We spent a week in and around the city of Oaxaca Mexico and we fell in love with the place and its people. This is a guide to our favourite things to do, it includes foods to try, trails to hike, nature to admire, and history to learn.
Oaxaca was our first stop in Mexico, right at the start of a three month long exploration of the country. Oaxaca is a state in Mexico, and, as often is the case, its capital city shares the same name. The state is one of the most indigenous, and unfortunately poorest parts of the country. Despite this, it has a wonderful vibrancy about it, it’s full of colour, culture and history, which its friendly people are more than happy to share with their visitors.
During our one week in Oaxaca we tried to balance our time between the city and the region easily accessible around it. We could easily have stayed for much longer, there is just so much to uncover. We wanted to share with you some of the wonderful things that made our time in Oaxaca so special. These are OUR favourites, but everyone who visits will fall in love with something new.
Food & drink in Oaxaca
Eating is at the top of any Oaxaca list. Food is an integral part of the culture, and the flavours are unique and vivid. Here is a list of some of our favourite places to eat at, and a nod to a few special Oaxacan dishes that we really enjoyed.
Whilst the city is known for having some swanky restaurants, we think it’s unnecessary to splurge too much, in fact we would advise not to. You will find the best flavours in the market places, and small understated kitchens which line many of the streets throughout the city.
Organic Markets –
There are a few organic markets in Oaxaca, they showcase the best in regional cuisine, and source their ingredients from local farmers. The food and drink was high quality and very reasonable priced.
Our favourite for trying a range of different specialities was the La Cosecha Organic Market. Here you can discover a range of moles (special Mexican sauces), naturally-coloured tortillas made from a variety of corns, drinks made from agave such as polque and aguamiel, and tajate, which on first glance looks… well… gross… but lift a cup to your lips and you will find that it’s delicious (and apparently full of good stuff for you!).
La Cosecha isn’t open on Mondays and Tuesdays, but we got our organic fix at the Rayón Pochote Organic Market. There isn’t quite the same range to choose from, but there are still some yummy things to try!
Our favourite set meal –
We saw the restaurant Casa Taviche listed in quite a few different places and decided we had to try it. It’s got a great set menu, which changes daily, and is available for both lunch and dinner. It comes with a soup, main, dessert and drink for 85 pesos. Unfortunately there is only once choice a day, which seems to always be with meat. I asked if it was possible to have a veggie option and they made me a pasta dish. Not the most Mexican, but it was delicious and had a Mexican spin.
We went there twice, each time I had the pasta (the soups and deserts changed as they were always veggie), but Phil enjoyed trying two different traditional Oaxacan meat dishes. There is also a small a la carte menu to browse (it has other vegetarian options).
Our favourite tacos –
We had walked past Tacos Álvaro a couple of times before it was suggested to us by our hostel. It’s a cheap, no frills kind of place, but they know how to make a mean taco! Phil’s favourite was the Al Pastor, and mine was the veggie which came with fried vegetables such as peppers and mushrooms… my mouth is watering now! Along with your meal they brought a huge range of different dips.
If you’re on a budget and need to get your taco fix, look no further!
Mezcal tasting –
Whilst you will see mezcal on menus across Mexico, Oaxaca is the place to really appreciate it. The distilled alcoholic spirit which is made from a special set of agave plants, around 11 of which are native to the state of Oaxaca.
You will find many mezcalerias dotted across the city, these are specialists in mezcal and you will be able to ask for a tasting flight in most of them. We chose to visit In Situ to try mezcal for the first time. We had a tasting flight with three different kinds of the spirit. The bartender explained to us where each one came from and the type of flavours we could expect. Two of the three were smoky, almost like whiskies, and not as horrible as we had expected!
We’ve heard great things about the tasting sessions at La Mezcaloteca. You need to book in advance though, and we just never got chance to go.
Eat chocolate, drink chocolate, dream chocolate! –
Mexican cacao is meant to be one of the best in the world, and Oaxacan cacao is at the top of the list. So if you like chocolate, you HAVE to try the hot chocolate in Oaxaca!
We went to Ritos on our walking tour and loved it. We headed straight back there for more the day after. As well as a little cafe, they have a small shop (a few shelves really), where you can purchase chocolate gifts (for friends… family… you… we won’t judge!), including slabs to make chocolate drinks, mole paste, cacao nibs, and honey.
You can also take a walk down Mina street where there are a bunch of chocolate shops. You can see them making chocolate through the window, and if you go in they will often give you samples to try!
Go for coffee –
There are lots of lovely looking coffee shops in the city. We really enjoyed Cafebre. They have a selection of brewing techniques, including aeropress and V60 for 35 pesos (about £1.50) per cup.
Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca –
So, whilst you can’t actually eat anything in the ethnobotanical gardens (yeah, I know, disappointing), you will learn a heck of a lot of history regarding food in Oaxaca. You will get to see the agave plants that produce mezcal, and learn why, if it wasn’t for early civilisations in Oaxaca, corn on the cobs wouldn’t be a thing.
You can’t wander around the gardens independently, you need to go on a guided tour. The tours last two hours (honestly, it’s really interesting and doesn’t FEEL that long), and run three times a week in English (they also have French and German, but you will need to double check the times). The English tours always start at 11am, and run on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Entrance will set you back 100 pesos per person, but in our minds it was £4 well spent!
Hierve de Agua
The name translates to ‘boiled/bubbling water’. These petrified waterfalls were naturally formed and both them, and their beautiful surroundings are breathtaking.
On top of the waterfalls there are pools, formed by bubbling spring water from below. The water is not heated, but it’s definitely an experience to bathe in a naturally-formed infinity pool overlooking the mountains!
Sierra Norte & the Pueblos Mancomunados
The Pueblos Mancomunados consists of eight villages in the Sierra Norte, which sits within the Oaxaca state of Mexico. Over twenty years ago these mountain villages came together to create an ecotourism project that was of value to both visitors and their communities. Today, a well established network of hiking trails exist, as well as opportunities for horse riding and even zip-lining for the more adventurous.
History and Culture
Go on a walking tour –
Oaxaca is packed full of history and culture. To try and make sense of it all, go on a walking tour. We joined John, at Free Walking Tour Oaxaca, and had a great time, learning about Oaxaca’s history and discovering off the beaten track art galleries, eateries, viewpoints and more!
Top tip, skip breakfast! We were introduced to lots of different Oaxacan dishes and really regretted filling up at breakfast time.
Unfortunately, we had to leave the tour early as we were meeting friends to go to Monte Alban, but we would like to say a huge THANK YOU to John for all of his knowledge and patience!
Tours run Monday through to Saturday at depart at 10am from the front of Santo Domingo. The tours are free, but the staff are paid through the tips, so don’t forget to take some cash with you!
Oaxaca Textile Museum –
Oaxaca is famed for its textiles and we enjoyed a visit to the small textile museum in the city to find out a little more about it. A lot of love has gone into the display. My favourite was the exhibition on children. It aimed to convey the love and affection that goes into making textiles and clothing for children. The child dummies were so cute and the way they were dressed was so imaginative, successfully conveying the energy of the child. For example, a scarf, or the bottom of a skirt, was often suspended to make it look like the child was moving.
Entrance is free and it doesn’t take too long to explore, so the museum can easily be combined with a day of other activities.
Museum of Cultures of Oaxaca –
So, we hold our hands up, we never got chance to go to the museum. We heard lots of good stuff about it though, so we would suggest giving it a try if you have time. Apparently, all of the information is in Spanish, so try and get hold of an audio guide at the entrance if you can.
We were told you get an amazing view across the ethnobotanical gardens from the museum.
Santo Domingo church –
A church and former monastery. The monastery buildings and grounds buildings have now been converted into the museum and the ethno-botanical gardens. The church is stunning and is still used today.
Monte Alban –
A short ride away from Oaxaca city, lies Monte Alban, a pre-Colombian archaeological site that belonged to the Zapotecs. It’s a wonderful complex of pyramids that you can explore whilst admiring the views of the city in the valley below and the majestic mountains that surround you.
There are English-speaking guides available to help you make sense of this impressive slice of Mexican history.
This was one of our Oaxaca highlights!
Where to stay
We really enjoyed our stay at Casa Angel, in fact it’s one of the best hostels we been to during our six months on the move in Latin America. The staff were super friendly, everything was incredibly clean, the breakfast was delicious (I don’t know how those ladies make eggs THAT GOOD!), and it’s got a roof terrace with awesome sunset views.
To top it all off, there was a really great crowd staying there and we got chatting to some really lovely people!
Ignore everything you read in blogs and travel guides for a day. Instead, walk aimlessly around the town, and discover it for yourself. Explore the city’s colourful streets, the vibrant markets (don’t miss Benito Juarez!), strike up conversation (no Spanish? Smile, say ‘buen dia’!) with the friendly locals, and get ready to fall in love with Oaxaca!
Have you been to Oaxaca? Don’t be shy, let us know your favourite things to do in the comments below!
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