Oaxaca - Mole, Mezcal, and More!

Oaxaca - Mole, Mezcal, and More!

Oaxaca City, a World Heritage UNESCO site, was chosen in 2022 as the number one city in the world to visit by Travel + Leisure (San Miguel de Allende was #2!).  “Incredible local indigenous food,” “People go out of their way to make you feel special,” or “The city has beautiful museums, streets, cafes and restaurants” were some of the comments made by the participants in the annual survey.

The naming is interesting:  “Oaxaca” comes from the Nahuatl word "Huaxyacac", which refers to a tree called a "guaje" found around the capital city.  The name was originally applied to the Valley of Oaxaca by Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs and passed on to the Spanish during the conquest of the Oaxaca region.  While the state and city are both referred to as “Oaxaca,” the official name of the capital is “Oaxaca de Juárez,” although “Oaxaca” will usually suffice.

Oaxaca also has a romantic- while violent- history, as well as a beautiful colonial historical center plus amazing weather, incredible local arts, great restaurants and bars, and, of course, the warm and welcoming Mexican people waiting to create life-long memories for every guest!  

Oaxaca is especially noted for something else- FOOD!  Whether at one of the 26 Michelin Star restaurants or at lunch in the open market, Oaxacans are known for their food.  It could be a taste of one of many moles they offer, but they really cover the gamut with pre-Hispanic, Spanish, Mexican, and international fusion influences with a big dose of pride.  This is the optimum place for an Oaxaca Spanish Immersion Program with Language & Luxury!  

Oaxaca is a complex but intensely attractive city whose majestic churches and refined plazas have deservedly earned it a UNESCO World Heritage badge.  It is a dream gastronomic destination, especially for lovers of mole and mezcal.  The Zapotec indigenous culture influences the local gastronomy, which is fully manifested in the city of Oaxaca.

There are many local festivals, but what stands out most is the Guelaguetza, which is a festivity celebrated annually in the month of July.  It’s a great celebration of indigenous origin, based on the roots of the pre-Hispanic Zapotec culture, especially in the worship of the gods to whom they gave corn from the harvest as an offering.  

The present-day population of indigenous peoples in Oaxaca is estimated at approximately 300,000 to 400,000 persons, accounting for 53% of Mexico’s total indigenous population.  Many of these- up to 5%- are still monolingual in one of the native Zapotec languages.  That’s correct- it means that Spanish would be a foreign language, their second language if they chose to learn it.  I have met many Oaxaquenos and can attest to that fact!

The main reason that indigenous languages and cultures have been able to survive here is the rugged terrain, which tends to isolate communities.  This also has the effect of dividing the state into small secluded communities, which have developed independently over time.  

There are 16 ethnolinguistic groups recognized by the Instituto Nacional Indigenista, who maintained their individual languages, customs, and traditions well into the colonial period and, to some extent, to the present day.  However, some studies put the number of cultures in the state as high as 4,000, which makes Oaxaca the most ethnically complex of Mexico’s 31 states.

While Oaxaca is known for its heavy concentration of Zapotec people, Zapotec communities exist in neighbouring states as well.  The State of Oaxaca actually straddles two Mesoamerican cultural areas.  The first extends into the state from the Mayan lands of Chiapas, Yucatan and Guatemala.  The northeast of the state is part of the cultures of the Valle of Mexico, with historical influences from ancient cities such as Tenochtitlan (Aztec capital, now the site of Mexico City), Tula, and Teotihuacan.  

So, if you’ve only been to Mexican beaches, treat yourself to the interior of Mexico, loaded with colonial historic cities where the elevation and summer cloud cover keep the temperatures mild all year round; plus the warm and welcoming Mexican people who are waiting to create life-long memories for every visitor. 

The Spanish conquistadors first landed on the Caribbean coast on April 22, 1519 at what is now the Mexican State of Veracruz- this was less than 30 years after Columbus.  In short order, the Spaniards marched up into the mountains and discovered Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire.  At its height, Tenochtitlan had enormous temples and palaces plus a huge ceremonial center as well as residences of political, religious, military, and merchant citizens.  The city had an estimated population of 100,000 and perhaps as high as 200,000 when the Spaniards first arrived.  

Tenochtitlan had been built on a small island in Texcoco Lake in the Valley of Mexico.  Early accounts from the time of the arrival of the Spanish conquerors described the existence of a great lake dotted with a multitude of canoes and the island city, full of towers and fortresses and all gleaming white.  The conquering Spaniards destroyed the island city of Tenochtitlan and began the process of draining the lake that surrounded it, utilizing the surviving Aztecs as slave labor. 

Over time the Spaniards expanded their conquests south from Mexico City to the territory now known as Oaxaca following the discovery of gold.  Gold and the chance to conquer another civilization are what brought the Spanish to Oaxaca; apparently, the two go hand in hand.

The Mesoamerican region of Oaxaca is recognized for pre-Hispanic gold metallurgy, developed by the Mixtecs and Zapotecs during the Late Postclassic period (1250-1521 AD).  At that time, the most important burials were filled with exceptional pieces of gold smithery, such as the famous objects from Monte Alban or objects from other sites such as Zaachila.  

In addition to the central valley of Oaxaca and the zone of influence of the Mixtecs, other regions in Oaxaca, such as the northern Sierra of Oaxaca or the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, have unveiled exceptional gold objects manufactured by ancient goldsmiths.

After the fall of Tenochtitlan, the Spanish took over Oaxaca, leading to the eventual decrease of the Native population and the increase in African slaves. The region was then settled by mostly Spanish immigrants from Europe and the African slaves they brought with them.

Bienvenidos a Oaxaca!

While not as easily accessible by car from Mexico City as is San Miguel de Allende, flights are short and frequent, and I visited a few times while courting my future wife in the late 1980’s.  I’ve always been amazed at the beauty of the Santo Domingo Temple and the Museum of Cultures, the Zocalo with the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, plus the colorful homes on cobblestone streets throughout the historic city center.  

And while it’s a busy tourist destination, the locals maintain their culture and it’s not rare that you see a wedding procession with dancing, colorful outfits, and the well-known Papier Mache figures led by men on stilts, prancing in the warm sun through the streets of the city.  If you speak Spanish to them they will patiently listen and respond in Spanish.  So, once again, it’s perfect for a Spanish Immersion Program!

Even with everything to see in Oaxaca, one of the highlights of the day was always a delicious meal, which came in many shapes and sizes.  Asking the waiter or waitress for their recommendation always worked well for me!  Fast forward a few decades since having first visited and subsequently lived and worked in Mexico City, and visited on many, many occasions; I now found myself visiting Oaxaca and planning operations on behalf of Language & Luxury®.  I knew the city and the surrounding area well; however, I now needed to find the right local team to ensure that our customers’ Spanish Immersion Experience was top-notch:

  • It was key to position Language & Luxury in such a way as to receive priority treatment from the accommodations partners, as well as vet a sample of homes to ensure luxury and, above all, safety, cleanliness, and personal service!
  • Also necessary was to evaluate language instructors, not only to validate their experience teaching adults but also their professionalism and ability to provide Private, One-on-One Spanish Immersion Classes in the clients’ homes or a neutral location like a café or hotel lobby!  
  • The ability to provide Cultural Activities was also a requirement, as part of the Immersion Program was getting out of your chair to join the Private Language Instructor in activities such as exploring an open market, visiting a niche museum off the beaten path, or sharing a meal in a restaurant where only locals dine.  Thus, Cultural Activities are a tremendous aid to understanding the culture while practicing new expressions and vocabulary!
  • Lastly, we needed to secure a partner to help coordinate Optional Activities and Intimate Experiences, as the Language & Luxury Immersion Program allows for ample free time to plan collaboratively with our clients according to their individual interests! 

You may be a digital nomad, requiring free time for your work and online meetings; or, you would like to see the city from a different angle, not only the more traditional cliché tours but also more intimate, personal experiences such as:

  • Private Guided Tour to the Zapotec Ruins and Indigenous Villages of Rural Oaxaca!
  • Private Cooking Class with a World Class Oaxacan Chef!
  • Guided Kayaking in Oaxaca with Mountain Views!
  • Food Tour Through the Historic City Center of Oaxaca!

Pre-Hispanic and Early Colonial History – Spaniards invaded Mexico in the 1500’s.

When Hernan Cortez arrived in Veracruz, his expedition had 11 ships, and over 500 soldiers, 16 of them on horses, 100 marines, 14 cannons, 32 crossbows, and 13 firearms (arquebuses).  In only the first half-century or so of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, over 100 tons of gold were extracted from the continent.

During the final stages of the Spanish invasion of the Aztec Empire, Spanish forces besieged and razed Tenochtitlan.  The Spanish leader, Hernán Cortés, who understood the strategic and symbolic importance of the Aztec capital, founded the Spanish capital of Mexico City on that exact site.  

He had the Spanish engineers construct the new political center literally on top of the Aztec ceremonial and political center.  This became the Plaza Mayor, usually called the Zócalo in modern times.  Some of the oldest structures in the historic city center date from the early conquest era.

The Spanish continued their explorations far beyond their annihilation of the Aztec Empire.  The Spanish soldiers were the first Europeans to visit the Grand Canyon.  In 1540 (less than 50 years after Columbus), Francisco Vázquez de Coronado and his Spanish army travelled northward from Mexico City in search of the lost Seven Cities of Cíbola.  

After travelling for six months, Coronado’s army arrived at the Hopi Mesas, east of the Grand Canyon.  Coronado sent Cárdenas, who was guided by the Hopi, to lead a small party of men to find a reported “great river.”  Coronado hoped to find a navigable river that would serve as a waterway to the Gulf of California. The Hopi leaders advised their men to guide the unwelcome soldiers along an exaggerated path to the highest point above the river and to volunteer no information of value.

After a twenty-day journey, Cárdenas and his army arrived at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Approximately a mile down was the Colorado River below them.  The Spaniards estimated that the opposite rim was eight to 10 miles away and that the Colorado River was no more than six feet across.  Cárdenas ordered three infantrymen to climb their way down to the river.  

The men made it down to about 1,500 feet, a third of the way down until they saw that the Colorado River was a much wider waterway than they had estimated and that there was no way to navigate ships along the intense river.  It would be over 200 years until another foreign invader visited the Grand Canyon.  

Back in Mexico City, many colonial-era buildings remained standing and have since been re-purposed as government buildings and museums.  As the seat of the Viceroyalty of New Spain and the Archbishopric of New Spain, Mexico City was the center not only of political and religious institutions but also of Spain’s economic activity and the residence of social elites in colonial Mexico for three hundred years (1521–1821).  

The Conquistadors’ short-term strategy had been to demonstrate to the other pre-Hispanic civilizations of the region their power, building their city on top of the Aztec’s ruins as was a key Spanish conquering strategy.  Another long-term strategy for Mexico City was to utilize it as their base of activity for their possessions and commercial activity in the Pacific.  

The Manila Galleons, or Galeón de Manila, were Spanish trading ships that for two and a half centuries linked the Spanish Crown’s Viceroyalty of New Spain, based in Mexico City, with their Asian territories, collectively known as the Spanish East Indies in the Pacific Ocean.  The ships made one or two round-trip voyages per year between the ports of Acapulco and Manila.

The name of the galleon changed to reflect the city from which the ship sailed.  The term Manila galleon can also refer to the trade route itself between Acapulco and Manila, which lasted from 1565 to 1815.  The currency of choice in the Pacific at this time was the Mexican “Peso,” a pure silver coin that was mined in Taxco, relatively close to Acapulco, and carried throughout the Pacific in Spanish Galleons.  Many still lie at the bottom of the Pacific.

The Manila galleons sailed the Pacific for 250 years, bringing to America's cargoes of luxury goods such as spices and porcelain in exchange for New World silver. The route also fostered cultural exchanges that shaped the identities and cultures of the countries involved, particularly Mexico and The Philippines.

The Gold Route

The Mesoamerican region of Oaxaca is recognized for pre-Hispanic gold metallurgy developed by the Mixtecs and Zapotecs during the Late Postclassic period (1250-1521 AD).  At that time, the most important burials were filled with exceptional gold pieces such as the famous objects from Monte Alban or objects from other sites such as Zaachila.

In addition to the central valley of Oaxaca and the zone of influence of the Mixtecs, other regions in Oaxaca, such as the northern Sierra of Oaxaca or the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, have unearthed exceptional gold objects manufactured by ancient goldsmiths.  Aztecs from Tenochtitlan on the volcanic plateau to the North around what today is Mexico City first arrived in this region around 1250 AD, establishing military rule in the 15th century until the arrival of the Spanish.  

Occupied by the Aztecs from the 15th century, Oaxaca was subsequently conquered by the Spaniards and officially designated a city by Hernan Cortez in 1529 (37 years after Columbus’ arrival in the New World).   Some of the city’s 16th-century art and architecture still survive, most notably in the Church of Santo Domingo, which includes Indian influences.  Oaxaca’s large Indian population continues to leave its imprint on the city’s traditional festivals, colorful handicraft markets, and daily life.

As previously mentioned, in only the first half-century or so of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, over 100 tons of gold were extracted from the continent.  In melting down this glittering metal, the conquistadors left behind a trail of death, torture, and destruction.  They massively reduced the number of artifacts which may have otherwise survived to this day, artifacts which could have spoken of the religious, cultural, and artistic significance their creators had once given them.  It had been their hope that their choice of incorruptible gold would make these objects endure for generations; instead, it sealed their fate of being lost forever.

Oaxaca was the home of two of Mexico’s most famous presidents.  Ironically, with Mexico being a Viceroyalty of New Spain, Benito Juarez, the first president of Mexico, was a Zapotec from the nearby village of Guelatao.  The other was Porfirio Diaz, a Mexican general and politician who served seven terms as President of Mexico, a total of 31 years.

The Benito Juárez Autonomous University of Oaxaca was founded in 1827 (university status 1955), and the Regional Museum of Oaxaca (1933) exhibits the world-renowned treasures from Tomb No. 7 at Monte Albán.  The colonial center of Oaxaca and the Monte Albán archaeological zone were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.

Present Day Luxury Immersion Program

Three days in Oaxaca!

What would your Spanish Immersion Program in Oaxaca look like?  It would be best to spend several weeks, although a trip could be planned with two weeks in Oaxaca and two in Mexico City or San Miguel de Allende!  But your Immersion Program begins when you arrive in Oaxaca, most likely after a brief stop in the Benito Juarez International Airport of Mexico City. 

You’ll meet your private driver, Luis, and perhaps see him throughout your tour if chauffeur duties are needed!  He also drives for other activities and often is able to escort you back to the airport on your last day.  Luis will drive you to your ornate flat or colorful home, where you will meet Ramses or Yessenia, who are other members of the local team.  Below is a sample itinerary:

Day 1Meet Erika, Karina, or Luz, your Private Language Instructors!

  • Breakfast in your flat or a local café around the corner!  Early mornings are quite cool but sunny in the Winter months of November through May, while a bit cloudy with daily showers in June through October.  The cloud cover keeps this Northern Hemispheric country from overheating during the summer months!
  • Morning Class, 9:00 to 11:00 am at your flat or in another location of choice.  Later explore the winding cobblestone streets, parks, and architectural monuments of Oaxaca and sample some local mole dishes for lunch!
  • Afternoon Cultural Activity with your instructor, which could be a guided tour through the open markets of Benito Juárez and 20 de noviembre, or perhaps visit the Museo de las Culturas in the magnificent former convent of Santo Domingo!
  • Dinner at Highly Regarded “Los Danzantes” Restaurant, just across from the Temple of Santo Domingo!

Day 2:  Day Trip to the Zapotec Ruins and Indigenous Villages of Rural Oaxaca!

  • Private, Guided Tour visiting the ruins of Monte Alban, which was founded around 500 BC and is one of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica.  It was important for nearly one thousand years as the pre-eminent socio-political and economic center for the Zapotec people, or
  • Mitla, which was founded after Monte Alban and became the most important Zapotec city over time, it is a popular archaeological site much like Monte Alban.  

Evening Dinner, maybe time for something more casual, like El Escapulario, which is a modest little Mexican cafe with traditional & vegetarian options plus late hours and takeout.

Day 3Morning coffee and Private Spanish Lesson!

  • Private Walking Food Tour- or Cooking Class with World-Renown Chef Fernando Ruiz!
  • Afternoon Cultural Activity with your Instructor, which could be a visit to the Textile Museum and to the Cultural Center San Pablo!  Afterwards, sample traditional ice cream at the Ice Cream Plaza!
  • Dinner at 8:00 pm at Levadura de Olla!  This is a popular restaurant in the city center with traditional Oaxacan flavors from the southern part of the state.

Back to work for a couple days, then time to fly home, the highlight of the day is getting to see Luis again while making our way back to the airport, emotionally discussing the many great memories- especially those of the warm and welcoming Mexican people of Oaxaca!


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