Oaxaca City

Founded by the Spanish as Antequera in 1521 on the site of a Zapotec and Mixtec s
ettlement, Oaxaca gracefully combines its colonial and native roots. Fine stone buildings,
churches, arcades and airy patios attest to its importance during the colonial period, while its markets, crafts, dances and festive days stem from a more indigenous past. Relaxing with a coffee in one of the many street cafés and bars of Oaxaca, it's easy to while away the hours. Once you've explored the museums, cathedrals, markets and laid-back cobbled streets, you can sit down with a beer or mescal, the local firewater, to plan your days exploring the surrounding hills and valleys.

In the summer of 2006, Oaxaca City experienced the worst social unrest in its recent history as an innocuous protest over teachers' pay led to clashes resulting in deaths, violence and injuries. Today, Oaxaca is recovering from its brief foray into mayhem. The hardest hit were the poorest members of the community, whose fledgling businesses could not withstand several months without trade.

Tourist information

Sectur Tourist Office
, www.aoaxaca.com
. Useful publications include
Oaxaca Times
, www.oaxacatimes.com.


The Zócalo with its arcades is the heart of town, a nicely shaded park with new paving surrounding a central bandstand. It's a pleasant place for a stroll or to sit and watch the world from one of the many street cafés. The Zócalo is always buzzing, full of activity, the surrounding cafés and restaurants busy with both Mexicans and visitors. Free music and dance events are often held in the evenings. During the day vendors sell food; in the evening they offer tourist wares. It is especially colourful on Saturday and Sunday nights when indigenous women weave and sell their goods. The colourful markets and varied crafts of Oaxaca are among the main attractions of the region .

Avenida Independencia is the main street running east-west, the nicer part of the old city is to the north of it; a simpler area, housing the cheaper hotels, lies to the south. Independencia is also a dividing line for the north-south streets, which change names here. Calle Macedonia Alcalá is a cobbled pedestrian walkway, which joins the Zócalo with the church of Santo Domingo, and many colonial buildings can be seen along this mall. This street and Calle Bustamante, its continuation to the south, are the dividing line for east-west streets, which change names here.

Worth visiting is the
Palacio de Gobierno
, on the south side of the Zócalo; it has beautiful murals and entry is free. There are often political meetings or protests outside, communities sometimes remaining camped outside overnight. The
Teatro Macedonio Alcalá
, is an elegant theatre from Porfirio Díaz's times. It has a Louis XV-style entrance and a white marble staircase; regular performances are held here. The
Arcos de Xochimilco
on García Vigil, starting at Cosijopi, some eight blocks north of the Zócalo, is also worth a visit. In this picturesque area there are the remains of an aqueduct, cobbled passageways under the arches, flowers and shops. The house of the Maza family, for whom Benito Juárez worked and whose daughter he married, still stands at Independencia 1306 and is marked by a plaque. (A Zapotec, Benito Juárez was one of the great heroes of the nation, serving five terms as president of Mexico until his death in 1872.) Porfirio Díaz's birthplace is similarly remembered at the other end of Independencia, in a building that is now a kindergarten, near La Soledad. DH Lawrence wrote parts of
Mornings in Mexico
in Oaxaca, and revised
The Plumed Serpent
here; the house he rented is on Pino Suárez. The bar
El Favorito
, on 20 de Noviembre, a couple of blocks south of the Zócalo, supposedly inspired Malcolm Lowry's novel
Under the Volcano
, although others claim it was penned in and inspired by nearby
La Farola

There is a grand view from
Cerro de Fortín
, the hill to the northwest of the centre. Here you will find the Guelaguetza amphitheatre, and a monument to Juárez stands on a hillside below. Atop the hill are an observatory and
. Both were damaged during the social unrest of 2006 but the latter has since reopened to the public. It is a pleasant walk from town to the hill as far as the planetarium and antennas, but muggings have been reported on the trails that go through the woods, as well as on the dirt road that goes beyond. It's best to take a taxi.

Ciudad de las Canteras
, the quarries from where the stone for the city's monumental churches and public buildings were extracted, has been converted into a beautifully landscaped park. It is located on
Calzada Niños Héroes de Chapultepec,
at the east end of Calzada Eduardo Vasconcelos; several city bus lines run there. There is a small stadium here and it is the site of the
Expo Feria Oaxaca
, a fair with rides, craft exhibits, food and various live performances.


On the Zócalo is the 17th-century
with a fine baroque facade (watch the raising and lowering of the Mexican flag daily at 0800 and 1800 beside the cathedral), but the best sight by far, about four blocks from the square up the pedestrianized Calle Macedonio Alcalá, is the church of
Santo Domingo
, with its adjoining monastery, now the
Centro Cultural Santo Domingo
. The church is seen as one of the best examples of baroque style in Mexico. It first opened for worship in 1608 and was refurbished in the 1950s. Its gold leaf has to be seen to be believed. The ceilings and walls, sculptured and painted white and gold, are stunning.

The massive 17th-century
Basílica de La Soledad
(between Morelos and Independencia, west of Unión) has fine colonial ironwork and sculpture (including an exquisite Virgen de la Soledad). Its interior is predominantly fawn and gold; the plaques on the walls are painted like cross-sections of polished stone and the fine facade made up of stone of different colours. It is one of the best examples of carved stonework in the city. The church was built on the site of the hermitage to San Sebastián; begun in 1582, it was recommenced in 1682 because of earthquakes. It was consecrated in 1690 and the convent was finished in 1697. The
Museo Religioso de la Soledad
, at the back of the church, has a display of religious artefacts. In the small plaza outside the encircling wall, refreshments and offerings are sold. At
San Juan de Dios
, there is an indigenous version in paint of the conquistadors' arrival in Oaxaca and of an anti-Catholic uprising in 1700. This was the first church in Oaxaca, originally dedicated to Santa Catalina Mártir. The church of
San Agustín
, has a fine facade, with bas relief of St Augustine holding the City of God above adoring monks (apparently modelled on that of San Agustín in Mexico City, now the National Library).


There is a cultural complex that includes a museum, exhibit halls, botanical garden, library, newspaper archives and bookshop; concerts are also performed here. It is housed in the former convent of Santo Domingo (Macedonio Alcalá y Gurrión), next to the Santo Domingo church. Construction of the convent started in 1575 and it was occupied by the Dominican friars from 1608 to 1812. After the expulsion of the church the Mexican army moved in between 1812 and 1972; later it housed the regional museum. Between 1994 and 1998, the convent was very beautifully restored, using only original materials and techniques. The
Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca
, housed in the Centro Cultural Santo Domingo, and sometimes referred to as 'the Louvre of Oaxaca', is a superb museum that requires at least four hours to visit; exhibits are beautifully displayed and explained in Spanish (with plans to implement a system of recorded explanations in other languages). A visit here is highly recommended. Fourteen galleries cover the history of Oaxaca from pre-Hispanic times to the contemporary period; the archaeology collection includes spectacular riches found in Tomb 7 of Monte Albán. There are also exhibits of
different aspects of Oaxacan culture, such as crafts, cooking, traditional medicine etc, as well as temporary exhibits.

Also in the Centro Cultural is the interesting
Jardín Etnobotánico
. This garden aims to preserve different species of plants that are native
to southern Mexico. It has played, and continues to play, a role in the lives of different ethnic groups in Oaxaca. You can learn about the different species of
used to make
pulque and tequila; the trees used in crafts; the
grana cochinilla
, an insect that lives in certain
cacti and is used to dye cloth; the plants used in folk medicine; and many other species.

Museo de Arte Prehispánico Rufino Tamayo
has an outstanding display of pre-Columbian artefacts dating from 1250 BC to AD 1100, donated by the Oaxacan painter Rufino Tamayo in 1974. Information is in Spanish only and is not comprehensive. The
Museo Casa de Juárez
is the former home of Benito Juárez . It contains some of his possessions, historical documents and some bookbinding tools. The
Museo de Filatelia
, has temporary exhibits, a philatelic library and tours by appointment.

Oaxaca City is home to a flourishing arts scene, and there are dozens of galleries and workshops about town. The
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo
, hosts regional exhibits in a range of media, with a library and café, housed in a late-17th-century house. The
Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca
, is housed in a grand old 18th-century building. It has interesting exhibitions of national artists, a good reference library and beautiful courtyards.
Museo de los Pintores Oaxaqueños
, is a state-run gallery that features local artists, past and present.
Colectivo Plan B
, is a new gallery for avant-garde works and cutting-edge media, while
Arte Mexicano
, is a renowned workshop that specializes in high-quality prints and popular crafts.
Arte de Oaxaca
, was partly founded by Rudolfo Morales, a famous artist from Ocotlán. It has good exhibits of local talents.
Galería Quetzalli
, also features works by gifted locals, including Fransisco Toledo.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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