Oaxaca the largest state in Mexico known for its stunning coastlines, biodiverse mountains and desert and unforgettable culture. Nestled in the southern region of Mexico, Oaxaca captivates visitors with its rich cultural heritage, stunning landscapes, and culinary delights. Steeped in history and boasting a diverse indigenous culture, Oaxaca offers a myriad of experiences for travelers seeking an unforgettable journey. Read below to delve into the best things to do in Oaxaca, encompassing its captivating archaeological sites, colorful markets, traditional festivals, mouthwatering cuisine, and breathtaking natural wonders.
Tour the Santo Domingo Church: The Santo Domingo Cathedral is the stunning center of Oaxaca City. The church and former convent were built by the Dominican order during the colonial period in the 17th century. The architecture and grounds are jaw-dropping. Now a museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Cathedral of Santo Domingo has seen its fair share of Mexican history. There are tours offered, but tourists are also welcome to meander and marvel at the colonial art collections and architecture as they wish.
Discover Ancient Wonders: Oaxaca is home to extraordinary archaeological sites that bear testament to its rich historical past. Explore Monte Albán, a UNESCO World Heritage site, renowned for its grand Zapotec ruins, intricate carvings, and stunning views of the surrounding valley. Additionally, the ruins at Mitla offer a glimpse into the intricate stonework and unique geometric patterns of the Zapotec civilization.
Tip: Wait until you arrive in Oaxaca City to book your tours. Travel agencies, local hostels and hotels offer customizable and standard plans (often at a steeper cost). I recommend waiting until you arrive at Plaza Mayor to book tours as they are reliable and a fraction of the cost. In addition, many of the guides are bilingual and can translate in Spanish and English! If you prefer to book early though, consider this tour!
Explore Art Galleries and Museums: Oaxaca’s cultural tapestry is vibrant and diverse, presenting numerous opportunities to engage with local traditions and customs. Check out the Rufino Tamayo Museum, which showcases contemporary art influenced by Oaxacan heritage. The Santo Domingo Cultural Center, housed in a former monastery, offers insights into Oaxaca’s colonial history, art exhibitions, and a serene courtyard.Tip: Walk Calle 4 towards Santo Domingo to peruse the different art galleries. Oaxaca City is known for protest art in particular, and there are prints and duplications for sale by local artists and galleries. Stop by and chat with the gallery workers – they can let you know more about the specific artists and history of each piece.
Stroll through Colorful Markets: Oaxaca’s bustling markets are a treat for the senses, brimming with vibrant colors, aromas, and flavors. Begin at the Benito Juárez Market, where you can find an array of fresh produce, traditional textiles, pottery, and regional spices. The Mercado 20 de Noviembre beckons with its mouthwatering aromas of grilled meats and traditional Oaxacan delicacies like tlayudas and mole. Sip on a cup of Tejate, an horchata-like drink of corn and cacao that is subtly sweet and refreshing! Don’t miss the opportunity to witness the lively atmosphere of the Tlacolula Sunday Market, where locals gather to trade goods, showcasing the region’s unique cultural diversity.
Indulge in Culinary Delights: Oaxaca is a gastronomic paradise, and holy mole does it deliver! Mole, a complex and rich sauce made from a blend of chili peppers, chocolate, and spices, is a culinary masterpiece not to be missed. For more casual fare, sample the traditional Oaxacan dish, tlayudas. Tlayudas are large tortillas topped with beans, cheese, and a variety of meats. Cooking classes also offer the chance to learn the secrets of Oaxacan culinary traditions from skilled local chefs.
Experiencing Traditional Festivals: Oaxaca is renowned for its vibrant festivals, which provide a glimpse into the region’s deep-rooted traditions. The Guelaguetza, a cultural extravaganza held in July, showcases indigenous dance, music, and traditional costumes, celebrating the diversity of Oaxacan communities. During Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos), Oaxaca comes alive with colorful altars, vibrant parades, and visits to cemeteries to honor departed loved ones. Witnessing these unique celebrations offers a profound insight into Oaxaca’s cultural fabric.
Exploring Natural Wonders: Beyond its captivating city, the region of Oaxaca boasts breathtaking natural wonders that enchant outdoor enthusiasts. Refresh yourself at Hierve el Agua, a landmark of petrified waterfall-like formations and mineral-rich pools, creating a surreal landscape for visitors to enjoy. The Sierra Norte region offers opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, and bird-watching amidst its lush forests and picturesque landscapes.
Savor Mexican Mezcal: Take a mezcal tasting tour and learn about the traditional production process. Mezcal is a smoky and aged agave drink that is very similar to Tequila. The production and distillation processes differ in the type of agave, the roasting and the fermentation processes. I learned so much about Mezcal production in my tour – read more in my travel diary here.
Visit the Ethnobotanical Gardens: Learn about the plants that make up Oaxaca’s geography, culture and cuisine by taking a visit to the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca. The guided tours are offered hourly in Spanish, but make sure to get there around 10:15 am to snag a spot on the English guided tour. The garden itself is quite expansive, and is partitioned into the edible garden, the jungle garden and the desert gardens. The guides explain the history and the significance of the plants to Oaxacan cooking, culture and history. The tour is comprehensive and takes about 2 hours to complete; You’ll walk the grounds which span roughly 2.5 ares of land right next to the Santo Domingo Church. You can’t miss
Tip: Take the book Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks to learn more about the flora of the region. It’s a perfect read that will teach you more about the plants and the people who rely on them
Try a Temezcal Ceremony: Engage in a traditional Temezcal ceremony to experience the indigenous sweat lodge ritual, providing a spiritual and rejuvenating encounter. A curandera begins your time by purifying and singing songs as you are rinsed down. Then you go into a Temezcal sauna where you rest and sweat. The ritual cleanses your body, mind and spirit.
Pottery Class: Oaxaca is known for their ceramics and is famous for black pottery. It gets its color from the unique black clay, or “barre negro”. All of the ceramics are made from hand, without the use of commercial wheels, and fired in giant pits in the ground. The process is highly labor intensive and skilled. Stop by a ceramics studio or shop to try your hand or grab a unique souvenir.
Escape to the Beach: For a beach escape, Puerto Escondido and Huatulco beckon with their pristine shores and inviting waters, perfect for swimming, surfing, or simply relaxing under the warm Mexican sun. The beaches are known for their surf too, so partake in a lesson or even go whale watching!
Hug the second largest tree in the world: Visit Santa Maria del Tule to visit the 2,000 year old Tule tree. This massive Montezuma cypress dwarfs everything around it. El arbor del Tule is especially unique because it is not immediately located near water, such is the expansive reach of its root systems. This tree has witnessed the Zapotec empires, colonial powers rise and fall and now the modern day. It looms so large in Oaxaca legend, that lore says it was a walking stick for the gods!
Chow down on Chapulines: Crunchy, salty and savory, chapulines are a favorite snack in Oaxaca region. They are added as garnish on everything from mezcal margaritas to pizza! Can’t get enough of the fried grasshoppers? Order a bag and choose the spices you want them tossed in – from salt and lemon to chili powder.
Take a Spanish Class: When in Oaxaca there are plenty of Spanish schools to choose from! In addition to day-courses that are available at school facilities, you can also opt to do a homestay with a local family to better get acquainted with the community and the culture.
Walking tour of Oaxaca City Center: The plaza mayor beckons with parque central. Meander through the corridors and admire the street art and murals that adorn the walls. Take in the different color walls and colonial architecture throughout the city center.
Choose your Alebrije: Find your spirit animal by choosing your alebrije. Brought to life from a fever dream from Pedro Linares Lopez, these fantastical and surreal figurines are colorful and freaky. There are countless forms and colors to choose from – and if you’re really stumped you can just choose the pet that fits you best! You can find alebries at every shop in Oaxaca, but I recommend you venture to one of the carving shops where you can see them being imagined and created before your eyes. Even better – try your hand at carving and painting your very own!
Try Tejate and Chocolate: We’ll leave the list off with something sweet. One of Oaxaca’s treats is their chocolate! There are chocolatiers in the city that craft out wonderful pastries and candies. Another original chocolate treat is the Tejate, a delicate and sweet cacao infusion that tastes like a lighter horchata. You can’t miss that one!
Oaxaca is a destination that seamlessly blends history, culture, cuisine, and natural beauty, providing a remarkable experience for travelers. Whether exploring ancient ruins, immersing in local traditions, indulging in culinary delights, or witnessing vibrant festivals, Oaxaca offers a diverse range of activities to suit every interest. The city’s enchanting charm and warm hospitality make it an unmissable destination for those seeking a truly immersive and enriching travel experience.