If you are seeking an authentic and affordable taste of Mexico, look no further than Oaxaca.
The southwestern Mexican city has come a long way since the political protests of 2006, where non-violent activists clashed with corrupt government officials and militia in the streets. The protests led to a renewed sense of self-awareness and confidence for the city, and today, Oaxaca is once again a safe and welcoming place for tourists. The city boasts a strong cultural heritage, exciting contemporary art scene and deserved place as the gastronomic capital of Mexico. Central Oaxaca’s colonial buildings and cobblestoned streets have earned the historic district a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, and its many monuments are being spiffied up for the World Congress of World Heritage Cities, which the city will host in November.
Along with the old, there is also the new. Oaxaca’s universities imbue the city with a spirit of youth, creativity and entrepreneurial energy. In addition to the traditional markets and restaurants, there are plenty of exciting start-up businesses as well: affordable pop-up restaurants, yoga studios, mezcal tasting libraries and city cycling associations, to name a few.
Visitors to Oaxaca find a cultural experience that can’t be found in over-touristed resort towns like Cancun and Cabo. It is very much a city on the verge.
The Zocalo: The historic Zocalo, bordered by the governor’s palace and main cathedral, can provide hours of people-watching entertainment. You could spring for a drink at one of the dozens of restaurants lining the plaza, or just buy a 10 peso (US$1.10) corn-on-the-cob and grab a park bench. Either way, there’s plenty to keep you busy in Oaxaca’s most famous plaza. On one side, activists protest peacefully for a change in government. On the other, small children push oversized balloons high into the air. And between, Oaxacans from all walks of life converge. It’s the true heart of the city. Between Hidalgo, Trujano, Flores Magon and Bustamente Sts.
Monte Albán: These ruins just outside Oaxaca once comprised one of Mesoamerica’s earliest and most important cities, said to be founded in 500 B.C. The impressive Main Plaza contains hundreds of carved stone monuments, with curious etchings that were once thought to be dancers, but are now believed to be tortured war prisoners. You can easily book a guided tour to Monte Alban from the dozens of tour offices across the city, but a cheaper option is to take the 50 peso (US$4) round-trip tourist shuttle from the Hotel Rivera del Angel, which departs every hour between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. http://www.hotelriveradelangel.com Calle Fransisco Mina 518
Bicycle Night Rides: Experience Oaxaca on two wheels by joining one of Mundo Ceiba’s “Paseos Nocturnos en Bicicleta” – nighttime bike rides sponsored by a local cycling association. The rides take place every Wednesday and Friday starting at 9 p.m., with meeting points in front of the Santo Domingo Church and on Macedonio Alcalá in the city center. Bicycles are available for rent between 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. at Mundo Ceiba’s headquarters at The Hub Oaxaca; bring 50 pesos (US$4) and prepare to leave your passport as a deposit. Quintana Roo 2011
Hotel Azul Oaxaca: With 21 guest rooms designed by local contemporary artists, the stunning Hotel Azul Oaxaca is a concept boutique hotel aiming to combine art, design and comfort. The standard rooms are chic and clean, but the real treasures are the suites, like the minimalist Suite Dubon, the playful Suite Leyva and the geometric Suite Villalobos. If you’ve always sought a high-design hotel experience at an accessible price, this is your place. From US$130. http://www.hotelazuloaxaca.com Abasolo 313, Centro
Hotel Casa del Soltano: Housed in a historic colonial building, Hotel Casa del Soltano is a solid budget option that oozes Oaxacan charm, with its colorful yellow exterior, lush gardens and rooftop terrace overlooking the nearby Plaza Santo Domingo. The rooms are a bit cramped, but the outdoor ambience more than makes up for it. From 770 pesos (US$62). http://www.mexonline.com/sotano.htm Tinoco y Palacios 414, Centro
Hostal Casa del Sol Oaxaca: This charismatic hostel offers private rooms and dormitories – without the teenagers and tequila shots. Casa del Sol’s centerpiece is a bougainvillea-shaded courtyard that is perfect for enjoying a casual drink with fellow travelers. Its warm and welcoming atmosphere has earned it legions of glowing reviews and a spot on TripAdvisor’s list of top 25 Mexican bargain hotels for 2013. Dorms from 160 pesos (US$13), private rooms from 450 pesos (US$36). http://www.hostalcasadelsol.com.mx Constitucion 301, Centro
Eat & Drink
La Biznaga: Oaxaca’s artistic community regularly converges in the courtyard of La Biznaga, a popular restaurant serving creative, upscale Oaxacan fare. Chef Fernando López Velarde embraces the slow food movement, and he makes regular use of locally sourced ingredients. Prices are comparatively high but a bargain by American standards; expect to pay about US$20 a head for a multi-course dinner. Don’t miss the fried squash blossom appetizer, which pairs perfectly with the bar’s inventive mezcal cocktails. 512 García Vigil, Centro
Itanoni: The focus is on the corn at Itanoni, a humble eatery about a 15-minute walk from central Oaxaca. The restaurant specializes in tapas-style dishes featuring its famous house-made tortillas, made fresh in front of you from different varieties of local, organic, stone-ground corn. Alice Waters, the godmother of America’s farm-to-table movement, calls it her favorite restaurant in the city. Belisario Dominguez 513
El Olivo: The second-floor bar above the Meson del Olivo is a fixture on Oaxaca’s happy hour scene. Dark but atmospheric, it features an extensive selection of beers from local microbreweries, as well as a solid wine list and the requisite mezcal cocktails. The 100 peso (US$8) happy hour includes four small tapas and a beer or glass of wine. Murguia 218, Centro
Get Around: The historic center of Oaxaca is very walkable, and it’s unlikely that you’ll require additional transport if you stay in the city. Oaxaca’s bus system is a safe and convenient option for inter-city jaunts. Buses are clearly and colorfully labeled with their destinations, and standard fare is 6 pesos (US$.50 – try to carry exact change). Taxis are also a decent option, but be sure to negotiate the fare before hopping inside. A ride within central Oaxaca shouldn’t cost more than 50 pesos (US$4), though fixed fares from the airport are significantly more expensive. Expect to pay upwards of 200 pesos (US$16) for the 20-minute ride into town.
Seasonality: Oaxaca’s southern location and high elevation provide it with pleasant temperatures year-round. Peak visitor season is from October to March, but it is also worth making a trip in late July for the famous Guelaguetza folk festival, with attracts cultural performers from across the region.
Safety: Oaxaca is a relatively safe place for visitors, particularly compared to other Mexican cities that have reputations for drug-related violence. However, you should still heed the precautions you would take in any Latin American city. Keep your belongings close to you, don’t flaunt expensive jewelry and be careful about walking alone at night.
[Photo Credit: Flickr user MichaelTyler]