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Two Days in Oaxaca, Mexico: Colonial History and Ancient Ruins

Mexico is full of colourful colonial towns and mysterious ancient ruins, and if you’re spending 2 days in Oaxaca you’ll get to see great examples of both. The city’s colonial core boasts bustling markets, imposing churches and a sprawling convent, while Monte Alban, the Zapotec ruins above town, offers a captivating glimpse into Mexico’s pre-Spanish past. Here’s what we saw during our two days in Oaxaca (it was actually 3 days but we needed a full day of recovery after staying up all night watching cricket!).

The zocalo (main square)

We ate most of our meals at the small food stalls that line the zocalo, Oaxaca’s buzzing centrepiece. We became regulars at one particular stall, where we ate beef tacos covered in green chilli sauce. I’d heard Oaxaca is really touristy but we hardly saw any foreign tourists. Instead the zocalo was filled with locals drinking, eating, socialising and haggling over giant balloons. People don’t just buy balloons though — there are so many small shops selling all kinds of things, from blankets and carvings to cell phones and dresses. All of this commercial activity kind of gets in the way of the zocalo’s architecture, but it does create an energetic atmosphere, so I guess it’s a fair trade-off.

Two days in Oaxaca, Mexico: The zocalo

Walking the streets

The streets of Oaxaca are lined with colourful colonial buildings, quiet cafes and lots of shops and markets. Traffic is fairly heavy on the streets of Oaxaca and it’s not the most relaxing place to wander, although the architecture and the insight you get into daily life makes up for it. Oaxaca isn’t completely given over to tourism like some other colonial towns in Latin America, which gives it a chaotic energy.

Two days in Oaxaca, Mexico: Walking the streetsTwo days in Oaxaca, Mexico: A busy street cornerTwo days in Oaxaca, Mexico: A detailed church

Santo Domingo de Guzman Church / Convent

As with any colonial town in Latin America, Oaxaca is home to wonderfully detailed churches. You can spend hours walking between (and in/out of) Oaxaca’s churches, they are definitely some of the nicest in Mexico. My favourite would have to be the Santo Domingo de Guzman church/convent. This religious complex is one of the most photogenic places in town (the first photo in this post was also taken there) — if you only have two days in Oaxaca don’t miss it! There are quiet hallways and courtyards and a large section of the monastery has been turned into a museum. There are all sorts of displays showcasing both Oaxaca’s colonial history and its indigenous past.

Two days in Oaxaca, Mexico: Santo Domingo CathedralTwo days in Oaxaca, Mexico: Santo Domingo de Guzman Convent

Monte Alban

These ancient ruins just outside of Oaxaca are some of the most atmospheric in Mexico. The ruins aren’t quite as grand as Chichen Itza or Palenque, but they are just as fun to explore. Monte Alban was the capital of the Zapotec empire and has been around, in various forms, for well over 2500 years.There are plazas, tombs, small pyramids and ball courts. We saw maybe 10-15 other tourists there — it was the most peaceful set of ruins we visited in Mexico. The ruins are set on top of a hill surrounded by rolling hills and small villages.

To get to Monte Alban from downtown Oaxaca you can take a bus or a taxi. We took the bus and were dropped off about a 30 minute walk from the ruins. It was an easy uphill walk but if you want to avoid it you can take a taxi or join an organised tour (I think there are also buses which go all the way to the ruins). The Monte Alban ruins only cost 52 pesos and it’s a great way to spend half a day — plan to spend a few hours there, even if you only have two days in Oaxaca.

FURTHER READING: Find out more about the history of Monte Alban

Two days in Oaxaca, Mexico: Monte Alban ruinsTwo days in Oaxaca, Mexico: Ball court at Monte AlbanTwo days in Oaxaca, Mexico: Monte Alban view

Music from Oaxaca

It turns out a musician I like, Zach Condon (AKA Beirut) recorded an EP in a small village outside of Oaxaca with a local Zapotec church band. It’s an interesting blend of brass instrument driven Mexican music and western song structure; check out the EP if you’re travelling to Oaxaca (or if you like good music).

Further reading: An interview with Zach Condon about recording in Oaxaca

Have you been to Oaxaca? What is your favourite colonial city in Mexico? Let me know in the comments below!

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Jon Algie

Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who hates talking about himself in the third person and has no imagination when it comes to naming websites.
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