Founded in 1568 as a small cottage with four nuns living in it, the convent had grown by the early 18th century into the large compound that still exists today, one city block in size, enclosed by high stonewalls, with a large chapel, the Santa Catalina de Siena, and five arcaded courtyards and cloisters inside.
As it did with most church proprieties in 1859, the federal government expropriated the convent, turning it over to the city, which in turn used it as a jail and city hall. Unlike most expropriated church properties, though, which were eventually given back to the orders that founded them or the Catholic Church, the convent was turned over to private hands, where it was used as a movie theater and a Masonic lodge before being converted into the city’s most elegant and expensive hotel, the Camino Real. During this time, the interior of the convent was subjected to several makeovers and restorations, and even though it is still beautiful, it has, for the most part, been stripped of its original ornamentation and furnishings, save a few fragments of murals on the walls, some old oil pots, a handful of restored colonial paintings, and a smattering of furniture.
Even if a night’s stay is beyond your means, the place is still worth a visit, especially the chapel with its dark, cavernous nave, where reenactments of the Guelaguetza folk dances are held every Friday night. (The price of admission includes a buffet dinner.) But perhaps what is most captivating architecturally about the former convent is the small octagonal-shaped outbuilding the nuns used as a washhouse. Located in the northeast courtyard, the washhouse is ringed with arches and covered with a Moorish dome, at its center a fountain surrounded by a dozen washbasins, its waterworks fully functional.
- Cinco de Mayo 300, just north of Murguia; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico; 91 rooms, USD$271/271/311 (s/d/t); Most major credit cards; phone 951-516-0611, 951-501-6100; fax 951-516-0732; www.caminoreal.com/oaxaca; firstname.lastname@example.org; Reservations recommended.
- Restaurant El Refectorio, outdoor heated swimming pool, 24 hour room service, safe deposit box, laundry and dry cleaning, two bars: Las Novicias & Las Bugambilias, shop and news stand, taxi stand, doctor on-call.
- Room: phone, satellite TV, hair dryer, AC, internet.
Mercedarian monks traveling between México City and their missions in Guatemala established a way station here in 1598. It took over a hundred years, but in the early 17 century, the order finally built their first church on this site. Soon after it was completed, though, earthquakes destroyed it. Then, after several more decades of work, the present church was finally completed in 1690.
Facing west, the church overlooks a large, shady plaza, bordered on the north by busy Independencia Avenue. Mostly shrouded in trees, its retablo façade is elegant, though simple of design, lacking the excessive ornamentation of many of the Dominican facades. As with all retablo façades, it is laid out in tiers, in this case four, stacked one on top of the other, each tier a single section, an arched portal on the first tier, a single statue set in a shell niche on the second tier, an oval choir window on the third tier, and another single statue lodged in a shell niche on the fourth tier.
Beyond the simple exterior lies an unexpectedly bright and ornate interior, recently painted. The nave is covered by a series of high domes and lined with lateral arches, buried deep within the aches neoclassical altarpieces filled with colonial paintings and statues, the whole interior aglow with natural light from windows high in the nave and crossing.
- Corner of Independencia & Manuel Doblado; South of Independencia, Centro Histórico.
Templo y Convento de Nuestra Señora de las Nieves • Colonial Church • (E)
The Jesuits built their first church on this site in 1585. It withstood the numerous earthquakes of the 17th century until the great earthquake of 1696 finally destroyed it. The order immediately turned to rebuilding, quickly erecting a new church. Shortly after its completion, though, another powerful earthquake struck in 1721, heavily damaging the church.
The site was left unused for the next fifty years, until the Catholic Bishops took it over from the Jesuits after they were expelled from the country in 1767. Work on the present church began in 1770 and was completed a short two years later, the Bishops dedicating it to Our Lady of the Snows, the patron saint of Rome.
The church’s plain stone exterior, which of late was really starting to show its age, underwent a restoration in late 2011. Waiting inside, though, is the real treat — five diverse retablos, the main altarpiece neoclassical, the other four a mix of baroque and Churrigueresque, tucked away in side chapels and the transepts.
- Morelos, east of Juárez.; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico; Usually open in the late afternoons.
Templo y Convento de San Juan de Dios • Colonial Church • (B)
The first Catholic church ever built in the city, a makeshift structure of mud-brick walls and straw roof, was erected on this site in 1521. A short time later, a new and what was thought to be permanent church, constructed of brick walls and tile roof, was built to replace it. The brick church stood for over a hundred years until an earthquake in 1662 leveled it. Construction on a new church, along with a monastery and a hospital, got underway in 1699 and was completed a short four years later, in 1703. This one survived for over a hundred and fifty years, a fire destroying it in 1864.
Construction on the present church began a few years later and was completed in 1896. Though unique among churches in the city for its trapezoid-shaped wooden roof, the church is best known for its large 17th-century oil paintings, which line the walls and the angled lengths of the ceiling, depicting scenes from the life of Christ and famous events in the religious life of Oaxaca.
Located a couple of blocks south of the Zócalo, the area around the church is commercial, gritty, the streets lined with vendor stalls and storefronts, including the Mercado Benito Juárez to the north, an entire block of vendor stalls selling just about any item imaginable, and the Mercado 20 de Noviembre to the southeast, with dozens of food stalls serving traditional Oaxacan cuisine.
- 20 de Noviembre, corner Aldama; South of Independencia, Centro Histórico.
Templo y Convento de San José • Colonial Church • (F)
The Jesuits built their first church on this site in 1595. It withstood the numerous earthquakes of the 17th century, until the great earthquake of 1696 finally destroyed it. Soon after, the order turned to rebuilding, constructing a new church, the present one, and an adjacent convent housing Franciscan nuns, the church completed in 1728 and dedicated to St. Joseph, the convent finished in 1744.
The church and the convent’s solid but sober exteriors, save a few minor baroque flourishes above their portals, face east, overlooking the wide, sunken Plaza de Danza, as well the Palacio Municipal and Basílica de la Soledad, both lying on the plaza’s western edge.
Little from the colonial period has survived inside either building, renovations having stripped both of their colonial character. That said, the ex-convent, now home to the School of Fine Arts, is the more interesting of the two architecturally, beginning with its main portal, which leads through a long, wide passageway, the ceiling low and vaulted, tunnel like, before opening into a large two-story cloister, ringed with arches, a small, inoperable fountain lying at its center.
- Morelos, west of Crespo; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico.
Templo y Convento del Carmen Alto • Colonial Church • (G)
Originally the site of an Aztec temple, the Spanish built a small chapel here in the mid 1500s. The Carmelites took the chapel over in 1699, replacing it with a church, their own side chapel, and a monastery, enclosing it all behind a high stonewall, creating a sprawling complex several city blocks in size, the entire complex completed in 1751 still standing today.
Tucked away in a shaded courtyard, the church and side chapel are accessible through two thick gateways, one opening onto García Vigil street to the west, the other opening onto the narrow Plazuela del Carmen Alto to the south. The main portal to the church is covered by an arcaded portico, or narthex, which is standard for Carmelite churches. (The only other narthex can be found covering the main portal to the Los Siete Príncipes church.) As for the interior, it has undergone several renovations, with most of its original furnishings and ornamentation having been stripped out and replaced long ago.
The church and monastery followed the strict racial caste system of New Spain, allowing only persons born in Spain, gachupines, or of pure Spanish descent, criollos, to reside or worship there, while people of pure indigenous and mixed ancestry, indios and mestizos, were segregated to the Carmen Bajo church, four blocks to the south.
- Northeast corner or García Vigil & Carranza; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico.
Templo y Convento de los Siete Príncipes • Colonial Church • (D)
Although this location was established as a Catholic religious site in 1730, work on the church and the convent of the Siete Principes, dedicated to the seven archangels, didn’t get started until 1755, the church completed in 1764, the adjoining convent in 1782.
The exterior of the church is noteworthy for its arcaded portico, or narthex, covering the main portal, something of an oddity in the city. (The only other narthex can be found covering the main portal to the Carmen Alto church.) On the inside, the church has been completely renovated, stripped of its colonial furnishings and ornamentation, save the seven colonial-era statues of the seven archangels adorning the early 20th-century neoclassical main retablo.
As for the convent, it’s been converted into a cultural center, the Casa de la Cultura Oaxaqueña, conducting classes, workshops, exhibits, and events focusing on all things artistic and cultural, its classrooms, studios, and galleries lining the arched corridors of the ex-convent’s two cloisters, the center alive with artists, dancers, musicians, and writers. The center publishes, in Spanish, a schedule of activities, widely available in restaurants, cafés, and bookstores in the Centro.
- González Ortega, corner Colón; South of Independencia, Centro Histórico.
Templo de Sangre de Cristo • Colonial Church • (H)
Originally the site of the city’s first cemetery, a church was first built here in the later half of the 17th century. Then, at the century’s end, sometime in the late 1790s, it was replaced by the present church. Facing east, the church’s plain façade overlooks a small plaza, elevated slightly above cobblestone Macedonio Alcalá Street, the busy pedestrian promenade linking the Iglesia de Santo Domingo and the Zócalo. Like many of its contemporaries, repeated renovations and coats of paint have left the interior of the church denuded, stripped of its original furnishings and ornamentation, its colonial character long gone.
- Northwest corner Alcalá & Bravo; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico.
Templo de San Matías Jalatlaco • Colonial Church • (J)
The Jesuits originally constructed a small chapel on this site to serve converts in this once exclusively indigenous barrio. In the early 1700s, the order replaced the chapel with a more permanent church, the present one, dedicating it to St. Matthew the Apostle. The church has been the cornerstone of the barrio ever since.
Located at the top of cobblestone Hidalgo Street, the church recently underwent a thorough renovation, inside and out. The south-facing main and east-facing side façades, both originals and both well preserved, have elaborate geometric patterns carved into their surfaces — their design unique in the city. Inside, little remains of the original furnishings and ornamentation, the interior long ago stripped of its colonial character. That said, in the choir loft, above the main portal, there’s a beautiful, old post-colonial pipe organ, which was built in 1866 and has now been completely restored.
- Hidalgo, corner Aldama; Barrio de Jalatlaco, Centro Histórico.
Templo de la Defensa • Colonial Church • (K)
Construction of the first church on this site began in 1786 and was completed in 1792. A short three years later, in 1795, an earthquake destroyed it. Work on the present church got underway soon after and was completed in 1798. The church’s east-facing main and north-facing side facades are both classic retablo baroque, their layout elegant, though simple of design. The real treat, however, awaits inside — a gilded Churrigueresque main retablo, probably the original, fitted to the apse, its top rising up and rounded to the low vaulted ceiling. There’s also another, smaller gilded Churriguresque retablo set in a large niche in the south wall of the nave.
- corner Arteaga & Fiallo; South of Independencia, Centro Histórico.
Templo de Santa María del Marquesado • Colonial Church • (L)
The Dominicans built their first church on this site in 1727, dedicating it to St. Mary. It underwent several rebuilds because of earthquakes, until the present church was completed in the late 1800s. Set back from the busy Francisco Madero highway, the church faces west, overlooking a broad atrium shaded by large Ficus trees. A simple facade fronts the church, slightly recessed and set beneath an arch, the arch bracketed by two squat towers topped with belfires. The façade is laid out in three horizontal tiers, stacked one on top of the other, each tier diminishing in size, an arched main portal set between two statues lodged in deep shell niches on the first tier, an octagonal window on the second tier, and another statue set in a deep shell niche on the third tier. Inside, nothing remains of the original colonial furnishings and ornamentation.
Templo de Nuestra Señora del Patrocinio • Colonial Church • (M)
The exact origin of this church is a mystery. Historical sleuths date its construction at the end of the 18th century, their best clue a nearby church drawn on a map of the city dated between 1794 and 1797. That church no longer exists — it was likely destroyed in an earthquake in 1795. But another map dated 1803 has the present church on it, the thinking being the destroyed church was rebuilt at this location.
From the 1850s on, the church’s had a rough go of it — it’s been renovated, expropriated, renovated again, hammered twice by major earthquakes, and then abandoned for about fifty years, until finally it was restored to its current condition, which is still pretty dilapidated. Today, it sits across the street from El Llano park, looking hapless, the southern tower missing its belfry, mangled wrought iron left in its place, as if something immense had reached out and ripped it from its moorings.
- Pino Suárez, corner Zárate; North of Iglesia de Santo Domingo, Centro Histórico.
Templo y Convento de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe • Colonial Church • (N)
A small, brick chapel was originally built on this site in 1644. Work on the present church and convent, both constructed of stone, began in 1650, the church completed in 1707, dedicated to the dark-skin Virgin of Guadalupe, one of the most revered religious figures in México, the convent taking several more years to finish. A side chapel was added a hundred years later, in 1807. The interior of the church has been restored and freshly painted, though little of its colonial character remains, renovations having stripped it of its original furnishings and ornamentation.
- Northside of El Llano park, between of Benito Juárez and Pino Suárez; North of Iglesia de Santo Domingo, Centro Histórico.
Templo de la Santísima Trinidad de las Huertas • Colonial Church • (O)
Many of the Zapotec and Mixtec laborers who were conscripted to build the city after its founding by the Spanish in the early 16th century settled in this area about half a mile southeast of the Zócalo. Over time, the settlement grew into a thriving barrio, its residents constructing elaborate gardens, for which the barrio was named Trinidad de las Huertas, or Trinity of the Gardens.
To serve the converts of this once exclusively indigenous barrio, a small chapel was first erected on this site in 1554. Construction on the first church, built of mud-brick walls and wooden roofing, got underway at the end of the 16th century, the church taking almost a hundred years to complete. Over the course of the next two hundred years, it was constantly being repaired and rebuilt because of earthquake damage, until a couple of early 20th-century earthquakes finally put it out of its misery. The present church was built between 1949 and 1952.
- Cuahutemoc, corner Santos Degollado; South of Independencia, Centro Histórico.
Templo de Nuestra Señora de la Consolación • Colonial Church • (P)
Construction of the first church on this site began in 1656 and was completed in 1661. The Carmelites took over the church in 1679 while their main church, the Carmen Alto, and its adjoining convent, a sprawling complex several city blocks in size, were being built. Constantly under repair because of earthquakes, the church was eventually rebuilt in the middle of the 18th century.
Since then, the interior has undergone a couple of major renovations, stripping it of its original furnishings and ornamentation. Today, the interior is freshly painted and well lit with natural light, though practically barren of adornments and furnishings, except for the pews and the simple neoclassical main retablo tucked away in the apse.
- Bustamante, corner Moctezuma; South of Independencia, Centro Histórico.
Templo de San Cosme y San Damián • Colonial Church • (Q)
Originally the site of the city’s first hospital, also named San Cosme y San Damián, the first church was built here between 1565 and 1568, constructed of mud-bricks walls and wooden roofing. An earthquake leveled both buildings on New Year's Eve in 1603. A new church and hospital were built between 1610 and 1612, this time of stone. Subsequent earthquakes weakened even these hardened structures, and both were torn down in 1745. Reconstruction on a new church and hospital got underway immediately, both reopening in 1752.
On the eve of the Reform War, in the late 1850s, the federal government expropriated both buildings, the hospital sold off to private hands, the church remaining in government possession until 1890, before reverting back to the Church. By then, however, the church had become dilapidated, its structure unsafe, and so once again, it was torn down and rebuilt from scratch, construction on the new church, the one standing today, taking thirty years to complete.
Of all the churches in the city whose origins date back to the colonial period, this one has perhaps the plainest architecture and the least ornamentation. Shaped like a long rectangular box, as if inspired by a shipping container, the church has no transept, no dome, no choir loft, no façade around its main portal. Indeed, there’s little of interest here, except for maybe the plain neoclassical main retablo and the series of small, lateral vaults undulating along the low ceiling of the nave, creating a rippling effect.
- Southeast corner of J.P. García and Independencia; South of Independencia, Centro Histórico.
Templo del Carmen Bajo • Colonial Church • (R)
A small church constructed of mud-brick walls and straw roofing was built on this site in 1554, dedicated to Las Lágrimas de San Pedro, the Tears of San Pedro. In the early 1700s, the Carmelites took control of the church, dedicating it to the Virgen del Carmen. Adhering to the strict racial caste system of New Spain, they set this church, the Carmen Bajo, aside exclusively for people of pure indigenous or mixed ancestry, indios or mestizos, while their other, more grandiose church, the Carmen Alto, only allowed persons born in Spain, gachupines, or of pure Spanish descent, criollos, to worship there.
An earthquake heavily damaged the church in 1801. Soon after, a new church constructed of wood was built to replace it. Tragedy struck again in 1862, this time a fire burning the wooden church to the ground. Once again, work on a new church began almost immediately, this one built of stone, though, its structure more permanent, the effort taking a decade to complete, the church still standing today.
- Corner of Porfirio Díaz and Morelos; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico.
- Benito Juárez, between De Progreso and Porfirio Díaz, one block north of Niños Heroes; Barrio de Xochimilco.
- Located on Hidalgo, the main road into San Felipe del Agua; San Felipe del Agua.