Temple of Santo Domingo, Oaxaca

Think of Mexico and you might first think of golden beaches and plush resorts. For some the name conjures up images of the imposing pyramid of Chichen Itza or the jungle ruins at Palenque. But for a slice of real Mexican life and a glimpse of the country’s colonial past, it’s difficult to beat spending a few days in the historic city of Oaxaca.

Religious figures on sale, Oaxaca

Oaxaca is perhaps the largest of the colonial cities in this region. In fact, if you stand on one of the hilltops that overlook the city it’s hard to imagine the beauty that exists at street level. From above the city appears as a giant urban mess with the brash new auditorium dominating the skyline. Yet walk 10-15 minutes in any direction from the Cathedral and you’ll experience a sensory treat. Brightly coloured houses squeeze into the straight cobbled streets. Every few blocks the open doors of yet another splendid church will tempt you inside, if for nothing else to enjoy a moment of cool relief from the midday sun.

And then there’s the food. Oaxaca’s cuisine is legendary and a good reason alone to visit. As the region of Mexico with the highest indigenous population many of the dishes date back to pre-Hispanic times, and the recipes have been passed on faithfully from generation to generation. As you walk through the streets you’ll probably become aware of the enticing smells of home cooking wafting from nearby houses. If that builds an appetite the good news is that you’ll find numerous cafes and restaurants at which to satisfy your hunger.

Gold is everywhere in Oaxaca’s churches

If you try only two things while in Oaxaca, you should try the local chocolate and the mole. Few people need much persuasion to taste chocolate; here in Oaxaca you’ll find it flavoured with different spices, often including chilli. The streets south of the Zocalo are filled with chocolate sellers; you’ll smell them before you see them. As for the mole, this time-honoured sauce comes in many varieties and has so many rich flavours that it’s almost impossible to describe its taste; you just have to dive in and try it. One of the best places to sample mole is in the main market, especially at lunchtime when countless vendors will offer you their own mole with or without chicken (typical price around £1.50).

Monte Alban, near Oaxaca

One of the most popular (and most impressive) day trips from Oaxaca is to the ancient city of Monte Alban. This was the site of one of the earliest organised states in the region, with a large city that boasted its own legal system and government. It flourished around 2000 years ago and diminished in importance around 800 AD, eventually being abandonded in favour of nearby lowland communities. Now a short bus ride from Oaxaca, Monte Alban’s high temples and vast open spaces will take 2-3 hours to cover, including the interesting museum that can be found on site.

Having visited Monte Alban, it’s then worth returning to the excellent museum next to the Temple of Santo Domingo. This museum holds many of the very impressive treasures found in the tombs of Monte Alban, and is probably the best organised and most comprehensive provincial museum I’ve visited.

Andy Jarosz