15.04.2014 25 °C
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Many visitors to the south central Mexico colonial city of Oaxaca spend only two or three full days here (aside from touring the central valley routes), not long enough to really learn about its cultural history, its contemporary greatness, and a little about its underbelly. There are indeed some detailed walking tours of the city contained in some guide books, but each of the three or four downtown routes requires a couple of hours to complete, if justice is to be done.
One tour a day is often all that tourists have the stamina to do, given the sun, the elevation and jet lag. This, then, is a down-and-dirty single touring route for those who will be in the city for only a short period of time, and want a brief overview of what there is available. It is suggested that you do the tour your first full day, in the morning, and then return to the places which pique your interest later on in your visit.
Upon your arrival, obtain a complimentary Oaxaca city map from your lodging. All accommodations give them out for free. The centro histórico, or downtown historic center, is usually clearly demarcated, and all the streets noted in this tour route should be noted. The walk takes a couple of hours. It begins at the upper end of Calle Garcia Vigil, and concludes at Calle Morelos, near the Soledad church, towards the west end of downtown. There, at the Jardín Socrates, you can relax and enjoy a fresh, cool nieve, or sherbet. If you’re not up to walking without a break for a full two hours, you can stop for a drink and snack mid-way, at one of the outdoor restaurants lining the main downtown square, or zócalo. Consider Terranova, east side of the zócalo, second outdoor restaurant from the bottom.
Beginning the tour, walk up Garcia Vigil until you see the old stone arches on the left. This area is known as Los Arquitos. This was a functioning aqueduct, built during the 18th century by the Spanish, delivering water to the city from a few miles further north, a suburb now known as San Felipe del Agua. Additional lengths of the aqueduct are as well found outside of the city and northern suburb. The aqueduct originally continued further downtown, with arteries extending out from it in both directions, enabling residents to obtain water. Note that the stone used in its construction is green limestone, used in most city construction during colonial times. It was also used to construct pre-Hispanic buildings. It is still used today together with cement and reinforced steel to build retaining walls for both residential and commercial buildings, and as interior adorning accents. You’ll no doubt come across the more common green stone, but perhaps also hues of pink and yellow during your visit to Oaxaca.
Los Arquitos now houses the odd restaurant, business, and home; in some cases you can walk through the archways and onto cobblestone streets. This is one of the quaintest neighborhoods in Oaxaca!
Turn around and begin walking back south. On your right, up a flight of exterior stairs you’ll encounter a state run craft store (ARIPO) with a smattering of artisans’ works from throughout the state. Take a look through the store since it will give you an idea of what you’ll be coming across during your visit to the city and outlying craft villages. Don’t hesitate to buy, notwithstanding that this will be your first day in Oaxaca, because the quality is good, and prices are not out of line. On the other hand, you might want to simply make a mental note of items you like, and the prices, and consider returning to the store just before concluding the Oaxaca segment of your vacation.
Continue along Garcia Vigil, up a bit and then begin the descent. About a block down on your right you’ll see the Benito Juárez museum, a home where Benito Juárez, Mexico’s first indigenous president, lived for part of his life. It contains period furniture, original documents and photos, and an explanation about Juarez´s importance, accomplishments, etc. Personally, I think there are much better museums in the city, but some history buffs might be interested in coming back and touring it.
Across the street and a bit further down is the Carmen Alto church. It was founded on the site of an Aztec temple which was dedicated to the corn deity. What better way to attempt to stamp out indigenous religions, than for the Spanish to build a Catholic church right on top of a native temple. This kind of thing was repeated time and again throughout Mexico, and in Oaxaca in particular (i.e. building the church at Mitla on top of an indigenous temple, using stones hewn by hand by the natives to build their own religious and administrative buildings). The Carmen Alto (las carmelitas descalsas) church restricted attendance to whites into the second half of the 20th century; those with overt signs of indigenous blood were restricted to praying in Carmen Bajo.
Turn left at the bottom of Carmen Alto, down a paved, wide pathway with shops on the right. It’s only a one-block walkway. On the right, halfway down is a small variety store, or so it seems. There are two rooms filled with contemporary and vintage masks for sale, but if the owner isn’t there you cannot get into that part of the shop.
You’ve passed by several bohemian-looking street vendors, and are now at the city’s main pedestrian walkway, Macedonio Alcalá, where you turn right. On your left is part of the ethnobotanical gardens, with high walls. Walking down, on your right is the Institute of Graphic Arts, donated to the city by renowned Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo. It houses a library and store where you can purchase items made in the hand-made paper factory located outside of the city at San Agustín Etla, also noted for its spectacular fine arts center housed in a restored 19th century textile mill.
On your left is the complex housing the Santa Domingo church and cultural center. Take a peek into the church, and remember it for a return visit. It’s the most elaborate church in this part of Mexico, with amazing gold, biblical stories painted on the domed ceiling, etc. The cultural center / museum is one of the finest in all Mexico, and if justice is to be done takes a couple of hours to wander through. The ex-convent itself is quite amazing. On the other (back) side of the church and cultural center is the entrance to the enthnobotanical gardens (on Calle Reforma). In revolutionary times it served as a cavalry barracks. If you decide to do the ethnobotanical tour it must be done with an on-site guide. Check, but English guided tours are generally on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 11 am, and during high tourist season should be booked in advance.
But stay on Alcalá, walking a block further down where you will turn left at the Jardín Labastida (your street map with show M. Bravo to the right, and Abasolo to the left; around the time of the revolution many street names changed, but your map should have the current names; in addition, some street names change at Alcalá, and others at Independencia.)
Before turning onto Jardín Labastida, just down Alcalá on the right side you should note Amate Books, the most comprehensive English language bookstore in the city. Now continue along the Jardín Labastida, along the middle walkway, and at the end you will find a reproduction of an early “toma agua” where locals would attend to “take water” from one of the arteries leading out from the aqueduct. The park used to be a place where young artists would sell their work, and often would get their start. The municipality decided around 2012 that it would no longer allow artists to use the park, a pity to my thinking.
Turn right at the far end of the park by the toma agua, and head down Calle 5 de Mayo. The left side of the street is completely taken up by the exterior walls of the luxurious Quinta Real hotel. Over the centuries it had housed municipal offices, a jail and a convent. You can freely walk through the hotel from 9 am to 7 pm, so use this as an opportunity to stroll through history, looking at the refurbished frescoes, the lavabos (wash basins) which were used by the nuns, etc.
Continue heading down 5 de Mayo, and turn right at the first corner, onto Murguia. On your right you’ll see Arte de Oaxaca, one of the best and oldest art galleries in the city, usually with high quality rotating exhibits. There is a permanent exhibit dedicated to the late great master of Mexican art, Oaxacan Rodolfo Morales. His influence can be seen in the work of most contemporary local artists.
Turn left onto M. Alcalá. On the south east corner you’ll find Taller de Orfebre, a good, quality jewelry store. Keep walking down. On your left you will come across the museum of contemporary art of Oaxaca (MACO), worth a visit at a later time. On Calle Morelos, just west of Alcalá on the north side you’ll see Monte de Piedad, the oldest pawn shop in the city, with something for everyone, but only at times, so you likely will not want to check it out, noteworthy as it is.
Still on Alcalá, south of Morelos on the right side is the law school, virtually across the street from, sorry, Burger King. On the left side, a bit up, is an old bookstore, Grañen Porrua. Walk through to the back and you’ll see a wall with a work of art by craftsman José Luis Garcia, a well-known artist from nearby Ocotlán de Morelos, known for its Friday marketplace.
Keep walking down Alcalá. The name changes at Independencia, and traffic on the street begins. But keep walking straight down and you’ll hit Oaxaca’s famed central square, its zócalo.
The zócalo has been important throughout history as a meeting place, for prominent locals to be seen and to mingle, and more significantly for protesters to air their grievances. Oaxaca’s zócalo is synonymous with civil unrest and disobedience, but it is virtually always a safe place to be, to have a meal or drinks and snacks and to people watch. Every night there is action on the zócalo, with mariachis, marimbas, and throughout the week on specific days the state band and dancing events such as for danzón. A good website which outlines both permanent weekly and short-run activities is http://www.oaxacacalendar.com. On the south side of the zócalo, where there are usually protesters, is the municipal palace, now housing art exhibits. It is also home of a famous mural depicting the history of Mexico.
Before walking up the other (west) side of the zócalo, note that there are two must-visit markets southwest of the zócalo, down a block and over to the west, the Benito Juárez and 20 de Noviembre markets. Do not miss them, if only for walk throughs. They are marked on your maps. Now walking up that west side of the zócalo you will pass by additional outdoor cafés and upstairs restaurants.
Just beyond the zócalo proper is another square, the Alameda de León, with the Cathedral on the right, and a landmark old hotel on the left, Hotel Monte Albán with some of the oldest original ironwork on the exterior that you will see in the city. Just up from it is the post office, and on the other side of the street in front of you, Independencia, is the Museo de los Pintores Oaxaqueños, usually worth a look see, perhaps on a gallery hopping day. Before leaving the Alameda, walk through the Cathedral and notice that the pulpit is in the middle rather than at the end, and the unusual seating arrangement.
Turn left on Independencia. On the right side of the street, at the corner of Tinoco y Palacios, is the San Felipe Neri church, where Benito Juárez wed. The inside has the best example of Baroque architecture that you will likely find in the state, certainly during your visit to the city. Across from the church is the Carmen Bajo church, a low building. During a major earthquake over a hundred years ago, it was destroyed and then rebuilt. By contrast, San Felipe Neri was not significantly damaged, so the original structure remains. The bedrock on the north side of the street is different from that on the south side, and hence one church stood while the other fell.
Continue walking west along Independencia until you come across an outside staircase on your right, just before the Soledad temple. Walk up the stairs, visit the church (known for the story of the Virgin of the Soledad), and then sit down at one of the outdoor stands at Jardín Socrates for a cool, refreshing nieve, sherbet made with either water or milk. The range of flavors is remarkable. On the north east end of the square is the school of fine arts. While Oaxaca does not have a particularly good reputation for education, fine arts and linguistics are exceptions. Above Jardín Socrates and to the west of the fine arts school is a large open area with seating, Plaza de la Danza where there are frequently artistic performances.
Your tour is coming to an end, so walk back to your hotel, presumably to the east, along Morelos, the street above Independencia at the top of Plaza de la Danza. A couple of blocks over, as you are walking back, on the north side of Morelos you will see the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre-Hispanic Art. Make a mental note of it, and the days and hours of operation, since it is a really nice, well arranged museum with exquisite figures in it, easily seen in a half hour or so. Even for those who are generally not museum-goers, this one should pique your interest.
Alvin Starkman first visited Oaxaca in the late 1960s, as a teenager. He frequently walked the city streets between 1991 and 2004, when he took up permanent residency. Alvin operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (http://www.ads.oaxacacalendar.com/MEE/). He can be reached at email@example.com.