Cross Denver and Santa Fe, and you might get Oaxaca, the relatively unknown UNESCO World Heritage city. It’s a mile-high in the mountains of southwestern Mexico with artistic charm, galleries, and museums around every corner. Some cities have a unique hue. Salamanca, Spain, for example, is golden. Oaxaca’s hue is green. Not immediately apparent, once pointed out, though, Oaxaca’s green building stone is evident everywhere, from the ancient churches to the cobblestones in the street. The color comes from the volcanic rock mined in the vicinity which works particularly well in Oaxaca becaus it does not shrink and expand with Oaxaca’s rains.
During the summer season, it commonly showers for a while in the late afternoon which cools and cleanses the air with a refreshing natural air conditioning that lasts until the morning. Mornings are cool and delightful.
Start your visit to Oaxaca at the old convent built shortly after Columbus “discovered” America currently the Hotel Camino Real, reputedly the “best” hotel in Oaxaca, although great hotels dot the city everywhere. Most are delightfully decorated; air conditioning is the exception. If the hotel is inexpensive, chances are it does not have “aire.” There are many hostels. I stumbled upon the Casa Angel Hostel which offers a free walking tour of the city on certain days. The tours are open to the public and quite good.
From the Hotel Camino Real, you are within walking distance of three great churches, all worth a visit. The Cathedral, Santo Domingo Church (with attached art museum) and the Basilica of Nuestra Señora, also with attached museum (free). From Santo Domingo Church, walk north to an 18th-century aqueduct. Everywhere you go, there are surrounding art galleries, restaurants, and boutiques.
Close to the Cathedral is the city’s central plaza, the Zocalo. Anytime of day it is full of people. There are street vendors of all types. In the buildings surrounding the Zocalo restaurants range from Subway to expensive places. I recommend the second floor of a restaurant called 3 Bistros for its ambiance, low prices, great service and food.
For a full immersion experience, walk one block from the Zocalo to one of the city’s many markets, Mercado Juárez. This is an indoor covered market that sells mainly textiles, clothing, leather, souvenirs, and other hard goods, but also some food and fruits. On the streets surrounding the market are throngs of vendors, so many that one wonders how they can all make a living. You’ll get a chance to taste a local favorite, grasshoppers, sautéed in different flavorings; and samples of mezcal (cactus liquor), also in several flavors, are offered as well as different types of chocolates and moles, a local specialty. There are also many fresh juices. The guidebooks caution about drinking the local water. You would expect this to apply to juices mixed with water. But most locals know not to drink local water, so they only use bottled or boiled water in their drinks. I had no problems with fresh juices being contaminated with tap water.
Right next door to the Mercado Juárez is the 20 de Noviembre Market. This is mainly a food market, but there are also tons of restaurants where locals gather to have a meal, snack or drink. What you won’t find is supermarkets in the center of Oaxaca (although on the outskirts I noticed a Walmart). Most locals buy their food daily in one of these markets as refrigeration is often limited.
Top off a very busy day at the city’s “best” and very expensive restaurant, Casa Oaxaca, two blocks from the Hotel Oaxaca Real. Reservations are suggested, but Mexicans eat a lot later than we do. If you arrive at our dinner time, they’ll probably have plenty of room. Order the margarita drink made with mezcal, called the “mezcalrita.”
You can rely on Google maps in Oaxaca. Its directions never steered me wrong. Avoid visiting in July unless you are prepared for crowds. That is when the city goes crazy with one of Latin America’s largest festivals called the Guelaguetza.