We’re almost three months into our around-the-world trip, and when people ask me what our favorite place is so far, I say Oaxaca City without hesitation. There’s something for everyone to love in this romantic old town, from the famous artisanal liquor called mezcal, to the colorful buildings with tiled courtyards, the day trips outside of the city, and the mouthwatering food options. In fact, there is so much to do and see, that two weeks is just not enough. But if you are passionate about ethical and sustainable fashion like I am, then I would set aside a significant chunk of your time, budget, and room in your suitcase, and immerse yourself in Oaxaca’s rich culture of artisan fashion and home textiles.
(PS. If you can’t make it to Oaxaca, you can get yourself some Oaxacan-woven purses, rugs, and pillows at Manos Zapotecas.)
All over Oaxaca and the surrounding areas, you’ll find amazing markets stuffed with handmade rugs, purses, jewelry, clothing, and leather accessories. Where to even start? I’ll tell you:
Miguel Hidalgo 917
Before you go shopping, it will help you to get a solid grounding in local and Mexican fashion and folk art traditions. This famous museum will do just that, in less than an hour. The day I visited, they had exhibitions of tapetes and their uses and traditions, antique Mexican embroidery contrasted with modern handiwork by master Mexican craftspeople, “moles” from the San Blas islands of Panama, and quilts by a recently deceased American who had taken up quilting after moving to Oaxaca and being inspired by the local art. After you absorb information about Oaxacan textiles, check out the museum shop for examples in natural materials, plus exquisite carved crossbody cork-stopped jugs, and colorful jewelry.
PS. When you need a break from shopping, have a meal at one of these organic and farm-to-table spots!)
Calle Macedonio Alcalá 403, Ruta Independencia
A must-visit if you’re at all interested in bringing home a gorgeous artisan-made textiles of the highest quality. You’ll find whole walls full of textiles in every color, but it’s all organized neatly, and the staff eager to help you find the perfect thing.
Find light cotton clothing in natural dyes of off white, the palest of blues, and soft pinks, plus delicate jewelry, and leather and gunny sack fringed purses. Everything is locally made.
If you want to get out of Oaxaca and visit the Zapotec community of weavers, you can download a map for $10 from Oaxaca Cultural Navigator. This map of Teotitlan de Valle, last updated in 2016, exclusively features Zapotec weaving workshops that use only natural dyes, plus places to eat and stay while you explore the valley. Of course, every workshop will have things for sale, and you know they are getting all the money from your purchase!
(Also, here’s your packing list for Oaxaca.)
You can do more to support the local artesanas than just shopping! En Vía is a local tourism-supported microfinance program. Founded in 2010, this organization gives interest-free loans to 250 local women in six communities to expand their small businesses. The program is funded by tourists–you pay a fee, and spend half a day visiting with several women who have received and successfully payed back several increasingly large loans, ranging from 1,500 pesos to start, up to 7,000 pesos. (About USD $115 to $530.) The fee goes toward paying the driver and lunch, with the rest going into the microloan fund.
Aside from educating and coaxing donations from tourists, the visits encourage the female entrepreneurs to reflect on their business model, and why they do what they do. The women take two business classes a week before receiving their first loan, and must attend weekly meetings afterward, where they pay back a portion of the loan. They are put into groups of three, and if one woman doesn’t show up to the meeting, the other two must either pay her share, or each pay a fine of 20 pesos, which encourages them to hold each other accountable. This system seems to work–loan repayment is at 99 percent!
Tours change all the time, but I can give you a sense of what a typical one might look like. First we headed to a tiny village of 500 people for lunch at the restaurant of one of the lendees, where we chose from a lunch of either chicken mole or squash blossoms. Then we headed to a hair salon owned by a young women named Karen (pictured above), and then visited with her mother, who sells chickens to other villagers. We finished our day in Teotitlan, a city of 6,000 people, where we visited with two different Zapotec weavers, who showed us their family looms and demonstrated natural dyeing techniques. At each stop, we were given the opportunity to ask questions of the women, with the help of a translator. I learned a lot from these visits about Mexican culture, plus structural challenges that face women who want to own their own business. I can be a bit cynical, but by the time the tour was finished, I was certainly tired, but feeling hopeful about the power of a program like this to change lives for the better.
Mercado de las Artesanías
Calle J.P. Garcia & Gral. Ignacio Zaragoza
Located on Calle Ignacio Zaragoza a ten-minute walk outside of the main tourist area, this big market of stalls has locally-made and affordable bed covers, black pottery, leather keychains, and lots of dresses that would make excellent cover-ups. It wasn’t crowded at all, though the sellers are eager to chat you up (in Spanish) if they see your eye wander over something, which can be a bit intimidating.
Murguia 101 esquina Macedonio Alcalá
If you found the Mercado above a little bit too intense, then stop by Huizache. A large, bi-level store, it’s a bit more curated, while still selling a wide assortment of local goods, like leather Western style hats, painted figurines, black pottery, colorful sneakers, rugs, purses, jewelry, and more. You’ll find the staff here are happy to let you peruse at your leisure.
Porfirio Díaz 404
This small boutique features ethically made, colorful, lushly-embroidered clutches and fashion with a modern twist. You can even find a crop top that’s been embroidered Mexican style!
Calle de Mariano Matamoros Centro 103
One block away from Huizache, it offers a similar selection, plus crocheted hammocks, Oaxacan barbie dolls, and mezcal. I say stop in both before deciding to buy anything!
Cinco de Mayo #408, Oaxaca Centro Historico
I was eager to visit this family-owned shop, which sells Zapotec, naturally-dyed woven rugs. Unfortunately, it was closed the day I visited. But please do go and tell me how you like it!