What to do in Oaxaca? The 17 best tips!

Oaxaca is one of the most charming cities to visit during your trip through Mexico. The old colonial center is beautiful and exudes history and culture. There's also plenty to see and do in the surrounding areas. What truly sets Oaxaca apart is its delicious cuisine. Oaxaca is known as the culinary capital of Mexico, and many of the famous sauces and ingredients in Mexican cuisine originate from Oaxaca.

How do you pronounce Oaxaca?

The first question that comes to mind when you read about Oaxaca is probably how to pronounce this word. The name 'Oaxaca' comes from the indigenous language of the Zapotec people and is pronounced as 'wa-ha-ka'.

How to get to Oaxaca?

Oaxaca can be reached from various places in Mexico. Most travelers journey to Oaxaca from Mexico City or Puerto Escondido. It's also accessible from San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

From Mexico City to Oaxaca

By plane: The easiest way to travel from Mexico City to Oaxaca is by plane. Currently, there are three airlines operating on this route: VivaAerobus, Aeroméxico, and Volaris. The cheapest airline varies from day to day. Usually, tickets range from 25 to 40 dollars. If you're traveling with checked baggage, it often adds about 25 dollars. You can easily compare times and prices and book tickets via Skyscanner.

By car: It's about a 6-hour drive from Mexico City to Oaxaca by car. Along the way, you'll pass by Puebla, which is also a very nice city to visit.

By bus: The bus journey from Mexico City to Oaxaca takes approximately 6 to 7 hours. You can view all departure times and book tickets through Bookaway. There are various types of buses departing from different bus stations in Mexico City, so make sure to choose the one that's convenient for you to reach. There are overnight buses as well as daytime buses. The cheapest option costs around 40 dollars, while a more luxurious bus might range from 60 to 90 dollars.

From Puerto Escondido to Oaxaca

By plane: The fastest way to travel from Puerto Escondido to Oaxaca is by plane. Unfortunately, there are no regular airlines operating on this route. You'll fly with a small plane from Aerotucan, and tickets can range from 150 to 200 euros. Additionally, you're usually limited to 15 kg of baggage, which might be challenging, especially if you're traveling with a suitcase. Another, often cheaper, option is to take a flight with a layover in Mexico City. However, this can be a cumbersome route since Puerto Escondido and Oaxaca are quite close to each other. Finding a flight with a short layover might be an option, but it's not usually available for most dates, and the costs can still be high. Therefore, it's not recommended, and taking a bus is a better alternative. You can check options via Skyscanner.

By car: It's about a 6-hour drive from Puerto Escondido to Oaxaca, even though they're just over 60 miles apart as the crow flies. The route goes through the mountains. We recommend driving along the coast to San Pedro Pochutla and then taking the road to Oaxaca from there. This road is better maintained than the direct route from Puerto Escondido.

By bus: You can travel from Puerto Escondido to Oaxaca in just under 11 hours by (night) bus. Via Bookaway, you can check all departure times and book tickets. A faster option is to take a minivan, which takes about 7 hours. However, it's less comfortable than the bus, and overnight travel isn't possible. The cost for both the bus and minivan is approximately 50 dollars.

From San Cristóbal de Las Casas to Oaxaca

By plane: San Cristóbal de Las Casas doesn't have its own airport, but about an hour's drive away is the Tuxtla Gutierrez airport. Unfortunately, there are no direct flights to Oaxaca, so you'll have to fly via Mexico City. Finding a relatively cheap flight with a short layover is quite challenging. Therefore, we don't recommend traveling by plane from San Cristóbal de Las Casas to Oaxaca. You can check options via Skyscanner.

By car: It's a 180 miles drive from San Cristóbal de Las Casas to Oaxaca, taking approximately 9.5 hours. A significant part of the route is through the mountains, making it quite strenuous to drive in a single day.

By bus: Traveling by (night) bus from San Cristóbal de Las Casas to Oaxaca takes about 12 hours. Via Bookaway, you can check all departure times and book tickets. Depending on the bus you choose, the cost ranges from 70 to 80 dollars.

How safe is Oaxaca?

Oaxaca is considered a safe city for travelers by Mexican standards. In the old city center, you can walk around without any problems. It's advisable to stick to busy streets in the evenings. There are neighborhoods outside the old center that might be less safe, so extra caution is necessary. Additionally, there might be demonstrations and protests in Oaxaca, which are typically peaceful. As long as you avoid these areas, you're unlikely to encounter any issues.

As in all major cities in Latin America, it's important to remain vigilant in Oaxaca. Avoid displaying valuable items openly and refrain from walking alone at night.

What to do in Oaxaca?

Oaxaca is a delightful and charming city. We recommend staying here for at least three full days. This way, you can explore the main attractions and have enough time to indulge in the delicious local cuisine.

1. Discover the colonical city center

The highlight of Oaxaca is undoubtedly its stunning colonial city center. It's no wonder the entire center is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It's easily walkable, allowing you to stroll through the streets and experience authentic Mexican life.

A great way to explore Oaxaca's old town is through the Free Walking Tour. A guide takes you through well-known and lesser-known spots in the city center, providing insights into the city's history and its cuisine. We found this tour definitely worth it! The English-language tour runs multiple times a day. While the tour itself is free, it's customary to tip a few dollars after the tour. You can sign up via this link.

2. Wander through the local markets

At the local market, you experience the true Mexican life. Apart from buying vegetables, fruits, meat, and fish, in Mexico, it's also common to eat at the covered market. In most markets, you'll find 'cocinas económicas,' which means affordable kitchens. These are inexpensive eateries where, as the name suggests, you can eat local food at a good price.

The two markets you shouldn't miss in downtown Oaxaca are Mercado Benito Juárez and Mercado 20 de Noviembre. These two markets are practically next to each other, so you can easily visit both. In Mercado 20 de Noviembre, you'll find the 'Pasillo del Humo' or 'Smoke Alley.' This is an alley in the market filled with food stalls cooking the most delicious meats on barbecues. The name refers to the smoke (humo) that arises in the alley (pasillo) from grilling the meat over open fire.

If you want to visit a less touristy market besides these two, we recommend Mercado de La Merced. This market is slightly east of downtown and is a great place to eat among the locals.

3. Experience the Oaxacan cuisine!

Oaxaca is renowned as the culinary capital of Mexico, and rightfully so. Many of the well-known Mexican dishes and ingredients originate from here. Oaxaca is the place to indulge in Mexican cuisine, savoring the finest offerings at local markets, traditional eateries, or from street vendors.

Among the most famous are the various types of mole sauces, such as the renowned mole negro (black mole). This sauce is made from chili peppers, spices, chocolate, and over twenty other ingredients. A classic dish is mole negro con pollo (black mole with chicken), simply consisting of rice with mole negro and a chicken leg. The mole, however, imparts a unique flavor to the dish.

Another renowned dish is the tlayuda. This is a type of large, crispy tortilla topped with beans, meat, avocado, Oaxacan cheese, and salsa. It can be somewhat compared to a pizza. Additionally, in Oaxaca, you can find delicacies such as chapulines (roasted grasshoppers), memelas (thick corn tortillas with bean puree and toppings), enmoladas (enchiladas with mole sauce), and tejate (a traditional beverage made from cornmeal, cocoa beans, mamey seeds, and cocoa flowers, also known as rosita de cacao).

4. Feast your eyes on Zócalo

Oaxaca, like all Latin American cities, has a central square. Right in the city center, you'll find Zócalo square, always bustling with activity and full of life. It's nice to grab a drink here and take in the atmosphere. Food stalls offer typical local snacks, vendors sell souvenirs, tourists capture moments through photos, and locals gather for a drink. Evenings during the weekends are especially lively. Street artists perform music, and people dance in the square. Zócalo is where you truly experience the essence of Oaxaca.

5. Travel back in time at Monte Albán

Monte Albán is one of the most impressive archaeological sites in Mexico and is located just outside Oaxaca City. You really can't miss Monte Albán when you're in Oaxaca, and we highly recommend making time for it.

Founded around 600 BC, Monte Albán was the capital of the Zapotecs. At its peak, the city had about 30,000 inhabitants. The Zapotecs abandoned the city for unclear reasons, and it was later taken over by the Mixtecs. They used the city as a burial ground for their elite. By the time the Spaniards arrived in this area, Monte Albán was completely deserted.

It's a large temple complex situated on a flat mountain, offering a magnificent view of Oaxaca and the surrounding mountains. The complex consists of a vast plaza surrounded by numerous buildings. There's also a grand staircase you can climb for a beautiful panoramic view of Monte Albán.

How to get there?
If you don't have your own transportation, you can take a taxi to Monte Albán. It's about a 20-minute ride from the center of Oaxaca. If you prefer a cheaper option, there's a shuttle bus to Monte Albán. For just around 5 dollars, you can purchase a round-trip ticket at this shop in the center of Oaxaca. The buses to Monte Albán operate from 09 AM to 01 PM, and the return buses to Oaxaca depart from 12:30 PM to 3:30 PM.

If you prefer not to go to Monte Albán on your own, you can book a tour there.

6. Admire Hierve el Agua

Next to Monte Albán, there's another popular day trip from Oaxaca: Hierve el Agua. It's a very special waterfall that appears as if the water is frozen, but its name translates to 'boiling water.' The reason behind this is that the water from hot springs contains a lot of calcium, causing these dripping formations to develop over hundreds of years.

You can take a nice hiking route around the waterfall, and there are several natural pools where you can swim. It's often quite crowded as Hierve el Agua is also highly popular among Mexicans. The beautiful photos often seen on the internet are all taken from the perfect angle, making it seem like the water reaches the edge, but in reality, this is not the case. We've included some photos so you can see what the environment truly looks like. Nevertheless, it's still a very beautiful place to visit.

How to get there?
By car, it's about a 1.5-hour drive to Hierve el Agua. Along the way, you can potentially stop at the world's thickest tree, Mitla, and a Mezcal factory. See also tips 9, 10, and 12.

You can also take a bus to Hierve el Agua, which is a cheaper option but takes more time. First, take a bus to the town of Mitla. From there, you can take a colectivo (a small shared van) to Hierve el Agua. This journey takes approximately 3 hours.

Our advice is to visit Hierve el Agua with this tour. You'll also visit a Mezcal factory, the world's thickest tree, the archaeological site of Mitla, and a weaving workshop where carpets are made.

7. Reforma District

Besides the old city center, there's another neighborhood in Oaxaca definitely worth visiting. Just slightly north of the center lies the Reforma district. It's considerably less touristy than the downtown area and offers plenty of local restaurants alongside new trendy spots. You can walk there from the center in about 30 minutes, or of course, opt for a taxi ride.

8. The colorful neighborhood of Jalatlaco

Jalatlaco is a very charming and colorful neighborhood just outside the center of Oaxaca. The area consists of vibrant houses adorned with colorful flags lining the streets. Jalatlaco happens to be the oldest district in the city, and you can sense its age through the streets and the atmosphere it exudes. The best way to enjoy it is by taking a leisurely stroll. There's minimal traffic, and the neighborhood is filled with lovely cafes, artisan shops, and abundant street art. It's only a 10-minute walk from the city center, yet it feels like a whole different village.

9. Check out the thickest tree in the world

The thickest tree in the world, named 'El Árbol del Tule,' is a must-see when you're in Oaxaca. This gigantic tree is estimated to be over 2,000 years old and has an enormous girth. Looking at the tree, it appears as if it's not just one tree but multiple trees fused together. DNA studies have confirmed that it's indeed one tree, rightfully earning El Árbol del Tule the title of the thickest tree in the world.

How to get there?
The tree isn't located in Oaxaca itself but in the village of Santa María del Tule. It's only a 20-minute drive from Oaxaca. If you're driving from Oaxaca to Hierve el Agua, you'll pass by this village. We recommend visiting them together. Through this tour, you can visit both places and also include a visit to a Mezcal factory and the archaeological site of Mitla (tips 10 and 11).

10. Pay a visit to a Mezcal factory

When in Oaxaca, mezcalerías are ubiquitous; locals take immense pride in the region's crafted spirit. Mezcal isn't just a beverage; it's deeply woven into the cultural fabric of this region. Similar to tequila, mezcal is made from the agave plant. The distinction lies in the fact that while tequila is exclusively produced from the blue agave plant, mezcal can be made from various agave species. There are dozens of agave plants, each imparting different influences on the flavor of mezcal.

Surrounding Oaxaca, you'll find numerous mezcal distilleries. During a visit, you'll witness how agave plants are transformed into mezcal, often employing age-old methods passed down through generations. You'll learn about the entire process, from harvesting the agave to distilling the spirit. You'll see the traditional ovens where the agave is cooked and, of course, taste a few different varieties of mezcal.

It's important to note that unlike tequila, mezcal isn't meant to be taken as a shot. Sip on mezcal slowly, savoring its flavors and allowing them to unfold.

A visit to a mezcal factory pairs well with a trip to Hierve el Agua. You can also book a tour to Hierve el Agua that includes a stop at a mezcal factory.

11. Visit the archaeological site of Mitla

Next to Monte Alban, you'll also find beautiful remnants of the Zapotec civilization in Mitla. Mitla is a small town housing an archaeological zone with several palaces, temples, and other structures. Particularly noteworthy are the mosaics adorning the walls. Adjacent to the archaeological buildings stands a Spanish colonial church. This church was constructed by the Spaniards atop the foundations of a Zapotec temple. They utilized materials from the surrounding structures to build this temple.

How to get there?
From Oaxaca, it's about an hour's drive to Mitla. You can easily combine a visit to Mitla with Hierve el Agua. Also, tours are available that cover both sites.

12. Admire the Santo Domingo de Guzmán church

This church is the most famous landmark in Oaxaca, and rightfully so. The church boasts a beautiful, authentic exterior, and the interior is equally stunning. There's a charming square in front of the church, and surrounding it, you'll find many delightful cafes and rooftop bars.

13. Learn more about the culture of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs

Just next to the Santo Domingo de Guzmán, in the former monastery complex of the church, you'll find the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca (Museum of the Cultures of Oaxaca). It's a fantastic museum to visit if you're interested in the history of ancient civilizations from the pre-Spanish period. Inside the museum, you'll discover numerous archaeological finds, artworks, and historical artifacts. Moreover, the museum offers several vantage points providing beautiful views of the church, the botanical garden, and the surrounding mountains. The entrance fee to the museum is just around 5 dollars.

Opening Hours
Tuesday to Saturday: 10 AM to 5:30 PM
Sunday: 10 AM to 3:30 PM

14. Visit the botanical garden

Behind the Museo de Las Culturas de Oaxaca, in the former monastery garden, lies the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca. This botanical garden houses indigenous plants from the state of Oaxaca. You can't visit the botanical garden independently; a guide is mandatory. The English-language tour starts daily at 11 AM and lasts for 2 hours, with an approximate cost of 5 dollars.

We haven't personally experienced this, but if you have a keen interest in plants, it's definitely worth considering. You can also enjoy a nice view of the botanical garden from the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca if you prefer not to join a tour.

15. Have a drink at a rooftop bar

When walking through the city, it might not be immediately noticeable, but Oaxaca is filled with rooftop bars. Especially around the Santo Domingo de Guzmán church, you'll find many, often offering beautiful views. Go in the evening, enjoy a mezcal or a cocktail, and take in the stunning cityscape from a rooftop.

16. La Cosecha Organic Market

This covered market is the perfect spot to purchase fresh and organic products and, above all, to savor delicious food. The market comprises several stalls selling local products, juices, and dishes. In the middle, there are long tables where locals and tourists alike enjoy local cuisine. Setting itself apart from larger markets in Oaxaca, this one is more intimate. Sustainability and organic food take precedence here, resulting in slightly higher prices than at other markets.

La Cosecha is open from Wednesday to Sunday, from 09 AM to 5 PM

Tip: During the Free Walking Tour mentioned in the first tip, you'll pass by this market and have time to indulge in some food and drinks. Since the market is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, the tour skips this stop on those days.

17. Celebrate Día de los Muertos in Oaxaca

Oaxaca is renowned as the best place in Mexico to celebrate the Day of the Dead, known as Día de los Muertos in Spanish. Honoring deceased family members takes center stage. According to tradition, it's believed that the souls of children return to Earth on November 1st and those of adults on November 2nd. Graves in cemeteries are decorated, and offerings of food and drink are made. While it may sound somber, it's quite the opposite. The lives of their loved ones are celebrated, and the streets of Oaxaca are adorned. The downtown area becomes a huge festival, with everyone dressed up and painted as skeletons.

If you'd like to learn more about Día de los Muertos, watching the Disney Pixar movie Coco is highly recommended. This film revolves around Día de los Muertos and is set in a city inspired by Oaxaca.

Where to stay in Oaxaca

The best place to stay in Oaxaca is undoubtedly the old town center. You'll be within walking distance of all the attractions and the vibrant atmosphere. Even at the outskirts of the old city, it's not overly crowded, so if you prefer a bit more tranquility, it's still great to stay in the old center. In terms of traffic, Oaxaca isn't too hectic because all the streets in the center are one-way. This makes it relatively easy to cross the roads.

Getting around in Oaxaca

The center of Oaxaca is quite compact, allowing you to easily reach all the attractions on foot. With its colonial buildings and plazas, it's delightful to stroll around and explore all the streets.

If you want to go to another neighborhood in the city, hailing a taxi in Oaxaca is easy. Unlike certain other cities in Mexico, it's relatively safe here to take a regular taxi. Uber isn't available in Oaxaca.

Similar to many Mexican cities, Oaxaca also has "colectivos." Colectivos are small vans that follow fixed routes within the city and to villages in the surrounding area. There are no fixed stops for colectivos; you can simply flag them down and let the driver know when you want to get off. Colectivos are inexpensive, and you often pay just a few dollars for a ride.

Best travel time for Oaxaca

Oaxaca is located at an altitude of over 5,000 feet. This makes the climate quite mild, and temperatures never get extremely high. Due to the altitude, it can cool down significantly in the evenings and nights.

The rainy season in this region runs from June to September. This doesn't mean it rains all day. Rain often comes in short, intense showers in the late afternoon or evening.

You can make your trip to Oaxaca extra special by being in the city during Día de Los Muertos (October 31st to November 2nd) or Guelaguetza (last two Mondays of July). Guelaguetza is a traditional Oaxacan festival that showcases the customs of the indigenous population through music and dance.

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Do you want to read more about Mexico?

See all our articles with the best tips to discover all beautiful places in Mexico.

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