Things to Do in Oaxaca
A Zapotec ceremonial center, Monte Albán crouches on a leveled mountain top. For a thousand years, the rulers of the city extracted wealth from the plains below. Today, the ruins offer panoramic views of the modern city of Oaxaca sprawling across the giant Oaxaca valley.
Monte Albán is the oldest city in the Americas. In addition to being unusually ancient (dating back to 500 BC), the site is unusually extensive. In its heyday, the city covered 25 square miles. Expanses of Monte Albán aren’t yet excavated, but it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to explore all the restored tombs and temples in one afternoon; the ruins encompass enormous plazas, a ball court, a mysterious monument known as the observatory, a network of underground tunnels, and a profusion of dank tombs, which were once decorated with bright frescoes and filled with treasures of gold and jade.
A relatively small Mixtec/Zapotec ruin, Mitla is notable for the detailed and well-preserved geometric stonework that decorates the buildings. The setting is pretty, with a cactus garden and shaded benches. From the ruins you can see the domed Church of San Pablo, built in the 16th century when the Spanish pillaged stones from Mitla. At the gates to the ruins, a small artesanía (folk art) market is home to aggressively competitive vendors, a situation that can yield great deals. Outside the gates, a clean and efficient comedor (diner) serves authentic Oaxacan specialties.
The name Mitla comes from the Náhuatl word Mictlan, which means place of the dead or underworld. An ancient ceremonial center, Mitla includes two cross-shaped tombs, a promenade of hefty stone columns, and an elevated suite of ornately-decorated rooms that were once occupied by the Zapotec high priest. Although theories on the subject differ, Mitla was likely built by the Zapotecs.
A tree so fat it seems to strain against the confines of the surrounding square, the Árbol del Tule is at least 2000 years old, which makes it one of the world’s oldest living entities. El Tule is a Montezuma bald cypress (Taxodium mucrunatum), a tree the Aztecs cultivated as an ornamental and a source of medicine. Hoary yet flourishing, the giant has a mesmerizing quality: The bark is so thick and gnarled that various growths have nicknames, including “the pineapple,” “the elephant,” and “Carlos Salinas’s ears” (a reference to former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari).
El Tule is located in the village of Santa María del Tule, 13 km east of the capital. The square surrounding the tree features souvenir shops, snack stands, and the usual army of roving vendors.
More Things to Do in Oaxaca
Cacaluta Bay was made famous in the movie “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” where the mangroves, quiet shores and tropical climate of this heart-shaped bay served as a stunning backdrop to the dramatic blockbuster. Today, travelers frequent Cacaluta Bay to enjoy cooling breezes, and explore its rich biodiversity. Two distinctly different beaches make up this scenic bay. The white sand and blue-green ocean views of Cacaluta Bay attract sun worshipers and water sports enthusiasts in search of strong waves and calm shores. While the smaller, pebbly Arroyo Beach at the bay’s opposite end proves to be less welcoming, its impressive array of wildlife and lots of indigenous birds still make it well worth a visit.
Visitors looking for the perfect Oaxaca souvenir can find a unique reminder in the municipality of San Bartolo Coyotepec, located about 15 kilometers south of Oaxaca. Known for its black clay pottery, its quiet streets are lined with shops, galleries and studios selling this regional pottery that has been a part of Oaxacan tradition for hundreds of years.
Visitors can check out the work of local artisans, which ranges from old school matte finish pottery to shiny and black, then head to Museo Estatal de Arte Popular de Oaxaca, where a large collection of this state treasure is on display. Afterwards, stop by the newly opened Baseball Academy, where a massive mural of barro negro (black pottery) is painted.
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