I was sitting at a table in the zocalo of Oaxaca enjoying the perfect weather. A young boy approached me with a package of combs. “What was he trying to tell me?” I wondered as I ran my fingers through my hair self-consciously. Next appeared a newspaper guy, followed by a wooden craft lady, and then an older woman selling jewelry. Who needs a Walmart when everything for sale is brought to your table by local vendors with faster service than Sky Mall? I’ll admit I have a little ADD, so sitting anywhere for over an hour makes me antsy. Oaxaca is an exception. It’s the incarnate of “real Mexico” for me and sometimes I can laze the entire day away watching people,interacting with the vendors and sipping Mezcal. It’s also full of great places to visit if you can roust yourself from the serenity. You can wander the streets, enjoy great food and every corner is a potential Instagram hit. One of Oaxaca’s most famous festivals is Day of the Dead. A city that can even make death bright and colorful can make almost anything fun. Oaxaca has all the great restaurants and hotels that tourists want, without sacrificing it’s old world charm. However, if you want to get out of the city for a day or two, there’s lots of interesting things to see and experience.
Monte Alban is one of the most famous ruins in Mexico and is unique in that it’s on top of a mountain less than half an hour outside the city center. It’s also built by the Zacatecas, so it’s unlike its Mayan, Olmec or Aztec neighbors. The ruins consist of a large field surrounded by steps, pyramids, ball courts and various temples and other buildings. The pyramids are impressive, but equally interesting are the stelae, which have been assembled in a long row for easy viewing. Normally, such carved stones are whisked away to a museum., however, these have remained on the grounds where they were discovered. The site is one of the largest in Mexico and can take a few hours to navigate up and down the various pyramid steps. It gets good sized crowds that seem overwhelming when you’re standing in the ticket line, but seem to magically disappear once you’ve entered the vast complex.If you’d like something a little more intimate, then you can head to nearby Mitla.
Mitla is a small town a little east of Oaxaca that’s easy to instantly fall in love with. Not only are the little shops and streets charming and devoid of the parking issues you’ll find in Oaxaca, but Mitla contains one of the most important ruins of the Zapotec culture. It was established as a religious center and a gateway between the living and the dead. The architecture is different than anything else you’ll find in Mexico, particularly in the fact that it’s intricate mosaics elaborately fit together with no mortar. When the Spanish took over an indigenous city, they usually destroyed the main temple and placed a Catholic church on the foundation. Such is the case in Mitla, with San Pedro Cathedral. It’s an interesting mix of indigenous and Spanish architecture and definitely worth seeing if you’re heading outside Oaxaca.
Mezcal and tequila might seem a little similar at first, but Mezcal is manufactured in Oaxaca and the area is full of factories that you can visit, as well as local distilleries that look as rustic as an illegal moonshine distillery. Creating this elixir involves cooking the agave underground,allowing its sweet leaves to ferment, and then turning this sappy material into the liquor we know and love. For a special treat, get a taste of this delicious plant after it’s been roasted.The Mexicans take it one step further by adding a worm to the bottle to kick up the machismo. There’s lots of places to visit along the highway to see the process or you can arrange a tasting on a tour. I stopped at a local mom and pop (mercado de madre y padre? ) where 2 people where actually making the stuff in their front yard. They were especially proud of the scorpion floating in a bottle they offered for sale.
Hierve el Agua is touted as a petrified waterfall and although it’s a little bit of a drive, you’ll enjoy this natural wonder that has been creatively turned into a local bathing spot. The place fills up fast so if you don’t want to endure the crowds, arrive early or late. The big draw is the stalactite looking limestone formations that spill over the cliff that give a waterfall appearance. There’s great views overlooking the valley and is a nice place to bring lunch or enjoy a few drinks.
The Arbole de Tule is a considered to be the stoutest tree on the planet with a trunk diameter of over 30 feet. It’s on the road to visit Hierve, and is just a short drive from Oaxaca. It’s a mainstay of any tour, but if you’re a DIY driver, you’ll have to keep an eye out for signs. It’s estimated to be between 1200-1500 years old depending on who you ask . It’s a little bit of an odd attraction since it’s not located in a forest with other large trees like the California redwoods or sequoias, but makes a nice quick stop to stretch your legs and take a few photos. The tree is listed on the UNESCO pending list.
Back in the city, there’s some other great attractions such as Templo Santo Domingo de Guzman, the Cultural Museum, cathedrals, basilicas, and other religious sites. If you want to try some interesting local food and get a real feel for the city, look no further than Mercado de Benito Juarez. You’ll find lots of different mole choices, chocolate and if you’re feeling a little edgy, you can sample the chapulitos (grasshoppers). There’s a ton of things to see in Oaxaca if you feel like wandering the streets and taking pictures of this extremely picturesque town. If you’re feeling lazy, you can just sit around, people watch, order a mezcal with a worm and watch the world go by. Don’t worry about finding a place to buy souvenirs. The shopping will come to you.