In the heart of the state of the same name and surrounded by lush tropical vegetation and the high mountains of the southern Sierra Madre, Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s most beautiful cities. Displaying an attractive mix of both Indian and Spanish elements, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has successfully preserved its unique character and is a delight to explore. First settled as far back as 6000 BC, it was part of the Aztec empire until the Spanish arrived in 1521 and soon after established the royal city of Oaxaca, a name derived from the original Aztec fortress.
Construction of Oaxaca Cathedral (the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption) began in the mid 16th century and lasted almost 200 years. On the northwest side of the city’s main square, the Zócalo, the cathedral is notable for its sturdy building style with its two low towers designed to withstand earthquakes, a not-uncommon occurrence in the region. The original clock, the mechanism of which is completely carved from wood, was presented to the church by the King of Spain upon its completion, just one of a number of attractive features of its pleasant Baroque façade with its finely worked figures and bas-reliefs on its columns. The interior is also worth seeing due to its neoclassical influences and eight finely-engraved glass windows.
The historic settlement of Monte Albán, just eight kilometers west of Oaxaca, covers an area of some 40 square kilometers and for 2,500 years was an important place of worship. The center of the ruins, rising on a man-made platform 400 meters above the Oaxaca Valley, is possibly Latin America’s oldest and most impressive Pre-Columbian site. Founded in the sixth century BC, the city was once home to some 35,000 people in its heyday. Highlights include the spectacular Grand Square (Gran Plaza) measuring 200 meters wide by 3,300 meters long and forming the center of the archaeological ruins, along with the Ball Court (Juego de Pelota), a number of large pyramids, and a palace with an inner courtyard and cruciform tomb. Expect to spend the best part of a day exploring the ruins and the Monte Albán Ruins Museum with its sculptures, ceramic figures, jewelry, and displays relating to the excavation of the site.
The Basilica of Our Lady of Solitude
The Basilica of Our Lady of Solitude (Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad), dedicated to the patron saint of Oaxaca, was constructed of green cantera, a stone unique to the area, between 1682 and 1690 and is one of the city’s finest religious sites. In addition to its atrium built from limestone blocks surrounded by a covered walkway, it’s also notable for its figure of the Virgen de la Soledad with her black robe of velvet embroidered with gold and other precious stones, including a large pearl on her forehead. Other notable nearby churches include San Felipe Neri with its many elaborate altars, San Juan de Dios with an Indian depiction of the conquest, and San Agustin, notable for its façade reliefs of St. Augustine.