What is Oaxaca? How Do You Pronounce Oaxaca?

Oaxaca City Sign

With so many amazing places to travel to, why did Off Path Travels choose to start off in Oaxaca, Mexico?  Where is Oaxaca? How do you even pronounce Oaxaca? Let’s fill in some of those details.

There is a ton of information here, and we’ll cover a lot of the best topics in more easily-digestible posts.  Don’t get too overwhelmed by this wall of text!

To start off with some perspective, UNESCO designated the entire city center of Oaxaca as a world heritage site.  And Oaxaca City is the number two city to visit in Mexico according to Travel and Leisure, even ahead of Mexico City, Cancún, and Cabo San Lucas.

Oaxaca Sign in front of Santo Domingo Church

First, a bit of history of the area because it would be impossible to appreciate Oaxaca without a little background.  Then I’ll touch on the incredible geography full of mountains, beaches, and water features. And finally, a quick run-down of the best things to do when you visit Oaxaca City!

Pronunciation and Brief History of Oaxaca

Say it with me: wah-ha-kah.  See, I knew you could do it!

Oaxacan history is vast, to put it mildly.  I’ve read a lot of conflicting dates regarding exactly how old the earliest signs of human life are here, but quite a few estimates are well over 10,000 years old (8,000 BC).  The oldest archeological evidence in the area is located in the city of Mitla, specifically the Guilá Naquitz Cave.

Around 1500 BC, evidence of larger settlements becomes fairly abundant in the Oaxacan highlands, some with sophisticated agriculture, building methods, and customs.  The Zapotec, Mixtec, and Olmec people were three of the largest native groups in the area.

The Aztecs made their way into the scene in the mid-to-late 13th century.  The isolation and protection of the mountains slowed the Aztec domination of the region, so all of their original heritage was not lost.  Then came the Spanish.

Iglesia de Santo Domingo. Image by Off Path Travels.

Like a lot of Mexico, the Spanish conquest made its way into the mountains of Oaxaca and changed life here forever.  In the early 16th century, after the fall of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán (modern day Mexico City), the people in Oaxaca realized the power of the Spanish. 

Rather than fight until their imminent death, many relinquished power to the new European conquerors and managed to live in relative peace.

But this came at a large cost to the preexisting communities, somewhat similar to the Native Americans in the United States.  The European influence was strong.  With it came new technology, foods, and other items, but many religious and architectural landmarks were converted, built over, and/or destroyed by the conquistadors.  

The churches that still exist today are often constructed out of the materials used in previous civilizations, sometimes directly on top of the old ceremonial sites.

Iglesia (Church) Santo Domingo. Image by Off Path Travels.

Currently, the most ethnically diverse region of Mexico is Oaxaca, with at least sixteen distinct groups of indigenous people – most of which have their own language, local customs, and rituals.   

Might be a tad bit surprising to find out that plenty of people in the state of Oaxaca do not speak Spanish, although most of the ones you’ll encounter in Oaxaca City do.

For more reading on Oaxacan history, check out the links above and these sites:






Geographical Highlights

Oaxaca is a geographically diverse region as well.  If you’re a beach bum, the options are plentiful as there are 370 miles of coastline along the Pacific Ocean.  Surfers mainly congregate in the city of Puerto Escondido, complete with worldwide fame for its breaks.  Huatulco was purposefully constructed as a resort town, just like Cancún.

But that’s not all.  As indicated in the history section above, the interior of Oaxaca is full of high-elevation mountains and valleys.  Some of the highest peaks reach around 12,000 feet.  Pine trees are abundant.  Zip-lining, cave exploring, and even mountain biking can be had.

Hierve de Agua has spectacular pools of spring-fed water spilling over the mountainside.  Don’t miss out on the petrified waterfalls which have formed as a result.  Many other waterfalls are scattered throughout the state.

Map of Oaxaca City and surrounding area. Image by Off Path Travels.

Oaxaca City Highlights

The city of Oaxaca (officially Oaxaca de Juárez), is located near the center of the state at 5,100 feet high.  It is a central meeting point for many of the outlying towns and villages.  One of the largest ruins, Monte Albán, sits just west of the city.  Many other archeological ruins lay throughout the area, which make great outings for tourists.

No trip to Oaxaca would be complete without a tour of the best central marketplaces.  There are three main ones located in the central district: 20 de Noviembre, Benito Juárez, and Mercado de Artesanías.

20 de Noviembre is full of food stalls and the smells can be a bit overwhelming for someone not used to so many dishes made in one place.  Benito Juárez has a bit of everything: food, crafts, and textiles. Mercado de Artesanías is full of artisan textiles, pottery, and more.

But if you really want to get a feel for a local marketplace, I suggest venturing out to Central de Abastos Oaxaca.  To compare this to the other three is difficult because it is MASSIVE. 

But it’s more of the locals spot; tons of fresh produce and goods used in daily life, at amazingly cheap prices.  Unfortunately, this area is also know for its pickpockets, so don’t venture out here flashing valuables or with a lot of cash.

Main plaza in Oaxaca City, Zócalo Oaxaca, and the Catedral de Nuestra Señora De La Asunción (Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption).  Image by Off Path Travels.

If you like to indulge, you’ll be happy to hear that Oaxaca is widely accepted as the capital of mezcal (sometimes spelled mescal in English; pronounced mehs-kal).   Mezcalerías are all over the city of Oaxaca, but the distilleries are found in many places within the state.

Mezcal is similar to tequila in the same way that whiskey is similar to bourbon; tequila is made from one type of agave (blue agave, aka maguey azul) and must be made in certain locations, while mezcal is made from a wide variety of agave.  As such, mezcals can differ wildly.

Mezcals can be joven (young), añjeo (aged), or reposado (rested).  Based on my experience with the Oaxacan mezcalerías, the best mezcals depend on the agave plant themselves and the distillation techniques, rather than the aging process.  Testing patience comes during the growth stage of the agave plants; some take decades to grow.

The culinary side of Oaxaca also brings something great to the table.  MUCH more to come about that in future posts.  As does the vast architecture including cobblestone streets, vibrant colors, churches, and plazas.  Celebrations are nearly continuous in the area.  We will be here for Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and since Oaxaca is a central location for this holiday, I have no doubt it will be incredible.

Finally, Oaxaca also has amazing textiles and pottery.  Colored through natural methods, the textiles are pieces of art in themselves.  Shirts, dresses, rugs, and more are abundant and mesmerizing.  Pottery is also a major industry.  A town just outside of Oaxaca City, San Bartolo Coyotepec, is famous for its black pottery.

Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (Basilica of Our Lady of Solitude). The white-roofed building behind it is one of many smaller markets. Image by Off Path Travels.

Whew.  That’s a LOT of information.  But now you have an idea of why we’re here.  If you think I’ve been able to cover it all, have no fear: This place would take a lifetime and many books to cover entirely.  (And we’ll be covering our past experiences throughout our travels to make sure we keep a good mixture of content going.)

We can’t wait to start showing you more!  If you’d like us to focus on any particular aspect first, please leave a comment and we’ll take note!

Thanks for stopping by.  Now get out there and get off path!

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