Many visitors to Oaxaca spend only two or three days in the city, not long enough to fully appreciate its cultural history and contemporary greatness. So here’s a down-and-dirty two hour downtown walking tour designed for those on a short visit.
Obtain a complimentary city map from your lodging. The historic center including street names should be clearly demarcated. The route begins at the upper end of Garcia Vigil, and concludes on Morelos, near the Soledad church. There, at the Jardín Socrates, you can relax and enjoy a well-deserved nieve (sherbet). If you’re not up to walking the distance without a break, stop for a drink and snack mid-way, at a restaurant lining the zócalo.
To begin, walk up Garcia Vigil until reaching the ancient stone arches on the left, Los Arquitos. This was a functioning aqueduct delivering water to the city from the north. It originally continued further downtown, with arteries extending in both directions enabling residents to obtain water. The stone is green limestone, used in most city construction during colonial times. It was also used to construct pre-Hispanic buildings, and is still employed to construct retaining walls for residential and commercial buildings, and as interior accents.
Begin walking back south. On your right, up an exterior staircase you’ll encounter a state run craft store (ARIPO) with artisans’ works from throughout Oaxaca. Peruse the store to learn what you’ll come across during your visit to the city and nearby villages. Don’t hesitate to buy, notwithstanding that this will be your first day in Oaxaca; quality is good, prices are reasonable.
Continuing along Garcia Vigil, on your right is the Benito Juárez museum, where Mexico’s first indigenous president called home for part of his life. It contains period furniture, original documents, and chronicles his importance. There are better city museums, but history buffs might want to return to it.
Further along across the street is Carmen Alto church. It was built on the site of an Aztec temple dedicated to the corn deity. What better way to stamp out indigenous religions, than to build a Catholic church on top of a native temple. Into the second half of the 20th century Carmen Alto restricted attendance to whites; those with signs of indigeneity had to pray in Carmen Bajo.
Turn left at the bottom of Carmen Alto, down a wide paved pathway with shops on the right. Halfway down is a small variety store, so it seems. There are two rooms filled with contemporary and vintage masks, 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 main pedestrian walkway, Macedonio Alcalá. Turn right. On your left is the high walled ethno-botanical garden. Walking down, on your right is the Institute of Graphic Arts, donated by renowned Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo. It houses a library and store where you can purchase hand-made paper products.
On your left is the complex housing Santa Domingo church and cultural center. Wander through the church. It’s the most elaborate church in southern Mexico, with impressive gold, biblical stories painted on the domed ceiling, etc. The cultural center is one of the finest museums in all Mexico, and takes a couple of hours to truly appreciate. On the back side of the complex is the entrance to the enthno-botanical garden. In revolutionary times it served as a cavalry barracks. The ethno-botanical tour must be done with an on-site guide.
Keep walking down and turn left at Jardín Labastida (your street map will show M. Bravo to the right, and Abasolo to the left). Before turning onto Labastida, note Amate Books ahead of you on the right. It’s the state’s most comprehensive English language bookstore. Continue along Jardín Labastida. At the end is a reproduction of an early toma agua where locals would attend to “take water” from one of the aqueduct’s arteries.
Turn right, onto Calle 5 de Mayo. The entire block on the left is the luxurious Quinta Real hotel. Over the centuries it has housed municipal offices, a jail and a convent. You can walk through the hotel during the day, so use this opportunity to stroll through history, noting the refurbished frescoes, the lavabos (wash basins) which were used by the nuns, etc.
Continue along 5 de Mayo, turning right onto Murguía. On your right is Arte de Oaxaca, one of the best and oldest art galleries, boasting quality rotating exhibits. There is a room dedicated to the late great Rodolfo Morales. His influence is evident in the work of most contemporary Oaxacan artists.
Turn left on Independencia. On the right, at the corner of Tinoco y Palacios, is San Felipe Neri church, where Benito Juárez wed. It contains exquisite Baroque architecture. Across the street is Carmen Bajo, a low building. It was destroyed during a major earthquake over a hundred years ago, then rebuilt. By contrast, San Felipe Neri was not significantly damaged, the original structure remaining. The bedrock on the north of the street is different from that on the south; hence one church stood while the other fell.
Continue west along Independencia until reaching a staircase on the 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 refreshing sherbet. On the north east end of the square is the school of fine arts.
Above Jardín Socrates and just west of the fine arts school is a large open area with seating, Plaza de la Danza where there are frequent performances.
Your tour is ending, so walk back to your hotel, likely eastbound along Morelos, the street fronting Plaza de la Danza. A couple of blocks over on the north side is the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre-Hispanic Art. Make a note of the days and hours of operation of this excellent, small museum. It should pique the interest of even those who are not museumgoers.
A more comprehensive walking tour covering the same territory is found here: http://www.casamachaya.com/1/category/walking-tour-oaxaca/1.html.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.ads.oaxacacalendar.com/MEE/). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.