Latin America is abundant in sleepy colonial cities, but none quite manages to surpass the infectious charm of Oaxaca. In 1492 two worlds collided and Oaxaca stands proud as the synthesis of those european and pre-hispanic cultures. Ornate churches, bright colours and a tangible indigenous presence... this small city never fails to fascinate.
48 hours in Oaxaca should without doubt begin at the ancient Zapotec ruins of Monte Albán. This beautiful site – predating a number of the better known pre-hispanic ruins elsewhere in Mexico – affords you spectacular views of the surrounding valley and offers a valuable insight into how the civilisations who inhabited this space throughout its 1000-year existence interacted with other ethnic groups such as the Maya and the Teotihuacanos. This a great place to start, not only to get an idea of the landscape which surrounds the city of Oaxaca, but also to offer a historical backdrop on which to pin everything you encounter during your stay.
Following your morning at Monte Albán, enjoy a relaxing lunch at the Zócalo (main square), back in the centre of the city. From here you can walk up the pretty Alcalá street, stopping off at the many shops on the way, which offer everything from quality silver to the intricate weavings of the Zapotec people who call the valley home. At the end of Alcalá you will find one of Mexico's finest churches: La Iglesia Santo Domingo. With spectacular ceramic from the state of Puebla and an incredibly elaborate and intricate gold-leaf detail, Santo Domingo conveys extreme piety without seeming over the top. Attached to Santo Domingo is an ex-convent which now serves as the region's finest anthropological museum, mapping the lives of Oaxaca's many peoples. If you have time and there is a tour available, you may also wish to visit the botanical gardens within the same complex, whose ingenious design perfectly displays the wealth of flora to be found throughout the state of Oaxaca.
In the evening, relax with a couple of mezcals (Oaxaca's take on tequila) in a mezcalaria, though if you manage to uncover the worm at the bottom of the bottle, you may have gone too far! La Casa del Mezcal on Flores Magón hosts a wider variety of mezcal than you could ever hope to inflict upon your liver. Dress code: sombrero, poncho and a handlebar moustache.
Day two should be spent exploring the central valley of Oaxaca. This can either be done independently or as part of a tour.
Even before you reach the outskirts of Oaxaca, you feel that you are leaving the city behind and entering an altogether different region. Head out of Oaxaca towards Teotitlán del Valle, but not before stopping off at El Tule, what many believe to be the world's biggest tree.
You should try and arrive early to Teotitlán del Valle, where you can witness the small town market life of the local Zapotec people. The town has a very friendly feel and you should greet all you meet with a brief "buenos dias". Try some of the local hot chocolate as you walk around the stalls, where you'll find everything from walnuts to deep fried crickets (chapulines).
On the outskirts of Teotitlán you can stop off at a local weaver's factory in order to see how they prepare the local textile; how it gains its intense colour and is then woven into blankets, scarves and mats. These weavings make an excellent gift to take back for family and friends.
Heading further away from the city of Oaxaca, those of a more adventurous disposition should definitely visit Hierve el Agua, a unique petrified waterfall with natural pools overlooking the entire central valley of Oaxaca. A true work of natural beauty, this is the perfect way to relax with a quesadilla or two for lunch, enjoying the incredible views and cooling off from the heat of the sun.
Heading back into Oaxaca, make sure you stop off at a mezcal factory in order to see how it's produced and sample all sorts of mezcal-based liquors and spirits. It's a real treat and the perfect way to warm yourself up for dinner!
In the evening consider going to the Casa de Cantera in order to see a performance of guelaguetza (traditional folk dance). A tidal wave of colour; guelaguetza will be a great way to wrap up your 48 hours in true Oaxacan style.
WHERE TO EAT IN OAXACA
When visiting Oaxaca, you should definitely make the most of its extensive (and very reasonably priced) selection of restaurants specialising in the delicious local cuisine, famous throughout Mexico. Here are a few of my recommendations:
La Biznaga (Garcia Vigil street) – there is a really laid-back atmosphere to this open-air, courtyard restaurant. Its menu is both inventive and diverse.
Los Danzantes (Alcalá street) – one of Oaxaca's more upmarket eateries, the quality of the cuisine here is of a very high standard.
La Olla (address: Reforma 402) – a very pleasant atmosphere and vegetarian-friendly menu.
El Asador Vasco – great spot overlooking the main square. A meat lover’s dream.
Mercado 20 de Noviembre – all of Oaxaca's finest fare is on offer at this colourful market. Each family's recipe is a closely guarded secret. The mole – chili chocolate chicken – is a must.
'Comida Chatarra' – On many streets surrounding the main square you will be able to find people selling Oaxaca's famous tlayudas: crispy tortillas with a bean spread and a topping of your choice. Wash it down with your favourite mezcal!
Peter leads two Journey Latin America tours visiting Oaxaca:
Aztecs and Mayas: Cultural Treasures of Mexico - our Classic Journey, 14 nights from £2798 including international flights.
Guatemala and Mexico: the Legacy of the Maya and the Consquistadores - our Discovery Journey, 14 nights from £2798 including international flights.