PHOTOS BY: Mexico Tourism Board
Tucked into the soaring mountains of Mexico’s far south, Oaxaca (pronounced “wa-ha-ka”) is home to some of the country’s most authentic indigenous cultures, its best food, and (many) of its most famous ancient
sites. Historically, the state’s ruggedness made it inaccessible – a fact that’s helped Oaxaca retain its indigenous roots better today than anywhere else in the country. And now with the ascendance of its native tipple, mezcal, Oaxaca’s gone from being one of Mexico’s best-kept secrets, to a global name. At nearly the size of South Korea, the state of Oaxaca is a diverse destination. Much of Oaxaca sits at over 2,000m in altitude, giving it relatively cooler temperatures and heavy rains each summer; while its landscape is arid, it’s also starkly beautiful, ranging from forested mountains, to grassy plains and rugged desert.
The Central Valleys
Oaxaca’s main tourist trail runs through its famous Central Valleys: the Etla, Tlacolula and Zimatlán, the traditional homeland of Oaxaca’s ancient indigenous peoples for millennia. Together they form a vast, Y-shaped lowland, where the rugged mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental and Sierra Madre Del Sur meet, converging on the city of Oaxaca de
Juárez (aka Oaxaca City).
The Central Valleys are dotted with ancient sites and architecture, some dating back more than 10,000 years, making Oaxaca home to more historically significant sites than any other place in Mexico. These range from its earliest Mesoamerican inhabitants at ancient Monte Albán and the religious ruins of Mitla, to the colonial-era heart of Oaxaca City.
Oaxaca’s capital was founded on the site of earlier indigenous settlements by the invading Spaniards in 1532, and the centuries of relative obscurity that followed left its historic architecture practically untouched, leading to its UNESCO listing in 1987 alongside nearby Monte Albán. With around 500,000 inhabitants, it’s large enough to have everything, while its colonial Centro Histórico is still small enough to be walkable. The city’s centred on the pedestrian-only zocalo, Oaxaca’s airy central plaza, which is ringed with cafes and surrounded by historic buildings including the Governor’s Palace and the French-modernist masterpiece, the Teatro Macedonio Alcalá.
From there, Oaxaca’s historic centre radiates out along dozens of nearby streets, lined with colonial-era buildings, cafes and churches, the two most famous of which are the city’s cathedral and the Iglesia de Santo Domingo.
Located just west of Oaxaca City, the ancient site of Monte Albán dates back
nearly 2,500 years and was the historic heart of Oaxaca’s indigenous Zapatec culture for over a millennia before being abandoned in the 8th century. The hilltop site sits 400m above the valley below, and can be seen for miles around. Once home to 25,000 inhabitants, today visitors can wander its vast Gran Plaza, which is ringed with structures including the imposing Pirámide temple, various residential buildings, nearly 170 tombs
and a juego de pelota – the quintessential Mesoamerican ball court.
The UNESCO-listed ruins of Mitla are located 45km south of Oaxaca City, at
the head of the Tlacolula Valley. While the more famous site of Monte Albán was the undisputed political heart of the ancient Zapotec world, it was Mitla that was its most important religious site. The site sits within the modern town of San Pablo Villa de Mitla, which the Spaniards built after conquering the area, making ruins of much of the once-grand Mitla in the process, as they harvested the “pagan” site’s carved rocks and stone bricks to
build with. Mitla is Oaxaca’s second-most famous ancient site (after Monte Albán), and includes underground tombs, the imposing
Salon of Columns and El Palacio, the site’s historic temple, with its incredibly intricate, inlaid geometric stonework, along with the ruins of numerous other tombs, forts, and buildings.
Mitla is part of a joint UNESCO site with the nearby ruins of Yagul, an ancient Zapotec settlement that rose to prominence in the 8th century after the decline of Monte Albán. Today the site includes dozens of tombs, the extensive walls and rooms of El Palacio de los Seis Patios, and a fortress towering above the site. Yagul is also home to the impressive Juego de Pelota (the city’s large ball court) and second only in size in the Americas to the Gran Juego de Pelota ball court in famous Chichen Itza. Yagul is located roughly 35km from Oaxaca along the Mitla-Oaxaca road.
Oaxaca’s most famous drink is mezcal, related to, but not to be confused with tequila. It’s made by distilling mashed liquid from the heart of the agave plant, which is traditionally cooked in a fire pit, imparting
its famously smoky flavour. Unlike mass-produced tequila, mezcal is entirely small-batch, with many farmers also producing pulque, an agave-based beer. The state is dotted with hundreds of palenques, small distilleries where mezcal is still hand-made. And while there’s no one official “Mezcal Trail”, there are dozens of palenques within an hour of Oaxaca City, making it easy to visit distilleries like famous local outfit El Silencio, or via operators like Mezcal Educational Tours.
Long cut-off from the rest of Mexico by its rugged mountains, Oaxaca boasts the most diverse cuisine in the country. Famous dishes include fried chapulines (grasshoppers) and mole negro, the most popular of Oaxaca’s 7 famous moles – the ubiquitous name for a wide variety of
sauces. Another famous food is Oaxaca cheese. Made by stretching and rolling it as it solidifies, it’s similar to Italian mozzarella, and used in typical Oaxacan dishes such as the tlayuda, a cheese-covered tortilla.
While Oaxaca’s always been known for its mezcal, the state is also one of Mexico’s biggest coffee producers, with the capital having seen an upsurge in local cafe culture, including Café del Jardin overlooking the zocalo, Café Nuevo Mundo near the charming Plaza Alcalá, or local favourite, Cofetarika along Calle Macedonia.
Oaxaca is home to some of Mexico’s best-preserved indigenous cultures, with over 50% of the population still speaking indigenous languages. These include 16-18 recognised communities, such as the Mixtecs and Zapotecs. Together these modern communities formed an ancient, unbroken chain of advanced indigenous societies, with written languages and sophisticated farming techniques that stretched across pre-colonial Mesoamerica. Today they remain concentrated in their cultural heartland in Oaxaca’s Central Valley, where their archeological and cultural legacy lives on at sites
like Monte Albán and Mitla.
You can fly to Oaxaca’s Xoxocotlán International Airport from Mexico City, the closest international airport. For more on Oaxaca and its various trails,
check out www.visitmexico.com.