Oaxaca de Juárez, or simply Oaxaca, is the capital and largest city of the Mexican state of the same name.
Oaxaca is located in the Centro District in the Central Valleys region of the state, on the foothills of the Sierra Madre at the base of the Cerro del Fortín extending to the banks of the Atoyac River.
Oaxaca City was named a World Heritage Site in 1987. The Oaxaca city center was included in a World Heritage Site designated by UNESCO, in recognition of its treasure of historic buildings and monuments.
Oaxaca relies heavily on tourism, which is based on its large number of colonial-era structures as well as the native Zapotec and Mixtec cultures and archeological sites.
Oaxaca tourist activity peaks in three seasons: Holy Week, summer (especially during Guelaguetza), and New Year.
Many of the tourists who come during Holy Week and for New Year come from other parts of Mexico including native Oaxacans returning to visit from their places of work. Most international visitors come during the summer.
Oaxaca has a tropical savanna climate, closely bordering on a humid subtropical climate, due to its high altitude.
During the dry season, temperatures during the day remain warm with an average high of 27°C in the coolest month, December, and an average high of 33°C in April, just before the beginning of the wet season.
Although daytime temperatures are warm, nighttime temperatures are cool with an average low of 9°C in January.
Due to its altitude of 1,555 m, the climate of Oaxaca is milder than lowland areas with the same climate, resulting in cooler temperatures than lowland areas with the same climate.
Precipitation is concentrated in the summer months with June being the wettest with an average precipitation of 171 mm.
The word Oaxaca is derived from the Nahuatl word Huaxyacac (“among the huaje trees”). This word was later Hispanicized to Guajaca and later spelled as Oaxaca.
The suffix of “de Juárez” was added in 1872, in honor of Benito Juárez.
The city of Oaxaca is nicknamed “la Verde Antequera” (“the green Antequera”) due to its prior name “Nueva Antequera” (“New Antequera”) and the variety of structures built from a native green stone.
There had been Zapotec and Mixtec settlements in the valley of Oaxaca for thousands of years, especially in connection with the important ancient centers of Monte Albán and Mitla, which are close to modern Oaxaca city.
The Aztecs entered the valley in 1440 and named it “Huaxyacac” (“among the huaje trees”).
A strategic military position was created here, at what is now called the Cerro (large hill) del Fortín to keep an eye on the Zapotec capital of Zaachila and secure the trade route between the Valley of Mexico, Tehuantepec and what is now Central America.
When the Spanish arrived in 1521, the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs were involved in one of their many wars. Spanish conquest would end this fighting.
The first Spanish expedition here arrived late in 1521, headed by Captain Francisco de Orozco, and accompanied by 400 Aztecs. Hernán Cortés sent Francisco de Orozco to Oaxaca because Moctezuma II said that the Aztec’s gold came from there.
The Spanish expedition under Orozco set about building a Spanish city where the Aztec military post was at the base of the Cerro de Fortín.
The first mass was said here by Chaplain Juan Díaz on the bank of the Atoyac River under a large huaje tree, where the Church of San Juan de Dios would be constructed later.
This same chaplain added saints’ names to the surrounding villages in addition to keeping their Nahuatl names: Santa María Oaxaca, San Martín Mexicapan, San Juan Chapultepec, Santo Tomas Xochimilco, San Matías Jalatlaco, Santiago Tepeaca, etc.
This group of Spaniards chose their first mayor, Gutierres de Badajoc, their first town council, and began construction of the cathedral of Oaxaca in 1522. Their name for the settlement was Guajaca, a Hispanization of the Nahuatl name (which would later be respelled as Oaxaca).
The establishment of the relatively independent village did not suit Hernán Cortes, who wanted power over the entire region for himself. Cortés sent Pedro de Alvarado, who proceeded to drive out most of the village’s population.
The original Spanish settlers appealed to the Spanish crown to recognize the village they founded, which it did in 1526, with land divided among the Spaniards of Orozco’s expedition. However, this did not stop Cortés from driving out the population of the village once again and replacing the town council only three months after royal recognition.
Once again, the original founders appealed to Spanish royal authority, this time to the viceroy in Mexico City, Nuño de Guzmán. This viceroy also sided with the original founders, and the town was refounded in 1529 as Antequera, in honor of Nuño de Guzmán’s hometown. Francisco de Herrera convened the new, Crown-approved town council, and the first layout of the settlement was mapped out by Juan Peláez de Berrio.
In the meantime, Cortés was able to obtain from the crown the title of the Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, which contains the disputed village. This permitted him to tax the area heavily, and to have control of the territory that surrounded the village.
The village was then in a position of having to survive surrounded by villages which answered Cortés. These villages not only did not take orders from Antequera, but they were hostile to it, mostly likely encouraged by Cortés.
To counter this, the village petitioned the Crown to be elevated to the status of a city, which would give it certain rights, privileges, and exceptions. It would also ensure that the settlement would remain under the direct control of the king, rather than of Cortés. This petition was granted in 1532 by Charles V of Spain.
After the Independence of Mexico in 1821, the city became the seat of a municipality, and both the name of the city and the municipality became Oaxaca, changed from Antequera.
Oaxaca is a vital center for Mexican rich culture and heritage, and the Historic Center is the heart of Oaxaca City. It’s a picturesque area with well-preserved colonial buildings, charming cobblestone streets, and markets.
The Plaza de la Constitución
Zócalo (Plaza de la Constitución) was planned in 1529 by Juan Peláez de Berrio. During the entire colonial period, this plaza was never paved, nor had sidewalks, only a marble fountain that was placed here in 1739.
The fountain was removed in 1857 to put in the kiosk and trees. In 1881, the square was rearranged again and in 1885, a statue of Benito Juárez was added. It was remodeled again in 1901 and a new kiosk was installed.
Fountains of green stone with capricious figures were installed in 1967.
The State Government Palace is located on the main square of Oaxaca City.
This site used to be the Portal de la Alhóndiga (warehouse) and in front of the palace is the Benito Juárez Market. The original palace was inaugurated in 1728, on the wedding day of the prince and princess of Spain and Portugal.
The architectural style was Gothic.
The building currently on this site was begun in 1832, inaugurated in 1870 but was not completed until 1887. The inside contains murals reflecting Oaxaca’s history from the pre-Hispanic era, the colonial era, and post-independence.
Most of these were painted by Arturo Garcia Bustos in the 1980s.
The Federal Palace is located across from the Cathedral and used to be the site of the old Archbishops’ Palace until 1902.
Its architecture is “neo-Mixtec” reflecting the nationalism of the early 20th century and the reverence in which the Mixtec-Zapotec culture has been held in more recent times.
The architectural elements copy a number of those from Mitla and Monte Albán.
Alameda de León
Northwest of the Zócalo is the Alameda de León, a garden area that is essentially an annex of the main square. In 1576, viceroy Martín Enréquez de Almanza set aside two city blocks on which to build the city government offices, but they were never built there.
One of the blocks was sold and the other became a market.
Antonio de León, governor of the state of Oaxaca, lived in front of this market and decided to turn it into a park in the 1840s, making it a small replica of the Alameda Central in Mexico City. In 1885, a statue of León was added.
Andador Macedonio Alcalá
The Macedonio Alcalá Tourist Corridor is a street paved with green Cantera that was closed to traffic in 1985 and is now only open to pedestrian traffic.
Along the street are notable places such as the original building to house the Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez.
The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (Museum of Contemporary Art) or MACO is located here as is the Plazuela (small plaza) Labastida and the Parroquia de la Preciosa Sangre de Cristo (Parish of the Precious Blood of Christ).
Catedral de Oaxaca
The Catedral de Oaxaca, also referred to as the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, is the third to be built as the first two were destroyed by large earthquakes in the 16th and 18th centuries.
Construction of this third church began in 1702 and it was consecrated in 1733.
Its facade is made of the green Cantera stone commonly found in Oaxaca’s buildings, and the interior is in Neoclassical style.
The altar features a statue of Our Lady of the Assumption (Nuestra Señora de al Asunción) which was made in Italy during the Porfirio era and is represented by a bronze sculpture brought from Europe and made by Tadoini.
Former Monastery of Santo Domingo de Guzmán
The church and former monastery of Santo Domingo de Guzmán is located 4 blocks north of the Cathedral of Oaxaca.
It was constructed between 1555 and 1666.
It is divided into two parts: the church and the former living (working) areas of the monks. The front of the church is Renaissance-style, in the central relief, Saint Dominic and Hippolytus of Rome are holding up the church.
After La Reforma around 1860, the church was converted into a stable, which caused serious deterioration of the building. It was returned to devotional use at the end of the 19th century.
The living and working areas were converted into barracks and officers´ quarters.
In 1994, work began to convert this area into the Centro Cultural Santo Domingo.
Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad
The Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad is located four blocks west of the Cathedral on Avenida Independencia. It was built between 1682 and 1697 by Father Fernando Méndez on a site where supposedly an image of the Virgin Mary appeared inside a box.
It is of Baroque style and finished in 1690. Its front is made of a reddish stone sculpted to look like a folding screen.
In the back of the church is the Museo de la Basilica de Nuestra Señora de La Soledad which exhibits the Virgin’s dresses, offerings, and small paintings done in her honor.
The statue of the Virgin of Solitude, crowned with a 2 kg solid gold crown studded with diamonds – was the subject of a theft recently.
Many years later, the cloister was converted into a correctional facility, a teacher’s college, and a district attorney’s office. Now it serves as the Municipal Palace.
The building conserves a number of valuable items such as paintings, sculptures religious vestments, and a pipe organ dated 1686.
Former Monastery of Del Carmen Alto
The Church and ex-monastery of Del Carmen Alto belonged to the Carmelites who established themselves here in 1696.
The complex began as a hermitage built over the teocalli of Huaxyacac, although in the late 17th century, much of this space was occupied by a jail and barracks.
The project was financed by Manuel Fernandez Fiallo.
Former Monastery of San Juan de Dios
The Church and former monastery of St John of God (Templo y Exconvento de San Juan de Dios), Oaxaca’s oldest church still standing, was completed in 1703.
This is where the first mass in Oaxaca was held in 1521.
Church of San Felipe Neri
The Church of San Felipe Neri is considered a classic example of Baroque with estipite (inverted truncated pyramid) columns from the end of the 18th century and has a large gilded main altarpiece.
While the church overall is Baroque, the portal contains other decorative elements as well.
Benito Juárez married Margarita Maza here in 1841.
Former Monastery of San Catalina
Ex monastery of San Catalina was built in the second half of the 16th century by Dominican monk Hernando de Carvarcos, who also was responsible for the Santo Domingo de Guzmán monastery.
In 1862, the monastery became a jail and at the end of the 19th century, the southern part became the Municipal Palace.
Since 1976, it has been a hotel, called Hotel Camino Real.
Church of the Company of Jesus
Church of the Company of Jesus (Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús), located to the southwest of the Zócalo, was built by the Jesuits in 1579 and consecrated to Francis Xavier and the Immaculate Conception.
The towers were destroyed by a series of earthquakes and never rebuilt.
Inside the chapel is a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe with a prayer written in Spanish, English, Náhuatl as well as 12 other languages native to the state of Oaxaca, including 4 dialects of Zapotec.
Oaxaca City’s cultural landscape is a vibrant tapestry of tradition and innovation, where museums, theaters, and cultural centers come together to celebrate the rich heritage and creative spirit of the region.
These cultural institutions offer visitors a deeper understanding of Oaxaca’s regional history, art, and culture, making it a must-visit destination for anyone with an appreciation for the arts.
Here’s a list of Cultural Centers, Museums, and Theatres in Oaxaca City.
Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca (Museum of Oaxacan Cultures)
This renowned museum is housed in the former monastery of Santo Domingo. It showcases an impressive collection of pre-Columbian artifacts, including Zapotec and Mixtec treasures. The museum’s architecture alone is a testament to the city’s rich history.
Centro Cultural San Pablo (San Pablo Cultural Center)
San Pablo Cultural Center is a hub for contemporary art and cultural events. It hosts exhibitions, workshops, and performances that celebrate both Oaxacan and international arts. The historic building adds to its charm.
Teatro Macedonio Alcalá (Macedonio Alcalá Theater)
Oaxaca’s main theater, Teatro Macedonio Alcalá, is a beautiful neoclassical building that hosts a wide range of performances, from ballet and opera to concerts and theater productions. It’s a cultural landmark in the heart of the city.
Museo Textil de Oaxaca (Textile Museum of Oaxaca)
This museum is a treasure trove of Oaxacan textile artistry. Visitors can explore the rich traditions of weaving and textiles in Oaxaca, including intricate designs and vibrant colors.
Casa de la Cultura Oaxaqueña (House of Oaxacan Culture)
A cultural institution that offers workshops, exhibitions, and performances, Casa de la Cultura is a place where local artists and artisans come together to showcase their talents and traditions.
Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca (Ethnobotanical Garden of Oaxaca)
More than just a garden, this living museum is dedicated to showcasing the rich plant diversity of the region and its importance in Oaxacan culture. It’s a tranquil oasis in the city.
Teatro Juárez (Juárez Theater)
Teatro Juárez is an iconic architectural gem in Oaxaca City. This 19th-century theater hosts various cultural events, from classical music concerts to contemporary dance performances.
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca (Museum of Contemporary Art)
This museum is a hub for contemporary art enthusiasts. It features a rotating collection of modern and contemporary works by local and international artists, making it a dynamic cultural center.
Centro Fotográfico Manuel Álvarez Bravo (Manuel Álvarez Bravo Photographic Center)
Dedicated to photography, this center honors the legacy of the famous Mexican photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo. It showcases both contemporary and historical photographic works.
Teatro Principal (Principal Theater)
Teatro Principal is a historic theater in the heart of Oaxaca City. It hosts a variety of cultural events, including theatrical performances and musical concerts, making it a focal point for the city’s artistic scene.
The city contains a number of parks, gardens, and plazas, many of which were former monastery lands, for example, the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca, surrounding the former monastery of Santo Domingo.
Even better known is the Plaza de la Danza y Jardín Sócrates complex on Morelos Street at the foot of the Cerro del Fortín.
It is part of the area bounded by the Basilica de la Soledad and the Church of San José.
The Plaza de la Danza was constructed in 1959 by Eduardo Vasconcelos to hold the annual Bani-Stui-Gulal (representation of antiquity) dance, held one day before the festival of the Guelaguetza.
The Plaza also hosts other cultural events including art shows, concerts, and political rallies The Socrates Garden is the old atrium of the Basilica de la Soledad converted into a public park in 1881, conserved the bronze chalice which was also made in 1881.
In 1981, the Garden was remodeled adding a new layer of stone to the floor.
The Cerro de Fortín next to it bears in stone letters Benito Juárez’s slogan, “El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz” (“Respect for others’ rights is peace”).
The Antonia Labastida Garden is named after a woman who fought with Porfirio Díaz during the French Intervention. This park has become a place for artists and artisans to display their wares.
Monte Albán is a pre-Hispanic city that was an ancient capital of the Zapotecs. It reached its peak between 500 BCE and 800 CE. Monte Albán is known for its architecture, its carved stones, and the ceramic urns.
In 1987, it was declared a World Heritage Site, along with the city of Oaxaca.
The city of Oaxaca has long been considered “Mexico’s culinary capital.”
The most notable aspect of Oaxacan cuisine is its variety of moles, a type of complex sauce.
Their origins go back to the melding of Spanish and Arabic food in Spain. After the Conquest, New World ingredients such as chile mulato, ‘miltomate’ (a small whitish wild tomato), tomatoes, peanuts, avocado leaves, and chocolate were incorporated.
While moles can be found in many parts of Mexico, Oaxaca has the greatest variety including negro (black), Colorado (red), coloradito (faint red), chichilo, verde (green), amarillo (yellow), and manchamanteles.
They are sold in markets all over the city as a paste which is combined with water and simmered with a variety of meats.
Other notable foods sold in markets include bars of chocolate (primarily used for making hot chocolate), traditional breads, and chapulines (fried grasshoppers with chile). Street foods include tlayudas, which are large, slightly crispy corn tortillas piled high with ingredients such as grilled beef (called tasajo), cheese, tomatoes, avocados, onions etc.
Local drinks include those made with water, sugar and a flavoring such as aguamiel (honey water), trocitos de melón (melon), horchata (rice), tuna batida (cactus fruit shake), and nuez (nuts) as well as local fruits such as chilacayota and guanábana.
In nearby Tlacolula and Ejutla an indigenous drink called ‘tejate’ is still prepared and sold in the local market.
Known here as the drink of the gods, it is prepared with corn, cacao, cacao flower, and the seed of the mamey fruit. As for alcoholic beverages, this area prefers mezcal, which, like tequila is made from a species of agave but the flavor is very different.
As in other areas in Mexico, chocolate has had special importance here since long before the Conquest. Aside from being a foodstuff, it was also used as medicine, and cacao seeds were used as money.
The chocolate prepared in this city is well-known within Mexico, as it is distinguished by being flavored with cinnamon, almonds, and sugar and is usually prepared with hot water or milk. It is usually served in large coffee cups with a local sweet roll.
The best-known producer of this type of chocolate is Chocolate El Mayordomo, which recently has opened outlets in various parts of Mexico, especially in Mexico City. In their main store in Oaxaca City, you can see them prepare the various types of chocolates they prepare including chocolate pasta.
The legend of Donaji
Oaxaca is the home of the month-long cultural festival called the “Guelaguetza”, which features Oaxacan dance from the seven regions, music, and a beauty pageant for indigenous women Donají.
The story of Donají is that of a princess from pre-Hispanic Mitla.
When she was born, a seer predicted that she would die for her country. When she grew up, her people, the Zapotecs, were involved in one of their many wars with the Mixtecs. One day, Zapotec warriors brought a prisoner, a Mixtec prince named Nucano, to Mitla.
Taking pity on him, she took care of his wounds. When he healed, he asked her to let him go, which she did. The war continued with the Zapotec king and Donaji forced to abandon their capital of Zaachila.
Peace negotiations were attempted but the Mixtecs did not trust the Zapotec king, taking Donají captive as insurance. This occurred during the Conquest when the evangelization of the country had begun.
Donají asked for baptism and was renamed Doña Juana de Cortés.
As feared, the Zapotecs broke the peace treaty, attacking Monte Albán as the Mixtecs slept. Donají was found in the Atoyac River, decapitated. Time passed. One day a Shepherd came to the place where Donaji was buried by the river.
There was a fragrant lily flower growing. Fifteen days later, he returned to find the same flower, still fresh and fragrant in the same place as if a mysterious force was preserving it. Her severed head serves as part of the coat of arms of the city of Oaxaca and her story is reenacted every year at the Guelaguetza festival.
The Guelaguetza, also known as the Fiestas de los Lunes del Cerro (Festivals of Mondays at the Hill) is the major cultural event in the city with origins in pre-Hispanic times. The “Hill” is the Cerro del Fortín, which was the scene of the annual rites to the goddess Centeótl, or goddess of the corn. The hill had a teocalli, or sacred plaza, built by the Aztecs.
Noche de Rábanos
The “Noche de Rábano” or Night of the Radishes is a traditional Oaxaca city tradition.
Artisans show off designs done on large radishes, often decorated with other plant materials. The event only lasts a few hours but draws most of the city’s population to the main square to look at the creations. It occurs each year on 23 December.
Oaxaca Film Fest
Every year in the fall, Oaxaca hosts the Oaxaca Film Fest.
Oaxaca-Xoxocotlan Airport is approximately 7 km south of the city center. Most flights are to Mexico City for onward connection, but there are also flights to Huatulco, Cancún, Tuxtla Gutierrez, and Tijuana.
United Airlines has flights between Oaxaca and Houston.
The city has separate first-class and second-class bus stations, offering services to most places within the state of Oaxaca, including the coastal resorts of Huatulco, Puerto Escondido, Puerto Ángel, and Pinotepa Nacional, and also long-distance services to Puebla and Mexico City and other Mexican locations such as Veracruz.
There are several bus lines that run in Oaxaca. The largest is TUSUG, a type of “cooperative” company. All of the drivers own their own buses and are aided by other drivers in purchasing new buses.
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