While many visitors flock to Mexico’s most well-known regions on the Pacific and Carribean coasts, those who look to experience Mexican culture, history, and natural beauty on another level have begun to explore some of the country’s more remote locations. Deep in the south of Mexico lays a dense tropical jungle that is home to exotic wildlife, breathtaking natural wonders, a mix of both indigenous and present-day Mexican cultures, and some of the country’s most iconic archeological sites. Within the confines of this incredibly mountainous region visitors will find a mesmerizing, colonial city known as Oaxaca, Mexico.
A bastion of indigenous culture, Oaxaca is home to the country’s most vibrant crafts and art scene, including outstandingly colorful and exaggerated festivities. One of the most visited among Mexican locals, Oaxaca has started to gain the attention of curious travelers looking for a more “exotic” Mexican experience. With the forested Sierra Norte Mountain Range to the north and the stunningly beautiful tropical coast to the south, Oaxaca offers guests the opportunity to explore multiple landscapes through a combination of exhilarating and relaxing activities.
Hike, bike, ride horses, and go birding in Oaxaca amid vibrant, green mountainscapes, explore ancient archaeological sites once inhabited by the region’s most powerful indigenous populations, or soak in the sun on the region’s wide, sandy beaches – home to a pumping Pacific surf and diverse marine life. Regardless of the activities that catch your attention, Oaxaca is the hottest place to be. As you begin to plan your ideal trip down south consider taking into consideration these 5 essential tips when visiting this incredible, Mexican destination.
1. When to Go
When planning a trip to Oaxaca there a few things to keep in mind when it comes to deciding when to travel. For example, the most popular months to visit are during the spring months of April and May and the fall months of September and October. This is in part due to moderate temperatures and fewer tourists. With Spring temperatures peaking in the 80’s (26 degrees Celsius) and fall temperatures peaking in the 70’s (21 degrees Celsius), both times of year are ideal for those looking to escape summer rains and packed tours, but also looking to take advantage of a friendly outdoor climate.
The summer months of June through August and the winter months of December and January constitute busy season. While the summer months have extremely friendly temperatures, generally peaking in the low 80’s (26 degrees Celsius), this is also the time of year that the region witnesses the majority of its rainfall – so bring an umbrella! While the temperatures are even more ideal in December and January – peaking in the upper 70’s (21 degrees Celsius) – this is an especially busy time of year as locals flock to Oaxaca over the Holiday season to celebrate a number of different “fiestas”, or holiday celebrations.
During other points throughout the year, such as between the months of November and March (minus holiday season), Oaxaca generally experiences less foot traffic, resulting in great deals for visitors. However, keep in mind that during the late fall and winter months Oaxaca can experience temperature lows between 40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit (4-10 degrees Celsius), so be sure to pack some pants and a sweater!
One thing is clear – regardless of when you decide to come, temperatures will be kind and the scenery will be breathtaking. That said, put your pin to paper and decide which time of year works best for you!
2. Getting Oriented
The best part about Oaxaca is that compared to a lot of other major cities found throughout the country, the colonial city of Oaxaca is rather small. Do not let this trick you – while it may be smaller than other well-known destinations, the city of Oaxaca has more to see and do within a smaller proximity than most places. This makes it the perfect vacation spot.
As one of three adjacent valleys encircled by the majestic Sierra Madre del Sur, and Mexico’s fifth-largest state, Oaxaca is bordered by multiple neighbors. Bordering states the state of Chiapas to the east, Veracruz and Puebla to the north, and Guerrero to the west. While its history, cuisine, and culture are the state’s primary attractions, it’s important to point out that the southern portion of Oaxaca is blessed with 316 miles (509 kilometers) of Pacific coastline. Now, that’s impressive.
With the majority of travelers arriving by plane or on buses from nearby towns, getting to and from the city is extremely cheap and easy. Only a 20-minute cab ride from the airport and bus station, taxis are a quick and affordable option. A private cab from the airport will cost approximately $7.00 USD ($150.00 MXN). Cab rides from the bus station can cost as little as $1.50 USD ($30.00 MXN) or as high as $5.00 USD ($100.00 MXN) depending on your destination. If you’re coming from the Pacific coast, you may arrive at the Central Camionera de Segunda Clase (second-class bus terminal), next to the Abastos Market. It’s only about 10 blocks southwest of the Zócalo (city center) and the cab fair shouldn’t cost more than $5.00 USD ($100.00 MXN).
Once you arrive, you will be ready to enjoy the beautiful city of Oaxaca (Oaxaca is the name of both the state and the capital city). As one of Mexico’s most attractive colonial cities, it is home to tree-shaded parks, cobblestone streets, stately churches, and fabulous restaurants and art festivals. With the east-west axis being Independencia and the north-south axis being Alcala and Bustamente, the city one giant grid system and easy to maneuver. You shouldn’t need to take transportation within city limits – walking is the way to go. However, if you stay on the outskirts of town, be prepared to spend approximately $2.00-$3.00 USD ($40.00-$50.00 MXN) per ride. Home to numerous cheap and lovely Bed and Breakfast options, the city of Oaxaca is not only majestic, but affordable! This makes for the perfect combination.
If you wish to explore outside city limits, you’re in luck. Oaxaca excursions are limitless. Close to dozens of craft villages in the surrounding valleys, and nearby numerous archaeological sites – such as the famous site of Monte Alban – the city of Oaxaca and the surrounding countryside is simply incredible. With few main roads, traveling to and from nearby towns is quite easy as you only have a few options. If you feel like an adventure, pick a scenic route and drive through miles of farmland backed by green mountains and tiny villages – there is nothing better than visiting nearby colonial towns, or “puebleando” as locals call it.
If you decide to make the trek south to the coast, understand that this is a few solid hours from the city – not exactly great for a day trip but ideal for a weekend get-a-way. While the coast is still rather remote, there are a few spots worth a visit. Plus, some prefer the remoteness of Oaxaca’s beaches in comparison to other heavily populated beach areas throughout the country. If you’re a surfer, be sure to check out Puerto Escondido. For nature lovers, Bahías de Huatulco (Bays of Huatulco) is a stunning nature reserve. Visitors can even enjoy multiple small, beach villages between the two destinations if they wish to have a truly relaxing, local experience.
Simply put – getting around Oaxaca is easy. It’s simply a matter of deciding which activities you wish experience and then mapping out your route depending on their location. With friendly locals and helpful tour guides, you are sure to stay on track. Plan, relax, and enjoy the trip!
3. Where To Eat
If there is anything about Oaxaca that you should know prior to travel, it’s that this southern Mexican city is one of the top foodie destinations in the entire country – on a par with Mexico City. Home to some of the most delicious and most varied dishes in the country, visitors are sure to eat their fare share of mind-blowing Mexican cuisine. Oaxaca is especially known for its cheese (queso oaxaqueño), chocolate, mezcal, and for being the birthplace of the popular Mexican “Mole” – a rich and complex sauce consisting of multiple ingredients including chiles, nuts, seeds, onions, garlic, fruits, herbs, and even chocolate.
That said, one should expect quite the blast of flavor when trying local dishes. However, if the rich flavors of chocolate and mole based dishes isn’t your thing, don’t worry. The local cuisine is extremely diverse. Try some regional soups such as the local pozole, black bean soup, and squash-flower soup. Or, if you’re looking for a true regional hit, consider Oaxaca’s famous tlayudas – Mexican “pizzas” with toppings laid out on a large baked tortilla. Regardless of what you eat, you’re sure to be blown away by the region’s truly unique flavors.
So, where should you go to experience the best of the local cuisine? That all depends on the size of your pocket and what you’re looking for.
You simply can’t leave Oaxaca without enjoying a Tlayuda. Known as the quintessential street food – somewhere between a quesadilla and a Mexican version of a pizza – tlayudas are huge tortillas that are grilled on an open flame after being topped/filled with beans, Oaxacan cheese, cabbage, tomato, avocado, and your choice of meat. They come either “open face”like a tostada, or folded like a quesadilla, and are smoky, filling, and delicious. The best place to get your fill – Tlayudas Libres.
Another regional delicacy, typically foreign to travelers, are the toasted “chapulines” topped with salt and chili seasonings. What are chapulines, you ask? Grasshoppers! That’s right, many local dishes consist of regional delicacies in the form of chapulines (grasshoppers), chinicuil (red worm), hormiga de miel (honeypot ants), and chicatanas (flying ants) to name a few. I know what you’re thinking – but don’t knock it ‘till you try it! Often paired well with a tasty mezcal – a regional spirit distilled from the agave plant – these unfamiliar snacks can be quite tasty! Take a walk through Mercado Benito Juarez (Benito Juarez Market) to find your fair share of options. You can ask to try one – “Puedo probarlo?” – before making a purchase.
For the best mole negro, head over to Biche Pobre, an unassuming yet delicious local restaurant. You are sure to be blown away by the 30+ ingredients packed into this savory regional dish. Mole dishes generally feature one of seven varieties of mole, including black, red, green, and yellow mole. Black mole (mole negro) is the most complex mole with over 30 ingredients, which consists of lots of dark, unsweetened chocolate. These sauces are generally served with chicken, turkey, beef or pork.
Whether it’s to kick off your day or bring it to an end, you mustn’t forget to stop by the famous Mayordomo – a local chain whose entire menu is based on chocolate – that’s right – chocolate! The best way to try Oaxacan chocolate is to drink it. Come to Mayordomo for a delicious and hearty breakfast or a late night snack. The flavor and versatility of local chocolate will leave your tastebuds dancing for more.
More top-notch spots for those looking for a truly unforgettable, upscale experience are the world-renowned Casa Oaxaca El Restaurante and Criollo. With fresh salsa mixed tableside and warm Mexican hospitality, Casa Oaxaca is a critically acclaimed restaurant from chef Alejandro Ruiz, who celebrates the traditional flavors, recipes, and heritage of his home state with a menu that encompasses all the best the region has to offer, including mole negro, coloradito, and manchamanteles (three of Oaxaca’s most iconic dishes).
Just outside the city’s hectic downtown, Criollo is Enrique Olvera and Luis Arellano’s countryside Oaxacan gem. Both chefs are big players in the Mexican culinary scene who have collaborated for a number of years and now are combining their genius at Criollo. Located in a colonial mansion with a spacious courtyard, the restaurant offers a six-course tasting menu that changes daily, yet that maintains a consistent emphasis on iconic regional Mexican flavors. Try their outstanding tamales, tostadas, moles, and stuffed chiles – which are prepared with a contemporary, produce-driven twist and paired with an enviable selection of Mexican wine, mezcal, and craft beer.
Speaking of mezcal, be sure to stop by Mezcaloteca, a mezcal “library” that offers curated tastings hosted by in-the-field experts. While many desire to try Mexico’s most beloved spirit, reservations are a must. You won’t regret it.
There is simply too much outstanding food in Oaxaca to name it all – which is a great problem for visitors to have! Whether you crave something light and quick, or full and savory, one thing is for certain – the flavors you will experience in the Oaxaca will be unlike any others that you have experienced. Let the flavors leave their mark on both your tastebuds and memory – as you are sure to be back for more. ¡Provecho!
4. Where To Shop
Let’s face it – for most people, it isn’t considered a successful vacation if you come home empty handed. Luckily for Oaxaca visitors, there are plenty of spaces for you to shop ‘till you drop. A good amount of Oaxaca’s shopping will be unique in comparison to other destinations. With such a rich and vibrant local culture, most guests leave the upscale shopping aside and dive head first into Oaxaca’s local markets, art galleries, and craft shops. If luxury shopping is your gig, not to worry – there are still plenty of boutiques to explore.
Markets and craft shops – similar restaurants – line Oaxacan streets and range from small stands and art galleries to larger shops and local markets. The shopping plazas in Oaxaca all offer a distinct variety of goods and each provides a unique ambience and exotic shopping environment.
Some of the best shopping can be done while browsing the local markets. Often home to not only small trinkets and art, but also outstanding cuisine, local markets are a huge pull for both visitors and locals alike. Mercado Benito Juarez (Benito Juarez Market) and Central de Abastos (Supplies Center) are unique and fulfilling shopping experiences. Full of nearly everything you can think of, including flowers, hats, shoes, clothes, jewelry, kitchen utensils, mezcal, herbs (medicinal and culinary), spices, meat, cheese, ready-made mole, fruit, vegetables, and almost every other food a Oaxacan could need, these markets are a guaranteed fascinating browse. While its easy to get lost among all the goods, the local artesanias (artisan crafts) are truly beautiful and inexpensive – making it all the more worthwhile.
For higher quality yet equally unique goods, try out a few of the local art and craft shops that offer mostly textiles, art pieces, and homemade crafts, including stunning home decor. Spots such as Huizache, El Nahual, and the Casa de Artesanias are definitely worth a visit. Whether you prefer woolen rugs, woodcarvings, ceramics, or other handicrafts, these shops offer a wide variety of high-quality goods from all over Oaxaca.
While lavish shopping and fashion aren’t what usually come to mind when thinking about the beautiful city of Oaxaca, the city is actually becoming quite the center for innovative fashion – combining modern styles and materials with ancient techniques and craftsmanship. In fact, numerous local designers and shops collaborate with local artisans to not only sell the work of creative masters, but also to work towards safeguarding disappearing traditions. Talk about one-of-a-kind fashion!
If this sounds more like your style, be sure to visit local boutiques such as Tutu & Co, Liliana del Toro Disenos, Miku Meko, and Antiga by Vianney Mendez. Offering modern-day handbags with a local twist, exclusively embroidered clothing, artisanal jewelry, and abstract, modern home decor pieces, these boutiques are every shopper’s dream. Not to mention, items found here are found nowhere else in the world, giving you a special edge and unparalleled flashy style.
While Oaxacan food is beyond enticing, don’t spend all of your money at local restaurants (hard to do, I know). The local handicrafts and upscale boutiques are sure to catch your eye and you’ll want to have some spare change available. Afterall, vacation is all about relaxing and treating yourself!
5. Check Out Amazing Local Tours
One thing extremely special about Oaxaca (apart from it’s delicious food, of course) is its close proximity to some of the most spectacular natural wonders and ancient ruins that the country has to offer. On top of all that, Oaxaca is unique in its inclusion of both ancient and present day indigenous cultures, making for a truly enriching and eye-opening experience for visitors. Not only will they witness amazing archeological sites, local culture, and nature’s most miraculous structures, but they will also learn about the region’s history and what truly makes it so special.
With numerous day trips and Oaxaca city tours available to guests that encapsulate all of the above possibilities, visitors are guaranteed an unforgettable experience as they set out to explore everything this remarkable region has to offer. To kick off your adventure, start small by enjoying the local cuisine – including the regions most famous locally made spirit – Mezcal.
Simply put – it wouldn’t be a successful trip to Oaxaca without indulging in some of the locally brewed Mezcal. One of Mexico’s most popular spirits (and becoming quite the hit in Tequila bars across the U.S.), Mezcal gets its name from the ancient Nahuatl language and means “oven-cooked agave. Our Alluring Taste of Mezcal Tour is the perfect opportunity to travel into the mountain villages surrounding Oaxaca to learn about the traditional production of this smokey, flavorful, and strong local spirit. Offering participants a tour equipped with a bilingual staff, round-trip transportation, access to a Mezcal tasting, bottled water, and a tasty lunch, this is the perfect introduction to a region steeped in both culture and flavor.
Once you warm up (literally) with a glass or two of Mezcal, you’ll be ready to take on all that Oaxaca has to offer. The next stop on your list should be to the nearby ancient archeological sites of Monte Alban and Mitla.
Founded around 500 B.C., Monte Alban is not only one of the oldest cities of Mesoamerica, but was also the preeminent Zapotec socio-political and economic center for close to a thousand years. On our Monte Alban Archaeological Tour you will have the opportunity to explore the site’s striking stone structures, which tower 1,300 feet (400 meters) above the valley floor, offering guests jaw-dropping views of the city below. Offering participants a tour equipped with bilingual staff, round trip transportation, travel insurance, entrance fees, bottled water, lunch, and a trip to the famous convent of Santiago Apostol in the mountain village of Cuilapam, this excursion is one for the books. A trip to Mexico simply isn’t complete without experiencing – and learning about – its ancient civilizations.
Another site worth visiting is that of Mitla, which translates to “place of the dead” in the ancient Nahuatl language. The second most important archaeological site in Oaxaca – and the most important of the Zapotec culture – Mitla offers visitors a different kind of experience. While there are less major structures to climb, its history and design are enough to leave you in awe. On our Mitla Archeological Tour, will you be able to experience this ancient religious center up close while taking in its truly awesome beauty. This tour also takes you on step further into local culture with a trip the unique rock formations of Hierve el Agua (one of the best hikes in Mexico) and topping the day off with a tour of a nearby mezcaleria. Combining history, culture, and nature into one trip, this tour offers participants the best of all that that region has to offer.
If you wish to take your cultural experience even on step further, search no more – our Indigenous Artisans of Oaxaca tour is just for you. Travel deep into the mountains of the Mixtec region – world famous for its colorful indigenous culture and unique handmade crafts. Surely you will have seen numerous artisan handicrafts and art spread throughout the city markets. This is because of a long and vibrant history steeped in textiles. This tour offers participants a look at the spectacular architecture of the 16th century Dominican convent of Santo Domingo in Ocotlan and time spent with local artisans in the village of Jalieza. To top it off, tourists will close the day amongst some of the most experienced creators of the brightly colored Zapotec folk art sculptures known as “alebrijes” – signature Oaxacan crafts. For those looking to immerse themselves in local culture, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Organized tours are the best way to experience the city of Oaxaca and its many surrounding destinations. Whether you look to indulge your taste buds, excavate ancient ruins, or learn the ways of local culture, Oaxaca is the place for you. So, get to planning your unforgettable trip and prepare yourself to be truly impressed.
Oaxaca is truly a special experience – one that you will carry with you for the rest of your life. While so many travelers flock to the same beaches, resorts, and upscale tourist destinations, those who take the time to discover Mexico’s greatest treasures truly reap the rewards. Come experience Mexico like you never have before. The sazon “flavor”, culture, and beauty of Oaxaca is sure to take your appreciation for this lovely country to new heights – let it soar.