If you’re looking for a slice of authentic Mexico at its most enthralling, look no further than Oaxaca (pronounced wa-ha-ka). This sprawling state and city (they go by the same name) in the southwestern portion of the country brings an enticing mix of ancient history, bustling marketplaces, traditional mountain culture – the list goes on. You’ll love it.
What’s more, with the majority of tourists flocking to the likes of Cancun and Cabo, Oaxaca enjoys a more off the beaten path charm where you’ll get a feel for the beating heart of indigenous Mexican culture without the booze cruises and keg stands. On top of that, there are wave-bashed beaches, challenging hikes, and unique dishes to sample. Yep, Oaxaca has something up its sleeve for all sorts of traveler, from the keen surfer to the foodie, the history buff to the budding artist.
So, is Oaxaca, Mexico, worth visiting? It’s an absolute, unequivocal yes from us. In fact, it’s the whole reason we put together this guide, which reveals 9 reasons why we believe Oaxaca needs to be fast-tracked to the top of your bucket list today. Like…right now!
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The relics of ancient civilizations
Oaxaca is one of the most historically rich of all the Mexican states. Yep, like the Yucatan and Mexico City before it, this region has been the home of several pre-Columbian civilizations. Relics and remnants of their mighty cities and temples still top the ridges of the Oaxacan mountains.
Top of the list has to be Monte Alban. Just 20 minutes from the center of Oaxaca City, this important archaeological site displays the onetime home of the old Zapotec and Mixtec cultures. The ruins are separated into three levels and date back to around 500 BC. They are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with stepped pyramids that rise on the peaks nearly 2,000 meters above sea level.
And there’s more: Mitla is another important stop on the history tour of Oaxaca. This sacred burial site established by the Zapotec peoples is not only intriguing but also beautifully crafted, with intricate mosaics covering tombs, panels, and the walls of the complex. You could also head to Yagul, where 10,000-year-old pictograms line the caves, or perhaps the underground tombs of Zaachila, which host strange relief murals from the 1200s.
The vibrant street scenes
Is Oaxaca, Mexico, worth visiting just for the street life? You bet it is! Forget dreary grays and earth tones around here, Oaxaca’s buildings are all about color and vibrancy. A walk through the cobblestoned streets will have you constantly grabbing your camera and clicking shoot. Seriously, it’s a stunning city…
The eye-catching scenes begin on the Zócalo Oaxaca. That’s the main square of the town; a pretty plaza topped by jacaranda trees and always filled with entertainers. Out from there, a regimented grid of cobbled alleys and streets emanate to the south and north. You can stroll down Valerio Trujano to see buildings painted in daffodil yellow or blood red, or trek up to the lovely Plaza de la Danza, which is topped by a grand Baroque cathedral.
To make the most of all that, consider hitting Oaxaca City during the famous Day of the Dead celebrations. You’ll catch some seriously amped-up building décor, with skeleton and skull decorations lining doorways, and paper bunting strewn across the streets all over town.
Mezcal at its finest
Get this: Oaxaca state is responsible for making an estimated 90% of the world’s mezcal! With over 2,000 palenques (mezcal distilleries) and a host of mezcalerias (dedicated mezcal bars), there are no shortage of places to do tastings, learn from the experts, or simply share in the mezcal culture with fellow travelers and locals.
In fact, mezcal is such a big part of life here, they even have their own saying: para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien tambien. It means “for everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good too”. Yep, the folk here like to drink a lot of this potent agave product, for both sad times and good times.
These days you can do dedicated tours from Oaxaca out to the distilleries in the countryside, to learn all about how the drink goes from cactus to bottle. Or, you could just stick to the city and sample the stuff at one of the many purveyors of the drink – we especially like La Mezcalerita and La Casa del Mezcal (literally, ‘the house of Mezcal’)
The Oaxacan art scene
In a city that looks a little like a painter’s palette, it should come as no surprise that Oaxaca has a thriving arts and crafts scene. Whether you’re exploring art exhibits in the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca, browsing the folk art of Oaxaca’s many handicraft villages (check out Teotitlan del Valle and Ocotlán de Morelos), or photographing the incredible street art found in the city’s oldest neighborhood, Barrio de Xochimilco, we’re pretty sure that you’re going to be wowed by what’s on display.
One thing that’s unique about Oaxaca’s art scene is the influence of the indigenous people. This state has a vast array of native cultures, which bring about a wealth of unique artworks, ranging from ceramics to wood carvings and embroidery. Explore the many bustling markets to see that first hand, especially the popular Mercado de Artesanias de Oaxaca – it’s the best in town for unique souvenir purchases, most notable traditional alebrijes (brightly colored whittlings of mythical creatures).
Amazing street food
Oaxaca is hailed as one of the culinary capitals of all Mexico, a country where the whole national cuisine is now rated by UNESCO as a part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. To put it another way, there’s no chance of going hungry as you explore this enticing city…
For the best of the best, we’d recommend getting your mitts on some tlayudas (known as the Mexican pizza but with a crunch tortilla base instead) and tetelas (triangular corn tortilla treats stuffed with refried beans and various other fillings). Oh, and make sure to sample some tamales Oaxaqueños (the Oaxacan version of the traditional Mexican staple, tamale, made of masa and steamed in a corn or banana leaf).
All of the above are served at numerous street-food stalls around the Zocalo and old town of Oaxaca. The best part? Most are super-cheap, costing under $1 a pop. Not bad, eh?
An authentic slice of Mexico
While the sun, sea and sand of Cabo and Cancun draw the majority of the tourist crowd to Mexican shores, for a slice of the ‘real’ Mexico, Oaxaca is where it’s at. True Mexican culture can be experienced everywhere you turn here. But don’t worry, the state of Oaxaca still has some epic beaches on the coast, so the bikini doesn’t have to go entirely to waste if not opting for the two Cs in Mexican vacationing.
But when it comes to authenticity, you only need to wander the cobbled streets of the city center to the many incredible churches, markets, and museums to immerse yourself in Oaxaca culture. For the perfect place to soak in the Oaxaca atmosphere, head to the Zocalo. This bustling public square, filled with restaurants, vendors and historic buildings is the center of social activity in the city.
And why not grab one of the famous Oaxacan chocolate-based beverages, tejate (once the drink of Zapotec royalty) and people watch in style.
Stunning natural wonders
Another reason Oaxaca is worth visiting is for its immense natural landscape. Looking for majestic mountains? They’re here. Looking for epic forests? Also here. Looking for travertine rock formations resembling waterfalls? You’re in luck. Yep, natural beauty doesn’t come much better than Hierve el Agua (meaning ‘the water boils’). However, this popular tourist site does go through periods of closure due to local disputes, so always best to check before you go.
But if you’re not one of the lucky ones to snap a picture of the Hierve el Agua for the Oaxaca album, there are still plenty of other natural wonders to marvel at instead. Search for exotic birds in the forests of Huatulco National Park, or take an evening boat trip to admire the natural phenomenon of Manialtepec Lagoon’s luminous waters.
Whichever way you choose to enjoy nature, you can be sure to find bucket loads of it in the state of Oaxaca.
It’s a surfer’s dreamland
With epic swells expelled from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, any surfer will be in heaven around these parts. And with more than 300 miles of stunning coastline offering consistent year-round surf, Oaxaca has been on the surfer’s radar for some time.
Puerto Escondido is hailed as one of the best spots, with Zicatela Beach providing some serious waves (definitely not for the faint hearted). However, for a less crowded area to brush up on your skills or simply show them off you may want to head to the hipster town of Barra de la Cruz.
But if you’re a complete novice to the scene, don’t worry, as there are many surf schools just waiting to welcome you and get you up to speed on this adrenaline filled pastime.
The Ethnobotanical Garden
Oaxaca is worth visiting just for this one place alone. Home to over 800 plants, The Ethnobotanical Garden of Oaxaca is truly a sight to behold. Located in the Santo Domingo Cultural Center, it occupies 2.32 acres of land. Having opened in 1998, with plants coming from different regions of the state, it now showcases the diversity of the vegetation and climate that make up Oaxaca.
The area is only accessible through guided tour, however, with the knowledge of the local guides, this is not necessarily a bad thing. So, be prepared to come away armed with a few dinner party facts. But be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen and water, as you are well exposed to the Oaxacan sun throughout the tour.
But for after you’ve marveled at the tall wall of cacti and the many endemic plant species, another highlight of any Oaxaca itinerary lies just adjacent – the Church of Santo Domingo. Built between 1570 and 1608, this stunning Baroque structure houses incredible intricate designs and painted figures. And if possible, try to catch an evening mass, when the church takes on a superb candlelit glow for that extra magical feel.