Why Oaxaca should be on your travel itinerary
- an introduction to one of Mexico's underrated gems
Oaxaca de Juárez is one of the few places in Mexico that really surpassed our expectations. Don’t get me wrong, Mexico has many, many stunning locations, but especially the cities sometimes receive more praise than they can live up to. Oaxaca on the contrary is still quite underrated. My husband was even more surprised by its charm than me. Most Mexicans have a rather negative image of Oaxaca. The state of Oaxaca is one of the poorest in the country and people usually won’t expect its capital to have anything interesting to offer. As it turns out, it is our favourite Mexican city so far.
So what makes Oaxaca so special?
Oaxaca is worth visiting for its beautiful architecture alone. It’s city centre and the archaeological site Monte Albán are UNESCO World Heritages. And so is the food. Many of Oaxaca’s traditional dishes such as the 7 types of mole, a fish soup cooked with hot stones and the tlayuda, a crunchy tortilla with toppings, are UNESCO protected. Even if they weren’t, the food still would be delicious! Next to the beauty, we also really enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of the city centre. Some streets are car free and we felt more like in a very cultural village than a bustling capital. Last but by no means least, the people of Oaxaca make your stay even more worthwhile! They’re humble and friendly and really go out of their way to make you feel at home. Sounds good? It gets better…
Oaxaca de Juárez is located pretty much in the centre of the state, surrounded by endless dry landscapes and the Sierra Madre del Sur, a mountain chain which surely is very beautiful in summer, but was quite dry when we visited in March. Its city centre might be the largest still intact colonial centre in Mexico. Most of the colonial buildings are well kept and painted in vibrant colours. The main street stretches from the Zócalo with the cathedral to the impressively golden Templo de Santo Domingo. To the left and right, you will find equally picturesque streets, little plazas and many art galleries, crafts shops, cafés and restaurants.
I really was surprised by how extensive the “pretty” part of the centre is. Most Mexican towns have a colonial town square, one or two picturesque roads and the rest are concrete blocks. But in Oaxaca, you can eaily get lost walking around for a few hours to discover all of the colonial centre. Which is something I absolutely recommend you do, by the way.
South of the Zócalo, in a less picturesque and more chaotic area, you will find Mercado Benito Juárez and Mercado 20 de Noviembre, the two indoor markets you will find on any Oaxaca itinerary. Benito Juárez is a big market where you can find anything from clothes to souvenirs and food, but at quite high prices. Mercado 20 de Noviembre is more of an informal food hall where you can try typical dishes and buy the ingredients. I personally prefer local markets like the neighbourhood market Mercado Sánchez Pascuas. There, we tried the delicious local desert nicualtole (a yummy coconut and maiz pudding) for only 5 pesos a piece and tejate (delicious cocoa and maiz based drink) is also very affordable.
The food is probably the main thing Oaxaca is famous for. And rightly so. It is absolutely delicious and very affordable! We haven’t had a single bad meal in Oaxaca. Since we were on a tight budget, we didn’t try any of the nicer restaurants in the centre but stuck to local lunch kitchens and street food. If you are on a budget too, or you want to eat like the locals, I recommend Restaurant del Chef on Avenida Morelos. It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet that costs 50 pesos per person (!!!) and has a lot of options, including salads and vegetables. The food was very tasty and the value for money was excellent. We also bought tamales oaxaqueños from a little food stall in front of the cathedral which were delicious. Probably the best tamales I’ve had in Mexico (i.e. my life). Something you must also try are tlayudas which originate from Oaxaca and are served a little differently there than in other parts of the country. And mole of course. This traditional sauce made from ground chilly and other spices comes in many different varieties with and without cocoa and all the ones we tried were delicious. Just thinking about their mole makes my mouth water…
Arts and Crafts
The state of Oaxaca is home to 18 indigenous ethnic groups and has a higher than average indigenous population. You will hear people on the streets speak their native tongues and some radio channels are in indigenous languages. Many villages around the capital produce traditional hand-made arts and crafts such as tapestry, clothing and woodwork. There are many little shops in the city centre where you can buy beautiful artisanry. If you are on a budget, you can find cheaper prices on the Sunday market in the village of Tlacolula, about an hour outside of Oaxaca. The pieces are stunning and you support the local population by buying there, so go for it!
It’s hard to miss the fact that Oaxaca is home to Mezcal, a spirit produced from fermented agave. There are many Mezcalerías where you can try the local drink in Oaxaca city and the road between Oaxaca and Tlacolula is lined with producers that offer guided tours. We skipped this experience, but I’m sure you can easily find recommendations on the best Mezcal tour online.
As I have mentioned before, Oaxaqueños, as the people in Oaxaca are called, are incredibly friendly and humble. There’s no pushing and pulling and “me first” like in Mexico City or Toluca. They seem to love cultural and musical events.
On our first night there, the national youth orchestra performed for free on the Zócalo. On the third night, there was a city marathon accompanied by rock music. We also saw a group of people dancing Cumbia on the Zócalo and there were several wedding parties and other groups out on the streets accompanied by music and traditional dancers. The atmosphere was so friendly and lively. Kind of what my stereotype of Mexico was before I came here, but very different from what you’d see further up north in the country.
There are plenty of things you can do just outside of Oaxaca City. For example, you can visit the two well-known archaeological sites of Monte Albán and Mitla, a natural park with waterfalls and hot springs called Hierve el Agua or go hiking in the Sierra Madre. More information on trips around Oaxaca will follow soon. Watch this space or sign up for my weekly newsletter here.
Is Oaxaca already on your bucket list? Or have you already been and want to share your favourite experience? I am looking forward to hearing from you in the comments below.