Oaxaca (pronounced wah - ha - ka) is located about 500 km from Mexico City and 250 km from the beaches on the Oaxaca State coastline, like Puerto Escondido and Mazunte. I recently spent two months there taking a break from travelling and volunteering with a local organisation.
I chose Oaxaca City, the capital of the state and largest of Oaxaca cities, as it is the perfect combination of Mexican culture and modern amenities. Oaxaca is known as the culinary capital of Mexico and also the home of mezcal. During my time there I met a lot of lovely people who made my experience all the richer and I found a ton of fun things to do in Oaxaca.
Check out this list for some inspiration when spending some time in Oaxaca and while you’re there don’t forget to take some time to soak in the rich history and culture all around you. Sometimes the best activity is just exploring a new city by foot and Oaxaca is perfect for that.
Take the opportunity to chat to the people you see around you because I always found most people loved to share a lazy afternoon sharing time with a new friend. Oaxaca City is definitely worth a visit and is one of my favourite places to visit in Oaxaca State.
1) Hierve el Agua
This is a must visit and you will see this site on most tours based in Oaxaca. Ask anyone in town what to do in Oaxaca and Hierve el Agua will be the first thing they list. Hierve el Agua is often referred to as a petrified waterfall as the site consists of two waterfall-like formations that have been formed over many years with a process similar to that of stalactites in caves. There are also several “mineral-rich” pools that you can bathe in, one that goes all the way to the edge of the cliff forming a natural infinity pool.
If going on your own I would suggest heading there as early as possible so that you can take advantage of the various hiking trails and also don’t forget to head to the further waterfall so you can view the big one from afar! It’s far too warm to do this trip in the middle of the day. Also, don’t forget a hat and sunscreen as there is not a lot of shade.
There are several small food and goods stalls located at he entrance to the site including loads of fresh, chopped fruit, tamales and cocktails, of course. I had one of the best tamales of my trip at the stall nearest the entrance of the site so look out for that one if you’re hungry!
2) Oaxaca Stamp Museum (Museo de Filatelia de Oaxaca)
A stamp museum might sound like one of the most boring place in the world (unless you’re really into stamps!) but this museum is actually a treasure trove of historical information on Oaxaca State and Mexico in general. There’s also a beautiful courtyard where you can relax and ignore the bustle of the city for an hour or two.
If you’re a big Frida Kahlo fan check out the section with many of her own correspondences. If you’re travelling with kids, there are also some cool interactive exhibits. There’s also no entry fee. Bonus! Okay, I have to admit I do sound a bit excited. Maybe I should start stamp collecting?
3) Pochote Market
Oaxaca has it fair share of grand markets. I have fond memories of visiting my local market to pick up my groceries for the day and sometimes a fresh fruit juice to treat myself. The city centre also has a huge market that I loved to weave through to get my fix of nieve - the Oaxacan version of ice cream, and some of the famous Oaxaca cheese.
If you want a slice of expat life in Oaxaca though, you should check out the Pochote Market. Held every Friday and Saturday in the garden and courtyard of the Iglesia Xochimilco. The Pochote Market has a wide range of produce available. You can find some traditional Oaxacan and Mexican cuisine with an international twist, as well as organic produce including eggs, coffee, and fresh fruit and vegetables.
Best of all, if you want to try a traditional Mexican dish but are a vegan or vegetarian then this is a great place to sample meat heavy foods replaced with tofu or other plant based foods. Tofu, Mexico style ;)
Sometimes there is live music which just adds to the lovely feeling of snacking under the trees within the shade of the local church with the sounds of church bells ringing in the background. An excellent way to start your morning!
4) Arbol del Tule
Ever seen the tallest tree in the world? What about the oldest tree? You might think that the widest tree in the world wouldn’t be as impressive and that’s what I thought before visiting. How wide could it be??
Well Arbol del Tule is actually pretty wide, with a circumference of 42 metres, it is certainly wide enough to be impressive anyway and it is a beautiful tree. It's so wide I couldn't actually fit it in a photo! Scientist believe the tree to be between 1,433 and 1,600 years old. You don’t have to be a nature buff to really appreciate the grandeur of the tree! I would suggest visiting even for a short while and exploring the cute little town that it’s located in.
There’s also a well maintained topiary garden where I had fun trying to guess exactly what the different animals were. They're not exactly the most accurate representations!
5) Check out the artist workshops and graffiti around town
Oaxaca is filled with amazing art both inside and outside. I would strongly recommend spending a few hours walking around the city, stopping into different workshops and galleries and keeping an eye out for any graffiti.
I suggest starting at Porfrio Diaz and Independencia and heading north, also a good route if you’re heading to Pochote Markets.
6) Monte Alban
Breathtaking Monte Alban will give you panoramic views of the valley and over a couple of hours you can experience its vast complex of pyramids, tombs, temples and ancient plazas. It is 400 m above the floor of Oaxaca valley so you can see amazing views from all around.
One of the more fascinating aspects of Monte Alban is the significant number of carved stone monuments. Called "Los Danzantes" (literally The Dancers), they depict naked men in contorted poses. They represent tortured and sacrificed war prisoners. Over 300 have been found to date and you can see them both on site and in the museum.
7) Interesting festivals in surrounding villages
While I was in Oaxaca I got invited to a lot of different festivals both in Oaxaca and in the nearby villages. I would suggest visiting one if you get a chance while you’re visiting. You will really get a taste for the huge cross section of cultures that exist just in this one part of Mexico.
Check out my article here on some of my favourite festival memories. I also had a pretty sobering experience during the Semana Santa activities and if you’re lucky enough to be in Mexico or Central America at this time you will really get to witness something special.
8) Visit a mezcaleria or a mezcal factory
I am not the biggest fan of mezcal. I tried and tried but could never make myself like it or even stomach it sometimes. I can drink tequila by the litre (not literally) but when it comes to mezcal, there’s something about its smokey undertones that make me gag.
Instead of your traditional lime and salt that you would have with tequila, Mezcal is served with orange slices and sal de gusano or worm salt. This is exactly what it sounds like, a mixture of sea salt, toasted and ground agave worms and a touch of chile. You can also find several varieties of mezcal including flavoured and aged.
9) Laze about in the Zocalo
In most Mexican cities, the zocalo is the place to be at any time of the day. It’s basically the square or park that marks the centre of town. It’s a meeting place, where parades start and end, a place to protest and be heard and a place to just while away the day people watching.
In Oaxaca there always seems to be something on at the Zocalo. Whenever I had nothing on I would head down to the Zocalo to check out the action. A bonus for me was that some of the kids I worked with would hang out there when not in school or at the centre because their mum worked there so I would always have a playmate if I wanted too as well. It’s very interesting hanging out in the zocalo and seeing everything from a 10 year old’s perspective.
There always seems to be something happening in Oaxaca so make sure you stay on top of all the events and activities by checking out the QuePasa Oaxaca website, the best of the Oaxaca blogs. You’ll find loads of information in English about the going ons of this very cultural city and its surrounds.
Oaxaqueños love to party and there seems to be a festival on every single day. I would often head out on a Saturday to go to the markets and would find myself surrounded by a parade or tents for a food festival.
In town for a little while? You should definitely check out the library. They have a huge selection of English language books, newspapers and magazines. You can hire and even some great deals if you want to buy a book. They also have a regular language exchange every Saturday where you can spend a couple of hours with a small group having conversations in Spanish and then English.
They are also a great place to visit if you just want some advice about the town. There’s a message board with a variety of different posts so it’s worth a stop by just to check out what’s happening in town. There are loads of little quiet nooks to sit in as well as free wifi and a rooftop seating area!
Top Tip: There are several tour companies that offer a variety of the above activities bundled into a one day excursion. Usually something like Arbol del Tulle, a mescal factory and Hierve el Agua. Take it from someone who did all these things individually and just go with the organised excursion.
You might not have as much time as you want at places like Hierve el Agua but the costs really aren’t much more than what you would pay yourself and you don’t have to wait in the hot sun for local pickup trucks to show up.
That's it for the best places to visit in Oaxaca. If you're planning a trip consider these Oaxaca hotels and if you're already there check out my love letter to Mazunte and consider including it into your itinerary. If you can't visit for a while at least now you know how Oaxaca is pronounced and how fun it is to say!
Where to stay in Oaxaca City
Quinta Real Oaxaca
My luxury pick for your stay in Oaxaca, Quinta Real, is located in a historic convent. It is in a great location, just one block from the Santo Domingo Cultural Centre and the walkway that houses most of the galleries, museums and handicraft stores. This full service hotel has everything you would expect in a four star hotel, like a gym, pool, and concierge with the unique colonial touches that are special to the region.
Read the latest reviews on Trip Advisor
Hotel La Casona De Tita
This small six-room hotel receives near perfect reviews on Trip Advisor and is widely reviewed as one of the best places to stay in Oaxaca. If you can grab a room here then don't hesitate! Each room is unique and all are exquisitely decorated with antique and contemporary furniture, and Oaxacan textiles.
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Check out the best prices: Booking.com
Casa Angel Youth Hostel
For the best budget option you should definitely check out Casa Angel. I practically lived here for a couple of weeks until I found a more permanent place to live and was sad to leave. The two best things about Casa Angel are their Deluxe Rooms and their cooked breakfasts. You can fill up on a huge breakfast in the morning while you chat to other travellers about your plans for the day and at night sleep in one of the most comfortable dorms I have ever tried. There's also a rooftop terrace with BBQ facilities, garden and weekly events.
Read the latest reviews on Trip Advisor
Check out the best prices: Hostelz.com
What else is there to do in Oaxaca State?
There are loads of places to visit and things to do in Oaxaca State besides Oaxaca City. When I was researching stuff to do in Oaxaca I learnt about the Magic Mushroom Capital of Mexico, San Jose del Pacifico.
Alternative travellers flock to this beautiful, tiny, mountain town with one main street of about 300 metres where you can indulge in mushrooms and temazcal. If you're looking for a holistic, one with nature type experience, the this is the place to go.
One of the most relaxing places to visit in Oaxaca State is Mazunte on the Pacific Coast. Mazunte is my favourite beach destination in Mexico and if you want to do nothing but swim, eat and hammock the day away then this is for you.
If you're into surfing or want to learn, then Puerto Escondido is an excellent place to practice. If you're heading here from Oaxaca city then definitely take an official bus instead of the minivans. The twisty route taken by the smaller vehicles can make turn the strongest of stomachs.