Wandering Through Oaxaca: When everything is closed!

When choosing cities in Mexico to visit, it was an easy decision to add Oaxaca to the list. Known as a foodie city with beautiful architecture and a strong Indigenous population, it checked all our boxes.

We arrived on a Sunday to a quite, mostly closed city. We chalked it up to being a religious day and assumed the city would liven up the next day. It didn’t – on Monday, most things were still closed. This continued for the rest of our week in Oaxaca.

One by one, we confirmed that most of the sites we had come to see were still closed due to Covid restrictions. This was very different from our experience in the Yucatan, where everything was open in full force.

Closed was the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, founded in 1575 and constructed over a period of 200 years. After being used as barracks during the revolutionary wars, the church was restored in 1938, but the monastery was turned into a regional museum: The Cultural Centre of Oaxaca (also closed).

Also closed: The Monastery of Santiago Apóstol, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MACO), and the Research Library Juan de Córdova.

Even the Botanical Gardens were for all purposes closed. We didn’t stop by until nearly the end of our week, only to discover that 15 people were allowed into the gardens, possibly twice a day, sometimes depending on nationality, after waiting in line for two hours.

We saw signs for the Guelaguetza Festival, but could never confirm it would actually be happening.

Instead, we spent a lot of our time in Oaxaca wandering through the colorful streets. The best known being the tourist center – Macedona Alcala, which is filled with shops, restaurants, and vendors.

The lack of things to do in Oaxaca didn’t seem to lessen the number of tourists we encountered, but we rarely saw anyone on the streets before 11:00am. The busiest time of day seemed to be dusk, so we tried to get out in the mornings as much as possible to have the city to ourselves.

I hadn’t known how colorful the city would be and even though we couldn’t go into many of the buildings, Oaxaca was probably the most enjoyable place during our two months in Mexico to simply take a stroll through.

We were at a much higher elevation than in Playa del Carmen, so the temperatures were cooler. That said, it also brought us closer to the sun, which was more than happy to beat down on us in the afternoons.

As for being a foodie city, we quickly learned that Oaxaca’s specialties all included meat. Oaxaca ended up being the most difficult of the five cities for us to find a vegetarian meal in. But we lucked out on our first restaurant and then made sure to return later that week.

Hierba Dulce claims to be the first de-industrialized restaurant in Mexico. Their food is free of any kind of processed products, everything is locally sourced, and, best of all, completely plant-based. And for a fun twist, most of their recipes are traditionally Oaxacan, so it’s hard to encounter them outside the region.

The first time we went, I dove in and started the meal with a Dragón Verde cocktail: Oaxacan cucumber vodka, peppermint, artisanal sparkling water, and toronjil syrup. It was hands-down the most unique cocktail I’ve ever ordered. Everything that followed was delicious: Chichilos, enfrijoladas, enchiladas de hoja santa, Oaxacan chocolate, and more!

The setting was just as lovely as the food and I can easily say this dining experience was the best part of our time in Oaxaca.

Despite nearly all of the museums and indoor cultural attractions being closed, we did find a way to explore the city’s more artistic side. Our first night, we wandered into a print shop and found ourselves chatting with the owner. He let us know that the print shops in Oaxaca got together and made a “Graphic Arts Passport” to help tourist find each of the locations in the city. We got our first stamp at the Estampa Galeria and then set out the next day to explore the rest.

Twelve stops in all, we searched for 11 of them (one being quite a ways away from city center). The pandemic has not been kind to the arts/tourist scene and a number of the shops had closed or disappeared.

The Tëmenk Gallery was the only space not selling prints, but we were able to wander through the pieces on display and see some of the artists at work.

A convenient cluster to visit included Espacio Zapata, T.A.C., and Taller-Galeria Siqueiros. The cool part was seeing the different vibes and artists’ work at each gallery.

We bought pieces at Cooperativa Gráfica Oaxaca and Gabinete Grafico to commemorate our time in Oaxaca.

Another fun side effect of the art scene in Oaxaca was the amount of street art. Below are three of my favorite pieces, but there was art up on buildings on every street in the city. Everything from Calvin & Hobbs to Corona Beer.

Most of it looked curated and was tagged by the artists, but there were also places the art had clearly gone up in a hurry. Each piece helped brighten an already colorful city.

After a week in Oaxaca, I can honestly say I don’t know much about the city. I can’t say we’ll return, but I am disappointed about everything we missed out on. I’m hoping if you find yourself in Oaxaca in the future, it will have returned to the vibrant city we had expected.

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