If you’re looking for a culinary and cultural adventure, Oaxaca should top your list of places to visit in Latin America. This colourful, historical city is a food lover’s paradise, with both traditional and inventive local dishes.
Oaxaca will always have a special place in my heart. When I was 25 I travelled there alone on my first real international trip.
I arrived in the middle of the night in search of the hotel I’d reserved and was delivered by taxi to an unlit doorway in a dark alley. While dogs howled nearby, I tried to ignore the clench of fear in my stomach and heaved my enormous backpack on. The taxi took off, and I was ninety percent sure I was going to die that night. I knocked on the door, and after a couple of agonizingly long moments, a weary-looking man let me in and wordlessly led me up a couple flights of stairs to a small, clean, spartan room. I felt marginally relieved.
Pure Mexican Magic
The next morning, I woke to the sound of birds. Bleary-eyed (and wondering if I’d made a huge mistake in coming to Mexico by myself to learn Spanish for a few months) I dragged myself out of bed, completely unprepared for what lay beyond my door. It was spectacular. My room was on the second floor of a large, budget-friendly hacienda, and the balcony outside my door overlooked a courtyard full of flowering trees, melodic birds, and brightly-painted walls and chairs. People were sipping coffee and eating pastries. Friendly dogs yawned and stretched in the gentle morning sun.
I fell madly in love with Oaxaca at that moment, and my feelings only deepened when I walked around the neighbourhood and marvelled at the baroque churches and rainbow-hued haciendas. I stayed in that city for two months, learning a little bit of Spanish, and having a whole lot of fun.
I’ll be going back to Oaxaca City (pronounced wa-ha-ka) this winter, and a friend just asked me why. I told him what I’ll tell you: the food, the culture, the colour, the town square (zocalo), the friendly locals, and the nightlife are all worth returning to again and again. In fact, a lot of traditional Mexican food and culture come from the Oaxaca region, which managed to retain much of its indigenous culture throughout Spanish colonization, while other regions weren’t as fortunate.
The city is both modern and deeply traditional, hip as well as historical. And if you somehow tire of the city life, a quick flight can take you to the spectacular Oaxacan coastal towns of Puerto Escondido, Zipolite, Mazunte and more.
Stay in the city center, as you’ll want to explore this delightful area on foot as much as possible. A few great options:
Casa de las Bugambilias B&B
Las Bugambilias oozes charm and colour with a blend of traditional and modern styling and a bright pink facade. Enjoy a two-course breakfast made with local, organic produce, and then step outside into the cultural centre of the city. Rooms are about $90-190USD.
If you prefer a calm, white interior, Ayook may be more up your alley. This small, contemporary hotel’s artisanal aesthetic is restrained while still retaining plenty of local character and warmth. No breakfast included, but there’s a cafe with a superb menu. Rooms are about $60-150USD.
Quinta Real Oaxaca
Looking for higher-end luxury? This centrally-located 5-star UNESCO-heritage site is a restored 16th-century convent, decorated in a colonial style. It has a gym, a bar with live music, banquets and a pool. Rooms are about $200-350USD.
Food and Drink
Think you know Mexican food? Oaxacan cuisine is in a class all by itself, and you’re in for a real treat. Seafood stews, tlayudas (street pizzas made with giant tortillas), smoky mezcal, and tejate (a thick, frothy drink you can find in market stalls) are just a few of the things you need to try. You also need to savour these local gems:
Mole: Oaxaca state is famous for mole—not just one kind, but seven. These complex, rich sauces take days to prepare, and top restaurants hire specially-trained mole chefs. Mole negro is the most famous, made with dark chocolate, seeds and spices, and served with chicken and rice.
Chapulines (grasshoppers): If you’re brave, you’ll try chapulines: toasted grasshoppers. These crunchy, smoky and salty insects are a popular snack in Oaxaca. To sweeten the deal, you can have nieve de chapulin, which is artisanal hand-churned grasshopper ice cream.
Tamales Oaxaqueños: In Oaxaca, tamales are steamed in banana leaves, and filled with mole negro and other delectable ingredients like pork belly, cheese and guava.
Best Restaurants: Los Danzantes, Casa Oaxaca, and Las Quince Letras all consistently top most foodies’ lists, but chances are, you could stumble into just about any restaurant in town and be wowed by the freshness and care evident in every dish.
Culture & Sights
- The Zocalo: this will undoubtedly be one of your first stops. The action-packed town square is a spot you’ll want to hang out in for some people-watching and live music while taking shade under the trees or at one of the cafes. Take in the neoclassical Oaxaca cathedral here, and enjoy all the colour and chaos of the local buskers and hawkers.
- Templo de Santo Domingo: this iconic Baroque church is a major city landmark. Wildly ornate, this architectural gem fuses Spanish and pre-colonial styles. Don’t miss the church’s museum and the nearby ethnobotanical garden.
- Macedonio Alcalá Theater: this theatre wows with its beautiful Rennaisance-inspired exterior while hosting an eclectic mix of operas, art films and various festival events.
- Mercado Benito Juárez: locals and tourists flock to this busy market, jam-packed with stalls selling woven items, flowers, mezcal, spices, treats, fresh meat and other essentials. Come here to get a taste of authentic cuisine and to pick up a few souvenirs.
- Monte Albán: this UNESCO site was inhabited by Zapotec, Mixtec, and Olmec people. The ruins are only 20 minutes away from Oaxaca City and feature pyramids and an observatory.
- Hierve El Agua: it looks like a frozen waterfall, but it’s actually calcified white mineral formations created from the mineral springs here. This popular natural wonder is a 90-minute drive away, but many tours offer it as a package deal with mezcal distillery tours and other attractions.
Oaxaca is a great place to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) (October 31 – November 2) but hotel rooms go fast at that time, so book early.
If you come for the Christmas season (another busy time, of course), on December 23 you can enjoy an amusing celebration called Noche de Rábanos: Night of the Radishes—where you’ll see large, elaborate and creative radish carvings. The carvings were originally an attempt by farmers to attract buyers to their market stalls, and it became a formalized competitive event which attracts thousands of visitors every year.
To get even more out of your Oaxaca experience, seek out some learning opportunities like cooking classes so you can learn to prepare your own mole, salsa dancing lessons, or a traditional weaving class. Sample delicious traditional Mexican chocolate wherever you can, take in as much live music as possible, and savour all the warmth and flavour of this unique city.