Located in southwestern Mexico, the state of Oaxaca [wa-HAH-kah,] is rich with indigenous culture, pre-Columbian archeology, Colonial architecture, Sierra Madre vistas, secluded Pacific beaches, and some of the most delicious food in the whole country.
Here are twelve adventures that will leave you clamoring for more time in Oaxaca. While it is possible to try to find and schedule them on your own, a more convenient option would be to use a curated tour group, like Cantimplora Travel, which also provides a personal photographer on all their eco-friendly adventure tours at no extra charge. 10% of Cantimplora’s profit goes to help local businesses so that travelers can give back to the places they visit and encourage responsible travel. If you’re on more of a budget, here’s a comprehensive guide to backpacking in Oaxaca.
1. Oaxaca City
A cacophony of color and sound, the old city center is best experienced along the pedestrian streets and Plaza de la Constitucion. It seems there is always some type of festival or parade along the main drag and visitors are welcomed to participate. The best establishments are the small local mezcal bars, and cafes selling the local favorite tlayudas – large crispy tortillas stuffed with melted cheese and marinated meat.
2. Hierve de Agua Salt Pools
Hierve Agua (“the water boils”) is a unique ecotourism destination and one of the most picturesque photo opportunities. The natural mineral springs bubble up from the earth, releasing oxygen into the two turquoise pools perched atop a cliff with the Sierra Madre mountain range as a backdrop. Breathtakingly beautiful and beneficial – the minerals in the water are said to be healthful and skin-softening.
3. Petrified Waterfalls
Also located at Hierve Agua are gigantic waterfalls that appear to be suspended in mid-air. The petrified waterfalls are mineral formations created from water spilling over the edge of the cliff over thousands of years. There are two ways to see the falls; the easiest is to hike to the viewpoint to take in the stunning panoramic sight. The hike to the site is easy although the hike back can be a bit difficult in hot weather. The second option is to hike all the way down to get a closer view of the mineral falls from the base. This hike can be done in an hour, although the path down is loose and tricky and the return up is downright difficult, so be sure to dress appropriately and bring plenty of water.
Although Monte Alban is better-known, the lesser-visited Mitla UNESCO archaeological site is just as impressive in its own way. Originally an important Zapotec ceremonial center, Mitla contains a series of structures adorned in finely cut stonework and mosaics. The site is believed to date back to the last two or three centuries before the arrival of the Spanish. A 16th-century Spanish church was constructed right in the middle of the site; you can see some of the original stonework that was removed from the original ruins and used for the church.
5. Organic Mezcal
Mezcal is the “in drink” in Mexico…. the “new tequila” if you will. Unlike tequila, which is made solely from the blue agave, mezcal can be made from a variety of different species of agave. According to Alberto Martinez, an organic mezcal farmer, processer, and businessman, the agave plant is harvested after a minimum 10-year growth cycle. The plant is stripped of its leaves, covered and baked in the ground, crushed, fermented, and distilled. The resulting artisanal product can be sold young, reposado or aged and ranges as high as 52 proof and is traditionally taken straight with a slice of fresh orange coated in sal de gusano (salt mixed with chile and ground-up worms).
6. Alebrijes Co-op
Mexican folk art alebrijes are whimsical animals carved from copal wood and then intricately hand-painted with natural dyes. One of the best places to see the product from start to finish is at the Taller de Jacobo & María Angeles co-op. They offer hands-on instruction where the artisans will show you the various steps, and a gift shop where you can purchase alebrijes in every size and color imaginable. The most interesting are the “fusion” carvings which contain the characteristics of two or more animals.
7. Tlacolula Market
This frenetic and vibrant Sunday market is on the town’s main street, where indigenous people from nearby villages come to sell everything imaginable from meats – cooking as well as live – mezcal bottles with scorpions resting on the bottom, pottery, embroidered clothing, kitchen gadgets, and souvenirs. It’s an eruption of color and culture and a photographer’s dream.
8. Temazcal in Oaxaca Mexico
Handing you a bouquet of aromatic, long-stemmed basil, you are lead into what looks like a large brick oven. Inside, tiny chairs surround a blazing fire pit, enough to seat 14 people, shoulder-to-shoulder. The door is sealed, and a loud hissing noise erupts as the shaman pitches mezcal onto the fire, shooting flames across the ceiling. I don’t understand Spanish, but I’m pretty sure he yelled, “You’re going to be cooked!” After being anointed with various concoctions of honey, chocolate, fruit purée, and rose water, you then endure the ongoing spiritual cleansing ceremony of the mezcal ceiling fire so hot you are told to “breathe through your mouth because your lungs are not used to such heat.” Finally, you are allowed to rise off and exit the clay oven. While it can be a bit intimidating while you are inside, I have to admit, that night was the best sleep I’d had in ages
9. Playa Zipolite
Cliff-framed Zipolite is a pristine, gold-sand beach with sparkling blue-green water. The waves and undertow can be quite rough, giving caution to swimmers, but desirable for surfing. It is known for its distinct hippie vibe, as well as being one of Mexico’s very few swimsuit-optional beaches. Fringed palms line the beach, many draped with inviting hammocks. The accommodations are mostly rustic cabanas with spectacular ocean views
10. La Providencia
When in or anywhere near Playa Zipolite, you must eat here. Just about a block from the beach, Chef Paco and Host Javier serve the best food in the area, arguably in the entire state of Oaxaca. Don’t let the whimsically-decorated outdoor patio ambiance fool you… the cuisine is exquisite. I recommend the tasty shrimp empanada appetizer and either the crispy coconut shrimp in tangy mango salsa or tender, melt-in-your-mouth beef medallions for the entrée. Try not to lick your plate.
11. Sunset at Punta Cometa
Comet Point is a rocky outcropping, jutting out from the west end of Mazunte beach. It’s the southernmost point of the state of Oaxaca with views over the peninsula creating a stunning sunset panorama. It’s about a 30-minute uphill hike along a wooded and rocky path to get to the point, but beware that the walk back, while downhill and easier, gets dark quickly after sunset.
12. Bahia de Luna
Also known as Half Moon Bay, this secluded beach is easily reached by boat. If it’s chill you’re looking for, this is the place. There’s one lone charming boutique hotel with a beach bar and lounge chairs available to anyone. The water is iridescent aqua and as warm and still as bath water. Walk along the crescent-shaped beach, lounge under a palm-shaded hammock or sip a Margarita under a palapa. Heavenly.
If you have a chance to tour Oaxaca, don’t hesitate!
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More things to do in Oaxaca, Mexico:
Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of Cantimplora Travel during her stay in Oaxaca, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.