By the time we left Oaxaca City, Mexico, I was Googling real estate prices. I was fantasizing about moving down to the warmer climate of Mexico’s southeast, becoming fluent in Spanish and immersing myself in Oaxaca’s rich culture and creative vibe. However, if like us you only have 4 full days to take in la Verde Antequera (the green Antequera), then here are the top things to do in Oaxaca – the natural and cultural highlights you must not miss.
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Where is Oaxaca?
It’s important to note that Oaxaca (pronounced: wah-hah-kah) is both the name of the state in southwestern Mexico and its capital city. Therefore I will distinguish the two in this blog post by using Oaxaca for the state name and Oaxaca City for the city name.
Oaxaca is generally warm during the day and cool at night. Summer (July, June, August) is the wettest time of the year and average temperatures range from 13-31֯C (72-89F). Winter temperatures average 8-28֯C (63-83F).
Xoxocotlán International Airport (OAX) is a 15-20min taxi ride to the historic district, where I recommend basing yourself. It is important to note that Uber is not available in Oaxaca – at all. Only an authorized transfer service will get out of the airport (you can take any taxi into the airport).
At the time of our visit (November 2018) a shared transfer “Colectivo” to the historic district is MXN85 per person (approx. USD4.15), or MXN330 (approx. USD16.05) for a private service. Alternatively, you can get a local cab as long as you’re willing to walk off the airport premises to the nearest road. For your return trip to the airport, you can book a private transfer or hail a taxi (MXN200 is the going rate which you may need to negotiate for).
How many days in Oaxaca City?
Like Mexico City, it would be easy to fill an entire week in Oaxaca City. However, I would suggest a minimum of 4 full days (6-days including arrival and departure days) to cover the absolute must-sees of the City and surroundings.
Where to stay in Oaxaca City
We loved our stay at Agrado Guest House, meeting a bunch of fellow creatives and cultural travellers. The Guest House is simple, minimalist but very comfortable. It is adults-only accommodation that is LGBTQI+ friendly and is generally targeted at long-stay travellers and digital nomads.
The nightly rate includes breakfast (pre-Covid it also included dinner). We almost never eat at hotel restaurants, but we ate at Agrado a couple of nights because the food is excellent and we really enjoyed the company of the staff and guests there.
What to do in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Take a walking tour
We have made it a fairly standard travel practice to take a walking tour whenever we hit a new urban destination. We’ve found it helps us get oriented and introduces us to places we’ll want to revisit during our stay. I recommend beginning your Oaxaca City adventure with a walking tour of the historic district.
We took a great pay-as-you-wish tour with Raul at Oaxaca Free City Walking Tour who led us not through the typical historic and architectural sights, but to out of way and lesser touristed areas of the City. He gave us a more local perspective with markets, galleries, churches and more. Raul provided insight into the politics behind some of Oaxaca City’s street art, and took us to hole-in-the-wall chocolate shops, bakeries and a rooftop bar.
Oaxaca City museums and galleries
Oaxaca City has a number of museums showcasing textiles, stamps, photography, contemporary art and Pre-Hispanic art. Choose just a couple to explore while you are in town. They are generally small and won’t take up too much time in your itinerary.
Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca (botanic garden)
Unfortunately, we never made it to Oaxaca’s much-lauded botanic garden, as it is only open for guided tours. English language tours are only scheduled for Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 11am, which doesn’t make it a very flexible itinerary item albeit one is highly recommended by those who have visited.
Oaxaca City markets
One of Oaxaca City’s cultural highlights is the plethora of mercados (markets) to explore. What I really loved was how chill the stallholders were. I was able to browse without being pressured or hassled in any way. On the downside, I felt a lot of the “artisan” goods felt mass-produced and thin on quality. The most popular and easy to access for their historic district locations are Mercado Benito Juárez to see locals shop for fresh ingredients and products. Mercado 20 de Noviembre, just next door, offers more artisan products such as huaraches (leather sandals), huipils (traditional blouses) and homewares, along with a lot of prepared food stalls, making it a good lunch stop. We didn’t make it to Mercado Orgánico La Cosecha, but it came highly recommended by locals and fellow travellers alike. Finally, Mercado Sánchez Pascuas, is a small indoor fresh food market which we were taken to on both our walking tour and cooking class.
Take a cooking class
In Fun Ways to Experience New Cultures, I mentioned cooking classes and food tours are a great way to ease yourself into a new cuisine and become a more adventurous eater. Oaxaca is arguably the foodie capital of Mexico and offers many opportunities to get involved in the food scene. We took a cooking class while in Tulum a couple of years ago, but pre-Colombian Mexican cuisine is very regional, so we didn’t hesitate to take another in Oaxaca. Our cooking class with Chef Oscar at Casa Crespo was the most fun I’ve had in the kitchen ever! From the market tour sourcing ingredients to eating the spoils of our time in his art-filled kitchen, Oscar’s class was fantástico! It wasn’t the cheapest class, and it wasn’t even our first choice (which was booked out), but absolutely no regrets here.
Day trips from Oaxaca City
Day trips or tours from Oaxaca City generally encompass a number of attractions within close-ish proximity to one another. Here are some of the common combinations of cultural and natural highlights that are offered by a number of tour operators.
Note: There are many tour agencies in Oaxaca that are contracting from a much smaller pool of guides and drivers. It showed when we booked two tours with different agents and ended up with the same group of fellow travellers on both. The lesson being, shop around for the best price because you’re often getting the same product. Of course, you can always hire a taxi/driver for the day and do it yourself, or get a private tour tailored to your interests.
Árbol del Tule, Hierve el Agua, Mitla and Mezcal
A full day tour takes you to two of the most popular natural highlights of Oaxaca State – Árbol del Tule and Hierve el Agua – the fattest tree you’ve probably ever seen, and a petrified waterfall. The waterfall is a little rushed if you want to hike to the bottom and swim in the “infinity pool” at the top, but either way the valley views are incredible. The tour then continues to the archaeological site of Mitla, where you will see beautiful Zapotec patterns preserved on ancient temples, followed by a Mezcal distillery and tasting.
Monte Alban archaeological site
Monte Alban is only about 20mins drive from Oaxaca City’s historic district. Depending on the pace of your exploring, allow half a day for this archaeological site. You don’t need a tour to visit Monte Alban, it is easy to get a shuttle bus ticket from Lescas Co Travel Agency, which run a shuttle every half hour. Book with them at their office on the zócalo, opposite the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption. A return ticket for the shuttle bus will cost about MXN70 (approx. USD3.50). You can hire a guide at the entrance, or show yourself around, there is plenty of signage in English.
Artisan villages – Coyotepec, Tilcajete, Jalieza, and Ocotlan de Morelos
This day trip will take you to a number of villages in the Central Valleys region, that each specialize in a different craft. San Bartolo Coyotepec is known for its unique black pottery; San Martín Tilcajete makes elaborately painted wooden sculptures named Alebrijes; and Santo Tomás Jalietza is all about the weaving on the traditional backstrap loom. If you tour on a Friday, which I highly recommend, you will also stop at Ocotlan de Morelos for their weekly market and to see the murals of painter Rodolfo Morelos (sometimes referred to as the “Chagall of Mexico”). I have to say that this market was my favourite of all. Though I usually favour artisan crafts over food markets, this tianguis (open-air market) was just so local and perfect for people watching that I think it is worth an itinerary shuffle to make it on a Friday.
6-Days in Oaxaca sample itinerary
A general note about constructing your itinerary: Oaxacans are not early risers so many tours and businesses will start operating at 10 or 11am and open later at night. For instance, a cooking class that starts at 10am and goes for 6hrs may appear to take out a whole day, but there is plenty of time for visiting museums and galleries in the evening because they are open later.
Day 1 – Arrival in Oaxaca. Take an afternoon walking tour of the historic district.
Day 2 – Cooking class OR botanic garden, and museums/galleries.
Day 3 – Full day trip to Tule, Hierve el Agua, Mitla and a mezcal distillery.
Day 4 – Full day trip to artisan village. Don’t forget to time this for a Friday if you can.
Day 5 – Half day trip to Monte Alban and explore markets in the historic district.
Day 6 – Departure. If you have a connection out of Mexico City, it is likely you will need to fly out of Oaxaca in the early morning.
Map of things to see in Oaxaca
Enjoy the wonderful cultural and natural highlights of Oaxaca state, starting with these top things to do in Oaxaca City. You’ll almost certainly fall in love with this amazing region of Mexico. For more on Mexico, see these posts on Mexico City, and the Yucatan Peninsula. If you can’t make it to Oaxaca right now but you want to bring Oaxaca to you, check out this inspiration.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,