Wonderful, Historic Oaxaca: Part 1
I wanted to do a short trip over my son’s spring break, but where to go? We were thinking Cambodia since he has a friend there, but the flight was just going to be too long.
Oaxaca is the capital of the Mexican state of Oaxaca. I had heard about it way back in graduate school when some of my professors talked about doing archaeological field work there. It is the home of some of the oldest civilizations in the New World. Much more fame has come lately as the cuisine has become recognized as among Mexico’s finest. So, off we went!
There are some direct flights to Oaxaca from the United States: United from Houston and American from Dallas. We settled on Aeromexico with a stop in Mexico City so we could stop on the way home to see the pyramids at Teotihuacan. We got to Oaxaca, which has a very small airport, quite late. We had booked a transfer to our hotel, which went seamlessly.
The drive in was actually a great introduction. Roberto spoke very little English, but he spent the whole drive in telling us how wonderful the city was and recommending restaurants and things to do. Between my son’s high school Spanish skills and my knack for figuring out what people are talking about despite language barriers, we actually learned a lot.
Oaxaca is not huge. It sits in a valley in an otherwise very mountainous region. The city itself has about 300,000 people while the greater area around 1 million people. We chose to stay in the historic old town in a cool little hotel that was first built in the 1500s. Yes, this town has history. Besides being the center of an ancient civilization, it was given to Hernan Cortes as a personal estate around 1540. The old town is just wonderful. Narrow streets, lots of churches, and an absolutely delightful main square, the Zocalo. Our hotel was two blocks from the square, but over the next couple of days, we walked most of the old town. No car needed here!
I often wing it when I am traveling by myself, but, given our short stay, I decided to hire a guide. With a bit of research, I came up with Suzanne and Benito, a husband and wife team that specializes in tours. Best decision ever.
One thing to mention: altitude. Oaxaca is over 5,000 feet in elevation. Between the late night and the altitude, my son did not feel well in the morning, so Benito and I decided to do a walking tour of the old town first while my son rested.
Benito is a native of the city and knows his city well! He gave so much more than dates and names of churches. We first visited the main Dominican church in town, which also dates to the 1550s. Benito and I quickly got into a deep discussion of how the building of this structure was as much a political statement as anything. The locals had built some mighty temples but had never mastered the arch, and this church had more enclosed space by far than anyone here had ever seen. It would have been the tallest structure for many, many miles. It must have made a huge impression. But he also was able to point out how through the various decorations, this church also made a statement both to the other orders and to other Europeans. This was the height of the Counter-Reformation and the Spanish Inquisition, and the Dominicans were out to show their power and prestige, and it still is quite impressive.
We looked at a couple of other churches and visited a small museum all the while talking about everything from the similarities to ancient Asian cultures to problems of modern Mexico.
And, then, we stopped for lunch, and this is where I will stop the first part of my blog. Look for the second part… coming soon!
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