The fortunate city of Oaxaca (pop. 375,000, elev. 5,110 feet/1,778 meters) is both the governmental capital of Mexico’s fifth-largest state by area (about tenth largest by population) and the de facto capital of Mexico’s southern indigenous heartland.
And Oaxaca is southern indeed. It lies farther south than all of Mexico’s state capitals save one, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of the state of Chiapas, and consequently enjoys abundant sunshine—fortunately without suffering from tropical heat. Oaxaca nestles in a temperate highland valley, blessed with a year-round balmy, springlike climate, prized by both residents and visitors alike.
Every year, for two weeks starting in mid-July, Oaxaca (wah-HAH-kah) City becomes the focus of the extraordinary diversity of its entire state. In the celebrated Guelaguetza (The Giving) festival, indigenous Oaxaca people, speaking 16 unique languages and representing hundreds of Oaxaca’s separate ethnic groups, converge in the city for a grand two-week party of food, dancing, music, and general merrymaking.
The Guelaguetza, like virtually all of Oaxaca’s civic revelries, starts at the zócalo (central plaza), sprinkled all around by relaxing sidewalk cafés and bordered by the porticoed Palacio de Gobierno on its south side and the distinguished baroque bulk of the Catedral de Oaxaca on its north side.
From there, the city’s street grid spreads south past the town’s vibrant pair of central markets, the Mercado Juárez and the Mercado San Juan de Dios, and north, uphill, along the very strollable pedestrian walkway, the Andador Macedonio Alcalá. The walkway connects the zócalo with Oaxaca’s uptown monuments, most notably Oaxaca’s jewel, the Centro Cultural de Santo Domingo, made up of the Iglesia y Ex-Convento de Santo Domingo and the adjacent magnificent Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca.
Finally, the city streets climb even more steeply, and as the Guelaguetza throng does in July, the westbound streets reach the grand outdoor dance stage and amphitheater atop Oaxaca’s storied hillside of Cerro del Fortín. This hill, originally known as the hill of Huaxyacac, was named for the forest of pod-bearing trees that still cover its slope. In fact, Huaxyacac was the city’s original name, and the Spanish transliterated it to the more pronounceable Oaxaca.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition