The Backpacker's Complete Guide to Oaxaca City, Mexico
Oaxaca is a backpacker’s wonderland. An often-neglected destination on Latin American backpacking trips, Oaxaca is like an all-you-can-eat buffet. There is something here for everyone and once you get a taste, you’re guaranteed to want to go back for more. Oaxaca has a vibrant culture, natural beauty that is unique and jaw-dropping, an unrivaled cuisine, and if you indulge in the local Mezcal, the partying can get all kinds of wild.
From the moment I first set my eyes on Oaxaca, I had a feeling my planned week in Oaxaca wouldn’t be long enough. When I eventually had to leave a month later, I still didn’t feel ready to say goodbye. So, if you’re ready to sip on Tejate, and recount the previous night’s karaoke adventures while the Sierra mountains watch over you, this might just be the guide for you.
How To Get To Oaxaca
Oaxaca sits a convenient 6-8 hour bus ride from Mexico City. If you’re coming from the south, it’s about an 8-10 hour bus ride from the beach haven of Puerto Escondido. Heading west? From San Cristobal de las Casas, it’s a 12-hour ride that costs about $45 USD. Unless you’re visiting in peak holiday season such as Christmas or Day of the Dead, there should be no worries about just arriving at the bus terminal and hopping on the next bus. A bus from Mexico City should cost around $20 to $30, depending on the time of the year. The buses in Mexico are very comfortable, so just sit back and relax until you arrive.
Alternatively, Oaxaca has an airport, and flights from Mexico City should be pretty regular. They will usually cost between $50 and $100, depending on the day or time of year. If you want to go directly to Oaxaca from the United States or a different part of Latin America, then Avianca, AeroMexico and InterJet will often have great deals on direct flights to Oaxaca. The airport is just a short, cheap taxi ride from the city, and you’ll be treated to the mountain views the second you touch down
The Best Things To Do In Oaxaca
You might never run out of things to do in Oaxaca. I’ll do my best to name the can’t-miss highlights. Make sure to get some input from the locals or your hostel. With a bit more exploring and on-the-ground research, you’ll find infinitely more incredible things you can do in Oaxaca. It’s also most definitely worth noting that many of my best days in Oaxaca were simply spent getting lost in the colorful streets, exploring the endless selection of cafes, museums, parks, markets and so on. And side note, always start with the free walking tour to get your bearings in Oaxaca!
Hierve el Agua
If you’ve done some research on Oaxaca already, you’ve likely already seen pictures of Hierve El Agua. This place is beyond stunning, and I promise you, those photos you may have seen don’t do it justice. You’ll be swimming in stunning mineral pools atop a petrified waterfall, all the while overlooking the lush, green mountain ranges of the area. It’s an easy bus ride and a taxi from Oaxaca City. It will undoubtedly be one of the most memorable days on any Latin America trip.
Monte Alban Archaeological Site
A short, scenic bus ride from the city will take you to the archaeological site of Monte Alban. Marvel at the amazing architecture while gorgeous green mountain ranges make a lovely backdrop for your photos. Not only is Monte Alban some of the best ruins you’ll see in Mexico and Central America, but it’s also very easily accessible. There’s even an accompanying museum to ensure you learn about all the fascinating history of the site.
Museo de las Culturas
Like a lot of young backpackers, I wouldn’t particularly consider myself a museum person. However, there are a few twists to this museum. First of all, it’s all in Spanish, so if you’re looking to practice your Spanish, it’s a great place to do it (however, you can purchase an English audio guide). Secondly, it’s in a completely stunning building, that is attached to the equally breathtaking Church of Santo Domingo.
However, the real kicker though, is that it actually offers one of the best views in all of Oaxaca. You can look out of the museum’s windows and get a full view of the botanical gardens, and as always with Oaxaca, there are picture perfect mountains resting in the back. The museum is fantastic but the view is worth the admission price alone!
Templo de Santo Domingo
The Templo de Santo Domingo is one of the most incredible churches you’ll ever visit. It is extravagantly decorated, and each decoration is intricately done with impeccable detail. This church is one of the most central and iconic locations in all of Oaxaca, so it’s hard to miss it. Once inside the church, you could gaze in wonder for hours. There are tiny details everywhere you look. Take a look in any direction and you’re guaranteed to find something you missed the first time. 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.
Explore the markets
You can’t walk for more than five minutes in Oaxaca without stumbling into a market. Some fun markets in the city include Mercado Benito Juarez and Mercado 20 de Noviembre. If you want some pure, authentic chaos, go for a 20-30 minute stroll down to the Central De Abastos. Whether you’re buying your mom a present or forcing yourself to try chapulines (grasshoppers), one thing you can be sure of is that you’ll never have to walk too far to find a market in Oaxaca.
Hike in Sierra Norte
To see a side of Mexico that not many travelers see, you can hike between the villages of Pueblos Mancomunados, which is the collective name for the eight communities in Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte region. There is ecotourism infrastructure in place, and restaurants and accommodation are extremely cheap. The scenery is stunning and if you get lucky, you may see some wildlife such as pumas, bobcats or armadillos. You’ll also get to learn about the unique way of life of the Pueblos Mancomunados. The whole area is self-governed, complete with its own legal system. Get ready to learn about a whole different way of life than what you’re used to.
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. Take a bus up to Tehuacan and then catch a ride to Zapotitlan and ask to be dropped off at the reserve. It’s a cool, off-the-beaten-path trip that most travelers don’t know about.
The Ruins of Mitla
This archaeological site is nowhere near as big or as beautiful as Monte Alban. However, Mitla is still worth the stop if you’re in the area, as it is widely considered to be the second most important archaeological site in the Oaxaca region. The ruins of Mitla are especially important to the Zapotec people, just one of the many indigenous cultures that still call Mexico home today.
Hike up to Auditorio Guelaguetza
If you’re staying near the historic center of Oaxaca, you’ve definitely noticed the big white tent-looking-thing up on the hill. It is a stadium and while the stadium itself isn’t really worth going, going up 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. The journey up also takes you through some of the most beautiful displays of street art Oaxaca has to offer.
Oh yeah, and finally, let’s get to the food. Mexico is world-famous for its food, and Oaxaca is no exception. Whether you’re a fan of cheap food from the market or up for some fine dining, Oaxaca’s got you covered. The food and drink in Oaxaca deserves its own separate section.
Eat. Eat. Eat.
Do I need to say it again? Just eat. If you’re sitting in Oaxaca reading this, stop and go find something eat. Everyone loves Mexican food, and Oaxaca is famous for having arguably the best cuisine of any region. I will never forget sitting down at Roys Tacos and devouring alambre tacos for the first time. I’m not as much of a foodie as other travelers are, but I think about Oaxaca’s food at least three times a day.
Some of the best dishes to try include tlayudas, enfrijoladas, empanadas, Oaxacan mole and every taco that is unfortunate enough to catch your eye. If you’re a meat lover, or a vegetarian in desperate need of a cheat day, the meat market in Mercado 20 de Noviembre has everything you could ever want. There are also many options for cooking classes, if you want to (and you will) take Oaxaca home with you. If you’re after fancier dining, check out Casa Oaxaca. Itanoni is great for something more local. Hit up La Jicara for vegetarian food, and you can’t go wrong with El Pastorcito for some delicious tacos.
Take a tour of a mezcal distillery
Oaxaca is widely considered to be the mezcal capital of Mexico. For those of you unfamiliar 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 isn’t difficult to end up muy borracho. No trip to Oaxaca is complete without seeing how Mezcal is made. And at most mezcal distillery tours, there will be an all you can drink mezcal tasting. So yeah, go to one.
Wash it all down at 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 flavors that you might have never even heard of. You literally just chill in the plaza with everyone while you all eat your ice cream together. There will also likely be a band that stumbles into the plaza at some point because this is Mexico. Can’t go wrong here.
Where to Stay in Oaxaca
Oaxaca has no shortage of accommodation options, and you could easily find a great Airbnb or hotel. However, I always recommend hostels. Hostels always have locals or ex-pats with all sorts of insider knowledge on the local area, and they make it easy for you to meet fellow travelers and share your experiences with others. Another awesome option to consider is staying at a homestay. This is a great way to learn about Oaxacan culture and improve your Spanish-speaking skills.
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- The interior of Iguana Hostel is every bit as colourful as the Oaxacan streets around it. This is the number one hostel in Oaxaca for meeting people and going out with them. There is a stunning rooftop bar, always rife with activities or other travelers looking for a chance to share their stories with you.
- It’s worth staying at least one night here just to experience the incredible rooftop views. The rooftop has a complete panoramic view of Oaxaca’s mountainous outskirts and is an amazing place to be to catch a sunrise or sunset. The hostel also has lovely facilities and staff, and is very reasonably priced for what you get.
- The highlight of this cozy hostel is its spacious rooftop bar with gorgeous views of Oaxaca and the surrounding mountains. It’s got a great location close to the center of town, but far enough away that you don’t have to deal with the noisiness at all hours of the day. It’s a great hostel to meet fellow travelers or just kick back after a long day of exploring.
Nightlife in Oaxaca
Finally, we can talk nightlife and more about mezcal. Mezcal is Oaxaca’s local alcohol. It is made from the same plant as tequila, but in my opinion, is a tad more tasty and a little bit more lethal. While the locals more commonly sip it, it’s not too uncommon to see backpackers knock back the double shot serving. Visiting a Mezcal distillery such as Mezcaloteca, is another great thing to do in Oaxaca.
Oaxaca is a very interesting place to party. You walk into La Tentacion on a Wednesday and you’ll probably see older local couples salsa dancing with a meticulous grace you could only dream of having. However, roll through after 10pm on a Friday or Saturday, and before you know it, it’s 2 AM and you’ll have drank so much mezcal that you suddenly know all the words to the reggaeton being blasted.
The best place to go out in Oaxaca for dancing and meeting people is definitely Txalaparta. It’s actually a hookah bar but it really finds itself at night. There are heaps of different areas including a huge rooftop, it’s a young crowd and always crawling with the best types of chaos, whether it be wild live music, dance circles or anything else the night may have in store for you.
Catch some jazz at the Funky Cat, dance salsa at Candela or rave to electronic music at Bar Fly. I had nights in Oaxaca that ended in harmless karaoke, and nights that are a misty memory of mezcal, reggaeton and some very broken Spanish. Or if you’re like The Partying Traveler on his birthday, a very broken phone screen. Needless to say, Oaxaca is a great town for a party. The bars are lively, drinks are cheap and the streets are safe.
Other Tips For Visiting Oaxaca
Just some quick things to keep in mind for a trip that you better have started planning by now
- Oaxaca is a great place to learn Spanish, whether by taking lessons or just mingling with the locals. Try and push yourself to learn a little bit. You can survive just fine without it but it’s a great skill that will make your travels in Latin America easier and more fun.
- I can’t stress it enough. Just wander the streets. Don’t pressure yourself to be constantly hunting down activities. Sometimes, the activities come to you. Just by wandering around Oaxaca, I’d stumble into parades, pop-up theme parks, markets, petting zoos and more activities that Internet guides won’t be able to tell you about. Seriously. Go for a walk.
- Oaxaca is a safe city, considerably safer than the other large cities of Mexico. Regardless, always be vigilant and take the necessary precautions to avoid getting yourself into any trouble.
- Talk to locals and hostel staff for help. People in Oaxaca are incredibly friendly and usually willing to share their local knowledge to help make your experience as great as possible. Plus, you get to test out your Spanish in the process!
Where To Go After Oaxaca
Mexico is famous for its beaches, and from Oaxaca, the white sands of Puerto Escondido are only an eight hour bus ride away. Puerto Escondido has several stunning beaches, many of which are far less crowded than the ones at Mexico’s more famous resort cities. Beach hopping along Mexico’s Pacific Coast is a great adventure, and you’ll want to stop at the hippie haven of Mazunte and Mexico’s only nude beach at Playa Zipolite.
San Jose Del Pacifico
Sitting high in the mountains, San Jose Del Pacifico is famous for its legal and easily accessible magic mushrooms. Even if that isn’t quite your thing, the small village is still worth the visit. Tucked away high in the forested mountains, you couldn’t find yourself in a more scenic location if you tried. It’s only a couple hours away by bus from Oaxaca and offers views and chill vibes galore.
About five hours north by bus from Oaxaca, you’ll find yourself in the truly stunning city of Puebla. This city is larger and more modernized than Oaxaca City, but certain neighborhoods still maintain the cozy Latin American village vibe. The neighboring small town of Cholula is a must-visit, as well. The streets of Puebla are dazzlingly beautiful, and the volcano views are something that not even Oaxaca can offer.
Mexico City is one of the greatest cities in the world. There is everything and more to do in this massive Latin American metropolis. food that’s almost insultingly cheap for how incredible it is and a range of stunning day trips from the city. It’s only about six hours on the bus from Oaxaca and an absolute must-visit on any Latin American backpacking trip.
San Cristobal de las Casas
For travelers headed east, the usual stop would be the beautiful city of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas. Nestled in the jungly mountains of Mexico’s southernmost state, San Cristobal is the perfect stop for adventurous backpackers. It’s a good stepping stone to the Yucatan or Guatemala, and my personal favorite city in all of Mexico.
I can’t tell you what you’re looking for in a city, but I can tell you Oaxaca probably has it. It’s a must on any Mexico or any Central American trip, but also well worth planning a new trip around. This is maybe my favorite city I’ve ever visited and whether you’re a foodie, party animal or nature-lover, it might just be yours too.
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Written by Tallis Boerne Marcus with contributions from Eli Solidum.
Edited by Eli Solidum