Oaxaca Itinerary: The Perfect Week

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If you’re looking for an immersive but laidback Mexican vacation -- something less manic than bustling Mexico City, but more authentic than a beach retreat -- then Oaxaca is the sweet spot. You can spend an entire week based in Oaxaca’s city center, as you sample molé and mezcal, meander the markets that influence Mexico’s most famous chefs, and explore surrounding regions to buy Oaxacan rugs, refresh the soul with a Temazcal ceremony, visit Zapotec archeological ruins, and marvel at petrified waterfalls.

Oaxaca City has 300,000 residents (double that if you count its sprawl), but a visit to the Oaxacan state capital has a small-town feel. You’ll walk nearly everywhere, hiring cabs just for day trips. With world-class restaurants and hospitality at every turn, Oaxaca welcomes visitors who seek to experience the gastronomy and lore of the city firsthand. You’ll see quickly why it attracts expats and artists alike, and might even fantasize about an extended retreat on your next visit. And, if you’ve got a few days to spare outside the city, then catch a short flight to the south of the state, to relax on undeveloped, pristine beaches before returning to reality. Here's how to have the perfect week in Oaxaca.

Right this way to the best secret beach towns in Mexico

Day 1 in Oaxaca: Eat Your Heart Out

Your Oaxacan restaurant bucket list is endless, but it does come with a few requisites. And that’s how you’ll frame the first day in Oaxaca, after settling into your hotel. But first, take it easy as you walk around the grid-like center, familiarizing yourself with the central Zocolo around which all activity seems to buzz. You can pop into art galleries like Centro de las Arte de San Agustin (CASA) or Centro Fotográfico Álvarez Bravo, or grab a coffee and croissant at Boulenc.

Among the restaurants that serve the best Oaxacan fare, make Los Danzantes or Restaurante Casa Oaxaca your first big meal. The former makes its own mezcal, and both serve colorful, flavorful dishes centered around Oaxacan ingredients like molé, huitlacoche, or even chapulines (yep, grasshoppers—but don’t be deterred!) Other notable restaurants that you should visit this week include Pitiona, La Biznaga, Origen, Criollo, and Zandunga Sabor Istmeño Centro. You can also make a lunch out of a visit to either of the center’s big markets, though that’s central to tomorrow’s itinerary.

Kick off your Oaxaca visit — or schedule a nightcap — with a mezcal tasting at La Mezcaloteca (one of many excellent mezcalerias in town). Book ahead and sample your way through their collection of aged liquors, while learning about the agave-smoking and -fermenting process that’s central to Mexican drinking.

Day 2 in Oaxaca: Markets and Artisan Goods

Oaxaca’s influence on Mexican gastronomy is immeasurable. Some of the country’s most prominent dishes come from the state, like the chocolatey molé negro and the crunchy, open-faced tlayuda. The agaves that are used to create mezcal are largely grown in Oaxaca (just as those used to make tequila are mostly from the state of Jalisco). We digress: It’s because of Oaxaca’s gastronomic influence that its main marketplace, the Abasto, is so fun to visit. Chefs come as far as Mexico City to shop for fresh ingredients. You can spend hours wandering through this marketplace, which also houses shops for clothing, furniture, textiles, home goods, and more. You’ll be humbled by its size and orderly chaos. For late lunch, head back to the city center and grab a table inside Mercado Benito Juárez or Mercado 20 de Noviembre, where you can grub on fresh tlayudas or tacos.

As for souvenirs, take note of what you find at Mercado Benito Juárez; after lunch, compare it to the offerings at El Mercado de Artesanías and La Casa de las Artesanías. These places have anything you might want to take home, like black pottery, regional clothing, hand-carved and -painted alebrijes, and even Oaxacan rugs. Sure, it’s only day two in Oaxaca, but consider this your audit of the offerings before buying something at the end of your trip. It’ll consume the end of your day just to see it all.

Day 3 in Oaxaca: Monte Albán + Temazcal

Today, escape the city for the first time, and point towards the Monte Albán archeological ruins, some 30 minutes southwest of Oaxaca. This is the one-time capital of the Zapotec people, one of the first cities in Mesoamerica, founded as early as 500 B.C. The ruins paint a picture of life at the time, with ball courts, public plazas, residential zones, and more. A visit to the on-site museum tells its history, and showcases stone carvings and other artifacts recovered from the site. Plan half a day or more for the excursion, especially since it’s to your benefit to take a historical tour, lest the significance of the place be lost.

Ask ahead what time your tour concludes — or better yet, get an early start to beat the hot sun, and make sure it ends by lunchtime. Grab a bite back in Oaxaca and freshen up — only to undo it all at your afternoon sweat session of Temazcal. This Mesoamerican healing ritual was practiced by the Mayans, Zapotecs, Toltecs, and Aztecs, and involves sitting in a low-heat sweat lodge made of volcanic stone, clay, mud, or anything of the likes. In short, your guide will walk you through various states of focus and healing, as you rub herbs, juices, and even mezcal on your nearly-naked body. You release all your toxins and negative energy as you cleanse your body and mind. It’s a private experience, though, so you can shorten it if you feel too claustrophobic or overheated, though most people get through the ritual just fine. One of the best picks is Ceviarem Temazcal Oaxaca, a family-run business that hosts intimate and personable rituals. Call or email well ahead to book your spot, and give yourself another half-hour to get there by car, as it’s east of the city.

Day 4 in Oaxaca: Hierve el Agua, Mitla, and Teotitlán del Valle

Today you’ll venture out once more, this time southeast of Oaxaca. You can do everything in one fell swoop, starting with the town and archeological ruins of Mitla — An hour by car. You can self navigate the ruins, which are more of an attraction than a destination like Monte Alban. The town itself offers visitors many hotels, restaurants, and shops, though its smart to get your colorful  textiles at the end of the day, in your final stop. After a bite to eat, drive a little further to the petrified waterfalls and springs of Hierve al Agua. These rock formations are one of the regions’ most visited attractions, as they resemble waterfalls that are frozen in time.

After your nature photoshoot and a quick dip in the springs, drive back towards Oaxaca, with your target on the small town of Teotitlan del Valle. (You can stop at the archeological site Dainzú en route if you want to see more ruins.) In this small town, you can walk the length of the main stretch and browse the regions’s famed rug-making shops, buying them at much lower prices than if you purchased in the city center. Learn about your options, and about the process behind each rug; some are woven by hand, others machine, and the complexity of these things, as well as the dyeing process, can impact the cost. Bring lots of cash, however — a thousand pesos if you want a couple rugs, and far more if you’re especially eager. to shop. You’ll leave town with a few colorful souvenirs, and very functional daily reminders of your visit to Oaxaca.

Day 5 in Oaxaca: Gardens, Gilded Cathedral, and Oaxacan History

Your fifth day (and final morning in the capital), centers around the Santo Domingo Cathedral. Pop in for a quick ogle, marveling at the gilded, carved details that linger overhead. Next door is the Oaxacan Cultural Museum, highlighting history of Oaxaca and Mexico through pre-Columbian history til present day. You’ll see various artifacts that color in the lines of this storied past. You can also peek out over the city’s awesome Ethnobotanical Garden, which offers English tours throughout the week. Ideally this fifth day is one of those dates; it’s worth restructuring your schedule to get an up-close glimpse at these plants, as the 2.3-acre grounds house an incredible array of regional plant life. You can’t visit the grounds unless you’re part of a tour. That’s why it has the name “Ethnobotanical Gardens”, since “ethno-botanical” denotes the relationship between plants and people, as is outlined on the immersive tour.

Make your final souvenir spree at El Mercado de Artesanías and La Casa de las Artesanías, then head to the airport for your flight to the southern coast of the state, to Puerto Escondido.

Day 6-7 in Oaxaca: Puerto Escondido

It’s in this beach town that you’ll wrap your stay in Oaxaca (the state, that is), on some of the country’s best “virgin” beaches. They aren’t overdeveloped like Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Cabo San Lucas, and even Tulum. Plant yourself any day at city-lined beaches like Zicatela, Bacocho, or Carrizalillo, though you’ll hardly feel like you’re in a city. Here, you can enjoy the waterfront as it’s meant to be, rather than walled in with an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet. For genuine Mexican hospitality, stay with Posada Real Puerto Escondido or Villa María Puerto Escondido, both off the shore of Bacocho, and up the coast from the other two beaches on your to-do list.

As for flying home, you’ll connect back through Oaxaca City or Mexico City, once the sun sets on your perfect week in Oaxaca.

Where to Stay in Oaxaca: Our Oaxaca Hotel Picks

Surely you’re looking for top-tier hospitality, a central location, thoughtful and comfortable design, and incredible food. Good news, as your Oaxaca hotel options are plenty. However, we’d suggest Quinta Real Oaxaca, Casa Oaxaca, and Hotel CasAntica as your three best Oaxaca hotel bets. They check all of the aforementioned boxes.

Quinta Real Oaxaca is a real historic charmer. It was built as a convent in 1576, and many of the original details such as frescoes and tile floors, have been restored. Check out the gorgeous courtyard pool!

Casa Oaxaca is set in a calm cobblestone pocket of Oaxaca’s pretty historical center. The rooms are minimalist and modern, but the real highlight here is Casa Oaxaca, the in-house restaurant. It dishes up a visionary take on Oaxacan cuisine in a la carte and multi-course menus. Freebies include Bulgari toiletries, welcome cocktails, and a delicious daily breakfast.

CasAntica is a budget pick with oodles of charm and a walkable location. Strong coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice, and a swim in the pool are the perfect way to start the day in Oaxaca.

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