Zócalo • Central Plaza • (Z)
If the city of Oaxaca is the social and cultural center of the state, the Zócalo, a large traffic-free plaza located in the Centro, bustling with activity throughout the day and late into the night, is the social and cultural center of the city.
Originally laid out in 1529, the Zócalo and the surrounding grid of streets have changed little since. The architectural composition of the surrounding buildings, however, has changed often over the centuries, after powerful earthquakes, endemic to the region, damaged or destroyed many of the original colonial buildings, only to be rebuilt in later styles vogue at the time, the cycle of destruction and rebuilding having left a patchwork of architectures in its place.
Today, the Zócalo is enclosed on the east and the west by sidewalk cafés, spilling out from beneath portales, covered arched passageways, fronting two-story colonial buildings; on the north by the upscale Hotel Marques de Valle, as well as the imposing cathedral, a fixture on the Zócalo in one form or another since the 1540s; on the south by the Museo del Palacio Universum, a relative newcomer, built in the late 19th century in the Neoclassical style popular in that period; and from above by a broad canopy of Indian laurel trees, which, mercifully, cap off the worst of the late spring heat.
To the northwest, contiguous with the Zócalo, lies another traffic-free plaza, the Alameda de León, hosting many of the same type of activities, and, for the purposes of this guide, the two plazas are treated as one and the same.
No trip to the city is complete without a visit to one of the restaurants or sidewalk cafés on the Zócalo. The restaurants La Casa de la Abuela, master of the seven moles, and the El Asador Vasco, specializing in Basque cuisine, offer the only fine dining on the Zócalo, both perched, with great views, above the sidewalk cafés on the second stories of the colonial buildings lining the west side.
Of the five sidewalk cafés on the Zócalo, none stands out among the bunch, all offering pretty standard, if uninspired, Oaxacan fare, along with a few sandwiches, hamburgers, and other crowd pleasers, thrown in to appeal to the unadventurous culinary traveler, or, well, maybe just someone who's had his or her fill of Méxican food. That said, on the east side, the Terranova and Importador do seem to be aiming a little higher — the waiters more attentive, the presentation of the food more well thought out, and the prices slightly higher. Still, for the most part, the food isn't that much better.
But don't go to the Zócalo looking for fine dining or to sample the region’s unique cuisine — for that there are other, worthier restaurants nearby. No, go to the Zócalo to be in the thick of it — the diners crowding the sidewalk cafés, sipping hot coffee or ice-cold cervezas, meeting up with old friends, or maybe striking up conversations with new ones, students anxiously practicing newly learned Spanish on the waiters, the waiters responding with gentle patience, expats lazing away the afternoon with a good book, suddenly, a mob of people rushing for the cover of the portales, escaping an afternoon summer shower, orchestras performing classics, street musicians adroitly working their instruments, singers crooning, clowns beguiling with their antics, mimes silently telling tales, dancers reenacting ancient steps, all asking for only a few pesos for their skills and efforts, artisans displaying their creations, street vendors haggling with skeptical customers over the price of otherwise worthless trinkets, beggars desperate for a couple of pesos, their only foreseeable hope for something to eat that day, shoeshiners snapping their towels, workers relaxing, on break from their toils, toddlers, unsteady, chasing after pigeons, political protests erupting periodically, civil but often times disobedient...and the list goes on. Needless to say, the Zócalo is a place to linger or to drop by often. Something's always happening here or about to.
And lastly, in a pinch, underneath the gazebo in the center of the Zócalo, there's a subterranean public toilet, costing only a couple of pesos.
- One block south of Independencia, bordered on the north by the cathedral; Around the Zócalo, Centro Histórico.
El Llano • City Park • (M)
Covering two city blocks, shaded by a high canopy of trees, and sporting two large spouting fountains, El Llano Park is a fine place for lazing away the afternoon with a good book or just watching people, always alive with a constant stream of folks, the health conscious, circumambulating the park's perimeter, some walking, some jogging, young people practicing marshal arts, Sunday mornings dance aerobics, teenage couples meeting up secretly, children skating, and people of all ages hunched over their laptops, availing themselves of the free wifi.
- North of Berriozabal and east of Benito Juárez; North of Iglesia de Santo Domingo, Centro Histórico.
Jardín Conzatti • City Park • (N)
Located several blocks north from the bustle of the city center, this small, tranquil, shady park, much less busy than the Zócalo and El Llano parks, is a great place to retreat to, lazing away for an hour or two with a good book or just sitting and people watching.
- South of Jacobo Dalevuelta and west of Reforma; North of Iglesia de Santo Domingo, Centro Histórico.
Located a little over a mile east-northeast of the Zócalo, the quarry where the ubiquitous pale green stone of the Centro Historico was mined has been turned into a park with a series of ponds set among steep, craggy rock walls, grassy fields, shade trees, and ficus and hibiscus bushes sculpted into the shape of animals, topiary artists having left their mark. What's more, many of the walkways and walls in the park have been built from the very stone of the quarry itself.
It’s hard to believe that as recent as the late 80s the area had a creek with raw sewage running through it, before the city set about cleaning it up, transforming it into perhaps the nicest urban park in the city. There’s also a 1200-seat amphitheater, the Teatro Aire Libre Álvaro Carrillo, carved into the contours of the quarry, with views of the park’s largest, southernmost pond.
It's takes about thirty minutes to walk to the park from the Zócalo. Start out by heading east on Independencia for 8 blocks until it forks off to the left, northeast. Take the fork and continue for a long block until it comes to a large, busy intersection with no less than ten streets converging on it. Take Lázaro Cárdenas (México Highway 175), the large road heading east-northeast, for about half a mile until it comes to a large stadium, Estadio Benito Juárez, on the left, the north side of the road. The park is on the north side of the stadium and can be reached by walking around either side of the stadium. Of course, taking a taxi from the stand on the north side of the Alameda de León is another option.
- About a mile east-northeast of the Zócalo on Lázaro Cárdenas, Mexico Highway 175, north side of the Estadio Benito Juárez; Colonia Victor Bravo Ahuja Norte.