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- Strategic itineraries for backpackers, foodies, ecotourists, and more, whether you’re spending ten days or just a weekend in Oaxaca
- The top activities and unique experiences: Spend a day strolling Oaxaca City’s cobblestone streets and stopping in trendy cafes, mezcal shops, artisan cooperatives, and art galleries. Tour the Zapotec ruins of Monte Albán, trek the mountain paths of the Sierra Norte, or surf the world-class swells off Oaxaca’s coast. Revel in the blur of parades, fireworks, and friendly locals inviting you to view their ofrendas (altars) during Oaxaca’s legendary Day of the Dead celebration
- The best local flavors: Indulge in steamy pozole from a street stand, try traditional mole negro, or snack on fried grasshoppers. Visit a mezcal distillery to sample the smoky spirit and explore the fields of spiky agave, or satisfy your sweet tooth with a frothy espuma
- Local insight: Mexico City writer and former Oaxaca dweller Cody Copeland shares what inspires him about the region
- Full-color photos and detailed maps throughout
- Helpful background on the landscape, culture, history, and environment, plus tips on health and safety, how to get around, and a handy Spanish phrasebook
11 TOP EXPERIENCES
Planning Your Trip
IF YOU HAVE…
Best of Oaxaca City and the Valles Centrales
Trekking the Pueblos Mancomunados
Wonders of La Mixteca
Sierra Sur and Pacific Coast Adventure
CHOOSE YOUR BEACH
New Frontiers of Flavor
WHERE TO FIND THE BEST FOOD AND DRINK
Oaxacan Folk Art
WHERE TO FIND FOLK ART
I’ll start with a confession: I am madly, absolutely head-over-heels in love with Oaxaca. And I believe in magic. If I’m not careful, the hyper-excited six-year-old inside of me will break through the stiff layer of grown-up I’ve built around it and let loose a stream of superlatives: It’s a magical place with gigantic flowers and purple trees and clouds for seas and . . .
I am not alone in using the word “magic” in relation to Oaxaca. It describes the allure of the colors, flavors, festivities, and everything else that’s wholly unique to the region. But I believe that when we say it, there is also a tacit understanding that real, unexplainable magic does exist here. How could it not in a place with so many living connections to the ancient past? Certain customs, such as the weekly día de plaza (market day), have been practiced continuously here for thousands of years. People in and around the town of Tlacolula have gathered there every Sunday for millennia, and to this day, many agricultural products are still bartered, rather than sold there. The creativity and humor of the Oaxacan people are apparent in everything from their food and their dances to the art they create and the way they dress. A traditional Oaxacan huipil (embroidered garment) not only dazzles with its colors and designs, it also tells a story about the place where it was embroidered.
I have no problem believing that thousands of years of interaction between this rich collective imagination and the unusual geography here resulted in magic. Oaxaca showed me that the world is not as terrestrial as I’d believed it to be. The otherworldly calcified waterfalls at Hierve El Agua and the megadiverse cloud forests of the Sierra Norte make science fiction seem obsolete. The earth in parts of La Mixteca and the Valles Centrales boasts enough colors to fill a box of crayons. The orchids in the Sierra Mazateca look like fireworks and tentacled creatures, and the Laguna de Manialtepec glows purple at night with the bioluminescent phytoplankton that live there.
No matter how you define it, Oaxaca has a special something that you’ll find hard to put into words that don’t have metaphysical connotations. It will not cease to surprise you, no matter how much time you spend here. Come and see for yourself. Even if you don’t return home believing in magic, you definitely won’t go back the same person you once were.
11 TOP EXPERIENCES
1 Celebrate Day of the Dead: Oaxaca is the most spectacular and inviting place to experience Día de Muertos festivities.
2 Explore Oaxaca City: The energetic capital city teems with bustling markets, art galleries, hip cafés and bars, and excellent restaurants. Don’t miss the top-notch museums and colonial architecture.
3 Journey into the Past: Travel back in time at pre-Hispanic sites such as the mountaintop capital Monte Albán and dust-swept Mitla, the “Place of the Dead” (pictured).
4 Go Mezcal-Tasting: At mezcalerías (mezcal bars) in Oaxaca City and distilleries in the Valles Centrales, you can taste and learn about the culture and production of mezcal, made from the agave plant.
5 Surf the Pacific Coast: Oaxaca’s beaches boast world-class swells, including the famous “Mexican Pipeline” off Puerto Escondido’s Playa Zicatela.
6 Trek between the Pueblos Mancomunados: Nestled in the misty, pine-scented peaks of the Sierra Norte, these remote mountain villages host some of the best ecotourism activities in the state.
7 Feast on Oaxacan Cuisine: Venture into bold landscapes of flavor different from anywhere else in the world.
8 Get a New Perspective: Rent a cabaña in the quaint mountain town of San José del Pacífico to see the sunset above the clouds, from the privacy of your own personal patio.
9 Swim atop Frozen Waterfalls: The strange, towering Hierve El Agua might have you double-checking what planet you’re on, but the stunning views of the valley below will remind you.
10 Learn about Oaxacan Folk Art from the Artists Themselves: The work of Oaxacan hands is imbued with history, both ancient and recent—and boundless imagination.
11 Get Away from It All in Mazunte: This hippie hideaway of a beach offers fun in the sun during the day and tranquility at night.
Planning Your Trip
Where to Go
The lively capital city of Oaxaca de Juárez centers around the shady arcades of the Zócalo, or central plaza, from which everything the city has to offer is within walking distance. Just to the southwest are the bustling hives of the Benito Juárez and 20 de Noviembre markets. The cobblestone streets to the north teem with art galleries, print shops, hip cafés and bars, Oaxacan and international restaurants, and much more of the green limestone colonial architecture that give this town its anachronistic character.
Sprawling desert vistas, ancient Zapotec ruins, and quaint artisan villages abound in this region that is often referred to as the Valley of Oaxaca. Spend a day shopping for local craftwork in San Bartolo Coyotepec, Teotitlán del Valle, or Arrazola, stuffing yourself with barbacoa along the way. Or admire handiwork dating back millennia at Monte Albán and Mitla. The otherworldly calcified stone “waterfalls” at Hierve El Agua will make you double-check what planet you’re on.
Sierra Norte, El Papaloapan, and La Cañada
The dense cloud forests, crystal-clear natural springs, and tropical rivers of the northern regions of Oaxaca offer a hearty buffet of rich experiences for nature lovers. Hike over 100 kilometers (62 mi) of interconnected mountain paths of the Pueblos Mancomunados, camp out and explore the caves at Nindo-Da-Gé, and cool off with a dip in the spring-fed pools at Balneario El Zuzul.
This lesser-visited region is the heartland of the Mixtecs, one of Oaxaca’s most prominent indigenous cultures, and home to some of the finest examples of Dominican architecture in the state, as well as more archaeological zones, such as Cerro de las Minas. Visit the bustling weekly market of Tlaxiaco, or get away from it all camping beneath the soaring cliffs of Apoala. On top of all this, the food is reason enough to make the trip out here.
Pacific Coast and the Sierra Sur
From the southern edge of the Valles Centrales rise the verdant and vertiginous slopes of the Sierra Madre del Sur. These mountains are home to San José del Pacífico, famous for its magic mushrooms, and Pluma Hidalgo, Oaxaca’s prize coffee-producing village, as well as the highest peaks in the state. Oaxaca’s Pacific coast has beaches to suit all tastes, from surfing and nightlife in Puerto Escondido, to the luxury hotels and vacation homes of Bahías de Huatulco, to the quiet hippie hideaway of Mazunte.
Istmo de Tehuantepec
The inhabitants of these rich, green lowlands really know how to party. No matter the time of year, there’s a good chance a trip to the Isthmus will coincide with at least one of over a hundred velas, local festivals to celebrate patron saints and social cohorts. Puerto Escondido may boast the famed “Mexican Pipeline,” but the waves off the shores of Salina Cruz are also of world-class quality, and the town boasts a number of surf camps and board shops.
Know Before You Go
When to Go
Although Oaxaca is located at a tropical latitude, seasonal rains and the mountainous landscape keep the high average temperatures within comfortable ranges. Any time of year is a good time to visit Oaxaca. The rainy season runs May-September. In Oaxaca City and the Valles Centrales, you can expect dependable afternoon showers that cool everything down nicely, and on the coast the rains will be more frequent and less predictable. Up in the mountains, you might spend an entire day shrouded in eerie clouds. The tropical evergreen forests and rainforests in the north get enough rain year-round to keep their color, but the rest of the state turns a brilliant green during these rainy months.
The green of the deciduous forests on the coast and desert scrub of the Valles Centrales fades when the rains go, but Oaxaca’s rich floral biodiversity keeps a rainbow of colors in the land throughout the dry months.
Busy holiday seasons to watch out for are Day of the Dead, at the end of October and beginning of November. Do not fail to make reservations during this time, as well as at Christmas, the two-week Easter holiday called Semana Santa, and the month of July, during the Guelaguetza season. Christmas and Semana Santa are very busy times on the coast, as people from Mexico City and other parts of the country escape the daily grind on the sunny shores of Oaxaca. If you want the coast basically all to yourself, head there in September, but expect to find fewer services and accommodations, as many close up shop for the low season.
Passports, Tourist Cards, and Visas
Make sure your passport has at least six months of validity left on it before you come to Mexico. It’s not a guarantee that you won’t be allowed in, but it’s better not to risk it. You will not need to apply for a tourist visa before traveling.
If you fly to Oaxaca, the immigration fee will be included in your plane ticket, and you’ll be given a tourist card at the airport. Do not lose this, as you’ll waste precious time and money replacing it. Make copies of everything once you arrive, and take the copies around when you leave your hotel. Stow the originals in a safe place in your accommodations.
If you cross at the border, you will have to stop in the immigration office upon entry and ask for a tourist visa. You will be given the card and an invoice for the fee, which you will have to pay at a bank in Mexico before you leave. Don’t forget to pay for it, and again, don’t lose the card!
Make sure all your basic vaccinations are up-to-date, and get vaccinated for Hepatitis A and B. If you’re planning on doing some bushwhacking in the jungle, seriously consider vaccinations for nasty tropical bugs like dengue, typhoid, and rabies, just in case. Places like Apoala, in La Mixteca, are home to vampire bats that, although rarely, are known to sometimes bite people. Don’t forget bug spray in these areas, either. I’ve been lucky with mosquito bites in Oaxaca, but you never want to find out what they carry by being their petri dish.
The quickest way to get to Oaxaca is by air, and with the state’s popularity rising, flights are getting very affordable. International airports in Oaxaca City, Puerto Escondido, and Huatulco connect Oaxaca to the world at large. You can also travel within the state via these airports, but it will be more expensive, and you’ll miss all the fun stuff on the ground along the way.
The great thing about Mexico is there is always a bus going your way. The majority of long-distance buses in Mexico are comfortable and have bathrooms, but you may be forced to watch a lengthy festival of dubbed Sandra Bullock films and movies about people dying, going to heaven, and coming back to tell the tale. Oaxaca City, Puerto Escondido, and Tehuantepec are major hubs on the bus routes that go to and from Oaxaca.
Once in Oaxaca, you’ve got a ton of options for getting around, from renting a car to piling into a tiny taxi with five other people and their cargo for next to nothing. For longer distances in Oaxaca, take a 12-15-passenger van called a suburban. The companies usually have names like Transportes Turísticos or Autotransportes. For shorter distances, use the even more local camionetas (covered pickups) and taxis colectivos. On just about any highway in Oaxaca, you can flag down one of these types of transports, but make sure you’re in a safe place for the vehicle to pull over, or they won’t stop. Also, don’t do it at night, anywhere. Within towns, and to get to towns close to highway intersections, a mototaxi will take you around for a coin or two.
Best of Oaxaca City and the Valles Centrales
To get the best overall experience of the cultural and gastronomic wonders of Oaxaca, head to the capital city. With a couple of additional days, it’s easy to do day trips to explore the ancient ruins and artisan villages of the Valles Centrales.
Start at the Zócalo, which gets lively early. It’s a great spot to post up and people-watch for a while, as well as to orient yourself, as this is the geographical center of town. From here head southwest and squeeze through the busy aisles of Mercado Benito Juárez and Mercado 20 de Noviembre, the main gastronomical market that has the best food in town. Eat mole here. Stick around here for a while, perusing the chocolate stores on Calle Mina to find the flavor you like. Stop by the Mercado de Artesanías before heading up to the Plaza de la Danza and enjoy artisanal ice cream as you watch the sun set behind the magnificent baroque facade of the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad.
Grab a coffee at Café Brújula and take a stroll up the Andador Macedonio Alcalá, checking out the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo; Galería Omar Hernández, a ceramics gallery; and IAGO, the Graphic Arts Institute of Oaxaca. Don’t miss the printmaking shops, like Gabinete Gráfico and Espacio Zapata. If you’re really into lithography and other printmaking methods, pick up a Pasaporte Gráfico, a map and brochure provided by 12 shops in the Centro. Visit them all and you’ll get a discount. Grab your meals at places like Azucena Zapoteca and Tierra del Sol.
Spend a few hours in the museum at the Centro Cultural Santo Domingo, which boasts a superlative collection of ceramic, turquoise, and gold artifacts discovered at Monte Albán, as well as relics from the colonial period in Oaxaca. Then take a quick tour of the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca, in the old vegetable garden of the Santo Domingo convent. After lunch at La Olla, check out some smaller museums, like the Museo de Filatelia (Stamp Museum, more interesting than it sounds), and the photography exhibits at the Centro Fotográfico Manuel Álvarez Bravo. For dinner and drinks, head to Expendio Tradición.
For breakfast, head to Café Tradición, next to its parent restaurant. It has a French toast served with a sauce made from tejate and sprinkled with flower petals that it would be a shame to leave Oaxaca without eating. Spend your last day picking up whatever gifts or souvenirs you still need at artisan cooperatives like Huizache Arte Vivo de Oaxaca, MARO, and La Casa de las Artesanías. Or you could do some meandering throughout the Centro, stopping by Los Arquitos de Xochimilco, Parque El Llano, and the Templo de San Matías Jalatlaco.
Explore the Valles Centrales
Three of Oaxaca’s biggest attractions are located in the Valles Centrales and can be visited on day trips from Oaxaca City: the ruins of Monte Albán, the ancient Zapotec capital; the ruins of Mitla, the “Place of the Dead” with its unique stone mosaics; and the calcified waterfalls at Hierve El Agua. (Other ruins such as Yagul and Atzompa are also worth a visit and are much less crowded.)
The communities of the Valles Centrales, replete with imaginative artists and delicious food, are also close enough to make day trips from Oaxaca City.
• Head to Teotitlán del Valle and neighboring towns in the Valle de Tlacolula for the brightly colored wool rugs called tapetes.
• The psychedelically painted wooden statuettes called alebrijes are found in stores all over the state, but the best places to learn about them are Arrazola and San Martín Tilcajete.
• For ceramics, visit San Bartolo Coyotepec, where a potter named Doña Rosa invented the technique for making barro negro (black clay pottery) in the 1950s, and San Antonino Castillo Velasco, where blind potter José García still works with barro rojo (red clay) without the use of his sight.
• San Antonino Castillo Velasco is also known for its unique style of huipil (embroidered blouse). Another great place to shop for huipiles made in this town is the Friday market in neighboring Ocotlán de Morelos. For belts and other embroidered items, head to Santo Tomás Jalieza.
• Meat lovers absolutely must make pilgrimages to Tlacolula and Zaachila for the barbacoa, barbecue slow-roasted in an earthen oven for up to eight hours. Sunday is a good day to visit Tlacolula, as you can also experience one of the oldest continuously running indigenous markets in the Americas, as well as enjoy the delicious goat and lamb barbacoa. Zaachila also has goat and lamb daily, but on Thursday, during the town’s día de plaza (market day), you can treat yourself to the local specialty: barbacoa en rollo (rolled beef barbacoa), which is roasted with avocado tree leaves to give it its distinct flavor.
It’s easy to find tours to these destinations in Oaxaca City. You can find full-day tours that combine multiple destinations, such as Teotitlán del Valle, Mitla, and Hierve El Agua. It’s also very possible to do day trips on your own via public transport. Little English is spoken in the Valles Centrales, so if you don’t have at least a basic level of Spanish, you’re best off going with a tour.
For more day-trip ideas.
Trekking the Pueblos Mancomunados
Just 1.5 hours from Oaxaca City by car (and not much longer by bus or taxi colectivo), and 1,500 meters (4,921 ft) higher, the Pueblos Mancomunados are a world away from the desert below. Translating to “United Villages,” this group of seven mountain towns in the Sierra Norte have organized to create and sustain a paragon of ecotourism in Mexico. The citizens of these communities, in which the ownership of private property is banned, understand how vital their natural environment is to their livelihood, both in terms of economy and quality of life, and they love sharing it and their culture with others. Camp out among the pines, or rent a cabaña ecoturística
- On Sale
- May 26, 2020
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Moon Travel