A Travel Guide to Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxaca is such a beautiful city with so much to offer.  If you’re looking for a non-beach vacation in a vibrant city full of  rainbow-colored colonial architecture, rich history, and craft markets then Oaxaca is your place. Pronounced "wa-ha-ka", it is the culinary and culture capital of Mexico  and most known for its Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration. One of the safest cities in Mexico, Oaxaca  has a friendly, small-town vibe with a population of just 260K. The city is very walkable and easy to explore on foot. Oaxaca ranks #5 on  Travel and Leisure magazine’s list of top cities of the world! #4 is Mexico City and #2 is San Miguel de Allende, so I definitely want to return to Mexico soon. While I saw lots of hotels, I didn’t pass many tourists on the streets. English isn’t widely spoken, even in restaurants so a little Spanish goes a long way. This makes Oaxaca a very authentic destination to visit.

 the doors and windows had intricately hand carved moldings.

poinsettias growing in the sidewalk

there were a lot of murals

star of Bethlehem pinatas left over from Christmas

Trumpet trees were blooming all over town

I spent a week in January when it was 60F degrees in the mornings and evenings. Everyone was wearing full on parkas and hats. By noon it got up to 80 degrees. This is  because  the city is at an altitude of 5100 feet and the temperature remains the same throughout the year. The city was planned out by Spanish colonizers in the 1500s so the colonial buildings are made of a distinctive green cantera stone which have withstood earthquakes, so no buildings are taller than 2 floors. At sunset, you can see the sky over all the buildings for a mile creating an incredible vista! I felt incredibly safe walking alone in Oaxaca. All streets are one way, but  don’t expect cars to stop for pedestrians. The city is the capital of the state with the same name. The state of Oaxaca does have a beach, but it’s a 10 hour bus ride to Puerto Escondido. Oaxaca means Huaxyácac, places of Guajes (flat pods with edible seeds that hang from a tree).

What to see

The best way to get a sense of the city is to explore on foot on the cobblestone streets. The first day I started my sightseeing in Oaxaca’s main square called the Zócalo (Plaza de la Constitucion). I passed by here every day during my stay and it’s a prime spot for people-watching and has an affordable outdoor market to buy traditional Mexican clothing. At night, there were always a ton of people walking around and sometimes live music in the square. I also discovered this big heart box for recycling.

My favorite place in Oaxaca was the area around the Templo de Santo Domingo. The church was built in 1600 and the interior design has an extensive use of gold leaf and a ceiling with a 3D effect. The decoration makes it considered the most beautiful church in the country. Surrounding the church are many shops, restaurants and galleries.

Right behind the Templo de Santo Domingo is the amazing Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca that sits on 2.32 acres of land. The botanical garden has an incredible collection of cacti and other plants native to the state of Oaxaca. The name of the garden combines the words “ethnic” and “botanic” because all the plants found here were chosen for their cultural value to the many ethnic groups of Oaxaca. The guide explained how the Zapoteca people used each plant and tree. For instance she showed us an insect on the prickly pear cactus from which they get red dye for textile weaving. It also has an area for plants used to make soap and medicinal plants. You’re required to visit with a tour, you can not explore independently. Cost is 50 or 100 MXD depending if you take the Spanish or English tour.

The fascinating museums

Between its indigenous roots and the Spanish Conquest, Oaxaca’s history is incredibly rich. While in Oaxaca, you must visit the city’s different museums to learn more about the region’s history and culture. Oaxaca is considered Mexico’s art capital and many museums are free to visit. I went to the Museo Textil de Oaxaca (textile museum) and the Museo de la Filatelia Oaxaca (stamp museum). There’s also the Museo de la Culturas de Oaxaca, Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca (museum of contemporary art)  and the Museo de Artes Gráficas (graphic arts) among other art galleries.

Day trip options

I traveled to nearby towns by a colectivo taxi, which is a shared taxi that you flag down that has the name of the city you are going to displayed on its windshield. The front passenger seat is shared by two people so I always sat in the back. The cost was dirt cheap!

For me the key experiences that I wanted to have was to visit a mezcal distillery and to see Hierve el Agua. Other day trip options include the pyramids of Monte Alban, Mitla, El Tule (the oldest tree in the world) and the other surrounding pueblos where you can see artisan workshops and indigenous markets. Because of Oaxaca's mountainous terrain, many indigenous communities are still isolated: about 50% of the state’s population are non-Spanish speakers.

Hierve el Agua means 'the water boils' in Spanish, but when you arrive you’ll see no boiling water. There are several pools, and the water is bubbling out the vent, but the water is cold. On the side of the mountain at Hierve el Agua it looks like a cascading waterfall, but no water is running down. While the place looks similar to the famous Pamukkale in Turkey, I found it less impressive. But I also went during the dry season when there was almost no water in the natural pools. They built one artificial pool for people to swim in.

I recommend booking an all day tour that includes Hierve el Agua. I took public transport which involved two colectivo taxis, but waiting for them to fill up before they would leave was time-consuming and not something I would recommend. Entrance fee is 25MXD. It’s a 90 min drive from Oaxaca through windy mountains.

I booked all my tours through AirBNB experiences. They were small group tours led by locals who don’t have to have a company and just list whatever experience they want to offer on the site. Could be a chocolate tasting tour, vegetarian market tour, mezcal tasting, etc.

Where to stay

I spent the first night in a nice hotel, a pink hotel and the rest of my stay in a private room in a hostel. Both booked through hotels.com.  This gave me the opportunity to get to know two neighborhoods.
City Centro - Mid-range, for those that want to stay at an all pink hotel.

Azul Cielo Hostel - for the budget minded person, at the edge of the city

Un sueno Valle de Huajes - centrally located, small budget hotel

One Oaxaca Centro - new modern hotel with small rooms
Grand Fiesta Americana - new high end hotel

How to get there

American and United both fly to Oaxaca either connecting in Dallas or Houston for a once daily flight to Oaxaca. So for me it was a 10 hour travel day.  But I used my airline points so I only had to pay the taxes on the ticket. I recommend sitting on the right side of the plane for the afternoon flight from TX so you can see a gorgeous sunset. From the airport in Oaxaca I took a shared taxi to my hotel. I got a taxi voucher from the official taxi counter in the airport for the van.  The airport is very small so I recommend bringing some money with you when you arrive. My first step outside, I felt the air just smelled different, fresher maybe, I don't know how to describe it. I arrived at night and it’s really fun to arrive at night and wake up to see what’s around you. The shared taxi was 90 MXN ($5) and the private taxi was 350MXN ($18). Since I was alone and it was night I felt more comfortable in the shared van with a bunch of American tourists with whom we all shared our travel stories.  Note you are not allowed to bring food into Mexico, they x-ray and open your bags upon arrival in the airport. So even though we were the only plane at the airport, disembarking took a long time. There was no departure tax at the airport when I left nor did I see a donation box to get rid of my extra money. There is a small shop in the airport for snacks.

In short, Oaxaca’s bright and bold-colored colonial architecture is a photographer’s dream!   I'll create another post on food as there's so much to say about the cuisine.

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