Things to do and eat in Oaxaca, Mexico. And the Poverty issue.

Oaxaca Mexico, header
I had a hard time writing this post on Oaxaca, maybe because I have contradictory feelings about the city that I still haven’t resolved in my mind. On one hand I love the size of the city, geography, food, and relative tranquility of Oaxaca. And it has tons of colorful buildings, impressive churches, as well as some great sites of interest in the surrounding area. There are lots of things I really like about the city. On the other hand I had a hard time with the economic disparities of Oaxaca, little things that  – similar to walking around with gum stuck to the heel of your shoe –  bothered me just enough for me to say that I don’t love the city. I’ll address that in detail further below.

 

First, the aspects of Oaxaca I really like:

With a population of less than 300,000, and surrounded by mountains (which I’m told become a lush green when the rains start in May), the city has the feel of a large town rather than a ‘city’. It is tranquil and peaceful, especially on weekdays (weekends get busier with domestic tourists). The exception to this general rule is the zocalo – which gets a lot of the city’s tourist activity – and the markets to the south of the zocalo (Benito Juarez and 20 de Noviembre markets) which are usually bustling.

Santo Domingo church is one of the most impressive churches I’ve seen in Mexico. And this is a country with some incredible churches. But Santo Domingo is special and will make even a hardened Europhile go “ahhh”. It is not just the beautiful, ornate interior, but also the massive exterior design that impresses. Attached to the church, in the former monastery, is the best museum in the city (the ‘Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca’) containing many artifacts from the tombs of nearby Monte Alban.

santo domingo church, oaxaca, mexico

inside of Santo Domingo church, Oaxaca, Mexico


Great food:
some of the nicest streets as well as the best restaurants in the city are located in the small streets around Santo Domingo church. Around the back of the church, on La constitucion, is a great coffee/croissant place called ‘The Oaxacan Coffee Company”. A block west, on Garcia Virgil, are Biznaga and Zandunga, two excellent restaurants (the atmosphere at Biznaga is great and I would recommend going there just for that).

Below: food at Zandunga (on left), courtyard at Biznaga (right)

zandunga and biznaga, Oaxaca, Mexico


Excluding the fancier restaurants mentioned above, there are some great cheap eats in Oaxaca. We had a favorite taqueria (pictured below) on the corner of Reforma/Abasolo. Chocolate is a big deal in Oaxaca (it’s even used in their moles) and one of our favorite things to do was ordering a ‘malteado’ at Mayordomo (less than $1 – plus they give out free chocolate samples). Just south of the zocalo we came across the 20 de Noviembre market which is a giant food court where you can order lots of exotic cheap eats. We saw a few travelers in there eating empanadas with what looked like cactus leaves. They seemed to be having a good time. Here is a great post by a fellow blogger on food in Oaxaca. It really is food paradise and I only wish we had had more time (and appetite) to sample more of everything.

Below: Mom enjoying tacos and a malteado. Lots of happy faces at Mayordomo.

tacos and chocolate in Oaxaca, Mexico

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The alcala, the pedestrian-only street connecting the city’s two main squares, has some great colonial buildings along with museums and photo galleries. A pretty half-kilometer walk on what is the most popular (and busiest) street in Oaxaca.

Alcala in Oaxaca, Mexico


Nearby sites/activities
: Oaxaca is small and there are some interesting sites within a manageable distance of the city. The highlight of these (the one you can’t miss if in Oaxaca) is the Archeological site of Monte Alban, easily reachable by bus (about 20 minutes from downtown*). In the opposite direction, about 30 minutes from Oaxaca, is Mitla, the second most important archeological site in the state. Many people visit Mitla as part of a bigger tour that includes a visit to the rug makers of Teotitlan del Valle and El Tule Tree (a huge, 2000 year old tree – the largest tree in Latin America). There are other highlights in the area: the Sunday market at Tlacolula (25 minutes away) and the ruins at Yagul and Dainzú (for those who haven’t had their fill of ruins after seeing Monte Alban and Mitla). Further away (an hour and a half) a visit to Hierve el Agua is a favorite among many travelers – there you can see petrified waterfalls and bathe in pools of mineral-rich water (post by fellow blogger).

* To get to Monte Albán, take a bus from the Hotel Rivera del Angel, at Mina 518 between Mier y Terán and Díaz Ordaz (tel. 951/516-0666) . They have a bus every hour. They also do tours to all the places listed above. Alternatively, Autobuses Turisticos (tel. 951/516-5327), at Mina 505, just down the block, does some of the same tours.

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A few other things I enjoyed and recommend doing in Oaxaca: Climb up Cerro del Fortín to the Guelagetza auditorium for views over the city (photo at the top of this post). Will take about 20 minutes from downtown at a brisk pace. Good way to get some exercise.
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Graphic Arts Institute courtyard, Oaxaca, Mexico
Above: Courtyard at Oaxaca Graphic Arts Institute

MuseumsMuseo Textil de Oaxaca – Interesting and provocative, not the traditional textile museum I expected. Free (Always a good idea to leave a donation though). Centro Fotografico. Also Free. They had an interesting exhibit on Oaxacan women which was well done. Won’t blow your socks but very pleasant interlude on a hot day. Another very pretty building. Oaxaca Graphic Arts Institute (right next to Santo Domingo church).  A fantastic library on art, can spend hours here reading in the pretty courtyard. Great expat place.

We enjoyed all the above during our stay in Oaxaca.

Oaxaca Cathedral, Oaxaca, Mexico

Above: Oaxaca Cathedral, next to zocalo

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What I didn’t like in Oaxaca

The Zocalo. Apart from the impressive Cathedral (which covers one side of the zocalo), we didn’t think much of Oaxaca’s zocalo. Every guidebook lists it as the first place to see in Oaxaca, a place that bustles with life, music, crowds and lovers, and where “anyone and everyone sits, drinks and watches from the cafes” (Lonely Planet). True, it is a very busy square. As attractiveness goes however, it doesn’t compare to many of the beautiful zocalos in Mexico (including the incredible zocalo in Puebla). It’s actually quite plain. But there is more to our dislike of the zocalo than that. If you walk along the south side of the square, in front of the Palacio de Gobierno, look closely; behind some of the hanging banners blocking the building’s base from sight you’ll see peasants sleeping on large pieces of cardboard. There must have been at least a hundred of them that first night. And despite the seemingly festive air of the zocalo, the music and crowds don’t cover the desperate looks of indigenous people and kids begging, selling junk (that few people would buy), or offering services (everything from shoe shines to sex). The shiny veneer of trendy bars and cafes, fancy restaurants, and well-dressed locals and tourists only barely camouflage the poverty of Oaxaca. I had read that Oaxaca state is one of Mexico’s poorest states and that the city of Oaxaca is the site of a lot of political protests. I can see why. That didn’t stop us from coming; we’ve seen poverty before (and it doesn’t compare to the poverty I’ve seen in Colombia, Brazil, or the Dominican Republic) but there is always something disturbing about places with large disparities in income.

Below: Zocalo

zocalo, oaxaca, mexico
It wasn’t just the zocalo. Walk the alcala and you’ll always have someone beg for money or try to sell you something. Even on small side streets you’ll encounter an indigenous woman sitting on the ground, a couple of kids in her arms, a hand sticking out as she pleads for money. Right behind her they’ll be a nice restaurant or a fancy boutique store selling jewelry at inflated prices.

I know some of the comments I’ll get to the above. Bloggers always get nasty comments whenever they “complain” about poverty or begging. Let me make it clear that the begging we encountered in Oaxaca was not aggressive and that most of it came from women with children – not the aggressive youths I’ve encountered in other places. But as a traveler it always affects you. Some get angry and will wave away the beggars or just ignore them (as I’ve noticed locals often do). Others feel a sense of shame and guilt and will give the beggars some change and a smile, knowing full well that their contribution will do diddly squat and will in fact just encourage begging  (you could argue that giving is just a way of making yourself feel better). Either way, you come out of it liking the place a bit less, blaming either the beggars or the society that makes these people beg on the street in the first place.

And that’s why Oaxaca lost a bit of its shine with me.

Would I come back to Oaxaca? Yes. There is so much culture; great food, history, and art. We just scratched the surface of all there is to offer, not just in the city itself but in the surrounding state. I was here visiting my mom, who lives in Mexico part of the year but I would definitely come back with Spanky for a different kind of trip. Anyone who’s read my other posts on Mexico knows that I’ve become a big fan. I’m incredibly impressed with Mexico as a travel destination, Oaxaca included. Would I ever consider settling in Oaxaca as an expat? No, for the reasons I’ve cited in the above paragraphs. My mom, who’s gotten to know Mexico pretty well, wouldn’t either.

 

Have you been to Oaxaca? What did you think of it and what were your highlights? Bigger question: as a traveler, how do you deal with the whole poverty/begging thing? It’s something I’m still struggling with and would appreciate your thoughts.

 

RelatedA good post on the issue of whether or not you should give to beggars.

 

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Comments

  1. The beggars I despise – well not them really – the most are the ones who are obviously put out there by their families to go hustle. The blind man.woman – usually elderly – with a young child guiding them on to the next person to beg. The disabled person in a wheel chair with tons of signs/placards on their person & wheelchair, who obviously couldn’t have written them. It always feels like these beggars in particular are being handled by someone who is taking full advantage of their situations. Much like a lot of the mayan women you’ll encounter on the streets who peddle little trinkets who are actually part of a collective of women doing the exact same thing, splitting their cut with some asshole at the end of the day. … wow I went on a rant there, sorry bout that. It just really pisses me off.
    Devlin recently posted…El Bufalo Restaurant and Ranch in Tabasco, MexicoMy Profile

    • Thanks Devlin – did you used to see a lot of that in Cancun? I always feel for the obvious poor, people sleeping on the street. One of the most heart-wrenching things I saw was a boy, who couldn’t have been more than 12, alone and sleeping on the sidewalk in Cartagena. But I agree with you about the ‘professional’ beggars that you see in tourist towns and cities. Many of the beggars in Oaxaca fall in this category.

      • I didn’t see too much homelessness in Cancun really. You would get the occasional beggar but for the most part I would never see them and it wasn’t like we were living in the hotel zone. Maybe people in Cancun just hustle more, ton’s of folks slanging tamales, pan dulces, and other foods & services. There is a slum on the north side of the city, though I’ve never visited.
        Devlin recently posted…El Bufalo Restaurant and Ranch in Tabasco, MexicoMy Profile

  2. Oaxacan food is some of the best in the world – so glad you included that in this post. YUM!
    Maria Falvey recently posted…Wordless Wednesday – Bon Voyage, Lauren!My Profile

  3. Interesting to read your post. Poverty also affects me while traveling. And it’s curious to observe how I deal differently with it than my husband, who is from India and is used to see plenty of poor people all around (much more than in Oaxaca, that’s for sure). In the beginning, particularly in India, I used to feel bad, feel guilty that I am privileged and other people don’t have the same opportunities. I often cried, specially when kid beggars would approach me. Until my husband told me that by crying I am not changing anything. And that is true. Either you do something, or you don’t. Now I try to deal with it the best I can – sometimes giving food to beggars, some other times money and, more often than not, nothing. I never know when I am actually contributing to schemes and people being exploited (beggar mafias as a reality and, unfortunately, very common in India). I also don’t want kids to grow up thinking that is is a sustainable way of making a living. But I worry that, on the other hand, they’ll go to bed with their tummies empty. It sucks. I just don’t know how to deal with it. I’d help poor people in the places I live, as my husband’s family often does in India. Helping those that you can follow up with is probably the only way to contribute to a positive change. Help the immediate people in your community, by giving them jobs or tasks… sharing whatever you can… help their kids going to school, etc. As a traveler I find it much more difficult to do something about it. It’s easy to give money but the impact that it can make it so limited in the bigger picture.

    As for Oaxaca, I loved the 2 or 3 days I spent there a couple of years ago. The food, oh boy, that food!.. I should go visit your Mom one of these days! 😉
    Zara recently posted…LET’S GET LOST! (VIDEO)My Profile

    • This is a great comment. I find it interesting how we view beggars in different cultures. India must certainly be hard-core when it comes to begging and I’m sure locals are to some degree immune to it. I’ll never forget going to Morocco, I was 16, and seeing begging lepers and blind people with bulging white eyes (not sure what they had) traumatized me. That’s going back 30 years and I’m sure Marrakesh has changed, but I’ll never forget that or how aggressive they were with their begging. Oaxaca is nothing compared to all that.

      My mom not in Oaxaca, she just felt like going there for a look so we visited Puebla and Oaxaca on this trip. But it was her first experience with begging in Mexico and, although she finds Oaxaca interesting, was also put off by the economic disparities – enough that she wouldn’t call it home.

      Thanks for the great comment Zara!

  4. We would love to visit Mexico one day, Oaxaca included! And either it might be not an ideal digital nomad base, we want to give a try to this town.
    Regarding the question of begging, we have been a bit puzzled too, but we have developed kinda our own way to help: if there is an old woman sitting on the ground and is visibly disabled, we help her either with some money or some food, which is in our opinion a better decision. Or we support locals in need, after we interact with them more actively while staying in one place during our travels.
    It’s all about personal feeling. To donate or give money to a beggar should have the right purpose, not only to feed our egos.
    Ivana recently posted…Love on the Road: 5 Questions to 5 Digital Nomad Couples (Part 2)My Profile

  5. Begging bothers me, especially when it is done everywhere, maybe ten times or more in a day. Get left with uneasy feeling.
    Michael recently posted…Top 6 Things to do in Crete, GreeceMy Profile

  6. I’ve been wanting to spend a few months in Mexico, just learning the language and the culture. I think after reading this and your last post, I’d love to go to Oaxaca, despite the poverty there. I’m already planning my trip for next May (a year is a long time to wait – my toes are already itchy!) as a sort of graduation present to myself. I want to spend about two months there, and then pop over to Cuba for a while because, well, I’m not supposed to 🙂

    Thanks for sharing the good and the bad. It’s not often travel bloggers talk about what they didn’t like, they tend to just leave those posts out. It’s nice to see a good balance, and yet I’m still sold on Oaxaca!
    Jessica Hill recently posted…Visit Colorado: I’m a Whitewater Raft Guide!My Profile

    • Yes, I think you should go to Oaxaca! Make sure to see the sights outside the city. And if you’re going to Cuba don’t skip Trinidad!

  7. Don’t worry about what other travel bloggers say or the comments they leave. I don’t write for other bloggers, so I don’t worry about what they say. That said, travel isn’t always all sunshine and rainbows and it is important to give people realistic expectations of what it is like to visit a place.
    Jennifer recently posted…The Adventurer’s Guide to GothenburgMy Profile

  8. Looks beautiful and somewhere I would enjoy, regardless of the beggers. Sadly that is part of life regardless of where you live/travel.

  9. Thanks for the honesty and I’m glad we’re not the only ones that felt let down by Oaxaca City. Poverty is very hard to deal with, we’re in Guatemala now and are helping out where we can. The best way we’ve found to do that is to purchase items from great projects that help out the locals and that give back to the community. Or, a restaurant/hostel that is run by locals (giving them jobs), which tend to have great programs in place as well. There are lots of excellent community programs on Lake Atitlan, which I’m really happy to see.

    Cheers!
    Dariece recently posted…Not Feeling the Romance in Oaxaca CityMy Profile

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      I’ll be following your posts in Lake Atitlan, it’s a place we’d both like to see and that we’ve heard good things about. We’ve done the same in Nicaragua, trying to stay at non-profit hotels where money is funneled back in the community.
      Happy travels!

  10. I have to admit that I didn’t live it when I went. I had just been in Antigua, Guatemala, and Cuba for 3 months and I didn’t think it was that impressive. But, I was tired of traveling and I’d been sick a while, so, there is that.

    I will be there this year for the Day of the Dead and plan to give it another chance. I’ll report back. Thanks for sharing this honest post.
    Jeff recently posted…Bear Spray Stories Part 5: Invaded CampsiteMy Profile

  11. Great report on Oaxaca! Went to Jamaica and stayed in small local hotels and Cabana’s. The poverty was striking and since it was low season we were one of only a few tourists. We could not possibly help everyone enough. In Puerto Vallarta we were just part of a massive crowd of tourists. We gave to a few beggars, purchased things from others but it was not overwhelming there because opportunities to sell things are more abundant there.
    I have to be rational about it. There is poverty everywhere. The monetary system makes the rich richer and the poor poorer and more numerous. I have spent years in poverty myself and I cannot pull all of the poor up with me even if I become poor in doing so. I spend what I have carefully and try to reward people who deserve it. Without tourists these places would be much poorer.
    Most of what we spend traveling is airfare and accommodation. Not much of the airfare trickles down and the money spent on a place to stay could go to a realestate speculator or a local family. I prefer smaller hotels and guesthouses myself. I think the uncomfortable
    feelings are one reason that all inclusives are so popular. Just stay in your resort most of the time and obscene wealth gaps won’t bother you so much.

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      Thanks Rene, all very true. We are the same, much prefer to stay in small family owed hotels and guesthouses, helps the locals but also gives you the opportunity to meet real people. Thanks for taking the time to comment, appreciate your thoughts.

  12. Claudia Michel says:

    I appreciate your handling of both the beauty and the realities of poverty in Oaxaca. I sometimes feel pressure there to spend spend spend and that I am looked at as “money”, especially in Oaxaca City itself. But on the other hand, I am in such awe of the culture and the people, I try to honor them and support where I can. I can’t even imagine going to Mexico and staying in a resort or a town where I would not be able to meet the locals. When in Oaxaca, I stay in a small apartment run by a local family , thus helping them and they help me in return. I take in all of the amazing art, e.g, the Textile museum, the Studio Xaquixe glass factory, the weavers in Teotitlan. I learned to weave rugs from a Zapotec master weaver, another mutual support activity. I support the Fundación En Vía, which is a micro financing organization that doesn’t charge interest to the women – they offer tours and you get to meet the applicants for the loans. I brought some supplies for a health clinic the last time I traveled there – suction catheters for newborns for a local midwife . I think it’s important that we visit not only for our support of the people there – but because of what they offer us as well – I find Zapotec people to be the kindest I have met anywhere and my life is richer for it… And then there is the food and Mezcal!

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      Great comment, its nice that you integrated yourself so well in the community and that you were so charitable. It sounds like a great experience and more people (including myself) should travel like that. Thanks so much Claudia for taking the time to comment while giving people ideas on how they can help out.

Thanks for reading! Feedback is always appreciated!

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