Oaxaca – Quirky, Fun, and lots of Gold Leaf

Sail blog post - We left the boat in Huatulco and took a bus inland to the magical city of Oaxaca, a community that is vibrant, quirky, lively and fun.

Our bus to Oaxaca.

Street vendor sells snacks to bus passengers in Salina Cruz.

Snacks for sale at a bus stop.

Mountains on the way to Oaxaca, Mexico

Mountains on the way to Oaxaca.

Poinsettias and trees in the Zocalo in Oaxaca, Mexico

Poinsettias and tall trees in

Oaxaca's Zócalo.

Outdoor eateries on the Zocalo in Oaxaca, Mexico

Outdoor eateries surround the Zócalo.

The Santo Domingo Cathedral lights up the night sky in Oaxaca, Mexico

Santo Domingo Cathedral.

We hoof it down to the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico

We walk down towards the historic district.

Ornate cornices in Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxaca is loaded with charm.

Cute window balconies in Oaxaca, Mexico Cobble stone pedestrial street in Oaxaca, Mexico

One long cobbled street is set aside for pedestrians only.

Charming historic buildings on the cobbled pedestrian street in Oaxaca, Mexico Flowers grace many windows in Oaxaca, Mexico

Flowers adorn many


Unusual door knockers are the norm in Oaxaca, Mexico

Door knocker.

A window balcony offers a bistro table with a private view.

There are great places for a snack and a view

all over town.

Door-within-a-door is a major theme in the architecture of Oaxaca, Mexico

Many buildings have a door-within-a-door out front.

This church has two doors-within-a-door at their front gate.

This church has two doors in its


City library, Oaxaca, Mexico

The front of the public library.

City library courtyard in Oaxaca, Mexico

The courtyard inside the public library.

Grand staircase inside the Benito Juarez University courtyard in Oaxaca, Mexico

Fancy stairs from the courtyard to

the second story balcony in the

university courtyard.

No words needed to explain this bathroom sign.

Self-explanatory in every


Odd sculptures fill the sidewalks around the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico

Clusters of strange sculptures of

people spill all over the sidewalks.

Odd sculptures in front of the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico

Sculptures of "migratorios" congregate by the cathedral.

Migrant sculptures. Inside the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico

Inside the cathedral - gold, gold and more gold!!

Fantastic gold decorations inside the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico

The overriding theme is gold.

Ornate gold trimmed pulpit inside the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico


Gold decorated altar in the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico Fanciful gold decorations on the ceiling of the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico

A portion of the ceiling.

Baroque gold designs in the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico Street performers in Oaxaca, Mexico

Street performers abound.

Kids hang around the Oaxaca, Mexico cathedral after school

Uniformed schoolkids hang out by the cathedral after school.

Schoolkids, Oaxaca, Mexico. Paintings in the artisan district of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Paintings for sale on the sidewalks of the art district.

Home of former Mexican president Benito Juarez in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Home of former president Benito Juarez.

Protesters in Oaxaca Mexico.

Protesters cruise past us carrying signs.

Red clad protesters in Oaxaca, Mexico

Triqui protesters.

Tourists make a home video in front of the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca Mexico.

Two tourists make a video of

themselves in front of the


Oaxaca, Mexico (1)

Mid-February, 2012 - We left the seaside life of Huatulco behind for a

few days to get a glimpse of the colonial mountain city of Oaxaca

(pronounced "Wahaka").  There are two ranges of mountains to cross,

and there are several ways to make the trek.  A $12 ride in a small van

will take you on sickness-inducing switchbacks up treacherous single lane

mountain roads, but gets you there in six hours.  A daytime $23 bus goes

around the worst mountain passes but makes a lot of stops, getting you

there in 10 hours.  A $28 overnight bus makes the trip in 8 hours with just

one stop.  Or you can fly for $100.

Preferring comfortable budget travel and

sleeping in a bed, we opted for the day

bus.  This was a fun way to go with lots of

action.  At one stop a lady with a basket of snacks on her head showed up at the bus and

started calling out her wares in a shrill voice.  At another stop a security guard boarded the bus

and video-taped everyone's faces.  At a military checkpoint the men were all herded off the bus

while the womenfolk were left on board.  This seemed a little odd until we found out it was just

so the brawny guys could lift the heavy luggage out of the baggage compartment for inspection.

In the end they all re-boarded the bus carrying chips and drinks they'd gotten at a little roadside

stand.  The womenfolk were happy about that!  But the bus company didn't leave us hungry for

long.  At lunch time the bus stopped for half an hour at a cute little roadside restaurant.

It was a long drive, but the views in

the mountains approaching Oaxaca

were quite nice.  These mountains

are a major Mescal manufacturing

region, and many mountainsides

were a patchwork of agave cactus


We arrived in the early evening and,

after dropping off our bags at the

hotel, we dashed out to the Zócalo,

the main town square which is the

heart of the city.  Huge trees

dominate this city park, and

poinsettias were planted thickly

around them.

The square is actually made up of two

squares adjoined at the corners, and all

the edges of these squares are lined with

outdoor eateries.  As darkness fell the

place came alive.

Hundreds of

people were


walking, sitting,

eating, selling stuff,

buying stuff, talking

on the phone and necking.

You name it, it was

happening at the Zócalo.

Towering above it all, the

Santo Domingo Cathedral

lit up the night.

We stayed at the Hotel Casa del Sótano, a

charming little hotel built around a courtyard with a

pretty outdoor breakfast terrace.  We drank our

morning coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice

looking out over the city as it woke up, and we

were utterly enchanted.  This is a walking town if

there ever was one, and right after breakfast we

hoofed it straight down to the old town district.

Oaxaca oozes charm from every ornate balcony, wrought iron

gate and rooftop terrace.  It is a city with a past and a soul.

Built in 1521 by the Spanish on an Aztec miitary site, the flavor

is both historic and hip at the same time.

We couldn't stop the cameras from clicking.  Everywhere

we turned there was something begging to be framed

and remembered.

The streets are cobbled (one main artery is pedestrian

only) and the buildings are heavily embellished with

elaborate trim.

Flowers hung from the

balconies, and Mark was

fascinated by the crazy door

knockers on many of the


And there are a zillion places to get a bite to eat

with a view onto the city streets.

Many buildings have a very

large front door with a

smaller utility door cut into it.

The little door is the one you

use to get inside.

One of the churches has two utility doors cut

into its main front gate.

All kinds of things can reside behind these

imposing doors.  Usually it is a courtyard.  In

the public buildings we found the doors were

often open, and we wandered in and out of

quite a few.  The city library has a lovely

courtyard inside.

One of the universities -- Universidad

Autónomo "Benito Juárez" de Oaxaca --

has a plain courtyard but a grand, curvy

staircase going to the second floor.

There are several universities in this city, so there are young people everywhere.  It

is also a favorite international tourist destination, and we met folks from Austria,

Denmark and England during our stay.  To satisfy these groups of people there are

enchanting little restaurants, coffee shops and bars everywhere.  Just in case the

tourists visiting Cafe Brújulu don't speak Spanish, their bathroom signs need no


As we made our way over to the Santo Domingo Cathedral, we found little groups

of odd statues standing around in front of many of the shops.  Hundreds of them

filled a huge area in front of the church and spilled over into the sidewalks all


We later learned that Oaxacan artist Alejandro Santiago

created these sculptures called "2501 Migrants" to

represent the 2500 people (plus himself) from his

hometown of Teoculcuilco that have left town to seek a

better fortune elsewhere.  He first placed the sculptures in

his hometown as a spiritual replacement of the people who

had left.  Then he lined them up in the desert between

Mexico and the USA along the most common migration route.

Now they stand around the Oaxaca's beautiful cathedral plaza.

After wandering

among these

intriguing statues for

a while we went

inside the cathedral.

Wow!  Every inch of

the interior is

trimmed in fancy

gold leaf designs.

Some 60,000 sheets

of 23.5 carat gold

leaf were used in its

construction, and the

walls and ceilings

sparkle with gold.

I couldn't help but wonder, as the sunlight

glinted off the baroque patterns, whether this

gold had once been the artwork of the

Zapotecs or Aztecs or other indigenous people,

melted down by the Spanish to

decorate the church.  Or had it

been mined by the Spanish


I asked several guides and the

consensus was that it came from

the local gold mines that had

originally perked Spain's interest

in Oaxaca and wasn't the result

of melted ancient treasures.

As it turns out, the Oaxaca area mountains are still rich with

gold, and the Canadian-owned mine Natividad is

busy extracting it today.

But the real treasure in Oaxaca is not the gold or

even the architecture but the funky spirit that

makes this city a fun place to be.  Street

performers and artists strut their stuff on the

streets, and school kids hang out under the trees

by the cathedral.

There is an artisans district

where art of all kinds is for sale

on the sidewalks, along with

literary books in many languages

and hard-to-find music CD's.

These aren't the usual cheap

bootleg hawkers found in other

towns, but university types

selling off parts of their

collections for pocket change.

Wandering down a side street we bumped into the

boyhood home of Benito Juárez, Mexico's only

indigenous president (1858-1864).  A pure Zapotec, he

is revered for education reforms that are still in effect

today and for spearheading the separation of church

and state in Mexico.

Being the capital of the state of Oaxaca

as well as a university town, politics play

an important role here.  Strolling down

the street we suddenly saw a parade of

scarlet clad women marching towards us

carrying signs.

They were the Triqui indigenous people, and they were staging a sit-in in front

of the governor's building in an effort to gain support from the recently elected

governor for their cause, which, from what we could gather, involved land

disputes and violence in their hometown.

There was a vibrance and an energy

here in Oaxaca that made the Triqui

protests, the migrant statues and the

brutal history of the Spanish conquests all blend together as brilliant facets of humanity's

unstoppable ambition and its dramatic quest for happiness and prosperity.

This town is so photogenic that we saw tourists everywhere whipping out cameras to

capture snapshots to take home.  One couple got particularly creative and set up a tripod

with a video camera in front of the cathedral.  They pointed the camera at themselves with

the church in the background and talked for quite some time about how much their travels

meant to them and what great experiences they had had so far in Mexico, ending their

conversation with a "hello" to friends and family back home.

We sure were loving Oaxaca's action and color, and there was no need for us to leave

just yet.

Find Oaxaca on Mexico Maps.