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Wonderfully Oaxaca

What to Do in Oaxaca

Learn some Spanish in the morning, go out and use it in the afternoon! In the street, museums, churches, galleries, markets (my favorite)...

Things to Do in Oaxaca, Mexico

What to Do in Oaxaca

Explore Oaxaca's Streets

We can’t help ourselves but use words that begin with w -- including wonderful, welcoming, and wow! (It’s pronounced wah-HAH-kah, in case you hadn’t quite gotten there.)

The city’s official name, Oaxaca de Juárez, stems from its original Nahuatl name, Huaxyacac. The Spanish, not being able to pronounce this (and okay, we understand why), changed it to Oaxaca. In the last century, recognition of Oaxaca state’s native Benito Juárez was added. Today the capital city’s historic center is not only a pleasure for visitors and residents alike, but is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Wake Up Your Walking Shoes

Start at one of the most famous main squares in Mexico, Oaxaca’s Zócalo, officially known as the Plaza de la Constitución. Stroll around the edge’s colonial portales (arcades) that shade the lively cafés and restaurants of the city’s heart.

Artists Known and Still-Unfound in Oaxaca

To the south, enter the regal former Government Palace, with its magnificent murals and captivating courtyard, now transformed into the Museo del Palacio. New, interactive displays teach Oaxacan history to young and young-at-heart visitors alike.

To the north, contemplate the rebuilding of the lovely baroque Cathedral over three centuries as earthquakes brought it down multiple times. And then just cross the street to get an ice cream or your shoes shined in the treed Alameda de León park.

On the north side of the Alameda, admire the works of Oaxacan artists at the Museo de los Pintores Oaxaqueños, set in its own stately 1700s mansion.


Wander in Museums and Churches

Then hike north just a few streets up to the well-traveled green cantera stone pedestrian blocks of Calle Alcalá. Stick your head or plain hang out in the interesting stores, cafés, and galleries.

Stop in the famous MACO, the Museo de Arte Contemporanea de Oaxaca, to reflect upon the state’s contemporary art in one of the city’s oldest secular structures.

At the end of the few blocks of rainbowed street lies a pot of gold: the Iglesia de Santo Domingo. Gape (you can’t help it) at this most impressive Dominican edifice of worship. Built at the turn of the 16th century, the church’s exterior impresses but its gilt-to-the-hilt ornate interior, including Santo Domingo’s intricate family tree and an elaborately decorated chapel, will leave you with your mouth open.

Oaxaca's Santo Domingo de Guzmán

And as if that wasn’t enough, wind up at the attached former monastery complex, meticulously restored in late ‘90s, now functioning as the Centro Cultural de Santo Domingo. Learn about the prominent Zapotec and Mixtec cultures (who were warring in the region when the Spaniards arrived) at the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, which displays significant artifacts from Monte Alban, inside the Centro Cultural. The main construction boasts a postcard-ready fountain in its main courtyard, vaulted ceilings, a maze of halls, and an imposing staircase.

Wander back to the Zócalo and a few blocks west to these two jewels too:

  • Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad -- Church built on the site where a specific boxed image of the Virgin Mary appeared. Oaxacans have since worshipped Our Lady of Solitude as their patron saint. Through the years, the building has been used for a variety of social and government functions. No longer a place of worship, it still contains notable paintings, relics, and a 17th-century pipe organ.
  • Museo Arte Prehispánico de Rufino Tamayo -- A part of the extensive personal collection of pre-Hispanic art, a gift from the Oaxacan-born well-known artist himself.


Work Up an Appetite

Just south of the Zócalo, two adjoining markets pump even more life (and food!) into the area.

Whipping Oaxacan [Hot] Chocolate

We hope you came to Oaxaca with an adventurous appetite, but even if you didn’t, you’ve worked up one by now with all that walking! So head down to the Mercado 20 de Noviembre to satiate your palate and cultural cravings with some earthy, banana-leaf-wrapped pollo-con-mole tamales; a snacky, crunchy, hot-sour-and-salty baggie of chapulines (fried grasshoppers); a local tlayuda “pizza” on essentially a large, toasted tortilla; some quesadillas with that famous Oaxacan quesillo string cheese; or a steaming cup of frothy hot chocolate spiced with cinnamon and almonds.

No longer hungry, go next door to the Mercado Benito Juárez to fill up on flowers, refreshing fruit drinks, and mostly those wonderfully Oaxacan crafts, including naturally dyed, hand-woven wool rugs; trippily painted wooden alebrijes, shiny black ceramic pots, and maybe a stamped-metal mirror or a chunk of amber in a silver swirly setting.

Take a moment between the two to check out the Iglesia de San Juan de Dios, Oaxaca’s oldest, still-standing church. Imagine having been present at the state’s first Catholic mass, held here.


What Time Is It?

Depending on the time of year, participate in one of the grand cultural events for which Oaxaca is known worldwide.

Traditional Dress at the Guelaguetza
  • Guelaguetza -- The annual July dance festival. With its native roots on the historically significant hill, the Cerro del Fortín, the month-long event now presents many shows in the city’s auditorium dedicated just to this purpose. Get caught up in the lively street parades, kaleidoscope of folkloric dancers, magical musicians, and the true beauty of indigenous women as they perform in their own pageant.
  • Noche de Rábanos -- What I call “wacky Oaxaca.” Giant decorated radishes every December 23.
  • Christmas posadas and other traditions -- Come be part of the candlelit door-to-door reenactment of Mary and Joseph requesting lodging. Think piñatas and ponche too.
  • Día de Muertos -- There are few better places to live Day of the Dead than in Oaxaca, where indigenous and Catholic religions combine not only into this macabrely joyous celebration but also in everyday life (and death).
  • Oaxaca FilmFest -- It’s not Sundance yet, but just a few years old, this November flick festival already attracts international works, artists, and attendees.

Some Spanish schools that Teach Me Mexico works with offer specific packages of classes and outings around the above seasons, so be sure to let us know if you’re thinking of coming in July, November, or December!


Where to Weekend

One of the many benefits of studying Spanish in Oaxaca is the capital city’s proximity to other interesting sites. Most schools organize their own trips to these places but it’s easy enough to get to most on your own too.

  • Indigenous towns -- The most important ones you’ll hear about are Teotitlán del Valle and Tlacolula. Expect colorful traditional native dress from many inhabitants, as well as active markets.
  • Nearby Ruins of Monte Alban
  • El Árbol del Tule -- Reputedly the largest tree in the world, in a town called Tule. It probably is the widest.
  • Pre-Hispanic ruins -- Incredibly preserved archeological specimens of what life was like before the Spanish arrived, Monte Albán and Mitla are almost as famous as Teotihuacán or Chichen-Itza.
  • Beaches! -- Surf’s way up at Puerto Escondido, where beach-bums and [surf]boards respect the record-sized waves. Or head to Huatulco, a beckoning beach resort just a bit away. Relax in other, smaller, away-from-it-all coastal towns, where you can even help with eco-projects like saving turtles.

    Want the beach and Spanish instruction? Teach Me Mexico can arrange that for you in either (or both!) of the first two. Tell us!

Other Activities in Oaxaca

Your Spanish language school in the city of Oaxaca can teach you not only español, but also Latin dancing, Oaxacan cooking, even textile weaving or piñata, mask, or alebrije making.

Wishing you were studying Spanish in Oaxaca? We can have you ordering a hot cinnamony chocolate next week. Sign up today!