What to see in Oaxaca in two days
The city of Oaxaca, or Oaxaca de Juarez, is located in southwest Mexico, about a six-hour drive from Mexico City. It has become one of Mexico’s most popular tourist attractions in recent years. Initially named Antequera, Oaxaca was founded in 1529 in a small valley occupied by Zapotec Indians. The historic centre of Oaxaca, along with the nearby archaeological site of Monte Alban, was inscribed on the UNESCO Heritage list in 1987. Oaxaca is a stunning example of 16th-century colonial architecture. The city is also well known for its food, artisan shops, and mezcal. So check out my selection of the top sights to visit in Oaxaca and its surroundings in two days. Let’s start with the main square.
Zocalo, the main square
Oaxaca’s main square, colloquially called the Zocalo, is a lovely place where locals meet, move through on their way to the market, and look for fine dining. Some of the most emblematic buildings, such as Oaxaca Cathedral and the State Government Palace, are located there. Closed to traffic, the square is ideal for strolling around or sitting in cafes watching the world go by.
Practical tip: I recommend visiting the Zocalo in the evening as musical performances take place every evening at the central bandstand.
Oaxaca Cathedral was consecrated in 1733. It is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Antequera, covering the state of Oaxaca. Its facade is of green cantera stone commonly found in Oaxaca’s buildings, and the interior is in neoclassical style. It has been reconstructed several times after earthquake damage. Its large 18th-century organ has been restored, and the cathedral is one of the main venues for the annual organ festival.
Santo Domingo Church and Cultural Centre in Oaxaca
Santo Domingo Church was established by the Dominicans in the 17th century and was completed in 1731. From the early 19th century, the church convent was used as military barracks. Only in 1994 the military finally vacated the building entirely. After that, a major restoration project took place for the next few years returning Santo Domingo to its earlier splendour. The church has a Latin cross floor plan and ten chapels inside. The interior of the church features 17th-century baroque decoration with intricate gilded wood and plasterwork. The nave roof is barrel-vaulted with arches decorated with circles, ovals, medallions of biblical characters, gold-plated reliefs, blacksmithing, and other stunning decorations. Even visitors who do not appreciate churches should visit this one to get a sense of the grandeur of the construction. Since 1972, this beautiful convent has served as the seat of the regional state museum. The Museum of the Cultures of Oaxaca offers a walk through the history of Oaxaca from pre-Hispanic times through the colonial period and independence. The most impressive exhibit is the Treasure of Tomb 7 from Monte Alban in one of the rooms. Also, visit the Francisco de Burgoa Library containing over 30,000 volumes published between 1484 and 1940.
Initiated by Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo, the Ethnobotanical Garden is a project that focuses not just on the plants but also their cultural significance. It is located behind the church and the former convent in the space once occupied by the former convent orchard and garden. The plants come from arid and humid climates, the lowland tropics, and temperate and cold mountainous areas. The garden thus represents the great diversity of types of vegetation that characterise Oaxaca. Unfortunately, the garden was closed during my visit, so it is something to see on my future trips.
Practical tip: Due to the fragility of the garden ecosystem, you are only allowed to enter under a guided tour. English tours take place from Monday to Saturday at 11 a.m. and last two hours.
Because of its wealth of historic colonial architecture, Oaxaca’s city centre is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Beautiful and treasured old buildings line the streets of historic Oaxaca. The city centre presents many photo opportunities thanks to the beautiful architecture, colourful homes, artisan shops, and lively people, so take your camera with you!
Notice street artworks when walking around the city centre. Unlike in other cities where street art is recognised as a form of public art, in Oaxaca, after suppressed protests in 2006, it became a way of achieving social justice through community organisation. These particular artworks are often made by women. If you have time, take a street art tour to see some more fantastic examples.
The state of Oaxaca is famous for its artisans and handicraft, including pottery, woodcarving, weaving, basketry, candle making, and embroidery. Collectors from all over the world come to Oaxaca to purchase the folk art created by skilled Oaxacan artisans. So take your chance to visit some of the many artisan shops in Oaxaca, or better yet, go and see the artists in their workshops in nearby villages. If wood carvings are your thing, San Martin Tilcajete will be your favourite place. The town has become famous for its colourful animal figures known as alebrijes. Teotitlan and surrounding communities are the best choices where to find weaving workshops.
Practical tip: If you want to visit the artisan workshops, ask for guided tour options at your hotel.
Mezcal in Oaxaca
Mezcal is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from agave. It has been around for more than 400 years and is the first known distilled spirit in Latin America and the Americas. The word mezcal comes from the Aztec word mexcalli, meaning oven-cooked agave. Technically tequila is a kind of mezcal. The difference between the two is that mezcal is cooked in an underground oven while tequila is boiled. Oaxaca accounts for over 70% of total mezcal production in Mexico, so take an opportunity to learn about mezcal production and taste it while visiting Oaxaca. I visited Mezcal Don Agave and can recommend it to you as well.
Mezcal Don Agave factory
Mezcal Don Agave was born in 1987 when the Balderas Carbonell family, originally from the city of Oaxaca, decided to establish a company to preserve the traditional production of mezcal. The company uses different types of agaves to produce a wide range of mezcals, including joven (unaged), joven con gusano (unaged with worm), reposado (slightly aged), and añejo (aged).
Practical tip: Don Agave is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; visit the factory to enjoy mezcal tasting, a meal in the restaurant, maguey planting, and horseback riding. Address: C. Macedonio Alcalá 405, RUTA INDEPENDENCIA, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca de Juáre.
Your trip to Oaxaca is incomplete without a tour of Monte Alban.
Monte Alban is located about 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) from downtown Oaxaca. It is the most famous of all Oaxaca ruins, and for a good reason. It was the ancient capital of the Zapotec civilisation, with impressive monumental architecture. This was one of the first urban centres in Mesoamerica, built on a mountaintop 500 metres (1,640 feet) above the Oaxaca Valley, offering beautiful views of the valley below. Inhabited over a period of 1,500 years by Olmecs, Zapotecs, and Mixtecs – the terraces, dams, canals, pyramids, and artificial mounds of Monte Alban were literally carved out of the mountain and are the symbols of a sacred topography.
Practical tip: Buses frequently travel to Monte Alban from the local bus station, but to get the most from your visit, go on a guided tour.
Where to stay in Oaxaca?
Hotel Oaxaca Real
This 3.5* star hotel sits in the heart of the historic city centre, just a 5-minute walk from both Santo Domingo Church and the Zocalo. Hotel Oaxaca Real features a restaurant, a rooftop terrace, a bar, and an outdoor pool. The colonial style of the venue is amplified by its traditional decoration that creates a truly welcoming atmosphere. I really enjoyed the mouth-watering breakfast at the hotel.
Practical tip: Many rooms face a dark courtyard, so if you want to stay in a room with a view, ask for it.
How to plan your visit?
My advice is to devote one day to exploring Oaxaca and another day to visiting Monte Alban, the artisan workshops, and the Mezcal Don Agave factory.
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