Oaxaca is the Mexico of old movies. Positioned in a protected valley in the southwest of the country, it’s a colorful colonial city full of charm, and rich in culture and tradition. A place where festivals are given with great gusto and food is considered an art form. The city hosts some of the country’s biggest Día del los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations and is also the birthplace of mole, a complex and flavorful sauce that’s revered in much of Mexican cuisine.
Oaxaca State is the most diverse and indigenous region of Mexico where some 17 different languages, including Spanish, are still spoken. This rich heritage reveals itself in the vibrant costumes and handicrafts both in the state’s capital city of Oaxaca and in the surrounding villages where weekly artisanal markets are staged. Within the old city life revolves around the lively Zocalo, the main, tree-lined square. It’s an easy place to wander around and, apart from the odd spot of political activity, it’s safe to visit (make sure to check with your Embassy before traveling).
If you’re planning your first visit to Oaxaca with kids–one of my favorite places to visit in Mexico–here are four family-friendly activities I recommend, plus one great place to stay and one great place to eat while you are there.
Activity 1: Be Amazed by Monte Alban
It’s hard not be to wowed at Monte Alban. This ancient Zapotec capital sits on a flattened hilltop 400 m high with spellbinding 360-degree views over the city, the valleys and the mountains beyond. Meaning ‘White Mountain’, this is the second largest ceremonial site in Mesoamerica, out-sized only by Teotihuacan near Mexico City. But quite why this site was chosen, and what for, has archaeologists puzzled. It’s located on a tall, steeply walled plateau, there is no water source, it was not used for habitation nor is there any evidence of it having been used for strategic or military purposes.
The ruins are extremely old; the first known buildings were constructed between 1000 – 800 BC and hieroglyphs found here are among the most ancient writings in all of Mesoamerica. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating place to visit with remains of temples and places, tall stepped platforms, underground tunnels, an observatory, and a ball court. (Click for map.)
Activity 2: Test your Taste Buds at the Market
The Mercado 20 de Noviembre (The 20th November Market) is the largest, and one of the busiest markets in the old city and a wonderful place to experience day-to-day life in Oaxaca. Rows of lively stalls vie for attention selling all manner of goods from bootleg Disney T-shirts to traditional Mexican dresses.
But it’s the food stalls that are the most fascinating. Baskets of crunchy grasshoppers flavored with chili peppers sit alongside towers of chicharon, large squares of fried pork fat that’s a favorite national snack. There are bowls of mole paste, bags of dried chili peppers and tall, metal urns housing various flavors of ice cream. Some stalls offer communal seating where you can enjoy your tamales or chilies rellenos accompanied by a local mariachi singer. It might not be what you eat at home, but these traditional foods are definitely worth trying. Address: 20 de Noviembre, Centro, Oaxaca (Click for map.)
Activity 3: Botanic Gardens
One of our favorite activities when we visited Oaxaca was our tour of the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca (The Ethnobotanic Gardens of Oaxaca). The gardens are located behind the Santo Domingo Cultural Centre in grounds that were once owned by the church and later occupied by the Mexican army. The land was destined to become a luxury hotel and car park but fortunately Oaxaca artist, Francisco Toldeo, had other ideas. He designed a beautiful garden that showcases the diverse range of flora native to Oaxaca, the most bio-diverse region in Mexico. The gardens were opened in 1988.
Access to the gardens is by tour only and the tours are two hours long. My children loved this tour. Our guide was informative and knowledgeable as he shared the story of each plant. English tours are held on Tuesday, Thursdays and Saturdays at 11am. Spanish tours are held daily at 10am, 12pm and 5pm. (Click for map.)
Activity 4: Measure the Big Tree
It might not be the tallest tree in the world but El Árbol del Tule (the Tree of Tule) is certainly the widest. The ‘Big Tree’, located in the church grounds in the small town of Santa Maria del Tule, boasts a circumference of 54 meters and weighs over 600 tons. It’s so wide that it actually looks like half-a-dozen or so trees growing together in close proximity. El Arbol is an Ahuehuete Cypress, among the oldest living trees in the world, and this one is estimated to be over 2,000 years old. In 2001 it was placed on the UNESCO tentative list of World Heritage Sites. Address: The Big Tree is located approximately 6 miles (9km) east of Oaxaca. (Click for map.)
1 Great Place to Stay: El Diablo y La Sandia
The best way to enjoy Oaxaca is to stay within walking distance of the Old Town. We really enjoyed El Diablo y La Sandia, a welcoming, five-bedroom B&B that’s both wallet- and family-friendly. All rooms open onto a bougainvillea filled courtyard where a semi-open air kitchen is available for guests to use (always handy if traveling with young children). The bedrooms are small but cozy and perfectly suited to families who plan to spend their days sightseeing. The room rates include a very good breakfast but there are no other meals served at the hotel. Just as well, then, that you’re in one of the culinary capitals of Mexico! For more information on staying at El Diablo y La Sandia, click here to see my detailed review. (Click for map.)
1 Great Place to Eat: Casa Oaxaca
Oaxaca is a great place for foodies and is often referred to as the The Land of the Seven Moles. Another dish that’s worth trying is caldo de piedra, otherwise known as ‘stone soup’. Casa Oaxaca, with a lovely roof terrace overlooking Santo Domingo, is one of the best places to enjoy this traditional dish.
Stone soup uses an old, indigenous method for heating soup broth, which essentially involves very, very hot stones. A waiter will come to your table and, using metal tongs, will place burning hot stones into a delicious bowl of tomato-based broth. Watch as the liquid sizzles and bubbles up; the stones cook the soup almost instantly. Theatrics aside, the soup is also very tasty. Obviously, this meal is best enjoyed with children old enough to know not to stick their fingers on burning hot stones! Address: Garcia Vigil 407, Centro. (Click for map.)
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