By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
The city of Oaxaca is rich in museums designed with architectural brilliance, craft shops featuring the best that state artisans have to offer, colorful marketplaces, colonial churches, arguably the finest cuisine in all Mexico, and world renowned archaeological sites only minutes away. Yet some travelers only want to visit for a couple of days within the context of a longer beach vacation; others for merely hours. While I am generally loath to even make suggestions to those who inquire about such a brief jaunt to Oaxaca, truth be told there are visitors with time constraints, who, I realize, deserve a shot at making the most of a day in the city. If you simply want a taste, this is for you. If you are coming from or going to Huatulco or Puerto Escondido and have a few hours to kill in between connecting flights, then consider extending to a full day. Why? Because you can at least begin to experience the wonders of Oaxaca in a day; and then you’ll undoubtedly be back, and spend more time marveling. So here it is, a 24-hour whirlwind tour of Oaxaca.
Enjoy breakfast at one of the many outdoor restaurants lining the city’s central downtown square, its zócalo. People-watching is one of the favorite activities for tourists and locals alike.
Walk through Oaxaca’s two most popular downtown permanent marketplaces, the Benito Juarez and 20 de Noviembre markets, where you will get your first glimpse of an array of crafts and souvenirs; vendors hawking fruit, vegetables, breads and pastries, meats and seafood; and of course, Oaxaca’s famed alcoholic spirit, mezcal.
A few blocks away you’ll be at the bus depot on Calle Mina, dedicated to providing a return trip to the Monte Alban ruin, but while en route, pass by the Soledad and the Mayordomo chocolate milling stores where you’ll be enticed into perhaps a hot chocolate or buying a container of the state’s famed mole negro.
Arrive at Monte Alban. Either wander the site on your own with a Mexico travel book in hand, or get a bilingual guide once up there. Consider sitting down for a drink in the restaurant.
Have lunch back downtown at one of the innumerable local haunts offering the state’s famed tlayuda, often termed a Oaxacan pizza. Consider a pleasant middle-of-the-road restaurant, or maybe a street stand; as long as you see others milling about, that’s a pretty sure bet that the fare will be safe.
Explore a couple of the city’s art galleries on Macedonio Alcalá, the main pedestrian walkway, en route to the Santa Domingo church, then walk through the adjoining cultural center, the most comprehensive museum in the state.
ARIPO, at the north end of Calle Garcia Vigil, is the state-run store which features high quality crafts from virtually every district in the state, surprisingly reasonably priced for what you get. While there are several shops in the city center, ARIPO is your best bet if pressed for time. Continue walking up the street where you will be in the quaint Xochimilco area, known for the 17th century aqueduct that now houses shops and restaurants.
Sit down for a break at Jardín Socrates, which features a series of open air sorbet/ice cream stands with more flavors than Baskin Robbins, including, of course, mezcal.
Return to your hotel for a well-deserved rest and freshening up. But if you still have energy and don’t need recharging, head to one of more than the dozen or so mezcalerías, and sample a couple (or a few) agave spirits distilled in copper or clay, fermented in wooden vats, clay pots, or even animal skins.
Oaxaca boasts the finest dining in all Mexico, and for less than half of what it would cost you for a comparable meal back home, you can relax and enjoy dinner prepared by one of Oaxaca’s famed Michelin-quality chefs.
You’ve barely touched the surface, yet have had a smattering of the city’s offerings: cuisine, drink, crafts, museums, architecture, and most of all the wealth of Oaxaca’s diversity of cultural traditions. But do check times before heading out, since some outlets still follow the old custom of closing for a couple of hours mid-afternoon for siesta.
Alvin Starkman owns Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).