This article is from the December 1999 - January 2000 and the February 2000 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Oaxaca, Where a Single Day can Encompass Two Thousand Years 

by Tony Burton

After 18 years working in Mexico, Tony Burton, an author, educator and travel consultant, moved to Canada in 1997. He returns several times a year to revisit his favorite places, leading specialized tours to such wonders as the Monarch butterflies, Paricutin volcano and the Copper Canyon. He contributed an article on Zacatecas to the April 1998 issue of The Mexico File, as well as an article on San Luis Potosi in the February 1999 issue. To see more of his work, visit  This is the first part of his article on Oaxaca. Look for part two, on day trips from Oaxaca to Monte Alban and the villages of the Oaxaca Valley in the February 2000 issue.

The warm afternoon breeze wafts a gentle mist of dust across the floor of the Oaxaca valley and into Oaxaca city, softening the colonial patina of the richly carved, 300-year-old cathedral. The dust is two thousand years old, the dust of Monte Alban, the first major city in the Americas. Now a ghost city, Monte Alban sits perched on a promontory overlooking the modern city which sprawls across the valley floor far below. Two millennia ago, the Zapotec Indians who built Monte Alban trampled part of the hillside into this dust, as they traded in the city's thriving market and gathered to witness important ceremonies. While the commoners went about their daily tasks, Monte Alban's resident priests and astronomers were discussing how to resolve two of the greatest issues of their time: where to construct a new, state-of-the-art astronomical observatory, and how to help civic leaders in central Mexico, three hundred miles away, construct another major urban center –  Teotihuacan, “City of the Gods.”

Given the long and rich history of the Oaxaca valley, and the balmy afternoon sunshine, is it any wonder that sitting in the city's main square sipping a cool beer, my thoughts repeatedly turn to what it must have been like in the past and to ponder on possible scenarios for the new millennium.

The cities of the Oaxaca valley have welcomed tourists for over two thousand years. Among the earliest tourists anywhere in Mexico were those families who accompanied the traders who came to barter their wares in Monte Alban. In recent times, a flood of tourists from Europe, the U.S. and Canada has flowed through Oaxaca’s airport before fanning out across the valley in search of the vestiges of the ancient Zapotec and Mixtec cities, seeking to find clues to timeless questions in these long-abandoned sites. A steady stream of modern-day tourists scours city stores for indigenous handicrafts; some trek to the source of these colorful ceramics and textiles, to one or other of a score of otherwise drab Indian villages, each with its own particular specialty and weekly market.  

It is sobering to reflect that historians, in a thousand years time, may well depict the period 1000 to 1999 AD as the “age of massive urbanization.” Let’s face it, a thousand years ago, large cities were few and far between. Now, more people live in urban areas than rural ones. Oaxaca is the perfect place to reflect on the ebb and flow of cities. Just a few miles west of the modern city, Monte Alban is now deserted, inhabited only by archaeologists, and visited more by international tourists than descendants of the people who originally lived there. The "modern-day" (post sixteenth century) city of Oaxaca retains its beauty –  a jewel displaying all the best facets of colonial art and culture –  but is growing rapidly, some would say uncontrollably. East of the city, scattered over the floor of the Oaxaca Valley, are many small villages, some dating back to pre-Hispanic times. Several of these formerly more important settlements have now sunk into ignominious obscurity. How did these changes occur? What prompted them? Archaeologists are still struggling to unravel the clues.

Past and present merge together during even a brief trip to Oaxaca. In the morning, you can journey from the creature comforts of your twenty-first-century hotel room to a nineteenth-century craft studio, where artisans toil from dawn till dusk, creating imaginative works of art. At mid-day, your lunchtime food can range from such pre-Columbian menu delights as fried grasshoppers to modern fast foods like hamburgers. In the afternoon, visit a museum housing seventeenth-century treasures, before climbing the time-worn steps of an ancient city.

Once in Oaxaca, don't be surprised if your planned two- or three-day stay somehow gets lengthened into four or five days. There is much more to see and do here than a single trip can possibly encompass. Fortunately, even those on a strict “one night only” budget can capture the elusive flavor of Oaxaca by combining a downtown hotel with a visit to one or more of the many interesting shopping and sightseeing attractions just outside the city.

The city itself is one of the loveliest in the Americas, an absolute “must-see.” Over the centuries, Oaxaca (pronounced Wah-hah-cah) has become particularly adept at preserving the old and the interesting, while simultaneously keeping pace with the demands of even the most discerning foreign visitor. 

Tourists here don't simply visit –  they discover their own Oaxaca, their own favorite places to eat, sit, shop and sip a pre-dinner cocktail. And many return, time after time, finding more things to do with each visit.

 Inevitably, therefore, the following suggestions for a “Day in Oaxaca” are nothing more than a personal anthology of treats and surprises. You will no doubt make your own discoveries, add your own special delights.

Let’s start in the heart of downtown, sipping locally-grown, freshly-brewed coffee in one of the cafés fronting the main plaza. The locals call their tree-shaded plaza the zócalo. A steady procession of children table-hop with varied wares and sales pitches. Refusing to take “no” for an answer, they insist that I examine their jewelry, stroke their onyx animals and admire their brightly-patterned rugs –  even if I don't buy anything.

On my way past the ornate facade of the cathedral, a short block away, fronting the small Alameda de León plaza, I am momentarily distracted by a balloon salesman whose multicolored balloons contrast splendidly with the building’s grayish rock. Somehow, the cathedral seems more squat and massive than when I was here last time. Perhaps the numerous seismic shakes in this region, including that which occurred last year, have forced it to shrink into the ground in self-defense. The city and its plethora of superb buildings have often suffered minor damage as a result of the seismic and social upheavals that have punctuated the centuries since the Spanish first arrived.

Every time I look inside the cathedral, I hope to find that I was mistaken in dismissing it so casually the last time I saw it; however, the cool air that greets me as I step through the doorway perfectly anticipates my sense of disappointment at the relative lack of interest that the interior holds, at least from my unashamedly irreligious perspective.

Stepping outside again, into the bright and welcoming sunlight, I saunter along the rather arty, pedestrianized promenade, Andador de Macedonia Alcalá, on my way towards the Santo Domingo church. Attractive shop fronts and enticing doorways, many marked with commemorative, historical plaques, vie for my attention. Examining one store-front display of local crafts, I inhale silently at the prices and mentally calculate probable profit margins. If only the artisans themselves could charge this much!

On the right is the Museum of the City of Oaxaca, housed in a building supposedly built by Hernán Cortés, the famous conquistador. Though intended for his personal use, he never actually lived here.

And here, also on the right, across a small garden, is the imposing exterior of Santo Domingo. I hesitate again, looking above the doorway for St. Hippolytus the Martyr, wearing his Roman soldier's uniform, with a plumed helmet at his feet. At several places on this west-facing facade, which for maximum effect deserves being seen in the late afternoon sun, are Dominican dogs, holding torches. I prepare to step inside...

Breathtaking! This, in the words of Richard Perry, the author and renowned expert on colonial religious architecture, is the “most sumptuous baroque interior in Mexico.” Aldous Huxley described it as “one of the most extravagantly gorgeous churches in the world.” The most spectacular single element is overhead, beneath the choir: an incredibly detailed, colorful, branching Tree of Life depicting the lineage of Felíx de Guzmán, the founder of the Dominican Order. But the entire church is alive with color and ornament, which mere words are woefully inadequate to describe.

Next to Santo Domingo, occupying part of the magnificent building that was originally the priory, is the state's Regional Museum. Pay the entrance fee (unless it's Sunday, when it's free!) and stroll inside to admire the building, with its beautifully proportioned cloisters. By the time you read this, a partial closure necessitated by last year's earthquake will hopefully be over. If so, head straight for the museum’s great highlight –  the kilos of pre-Hispanic Mixtec gold artifacts found in Monte Alban's fabled Tomb 7.

Across the street from the museum is a store named El Oro de Monte Alban (The Gold of Monte Alban) which sells high quality reproductions of the jewelry found in Tomb 7 and other similarly elegant items.

On my way back to the zócalo, I pass the house at #609 García Vigil, which was former President Benito Juarez’s first home when he came to the city in 1818 from his native village of Guelatao. Four rooms around a simple courtyard give a good idea of what life was like in the early nineteenth century.

Lunchtime in Oaxaca is best spent on or near the zócalo. In order to maximize my afternoon's sight-seeing, I opt for a relatively fast light meal at La Casita, upstairs on Hidalgo, only a few steps from the Alameda de León. Here, the gastronomically adventurous can snack on chapulines (grasshoppers) or Sopa de Nada, which is best translated (literally) as Nothing Soup!

After lunch, I stroll across the zócalo into the State Government Palace on the south side. A colorful mural in the stairwell tells the state's history. The right wall is dominated by women, including one of Mexico's greatest poets, the nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

Leaving the Government Palace, I recross the zócalo, pass the cathedral and head for Avenida Morelos and the Tamayo Museum of Pre-Hispanic Art. Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991) was one of Mexico's finest modern artists. The museum, however, does not house twentieth-century art but Tamayo's vast collection of pre-Hispanic art, carefully arranged in five color-coordinated rooms.

Further west is the Basilica de la Soledad. In the adjacent small plaza vendors of helados de garrafa  ice-creams handmade in wooden barrels –  wait to offer you lime, papaya or rose-flavored ice-cream.

UNESCO has included Oaxaca on its list of places comprising the “cultural patrimony of mankind” and it's easy to see why. Quite apart from the marvelous architecture and obvious history evident at every turn, the city also has a rich cultural life, culminating in various major festivals. Perhaps the most extraordinary is the Night of the Radishes on December 23rd. This festival has been well described in a previous Mexico File.

The single biggest annual party, in mid-July, has come to be known as La Guelaguetza, the Zapotec for “offering” or “mutual help.” A massive open-air amphitheater on the side of Fortín hill (which overlooks the north west quadrant of the city) becomes the stage for spectacularly colorful regional folkloric dances. The entire city comes alive with color –  from beautifully hand-embroidered dresses and huipiles, to food, the paper streamers decorating the streets and the merchandise sold on the sidewalks. Some central hotels, including the Camino Real, luxuriously housed in an architecturally-gorgeous former convent, and the Monte Alban opposite the cathedral, offer a once-a-week, year-round, scaled-down version of La Guelaguetza for travelers unable to visit in July.

At any time of the year an enjoyable evening can be had by attending a performance in the Macedonio Alcalá Theater or by dining on the balcony of El Asador Vasco, overlooking the zócalo. For quieter surroundings, try the elegant atmosphere of the Del Vitral restaurant, on Guerrero street.

As usual, as the day draws to a close, I realize I've failed to see everything I intended to. Somehow, I never visited any of the many markets. Oh well, there's always mañana...


Oaxaca, Where a Single Day can Encompass Two Thousand Years, Part II

by Tony Burton

After 18 years working in Mexico, Tony Burton, an author, educator and travel consultant, moved to Canada in 1997. He returns several times a year to revisit his favorite places, leading specialized tours to such wonders as the Monarch butterflies, Paricutin volcano and the Copper Canyon. He contributed an article on Zacatecas to the April 1998 issue of The Mexico File, as well as an article on San Luis Potosi in the February 1999 issue. To see more of his work, visit  This is the second part of his article on Oaxaca, the first of which appeared in the December 1999 / January 2000 issue. 

Two of the numerous possible day-trips from Oaxaca City are featured in this article. Both combine archaeological sites and markets with colonial architecture and local color.


Let’s start by visiting Monte Alban, which is only about seven miles from downtown. Try to visit this site early in the day, because the morning light can be very special. Watching the overnight mist dissipate slowly as the sun lazily filters through to the valley floor nine hundred feet below is a magical, almost mystical experience. Allow at least three or four hours to explore the site.

Daily tourist bus and minibus tours leave downtown hotels. If you prefer to go-it-alone, frequent buses to Monte Alban leave from the bus terminal near the Abastos market, where Trujano street intersects the Periférico. Alternatively, consider a taxi –  the fare for a private cab to the site is inexpensive.

Once at Monte Alban, a short uphill walk from the site museum at the entrance brings you onto the corner of an extensive grassed square or plaza, with stairways, temples and constructions on every side. In all, the site covers some eight square miles, spreading over five interconnected hills. At its peak, the city housed as many as 35,000 inhabitants.

To your right is the North Platform, the site of the Zapotec king’s residence and the temples of the nobility. To your left are a distinctively-shaped ballcourt (shaped like a capital I) and The Palace, once home to an important dignitary. Some 300 yards away are the temples of the South Platform.

Look for the Building of the Dancers with its bas-reliefs depicting human figures in various contorted poses. They probably represent captives and lists of conquered places. The Zapotec hieroglyphic writing system dates back to 600 B.C. Close to the South Platform is the arrow-shaped, Structure J, an enigmatic structure which was almost certainly an astronomical observatory.

There is an invisible mystery at Monte Alban. Just what caused this city to collapse in about 800 A.D.? As with the collapse of other pre-Columbian cities elsewhere in Mexico, theories range from the break-down of the economic system (which involved the payment of tributes), to political unrest, climatic change, large-scale epidemics and soil exhaustion. Whatever the cause, Monte Alban declined and Mixtec Indians displaced the Zapotecs.

From Monte Alban, it is only a short drive through the gently rolling Zimatlan valley to Cuilapan and Zaachila. The huge ex-monastery of Santiago Cuilapan, the largest in the region, is a national treasure and easily visible to the right of the highway.

As you approach the monastery, your eye is drawn not to the massive walls of the main building but to the extraordinarily evocative unroofed Basilica to the left. The thick walls of Cuilapan monastery reflect reams of colonial history, from its beginnings in the sixteenth century. This is where Mexico's second president, Vicente Guerrero, was held prisoner in 1831 prior to his execution. By the main stairway is a magnificent mural, “The Tree of Friars,” depicting rows of saints and martyrs, some clutching their own severed heads.

From Cuilapan, it is but a few minutes drive to Zaachila. If possible, visit on a Thursday morning when Zaachila's main square comes to life for the weekly market. Returning towards Oaxaca city, look for the poorly-signed side-road to Arrazola. This village will give you a taste of the well hidden handicraft surprises that intrepid travelers find in many of the small villages of the region. Arrazola specializes in small, hand-carved, brightly painted, wooden animal figures. Small children will eagerly guide you through the dusty streets to their family’s workshops where you can watch the animals being made.

Bargaining is de rigueur, but don't expect to persuade the artisans that the marked prices are out of line –  they’ve been surreptitiously watching your eyes dance over their display and recognize genuine interest when they see it! And don't doubt the sharpness of their eyesight –  it is clearly and beautifully proven by the exquisitely detailed figures and animals they so painstakingly carve and color.  


The second recommended excursion is one of the most varied, educational, beautiful, and just plain fun day-trips anywhere in Mexico. Even better, the furthest point on this route is less than thirty-five miles (fifty kilometers) drive from the city along a good highway. Numerous tours ply this route but few do justice to the extraordinary diversity that awaits you in the valley. Far preferable is to hire a car, or even a car with driver, and do-it-yourself!

Just 15 minutes out of Oaxaca city is Santa María del Tule, a village which would probably have been consigned to a very minor role in history, and guidebooks, were it not for a monster Montezuma Cypress. This tree, the largest-girthed in the world (117.6 feet at 5 feet above the ground), is simply humongous. Protected by a wrought-iron railing and with its own irrigation system, it definitely looks much healthier now than it did ten years ago. If only it were easier to photograph.... To one side is its “little” child, big enough to be considered a giant in its own right anywhere else in the world.

After Tule, look for the sideroad to Tlacochahuaya, with its impressive former monastery, dedicated to St. Jerome, delightfully decorated in brilliant colors. Back to the highway, and only a few miles further east, is a roadside “pyramid” sign for the small, but important, archaeological site of Dainzu. Dainzu flourished as a smaller settlement, alongside Monte Alban until about 350 A.D. Look for the striking jaguar-bat which decorates a tomb and for the depictions of the headgear, armgear and ball of the famous Mesoamerican “ball-players.”

Still further east is the sideroad to Teotitlan del Valle, a town to which early Dominican missionaries introduced sheep – and wool. Teotitlan is famous today for woolen rugs, with designs ranging from animal motifs and Picassos to the geometrical, this latter style echoing the superb pre-Columbian stonework found at Mitla, the furthest point on this self-guided route.

Back on highway 190, another pyramid sign, on the right, marks Lambityeco. This fascinating site lies very close to the international highway and yet is surprisingly little visited. It features some of the most intriguing stonework in the entire valley. Molded stucco friezes over Tomb 6 suggest its former occupants were Lord 1 Earthquake and Lady 10J. Look, too, for murals and stucco rain-god masks.

A short distance beyond Lambityeco, also to the right of the highway, is the town of Tlacolula, the site of an enormous street market every Sunday. On the opposite side of the highway from Tlacolula is a very well-signed mescal factory but, for several reasons, it is preferable to hold off visiting this until your return a little later in the afternoon. Tlacolula, whose generally scruffy character belies the origin of its name (said to derive from an expression meaning “town of heaven”), had a reputation, for decades, as a great place to buy good quality leather sandals or huaraches, the original backpacking kind, made out of discarded Goodyear tires, with a depth of tread guaranteed to outlast a lifetime of regular use. Today, most visitors to the town are less interested in trying on huaraches than they are in seeing the local market and church.

From Tlacolula, a short drive brings you to the lovely setting of Yagul, where the remains of yet another Oaxaca Valley pre-Hispanic settlement nestle up against the steep valley side. For some difficult-to-pinpoint reason, Yagul is many people's favorite Oaxaca area site, preferred even over the majestic setting of Monte Alban and the unique stonework of Mitla. Yagul is more intimate, more serene and somehow more compelling. Listen to the neighborhood birdlife as you stroll between the mounds and walls fashioned out of rounded volcanic pebbles. A larger-than-lifesize frog effigy stands close to a beautifully-proportioned ball court. Climbing the hill that forms the backdrop to Yagul affords an outstanding view across the valley.

Between Yagul and the highway is the strangely-named Centéotl restaurant-bar-gallery, which offers traditional regional cuisine under the shade of a large palapa. The restaurant’s name is somewhat incongruous in this warm, semi-arid homeland of the Zapotec and Mixtec Indians, since Centéotl is the Aztec god of agriculture, who more rightly belongs in central Mexico, far to the west 

The furthest point on our day-trip, Mitla, inspires a strange and wonderful mixture of feelings. It was one of several city states in the Oaxaca valley and was in full flow when the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century. The Spaniards thought they knew just how to ensure that their God would be seen to have more importance than the Indians’ gods – they built His church so that it would tower over Their temples, and used stones pulled from the pre-Hispanic walls to make their construction task that much easier. The massive seventeenth century church of San Pablo Mitla still broods over the remains of “heathen” palaces; its foundations sit atop a platform dating from centuries before the Conquest.

The lavish stonework of Mitla’s ruins is unequaled elsewhere in Mexico. From the beautifully sculptured designs in the Hall of Mosaics to the Hall of the Columns, virtually every wall is decorated in an intricate geometric step design. The architectural term for these patterns of small mosaic pieces, which are like an outer skin on a mud and rubble interior, is “grecas,” often and regrettably misinterpreted as “Grecian,” giving rise to some unfortunate cultural and historical misunderstandings.

In the depths of one of the palaces is La Columna de la Muerte (the Column of Death). The legend is that you wrap your arms around this pillar and see how much distance remains between your outstretched fingertips – the distance left is said to represent the time you have left on this earth. True or not, crowds of people used to gather here every New Year’s Day to try out their arm-size and, presumably, their luck.

Near the entrance to the ruins is a bustling handicraft market, a perfect place to find inexpensive souvenirs or gifts for family or friends back home.

In the main part of the town, the Frissell museum, run today by the University of the Americas, has an impressive vast collection of Indian art, from deities on incense burners to bead jewelry. The building was formerly a small inn that played host to such famous authors as D.H. Lawrence (“Mornings in Mexico”) and Malcolm Lowry (“Under the Volcano”) 

If you still have plenty of time on your hands, then consider continuing on through Mitla towards San Lorenzo Albarradas. Near San Lorenzo (only limited accommodation available) is the absolutely extraordinary landscape of Hierve El Agua, the remains of an irrigation system built and used by the Zapotecs from as long ago as 700 B.C..

On your way back to Oaxaca city from Mitla, make a brief stop to savor the mezcal (mescal), in one of the “factories” on the International Highway, such as Pensamiento Mezcal at kilometer 32, near Tlacolula. Mescal is an alcoholic drink derived from agave – but it comes from different species of agave to those used for tequila. Visitors to the “factories” are shown the basic processes involved in producing mescal. The traditional version includes a gusano de maguey (agave worm), long deceased and well sterilized by the alcohol, floating around in the bottle. Tourists are usually offered a “tasting.” While a true taste for mescal undoubtedly has to be “acquired,” don’t pass up the chance to try this increasingly fashionable (“muy de moda”) and increasingly expensive drink.

Your late afternoon toast in mescal may seem like a fair and just reward for a long day’s sightseeing, but please remember that those doing the mescal sampling should excuse themselves from being responsible for the drive back to the city.