What to Do 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.

Tlacolula de Matamoros, Oax., Mexico
Tlacolula is the largest town in the Eastern arm of the Oaxaca valley. Market day in this town is on Sundays and on this one day of the week hordes of people come to town from nearby villages to buy, sell, and socialize. You’ll find all kinds of goods for sale, from produce to live poultry to electronics. Block after city block is closed to traffic and vendors occupy both sides of the street, while shoppers and ambulant vendors fill the space between them. Tarps suspended by ropes overhead provide shade, but you will need to watch where you’re going, and duck occasionally to avoid walking into a tarp or rope. There are some specialties you should be sure to check out in the Tlacolula market. The food stands selling “barbacoa” are very popular here. This meat - either lamb or goat - is cooked in an underground pit and you buy it by weight. The bread made in Tlacolula is very good; there are a few types that are particular to this area, but one that you should definitely try is the “pan de cazuela.” It has a swirl of chocolate and raisins in it; when it’s really fresh it’s absolutely delectable.
Porfirio Díaz 115 esquina con Morelos Calle del General Porfirio Diaz
Oaxaca’s Casa de la Ciudad is housed in a big yellow building just a couple of blocks from the Zocalo. On the ground level you’ll find the Andres Henestrosa memorial library which contains over 50,000 volumes, and some rooms that are used for temporary exhibits. Make your way across the central patio and up the steps to the second floor, where you’ll find, among other things, a room that has two very large aerial photos (about 12 square feet) of Oaxaca city on the floor. One of the photos was taken in 1990, and the other in 2006. They call this the “foto-piso” (photo-floor). It’s fun to walk over it and pick out landmarks and see how Oaxaca has changed over time. The Casa de la Ciudad often has exhibits dealing with urbanization and architecture, and it also hosts workshops, concerts and other events. It is open daily from 9 am to 8 pm, and admission is free.
Portal del Palacio
This white tablecloth restaurant on the second floor above the Zocalo is more upscale than other options around the plaza. It opened in 2013, and the floor to ceiling open windows allow all diners to enjoy the views; though from farther back you mostly just see treetops, it’s still a lovely view. They specialize in seafood, particularly oysters, but we tried the Ensalada Tres Bistro, and a pizza, and they were good too. Located at Portal de Flores, Num. 3, in the Zocalo. Phone: (951) 501 - 0407
Diaz Ordaz 712, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca, Oax., Mexico
You can find Cuish brand mezcal in a few establishments in Oaxaca city, but head to their own tasting bar located on the outskirts of the city center to learn what this brand stands for. They offer mezcal that is artisanally produced from several different varieties of wild agave, including the one for which they’re named. This is a bohemian haven, and besides sampling the different mezcals, you may also enjoy an art exhibit or concert on the weekends. Diaz Ordaz 712, Centro Oaxaca (951) 516-8791
Km. 3, Carr. Internacional, Cerro del Fortín, Faldas del Fortin, 68030 Oaxaca, Oax., Mexico
Enjoy some of the best views of Oaxaca city while you dine on local specialties such as tlayudas and parrilladas. Come for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or just for drinks. It’s open from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., and the view is great any time of day. El Mirador is mostly popular among locals and you won’t find many tourists, probably because it can be a bit difficult to find. From the parking lot at the lookout point on the hill, there are steps leading down. You won’t see a sign until you’re near the bottom of the steps, where you’ll find the entrance to the restaurant. I’ve found the food and service to be variable, but the prices are good and the view is exceptional.
20 de Noviembre 512, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca, Oax., Mexico
The 20 de Noviembre market has a variety of food stalls where you can sample many Oaxacan specialties, but carnivores flock to the one corridor that’s known as “El Pasillo de las Carnes Asadas” (the grilled meats aisle). Follow your nose to find it: smoke and the smell of meat grilling are thick in the air. You can select the raw meat that looks best to you and have it grilled to your specifications as you watch on. Find a spot at one of the long tables with benches and order salsa and guacamole to accompany your feast. Buy some tortillas from one of the passing vendors, and enjoy!
Tlacolula de Matamoros, Oax., Mexico
Lambityeco rose to prominence around the time of the decline the great Zapotec capital Monte Alban, roughly 700 A.D. The site was originally excavated in the 1960s, although some restoration work has been done since that time. Among the buildings to visit there are two important palaces, some temples and a patio, as well as a temazcal steam bath. This is just a small part of what was a much larger city. Evidently, Lambityeco was a salt production center (obtained through distillation of saline groundwater) and was an important stop in the Prehispanic trade route. This site has some examples of elaborate stucco work that are not common in ancient sites in Oaxaca. Besides the figure of Cocijo, the Zapotec rain god, pictured, there are also depictions of Zapotec rulers. This small archaeological site is often overlooked, but it is easy to visit. It is located right by the side of the highway, in the eastern valley of Oaxaca, just before Tlacolula.
Carretera a Tlacolula 190 Km 17, San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya, Oax., Mexico
This small archaeological site is situated on a hillside about 12 miles east of Oaxaca city. The name “Dainzú" means “hill of the organ cactus” in Zapotec, although that most certainly was not the original name. The site was occupied in very early times, but its apogee was roughly at the same time as Monte Alban (200 B.C.E. to 350 C.E.). It was excavated in 1965 by Mexican archaeologist Ignacio Bernal. This is one of Oaxaca’s less visited sites, so you’re likely to have the place to yourself. It is quite a nice site, however, and worth a visit for a few special features. The site has a ball court, as well as a gallery of bas-reliefs depicting ball players, so undoubtedly the game was very important to the inhabitants. Another must-see is a tomb that has a jaguar carved into the entrance; the face is carved in the lintel, and the animal’s forearms are on either side.
Calle de Los Libres 212, RUTA INDEPENDENCIA, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca, Oax., Mexico
These large, thick tortillas are called “tlayudas” and they’re a Oaxaca specialty that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere in the country. They’re prepared by spreading pork fat and bean paste on the tortilla, then the Oaxaca string cheese called quesillo is added in, plus some shredded lettuce or cabbage to add a little crunch. It’s folded over and toasted on a grill until it’s crispy and the cheese inside melts, and served with your choice of meat. If you want yours without the pork fat, just ask for it “sin aciento.” Tlayudas are served in many places in Oaxaca. In restaurants they’re usually served open-faced, which is perhaps more attractive, but when you have it folded over like this, the cheese melts more and combined with the crisp tortilla, it’s really delicious. Tlayudas Libres opens at 9 pm nightly and closes at 3 or 4 am. They have grills set up on the street so you can watch how they’re prepared. This is a popular late-night stop after an evening of partying.
Av Independencia s/n, Vista Hermosa, 68247 San Agustín Etla, Oax., Mexico
Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo spearheaded the project of converting an abandoned textile mill into an arts center, which was inaugurated in 2006. The Centro de las Artes San Agustin (CASA) hosts exhibits of a variety of media, as well as courses and workshops. It is an ecological arts center and encourages artistic creation using environmentally friendly processes, and community involvement. CASA is located in San Agustin Etla, about a twenty minute drive from Oaxaca city. It is open daily from 9 am to 6 pm, and if you go on Sundays, there is an organic market on the grounds (Mercado Los Eucaliptos).
Oaxaca de Juárez, Oax., Mexico
The natural fresh-water springs at Hierve el Agua were incredible (and cold!). The water is very high in calcium carbonate, and the minerals have formed these natural pools and crazy waterfall-like rock formations. The dusty road was somewhat harrowing, we had to make way for quite a few donkeys packing some serious loads. (And the formerly white rental car came out of the experience with a light yellow coating.) But the view over the valley of Oaxaca was unbelievable, and the meal we had at one of the stands was delicious. We were there in December; it was clear and warm and perfect.
Latin America
Mitla is located in the Oaxaca Valley, just a short distance from Oaxaca City. However you get there, it’s worth the visit. It’s not a large site; an hour and a half will be more than enough time to walk around. There are so many things that set Mitla apart from other ruins in Mexico. First off, it’s neither Maya nor Aztec. Its influence comes from the Zapotec and Mixtec cultures. It sits right on the desert floor, so cactus, desert scrub, and aloe plants punctuate the surrounding landscape rather than jungle. There are no pyramids to climb; the highest structure on the site probably has no more than 10 or so steps to get to the top. There are no stone sculptures or carved walls to be seen anywhere. Instead, the decoration on the buildings are beautiful geometric patterns created by inlaid and interlocked pieces of stone (grecas). Amazingly enough, no two walls have the same grecas, and on some of the walls, you can still see the original red-painted stone. Some of the walls and the cupolas of the San Pedro Church (built by the invading Spaniards) have been restored to their red-colored glory. The desert backdrop, the grecas, the pops of red color – it all adds up to a very special place!
Gral. Manuel, Calle de Manuel García Vigil 512, RUTA INDEPENDENCIA, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca de Juárez, Oax., Mexico
We hung out at La Biznaga Restaurant a few times while in Oaxaca. We ate dinner there twice—the main courses were a bit too big, so I’d steer anyone who’s asking toward the delicious appetizers. They’re also open all afternoon and they have interesting beer on tap and a good selection of mezcals. They make a crazy spicy michelada. They’re on García Vigil 512, near Santo Domingo.
Reforma No. 506, RUTA INDEPENDENCIA, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca de Juárez, Oax., Mexico
Just down the street from where we stayed in Oaxaca there was a mezcal bar called Mezcaloteca. It was staffed by one woman, very studiously sharing her love of mezcal. She poured us a tasting of three different mezcals into the little gourd cups: an espadin, a madrecuixe, and a tobala—all different agave plants, different producers. She told us how to warm up our mouths with the spirit, how to rub a little bit between our fingers to get the aromas. She didn’t need to tell us how to drink it; that we knew. Reforma No. 506, Col. Centro, Oaxaca de Juárez, C.P. 68000
Yagul, Universidad, Oaxaca de Juárez, Oax., Mexico
Monte Alban and Mitla are the well-known Zapotec ruins near Oaxaca, but Yagul is worth a visit too. It was absolutely empty the day we were there, and it’s overgrown, unkempt, and has an amazing view over the valley.
Calle de Armenta y López 120, OAX_RE_BENITO JUAREZ, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca de Juárez, Oax., Mexico
The coffee in Oaxaca is better than it is in Mexico City but still not Blue Bottle standard. We found this relatively new place near the 20 November market. The espresso is great. They roast their own beans and also serve food. Plus free Wi-Fi—it’s a bit of an expat hangout. Lots of communist propaganda on the walls for a nice revolutionary touch.
Carr. Internacional, Area sin Asignacion de Nombre de Colonia, 68070 Oaxaca, Oax., Mexico
Held every year during the last two weeks of July, the Guelaguetza festival highlights Oaxaca‘s diversity. Representatives of the different ethnic groups of Oaxaca state perform their traditional folk dances and throw items to the crowd that are representative of their region - bread, fruit, baskets... The main presentation takes place in the auditorium on the hill overlooking Oaxaca city, but there are events going on in town and in the surrounding villages as well. You can buy tickets through Ticketmaster Mexico, or get free access to the back section of the auditorium (but line up several hours in advance).
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