Oaxaca, a region in southern Mexico, is a traveler’s dream come true. It’s a place where ancient traditions meld seamlessly with modern life, where the cuisine is world-renowned, and where natural beauty abounds. If you’re planning a trip to Mexico, Oaxaca should be at the top of your list. In this comprehensive travel guide, we’ll take you on a journey through the vibrant streets of Oaxaca, from its rich cultural heritage to its stunning landscapes and mouthwatering cuisine.
Introduction to Oaxaca
Oaxaca, pronounced “wah-HAH-kah,” is a state located in the southern part of Mexico, bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the south and the states of Guerrero, Puebla, and Veracruz to the north. The capital city, also called Oaxaca, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its well-preserved colonial architecture, vibrant markets, and rich cultural traditions.
When to Visit
Oaxaca boasts a pleasant climate year-round, making it an ideal destination at any time. However, there are some factors to consider:
High Season: December to April is considered the high season when the weather is cooler and drier. It’s also the best time to witness many of the region’s cultural festivals and events.
Low Season: May to November is the low season when Oaxaca experiences more rainfall. While the landscapes are lush and green during this time, some outdoor activities may be limited.
Day of the Dead: If you’re interested in experiencing the unique Day of the Dead celebrations, plan your visit around November 1st and 2nd. Oaxaca’s festivities are among the most elaborate and beautiful in Mexico.
Language and Currency
The official language in Oaxaca is Spanish. While many people in the tourism industry speak some English, it’s advisable to know a few basic Spanish phrases to enhance your travel experience.
The currency used in Mexico is the Mexican Peso (MXN). Credit cards are widely accepted in urban areas, but it’s a good idea to carry some cash, especially when visiting rural communities and local markets.
Getting to Oaxaca
The easiest way to reach Oaxaca is by flying into Xoxocotlán International Airport (IATA: OAX), located just a few kilometers from the city center. There are regular domestic flights connecting Oaxaca to Mexico City and other major Mexican cities.
If you prefer a more scenic route or are already in Mexico, you can take a long-distance bus to Oaxaca. Several bus companies operate routes from various cities, and the journey can be quite comfortable with spacious seats and air conditioning.
Where to Stay
Oaxaca offers a wide range of accommodation options to suit every budget and preference. Here are some popular choices:
For a unique and charming experience, consider staying at one of Oaxaca’s boutique hotels. These often occupy historic colonial buildings and offer personalized service, making your stay memorable.
If you’re traveling on a tighter budget, Oaxaca has a selection of affordable hostels with dormitory-style and private rooms. They are excellent places to meet fellow travelers and share experiences.
For a truly indulgent experience, there are luxurious resorts in Oaxaca, especially along the coast. Enjoy stunning beachfront views and world-class amenities while experiencing Mexican hospitality at its finest.
Oaxaca also has a growing market of vacation rentals, from cozy apartments in the city to secluded cabins in the mountains. This option is great for families or larger groups looking for extra space and privacy.
Throughout Oaxaca, you’ll find charming guesthouses run by friendly locals. Staying in one of these can provide a more intimate and culturally immersive experience.
Exploring Oaxaca City
Zócalo (Main Square)
Your journey in Oaxaca often begins at the Zócalo, the city’s main square. This bustling hub is surrounded by stunning colonial architecture, including the Oaxaca Cathedral and the Government Palace. It’s a great place to start your exploration, relax on a bench, and soak in the local atmosphere.
One of the most iconic archaeological sites in Mexico, Monte Albán, lies just a few kilometers from Oaxaca City. This ancient Zapotec city, perched atop a hill, offers a fascinating glimpse into pre-Columbian history and provides panoramic views of the valley below.
Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca
Located in the former monastery of Santo Domingo, this museum is home to an extensive collection of pre-Hispanic artifacts, including intricate gold jewelry, pottery, and codices. The building itself is a masterpiece of colonial architecture and worth a visit in its own right.
Mercado Benito Juárez
For a taste of Oaxacan cuisine and culture, visit the Mercado Benito Juárez. This bustling market offers an array of fresh produce, traditional foods, spices, and artisan crafts. Don’t miss the opportunity to sample Oaxaca’s famous moles and tlayudas.
Oaxaca is renowned for its production of mezcal, a distilled alcoholic beverage made from the agave plant. You can take guided tours to local mezcal distilleries, known as “palenques,” and sample various types of mezcal while learning about the traditional production process.
Oaxaca is a city that loves to celebrate, and throughout the year, there are numerous festivals and events. These range from the vibrant Guelaguetza in July to the colorful Day of the Dead festivities in November. Check the local calendar to see if your visit coincides with any of these incredible cultural experiences.
Oaxaca’s Culinary Delights
Oaxacan cuisine is celebrated as one of the most diverse and flavorful in Mexico. Here are some must-try dishes and beverages:
Mole is a rich and complex sauce made from a blend of chili peppers, spices, chocolate, and other ingredients. There are several varieties of mole in Oaxaca, including mole negro (black mole), mole coloradito, and mole amarillo. Enjoy it over chicken, turkey, or even as a dip for tortillas.
Often referred to as “Oaxacan pizza,” tlayudas are large, thin tortillas grilled to a crisp and topped with beans, cheese, lettuce, and your choice of meats. They’re a delicious and filling street food option.
For the adventurous eater, try chapulines, which are roasted grasshoppers seasoned with garlic, lime, and chili. They’re a crunchy and protein-packed snack.
As mentioned earlier, Oaxaca is famous for its mezcal. Take the time to explore the various types and flavors of this smoky spirit while learning about the cultural significance of mezcal production in the region.
Tamales are a staple in Oaxacan cuisine. These are made from masa (corn dough) and filled with a variety of ingredients such as meat, vegetables, or mole. They are wrapped in banana leaves and steamed to perfection.
Oaxaca is renowned for its cheese, particularly queso Oaxaqueño. This cheese is often used in quesadillas and other dishes, giving them a distinct creamy texture.
Exploring Oaxaca’s Surroundings
While Oaxaca City itself is a treasure trove of culture and culinary delights, the state of Oaxaca has so much more to offer. Here are some fantastic destinations to explore beyond the city limits:
Hierve el Agua
Hierve el Agua is a stunning natural wonder that features petrified waterfalls and mineral-rich pools. Visitors can hike along the edge of these “frozen” waterfalls and swim in the warm, turquoise pools while taking in breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape.
If you’re a beach lover, Puerto Escondido is a paradise for surfers and sunseekers. Its pristine beaches, such as Playa Zicatela, are perfect for catching waves, while Playa Carrizalillo offers a more tranquil setting for swimming and relaxation.
Mazunte is a small coastal village famous for its relaxed atmosphere and eco-friendly initiatives. You can visit the National Mexican Turtle Center or simply unwind on the beautiful beaches.
San José del Pacífico
Nestled in the mountains, San José del Pacífico is known for its mystical and spiritual atmosphere. Visitors come here to experience the “magic mushrooms” and the incredible views from the high-altitude viewpoint.
San Juan Chamula
For a unique cultural experience, visit the indigenous Tzotzil community of San Juan Chamula. Witness their traditional religious ceremonies inside the unique church, where a fusion of Mayan and Catholic beliefs creates a fascinating and mystical atmosphere.
Yagul and Mitla Archaeological Sites
Explore more of Oaxaca’s rich history by visiting the archaeological sites of Yagul and Mitla. These ancient Zapotec ruins showcase intricate stone carvings and structures that provide insights into the region’s past.
Oaxaca is generally a safe destination for travelers. However, as with any place, it’s essential to take some precautions:
Be cautious with your belongings, especially in crowded areas.
Use reputable transportation services and licensed tour operators.
Drink bottled water and be mindful of street food hygiene.
Respect local customs and traditions, especially in indigenous communities.
Oaxaca is a destination that promises a unique and enriching travel experience. From its captivating culture and rich history to its mouthwatering cuisine and breathtaking landscapes, this region in southern Mexico offers something for every traveler. Whether you’re exploring the vibrant streets of Oaxaca City, hiking to petrified waterfalls, or savoring the flavors of mole and mezcal, Oaxaca will leave you with lasting memories and a deep appreciation for the beauty and diversity of Mexico’s cultural gem. So, pack your bags and get ready for an unforgettable adventure in Oaxaca!
Sustainable Travel in Oaxaca
As travelers, it’s important to be mindful of our impact on the destinations we visit. Oaxaca, with its rich cultural heritage and stunning natural beauty, is a place that deserves preservation and responsible tourism. Here are some tips for sustainable travel in Oaxaca:
Support Local Artisans
Oaxaca is known for its vibrant artisan communities, producing traditional crafts such as textiles, pottery, and jewelry. When shopping for souvenirs, try to purchase directly from local artisans or visit cooperatives that promote fair trade practices. This helps support the livelihoods of local people and preserves traditional craftsmanship.
Respect Indigenous Communities
Oaxaca is home to several indigenous communities with unique cultures and traditions. When visiting these communities, always seek permission before taking photographs and respect their customs and beliefs. If you have the opportunity, engage with the locals through guided tours or cultural experiences to learn more about their way of life.
Reduce Plastic Waste
Mexico, like many other countries, faces challenges with plastic pollution. To minimize your environmental impact, carry a reusable water bottle and fill it from large water dispensers or fountains available in many public places. Additionally, be mindful of your use of plastic bags and dispose of waste responsibly.
Use Sustainable Transportation
Oaxaca’s public transportation system is well-developed, making it easy to get around without renting a car. Opt for buses, colectivos (shared taxis), or walking whenever possible to reduce your carbon footprint. If you do rent a car, consider sharing it with other travelers to minimize the number of vehicles on the road.
Choose Eco-Friendly Accommodation
Look for accommodations that prioritize sustainability and environmental responsibility. Many hotels and lodges in Oaxaca have implemented eco-friendly practices, such as water and energy conservation, waste reduction, and support for local communities.
Conserve Natural Resources
Oaxaca’s natural beauty is one of its greatest assets. When exploring the outdoors, follow Leave No Trace principles. Respect local regulations regarding wildlife and plant protection, and avoid disturbing delicate ecosystems.
Oaxaca is a remarkable destination that offers a harmonious blend of culture, history, cuisine, and natural beauty. Whether you’re strolling through the vibrant streets of Oaxaca City, exploring ancient ruins, indulging in delicious Oaxacan cuisine, or immersing yourself in the traditions of indigenous communities, Oaxaca has something for every type of traveler.
As you plan your journey to this Mexican gem, remember to embrace sustainable travel practices and respect the local culture and environment. By doing so, you’ll not only have an unforgettable experience but also contribute to the preservation and appreciation of Oaxaca’s incredible heritage.
So, pack your bags, embark on this enriching adventure, and discover the wonders of Oaxaca. From its archaeological treasures to its mezcal-soaked evenings, Oaxaca is waiting to captivate your senses and leave you with memories to last a lifetime. Explore, savor, and immerse yourself in the heart of Mexico’s cultural gem.