The city of OAXACA sprawls across a grand expanse of deep-set valley, 1600m above sea level. Its colour, folklore, indigenous markets and magnificent colonial centre make it one of the country’s most rewarding destinations even though, with a population of over 250,000, it is well on its way to becoming an industrial city. Many streets are choked and noisy and a thin veil of smog often enshrouds the valley – yet in the colonial centre the city’s provincial charm is hardly affected and just about everything can be reached on foot. Simply being in Oaxaca, wandering through its streets and absorbing its life, is an experience, especially if you happen to catch the city during a fiesta (they happen all the time – see Fiestas in Oaxaca). The city is an important artistic centre, too, with several state-run and private galleries, craft and jewellery masterclasses and regular exhibitions.
Among the highlights of any visit are the Museo de las Culturas and the Museo Tamayo, the markets (craft shopping in Oaxaca ranks with the best in the country) and the churches of Santo Domingo and La Soledad, along with the nearby archeological sites of Monte Albán and Mitla.
Once central to the Mixtec and Zapotec civilizations, Oaxaca had a limited role during the early years of the Spanish Conquest. Cortés, attracted by the area’s natural beauty, created the title of Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, and until the Revolution his descendants held vast estates hereabouts. For practical purposes, though, the area was of little interest to the Spaniards, with no mineral wealth and, due to the rugged mountain terrain, no great agricultural value (though coffee was grown). This meant that the indigenous population was largely left to get on with life and did not have to deal with much outside influence beyond the interference of a proselytizing Church.
Nevertheless, by 1796 Oaxaca had become the third largest city in Nueva España, thanks to the export of cochineal and, later, textile manufacturing. In the nineteenth century it produced two of Mexico’s most influential statesmen: Benito Juárez is commemorated everywhere in Oaxaca, a privilege not shared by Porfirio Díaz, the second most famous Oaxaqueño, whose dictatorship most people have chosen to forget. Thereafter Oaxaca was something of a political backwater until autumn 2006, when it made international headlines as striking teachers occupied the city’s main plaza and clashed with riot police in a dispute that began over wages and mushroomed into protests over corruption and political cronyism; the city is perfectly safe for tourists but occasional protests and demos rumble on to this day.Read More
The church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán is one of the real highlights of Oaxaca. Consecrated in 1611, this elaborately carved and decorated extravaganza is one of the finest examples of Mexican Baroque anywhere; its external walls (10m thick in some places) solid and earthquake-proof, the interior extraordinarily rich. Parts were damaged during the Reform Wars and the Revolution – especially the chapels, pressed into service as stables – but most of the interior was restored during the 1950s.
The church drips with gold leaf throughout, beautifully set off, especially, by the afternoon light. Highlights include the great gilded main altarpiece and, on the underside of the raised choir above you as you enter, the family tree of Felix de Guzmán, father of St Dominic (the founder of the Dominican Order), in the form of a vine with leafy branches and tendrils, busts of leading Dominicans and a figure of the Virgin right at the top. Looking back from the altar, you can appreciate the relief scenes high on the walls and the biblical events depicted in the barrel roof and the ceiling of the choir, a vision of the heavenly hierarchy with gilded angels swirling in rings around God. The adjoining Capilla de la Virgen del Rosario (completed in 1720) is also richly painted and carved: the Virgin takes pride of place in another stunning altarpiece, all the more startlingly intense in such a relatively small space.
Benito Juárez ranks among Mexico’s greatest national heroes. He was the towering figure of nineteenth-century Mexican politics, and his maxim – “El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz” (“Respect for the rights of others is peace”) – has long been a rallying cry for liberals. A Zapotec, he strove against nineteenth-century social prejudices and, through four terms as president, successfully reformed many of the worst remnants of Spanish colonialism, earning a reputation for honesty and fair dealing.
Juárez was born in San Pablo Guelatao in 1806. His parents died when he was 3, and he grew up speaking only Zapotec; at the age of 12 he was adopted by priests and moved to Oaxaca, where he began to study for the priesthood. Turning his talents to law, he provided his legal services to impoverished villagers free of charge, and by 1831 had earned a seat on Oaxaca’s municipal council, lending his voice to a disenfranchised people. Juárez rose through the ranks of the city council to become state governor from 1847 to 1852, on a liberal ticket geared towards improving education and releasing the country from the economic and social stranglehold of the Church and the aristocracy. In 1853, the election of a conservative government under Santa Anna forced him into eighteen months of exile in the US.
Liberal victory in 1855 enabled Juárez to return to Mexico as minister of justice and give his name to a law abolishing special courts for the military and clergy. His support was instrumental in passing the Ley Lerdo, which effectively nationalized the Church’s huge holdings, and bills legalizing civil marriage and guaranteeing religious freedom. In 1858, President Ignacio Comonfort was ousted by conservatives enraged by these reforms, and Juárez, as the head of the Supreme Court, had a legal claim to the presidency. However, he lacked the military might to hold Mexico City and retired to Veracruz, returning three years later, victorious in the War of Reform, as constitutionally elected president. Stymied in his attempts to reduce the power of the Church by an intractable Congress and empty coffers, Juárez suspended all national debt repayments for two years from July 1861. To protect their investments, the British, Spanish and French sent their armies in, but when it became apparent that Napoleon III had designs on the control of Mexico, the others pulled out, leaving France to install Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian as puppet emperor. Juárez fled again, this time to Paso del Norte (now Ciudad Juárez) on the US border, until by 1867 he was able to return to the capital and his army to round up and execute the hapless Maximilian.
Juárez was returned as president in the 1867 elections but alienated much of his support through attempts to use Congress to amend the constitution. Nevertheless, he secured another term in the 1870 elections, spending two more years trying unsuccessfully to maintain peace before dying of a heart attack in 1872.
Mole and chocolate
Mole and chocolate
Calle Mina, south of the Mercado 20 de Noviembre, is lined with spice vendors selling plump bags of the chile-and-chocolate powder that makes up most Oaxacan moles. Cinnamon-flavoured chocolate powder is also available, for cooking or making into drinking chocolate. One of the best places in this area to try a mug of hot chocolate, laced with almond, cinnamon, sugar or chile and served with pan dulce, is Mayordomo (w chocolatemayordomo.com.mx), the Willy Wonka of Oaxaca; the main branch is at the corner of Mina and 20 de Noviembre. You can also buy pure cacao by the kilo and all sorts of chocolate products. Nearby La Soledad at Mina 212 (w chocolatedeoaxaca.com.mx) has a row of old bean-crushing machines and is drenched in the overpowering aroma of sweet cacao – choc addicts beware.