This cultural 4-6 hour self-guided walk unveils local life and beating heart of Oaxaca. It begins at the Zócalo and Oaxaca Cathedral; heads northwest to the grand Basilica de la Soledad and two small churches; and ends at the Temple de Santo Domingo, its museum and gardens. Note – I suggest you start this wokabout on a morning.
Begin your day tour at the Zócalo and Oaxaca Cathedral (Av Independencia, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca, OAX)
The sprawling Zócalo, dotted by several massive 125-year old Indian Laurel trees (sadly, remnants from a refurbishment which killed most of them) and park benches, is a great place to relax and people-watch any time of the day.
The restaurants and cafes lining the southern face of the square are not the best in the city but some offer pleasant outdoor eating areas.( To name a few – Italian Coffee, Hosteria de Antequera and Amarantos). Good for hot chocolate or coffee and roll as you pore over a map.
Stalls by the dozen stand along the western flank of the square extending onto a side street selling handicrafts, embroidered blouses and shawls, shoes, makeup, toys and even rubik’s cubes. Good place to but trinkets and embroidered clothing for gifts – I managed to get 20% off bargaining hard and buying bulk. This are open late morning or only at night depending on the season; and open longer hours on weekends.
Do plan for a separate two hour visit to people watch at the zócalo on a Saturday evening, from 5pm onwards, when it’s buzzing. Families and couples stroll at leisure, entertained by clowns and competing street bands. Wild hordes of children play soccer, unheedingly crashing into passersby. Strolling street vendors sell food (mostly roast corn), roasted grasshoppers, cicharron in cones, candy, cumulus clouds of balloons and bubble-blowing sets. Wander in and out of the 16th century Oaxaca Cathedral on the north west of the Zócalo – the contrast of outdoor madness and indoor worship is amusing.
If you happen to be here Dec 23rd, you’ll catch La Noche de Rabanos, Radish Night – where elaborate and intricate tableaus, sculptures of animals, dancers made of – yes – the vegetable (or is it a root?), festoon the square.
During the day, this is a good place to stock up. The streets south and west of the square are teem with myriad services invauable to touristos:- cash machines, SIM card and cellphone vendors, tour companies, a centro ticket outlet for bus lines, airline reps and clothing and shoe stores.
The Cathedral of the Virgin of the Assumption on North side of the Zócalo and on the eastern side of the Alameda
The Cathedral’s Baroque stone façade features massive columns with carved stone figures and bas-reliefs. Its neoclassical interior is graced with eight stained glass windows. Earthquakes in 1694 and 1714 caused severe damage but the structure was fully restored. The interior has a rich collection of paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries. The clock, a gift from the King of Spain, was mounted on the south tower in 1755.
Walk westward from the church’s northwest corner, along the south side Av. Independencia for about three blocks. Pass 20 de Noviembre street until almost the end of the block.
San Cosme y San Damian Church – Intersection of Independencia Ave. and Tinoco y Palacios
The small church is in a state of disrepair but still retains a quiet air sanctity, with a a few of the faithful praying quietly on the polished wooden benches.
Built in the latter part of the sixteenth century, the church was annexed to the hospital of St. Cosmas and Damian (known as the Royal Hospital).
It served as a chapel for the sick and dying. The hospital was dismantled when the law confiscating clergy property was enacted, and the land fell into private hands. The church was left to ruin but eventually restored and reopened for worship by 1945. It’s plain architecture reveals its humble origins, comprising a single nave, a central beam and vault. Head to the other side of the street, to view the larger and more significant San Felipe Neri.
Templo de San Felipe Neri, Independencia and Tinoco y Palacios
The building is an fascinating piece of architecture. Its auster lines and sedate stone facade gives no hint of the the wildly flamboyant 17th century Baroque gildings and embellishments.
The south-facing facade’s central bay is divided into three panels, with repeating columns flanking scalloped-edged niches. A statue of the church’s namesake, Filippo Neri, stands above the studded wooden doors. Neri was the 16th century Roman founder of the Congregation of the Oratory, a community of secular priests.
The opulent and intricately carved gilded altarpiece is considered to be the finest in the city. The towering edifice stands within the apse, beneath a carved wooden arch.
The central section and its flanking panels are so ornate it’s hard to focus on any one element, bristling with ornamentation and figurines and reliefs of St. Mary, saints, apostles and angels. In the early 1900s Archbishop Gillow ordered the painting of the interior walls in an over-the-top and Art Nouveau style, which clashes with the ornamentations and adds to the visual chaos.
Amid all the gilded grandeur there are signs of disrepair. Flaking paint and thin scars of white plaster snake along the patterned walls, revealing cracks from minor tremors common in the region.
Before heading to the next church on the tour, pop into the small shop just next to the Filipo Neri. The place is loaded with enough icons, sculptures and Catholic paraphernelia to start your private chapel. Then continue walking further west for another five minutes until you get arrive at steps leading up to a the Socrates Garden Plaza, opposite Mier y Teran street.
A half dozen shaded outdoor stalls in the plaza peddle helado (sherbet), nieves (ice cream) and paletas (icepops). Like Oaxacan juices, amazing stuff because of the variety and high quality of local exotic fruits. Some of the flavors come in both ice cream and sherbet forms, and unfortunately many sherbets contain with food coloring. There’s no way the lime juice is that shade of neon green, rose that deep scarlet!
Mango, as helado and nieve, is my absolute favorite but other lovely and unusual local flavors you might want to try – tamarindo (juiced tamarind pulp – addictively tart!), maracuya (passion fruit), membrillo (quince), guanábana (soursop) and rose (made from petals). Or try safer flavors of coconut, vanilla, chocolate or caramel; note that “tuna” flavor is the red fruit of a cactus, nothing to do with the fish.
Or skip dessert, stay on the tour track and head across the plaza, bearing to the left. Enter the archway leading to the immediate grounds of the Basilica.
Basílica Menor de la Soledad (Our Lady of Solitude) , Independencía #107 at Galeana
The basilica is one of the foremost examples of Oaxacan religious architecture and one of the two major churches of Oaxaca. But more charming reasons to visit are its beloved status in Oaxaca and its origins in a miracle.
Local legend has it that an image of the Virgin, Christ and a message “The Virgin at the foot of the Cross” was miraculously discovered in a pack carried by a mysterious mule that had keeled over dead in 1543. The bishop immediately commanded that a shrine be built on the very spot. (One wonders why the poor mule had to give up its life – couldn’t the miracle be one where it could talk about its holy cargo?)
The site includes a convent (used as government offices), the Socrates Garden and the outdoor Plaza de la Danza. The Basilica itself was completed in1690, as a shrine to the Virgin de la Soledad (Our Lady of Solitude), the patron saint of the city of Oaxaca. The bulky, protruding facade was.
The seventeenth century Baroque facade, completed in 1718 , is unusual for a colonial era religious construct. The design represents a folding screen in four soaring tiers, with a relief of the mournful Virgin of Solitude set above the arched entryway.
Inside, the stunning domes and vaults of the ceiling (painted in ecru with gilded trim) lead the eye to a glowing, golden niche above main altar where the heart of the building stands, the oddly doll-like statue of Virgin of the Soledad, or Nuestra Señora de la Soledad.
This revered and beloved icon, perched within a glowing golden niche, is more than a figurine. The faithful relate to her as a living deity with festivals, prayers and floral offerings in her honor. Ironically, the gold of her crown and and jewels gracing her robe are reproductions as the originals were brazenly snatched in the 1980s.
The walls are graced with lithe angels and several paintings of saints, in the European Baroque style, the most beautiful is the one of St. Jerome.
This basilica is the center of the December 18th Feast of Our Lady of Solitude, one of the top celebrations in Oaxaca with weeklong festivities. These include regional dances (ethnic groups include the Negritos, El Tigres, the Cuerudos, the Jarabe Mixteco and the Chenteños), a pilgrimage from throughout the state, street fairs, music, and fireworks. The church is decorated with flowers, banners, and candles.
If you’ve time take a short stroll in the bordering street and pop into shops selling religious paraphernalia.
Iglesa de Santo Domingo de Guzmán and Museo de las Culturas Oaxaca– A Gurrión 110, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca, Mexico
For a snack/quickie meal before you spend a few hours here, there’s coffee, juice and pastries at Brujula west of the church just across the plaza, on M. Alcala street. For truly amazing coffee, the best I’ve found in Oaxaca, continue two blocks west along Allende to Latitude 17, (#215 B Allende). Owner-barista Stefan sources his beans from the sierras north of Oaxaca, one of the smoothest brews I’ve had including the best stuff from Rome. His specialty “cinque” of two parts coffee and three parts milk is addictive.
If you’re wanting lunch you have several options –
Or head to fast, reasonable and gringo-friendly Pan Am Mariano (at Absolo 13) which serves baked goods, loaves, croissants, deli sandwiches(croissant or ciabatta with choice of spinach, jamon, pepperoni, cheese, gouda 65 pesos; bagel sandwiches 50 pesos; Sourdough sandwiches 80 Pesos); Breakfasts (waffles etc) 8am-1pm; closes 8pm.
This church-museum-botanical garden complex is a must-see. This Dominican church is significant to Mexican architecture, history and religion and is striking, juxtaposing lavish interiors with a modern sense of space. The former monastery houses one of the foremost pre-Columbian archaelogical finds.
Take this three-hour tour to include a short lunch stop and visit to local markets Mercado Benito Juarez and its neighbor, Mercado Noviember
The Dominican church and adjoining monastery took over 90 years to build, from the 1560s, interrupted by financing issues and a 1603 earthquake. The monastery was completed in 1610, the church much later in 1666, with two-meter thick earthquake proof walls.
But the Dominicans lost the church to another force – the government – which seized and privatized religious assets in 1859. The interior was almost completely destroyed in the process. Regaining its sanity, or at least conscience, the government surrendered the church to Catholic hands in the late 19th century, who returned it to the original owners, the Dominican sect in the 1930s. Their long and arduous restoration of Santo Domingo was mostly finished in the 1970s. Misused for over 90 years for secular purposes, including prison and military offices, the project cost 12 million Pesos.
Santo Domingo, as with all Dominican churches, faces westward. Its four-tiered retablo facade, sitting in a recess flanked by a pair of thick towers, is made of yellow stone glows in the setting sun. The expansive open plaza, oddly reminiscent of those in Zapotec ruins, has a unique Mexican charm with the colonial Spanish structure nestled within towering spires of cactus and knife-edged leaves of agave in beds of red clay.
The church’s interior should come with a warning – visual overload may cause seizures – as over 60,000 sheets of 23.5-karat gold leaf were used in the restoration. As you enter the arched portal, look upward to see the oldest remnant of the original embellishments. The gilded relief of a widespread, fantastical plant blossoms with the upper halves of the 34 key members of the family tree of St. Domingo de Guzmán, the 13th century founder of the Dominican order.
The fantastical Guzman vine is a dazzling piece of Spanish colonial art, setting the tone for the rest of the interior. Every inch on each dome, arch, vault and pillar is embellished, gilded, painted, tiled, overlaid, or sculpted in heavy Baroque style. The destroyed portions were reconstructed based on other churches of the period. It’s almost impossible to appreciate any single element except for the stunning white-garbed the Virgen de Rosario and Christ child. The statue glows as pure as a pearl within the ornate Rosary Chapel, one the most impressive of the ten chapels of Santo Domingo. The imperious gold retable or High Altar, the carved and gold-leaf covered structure with niches for holy statues, covers the whole wall above and behind the altar. To its right, several low steps lead to the small Blessed Sacrament chapel, with a small bench where one can contemplate the agonies portrayed by the life-sized Christ on a cross.
After gorging your eyes on visual marvels, head next door to the Museum and treat your mind on Oaxaca’s rich culture and history. The Mexican military occupied the former the Convento de Santo Domingo up til 1994, now housing the well-curated Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca. Mexico’s most important archaelogical discovery – Zapotec gold and precious stone treasures from Monte Alban’s tomb 7 is exhibited here.
Skip the ground floor library of antique books behind glass (the Biblioteca Francisco de Burgoa) and small gallery for temporary exhibits if you’re short for time and head upstairs. The second floor houses the main exhibits divided into small galleries, set along long corridors; with exhibits on cultural aspects of Oaxaca such as music, farm implements, language and ethnic groups, costumes and jewelry. Over a dozen more rooms are chronologically ordered through Oaxacan history from prehistoric times, through the Spanish colonial period and the 20th century. The including a gold, jade and turquoise treasure trove from Monte Alban and other archaeological finds from ruins surrounding the city.
Stop at the Ethnobobotanical Gardens where Dominican friars originally cultivatde European plants for medicine and food. Plan your visit ahead of time, and be ready to pay. Group tours are scheduled only three times a week and fill up, or (email firstname.lastname@example.org , fee 200 pesos per person, for info and appointments) you could book private tours. The current gardens only contain species native to Oaxaca to show off the state’s boast of having the most diverse flora in Mexico. See if you can spot the 7,000 specimens and 1,000 species. The layout and sculptures were designed in collaboration with foremost Oaxacan artists Francisco Toledo and Luis Zárate. When work on the new garden began in 1998, the planners ran into an obstacle that Californians are well acquainted with – water shortage. It was addressed by laying out a rain-collection and watering system of canals and a wet (desert) and a dry (rainforest) zone for plants. A varied species of agave,cactus trees make the garden worth a visit.
Church schedule – Open daily from 7 till 1pm and 4pm till 8pm; free entry
Schedule for Masses – in Spanish Weekdays at 7am, 8am and 730pm; Sundays at 7am, 11am, 1pm, 530pm and 7:30pm (English mass 730pm Saturday and noon Sunday)
Museum schedule – Open Tue to Sun 10:00 am to last entrance at 6:15 pm (closes 8pm)
Fee – 65 Pesos for adults; 60 pesos for audio guide in English. Free on Sundays, public holidays, children, students and seniors.
Ethnobobotanical Garden – Open for limited 2-hour group tours or private tours. In English Tue, Thu and Sat 11:00 am. Private tours – email email@example.com Fee 200 pesos per person
Fee – 100 Pesos per adult, free for children under 13