A Cultural Field Day – and Not Just for Shopping
With the mother lode of attractive crafts shops and galleries in this lovely colonial city, any day is a shopper’s field day. Oaxaca has been called the most Mexican city in the republic, but on Saturday – as hundreds of Indian merchants stream in from the surrounding villages in their traditional dress, hawking food and handmade and painted crafts – it becomes Mexico’s largest and most intriguing Indian experience. (Oaxaca has the country’s largest Indian population: Two out of three citizens are Indians, representing sixteen ethnic groups who speak nine languages and fifty-two dialects.)
The Central de Abastos (Supply Center) is the market for handicrafts, with hand-painted pottery’ and forests of polka-dotted wooden cats and comical fantasy animals that must be bargained for, as well as embroidered huipiles (blouses) and rebozos (shawls), whose designs vary with their village of origin.
Oaxaca’s remarkable blend of old-world Spanish affluence (exemplified by the magnificent Baroque Church of Santo Domingo and its gold-ornamented Rosario Chapel) and deep-rooted native tradition are gloriously at play in the 16th-century Convent of Santa Catarina de Siena. One of Mexico’s colonial treasures, with various incarnations as a school, the mayor’s office, and even a city jail, it has recently been converted into Camino Real, one of Mexico’s most attractive hotels. The former convent can be found within an area officially declared a District of National Monuments, comprising twenty-six colonial-era churches – within the historic hotel’s thick, cool walls, guests can enjoy a host of ancient frescoes, hushed flagstone loggias, jasmine-scented patios, and Los Lavaderos, a cupola-covered water fountain surrounded by twelve stone laundry basins. The former refectory has become the hotel’s acclaimed restaurant, El Refectorio; sample the distinctive mole sauce, a local specialty found here in numerous interpretations.