Oaxaca

Oaxaca is a vibrant colonial city with rich indigenous roots. It has bustling marketplaces, lively fiestas, and wonderful folk art traditions. It’s a place with a fascinating history. The capital of Zapotec civilization was located on the nearby mountaintop now known as Monte Albán. Later, the Dominicans built some of their most impressive churches and convents here. A city of color, movement, and sound, as well as a cornucopia of flavors, Oaxaca also offers ample tranquil spaces where you can quietly enjoy the natural and cultural beauty of this magical area.

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Photo Courtesy of Brian Finke

Overview

When’s the best time to go to Oaxaca?

Oaxaca enjoys a pleasant climate year-round. The warmest months are usually April and May, when daytime temps can reach into the 90s, but since it is a dry heat, it’s invariably pleasant in the shade. The rainy season begins in late spring and continues through to early fall. You can expect rain in the afternoons during that time of year, but it’s not a bad time to visit: dry, brown landscapes turn lush and green. The coolest months are December and January, when nights and mornings are decidedly chilly, but daytimes are warm and sunny.

How to get around Oaxaca

Oaxaca’s international airport (OAX) receives several flights a day from Mexico City, and one daily flight from Houston. There is limited air connection from other Mexican destinations; discount airline VivaAerobus offers a few direct flights a week from Cancun and Monterrey. Bus connections are more plentiful. ADO bus company runs first-class service from the TAPO bus station in Mexico City, and frequent buses run from other Mexican destinations.

Oaxaca’s historic center is easy to get around on foot. The city plan is simple to navigate, with streets changing name north and south of Independencia, and east and west of Alcalá. Taxis are an inexpensive way to get to sites farther afield. They don’t use a meter, so it’s best to agree on a price before you get in. Taxis can be hired by the hour for sightseeing trips; or, for more information as you go, hire a guide. Public buses are cheap (6 pesos), but it can be difficult to find the routes, and there are no set schedules.

Can’t miss things to do in Oaxaca

Sit side by side with locals on a metal bench or plastic stool at one of the many street food stands throughout the city. Forget about gourmet restaurants: these stands are where some of the city’s best food is served, and the friendly banter of your dining companions will be hard to beat.

Food and drink to try in Oaxaca

Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s best foodie destinations, and many of the regional dishes date back to pre-Hispanic times. Its culinary offerings include a wide variety of corn-based dishes, and the local gastronomy also makes good use of the huge array of chiles grown in the state. Mole sauces are a specialty; you’ll hear about seven different moles, but there are in fact more. Oaxaca is a major mezcal producing center, and tasting the endless varieties is a popular pastime.

Culture in Oaxaca

The historic center of Oaxaca city and Monte Albán archaeological site were declared Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 1987, but the city’s living culture is as vibrant and colorful as its storied past. The indigenous markets and traditional celebrations have changed little since ancient times and offer a glimpse into Oaxaca’s deep cultural traditions.

Colorful fiestas happen throughout the year, and even when there’s not a major holiday, it seems there is always something to celebrate. Some of the most representative festivals are Day of the Dead (at the end of October and beginning of November), Night of the Radishes (December 23), and the Guelaguetza festival (last half of July). Oaxaca’s fiestas represent the rich and diverse cultural legacy of the Oaxacan people, and visitors are more than welcome to join in the festivities.

Local travel tips for Oaxaca

Protest marches and roadblocks are not uncommon in Oaxaca. They may hamper your ability to keep to a schedule or accomplish everything you’ve set out to do, but they are by and large peaceful.

Local Resources

Guide Editor

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Fanciful woodcarvings, colorful weavings, and pottery... Many different types of folk art and handicrafts are produced in the villages around Oaxaca. Visit artisans’ homes and workshops to see how the pieces are created and learn about the people who make them.
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Sample local specialties, sip mezcal, learn about Oaxaca’s history at the Museum of Cultures, and enjoy the scene in the Zocalo... Here’s the recipe for an idyllic day in Oaxaca.
Venture a little off the beaten path for big rewards—tlayudas and parrilladas with a view, samples of organic mezcal, and abundant archaeological treasures.
Mole could be seen as a symbol of Oaxaca. Just as Oaxaca is very diverse, with a variety of terrains and ethnic groups, so is mole. Spicy or sweet, it is made from a wide selection of ingredients, both native and European. Mole negro (black mole) is the best known, but there are many different kinds.
With fiestas throughout the year, it can seem like a celebration is always happening. From religious celebrations to civic occasions, here are some of the main festivities that you might encounter in this colorful city.
Visit various handicraft villages, the Friday market in Ocotlan, and a superbly restored 16th-century church and former convent.
Spring is a lovely time to visit Oaxaca. The weather is warm and dry, festivals and holidays showcase age-old traditions, and you can find delightful streetside refreshments like aguas frescas, organic coffees, and mezcal-flavored shaved ice.
In town: a women’s handicraft co-op, a sip of tejate, and desserts like cascada de chocolate. In the surrounding villages: handmade weavings, Zapotec ruins, mezcal production in action, and natural mineral pools and waterfalls.
Oaxaca belongs at the top of the must-experience list for any traveler interested in Mexican culture. The city has an enchanting historic center that’s been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s also celebrated as one of the country’s culinary capitals, known for its mescals, tamales, and a variety of rich, flavorful moles. You’ll experience both on the itinerary at AFAR Journeys created by Katie Cadar of TravelStore, a member of the AFAR Travel Advisory Council.
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