Two Weeks in Oaxaca: Churches, Cactuses, and Culture

5-18 August 2022

Here we are, only February, and I already find myself wistfully daydreaming about where to go this summer. Back to Japan, to visit friends? Down to South America, to explore someplace new? Or off to Europe, for a bit of both? 

For me, the best trips are those that have fascinating and enriching sights to see, are accessible and easy to get around, and ideally, are affordable. Visiting Oaxaca last summer ticked all the boxes: it’s an incredibly walkable city, my money went far, and the cultural and historical sightseeing rivals some of the best cities that I’ve been to. During the two weeks I was there I was able to see and do a lot, the city is incredibly walkable, and the money I spent went far. 

The historic center of Oaxaca is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it is a dream to walk around the cobblestoned streets and preserved Spanish colonial buildings, from the many churches to museums to the Zócalo, the town square. My first day in town was a Saturday, and was a strong introduction to the local culture. After a three-hour dental appointment that morning (hooray for medical tourism), my friend and I walked to El Centro to meet some acquaintances of hers and check out a visiting exhibit. It was my first taste of the center, and the color and shapes of the buildings, the street art, the sheer explosion of life all around me was captivating. While waiting in line, I heard what sounded like a band playing. “Oh, that’s from a wedding,” I was told. “Go check it out.”

Vibrant and walkable city streets.

Up the street at the Templo Santo Domingo, there was indeed a wedding celebration happening, with a band and dancers and mojigangas, the towering, celebratory puppets created for such occasions. I whipped out my camera and hastily snapped some photos, trying to capture the vibrancy of the scene. Those remain some of my favorite photos of the entire trip. The exhibit we were waiting for was interesting, but a bit underwhelming. Since it was free and leaving town the next day, the line was excruciatingly long. Displayed were a few axolotyls, an indigenous, endangered salamander that was cool to see up close but I would have skipped had I known it would be such a small exhibit after such a long wait. Thankfully, there were better things to come.

An axolotyl.

By far my favorite sight in Oaxaca was the Jardín Ethnobotánico, the ethnobotanical garden on the grounds of the former Dominican monastery. This special garden only gives one guided English tour per day with a limit of 25 people, so if you plan to visit it, definitely arrive early to guarantee a spot (there are two tours in Spanish daily, also capped at 25 people). The guide for my tour, Valeria, was incredibly knowledgeable and gave so much fascinating information. What’s an ethnobotanical garden, you might ask? Combining “ethnological” and “botanical,” an ethnobotanical garden examines not just plants, but how they go hand in hand with people and cultures. The historic grounds now occupied by the gardens had been on the verge of becoming a luxury hotel and casino in the 1990s, but the artists and citizens of Oaxaca would have none of it, and the area was turned into a cultural center with a library, the regional cultural museum, and the garden. 

The Jardín Ethnobotánico.

During the 90 minute tour, we saw so many different plants from all corners of the state of Oaxaca, beginning with the cultivation of the region’s key crops, corn and squash. Interesting tidbits from the greenhouse included that vanilla is indigenous to Oaxaca, and so is the vine from which scientists were able to create the first birth control pill in the 1950s. I marveled at the many varieties of cactus, from the barrel cactus (the oldest in the garden) to the skyscraping candelabra (the tallest). What really put Oaxaca on the map historically were the natural dyes from the region, and carmine or cochineal, the red used in textiles and lipstick, is from a parasitic beetle found on prickly pear cactus. I squished one between my fingers, watching a vibrant crimson bloom, and marveled at human ingenuity and that one tiny bug could bring so much color to the world. I took countless pictures here as well. A kind couple took pity on me being a solo traveler and got a picture of me at the dreamy mirror pond, surrounded by cactuses and the bright blue sky. On a different day, I returned to the complex to see the museum, which was also enjoyable, but not nearly as enthralling as the jardín.

The mirror pond.

As well as exploring city sights, there are a lot of worthy day trips to be had from Oaxaca City. Easily the number one is the nearby archaeological site of Monte Albán, also on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Affordable and convenient package day tours can be found all over the city, and to book mine I simply walked into a random hotel in El Centro and just asked the concierge what she had. I paid cash and returned on the scheduled day, bright and early. 

Once again, what really made this tour amazing was the guide. Eloy was an older Zapotec man, who I gathered had been guiding for a while, because his passion for his culture and the history of the region was so strong. Throughout the day, he would suddenly interject phrases like “Isn’t that beautiful?” or “Isn’t that interesting?” into his speech, causing us to pause and contemplate his imparted wisdom. Our group was made up of five Spanish speakers and four English speakers so his guiding was completely bilingual, and he seamlessly switched between languages without breaking his stride. For me, this was great, and I was able to check my listening comprehension of Spanish and was pleased to discover that I understood a lot of what he said. Guess three years of high school Spanish really did pay off!

The site of Monte Albán was the capital of the ancient Zapotec people for thirteen centuries before being abandoned, and the archeological remains showcase temples, ball courts, hieroglyphics and reliefs created during their civilization. Before we even got to the ruins, Eloy had already had us smelling different trees used to make incense and clothing in ancient times and had explained how the Zapotec had completely flattened the tops of the mountains to construct their incredible complexes. While it was certainly a violent and perhaps difficult society, we discovered that it was also fairly advanced, with bathrooms, art, ideology, and a complex matriarchal social structure. 

Once we finally crested a hill and looked down upon the site, my breath was taken away. It was larger and more impressive than I could have imagined. I didn’t take many photos that day, and the few I have are on a special effects 35mm film that give a dreamy, retro haze to the landscape. 

For my final day in Oaxaca, I booked another tour, one that rambled through the countryside to a number of different historical and cultural sites. This tour was a long day, with an 8:00 am pickup and a 5:00 pm dropoff, on a full tour bus of around 18-20 people, with me being the only English speaker on board. Once the guide realized I could understand Spanish, he asked if he could just lead the tour in Spanish, with me asking questions if I needed more clarification. I figured, why not, it was my last day in Mexico, let’s give it a try. It definitely felt like I chose to do this final tour on “hard mode,” but miraculously, I only had to ask him a few times for an English translation. 

Overall, it was a good day, but the highlight for me, and the real reason I had booked it, was the visit to the weaving village of Teotitlán del Valle. As a former costume designer and lover of textiles in general, I adore learning about the fashions and fabrics of the places that I visit. I had already picked up some breezy linen pieces in town, but I really wanted to see the hand-woven rugs and other items that are unique to the region, and learn more about their creation. On the tour, we got the full explanation and demonstration, from how they card and spin the wool on an old-fashioned spinning wheel, to the magical and seemingly alchemical ways they create a rainbow of natural dyes, adding ingredients like ash or lime juice to change the red from the cochineal to purple or orange, before the threads are woven together on the standing loom, which looks like a painstaking, full-body workout. The demonstration ended in the showroom of course, where I gaped at rugs and other items that were well out of my price range, and rightly so, considering the work that goes into them. This last dose of culture was the perfect way to end my two-week stay. 

While most travelers would probably not choose to stay as long as I did in a city of only 300,000, in hindsight, I’m happy with my choice. This slow pace allowed me to take the time to really get to know Oaxaca on a deeper level, and see and do quite more than the average visitor. I was also able to not only do a ton of sightseeing, but get out and enjoy the incredible nature that surrounds the city. More on that next time. 

Safe and Happy Travels,


5 thoughts on “Two Weeks in Oaxaca: Churches, Cactuses, and Culture”

  1. Having lived in Puerto Vallarta and travelling to other Mexican cities somehow we missed Oaxaca, your post makes me want to return to our Mexican wanders, thanks for sharing!

  2. This sure brought back some memories. We loved Oaxaca, both the state and the city. We were there for 10 days for Guelaguetza festival (an endless thrilling riot of indigenous music and dance from all the many Oaxacan “tribes”) plus did a day-long hike in the nearby hills, and a trip to Monte Alban.
    Love both shots of you at the Jardín Ethnobotánico. I’d like to get back one day I think to just explore without the festival taking all our attention.

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