Zócalo • Central Plaza • (Z)
If the city of Oaxaca is the social and cultural center of the state, the Zócalo, a large traffic-free plaza located in the Centro, bustling with activity throughout the day and late into the night, is the social and cultural center of the city.
Originally laid out in 1529, the Zócalo and the surrounding grid of streets have changed little since. The architectural composition of the surrounding buildings, however, has changed often over the centuries, after powerful earthquakes, endemic to the region, damaged or destroyed many of the original colonial buildings, only to be rebuilt in later styles vogue at the time, the cycle of destruction and rebuilding having left a patchwork of architectures in its place.
Today, the Zócalo is enclosed on the east and the west by sidewalk cafés, spilling out from beneath portales, covered arched passageways, fronting two-story colonial buildings; on the north by the upscale Hotel Marques de Valle, as well as the imposing cathedral, a fixture on the Zócalo in one form or another since the 1540s; on the south by the Museo del Palacio Universum, a relative newcomer, built in the late 19th century in the Neoclassical style popular in that period; and from above by a broad canopy of Indian laurel trees, which, mercifully, cap off the worst of the late spring heat.
To the northwest, contiguous with the Zócalo, lies another traffic-free plaza, the Alameda de León, hosting many of the same type of activities, and, for the purposes of this guide, the two plazas are treated as one and the same.
No trip to the city is complete without a visit to one of the restaurants or sidewalk cafés on the Zócalo. The restaurants La Casa de la Abuela, master of the seven moles, and the El Asador Vasco, specializing in Basque cuisine, offer the only fine dining on the Zócalo, both perched, with great views, above the sidewalk cafés on the second stories of the colonial buildings lining the west side.
Of the five sidewalk cafés on the Zócalo, none stands out among the bunch, all offering pretty standard, if uninspired, Oaxacan fare, along with a few sandwiches, hamburgers, and other crowd pleasers, thrown in to appeal to the unadventurous culinary traveler, or, well, maybe just someone who's had his or her fill of Méxican food. That said, on the east side, the Terranova and Importador do seem to be aiming a little higher — the waiters more attentive, the presentation of the food more well thought out, and the prices slightly higher. Still, for the most part, the food isn't that much better.
But don't go to the Zócalo looking for fine dining or to sample the region’s unique cuisine — for that there are other, worthier restaurants nearby. No, go to the Zócalo to be in the thick of it — the diners crowding the sidewalk cafés, sipping hot coffee or ice-cold cervezas, meeting up with old friends, or maybe striking up conversations with new ones, students anxiously practicing newly learned Spanish on the waiters, the waiters responding with gentle patience, expats lazing away the afternoon with a good book, suddenly, a mob of people rushing for the cover of the portales, escaping an afternoon summer shower, orchestras performing classics, street musicians adroitly working their instruments, singers crooning, clowns beguiling with their antics, mimes silently telling tales, dancers reenacting ancient steps, all asking for only a few pesos for their skills and efforts, artisans displaying their creations, street vendors haggling with skeptical customers over the price of otherwise worthless trinkets, beggars desperate for a couple of pesos, their only foreseeable hope for something to eat that day, shoeshiners snapping their towels, workers relaxing, on break from their toils, toddlers, unsteady, chasing after pigeons, political protests erupting periodically, civil but often times disobedient...and the list goes on. Needless to say, the Zócalo is a place to linger or to drop by often. Something's always happening here or about to.
And lastly, in a pinch, underneath the gazebo in the center of the Zócalo, there's a subterranean public toilet, costing only a couple of pesos.
- One block south of Independencia, bordered on the north by the cathedral; Around the Zócalo, Centro Histórico.
Graced with one of the finest baroque interiors in México, the Iglesia de Santo Domingo is the city’s premier historical attraction and the one church in the city every visitor should make a point of seeing. Dominican friars founded the church in 1529 after first arriving from México City, hastily erecting a small, poorly constructed mud-brick chapel near the Zócalo. By 1569, the chapel had begun to crumble and was quickly becoming unusable, so the order, in dire need of a larger, more permanent church and a monastery, acquired the land for the current site.
Construction of the church and monastery got off to a slow and shaky start, financial problems impeding progress on both for decades, work on the monastery finally getting underway in 1569, the church sometime in the 1570s. And then, as fate would have it, just as the monastery was being completed in 1603 and the friars were getting ready to move in, an earthquake struck, severely damaging the monastery and the uncompleted church.
Reconstruction on both buildings began almost immediately, work on the monastery proceeding quickly, the friars’ residence opening in 1610, the church taking another fifty-six years to complete, finally opening in 1666, ninety-some years after the start of construction. Both buildings remain standing to this day.
In 1859, in the midst of a civil war between the country’s Liberal and Conservative forces, the Benito Juárez administration expropriated all church properties in México, converting churches and monasteries into government buildings and army barracks. During this time, much of the interior ornamentation and most of the original furnishings of both buildings were heavily damaged or destroyed, including the destruction of the church’s original retablos, a particularly egregious loss.
In the 1890s, the government turned the church over to the Catholic Bishops, who held on to it until the 1930s before giving it back to its original owners, the Dominicans. The order then embarked on a decades-long program of restoration, which was mostly completed by the 1970s, though some work continues to this day.
Facing west, like all Dominican churches, the Iglesia de Santo Domingo overlooks a spacious cut-stone plaza, slightly elevated from the traffic-free cobblestone streets below, its tall, narrow retablo façade recessed and ascending between two massive tower bases topped with belfries.
As with all retablo facades, this one is laid out in horizontal tiers, in this case four, arranged vertically, stacked one on top of the other, the lower three tiers each divided into three rectangular sections, the sections lining up vertically across all three tiers, classical columns dividing the sections horizontally within a tier. The central sections of the facade are filled with an arched main portal on the first tier, an ear frame relief depicting St. Dominic and St. Hippolytus holding the church on the second tier, and a window on the third tier, while the outside sections of all three tiers are filled with statues of saints set in deep shell niches, the façade culminating in a wide, pediment-shaped fourth tier filled with figures in relief.
The Rosary Chapel, an early 18th-century addition, juts off to the south of the main entrance to the church, resting over the chapel's portal another ear frame relief, this one of the Virgin and Christ child giving the rosary to St. Dominic.
Inside the tunnel-like main portal, the earliest surviving piece of art in the church awaits: the painted relief of a vine sprawled across the length of the vaulted ceiling, its curved, interlaced branches sprouting — as if they were flowers — the busts of thirty-three brightly colored human figures. At the base of the vine rests the figure of Don Félix de Guzmán, founder of the Dominican order; at the other end sits the Virgin and Christ child, surrounded by a halo of angels. Opinions differ as to the precise meaning of the iconography of the vine and some of the other figures. Whatever their meaning or original inspiration, the artists created a unique piece of early Spanish colonial art.
Beyond the Guzmán vine, though, lies the luscious interior of the church, restored to its earlier baroque grandeur, the entire surface of every wall, every dome, every vault overlaid with paintings, reliefs, statues, or stucco ornamentation, and the gilded retablos, all three of them, overflowing with ornamentation as well. Indeed, the intention seems to be saturation, nothing left untouched, every surface embellished, transformed, the cumulative effect the whole of the interior a work of art.
What to visit
In addition to the church, the priory’s former monastery has been restored and converted into Oaxaca's finest museum, the Museo Nacional de las Culturas de Oaxaca, dedicated to the preservation of the state’s cultural and historical heritage. The museum’s collections and the monastery itself are both worthy of visits, as well as the priory’s grounds, which have been converted into a botanical garden featuring plants native to the state, making it a real delight for plant lovers.
When to visit
Anytime is a good time to visit the church, even in the evening when floodlights illuminate its exterior. And yet, in the late afternoon, as the sun starts to set, there is a moment, if you can catch it, when the light green and beige stone of the church turns golden, the whole of the church suddenly aglow, briefly, as the dusk settles in for the night.
- Northeast corner of Alcalá & Gurrión; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico; Daily 7 a.m. - 1 p.m. & 4 - 8 p.m..
The Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad may have the finest projecting façade in México, a masterpiece, and its sumptuous interior is perhaps second in the city to only the Iglesia de Santo Domingo in its baroque extravagance.
The story of the origin of the church begins as a tale. The details vary, but the gist of it is that in 1543 a mule driver on his way to the city of Oaxaca noticed an extra mule in his team carrying a heavy box. Upon reaching the edge of the city, the mysterious mule collapsed from the weight of the box. Too heavy to be moved, the box was opened, and to everyone’s surprise, the images of the Virgin and crucifix were inside. Interpreting these events as a miracle, church officials pronounced that a church dedicated to the Virgin of Solitude would be built on the site.
Church pronouncements aside, construction didn’t get started until 1582, almost forty years later, and once underway, took over a hundred years to complete, the church finally dedicated in 1690. Soon after, though, in 1696, a powerful earthquake struck, leaving the church in shambles, the original façade destroyed — a familiar story by now.
Reconstruction began almost immediately, the new church redesigned, fortified against future earthquakes with thicker walls and lower domes and vaults, the effort culminating in 1719 with the completion of the church’s masterful façade, a creation of the indigenous sculptor Tomás de Sigüenza.
Most colonial-era baroque church facades are constructed on flat surfaces lying on a plane with — or maybe slightly behind or in front of — their front walls or tower bases. This one, however, facing east, is fitted to a wall with a wide vertical slot cut down the middle, the wall projecting well forward from between two massive tower bases, the façade overlaying the uneven surface of the wall resembling a freestanding folding screen. At the time, strongly projecting church façades were uncommon in México, although church architects did occasionally employ this technique in the late 17th to the middle of the 18th century. The folding-screen-like façade, however, is unique.
Moreover, even though the façade strongly projects and its surface is uneven, the overall design is still retablo baroque. And like all retablo baroque facades, this one’s laid out in tiers, in this case four, arranged vertically, stacked one on top of the other, the bottom three tiers divided into seven rectangular sections, the central sections filled with an arched framed portal on the first tier, a sculpted central relief of the Virgin of Solitude enclosed in an eared frame on the second tier, a window on the third tier, and a relief of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception topping off the façade on the fourth tier, figures in relief and statues in deep shell niches filling the outer sections of the lower three tiers, the sections separated by columns — Doric on the first tier, Ionic on the second tier, and Solomonic (spiral) on the third tier.
Inside the church, the rigid, triangular statue of the Virgin of Solitude, declared the patron saint of Oaxaca in 1909, sits perched above the altar, her crown and robe covered in gold and jewels, reproductions of the originals stolen in the 1980s during a daring daytime raid, the walls and domes and vaults surrounding the Virgin outlined in golden trim, every surface of the interior filled with paintings, reliefs, statues, and stucco ornamentation. In honor of the Virgin, the church was elevated to the status of basilica in 1959.
On December 18, the Virgin’s day of feast, the church and surrounding Plaza de Danza are filled with penitents on pilgrimage from throughout the state, bringing small gifts, ex-votos, to the Virgin. Over the centuries, an odd assortment of the ex-votos have ended up in the museum behind the church, also worthy of a visit.
The church’s former Augustinian convent, opened in 1697, lies hidden behind a high, formidable wall to the north of the church, its small, east-facing portal leading to the first of two cloisters that sprawl west, both cloisters two stories high and ringed with arches, inoperable fountains at their centers. Today, the convent has been renovated and converted into municipal offices, which are open to the public during normal business hours.
This is an aside, but passing through the archway at the far southeastern corner of the Plaza de Danza, there’s a small, shady park where the vendors sell some truly righteous ice cream.
- Independencia, 5 blocks west of the Zócalo; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico.
The Museo Nacional del las Culturas de Oaxaca is the city’s finest museum. Housed in the former monastery of the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, the museum is dedicated to the preservation of Oaxaca's cultural and historical heritage, exhibiting many of the state's most important objects of art, artifact, and antiquity, spanning the pre-Columbian to the modern eras.
Among the museum’s extensive collection of exhibits are the priceless Mixtec artifacts of gold and jewelry excavated from Tomb 7 of Monte Albán, considered one of the most important archeological discoveries in México. Another important collection is the Francisco Burgoa Library, an archive of 23,000 historical books and documents dating back to 1484. All the descriptions of the exhibits are in Spanish, although an excellent audio guide in English can be rented for Mex$50 (Spanish Mex$40).
Even if the museum’s exhibits hold no interest for you, the architectural and artistic beauty of the early 17th-century ex-monastery housing them is reason enough to visit. Just north of the main entrance to the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, the ex-monastery’s long, tunnel-like main portal opens to a spacious cloister, two stories high, ringed with arcades fronting walks covered with thick, sturdy rib vault ceilings, a robust fountain at its center. On the north side of the cloister, a wide double staircase leads up a vestibule, its surfaces covered in painted reliefs and gilded stucco ornamentation, while upstairs, next to the entrance to the Iglesia de Santo Domingo’s choir loft, the dome and walls of the old friars chapel are covered in painted reliefs and gilded stucco ornamentation as well.
- Northeast corner of Alcalá & Gurrión, north of the Iglesia de Santo Domingo; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico; Tue - Sun 10 am - 6:15 pm; Mex$51, free for children, students, seniors; Sundays and holidays free for everyone; phone 951-516-2991, 951-516-3721.
Museo de Arte Prehispánico de México Rufino Tamayo • Museum, Colonial Mansion • (J)
Renowned Oaxacan abstract painter Rufino Tamayo founded this museum — a cultural highlight of the city — in 1975 to house his private collection of pre-Hispanic Méxcian art, which he donated to the state and people of Oaxaca before his death in 1991. The museum is installed in a beautiful 18th-century colonial mansion, La Casa de Villaraza, named for Francisco Antonio Villaraza, a prominent Spanish official at the time. Unlike most museums, which treat and exhibit pre-colonial works of art as artifacts, with an emphasis on the archeological, each piece here is treated and exhibited as an object of creative expression, with an emphasis on the aesthetic.
- Morelos 503, west of Porfirio Díaz; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico; Mon, Wed - Sat, 10 am – 2 pm & 4 – 7 pm, Sun 10 am – 3 pm, closed Tue; Mex$35; phone 951-516-4750, 951-516-7617.
Los Arquitos • Colonial Stone Aqueduct • (A)
In the early 1500s, the first Spanish settlers, needing a reliable source of water, tapped the ample spring at the base of the mountains to the north, now the suburb of San Felipe del Agua, and channeled the water to the city in a crude canal. In mid-1700s, the city replaced the canal with a more permanent stone aqueduct, known as Los Arquitos. The aqueduct supplied water to the city until 1941, when steel pipes were laid to replace it.
Today, long strips of the aqueduct remain wholly intact, along with shorter, partial fragments. The most impressive surviving strip begins three blocks northwest of the Santo Domingo Church, running north along cobblestone García Vigil Street (which turns into Rufino Tamayo) for about three hundred meters, and ends abruptly at the busy six-lane Niños Heroes highway. Here, the aqueduct is a series of arches facing east, hence the name Los Arquitos, its channel inlaid along the top of the arches, well overhead and not easily seen.
Across Niños Heroes lies the tranquil Barrio de Xocomilco, its streets filled with the thumping of wooden handlooms — the rhythmic sounds of weavers working. Here, other, smaller fragments of the aqueduct have survived, mostly for about a kilometer along quiet cobblestone José López Alavés Street (due north of Rufino Tamayo), including the northernmost fragment in the barrio, an intact piece of the aqueduct spanning the Jalatlaco River, held up by a series of arches.
Continuing north along José López Alavés, that’s it for the next kilometer or so until the street ends where Porfirio Díaz turns into the main road to San Felipe del Agua. From there, for the next couple of kilometers, long, intact strips of the aqueduct line the road to San Felipe del Agua, ending just south of the San Felipe Apóstol Church.
- Southernmost remnant begins on García Vigil, a half-block north of Humboldt; North of Iglesia de Santo Domingo, Centro Histórico.
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca • Museum, Colonial Mansion • (K)
Exhibiting collections from contemporary artists of local, national, and even international renown, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca, or MACO for short, is housed in a stunning 18th-century colonial mansion, named La Casa de Cortés for the famous conquistador Hernán Cortés, even though he never lived here. The quality of the exhibits here is usually high, but because they rotate, it's hit or miss.
- Alcalá 202, half block north of Morelos; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico; Wed - Mon 10:30 am - 8 pm, closed Tue; Mex$20, Sundays & holidays free; phone 951-514-2228, 951-514-1055; www.museomaco.com.