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Oaxaca, Oaxaca Travel Guide

Oaxaca Summary

Pros

Cons

  • Can be hard to get by without at least a little Spanish
  • Annual holidays like Day of the Dead swarm the city with tourists
  • Traffic noise and pollution can become bothersome 

What It's Like

Established in the 15th century after the Spanish invaded the region -- and now a UNESCO World Heritage site -- Oaxaca unfolds like a fascinating history lesson infused with colorful rituals alongside cosmopolitan city offerings. The city, which resides in the state of the same name, is home to so many cultural exports that define "Mexican" in many travelers' heads that it's hard to not be spellbound here. Beauty is everywhere from architecture and ancient ruins to exquisite artisanal handcrafts and exciting regional cuisine. Year-round spring-like temperatures mean that there’s essentially never a bad time to visit, though visitors flock here in late October for some of the country's most impressive Day of the Dead celebrations. Then, beautiful floral altars, festive foods, calavera and catrina figurines, and parades take over the streets in honor of deceased loved ones. 

While Oaxaca is deemed one of Mexico’s largest states, the city itself is surprisingly modest in size, so it’s easy to get around on foot in the historical district (where most hotels and sights are located). At the heart it all is the Zocalo -- a huge open-air hive of social activity, music, and street vendors that's ringed with restaurants and bars where mariachis roam. From here, Oaxaca is essentially arranged along a grid, and aimless meandering is a great way to stumble across surprises, both culinary and cultural. In fact, churches, cathedrals, and former convents are found throughout the center of town. It's hard to miss La Soledad, which is next to the Zocalo, but the 16th-century Church of Santo Domingo de Guzman stands as the finest example of Baroque architecture in town. It's filled with ornate murals and dazzling gold, while the gardens and shady trees in the church's vicinity attract almost as much activity as the Zocalo. 

While the city center is mostly built upon the region's more recent colonial past, Oaxaca Valley’s rich history dates back to around 1000 BC, and 16 unique indigenous villages still exist within 50 miles of the city. These ancient cultures frequently bring their traditions to town in vibrant religious parades that fill the streets with color, dance, music, and rituals that continue to thrive. These very villages produce many of the textiles and crafts sold across Mexico, so Oaxaca’s markets are considered some of the country’s best. That deep history extends all the way into the city's cuisine, where Oaxacan chocolate (descended from the Aztecs), local mezcal, and more exotic favorites like chapulines (grasshoppers) can be found in traditional spots and foodie joints alike. 

Oaxaca’s art scene is equally vibrant, and is on display in a handful of galleries and museums throughout the city. Swing by the Museum of Contemporary Art for an official take on the art scene, or scope the street murals (many politically driven) that echo Mexico’s long history of revolutionary art. Much of Oaxaca’s beauty and ancient heritage lies in the surrounding lush valleys and arid countryside, where horseback riding, hiking, beautiful waterfalls, mineral springs offer plenty of chances to commune with nature. This is also the spot to discover the area's Zaptoec past, at both Mitla and Mount Alban. Their giant mounds and magnificent stone mosaics are two of Mexico’s most ancient hallmarks of Zapotec civilization, believed to date back to 500 BC.

This corner of the country is one of the most diverse and rich travel experiences on earth -- yet the city itself operates at a surprisingly laid-back pace, and feels decidedly less touristy than other hotspots in Mexico. It remains to be seen how the state’s political discord will play out, but the situation was stable as of 2017. Regardless, this cultural treasure trove is a bucket-list essential that demands a visit on your next trip to Mexico. 

Where to Stay

One of Oaxaca’s perks for travelers is the ease with which it can be navigated. Many hotels are located in the modestly-sized historical center, which makes walking from point to point a breeze. In any case, cabs are easy to come by and cheap. Most of Oaxaca’s hotels occupy former private residences, so they’re typically boutique in size, and hacienda-style in design -- with rooms set around open-air courtyards that serve as calm alfresco common areas removed from outside bustle. Opt for La Casona de Tita or Casa Oaxaca for attractive takes on this charming style. A surprising number of hotels have gorgeous courtyard pools, including Quinta Real, a spectacular former convent. Most properties feature an in-house restaurant, but there are tons of eateries, cafes, and bars throughout the city as well. However, a common complaint from travelers is traffic noise and startling firecrackers that can particularly annoy street-side rooms in the city center -- worth keeping in mind upon booking.

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