08 May 2015

Oaxaca: City Centre Sights and Monte Alban

After a long but often scenic bus journey from DF, I arrived in Oaxaca on Wednesday night, just as the heavens opened. I decided to walk to my hotel, despite the rain, as I thought it would help me to get my bearings more quickly.

One of the reasons I wanted to come to Oaxaca City was because of its culinary culture, but I'll save my food and drink experiences for another post, after I've taken part in a cooking class. After the epic sprawl of DF, the centre of Oaxaca, which has a population of 250,000, feels very compact. The city is in a valley, and the residential areas spread up into the surrounding hills, but you can easily wander through the centro historico on foot.

Oaxaca is a beautiful city, with its colourful buildings and gorgeous architecture. The Zócalo, of course, is a hive of activity, by day or by night, where there is usually some form of live music and various craft and food stalls.

Templo Santo Domingo and its surrounding plaza is just as pretty, but much less crowded. Today, I played the game of 'match your outfit to a building', but although my hotel was the closest building in colour, one of the ubiquitous VW Beetles was an even better match.

I did a little bit of craft shopping today, stopping by the Mercado de Artesanías, Casa de las Artesanías and La Casa Del Rebozo, but, still trying to get a feel for prices and still conscious of the lack of space in my suitcase, I only bought a few small trinkets. Javier & Servin is a lovely ceramics boutique on Calle Matamoros, whose lovely tea sets caught my eye.

Needing a little respite from the sun, I stopped by a couple of museums: the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca (set inside a beautiful former monastery, centred around a pretty botanic garden) and the small but lovely Centro Fotográfico Manuel Álvarez Bravo. The latter had a couple of small exhibitions, including Lisen Stibeck Hijas' excellent portraits of young women from around the world.

There are a few major excursions from Oaxaca, one of which is the Zapotec archaeological site of Monte Albán, a few (very steep) miles outside the city. Several companies offer guided tours of or transportation to Monte Albán; I took a transportation-only option from Viajes Turisticos Mitla, located just south of the Zócalo on Calle Mira. The journey costs 50 pesos return (about £2) and takes about 25 minutes. There are hourly departures on weekdays — half-hourly at the weekend.

The Monte Albán site, which is UNESCO listed, was the Zapotec capital, established in around 500 BC. It isn't as big as Teotihuacaán, but its location — perched on top of a flattened hilltop, high above what is now the city of Oaxaca — offers incredible 360 views over the city and the valley. As with most of the other major tourist attractions I've visited so far in Mexico, the admission price was 64 pesos (just under £3). Thankfully, given how hot the day was, you can take water (although not other drinks or food) inside.

The first thing you notice when you enter the archaeological site is the high-pitched chirping of the grasshoppers (chapulines); there were also some beautiful red and black birds, and lovely monarch butterflies. Then, after walking past the ball-game court (the capital-I-shaped area in the first photo below), you reach the huge central plaza. The steps to the top of the ruins on each side are steep, so do wear trainers or walking sandals.

 I spent about two hours walking around the site. You can hire a guide, if you like, but I preferred to amble at my own pace. There are informational signs in Spanish and English next to most of the main points of interest. The layout of the main platform meant I couldn't manage any self-timer leaps from the top of the steps, but I did manage to find somewhere to do so over to the side. If you have a spare half-day in Oaxaca and especially if you haven't been to any other ancient archaeological sites in Mexico, Monte Albán is definitely an excursion to consider.

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