When you travel, there are some places that have a certain grip on you, and where you find yourself staying for longer than you would have ever anticipated.
For me, that place is Oaxaca City (the capital of the state of Oaxaca) in south-central Mexico, and I ended up staying there for a year.
What’s more, I’ll be back in February to resume my life there and make it my permanent base. So what exactly makes Oaxaca such a special place?
Both Traditional and Progressive
Like much of Latin America, there is a strange and fascinating interplay between traditional and progressive attitudes in Oaxaca.
Traditions are particularly important here because Oaxaca is a city with many indigenous people, mostly from the Zapotec and Mixtec groups.
Visit one of the smaller towns just outside of the city such as Tlacolula or Zaachila on their market days and you’ll forget that you are in the twenty-first century.
You will see women dressed up in the traditional clothes of the Zapotec people selling huge bulbs of garlic and onion on the floor.
You’ll see them selling handmade Barro Negro pottery of the region, and inviting you to try their chapulines (fried grasshoppers).
And sometimes, you might find that you can’t even communicate in Spanish because they still speak pre-Columbian languages.
And nestled in with all the tradition, you’ll find that Oaxaca is also a really progressive place.
It is highly political, and you’ll often see demonstrations in the main square (the Zocalo) and marches through the street, full of ordinary people desperate for real change in the political system.
The people are also very accepting and non-judgmental. In Europe, Catholicism translates as right-wing conservatism, but in Mexico, that’s not the case.
The whole place is very “live and let live” even if it holds on strongly to both ancient traditions and a more recent commitment to the Catholic faith.
La Comida Oaxaquena
It’s difficult to mention any place in Mexico without some reference to the food, but if Mexico is a special place for food, then Oaxaca is epic.
Unofficially the street food capital of Mexico, you’re best hitting the streets first thing in the morning and in the evening time for street grub.
The tamales here are the best in Mexico, and you’ll also be able to find memelas, a kind of thick tortilla with a topping, molotes, which are usually deep-fried potato and chorizo balls, and more besides.
Lunch is the main meal of the day and lunchtime is normally at around 2 or 3 p.m. At this time, hit the local fondas for an epic lunch that should only set you back around $5 or so.
Don’t miss the opportunity to try one of the seven moles, a famous dish made from chili, chocolate, spices, ground nuts, and ground fruits that comes from Oaxaca.
It’s Just Beautiful
Oaxaca is visually beautiful in so many ways. First of all, there are the colors.
As you walk the streets, you’ll see houses painted in coral pink, sunshine yellow, deep turquoise, and every other color in the rainbow.
There is something so happiness inducing about it, and I was always grateful for how color-filled my life was in Oaxaca.
Oaxaca is a very mountainous state, and because all the buildings are low (the local government doesn’t allow tall buildings in the city), it’s easy to see beyond the city itself and into the mountains, so you have these bright colors, and then epic green peaks in the distance. It never fails to take my breath away.
And those mountains aren’t something untouchable in the background – you can also go hiking, cycling and horseback riding there, where the air is crisp and fresh.
Although the majority of the buildings are very low in Oaxaca, the churches are an exception, and this makes them stand out on the horizon all the more.
Everyone thinks that Italy and Europe have the world’s most beautiful churches, but I reckon that Mexico really gives the Vatican a run for its money, and yet how often do you read or hear about the beautiful churches in Mexico? Hardly ever.
The two churches I particularly love are Santo Domingo and Basilica de la Soledad.
If you ever make it to Oaxaca and happen to see a skinny white guy perched outside either of these churches with a book in his hands, come over and say hi! I am usually at one church or the other on most days.
The People of Oaxaca
Of course, a connection to a place is so often about the people from there and who live there.
Oaxaquenos are endlessly friendly, but they’re not over the top about it, which I appreciate.
When I travel to India, the people are friendly, but the friendliness can be overwhelming.
In Oaxaca, I am pretty much left to my own devices, but I know that I’ll always be able to have a friendly chat with a café owner, I’ll be given good prices from the people I buy fruits and veggies from regularly at the market, and people on the street will always help me with directions and public transport.
I also love how fiercely proud of their indigenous roots many people from Oaxaca are.
Visit cities in the north, like Mexico City and Monterrey, and you’ll have a great time, but might also find that white skin is venerated. In Oaxaca, not so. If you are Zapoteco, it’s something that you hold really close to your heart, and it plays a big part in your life. And I love that.
Visit Oaxaca during July for the Guelaguetza festival, a month-long festival that celebrates all the indigenous groups across the state, and you’ll feel how deeply this pride runs.
The truth is that although these points are reasons to love Oaxaca, this city is, for me, more than just the sum of its parts.
If you have ever fallen in love with a place on your travels, you’ll know that sometimes the magic of a certain beach town, mountain village, or capital city, just can’t be rationalized.
I implore you to visit Oaxaca yourself, and if I’m there, it would be my pleasure to show you around.