If you are thinking of visiting Mexico, I would highly recommend you put Oaxaca on your list of places to visit. Nestled in the southern part of Mexico, Oaxaca is known for its rich indigenous culture and culinary scene. The capital city of Oaxaca is also named Oaxaca, or Oaxaca de Juárez, and is a popular tourist destination.
Getting to Oaxaca
Many people visit Mexico City and then visit Oaxaca for a few days before flying out. We also followed the same path: Five nights in Mexico City and then two nights in Oaxaca.
My suggestions are based on our 2-day Oaxaca visit.
Option 1: Car
You can drive between Mexico City and Oaxaca, it should take you 5-6 hours. You can rent a car from the airport or Mexico City as long as you book in advance. Plan to pay for tolls, gas and insurance. Some people stop along the way, even do an overnight stay in a small town. Most people recommend exploring the town of Puebla!
Option 2: Bus
There is a bus service that runs from Mexico City to Oaxaca. This is probably the most cost-effective option. Buses take off from TAPA (Terminal de Autobuses de Oriente) in Mexico City. Buses drop you to the city's main bus station called Central de Autobuses de Oaxaca. There are also private transfers available for those looking for more comfort.
Option 3: Plane
Fly into Oaxaca. Airport code OAX (IATA) or MMOX (ICAO). At this point, the only US airport that has a direct flight to Oaxaca is LAX (Los Angeles, CA).
We flew in from Mexico City and it was a quick flight. We chose to fly because we only had two days. The OAX airport is small, flights are limited and they often get canceled. There is a lounge but it is small, nothing fancy. We did face issues on our way back and there were some tense moments as we had a connecting flight to Los Angeles from Mexico City. So, traveler beware!
When you land in Oaxaca and need to get to your hotel, know that there is no UBER!
Two simple options here:
Get a taxi. Find the taxi counter, buy a pre-paid ticket
Get a shared transfer which is a cheaper way to travel. The van stops at multiple spots, drops people along the way
We chose the second option and it was perfectly safe! The shared ride dropped us to our hotel - Quinta Real Oaxaca, a beautiful property that was converted from a 16th century convent!
Things to Do in Oaxaca
Here are some of my suggested experiences you must do on your visit.
Watch the Guelaguetza Show at Quinta Real
One of the best way to experience Oaxacan culture is to watch the colorful, traditional Gueleguetza folk dance dinner show that is held at the Quinta Real hotel. During this performance, you will see the many sub-cultures of the state, representing the diversity of 16 ethnic groups from eight different regions.
Look out for the Mojiganga!
Although these larger-than-life puppets are fun and entertaining, they really are a strong part of Mexican culture, identity and history. These giant paper mache puppets tend to show up during wedding or festivities. Often, with these puppets, you also see other cultural elements. For e.g. we saw a wedding procession on our visit with puppets, musicians and dancers.
Take a cooking class + go to the market
A typical group cooking class in Oaxaca includes a farmer's market visit, eating the food you cook, and mezcal drinks. You will most likely learn to make mole, salsa and tortillas!
We took a class at Casa Crespo Cooking class with Chef Oscar Carrizosa - we had a great time!
Even if you don't take a cooking class, visit a market like the Mercado Benito Juarez. When at any of the markets, try the tejate, a non-alcoholic maize and cacao beverage, check out the varieties of chillies, interesting Mexican fruits, vegetables and salsas sold by local vendors.
This is a beautiful Oaxacan neighborhood with cobblestone streets, shops and walls full of color! This area was about 15 minute walk away from the historic center where we were staying. We had ice-cream and coffee, walked past restaurants and galleries and we sat on some benches outside. It was a great evening!
Explore the food and drinks scene!
Oaxaca is a culinary haven, even for vegetarians. Embark on a gastronomic journey - Go beyond salsa and guacamoles and try some of their authentic dishes and drinks. Most restaurants serve seven different varieties of mole but not all of them are vegetarian. Ask and you should find at least a few options! Mezcal is a must-do for those who drink alcohol.
Here are two restaurants that I strongly recommend you visit as they have vegetarian options. Both need advance reservations.
Dine at the Tierra del sol Cocina Mixteca rooftop restaurant. Try their fresh salsa made at the dinner table, sample their atoles and definitely order a variety of their moles! I highly recommend the Mole Blanco, a white mole made with oyster mushrooms and tortilla, so good! We ordered the Ensalada, which was a great vegetarian salad with herbs, purslane and other greens. We also got the Tostada salad without the sausage, yummy! And we got the Jicama de frijoles, which had 8 different kinds of beans
Dine at Los Danzates. Order their beet salad, roasted cauliflower w/ vegan pipian, wild mushroom lasagna, and the quelites soup
Have a mezcal shot or have a drink which is made with mezcal
Join in as groups sing and dance on the streets of Oaxaca!
The evening we got to Oaxaca, we heard music and walked toward it. Just a few steps away from our hotel, we saw 'Festival Oaxaca en tu Corazon', an event that was put together by the city government. We obviously joined in- which was such a magical experience!
Soon, we realized that dance and music was everywhere. We saw couples dancing away on the streets - really fun to watch. (Gosh, I do wish I had better pictures!)
Walk the city with a camera and take lots of pictures!
This city is full of color. Some of the spots to visit as you walk around the city are Temple de Santo Domingo de Guzman, Museum of Cultures of Oaxaca, Zocalo, and Oaxaca Cathedral.
Walking tours are popular here!
Spend time in the historic center, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and admire the colonial architecture! Don't miss the arts, crafts and textiles - you will see them on walls, in workshops and galleries in and around the city.
More time to spare?
There are many tours on Viator that you can choose from. These tours take you for a half or full-day trip to popular tourist spots. Consider some of these if you are able to make the time:
Monte Albán: Visit the extraordinary Zapotec ruins of Monte Albán, conveniently situated on the outskirts of Oaxaca City. Step back in time at this remarkable archaeological site, where you can immerse yourself in the world of pre-Columbian cultures. This will likely be a whole day tour with a certified guide in an air-conditioned vehicle. Check this Viator Experience.
Hierve el Agua: Discover the "petrified waterfalls" of Hierve el Agua, a natural wonder formed by mineral-rich springs.
If you have about 10 hours to spare, combine this trip with nearby attractions like the ancient ruins of Mitla, the archaeological site of Yagul, the picturesque town of Santa María del Tule with its ancient tree. Check this Viator Experience.
+ Mezcal tasting
You can also Reserve Now and Pay Later for the Paths of Mezcal, which offers a deep insight into the archeology, nature and living culture of Oaxaca through the wonderful ancestral architecture in Mitla, the interaction with Zapotec weavers and producers of true artisanal mezcal.
It is always fun to visit the indigenous Zapotec communities in the Oaxacan countryside, such as Teotitlán del Valle and San Bartolo Coyotepec. Experience their rich culture, handicrafts, and traditional arts, including weaving and pottery. Consider booking a travel experience with an indigenous woman owned and led sustainable travel company in Oaxaca - Zapotec Travel Experiences by Lily. Read about her in this Travel & Leisure article.
Ethnobotanical Garden: Visit the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca, a botanical garden that showcases the region's diverse plant life, including many species used in traditional medicine and cooking. Take a guided tour to learn about the plants' cultural significance. The garden is open year around, with guided tours in English on specific days and time.
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