Saturday, March 20, 2010

Mexico 2010 - Part 1 - Oaxaca City

Oaxaca –

In case you were unfamiliar, Mexico is actually the United Mexican States, or in Spanish “Estados Unidos Mexicanos”. There are 31 states, of which Oaxaca is one. Oaxaca is hard to get to as it is surrounded by mountains and ocean. Because of this, Oaxaca was and still is virtually ignored by the rest of Mexico. This allowed Oaxaca to develop their culture, food, crafts, and politics quite independently from other influences. Of course, being ignored also made them one of the poorest and more illiterate states in the country. This is especially true for the Indian populations, many of whom still speak their native language and do NOT speak Spanish. The two major native groups in Oaxaca are the Zapotec and Mixtec, though there are approximately 14 other unique indigenous groups in Oaxaca with distinct languages and cultures. The people of Oaxaca make some of the most beautiful and world-renowned crafts in Mexico. We are not talking kitsch here. They also have great coffee, wonderful chocolate, and tons of moles (food sauces, not rodents), and a lot of headache producing Mezcal, similar to tequila.

The City –

Ciudad Oaxaca is a beautiful city, and as I’ve seen in all my Mexico travels, a city of contradictions. You cannot throw a stick without hitting a 16th century cathedral, whether crumbling, or fully restored, or somewhere in between. All are full places of worship, so you must pay attention when taking pictures so as not to disrespect the more pious visitors. (Grant and I forgot that people like to go to church on Saturdays as well as Sundays. Oops.) Despite the grand architecture and bold blooming flowers and gardens, these beautiful cathedrals are surrounded by crumbling buildings and homes patched together with scrap tin, with very visible poverty at the entrances to all these important Catholic establishments.

In my opinion, the most beautiful cathedral in Oaxaca, which can be seen from our panoramic view above and from is Catedral Santo Domingo.

According to the Wikipedia, it took 200 years to build, starting in the mid 1500’s. It also now contains a great cultural museum. Though it is a huge tourist draw, the Church itself is not a museum, and is still used for worship.

We even saw a huge traditional wedding in it. We are assuming they were from a very elite Oaxaca family, as it seems like it would be very cost-prohibitive to rent this huge, colonial Cathedral for the average Joe.

The main Catedral de Oaxaca lies at the base of the Zocalo (every town has a Zocalo, which is the town square and center of social and cultural activity). It is pretty cool, only built in the early 1700’s as the first couple churches were destroyed in earthquakes.

Typical night on the Zocolo

We saw several other Cathedrals, most stumbled upon while strolling the streets. As a recovering Catholic, I was afraid I would be struck down by lightning, so did not linger.

Oaxaca has a lot of great regional food, but also has a lot of creative and international options. Funny enough, like the rest of us in our own home towns, locals like to venture out to try other cuisines too, LOL. It’s ok. Don’t feel bad if you eat a little pizza and have a glass of wine while visiting international cities like Oaxaca. Really, there are only so many tacos and quesadillas one can eat in three weeks!




By the way, did I mention how safe I felt in the city? Keep in mind ladies, wherever you are in the world especially Mexico, always dress conservatively. I.E., it’s best to wear pants or long skirt and avoid tank tops. Shorts are for the beach. Also, swallow your feminist pride, and pretend your boyfriend is your husband, try not to venture out in the evening without him or your best friend, and always smile and be polite (except when saying a strong “no” to unwelcome men trying to lick your hand), and you will largely avoid unwanted advances and Machismo, or angry looks from the grandmothers. Keep in mind, men, that no matter how tough you think you are, there are certain bars you just do not go into. They are easy to tell because on Sunday mornings, they are crowded with loud drunk men, and you cannot see into them. By following these little rules, Grant and I have largely avoided trouble in conservative Latin American countries.

This is just an introduction. I will talk about the crafts and coast of Oaxaca in the next post, and also offer up a tid-bit of the relaxing drinking part of our vacation on the Carribbean coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo(probably the best name for a state ever).



  1. Haven't been to Oaxaca in 20 years. Last time I went there I took a train from D.F. and it was pretty f***ing fun.

    I met a family on the train that invited me to their house in Zaachila. I helped them paint their church in anticipation of their Patron Saints day.

    Then I drank some lemonade they gave me and was deathly ill for about 5 days. I still had a blast.

    I think in the day a hotel room was about $5 bucks, but I was still too cheap to stay in them. I just had people trade me around to other families.

    Oh, about the $5 bucks, that's when I made about $4 an hour. Long time ago.

    Did anyone get "food poisoning" in Oaxaca?

  2. Hey Chunk. Sorry to wait so long to respond. Grant and I didn't get "food poisoning" in Oaxaca, but there was a lot of it going around in Tulum. Just ask A. Your story is really cool. I hear that you can drink in the cantinas we can't...? The kind you can't see into and are open on Sunday mornings? Cheers!


Keep it clean. Don't be mean.