Oaxaca is one of the 31 states that, along with Mexico City, make up the 32 federal entities of Mexico. It is divided into 570 municipalities and its capital city is also called Oaxaca.
Where is the state of Oaxaca located?
The state of Oaxaca is located in the southwestern part of Mexico. It is bordered by the states of Puebla, Veracruz, Chiapas and Guerrero. To the south, Oaxaca has coastline along the Pacific Ocean.
The state covers an area of about 36,000 square miles, making it the 5th largest state in Mexico in terms of area. However, it ranks 10th in terms of population with around 3.5 million inhabitants.
Key facts about Oaxaca:
- Capital city: Oaxaca de Juárez
- Largest city: Oaxaca de Juárez
- Admitted to Mexico: 1823
- Population: 3,967,889 (2015 est.)
- Total area: 36,275 square miles
Some important cities in Oaxaca besides the capital include:
- Puerto Escondido
- Salina Cruz
- San Juan Bautista Tuxtepec
- Juchitán de Zaragoza
Geography of Oaxaca
Oaxaca has a very diverse geography ranging from rugged mountains to coastal plains. The northern part of the state is dominated by the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains. The highest point is Cerro Nube reaching 12,139 feet (3,701 m).
Moving south, the land transitions to the Oaxaca Valley, a central valley running north to south. Further south is the narrow Tehuantepec isthmus, Mexico’s narrowest point. Beyond the isthmus is the extensive Gulf of Tehuantepec.
The long Pacific coastal region has beautiful beaches, bays and lagoons. Major beach towns include Huatulco, Puerto Escondido and Puerto Ángel. Offshore, there are small islands like Isla del Cardón.
Map of Oaxaca, Mexico:
Image source: Wikipedia
History of Oaxaca
Oaxaca has a long history stretching back thousands of years. The early history is defined by the Zapotec civilization which established itself in the Oaxaca Valley around 500 BC. They built the famous capital city of Monte Albán which flourished until around 700 AD.
Mixtec influence rose in western Oaxaca from around 900 AD. However, both cultures were incorporated into the Aztec empire in the 15th century. The Aztec gave the name “Huaxyacac” to the Oaxaca Valley, which eventually evolved into the modern name.
The Aztec reign was brought down with the Spanish conquest led by Hernán Cortés in 1521. A long period of Spanish colonial rule followed. Oaxaca gained statehood in 1823 after Mexican Independence.
Key events in Oaxaca’s history:
- 500 BC – Zapotec civilization establishes Monte Albán capital
- 1521 – Aztec empire falls to Spanish conquistadors
- 1521-1821 – Part of Spanish colonial New Spain
- 1823 – Gains statehood within newly independent Mexico
Culture of Oaxaca
Oaxaca has a rich cultural heritage from its indigenous Zapotec and Mixtec roots. The state is home to 16 indigenous groups, more than any other Mexican state.
Some cultural aspects include:
- Arts – Oaxaca is known for arts like pottery, painting, woodcarving and weaving.
- Architecture – Sites like Monte Albán showcase ancient building skills.
- Food – Oaxacan cuisine includes famous dishes like mole, chapulines (grasshoppers) and tlayudas.
- Festivals – Oaxaca has vibrant festivals like the Guelaguetza indigenous festival.
- Crafts – Oaxacan crafts include black pottery, wool rugs and the wood carvings of Alebrijes.
- Music – Folk styles like banda sinaloense and marimba music are popular.
The state values its cultural heritage and works to preserve native traditions and languages.
Tourism in Oaxaca
Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s major tourist destinations, drawing visitors with its indigenous cultural heritage, colonial architecture, archeological sites, crafts traditions and natural areas.
Some top attractions include:
- Monte Albán – Impressive ancient Zapotec ruins situated above Oaxaca city.
- Oaxaca City Historic Center – A UNESCO site with lovely colonial buildings, churches and markets.
- Mitla – Site of well-preserved Mixtec ruins.
- Hierve El Agua – Rock formations with mineral springs flowing over the edge like waterfalls.
- Beaches – Popular beaches like Huatulco, Zipolite and Puerto Escondido.
The city of Oaxaca hosts the large Guelaguetza folk festival each July, showcasing the state’s indigenous traditions and bringing many visitors.
Other tourist draws include the handicraft villages around Oaxaca city, mezcal distillery tours and eco-tourism activities in natural areas.
Economy of Oaxaca
The economy of Oaxaca is based on farming, mining, forestry, fishing and manufacturing. Tourism is also a major economic driver, especially in cities like Oaxaca and coastal destinations.
Some of the main economic activities include:
- Agriculture – Major crops are corn, wheat, beans, sorghum, alfalfa, chiles and tomatoes.
- Livestock – Cattle, pigs, goats and sheep are raised.
- Forestry – Pine and oak trees are logged from Oaxaca’s mountain forests.
- Fishing – Commercial fishing takes place along the Pacific coast.
- Mining – Minerals extracted include gold, silver, lead, zinc and marble.
- Manufacturing – Food processing, textiles, chemicals and machinery are produced.
- Services – Tourism is a major service industry, especially in coastal resort towns.
While one of Mexico’s poorest states, Oaxaca enjoys a strong tourism economy focused on its indigenous heritage. However, poverty remains an issue in rural regions.
Transportation in Oaxaca
Some key transportation aspects of Oaxaca include:
- Airports – The state has three airports including Xoxocotlán International Airport serving Oaxaca City.
- Highways – A network of federal highways crosses Oaxaca including the 130D, 135D and 175D.
- Buses – First and second class bus lines connect cities within Oaxaca and to other states.
- Rail – A small railway runs from Mexico City to Oaxaca City.
- Ports – Important Pacific coastal ports are Salina Cruz and Huatulco.
The mountainous terrain makes transportation challenging. Still, key routes connect Oaxaca’s cities and link the state with the rest of Mexico.
Government and Politics
Oaxaca, like all Mexican states, has an elected unicameral legislature. The Congress of Oaxaca has 42 members.
The head of government is the governor. The current governor is Alejandro Murat of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). He was elected in 2016.
Politically, Oaxaca is divided. The capital and southern regions often elect PRI politicians. Northern districts have historically supported the National Action Party (PAN).
Teacher strikes and anti-government protests erupted in Oaxaca in 2006 driven by claims of government repression. About two dozen died in clashes.
Previous Governors of Oaxaca:
Demographics of Oaxaca
Oaxaca has a population of around 3.5 million people according to 2015 estimates. It ranks as Mexico’s 10th most populous state.
Here are some demographic facts about Oaxaca:
- The population is 49% indigenous peoples and 46% mestizo (mixed Amerindian and European).
- The largest ethnic group is the Zapotecs at 33%.
- Other major groups include the Mixtecs, Mazatecas and Chatinos.
- Spanish is spoken by 85% as a first language, but there are also 16 recognized native languages.
- The major religions are Christianity (Roman Catholicism) and various indigenous beliefs.
- The population is young with a median age of 26.
- Life expectancy is 74 years.
- 95% of the people live in urban areas.
Oaxaca has Mexico’s highest level of biodiversity and percentage of indigenous peoples. It celebrates its multicultural heritage.
Education in Oaxaca
Oaxaca’s education system consists of:
- Preschool – 3 years
- Primary school – 6 years
- Secondary school – 3 years
- College preparation – 2 years
- Higher education – Various public and private universities, colleges and technical schools
The main public university is the Benito Juárez Autonomous University of Oaxaca located in the capital. Other educational institutions include:
- Instituto Tecnológico de Oaxaca
- Universidad Tecnológica de la Mixteca
- Universidad del Mar
- Universidad del Papaloapan
Despite progress, Oaxaca suffers from lower education levels and high dropout rates compared to Mexican national averages.
Sports in Oaxaca
The most popular sports in Oaxaca are:
- Soccer (Football) – The state has various amateur leagues and professional player development.
- Baseball – Baseball has growth in popularity in recent decades.
- Surfing – Oaxaca’s Pacific beaches host national and international competitions.
- Hiking – The Sierra mountains provide scenic trails.
- Cycling – Mountain biking, road cycling and BMX are common activities.
The Central American Games were held in Oaxaca city in 2021 featuring athletes from 7 countries in the region.
The Benito Juarez Autonomous University sponsors teams in various college athletics.
Symbols of Oaxaca
Oaxaca has several official state symbols that represent its culture and identity. These include:
- Flag – The state flag has a white background with the state coat of arms.
- Coat of Arms – Depicts a red shield with a river, paid fields, a factory, castle towers and a crossed rifle and sword.
- Anthem – “Dios Nunca Muere” (God Never Dies).
- Seal – Features a tree, mountains, corn stalks and words in English and Spanish.
- Motto – “El Respeto al Derecho Ajeno es la Paz” (Respect for the Rights of Others is Peace).
- Tree – Jacaranda
- Bird – Mexican Sparrow
These symbols reflect Oaxaca’s indigenous roots, Spanish colonial influence and natural landscapes.
Famous people from Oaxaca
Some notable people born in Oaxaca include:
- Benito Juárez – President of Mexico in the 1800s.
- Porfirio Díaz – Mexican president and military ruler.
- Manuel Álvarez Bravo – Acclaimed photographer.
- Rodolfo Nieto – Renowned painter and sculptor.
- Lila Downs – Singer-songwriter who blends traditional Mexican music with other styles.
- Yalitza Aparicio – Actress and Oscar nominee for Roma.
Oaxaca’s unique cultural heritage is reflected in the diversity of its famous sons and daughters.
Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s most culturally vibrant and naturally diverse states. Its history stretches back through legendary civilizations like the Zapotecs and Mixtecs. Traditions carry on today through arts, food, festivals and crafts.
While largely rural and underdeveloped in parts, Oaxaca has a strong tourism economy built around sharing its indigenous heritage. Beautiful beaches and archeological sites draw visitors from Mexico and abroad.
Despite its challenges, Oaxaca takes pride in its identity and strives to maintain its traditions while developing economically. The state remains an captivating center of enduring native Mexican culture.