripAdvisor review - Casa Cruz Textiles.
We loved our visit to Casa Cruz - a family textile business in the village of Teotitlan del Valle.
They use organic dyes on a variety of fabrics and produce exquisite rugs of vibrant colors.
This Zapotec woman gave a beautiful demonstration and, of course, we bought a beautiful rug!

One of the textile dyes comes from the little white bug - called a "cochinil" - that you see on this prickly-pear cactus or nopal.  Notice the intense red color that derived when you squish the little critter.

Check out the "cochinil" bugs brushed off the cactus and soon to be a beautiful red color.

4.  Indigenous Cultures - Oaxaca has the second largest indigenous population, after Chiapas.  There are 16 distinct cultural groups in the state, each with their own language or dialect.

 have almost never seen such beautiful regional dress as I observed in Oaxaca.  I happened upon a parade for Indigenous Language Day and the high school students were dressed in their finest costumes.

5) Wonderful food - The cuisine of the state of Oaxaca is famous throughout Mexico and is getting international recognition.  Perhaps most famous are the "moles" - rich sauces made from a huge mix of chiles, nuts, spices, chocolate and countless other ingredients.  Also popular are "tlayudas" - large quesadilla-like Mexican pizzas built from a large, fried corn tortilla smothered with black beans and topped with lots of goodies.  We loved the Oaxacan tamales, especially the black mole chicken tamales wrapped in banana leaves.  And, lest we forget, there's mezcal - that smokey-flavored liquor distilled from the "pina" or heart of the maguey plant.  Our wonderful tour guide - Tomas - seemed to know the best "mescaleros".
Maria and Andrea enjoy their tamales for  breakfast when they are at their freshest.  
Maria's favorite were black mole chicken tamales wrapped in banana leaves.
Scott sits down for a  Oaxacan specialty - tlayuda.   It's a large cooked corn tortilla
smothered with black beans, "quesilla" (Oaxacan string cheese), and a variety of toppings.
A Oaxacan pizza?
A cooking class is a good way to appreciate the richness of Oaxacan cuisine.
The amount of ingredients in mole blew my mind.

Hoffy making a chile relleno under the watchful eye of our excellent teacher Alejandra.

Mezcal versus tequila - If I haven't given you enough reason to love this wonderful area, here's another: Oaxaca is the capital for mezcal, a distilled spirit made from the agave plant.  Unlike tequila, mezcal is made from a variety of agave plants and has a smokier, earthy flavor.  We stopped at a number of roadside "mezcaleros" and learned how it is poduced.   The hearts of the agave plants, called piñas, are cooked in pits in the ground similar to a barbecue. The cooked agave is then crushed, combined with water, and allowed to ferment.  What a flavor!
Here are the pines or hearts of the agave after having been cooked.  Next steps is to crush them.
A horse-drawn mezcal wheel to crush the pinas.  Not high tech, but very tasty.
Oaxacan chocolate, which comes from the cacao fruit that we are holding, is a
major speciality.

6) Pre-hispanic ruins - The archaeological sites in the state of Oaxaca are so notable that they have been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites.  The largest and most famous are Monte Alban and Mitla.  Both were built by the Zapotec culture which flourished from 500 B.C. until the end of the Classic Period in 900 AD.  As with many indigenous groups, contacts with the Spanish brought devastating influences of diseases and cultural domination.

The Zapotec ceremonial center of Monte Alban lies only 15 minutes west of the city.

We were also impressed with Mitla - a Zapotec administrative center active during
the arrival of the Spanish.
I was impressed by the intricate stone facades of Mitla.

7) Colorful Markets: Mexico is a land of markets ("tierra de mercados") and nowhere is this more prevalent than in Oaxaca.  The town itself has amazing covered markets - Mercado de Benito Juarez, Mercado de 20 de Noviembre, Mercado de Bastos - replete with food, crafts, clothing, housewares and everything else imaginable.  The surrounding villages are more famous for outdoor, indigenous markets with arts, crafts, clothing and food galore.

Mexican urban markets are a labyrinth of color and merchandise.  I've often wondered where
they produce this tremendous quantity of stuff.  I guess it goes back to Adam Smith's "invisible
hand" from The Wealth of Nations in 1776!
We bought fresh chiles for our cooking class.
The food in the 20th of November Market was beautifully displayed.
Oaxaca state is famous for its village, outdoor, indigenous markets.
Mother and daughter sell nuts, coffee and cacao beans for chocolate.

 8.  Wonderful, friendly people - We absolutely loved our Oaxacan adventure.  This delightful city and its surrounding region are the best that Mexico has to offer.  I loved San Miguel de Allende but I find that Oaxaca is more authentically Mexican.  Mexico City has incredible sites, but I felt overwhelmed at times by the big crowds.  I will certainly organize a Hoffy Tour to this jewel of a town.

Once again, however, what I love most about Mexico is its friendly and gracious people.  Here I am with a class of Mexican students on a field trip.  This is my idea of heaven on earth!

Skip to content