Large church complex with old tree in front
Architecture,  History,  Mexico

The sights of Oaxaca

Oliver Sacks, Oaxaca Journal

Santo Domingo de Guzmán

This was my favourite sight in the city. The impressive church of Santo Domingo was built mainly between 1570 and 1608 as part of the city’s Dominican monastery. It has thick stone walls to withstand earthquakes. The façade has a number of worn statues and a relief showing Saint Dominic and Saint Hippolitus holding a temple on which the Holy Spirit is descending. Its two bell towers are topped with domes covered in blue and white azulejos.

Large church with open space in front
Santo Domingo de Guzmán

We visited twice. On the first occasion I’d only taken one photo when a man told me he was about to close up. I begged his indulgence for one more shot, took two and then had to leave. But we returned later the same day when it reopened at 4.00 PM. Like all the churches and cathedrals we visited in Mexico, there was no charge to enter nor to take photos (without flash, naturally).

Inside it is stunning. The impact of its stunning gilded altars and ceiling was a bit of a gob-smacking moment. The main altarpiece was carved from a single piece of cedar and gilded with gold leaf. The side chapels are just as ornate, and the ceiling and walls covered with frescoes and murals featuring scenes from the life of Christ and the history of the Dominican Order.

Museum of the Cultures of Oaxaca

Next door to the church is what remains of a monastery that once covered 24 city blocks. Today it houses the city’s museum of culture which is well worth a visit. We walked through the cloisters, where unfortunately most of the decoration has been lost (the monastery was occupied for a time by the army). But above the staircase leading to the museum’s galleries there were ornate gilded carvings, currently being restored.

Our main focus here was the three small rooms housing the contents of Tomb 7 excavated at Monte Albán. Our guide Montse told us that this was the third largest tomb treasure ever found. There were small intricate gold masks, beautifully carved animal bones used for textiles, gold and jade necklaces and much more. It was here that my eye was taken by the skull decorated with turquoise mosaic tiles which I shared in one of my virtual postcards.

Centro Cultural San Pablo

This is another former monastery, now with a modern addition and used as cultural centre. Montse took us inside for a visit during our city tour. It is clearly a favourite spot of hers and I could see why. It had lots of exhibits by different artists, all very well presented in the different areas of the monastery and all completely free. There is also an open space where the cloisters once were, where free concerts are now held weekly.

I was interested in what Montse told us here about how the Dominicans had used aspects of the native beliefs to encourage conversions. For instance, local people believed that hummingbirds were the souls of their dead ancestors. So the Dominicans planted trees near their churches to attract the birds, indicating that the ancestors approved of the new religion.

The Zócalo

Unlike the Zócalo of Mexico City this isn’t a completely paved open space, but a square with trees, benches and a central gazebo. It is constantly busy with souvenir sellers, shoe-shiners, tourists and locals. The arcaded buildings around the perimeter house the former governor’s palace, now a museum, a more recent (early 20th century) federal palace, and plenty of restaurants and cafés.

We didn’t visit the latter, expecting the usual ‘higher prices / lower quality’ found in most city squares around the world. Nor did we visit the museum. But we did spend some time soaking up the atmosphere in the square itself. I was looking out for street photo ops among the crowds when I noticed a small girl with her father who was selling textiles. She tried to sit on his bag on the ground but slid off. She saw that this made me smile at her, so she did it again, and again. On the third (or was it fourth?) slide I took her photo, with the tacit permission of her father who had been keeping half an eye on her antics.

Metropolitan Cathedral

The imposing cathedral sits on the north side of the Zócalo. It is dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption and is the third to be built on this site after the first two were destroyed by large earthquakes in the 16th and early 18th centuries. The current building was consecrated in July 1733. Its towers are not the originals, as they were destroyed in another earthquake in 1931.

I found it fairly sombre inside but with some brighter stained glass. We couldn’t have a thorough look around however, as a mass was in progress.

A few random sights

I’ll finish with a handful of images of various places we visited briefly or simply passed on our various walks in the city. As with all these galleries, click to open a slideshow with captions.

I visited Oaxaca in February 2024


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