My first day in Oaxaca and I couldn’t believe how many people there were. I walked from my hostel up to the famous Zocalo Square, but everyone else was coming the other way.
In my self obsessed quest to get my rucksack back I’d forgotten that there were protests in every city about the 43 students who’d gone missing. It seemed that the whole city had turned out in support in Oaxaca and I was arriving just as they finished.
People were riled up. There were huge speakers set up outside the Santa Dominigo Church and the usual remnants of a crowd of people were all over the floor: bottles, paper, cigarettes and food wrappers. This was a unique introduction to Oaxaca City – I could sense there was a different atmosphere to the usual and it made me uneasy.
I sat down outside the church to take it all in. There was a group still going with the preaching – with my non-existent Spanish I couldn’t what tell about but there were a lot of cheers from the gathered crowds. Others were sat around in groups among the rubbish, people of all ages. The juice stall was popular – selling every type you could imagine including the local speciality ‘tuna’. Thankfully not the fish but a delicious blend of prickly pear sorbet I came to find out later. Police were trying to clear the area and direct the traffic out. The portaloos told me this was an organised protest. The last few weeks had been a tumultuous time for Mexico, I knew that, but from what I could see I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy this new city I was in.
The usual Oaxaca
I left for the back streets, to get away from the crowds. Just one block away from the Santa Dominigo I found a colourful, peaceful street filled with cool yet traditional coffee shops, art galleries and handicrafts on sale.
This was the Oaxaca I thought I’d bought a ticket to.
Go in a seemingly small shop front in Oaxaca and it can be like a Dr Who tardis. The shops are huge and filled with every kind of nik nak. I couldn’t help thinking that they should really diversify to stay alive though. Surely there are only so many skull heads, saddles and cuddly toys the average Oaxacan can fit in their home?
I learnt as the week went on that the people in Oaxaca are friendly and kind. So much so that they’re passionate about their fellow citizens and will actively participate in protests to protect their fellow man.
The city is an artistic place full or creativity and cool spaces to explore and inspire the imagination. From the street art to the public dance classes to the galleries it was obvious to see that Oaxaca is a place of expression.
The cobbled streets against the colourful houses made for a great photo. Trumping motorbikes whizz by, along with the yellow taxis, while the make do and mend old VW Beetles line the pavements. Who knows if they actually work, but at least they look good. As I walked the streets I couldn’t help but take a crafty peek inside the open grated windows to see what the homes are like. By Western standards the answer would be ‘simple’, they have all they need without a sign of opulence. Some of the houses were centred around a courtyard, often open to a beautiful fountain or tree in the centre.
Food in Oaxaca
The markets in Oaxaca are incredible. Buzzing places full of Mexican goodies: the main ones being chocalado and mole. Oaxacans have 7 varieties of the delicious mole (mo-lay) sauce, so the endless signs proudly tell me. I tried the chocolado with the pan de muertos dipped in and to be honest, I wasn’t taken with it. Call me a philistine but I prefer my chocolate in Cadbury’s Dairy Milk form. Still drank it though, of course.
After almost three weeks of eating tacos every second day I was on the search for something different. Enter tostas. Basically a Mexican style sandwich, but in Oaxaca it was served with the delicious mole sauce. The tosta stall I found in the 20 Novembre Market served what can only be described as taste sensations. Unfortuntely there is no way that I could describe where it was in among the labyrinthine of stalls.
I went for a tosta with chorizo and my new best friend slathered on the mole. With the addition of a few extra jalepenos, I savoured every mouthful and joined the gathered locals at the tosta bar transfixed by the Mexican soap opera playing out on screen. I went straight back there the next day – lunch for 15 pesos (60p). Well, I actually tried to order another one straight after, but she misunderstood and gave me my bill. I didn’t want to look like too much of a fatty so paid up.
The Oaxaca Meat Market is another must eat while you’re in the city. But more on that later.
As well as the mole Oaxacans are very proud of their unique cuisine in general. Walking around the Zocolo I didn’t even know what I was looking at – a fried banana? Fried crickets? Crisps with lime and hot sauce (amazing)?
Food in Oaxaca is a whole different ball game.
Things to Do in Oaxaca
Looking around online to find things to do in Oaxaca City everything kept telling me to get out, to see Mount Alban and the Hierve el Agua Waterfalls, so I did. Both far surpassed what I thought they’d be, and I back up all the ‘must do’ lists they appear on.
Check out the photos of Monte Alban below and you’ll see why I loved it there so much. I was actually wowed by the Monte Alban ruins – the place was huge!
It’s estimated work started on creating Monte Alban in around 500BC. It was once the capital city of Zapotec civilisation, but for some reason in and around 800AD everyone left. Historians and archaeology aficionados have never been able to work out why. At its peak, it had a population of around 40,000 inhabitants.
The site is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and people like me pay 51 pesos (£2.33) go and have a butchers at what’s going on on that hill. The views out to Oaxaca are pretty impressive too.
How to get to Monte Alban from Oaxaca City
The best and cheapest way to get there – and I did a lot of research – is to just go to Hotel Rivera del Angel in Oaxaca City and pay 60 pesos (£2.75) for the round trip. They give you three hours there, which is plenty for a look around with a guide (if you like, I didn’t) and have a coffee in the cafe (did that).
As for the main centro I walked up to the Auditorio to see the panoramic vista of the city and beyond to the mountains. It was beautiful up there and only a ten-minute walk from the Santa Dominigo.
I’m not an art or museum kind of person but Mexican art is different. The Museum of Oaxacan Cultures had some amazing pieces. Admittedly I shuffled around it in about 30 minutes, while others had spent the whole day there, but I was still impressed by what I saw. The Museo de la Filatelia (Stamp Museum) is also definitely worth an hour of your time. It’s one of the best set out museums I’ve ever seen, and the outdoor space is stunning. Enjoy a coffee and you can imagine what life would be like if your face was on a stamp.
I got a map of Oaxaca and made sure I walked every street possible – the city isn’t that big and thanks to the food (see above) I needed the exercise. On day 2 I made a point of visiting as many of the 23 churches as possible, just to encourage me to see as much of the city as I could.
Take a book and go and chill out at the Llano Park: the beautiful fountains and people watching is sure to catch your eye. Enjoy a stroll through the colourful Xochimilcho area or take a bus out to the Xoxocotlan Cemetery. An interesting place whether it’s Day of the Dead Festival or not.
Visit the Zocalo at all times of the day and there’s guaranteed to be something fun going on. From music to comedy to poetry and a book fair I saw it all in my time there. Women line the streets trying to sell empanadas, handbags or bread buns with images of people stuck in them. Groups of men will get together and start up playing instruments to entertain the crowds.
Oaxaca is exactly the kind of place to enjoy strolling the streets without an agenda and just enjoying what you find. The city is easily laid out in blocks but if you get lost just head to the Zocalo to find your bearings again.
Surrounded by the Sierra Mountains Oaxaca City is warm during the day – the perfect temperature for sightseeing in fact – but got a lot colder at night. I needed a hoody, a scarf and my trainers when I was there in October.
Where to stay in Oaxaca
I stayed at the Azul Cielo Hostel for the first four nights and the Casa Angel Youth Hostel for the next week. Then, because of the Day of the Dead Festival bookings I had to move to the Don Miguel Hostel. Casa Angel was by far the best of the bunch. There was a social space where I met loads of people, it was in a central yet quiet location and the roof terrace looked out onto Oaxaca. The breakfast was amazing too: fresh eggs cooked how you like!
Azul Cielo was a lot quieter and not really a place to be social, while the Don Miguel Hostel didn’t seem like it had any sort of cleaner, didn’t have Wi-Fi or plug sockets in the room and was right next to the noisy Zocalo.
I heart Oaxaca
I had a brilliant time in Oaxaca that I’ll never forget. The city is just my kind of place – bit of history, still moving forward, crafty, coffee shops, beautiful parks, fun people, lots to do – and I plan to return to write a book one day. My time at Day of the Dead Festival in Oaxaca was one of the best and the other travellers I met in Oaxaca just made the trip incredible.
Go and see for yourself!
Amazing day trip from Oaxaca: Hierve el Agua Waterfalls
I felt like I’d just stepped into one of those Buzzfeed ‘Places to See Before You Die’ kind of articles. Hierve el Agua (Spanish for “the water boils”) is a set of natural rock formations in Oaxaca that have formed these incredible springs.
It’s the Hierve el Agua Waterfalls that are advertised throughout Oaxaca City, but it’s the natural springs that I couldn’t get my camera away from. Just look at them!
This was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. The mineral-rich water was invigorating after the hike down and the mountain side pool was like the ultimate infinity pool, while the other one was a bit warmer for lounging around in. As we looked out over the miles of views to the other mountains we wondered if there were some little people over there, swimming around in a mineral pool and waving at us too.
And here’s the Hierve el Agua Waterfall, it looks like it’s frozen but it’s the salty crystals forming in the flow that makes it look still to the untrained eye. The falls have formed over thousands of years and the water is full of minerals – causing the white residue.
You can get to the Hierve el Agua area using three buses from Oaxaca City yourself, or join a tour like I did. I booked through the hostel I was staying at Casa de Angel and it was only 200 pesos (£9.17) and included a trip to a Mezcal distillery, a carpet shop (of course!) and the Mitla Ruins too. Some friends made their way up there on the public buses and it was 80 pesos cheaper and you could go and leave when you wanted. Depends whether your ideal day includes more sites or more freedom, up to you!