The state of Oaxaca is one of the most enticing destinations in Mexico. The state capital, cosmopolitan yet utterly Mexican, encapsulates much of what the region has to offer. Here and in the surrounding countryside indigenous traditions are powerful; nowhere else in the country are the markets so infused with colour, the fiestas so exuberant, or the old languages still so widely spoken. There are traditions in the villages that long predate the Spanish Conquest; yet the city can also offer sophisticated modern dining, great places to stay and wild nightlife. The landscape, too, represents a fundamental break, as the barren deserts of the north are replaced by thickly forested hillsides, or in low-lying areas by swamp and jungle. On the Pacific coast, Puerto Escondido and Huatulco are established resorts with very different characters, while Puerto Ángel and its surrounds offer a more back-to-basics beach experience.
If you’ve come from Mexico City or the north, the physical differences of the region are compounded by its relative lack of development. Industry is virtually nonexistent, and while the city of Oaxaca and a few coastal hot spots have thrived on tourism, the rest of the state is woefully underdeveloped – the “Mexican economic miracle” has yet to reach the south. Indeed, the region witnessed considerable political disturbance in the early years of the twenty-first century, though for the moment the protests seem to have been subdued.
The city of Oaxaca is the region’s prime destination, close enough to Mexico City to attract large numbers of tourists to its fine crafts stores, markets, seemingly constant fiestas, cobbled, gallery-lined walkways and excellent restaurants. The church of Santo Domingo here is one of the region’s – and the whole of Latin America’s – most magnificent examples of Baroque architecture, fusing Spanish and native influences to spectacular effect. And it’s just one of many. Nearby, the Zapotec and Mixtec sites at Monte Albán, Yagul and Mitla are less well known than their ancient contemporaries in central and eastern Mexico, but every bit as important and impressive. All this is set among spectacular mountain scenery where the Sierra Madre del Sur meets the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca, the continuation of Mexico’s central volcanic belt.
On the coast, west of the mountains, lie some of the emptiest and best Pacific beaches in Mexico. The resorts of Puerto Escondido and Huatulco are now firmly on the map, though Escondido still has the flavour of the surfer hangout in which it has its origins, while Huatulco, conceived and purpose-built as an environmentally conscious resort, can still boast some wonderful and relatively empty sands. Between the two, around Puerto Ángel, are several tranquil beach villages with a distinct “alternative” vibe.