The city of Oaxaca is my favorite in all of Mexico. With a good mix of culture, fun, and adventure, it is probably among the most balanced of all of the major Mexican cities. Oaxaca is a big city, but it never feels all that big. It maintains a small town vibe, with mostly everything within walking distance. The best part of Oaxaca was the diverse amount of things to do. I tried to keep this short and sweet without the annoying filler that most blog posts like this include. So no, you won’t find any bullshit like “~walk through the town~” or “~eat food~” that assumes that you weren’t already going to do that shit anyway.
Take a tour of a Mezcal distillery
Oaxaca is widely considered to be the mezcal capital of Mexico. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Mezcal, you are in for a treat. There are a number of mezcal bars and artisanal mezcal distilleries located all over Oaxaca and the surrounding area. It’s pretty easy to end up muy borracho in Oaxaca. Seriously, no trip to Oaxaca is complete without seeing how Mezcal is made. It is truly incredible to see how it goes from just a young agave plant to – whatever, I’m sure you really don’t care about the details. Let’s cut to the good stuff. There is an all you can drink mezcal tasting following probably every mezcal distillery tour so yeah, go to one.
Whether you are actually interested in the process (which is undeniably fascinating) or just want to drink some of Mexico’s finest liquors, a mezcal distillery tour in Oaxaca is a can’t miss event.
See the t h i c c est tree in the world
This was one of the stops on an extremely random tour that I went on and I thought it would just be pretty stupid. However, the tree is stupid t h i c c. I can’t remember the exact numbers but it weighs a ridiculous 600,000 tons or something. It is seriously immense. You will be in awe at the size of this lad. It is an absolute unit. No other tree I’ve seen has even come close to the numbers this one pulls.
I just looked it up and it is an astonishing 119 feet around. It may not be the tallest, but what it lacks in height it makes up for in girth. Absolute unit. It is called El Arbol del Tule. If you’re in the area, it is quite fascinating to check out.
Go up to Tehuacan-Cuicatlan Biosphere Reserve
A couple hours north of Oaxaca City is where the desert meets the mountains. This place is incredibly beautiful to explore and is often overlooked by tourists. My entire time there, I saw 0 international tourists, stumbling into just a group of three Mexicans with their local guide. You can camp in the reserve to catch some of the most unique sunrises and sunsets you’ll see in all of Mexico.
The Ruins of Monte Alban
This ancient city was founded as early as 500 BC and was continuously inhabited for thousands of years. Tucked away in the mountains about 20 minutes away from the center of Oaxaca, Monte Alban is one of the top things you need to do in Oaxaca. Sure, you’ve probably seen your fair share of ruins all throughout Central America but Monte Alban also boasts a killer view of the mountains. Walk towards the edges of the archaeological site and get an incredible panoramic view of Oaxaca de Juarez and the surrounding rural towns and farms.
The Ruins of Mitla
Admittedly this place is not as cool or as big as Monte Alban. However, Mitla is still worth the stop. Next to Monte Alban, it is considered to be the second most important archaeological site in the Oaxaca region. It is especially important to the Zapotec people, just one of the many thriving cultures that still call Mexico home today.
Visit the Otherworldly Hierve el Agua
Hierve el Agua is one of the most magical places I have ever seen. It is an otherworldly experience to explore, from the petrified waterfall to the moon-like landscapes at the top and the brightly colored natural infinity pools. You might feel like you’re an entirely different planet while you are there.
Make sure to allot several hours to Hierve el Agua. Take an hour or two to hike around the area and get all of the incredible angles of the place then laze the rest of the day away in the natural pools that have formed at the top of the waterfall. It is an excellent place to catch the sunrise or the sunset. Although there is no bad time to see it, it does get pretty crowded so it is best to go early in the day or later towards the end of the day. There are cabins and accommodation options so you can spend the night at Hierve el Agua if you wish.
Hike up to Auditorio Guelaguetza
If you’re staying anywhere near the touristic center of Oaxaca, you probably noticed a big white tent looking thing up on the hill. It is a stadium and while the stadium itself isn’t really worth going to unless there’s a show, getting up on that hill gives you an incredible view of Oaxaca. It gives you the scope of how vast the city actually is, with neighborhoods lining the beautiful hillsides of Oaxaca.
Along the way, you’ll stumble into some tunnels that have some beautiful displays of street art. The murals line the stairs, the walls, the tunnels, and are everywhere you look. It’s well worth hiking up to the stadium just to see the art. Combine that with one of the best views in Oaxaca and it’s very much worth the sore legs.
Go to the ice cream market
Yeah, you heard right. There is literally a market in Oaxaca that sells only ice cream. Hundreds of flavors of ice cream, including some that you might have never even heard of before. You literally just chill in the plaza with everyone while you all eat your ice cream. There will also likely be a band that stumbles into the plaza at some point because this is Mexico. Absolutely worth going to just for the ice cream.
Templo de Santo Domingo (and the neighboring Cultural Museum)
This is one of the most incredible churches I have seen in my life. There are thousands of decorations and each one is intricately done with impeccable detail. It is hard to miss, considering it is one of the most central and iconic locations in all of Oaxaca. On the inside of the church, one can gaze in wonder forever. There are tiny details everywhere you look. Just outside the church, you’ll find the hustle of Oaxaca at its finest, a bustling plaza where all sorts of alleyways and side roads intersect.
Paseo de los Carnes
This probably isn’t the best place for vegetarians but for anyone looking to indulge in heaps of meat, this is the place to go. You can order a kilo of mixed meats for about $10 and feast. It is just one of the many local markets you can stumble into in Oaxaca.
Visit the art galleries or art museums
One thing that amazed me about Oaxaca was its devotion to the arts. There are so many art galleries, street art displays, and museums dedicated to just art. You could spend days exploring the streets of Oaxaca just browsing through the street art. All over downtown historic Oaxaca are art galleries and art museums. Artisanal markets and local craftsmen selling their wares at markets rounds out Oaxaca as a perfect place to indulge in the arts.
Eat some grasshoppers
There’s plenty to go around, if you couldn’t tell. I don’t know where they get all of these grasshoppers but there is an unfathomable amount of chapulines to feast on. I am beyond surprised with how much I genuinely enjoyed eating this. They were a perfect snack. Traveling with my nutritionist friend, I was also excited to find out that they were probably very healthy. High in protein and low in everything else, apparently.
Visit An Artisanal Market
This is a really cool experience to do in Oaxaca for a number of reasons. It gives you a glimpse of Mexico beyond the ignorant “tacos and tequila” tourist. It also makes for among the best and most authentic shopping experiences you can have in Mexico. One of the most interesting things about Mexico are the hundreds of different indigenous tribes, languages, and cultures it has. Many of those tribes excel at certain things. The Raramuri for example, can run hundreds of miles without stopping. For something less intense, the Zapotec just outside of Oaxaca are expert weavers and artisans. There are dozens of cultures to learn about in Mexico and I advise trying to immerse yourself in as many of them as possible.
Oaxaca is a mad cool place, and I didn’t even cover a lot of the stuff that you could do within the town itself. Some of the churches are among the most magnificent I have ever seen in my life. Strolling around the city is exciting and always filled with adventure. Seriously, if you’ve been to any Mexican town, you know just how much they love their music and dancing. Walk around anywhere and you are bound to stumble into a show.
The art galleries I found in Oaxaca are elite. The restaurant scene is arguably one of the best in all of Mexico, which is saying something. There are botanical gardens, historic districts, museums, and so on. I could have made this list way longer if I had the attention span. Oaxaca is one of my favorite cities in all of Mexico and you are in for a treat.
Where to go from Oaxaca?
The mountains, cloud shows, and magic mushrooms of San Jose del Pacifico.
The lush beaches of the stunning Puerto Escondido.
The quiet coastal village of Mazunte, Mexico.
The beautiful San Cristobal de las Casas, tucked away in the mountains and jungles of Chiapas.