I’m pretty sure it was around 10 p.m. I was at the bus station in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, waiting to take a night coach to my next destination: Oaxaca de Juárez.
Oaxaca (pronounced wa-hah-ka) is less than six hundred kilometers from San Cristóbal but the bus ride would take about 13 hours as the area is very mountainous. I’m usually able to sleep like a rock anywhere but that night I struggled to fall asleep in the bus and kept waking up throughout the trip.
We arrived in Oaxaca sometime before noon. I was still traveling with my friend Philipp and we hadn’t booked any accommodation, so the first thing to do was to find a place with wifi and try to find a hostel for the next couple of nights. Just down the street from the bus station we found a restaurant with a huge open patio. I ordered some coffee and eggs with chorizo and started looking for a place. In the end, we booked a double room at a hostel, which was on the other side of the city center.
On my way to the hostel I noticed that most houses had their doors open and that people were giving out free horchata (a rice-based drink) and ice cream. After checking in at the hostel, I asked the girl at reception what was going on, as they were doing the same thing, and she told me it was because of some local holiday I had never heard of. It was hot in Oaxaca, so free ice cream was definitely welcome.
I had never been to Oaxaca before but was always interested in visiting the city—not just because of its beautiful city center but because of its history of rebellion (especially the 2006 protest) and tradition of political art (particularly engraving). Oaxaca is the capital city of the state of the same name.
I headed down to the city center to walk around a bit, and it wasn’t long before I stumbled upon the first workshop. Engraving in Oaxaca has a long tradition, and young masters are keeping it alive through their designs and prints. The techniques and equipment they use are proper old school. Their art is entirely crafted by hand so it is obviously not cheap. Engraving workshops are organized into collectives, and in an effort to promote their work, they put out a map with all the shops affiliated to their network. You can get a stamp at every workshop you visit, and if you collect them all you get some kind of present. If I remember correctly there were about 20 workshops on the map so visiting them all was out of the question, but it was still pretty cool to see the designs, the political meaning behind their art and how it is produced.
Oaxaca was busy that day. Lots of people were out and about in the city. I sat down to have a coffee in a small establishment housed in a beautiful old colonial building. The walls of the café were covered in posters announcing literary events and workshops as well as alternative tours. I got the impression that find the more alternative side of the city would be very easy here.
Still, classical tourism was also on the program: Oaxaca’s city center is a UNESCO World Heritage site and with good reason. The modern city dates back to 1532 but the area was inhabited for centuries before that; the nearby ruins of Monte Albán and Mitla attest to this. The colonial architecture of the city is incredibly well preserved and impressive in its scale. I visited the Cathedral but wasn’t as impressed by it as I was by the Church of Santo Domingo: This church was completed in 1731 but its construction lasted over two centuries. The rather austere facade contrasts greatly with its lavish Baroque interior. The ceilings of the building are covered in gold-plated reliefs, so I was lucky to have been there at a point of the day when the sun shone aggressively right through the main window the church and made the entire ceiling glisten. It was a surreal moment.
That evening was critical mass. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it is a mass bike ride that takes over city streets. We headed out there to see the city at night. The ride on our poorly maintained bikes took us mostly along hilly avenues. At the front of the massive peloton rode a guy pulling a sound system that blared songs by Guns n’ Roses and Metallica. While waiting in line to rent bikes we met some American travelers from Seattle and ended up hanging out with them during the ride and afterward over a few rounds of Mezcal.
Oaxaca is very different to my hometown of Guadalajara. Let me start with food and drinks: Locals in Oaxaca don’t drink tequila but mezcal. In fact, Oaxacan cuisine is also very distinct from other regional Mexican cuisines. The main indigenous group in Oaxaca is Zapotec, and their cultural influence and traditions are still very present in modern Oaxaca. The basis for Oaxacan cuisine is Zapotec food, so here you’ll find a lot of stuff like grasshoppers. There’s also a traditional type of cheese from the state which is very popular all over Mexico (and just so happens to be my favorite). Also, in Oaxaca you’ll find tlayudas everywhere, which are basically burrito-sized tacos filled with beans and served with a giant piece of meat on top. Needless to say tlayudas basically don’t exist in Guadalajara, and I had never seen one before in my life.
The next day we headed out to Hierve el Agua, a spot high up in the mountains with thermal waters. Hierve el Agua literally means “the water boils.” The small location is highly popular with tourists and, after being neglected for years, has become an obligatory day trip for anyone visiting Oaxaca. Getting there was a bit of an adventure in itself, as we first had to take a bus to Mitla, a city with an impressive UNESCO archaeological site that I unfortunately didn’t visit, and then we switched to a small modified pick up that brought us up mountains to Hierve el Agua along dirt roads looking down impressive cliffs. I won’t lie, the ride was scary at times, but I trusted the driver, who probably drove up there at least once a day and had probably been doing so for many years.
The drive up seemed to last forever but I thoroughly enjoyed the view from up there. We were again with our friends from Seattle, by the way. Hierve el Agua itself was cool but I was more impressed by the view than anything else: Mountains extended as far as I could see in front of me—below me. It was incredible. I looked up to the blue skies and saw an eagle. The ride back down was even more impressive than the one going up because the sun started to set halfway down the mountain. The sun turned red against a purple sky fading into the blackest of nights.
Back in Oaxaca we found a small cemetery. To get there we had to walk through a market lined with stalls selling food and pirated goods. It was one of the last places in Oaxaca that I saw, as we had to go back to the hostel to pick up stuff and head to the bus station.
All in all, Oaxaca lived up to my expectations: Not only is the city itself worth visiting for its historic city center but for the very distinct local flavor. The place is so different from Guadalajara, where I grew up, but also from San Cristóbal de las Casas, the last place I visited. Oaxaca showed me again just how diverse Mexico is. Plus, the political history of the city and the unique art that is produced there make Oaxaca stand out and a visit there truly memorable.
It was time to head out to the Pacific Coast.
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