Slip Away




About Us


Boat Refitting


Contact Us


Logbook:  Oaxaca City, March 22-26, 2006

Click here for photos.

Several Mexicans and cruising friends recommended that we visit Oaxaca City.  Oaxaca City is the beautiful, colonial capital of the State of Oaxaca.  It lies at the meeting point of three valleys, which are full of thriving village markets and spectacular ruins of pre-Hispanic towns. 

Oaxaca City's present population is about 260,000.  It's elevation is 1550 meters (just over 5000 feet), so the climate is cooler than the coast.  The city was established by the Spanish in 1529, grew and became quite prosperous in the 1700's, but suffered major setbacks from earthquakes in 1854 and 1931, both of which destroyed much of the city.  Today, Oaxaca's primary industry is tourism.  The surrounding areas also grow coffee beans and cacao beans (for chocolate), and they have a weaving industry (rugs, blankets, etc.) that dates back hundreds of years.  The city has some first-class museums and galleries, a number of beautiful old churches, and the best handicrafts shopping in all of Mexico.  Its narrow, streets are lined with lovely stone buildings, and life here (as in many Mexican cities) centers around its Zócalo, or town square. 

The architecture and atmosphere of Oaxaca reminded Jan of New Orleans, and Rich was reminded of Italy (where he lived for a couple of years while in the Navy in the late 1960's).

Benito Juarez, Mexico's president in the 1860's, was a Zapotec Indian born near Oaxaca.  We were aware that his birthday (a national holiday) was celebrated a few days before we went to Oaxaca; however, we were not aware that this was his 200th birthday.  Oaxaca had organized special celebrations during the entire month of March to honor this local hero's landmark year. 

We traveled by bus to Oaxaca City from Huatulco with our cruising friends Bill and Linda (s.v. Creola).  The bus was "primera class" (first class), very comfortable, and it took 8 hours, leaving in the morning and arriving at dinner time.  When we arrived, we found a hotel room, went out for dinner, and then hit the sack.

Day 1 - Walking TourFor our first day in Oaxaca, Jan suggested a walking tour that was outlined in her "Moon Handbook" travel guide.  We thought this would be a good way to orient ourselves to the city.  Sights along the walking tour included:

  • Oaxaca's cathedral, which was begun in 1553 and finished (after several earthquakes) in the 18th century. 
  • Zócalo, or town square, which is shaded by tall trees and surrounded by numerous cafes and restaurants. 
  • Palacio de Gobierno (State Government Palace), with a stairway mural depicting famous Oaxacans and Oaxacan history. 
  • Mercado Juarez, a traditional Mexican market with stalls selling food, clothing, flowers and handicrafts.
  • Mercado 20 de Noviembre (20th of November), another market with a number of lunch counters ("fondas") , lots of fresh baked breads, and other goods.  Just outside this market were a number of chocolate shops. 
  • Teatro Macedonio Alcalá, a French-style theater built in 1903.
  • Calle Alcalá, a pedestrian street with restored colonial-era stone buildings and several shops and restaurants. 
  • Hotel Camino Real, a former 16th-century convent which is now a luxury hotel.  (Room rates run $300-500 US per night.) 

All this wandering around took several hours and made us thirsty.  One of the restaurants we passed along Calle Alcalá was advertising a 2 for 1 happy hour, so we decided to check it out.  The Passion Bar inside the Mayor Domo Restaurant had a very pleasant atmosphere, and we became quick friends with our waiter Rene.  The beer was cold, and their happy hour included great "snacks" - peanuts, cheese and cold cuts and other Mexican fare.  We really didn't need much dinner after leaving there! 

From the Passion Bar, we headed to the Zócalo and arrived in time to hear a few numbers played by a small symphony.  We enjoyed a light dinner at one of the restaurants along the Zócalo, but the music went away when rain arrived. 

Day 2 - More Walking, Santo Domingo Church and Museum of Oaxacan Cultures.   Bill and Linda signed up for a cooking class, and they spent the morning of our second day learning how to make mole, a traditional Oaxacan sauce.  While they were cooking, we did some more wandering around the city.  On the northwest edge of the downtown area, we found the Escaleras del Fortin (Staircase of the Fort), and climbed it to an outdoor amphitheater, planetarium and observatory, which were situated on top of a hill with good views of the city.  After our walk, we did a little shopping and enjoyed a coffee at a cafe along the Zócalo.  Just as we sat down to enjoy some "people-watching" time, a water truck parked right in front of us and blocked our view.  It spent the next 30 minutes filling the water tanks of the adjacent restaurants.  Oh well! 

That afternoon, the four of us visited Iglesia Santo Domingo and Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca.  According to our "Lonely Planet" guidebook, Santo Domingo is the "most splendid" of Oaxaca's churches.  It was built mainly between 1570 and 1608 and has  a lavish interior, reminiscent of European churches.  Monastery buildings adjoining Santo Domingo Church house the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures, which takes you through the history and cultures of Oaxaca State from pre-Hispanic times (Zapotec and Mixtec Indians) up to the present day.  One of the displays, Mixtec treasures from a tomb at Monte Albán, dates back to the 14th century.   

After our visit to the church and museum, we headed back to the Mayor Domo Restaurant and Passion Bar to visit our friend Rene.  Unfortunately, we were too late for their 2 for 1 Happy Hour, but we enjoyed their steak dinner special - $8 US for a steak dinner, including either a glass of wine or a beer - delicious and quite a bargain!

Day 3 - Monte Albán.  Monte Albán is one of the most impressive Indian ruin sites in Mexico, and it is located just a few miles outside Oaxaca City.  The site was first occupied around 500 B.C. by the Zapotecs.  The city was at it's peak from about AD 300 to 700, when the main and surrounding hills were terraced for dwellings, and the population reached about 25,000.  Between about AD 700 and 950, the place was abandoned and fell into ruin.  AD 950-1521, Mixtecs arrived and reused old tombs here to bury their own dignitaries.

At Monte Albán, we hired a guide, Jorge, who gave an excellent tour and commentary.  We spent about an hour with Jorge, climbed some of the pyramids and visited a museum on the site.  As the afternoon passed, we saw dark rain clouds headed our way.  The rain arrived about 15 minutes before our return bus to Oaxaca.  The bus waiting area offered no shelter from the rain, and of course, the bus was a few minutes late, so we were pretty cold and wet by the time we got back to the city.  None of us expected rain on this trip, so we were not prepared at all.

When we got back to the city, we changed into dry clothes and headed for an early dinner at the Zócalo.  It was Saturday, so we figured there would be some good entertainment.  When we arrived, we found a stage setup and bunches of little kids (maybe 5-8 years old) dressed up in all kinds of outfits - bumblebees, flowers, soldiers - and putting on a show.  They were as cute as can be.  We had no idea what the show was about, but we assumed it had something to do with the Benito Juarez celebrations. 

After dinner, we visited the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca (Contemporary Art Museum), which was showing a display of modern art sculptures relating to immigration of Mexicans to the U.S. 

Day 4 - Tour of Surrounding Valleys.  This was our last day in Oaxaca, and we'd heard there was lots to see in the outlying valleys.  We decided the easiest way to see a number of sights was on an organized tour.  We managed to book on to a small tour of only 6-8 people.  Rosario was our tour guide for the day, and he did a great job of showing us around.  We visited:

  • El Tule - a small village with a big tree.  El Árbol del Tule (the tree of El Tule) is claimed to be the biggest single tree in the world.  The tree is a type of cypress, and it measures 190 feet (58m) around and 140 feet (42m) high.  They estimate its age to be 2000 to 3000 years. 
  • Teotitlán - a famous weaving village, whose weaving tradition goes back to pre-Hispanic times.  Here, they weave high-quality blankets, rugs, sarapes and other items, and they use natural dyes made from cochineal (a red dye made from tiny insects living on the prickly pear cactus), indigo and moss.  We saw some weaving demonstrations, and although we looked longingly at the beautiful rugs, we settled on a pillow case (less expensive and takes up less room on the boat). 
  • Mitla - Zapotec and Mixtec Indian ruins that date almost entirely from the last two or three centuries before the Spanish conquest.  The stone mosaics at this site are unique.  Also, the Spanish built a church on top of the ruins here. 
  • Mezcal Distillery  - The State of Oaxaca is known for its mezcal production.  Mezcal is a "cousin" of tequila; both are made from the maguey (agave) plant, but tequila is distilled with a gas fire and mezcal is distilled by a wood fire, hence its smoky taste.  We saw a distillery in production and sampled various ages and flavors, including some crema (cream) varieties with fruit and other flavors.  We had lunch at the distillery's restaurant, and sampled "chapulines" (grasshoppers), which is a popular local dish.  We shared an appetizer between the four of us.  (I don't think any of us feel a need to try them again.)
  • Yagul - Indian ruins which were occupied between the eras of Monte Alban and Mitla.  Yagul is a smaller and more tranquil site (no vendors selling "trinkets and trash"), and we climbed to the Fortress, which is a huge rock that towers above the ruins. 
  • Tlacolula - This town holds one of the Valleys' major markets every Sunday.  Food, clothing, and everyday goods were for sale here.  The market was huge (spread out through a number of the town's streets), and there was lots of activity even though we arrived late in the day and winds were whipping up and letting us know rain was again on its way. 

This tour day was a long one, but we saw a lot and really enjoyed it.  When we got back to Oaxaca City, we visited the Zócalo one last time, enjoyed a coffee and people-watched, went out for dinner and then caught an overnight bus back to Huatulco.

We packed a lot into the four days we visited Oaxaca, but there was a lot to see and do.  We thoroughly enjoyed this trip.  Oaxaca is one of our favorite places that we've visited in Mexico.