Oaxaca is often cited as one of the cultural and culinary hubs of Mexico. After basing ourselves there for a month to explore the colonial city in depth, we certainly would agree. Yet while culture and delicious food were highlights in Oaxaca, there is much more to be discovered
Oaxaca is full of fantastic experiences, within the city and nearby. It’s no wonder it has been named one of the top cities to travel to by Conde Nast in 2019. I’ve written this guide to help convince you that Oaxaca is indeed the spot you need to visit and all the worthwhile journeys from this magical little city surrounded by the majestic Sierra Madre Mountains.
Getting to and around Oaxaca City
Oaxaca City has become more and more accessible for travelers. From Mexico City, there are multiple flights a day on all the Mexican airlines like AeroMexico, Viva Aerobus, Volaris, Interjet, etc. There are also regular flights from the United States to Oaxaca. Houston, Dallas, and Los Angeles have regularly scheduled non stop flights to the Oaxacan capital.
From Puebla City and Mexico City
I came to Oaxaca City from Puebla City as part of my Central Mexico trip. From Puebla, there are regularly scheduled buses from the Puebla CAPU. The bus ride is 5 hours from Puebla and will cost roughly 500 pesos.
There are also regular buses leaving from Mexico City. This bus is 7-8 hours and runs a few times a day. If you’re traveling during a busy time of year, I’d highly recommend booking the ADO bus beforehand versus buying the ticket 15 minutes before departure.
Getting around Oaxaca City
Given the cobbled streets and narrow alleys, its best not to rent and drive around in Oaxaca city. Unlike Mexico City and Puebla, there is no Uber in Oaxaca City. The local taxi union must have been quite convincing blocking Uber’s influence. Taxis in Oaxaca have no meters, and all rates should be negotiated before hand. From my experience taking the taxi, it appears the drivers are not into ripping you off. From the bus terminal to the Zocalo, the taxi driver charged me 50 pesos which I thought quite reasonable.
If you’re staying in the Zocalo, everything is perfectly walkable and there is no need to take taxis anywhere. Just bring a comfortable pair of shoes to walk through the city’s cobblestone streets.
What to do in Oaxaca
Oaxaca is one of the most picturesque cities I’ve seen in Mexico. The colonial architecture, wonderful churches, cobblestone streets, and vibrant colors make this one of my favorite Latin American cities. It actually reminds me a lot of Antigua, Guatemala in its vibe, feel, and look.
The beautiful buildings and homes lining the street adorned with a rainbow of colors and boasting of colonial Spanish style architecture, seem straight out of a street scene in Old San Juan. Add to this the narrow stone cobbled streets, painted street signs and banners and you have rows and rows of postcard worthy scenes laid out in front of you. The quaintness and old charm of Oaxaca city, the shops in the tiny lanes, the beautiful local boutiques and restaurants big and small tucked in every corner provide a visual treat, everywhere you go.
Churches in Oaxaca city
Oaxaca city is famous for its churches and a visit to the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán is a must. A former monastery founded in 1575 by the Dominican order, this Baroque style building is a visual wonder and boasts of a highly decorated interior comprising of more than 60,000 sheets of 23.5-karat gold leafs.
The interior is dazzling, but the exterior, with its etched domes, towers over its surroundings. Right next to it is the former monastery garden called the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca, which is maintained over 2.32 hectares of land by the state government. The church was declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987 and is one of the major attractions of Oaxaca city. The church stands amidst a plaza where festivities and parades begin or come to an end, such as the one we saw one night for the Virgin Mary. Other churches, although less resplendent, are the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad and Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, which we either marveled at from outside or peeked in.
Get Lost in Oaxaca’s amazing markets
No trip to Oaxaca can be complete without wandering through a buzzing local market. A great place to start your market adventure is just south of the Zocalo where you’ll discover the joys of two adjacent mercados: Benito Juarez Market and 20 de Noviembre market.
Here, you can find just about anything from flowers, to toys, to meats, to chocolate, to mezcal, to clothes, to herbs, to local crafts, and of course, women selling plenty of chapulines (fried grasshoppers) by the basketful. Try them!
Yet for a more filling meal, pull up a stool at one of the many food stalls there and chow down on a local delight. A good option for a local meal inside a market is Mercado Democracia (AKA Mercado Merced).
Or for a real cultural experience, travel about a half hour east of Oaxaca on a Sunday to get to the weekly Tlacolula de Matamoros market. It’s one of the oldest markets in Mesoamerica and one of the largest markets in this entire region.
Imbibe the local Mezcal, a lot of it
Oaxaca is world-renown for its deliciously intoxicating mezcal. Mezcal in Oaxaca is typically drunk straight and at room temperature. It’s sipped rather than shot, and to use salt & lime would be an insult. Sometimes the mezcal is served with sour orange slices and sal de gusano (a powder mixture of salt, spices, and ground up worms that is actually much more palatable than it sounds). Other times you may simply receive a small glass of water to cleanse the pallet.
Mezcal is similar to tequila in that it is made from the agave plant, but mezcal is more complex, both in terms of taste and production. Many different types of agave are used for mezcal, whereas tequila is actually a type of mezcal that only uses blue agave. Additionally, mezcal’s underground roasting process gives it a unique smoky flavor.
To really get a more intimate understanding of the liquor, journey about 45 minutes outside of Oaxaca city to the village of Matatlan. This is where many of Mexico’s famed mezcal distilleries are located. There are dozens of mezcal factories in this area, several of which will offer a complimentary tour and plentiful tastings of both mezcal and crema de mezcals. Often, tours that go to Mitla and/or Hierve de Agua (more on those places below) will also stop at one of Matatlan mezcal distilleries. Be sure to inquire about that if booking one of these day tours. The tour we took to Hierve de Agua stopped at El Rey de Matatlan and provided some very generous tastings of their liquor after being given a brief tour that showed off their mezcal production process.
Go to a Fiesta! Guelaguetza, Semana Santa, or Day of the Dead in Oaxaca
There seems to be so many events in Oaxaca all throughout the year. So if you’re in the city at the right time, be sure to take in one of their festive celebrations. Search around to see what cultural events are taking place during that time of year.
Semana Santa in Oaxaca is quite an experience, as Holy Week is celebrated in full force throughout the city. On Good Friday in particular, you’ll find many station of the cross reenactments throughout the area, all-descending to one of the local churches. Bring your earplugs though, because this time of year also involves lots of ear-piercing firecrackers throughout the days and nights.
At the start of November, Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) in Oaxaca is said to be one of the most vibrant celebrations in all of Mexico. Or if you happen to be in Oaxaca in late July, don’t miss the unique Guelaguetzas celebration of local folk dance.
But those are all the major events in Oaxaca. Also check out what other scheduled events may be taking place while you’re in town. During our visit we were thrilled find restaurant week events and even a craft beer festival. Keep an eye out for flyers and street posters. For those planning in advance, we found a great resource to be the Calendar maintained by QuePasaOaxaca.
Where to eat in Oaxaca
So where are some of the best restaurants in Oaxaca to eat some of this delicious cuisine? We spent the month eating our way around this foodie city in order to now leave our Oaxaca restaurant reviews and opinions. Admittedly, we’ve only scratched the surface of the food scene in this culinary capital. Yet we hope our monthlong foray into this food mecca, may help to steer others to what we thought were some of the best restaurants in Oaxaca. We’re not gourmands. But having eaten our way around the world for three years, we know good food when we taste it! We also kept an eye out for the best restaurant values in Oaxaca.
This Oaxacan restaurant has a beautiful patio with a gorgeous view of the Santo Domingo Church, and the food is to-die-for. The authentic Oaxacan cuisine is the star of the show, but the rooftop with its stunning views comes a very close second. Casa Oaxaca, aptly named, really does feel like you’re eating at someone’s house, and is one of the classic dining establishments in the zocalo.
An awesome rooftop bar that serves the local staple as well as artisanal beers. Great place to spend an afternoon.
Catedral is Oaxaca fine dining at its best, and still incredibly affordable by Western standards. The restaurant has been running for decades and is one of the most iconic restaurants in the city. All the recipes used here have gone back many generations and are quintessentially Oaxacan. I had their signature mole negro and was not disappointed.
One of the top mezcal bars in the city. This place is extremely popular with locals and tourists alike. They serve some of the most delicious cocktails I’ve had. Would recommend making a reservation here on weekend nights.
Boulenc is one of Oaxaca’s most popular breakfast and brunch restaurants. The food is absolutely delicious. They make all their bread and pastries in house. Make sure to also try their coffee as fresh coffee and cacao make for some amazing mocha lattes. I had their croissant sandwich with eggs, jamon, and queso which was delicious. Expect to wait for a table here but it is well worth it.
In addition, there is a shop adjacent to the restaurant that sells their breads, pastries, and jams where you can buy all the goodies you want.
Rooftop Drinks at Hotel Los Amantes
Los Amantes is one of my favorite rooftop restaurants in Oaxaca. The views are dead on to the picturesque Santo Domingo church. They serve delicious mezcal cocktails as well as fantastic food. It is pricier that most places but as you’d expect for a place with this type of view and vibe. Totally worth it for some sunset drinks.
I was walking out of the Mercado and stumbled upon this little mobile taco stand. It was packed full of locals and the smells of the meats were intoxicating. I wasn’t planning on eating here but sometimes (most times), you need to follow the lead of locals.
This place serves beef and pork tacos and the meat is slow cooked in spices and chopped finely. The meat was super tender, flavorful, juicy, and made for the perfect taco filling. I preferred the beef and had myself 5 tacos. We also tried a pozole soup and this place was spot on with their version.
The Perfect Night Out Itinerary in Oaxaca
The trick to eating in Oaxaca is to try a little bit at a lot of different places, mixing the full-service restaurants with the street vendors. Many restaurants aren’t open all that late, so start with the sit-down places and end with the food carts.
Kick things off on the rooftop patio of Casa Oaxaca Restaurante(reservations recommended) with a tangy cocktail made with mezcal, lime, and local cactus fruit—bonus points if you time it with the sunset. Walk across the street to El Distilado for some small-batch mezcal and the city’s best guacamole (made with sour oranges!). Cab it up to Criollo for the wildly affordable (and short) tasting menu and cool Mexican wines from Baja. Let yourself digest, then grab a drink (and get your appetite back) at the mezcal-only Mezcalogia, the casual hangout La Popular, or the lively Sabina Sabe.
Whether or not you’re still hungry, go find yourself a tlayuda (a comically large grilled corn tortilla served with aciento, black beans, Oaxacan cheese, shredded lettuce, and a smoky, charred meat of your choosing) at Tlayudas Libres (open till 4 a.m.), or grab a magical hamburguesa from one of the vendors near Santo Domingo (make sure you ask for chopped pickled chiles and pineapple).
If you need a little salty good-night tuck-in, you’re going to want to find a cart slinging pork consommé: hot, salty, savory broth with a bit of shredded pork at the bottom of the Styrofoam cup. There’s a solid quarter inch of bright orange fat floating on the top, so you know it’s good.
Where to Stay in Oaxaca
Oaxaca is a very walkable city. Hence we recommend staying within a 20-minute walk of the city center to enable you to get around easily on foot. Anywhere further than that, you’ll be in for some long walks or having to rely on taxis, which involves dealing with the city’s traffic. If staying in the hottest months of April-May you may want to ensure that your accommodation has an air-conditioner. Many do not since Oaxaca otherwise has mild climate and the aircon isn’t needed.
Airbnb is a fantastic option to use anywhere in Mexico, and Oaxaca is no different. We were only here for 3 nights and we found so many amazing and incredibly affordable Airbnb options. We ultimately settled on a room in someone’s house with views of the Zocalo. We only paid about $30 a night for this room. For $50 or even $100 per night, you can find some real incredible options in and around the Zocalo.
Worth the Splurge
For those that want to splurge a bit for luxury, here is a list of some fantastic hotels. Note that you can also find some ridiculous properties on Airbnb for luxury stays as well.
- Hotel Palacio Borghese – Sometimes priced at just a little more than a hundred bucks per night, this ultra-elegant property right in the city center is an absolute steal! Take a look at the gorgeous rooms, some of which sport balconies that overlook the historic centre.
- Quinta Real – It’s in a historic building, has beautiful gardens and a lovely swimming pool. Plus it’s all positioned in the prime location right between the Santo Domingo church and the Zocalo.
- Hotel Azul – This ultra-stylish and modern hotel is centrally located a few blocks from the main pedestrian thoroughfares has a unique feel to it. Don’t miss the rooftop terrace with views of the cityscape and mountains!
- Hotel Casa Sierra Azul – If you’ve ever wanted to stay in a historic 19th century mansion, this is your chance. And the location is hard to beat, only steps from the Zocalo.
Monte Alban Day Trip
Soaring blue sky and views far into the distance, Monte Alban is a no brainer day trip from Oaxaca City and highly recommended. This spot was the most important Zapotec site for more than a thousand years. It dates back to 500 BC. The pyramids had similarities (the ball court) and differences (round columns) from the Maya pyramids you find in the Yucatán and in Guatemala. This was the political center of Zapotec society, with the nearby Mitla ruins providing the religious center. The easiest option is to take a bus from Oaxaca Center, just west of the zócolo. Buses leave regularly throughout the day and for less than $5 it buys you a round-trip ticket. The ticket agent will explain when the buses return and you simply hand the driver your second ticket.
It’s a quick 20 minute bus ride out town (a bit longer if you’re leaving during rush hour) and up into the nearby mountains. Plan on at least an hour and a half to tour the ruins and the on-site museum. Bring a guidebook or download the information on your phone beforehand as the information and signage is thin throughout the site. Round trip, the entire experience will take you a few hours.
Getting to Monte Alban
To get to Monte Alban, simply find the tour company called Lescas tour Company. They are located in the Zocalo right nearby the Subway. Yes the sandwich chain. The bus departs every hour and costs 130 pesos for a round trip transfer. The bus returns from Monte Alban on an hourly schedule and you can take the one you want. Alternatively, you can find a cab that will take you there and wait. Prices for this will depend on your bargaining skills.
There is also an entrance fee to Monte Alban. The cost is 80 pesos as of Jan 2019.
Hierve el Agua
One of the prettiest daytrips outside of Oaxaca City. The name translates to “the water boils” in Spanish and it’s a calcified waterfall that rains down the side of a mountain. There are also gorgeous pools of icy-blue water and a few gorgeous viewpoints above it all. Small springs feed the pools of water, which is full of calcium carbonate and minerals, causing cool, variegated pools of green and turquoise. It’s all swimmable and it’s a little like a nature-made infinity pool with views over the mountains.
Getting to Hierve El Agua from Oaxaca City
This is 1.5 hours outside of Oaxaca and you have four options to get there. Take a day tour, take a colectivo, take a local bus, or rent a private taxi.
Day tours are readily available at all the tour agencies around town. Hotels, hostels, and street kiosks alike will also be offering this day trip as it is quite popular. The costs are also very reasonable at around 300 pesos per person.
We talked to a taxi driver in the Zocalo that would take us to Hierve El Agua for the day, wait a few hours and take us back for $1,500 MXN. This could be a great option for those that are traveling 3-4 people. We walked outside of the Zocalo and talked another taxi driver that would do it for $1,200 MXN so I think the prices are all negotiable.
Taking the local bus from Oaxaca to Hierve El Agua
We ended up taking the local bus from the 2nd class bus station (Central de Abasto, 68090 Oaxaca, Mexico). Yes, they actually have a bus station call the 2nd class bus station that is separate from the 1st class station. The buses here are mostly locally run bus companies driving smaller and much less comfortable buses. We walked here from the Zocalo and this is also where the collectivo buses are (group share vans).
The bus/collectivo does not take you directly to Hierve El Agua, but rather to the town of Mitla. From Mitla, we took another collectivo, but a very uncomfortable one that is sitting in the back of a truck. The cost of the bus is $20 MXN, and the collectivo from Mitla to Hierve El Agua is $50 MXN. It is roughly 1.5 hours from Oaxaca to Mitla, and another 45 minutes to Hierve El Agua. When you get off the bus in Mitla, the collectivo stand is right next to it and there will be people asking if you’re heading to Hierve El Agua. This collectivo will only leave once it’s full and can take 30 minutes on slow days.
The journey via collectivo is slow and uncomfortable. Hierve El Agua is up in the mountains and you’re in the back of a truck driving on bumpy roads for 40 minutes. This is one reason why a private taxi or day tour would be more comfortable as they will take you directly to the entrance of Hierve El Agua.
Exploring Hierve El Agua
Hierve el Agua translates as “the water boils.” But the name is actually a misnomer. At two locations about 75 feet apart, water does indeed “boil” up from the ground. However, it is forced to the surface by the earth’s interior pressure, reaching the surface at approximately the temperature of the atmospheric.
It rises to the surface, then flows into two man-made pools of fresh, mineral-rich water. They gradually slope to a depth of some seven feet, thus the pools are suitable for swimming. Taste the water before it reaches the lower pool, as it flows along a narrow canal. It is crystal clear and pure except for natural minerals.
The bubbling springs are rich in calcium carbonate and magnesium. Between the springs and the pools are mineral deposits. Thousands of years ago the surface was lower — it has risen gradually to its present level due to the deposits. This mineral build-up creates the appearance of petrified waterfalls.
Paths and trails invite the visitor to go exploring. Numerous routes meander around Hierve el Agua, and all can be walked in less than an hour — even with time to stop, admire and take photos of the sights. The most-travelled lead around and up to the top of the largest mineral cascade, where there is a wonderful view of the second petrified waterfall. During the rainy season, some paths may be a bit overgrown, but there is no undue danger, or risk of getting lost. You can also hike down a more rugged trail to the base of the falls in the valley below.
The landscape is peaceful and beautiful, with fields of blue agave stretching beneath azure skies, and billowing clouds that hover above the surrounding mountains.
Swimming in the petrified pool
The catchiest photos of Hierve El Agua are without a doubt its natural infinity pools with views of the surrounding mountains. You are free to swim in the two large pools here and take photos to your hearts desire. This place reminds me of Pamukkale in Turkey, and is actually one of the only other natural pools in the world. The area can get very crowded, especially on weekends so if you want the best photos and experience, I would highly recommend coming here as early as possible. I came around noon which was a big mistake and there were hordes of people already. It became one of those “looked a lot cooler than it actually was” moments but I can see how amazing it would be without people.
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