OAXACA, Mexico — This beautiful city sits a mile up in the jagged mountain spine curving toward the country’s narrow Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
It’s a land of intensity: Fierce sun at midday, 45 minutes of pouring rain in the late afternoon. Pride in indigenous culture in a cosmopolitan city that has become a center of modern Mexican art. Natural beauty pocked by poverty. A colonial city of stone churches in the shadow of the dramatic ruins of a metropolis that once ruled the region.
A trip to Oaxaca, 286 miles southeast from Mexico City, is a ride on an inexpensive time machine. You can go back to 500 B.C. when the Zapotec city of Monte Alban was founded, its stone pyramid temples and ballfield laid out with precision on a deep green mountaintop; to colonial Mexico in the expansive zocalo and beautiful churches; to the present, where the pace allows time for conversation, walking, eating and taking in the ring of mountains surrounding the city and the intimacy of interiors full of light, plants and attention to detail.
The center of public life of this state capital (the state is also called Oaxaca) is the zocalo, the central plaza anchored by the Oaxaca cathedral and bordered by government buildings, hotels, shops and restaurants. Day and night you can find vendors, political rallies, tables offering everything from herbal cures to social services, and impromptu performances by marimba/sax bands, storytellers and dancers in the traditional “trajes” — embroidered long skirts and blouses, long braids threaded with ribbons, and big gold earrings and necklaces.
Santo Domingo plaza, a few blocks away, is also a lively gathering spot, and the streets between the two are full of galleries, shops and restaurants.
Oaxaca and the surrounding region — where five major indigenous languages are still spoken — is known for black ceramics, intricately woven rugs, fine textiles, embroidered blouses, gold jewelry, painted wooden figurines and tinwork. All are available in Oaxaca; there are also buses to nearby towns that specialize in specific crafts.
Monte Alban is the region’s major archaeological site, but Mitla — a major Zapotec religious center — is also a short trip from the city. There are many guided tours to both sites, most half- or full-day excursions that start at around $25 and can go up to $200 or more for trips that take in some of the craft-producing villages as well. Buses are cheap (about $4), and information about all the area’s sites and attractions is abundant, so it’s easy and inexpensive to self-tour.
Monte Alban was occupied from 500 B.C. to 800 A.D. (there are earlier period remains in the region, and some objects excavated at Monte Alban date to 1500 B.C.). Its occupation ended at roughly the same time as two other great Mesoamerican civilizations, the Maya and the people of Teotihuacan outside Mexico City (the Aztecs were late arrivals, just a few centuries before the Spaniards came in the early 1500s).
The site has a commanding view of the Oaxaca Valley and surrounding mountains, and strong natural defense in the sheer dropoffs from the edges of its mountaintop site. The Zapotecs ruled the region for hundreds of years, had extensive trade connections, sophisticated building, stone-carving and astronomical skills. The Zapotec language is a tone language (like Chinese) in which the same cluster of letters can be three different words depending on pronunciation and inflection. Modern-day Zapotecs take great pride in their language and wonder why visitors bother with the obviously inferior Spanish when they could be learning Zapotec. Oaxacans love their history, their culture, their arts and their food.
The food is lovable for sure. Mole, mezcal, tlayuda, fruits, intense chocolate and fresh vegetable soups are excellent and cheap. There are many restaurants, from tiny places where a daily special (soup, main course, beer/mezcal and dessert) can be as little as $3 to white-tablecloth places where chefs riff on traditional dishes and ingredients — and you can still get away for less than $100 for a meal for two.
There are numerous museums, including a fine one at the former Santo Domingo convent, as well as many galleries and informal exhibits hosted by the public library, workshops and restaurants.
Oaxaca is a place where you can start the day with no more of a plan than breakfast on the zocalo and end up talking to a German street vendor hawking petrified shells who looks to have sampled every liquid and herbal intoxicant available during his two decades in Oaxaca. Or passing a half hour of the daily downpour learning some Zapotec words from a weaver in his workshop. Or watching a group of teenagers performing traditional dances in a restaurant. Or passing a silent beggar sitting on the sidewalk who averts her eyes as she extends a Styrofoam cup. Or losing yourself in a labyrinthine market where you can buy pig’s feet, any part of a cow, intricate wooden bird cages, hardware, chocolate, cheap clothing, baskets, fabric stamped with the patterns for the embroidery typical of the region, kitchen utensils, live turkeys, chicks and rabbits.
Or hearing the clear voice of a child singing the responsorial psalm during Mass in the cathedral while a bird flutters near the glowing panes of a stained-glass window depicting the Holy Spirit as a dove.
It’s an anti-resort of sorts, and for some travelers a place that calls them back.