The Allure of Oaxaca Mexico

Fall 2008 CSANews Issue 68  |  Posted date : Sep 19, 2008.Back to list

Oaxaca has two main advantages over other southern destinations for Canadian snowbirds.  First, you can explore one of the most culturally rich regions in Latin America and then, if the mood strikes, hop a plane and in 35 minutes be relaxing on a sandy beach sipping margaritas.  Second, there is enough of an expat presence in the city to enable a vacationer to spend part of the time with other anglophones if inclined, and the balance with native Mexicans.

Oaxaca (wah – HAW – kah) is one of Mexico's southernmost states.  Its capital, the city of Oaxaca, has a population upwards of 400,000, brimming with Old World charm.  A UNESCO world heritage site, the city and central valleys are filled with pre-Hispanic ruins, 16th-century churches, colourful market towns and craft villages, art galleries and museums, and renowned cuisine.  In 2006, Oaxaca was named one of the 10 most important travel destinations, worldwide. 

Begin a visit by spending the first couple of days downtown, wandering the zócalo (the city's central square), lined with outdoor cafés and balconied restaurants. There, you'll soak up the live music of mariachis, marimbas and Latin dance bands.  From the street vendors, you'll preview the array of local crafts which you'll have an opportunity to purchase in the villages.  Marvel at the exquisite colonial architecture, centuries-old artistic wrought ironwork, and green limestone block construction.

Be sure to walk up Garcia Vigil street to Los Arquitos, the 18th-century aqueduct where you'll encounter quaint restaurants, dwellings and a weekend organic market.  Down the street, drop by the home in which the first indigenous president of Mexico, Oaxaca's own Benito Juarez lived.  During his rule, Juarez succeeded in separating church and state, the ultimate marker being his declaration that all church marriages were invalid.

The cathedral at the north end of the zócalo, La Soledad a few blocks west, and Santa Domingo a short walk up the city's main pedestrian walkway, are the three must-see Dominican churches in their grandeur and refurbished glory.  The Santa Domingo Cultural Centre adjoining the church has impressive displays covering various historical periods, well laid out in several halls.  The ethno-botanical gardens behind the complex, showcasing cactus, succulents and trees all native to the region, offer an English tour three times weekly.  The Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre-Hispanic Art is the other major museum for both archaeology aficionados and those with an eye for early aesthetics. It represents the collection donated by Tamayo, a grand master of Mexican art and one of the state's native sons. 

Oaxaca boasts more than 50 galleries and artists' studios, representing the fruits of a rich, long-standing tradition.  One can easily spend an entire vacation exploring the artistic community.  Not a week seems to go by during which there is not a new opening, a benefit auction or an opportunity to stop and chat with an impressive young artist and perhaps, get invited to his workshop for a peek at his latest yet-unfinished works.  About a half-hour's drive outside of the city, you'll be awestruck by the San Agustín Centre for The Arts, with its rotating displays housed in a majestic 19th-century textile mill.  Then tour the nearby handmade-paper factory.  Both are located in a lush, panoramic rural setting, the brainchild of contemporary Oaxacan artist and philanthropist Francisco Toledo.

The state's 16 distinct ancestral cultures, maintained through innumerable colourful fiestas throughout the year, have contributed to a broad diversity of gastronomic traditions, highlighted by unique ingredient combinations and distinctly flavoured dishes.  The most well-known of the seven moles (rich and unusually flavoured sauces) is mole negro, which combines tomato, a variety of chilis and chocolate.  Other regional plates include a dozen varieties of both sweet and zesty tamales; the tlayuda (an oversized crispy tortilla topped with refried beans, lettuce, tomato, cheese and a selection of beef, pork or sausage); the parrillada (a medley of grilled cheeses, meats and vegetables brought to the table in a sizzling hibachi ); and barbacoa (goat or sheep cooked in an in-ground oven).  Then of course, there's Oaxaca's more exotic fare, seasoned fried grasshoppers, a typical snack, and gusano worm, used to make salsas and as a chaser for spirits.

With such culinary greatness, it's no surprise that a number of cooking schools have sprung up over the last couple of decades.  Novice cooks, seasoned chefs and restaurateurs from around the globe converge on the city to take classes.  Internationally acclaimed Oaxacan chef Pilar Cabrera believes that it's important for students to get into the local marketplace, where fresh ingredients are purchased, as part of the learning experience:  "I first take my class to the market, where Oaxacans have traditionally bought their ingredients, to teach about the characteristics and variety of foodstuffs, substitutes for produce hard to find back home, and simply as a part of a full immersion cultural experience."  Ms. Cabrera offers private, semi-private and group lessons, as well as full-week intensive courses.

For your initial visit to the city, try to incorporate a Sunday.  While most days of the week have rural town marketplaces, Sunday at Tlacolula is by far the best example of a bustling indigenous market with pageantry not to be missed.  En route, the 2,000-year-old cypress at Santa María el Tule, is worth a stop.  It's purportedly the world's largest tree.  Then enter the rug town of Teotitlán del Valle and visit the home and workshop of Porfirio Santiago. Porfirio, together with wife Gloria and family, explains the manufacturing process religiously followed in the village since 1535, starting with carding of raw wool, spinning, colouring using natural dyes from fruit, nuts, mosses, the añil plant (brilliant indigo) and the cochineal insect, and finally weaving intricate Zapotec designs on locally produced pine looms.

The Zapotecs have been one of the state's predominant cultures for more than 2,000 years and in many towns and villages remain a strong presence today, with native tongue still spoken.  One of the vestiges of Zapotec society is the ruin at Mitla, encountered along the same route.  Mitla is unique because of its multi-ton limestone lintels, its estimated 100,000 hand-carved stones used to form friezes in various geometric designs, the remains of pictographs which tell family genealogies, and its tombs.  Mitla is second only to the most-noted ruin in the state, Monte Albán, a 15-minute drive from Oaxaca.

On another day, head out from the city in a different direction, starting with a visit to the black pottery village of San Bartolo Coyotepec.  At the workshop of Doña Rosa, you'll have an opportunity to learn from her son Don Valente who has been making pottery, without a wheel and using only rudimentary tools produced in the village, for 70 years. Then at San Martín Tilcajete, you'll have an opportunity to see demonstrations of a pre-Hispanic woodcarving tradition.  The families in this village carve fanciful animals and paint them with the most vibrant of colours.  The workshop of Jacobo and María Ángeles is noteworthy for the quality of carving and use of natural paints made from tree bark and sap, pomegranate, honey, berries, leaves and other substances produced by mother earth.   

You can easily spend a full day down the road in Ocotlán.  Aside from its Friday market, visit the workshops of the Aguilar sisters who make painted clay figures depicting townspeople in their regional dress, market scenes, biblical stories and amusing sexual images.  Their cousin, Apolinar Aguilar, hand-forges knives and cutlery utilizing the 16th-century Toledo, Spain technique. He works with only recycled metals and other materials, using a stone-and-clay hearth.  His workshop was enlisted to make the swords used in the 1980s feature film Conan the Barbarian.  In the centre of town, you'll have an opportunity to learn about another late great master of Mexican art, Rodolfo Morales.  His works are on display in the town museum, and at his foundation located in his family's typical courtyard-style colonial home.  The most impressive example of his work is the large fresco mural which can be viewed in a government building at one end of the square. 

There are several more sights that you can visit along each of these, and other routes.  For example, consider the church and monastery at Cuilapam; the cotton textile village at Santo Tomás Jalieza, where women weave using a back-strap loom; a series of 16th-century churches found along what's known as the Dominican route; numerous other ruins representing the remains of diverse cultures spanning millennia; cave paintings; petrified waterfalls and bubbling natural springs in an exquisite mountain setting at Hierve el Agua; and mezcal factories at which you can witness the centuries-old method of producing the spirit.  The agave plant is baked in a pit and then pulverized using a mule dragging a limestone wheel over it, in preparation for fermentation.  A wood-burning still is utilized in the final phase of production.  Once you get out of the central valleys, up into the mountains and then down into the tropical regions leading to both the Pacific and Caribbean, the variety of native crafts and traditions, marvels of nature and other sights become endless.

While cultural attractions are clearly a major draw to the region, the state is not without sand and surf.  The Pacific beach resort towns of Huatulco and Puerto Escondido are a short flight or a very scenic drive from the state capital, enabling vacationers to split their holiday time between two distinctly different experiences.

After an initial tour of the capital, consider more extended visits as part of a retirement plan. Contact with other Canadians and Americans is easily facilitated through the English-language library, one of the largest in the country.  Through it, one can meet other expats in a relaxed and welcoming environment, and become part of the various outreach programs, card and other game groups, monthly dinner get-togethers, the garden club,  frequent excursions, and much more.  However, since expats reside throughout the various neighbourhoods and close-by villages, and not in any select community or development, those with winter residency in Oaxaca are readily accepted as part of the broader Oaxacan community. 

The allure of Oaxaca is much more than the year-round warm climate, modest cost of living and broad range of available activities … it's the welcoming nature of its people.

As a major centre for North American tourism, in Oaxaca, English is widely spoken.  Attempts to speak Spanish are appreciated and met with smiles. The city's Spanish-language schools have excellent intensive programs (

A visa for entry into the country is distributed on flights or at the border and is processed by immigration.  A passport current for the duration of your visit is highly advised. Oaxaca has a permanent Honorary Canadian Consul, former Ontario resident Frances May.

There is a broad range of hotel and B&B accommodations for all budgets, and comfortable downtown apartment suites for longer stays (

Electricity is 110 volts, as it is at home.  But take along a three-pronged adapter just in case.

Pesos are the currency, although US dollars are widely accepted.  Canadian dollars can be exchanged at the many downtown exchange houses. ATMs are plentiful. 

For visiting the ruins, villages and other sights, there are many options ranging from good second-class bus service, to large tour companies catering to those wanting a broad overview, to private guides charging an hourly rate.

The city's main fiestas are Guelaguetza (last two weeks of July, showcasing the dance, dress and song of the state's cultures), Day of The Dead (Oct. 31-Nov. 2, a melding of Catholic custom and pre-Hispanic belief), and Christmas (extending from Dec. 16-Feb. 2, highlighted by posadas (processions through the streets); Night of The Radishes (Dec. 23); and an extensive multi-hour Christmas Eve parade.

Eco tourism excursions can be arranged through your accommodations.
Side trips to the Pacific resorts of Huatulco and Puerto Escondido are facilitated by bus or van (6-7 hours), and flights on Aerotucan or Aerovega (35 minutes).
Air Canada and Mexicana fly from many Canadian cities to Mexico City, with connections to Oaxaca.  Continental offers flights into Houston and then directly to Oaxaca.

Pic 1: Cover

Pic 2: Typical view of Oaxaca suburb

Pic 3: Shopping stalls along Oaxaca's pedestrian walkway

Pic 4: Sculpture at the Fountain of the 7 Regions

Pic 5: Daily life in the zócalo

Pic 6: Typical band at village fiests

Pic 7: Humourous Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos in Spanish) imagery

Pic 8: Monte Albán ruin

Alvin Starkman received his master's in social anthropology from York University in 1978. After teaching for a few years, he attended Osgoode Hall Law School, thereafter embarking upon a successful career as a litigator until 2004.  Alvin now resides in Oaxaca, where he writes, leads personalized tours to the villages, markets, ruins and other sights, is a documentary film consultant, and operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( ) .

Related links
Spanish-language schools
Bed and Breakfast accomodations