Oaxaca City is a just 7-hour bus ride or a short flight south of the capital of Mexico and is a beautiful colonial city nestled in a valley. Famous for its colonial architecture, mezcal liquor, handicrafts and archaeological sites, this city is one of Mexico’s highlights. The city itself has plenty to offer, but once you’ve exhausted the possibilities there, there are a couple of incredible and unmissable day trips that will leave you open-mouthed.
We’ve put together this list of the best things to do in Oaxaca City to help you make the most of your time in the area.
The square in the centre of Oaxaca is utterly charming, with leafy green trees and beautiful flower beds which are completely replanted depending on the time of year. There are people selling local snacks, and a beautiful church off to one side. It’s also a great spot to come for a coffee to watch the world go by, or for a drink in the evening at one of the many restaurants. Be sure to wrap up warm in the evenings if you’re here in the winter so you can sit outside and enjoy the atmosphere.
- Mercado Benito Juarez
In the market in the city centre, once you’ve wound your way through the endless stalls selling the local bread and cheese that Oaxaca is so famous for, you’ll find a huge selection of places selling a wide variety of traditional Mexican and Oaxacan meals and snacks. Sit yourself down anywhere you can find a seat, remembering that if somewhere is full of locals it’s usually because the food is both good and reasonably priced! Order a Oaxacan classic like a ‘tlayuda’ or a ‘tamal’ and let your love affair with Mexican cuisine begin.
- Visit the churches
IMG: the interior and exterior of Santo Domingo de Guzman, Src: Wikimedia Commons, Pixabay
The centre of Oaxaca is full of beautiful, characterful churches that are all distinctly Mexican and are all worth a look. If you’re there on a Sunday, have a peek at a Mexican mass, which is normally accompanied by a bleary-eyed brass band who were clearly playing at a party the night before.
Oaxaca is brimming with fascinating museums, where you can learn about everything from local textiles to indigenous art. The highlight is probably the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, right next to the Church of Santo Domingo, which has interesting temporary exhibitions, explains the cultural history of the area and is also home to the treasures that were found at the archaeological site of Monte Alban.
- Monte Alban
This is one of Oaxaca’s biggest draws. Only a twenty-minute drive or minibus ride from the city centre you’ll find the archaeological site of Monte Alban, built by the Zapotecs and a thriving city between 500BC and 750AD. The structures themselves are extremely impressive, but it’s worth paying extra for a guide to show you around the site and bring the incredible pyramids and temples to life. Be sure to take plenty of water and a hat with you, and try and go as early as possible before the hordes descend and the heat builds.
A smaller archaeological site about half an hour from the city, Mitla is still a bustling little village. A colonial church was built on top of part of the ruins here, and today the juxtaposition is striking. The ruins here are much smaller and less imposing than those at Monte Alban, but you get to get inside the structures themselves and even crawl through small doorways into tombs if you feel so inclined.
- Hierve El Agua
Hierve El Agua is out in the same direction as Mitla, but getting to it involves a dusty, windy track into the mountains. It’s worth it however when you get there and see the amazing petrified waterfalls clinging onto the edge of the precipice, and swim in the natural pools that have formed whilst looking out over the valley and watching the birds circling below you. Go early to beat the crowds.
- Tree of Tulle
This tree, only twenty minutes from Oaxaca’s centre in the village of Santa Maria del Tule, is over 2,000 years old and has a circumference of about 40m. To circle it completely you need thirty people holding hands. There are various shapes in the bark which are thought to represent animals. Once you’ve marvelled at the tree, have a wander around the charming village, paying a visit to the local market.
- Mezcal Tasting
Anywhere you look around Oaxaca you’ll see the iconic agave cactus growing, from which tequila and mezcal are made. Mezcal has a smokier and sweeter flavour than tequila, and is produced all over Oaxaca. There are mezcal distilleries all over the countryside that you can visit to learn about the distilling process and then try some for yourself.
Oaxaca produces all kinds of beautiful handicrafts, perfect for gifts for loved ones or just for treating yourself. From pots made from the local black clay to traditional Oaxacan clothing with beautiful stitching, there are all kinds of things on offer, both in the local markets in Oaxaca and in the small villages in the area. Once you know what you want don’t be afraid to haggle until you get a price you’re happy with as you’re bound to find the same thing being sold in multiple places.
Oaxaca is the perfect cultural getaway, combining museums and archaeological sites with beautiful colonial architecture and fantastic food, all at very reasonable prices.
Once you’re done exploring the delights of inland Oaxaca, it’s time to head for the coast. The towns of Puerto Escondido and Huatulco are both about a 6-hour minibus ride or a short flight away from Oaxaca City, and boast some of Mexico’s best beaches, excellent surfing and a warm climate all-year-round. Exchange the cacti of Oaxaca City for palm trees and soak up the sun on bustling town beaches, or find yourself your very own hidden gem.