Oaxaca is a land of extraordinary contrasts, and is must for travelers in search of an adventure for the senses. Its vibrant images, amazing diversity, unique experiences and unexpected possibilities make Oaxaca an unforgettable trip. Travelers who venture here will embrace the spirit of Mexico's enthralling past, touch the unspoiled beauty of its unusual landscapes, and discover the endless variety of choices that lie at the heart of the Mexican experience.
The breathtaking Mexican state of Oaxaca (wah-HAH-kah) is as magical as its name. On a map, the state can be found about 300 miles southeast of Mexico City. It's bounded in the north by Veracruz and Puebla, in the east by Chiapas, in the west by Guerrero and in the south by the Pacific Ocean. The stunning coastline is home to the quickly emerging beach resorts of Puerto Escondido and Huatulco, but the centerpiece of the state is the romantic and alluring Oaxaca City. Known as "Tierra del Sol" (The Land of the Sun), Oaxaca is blessed with mountains, lakes, and beautiful, untouched beaches. Part of the state is located on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a narrow strait where only 130 miles separate the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean.
Oaxaca City has always been known as one of Mexico's premier colonial gems. Framed by the Sierra Madre del Sur Mountains 5,000 feet above sea level (and 340 miles southeast of Mexico City), Oaxaca City is the perfect combination of modern day comforts and a 3,000-year old past. Though it is a city with more than a half million residents, it still has the cozy feel of a traditional village. The immaculate streets of downtown reflect the exquisite, baroque colonial architecture of the 16th century. An astonishing cathedral and perfectly preserved religious and municipal buildings, fine museums, and unique art galleries round out the city's magic.
The region to the south and the west of Oaxaca City was an important cultural and historical center since the 7th century BC. The ruins of Monte Alban and Mitla, the state's most famous archaeological sites, stand in mute testimony to the origins of the Mixtec and Zapotec cultures. Indigenous tribes of Zapotec and Mixtec inhabited the area for centuries and built mighty stone cities that flourished for thousands of years. The Zapotec Indians built the holy city of Monte Alban on a hilltop overlooking the Valley of Oaxaca. The view is nothing short of spectacular!
To the southeast of Oaxaca City lie the ruins of Mitla, often regarded as Mexico's finest example of intricate stone masonry. Founded by the Zapotecs, but heavily influenced by the Mixtecs, this fascinating ceremonial center is known for its precise and delicate repetitive geometric mosaics that seem almost Grecian in appearance. The city was still thriving when the Spanish arrived in 1521 and in order to impose their rule they built a church literally on top of the existing indigenous system. The incredibly rich ethnology of these ancient peoples and cultures touch every aspect of Oaxaca and can be seen and felt most prominently in the traditional markets, artisan villages, handicrafts, and ageless vibrant festivals that happen throughout the year.
Nearer the city also stands what is known to be the oldest tree in the world: el Arbol del Tule, which measures 42 meters (137 feet) in diameter and is over 2,000 years old. To this day, Oaxaca continues to be an ethnic potpourri: the state is home to sixteen indigenous groups who speak more than 150 different dialects, and who continue to preserve their way of life and contribute to the well-being and economy of their homeland.
Visitors can also take in the splendid diversity of Oaxaca simply by visiting the market. This is the trading place bar none, the place to exchange not only food and basic necessities, but ideas, conversation, and news as well. Stalls overflow with every item imaginable, including the ingredients that make Oaxacan cuisine such a unique proposition.
The state of Oaxaca is also home to some of the richest, most inspired food dishes in Mexico - a combination of pre-Hispanic traditions and the baroque concoctions of the colonial table. Known as the "Land of the Seven Moles", every dish is a work of art. Life centers around food, so complicated and labor-intensive recipes such as tamales and mole merely mean a morning or afternoon of pleasant conversation and companionship in the warm, colorful kitchens - the heart of every home. Oaxaca is also known for its excellent cheese, its tasty atole (a thick drink made of chocolate), cafe olla (dark coffee with a cinnamon aroma made in a pot) and many other mouth-watering treats.
A walk through the streets of the Oaxaca City takes visitors back to the days of the Spanish conquest and the colonial treasures they left behind. Cobblestone streets, magnificent temples, beautifully restored buildings that house galleries, theaters and more welcome one and all to this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Local hotels, many housed in unique structures, such as the five-star Camino Real Oaxaca, which was once a convent now declared a historic monument by UNESCO, are exceptional places to stop in to get a feel for the "real Mexico". And while the buildings may hark back to the days of Cortes the amenities are very 21st century.
Blessed with a soft, temperate climate and a spectacular piece of Pacific-front real estate, Oaxaca is an ecotourism paradise as well. Each year, thousands of sea turtles make their way to its balmy shores to deposit their eggs. In fact, when the early inhabitants of the area settled here, the turtles were one of their basic food sources, and no part of it was wasted. In time, a turtle processing plant became the main source of income and livelihood for the community. This was repeated far and wide along the coast, and over the years brought the turtle populations close to extinction. Thus, in 1991, the Mexican government created the National Mexican Turtle Center in the small community of Mazunte. The center coordinates the operation of satellite stations for the preservation of important beaches in the state, while biologists, veterinarians, and research groups study turtle behavior and strive to rebuild the populations.
The coast is also home to the impressive Bahias de Huatulco, a 52,000-acre development with 70% of its land set aside for ecological preserves by the Mexican government agency, FONATUR. Expected to be complete by the year 2020, as of yet, only three of the nine bays targeted for development are ready for tourists, though among them, these bays boast 36 lovely beaches.