Founded on a rich indigenous history and a striking colonial influence, Oaxaca City has been in a state of constant renovation, but prior to our understanding of it as a contemporary destination, Oaxaca was simply a tiny Aztec settlement during ancient times.
The ruins of Monte Alban is the most important archaeological site in the Valley of Oaxaca. Located on a spectacular mountaintop setting, about ten miles west of the city, this site acted as the capital of the Zapotec civilization from 500 B.C. to 800 A.D. The area boasts terraces, dams, canals, pyramids and artificial mounds that were literally carved out of the mountain. And the grand capital flourished for thirteen centuries when, for reasons that still remain unclear, its eventual abandonment began. The ruins are easy to see, as many day trips from Oaxaca City take hundreds of tourists to the site every day.
The city was founded just a few years after the Spanish vanquished the Aztecs, and three centuries of colonial rule followed, during which the region remained calm. But it was only in the 18th century that Oaxaca’s economy began to grow from the export of cochineal and textiles.
And interestingly enough, the city as we know it today, has only come to fruition over the past 30 years. With tourism, new businesses and rural poverty all encouraging migration from the countryside. The population has more than doubled in this time, and together with formerly separate villages and towns it now forms a capital city of about 450,000 people.
So the next time you visit Oaxaca, you might just be surprised – regardless of what you’ve heard – to find a thriving cultural and culinary destination, with an exceptionally beautiful colonial centre.
This bastion of Mexican culture should be a mandatory stop on your trip. Not only for the more grander pulls of the surrounding Mayan ruins, but for its particularly unique culture and warm, hospitable people.