Que Pasa, Oaxaca?
Down through the desert from Mexico City
over the mountains from the coast full of hippies
in between the narrow cobbled streets
where a clash of cowboys and artists meet
charming and darling Oaxaca will wait
for those who come knocking at her bugambilia gate.
It’s a joy to simply stroll her cobblestone promenades
lined with such pretty pastel painted colonial facades.
Gorgeous handicrafts spill out onto the street
an endless display of vibrant eye candy.
Shop after shop will drag you inside
with clothing and jewelry and trinkets to buy.
Let’s not forget the art galleries and museums
with new and old talent of all different generations.
Once you’ve eaten the city with your eyes
it’s time to nibble, gorge, sip and imbibe.
‘Cause Oaxaca’s not only known for creating artistic beauty
it’s known for it’s knack at pleasing your belly.
Tamales stuffed with chocolate mole chicken
corn tortillas griddled and smothered in heaven.
Hot chocolate steaming beside fluffy bread for dipping
overflowing baskets of grasshoppers and worms fried crispy.
Restaurants dishing out an array of gourmet cuisine
this is not a city to try to eat lean.
And don’t you dare leave without drinking some mezcal
the pure agave spirit must be known by all.
Cool hipsters on corners or tucked away in cafes
for now Oaxaca seems to be all the rage.
Between all the pleasures that Oaxaca dishes out so freely
are the people making it possible who speak so sweetly.
Known as the most hospitable humans in the country
who treat any traveler like a part of the family.
Perhaps because Oaxaca has held onto its essence
a connection with the generations of natives who blessed it.
And somehow the indigenous populations have managed to survive
thanks to the rugged terrain, when in hiding they can thrive.
Though colonization will never ever make sense to me
at least in Oaxaca city’s vibrant streets, I did feel harmony.
With marigold offerings wrapped around crosses in the cemetaries
and church processions with whispers of shamanic ceremonies.
Revealing a little taste of the magic that stays
out beyond the city in the mountains and the caves.
The city my gateway to the Pacific’s smashing waves
where my journey in Oaxaca continues into the next phase.
Where to Stay in Oaxaca
Hostal Casa del Sol
200 MXP for dorm, 500 MXP for a private including breakfast
I stayed here for a week during Day of the Dead and absolutely loved it. Centered around a small courtyard, it feels much more like a B&B than a hostel, with one dorm room and several private rooms. The rooms are big and beautifully decorated, almost like you’re staying in someone’s home. I loved the location, on a quiet street just a few blocks from the Santa Domingo and many lovely shops and restaurants. Every morning they serve a simple breakfast of coffee, tea, juice, bread, and fruit. I bought some of my own local granola and just mixed that with the fruit they offered. The communal breakfast table is a great spot to meet other travelers, who tend to be older and more mellow than the usual hostel crowd.
450 MXP for private, 200 for dorm and up including breakfast
If you’re looking for a nice place to meet lots of other young travelers, Casa Angel is the place. There are plenty of choices of dorm rooms, from 12 bed basic to four bed deluxe. The space is well set up for socializing, with a big dining room and rooftop terrace. It’s located just a few blocks from the Santa Domingo and includes a big breakfast.
Casa de las Bugambilias
Rooms starting at $80 including breakfast
Tucked away in a little courtyard on a sweet street near the Santa Domingo church, Casa de las Bugambilias feels elegant yet unpretentious. The rooms are beautifully decorated, and a huge bonus is the tour course gourmet breakfast. They also run a Temescal from their country house outside the city. Read more about that in the “What to Do in Oaxaca” section below.
El Diablo y La Sandia
Rooms starting at $80 including breakfast
Beautifully decorated with classic Mexican artisanal handicrafts, this mother and daughter owned hotel has just six rooms, making it a very intimate experience. They have a wonderful sitting room with a nice breakfast and guests are welcome to use the shared kitchen.
Rooms starting at $200 including breakfast
This beautiful colonial building just across from the Santa Domingo is the place to go for luxury. It has a swimming pool in the back patio, gorgeous art in the main courtyard, and one of the best restaurants in the city (more on that in the “Where to Eat in Oaxaca” section below.)
Where to Eat in Oaxaca
Oaxaca is a place for eating. World famous for it’s delicious mole, there’s a new treat to be had on every corner and in every restaurant. Some of the local specialties include seven different kinds of mole, tamales, and the very popular crispy grasshoppers (chapulines) and chile spiced worms which you can find everywhere. It’s the best food I’ve had in Mexico, whether we’re talking street food or a fancy restaurant. Get ready to eat. A lot.
$5 to $15 for entrees
I didn’t want to eat anywhere else after I tried La Biznaga. It may not be the “trendiest” of all of the restaurants in Oaxaca, but it’s the kind of food that I always want to eat. Healthy, simple, inexpensive, and flavorful. They’re usually packed for both lunch and dinner, and the atmosphere is laid back and lively. The menu is huge with a variety of traditional Mexican and Mexican inspired dishes alongside healthy salads and sandwiches. The grapefruit salad with homemade ricotta and a honey dressing is one of the best salads I’ve ever ordered in a restaurant. I also really enjoyed the jumbo shrimp in tamarind mole sauce.
$15 to $20 for entrees
When you want an elegant meal out, Casa Oaxaca is the place. The atmosphere is stunning, the service top notch, and the food is artfully presented and quite tasty. The menu is innovative Mexican, mixing local Oaxacan flavors with refined culinary techniques. Make sure to get a seat on the candlelit terrace, with a view of the Santa Domingo church. If it’s outside your budget you could also come for one of their amazing Mezcal cocktails.
$5 to $10 for entrees
The ultimate hipster haunt, La Popular has awesome cocktails and yummy inexpensive Mexican food. I had a Mezcal margarita which was to die for and very very strong (I only needed one!!) and the vegetarian platter which came with all kinds of local Mexican snacks. Particularly yummy are the hoja santa rolls (a local green leaf wrapped around melted local cheese similar to stringy mozzarella). While you wait for your table you can look at the beautiful hipsters of Oaxaca. Win win.
$2 for juice and sandwiches
This tiny café a couple of blocks from the Santa Domingo is a great place to come for a snack, a meal on the go, or a quick breakfast. They’ve got a huge juice menu, including green juice, fruit salads, make your own salad, and make your own sandwich. Very cheap, very delicious, and very sweet people.
20 de Noviembre
$1 to $5 for entrees
You’ll find street food everywhere in Mexico, but the best place to go is this food market south of the Zocolo. Here you’ll find the best vendors and the best variety. If you’re looking for healthy, enjoy the cut up fruit salads, cucumbers, and fresh jicama. Otherwise, grab one of the many greasy delicacies. Tlayudas are a traditional dish in Oaxaca made from a huge grilled corn tortilla spread with lard and refried black beans, topped with lettuce, tomatoes, quesillo cheese, and very thin and large piece of steak. You can also get a variety of moles (my favorite is mole negro) and tamales.
El Pochote Market
Every Friday and Saturday near the Zocolo is the organic market, where you can find all kinds of Mexican specialties that are actually healthy and organic. You can also pick up different produce and goodies if your hotel or hostel has a kitchen.
$15 to $20 for entrees
In a big old building down near the Zocolo, Origen is in a very elegant space with elegant food to match. I didn’t get a chance to try the cuisine here, but it’s meant to be one of the best restaurants in Oaxaca.
$10 to $15 for entrees
Mexican street food “elevated”, La Olla has a lovely variety of salads and local specialties using organic products. I much prefer the atmosphere in the day, when the doors open out to the street and you can watch a woman making homemade tortillas and sopes. Come in at 1:30pm and enjoy a multiple course lunch for just 115 MXP (less than $10).
What to Do in Oaxaca
Dia de los Muertos
I’ve been wanting to go to Oaxaca for Dia de los Muertos for at least ten years, after seeing photos of the festival done by ultra talented Seattle photographer Spike Mafford, and it did not diappoint. Every restaurant, hotel, and shop is beautifully decorated with elaborate altars made of flowers and sugar skulls. There’s something going on in the streets every night, which makes it a very festive time, with mostly Mexican travelers. My best recommendation is to simply walk around and explore. There are plenty of fliers up all over town advertising different events for the festival.
Perhaps the most popular activity is visiting the cemetery, especially on Halloween at midnight when they believe the spirits first arrive. I do not at all recommend taking the tour that does this, as it’s two guides for about 40 people and completely disorganized. If you want to go to the local cemetery, you can walk there from the center of town in about 15 minutes. For cemeteries in other pueblos, I recommend taking a taxi. The main cemeteries include San Miguel (in Oaxaca City), Xoxocotlan, Santa Maria Atzompa, and San Felipe del Agua. When you visit the cemeteries remember that while it’s a party for some, it’s a somber time for others. Please be sensitive and respectful.
Read about my experience celebrating Dia de los Muertos here: Why the Ancients Aren’t Afraid to Die.
Wander and Window Shop
One of my favorite things to do in any city, and Oaxaca in particular, is just to wander the streets and see what I find. There are wonderful cafes and gorgeous shops on every single block. Head to the walking street in the evening for amazing arts and crafts, and go to one of the many darling cafes (my fave is Café Brujula) to read a book or do some work on your laptop.
Whether in Oaxaca City or in the villages, there are tons of awesome markets to check out. Oaxaca is known for having some of the best artisan products and food, so going to the markets is an absolute must. There’s a big market just South of the Zocolo where you can find all kinds of stuff (kinda like a Chinese style market you find in every city in the world) but for a full schedule of the markets in villages and the best markets in Oaxaca, check out this site.
You can get some amazing, locally crafted, fine quality Mezcal in Oaxaca. I don’t typically drink, but I make an exception with Mezcal. It’s delicious, artisanal, and totally clean. The most famous and adorable spot in Oaxaca for Mezcal is Los Amantes, which has been listed as one of the top bars in the world. Go in for a tasting and a lively atmosphere.
Visit the Museums and Galleries
Oaxaca is known for its great art and culture scene, so be sure to check out some of the local galleries and museums. Perhaps the most famous museum is the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca (57 MXP), in a gorgeous monastery connected to the Santa Domingo. The collection guides you through the history from ancient times in Oaxaca, however it’s completely in Spanish. If you don’t speak Spanish fluently, go to enjoy just the space itself (which is stunning) or get one of the audio guides (50 MXP). Next door are the botanical gardens which you can visit separately or enjoy from the balconies of the museum. I also recommend the small, but innovative Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca (20 MXP) and the Museo Textil de Oaxaca (free). Local art galleries are scattered all over the city, so wander into one that catches your attention. They are typically free, and if you’re lucky maybe you’ll make it for an opening.
This center promotes the preservation of Oaxacan culture, especially indigenous culture, with temporary exhibitions, classes, seminars, and presentations. They have a huge library with anthropological archives and indigenous music. When I went, they had an exhibit promoting sustainable farming practices used by indigenous groups. You could get your hands dirty by making your own seed balls. Outside they have a park and playground, where I met some local kids and did some yoga acrobatics with them.
$150 for 15 hours of lessons
I met many solo travelers spending a couple of weeks in Oaxaca attending some of the many reputable language schools. There are plenty to choose from, including Amigos del Sol, Becari Language School, Instituto Cultural Oaxaca, and Oaxaca Spanish Magic. Each school has its own requirements, additional cultural excursions, and teaching style. Check them out to see which speaks to you, or show up in Oaxaca and ask around for recommendations.
Take a Cooking Course
$65 – 85 for a half day cooking course
With arguably the best food in all of Mexico, it’s no wonder Oaxaca is also a popular place to take a cooking course. Most cooking courses include a visit to the local market along with lessons in English of popular dishes like tamales and mole sauce. Seasons of My Heart is run by a food writer and Oaxacan food expert on a ranch nearby Oaxaca and even has weeklong courses and culinary tours. La Casa de los Sabores is run by the owners of La Olla (one of the best restaurants in the city) and takes place at a house just outside of the city.
Relax in a Temescal
$50 for an hour long Temescal followed by a one hour traditional indigenous massage
The hotel Casa de las Bugambilias offers a wonderful Temescal experience in a home about fifteen minutes from the city. This was easily my favorite thing that I did in Oaxaca. It starts with a relaxing Temescal (which in this case is more like a sauna, rather than the ceremonial sweatlodge experience) and is followed by a very nice holistic massage. The intention of the Temescal is to cleanse and purify the entire body, mind, and spirit through very intense heat and a steam created by special medicinal herbs. Traditionally, the sweat lodge represents the womb, a safe sacred space to heal and cleanse deep ancestral ties. While it wasn’t the life altering experience I had in the jungle sweat lodge with a shaman in Costa Rica, it was a wonderful spa experience that left me feeling so relaxed. And in my book relaxation is the ultimate healer.
Explore the Hierve El Agua, Mictla and El Tule
200 MXP for a guided tour, or do it on your own for around the same price
A visit to the Hierve El Agua, the ruins at Mictla, and allegedly the world’s largest tree at El Tule, is a very popular tour run out of Oaxaca City. I chose not to do the tour, because I wanted to take my time and enjoy where I was. However, when you do it on your own, you will be changing transport many times. It’s perhaps the longer more complicated way to go, but it’s totally possible.
I caught a collectivo on the street in Oaxaca to get to Mictla (ask at your hotel which corner). In Mictla I took a different collectivo to get up to the Hierve El Agua, on a winding gravel road for about 45 minutes. The views are stunning but the journey can be a bit nauseating.
The Hierve El Agua itself is beautiful. Natural springs form bathing pools with very cold bright green water that jut out over the edge of a cliff with amazing views. Beside them are the fossilized rock formations of a former waterfall. However, there were so many people there it was hard to enjoy the nature. It felt a bit like being at a waterpark. There’s food and bathrooms nearby.
Afterwards, I took a collectivo again back to Mictla. I didn’t make it to the ruins at Mictla, which are apparently less impressive than Monte Alban, but have the added interest of being the former spiritual center for the Zapotecs. From Mictla, I took another collectivo to El Tule on the way back to Oaxaca City.
El Tule has allegedly the world’s largest tree which was honestly STUNNING. I could have sat there staring at it for hours. Sadly it’s surrounded by a fence and sits in a paved courtyard right in front of a church. So, you can’t touch it or sit under it. But still, just to look at it is amazing. From Tule it’s a 15 minute collectivo ride back to Oaxaca City.
Gawk at the Monte Alban Ruins
50 MXP entrance fee, 50MXP for shared collectivo to get there and back
Admittedly, I never made it to Monte Alban. I know, I know, I was tired after all of that transport to get to Hierve El Agua. Though I’ve heard consistently that these ruins are extremely impressive, not only because of their grandeur but also their setting. You can see all of Oaxaca State from the top of them. They’re close by the city, and you can easily make it there without a tour by taking a collectivo. Just ask at your hotel or hostel where to catch one.
How to Get to and From Oaxaca
Oaxaca has an international airport that connects with Mexico City where you can fly to pretty much anywhere in the world.
Bus from Mexico City
Comfortable, safe bus company ADO services Oaxaca and connects with Mexico City (7 hours) every half hour for most of the day. Head to the TAPO bus station in Mexico City to catch the bus.
Bus to the Coast
You can either take an ADO bus from the city to Puerto Escondido (10 hours) or take a collectivo van to Pochutla (6 hours) and then switch in Pochutla to either Puerto Escondido (1.5 hours), San Augustinillo, Zipolite, or Mazunte (20 minutes). The latter is faster, cheaper, and in my opinion more comfortable so long as you snag a front seat.
Bus to and from San Cristobal
First class ADO buses also head to San Cristobal. Most travelers take the night bus for the 11 hour journey.