Oaxaca – A Celebration for Your Senses

by Lisa Coleman

Mexico is a chameleon. Every state shows a different color, every region a unique brilliance and every local culture a special tradition. The only constant is diversity… And so it is with the Mexican state of Oaxaca. As intriguing as its name, Oaxaca (wah-HAH-kah) is one of the most unusual and dynamic places in the entire country. From towering peaks, dense forests, spectacular caverns and unspoiled beaches to magnificent convents, exquisite baroque architecture and spectacular archeological sites, this region pulsates with natural and cultural beauty.

On a map, the state of Oaxaca can be found about 300 miles southeast of Mexico City. Its stunning coastline is home to the quickly emerging beach resorts of Puerto Escondido and Huatulco, but the centerpiece of the state is the romantic and magical Oaxaca City. Founded in 1532, the city is surrounded by the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range and sits atop an arid highland plateau some 5,000 feet above sea level. And though the city is densely populated, it remains unusually intimate. Easily explored on foot, it has the warm and inviting pace of a village. There is a certain energy that radiates from the people and buildings, almost as if the past remains in the present. The streets resemble a brightly colored painting, enticing aromas fill the air and music abounds… everything looks and feels like a celebration. The colonial-era treasures include splendid churches, fine museums, quaint restaurants with exotic foods, and dozens of well-preserved municipal and religious buildings.

Not far from town are the majestic archeological sites of Monte Albán and Mitla, and no trip to Oaxaca is complete without discovering these amazing ruins. Indigenous tribes of Zapotec and Mixtec inhabited the area for centuries and built mighty stone cities that flourished for thousands of years. Over 2,500 years ago, the Zapotec Indians built the holy city of Monte Albán on a hilltop overlooking the Valley of Oaxaca. The view is nothing short of spectacular and there are English-speaking guides available on-site to explain its captivating history. Whether you’re an archeological buff or not, this will be well worth the visit. To the southeast of Oaxaca City lie the ruins of Mitla, often regarded as Mexico’s finest example of intricate stone masonry. Founded by the Zapotecs, but heavily influenced by the Mixtecs, this fascinating ceremonial center is known for its precise and delicate repetitive geometric mosaics that seem almost Grecian in appearance. The city was still thriving when the Spanish arrived in 1521 and in order to impose their rule they built a church literally on top of the existing indigenous system. The incredibly rich ethnology of these ancient peoples and cultures touch every aspect of Oaxaca and can be seen and felt most prominently in the traditional markets, artisan villages, handicrafts, and ageless vibrant festivals that happen throughout the year.

A friend once described once described Oaxaca as “a country within a country.” I’d say that’s a very accurate description. Oaxaca has always been a mainstay for veteran travelers, but more and more the city and its mystical culture have been attracting novice vacationers who yearn for a bit of adventure. So reach out and touch something completely different and celebrate the spirit of your senses in Oaxaca.