Ah, Oaxaca, how could anyone not fall in love with you? Oaxaca is one of those places that’s touristy as you get, but damn it’s worth it. The hordes of gringo expats, unwashed backpackers and fannypack wearing holiday makers do little to tarnish the beauty of one of Mexico’s most exciting states. The people are mellow, the climate is stinking hot, beers are cold, and tlayudas are spicy as hell.
I just returned from my second visit to Oaxaca, and now feel somewhat qualified to recommend a few of the best spots to visit. For this entry, I’m focusing entirely on places near the state capital, Oaxaca City. Hence, none of these places are particularly difficult to reach by public transport, and most can be done as day trips.
Yeah, I’m predictable, but it’s hard to visit Oaxaca without spending a few days in the state capital. If you’re coming from Mexico City, expect to shift gears here. Maybe it’s the climate, or maybe the culture, but Oaxaca City isn’t the kind of place that lends itself well to rushing around, ticking landmarks off your bucket list. Instead, kick back, grab a jugo and take it easy. Your first port of call should be the zocalo, which offers shade and some great people watching. The Catedral de Nuestra Señora De La Asunción is worth a peek, and the nearby Mercado De Artesanias is a good place to pick up a few souvenirs. While you’re in Oaxaca, make sure to try some hot chocolate. Traditionally, Oaxacan hot chocolate is thick, slightly bitter and taken without milk. One good spot to try it out is Chocolate Mayordomo.
Alternatively, go straight to the source and buy cacao powder by the kilo at any of the stores along Calle Francisco Javier Mina. A few other popular attractions around town include the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca, the Oaxaca Textile Museum and the rather lively Mercado 20 de Noviembre. Also, I’d better mention the best bakery in town. I’m not exactly an impartial party here (it’s run by a friend), but it’s got to be the best place in Oaxaca for a decent loaf of bread, and an espresso that’ll hit you like a brick to the face.
Easily visited as a half day trip from Oaxaca City, the remnants of the Zapotec city of Monte Alban are one of the state’s most prized archaeological treasures. Although these ruins don’t hold much of a candle to Mexico City’s breathtaking Teotihuacan in terms of sheer granduor, Monte Alban is nonetheless a noteworthy experience. The ruins themselves are located on a hill overlooking the modern city, and offer commanding views of the surrounding countryside. The easiest way to get there is to take one of the once hourly buses that can be booked at a small kiosk in the lobby of the Hotel Rivera de Angel. A return ticket will cost you MX$50 (US$2.50).
Nothing symbolises Oaxaca culture better than the alebrije. Alebrijes are colourful works of art that depict fantasy creatures. They’re diverse, imaginative and just downright fun. The best place to really get a taste of what alebrijes are all about is Tilcajete, a small village less than an hour away from Oaxaca City. The best time to visit is on the weekend, though even during the week it’s easy to fill up a day here. The main street of this tiny little town is packed with alebrije workshops. Most are family run affairs, so buying your alebrije here (instead of in a market in Oaxaca City) means your money goes directly to the producers. Many of the workshop also offer visitors the opportunity to make their own alebrije. To get to Tilcajete, simply grab a colectivo from the station near the intersection of calles Bustamante and Arista, in Oaxaca City’s centre. The station itself is just off the road, a few metres south of the intersection.
Easily my favourite place in Oaxaca, the pueblos mancomunados are a group of villages up in the sierra that make for some truly outstanding eco-tourism. These quiet little villages are best known for their network of trails, allowing hikers to hop between villages. Each village also has basic facilities for hikers, including cabins, camp grounds and community run restaurants. The latter serve up simple, tasty local dishes. The villages themselves are quite interesting. The locals here don’t recognise the Mexican government, and practice their own form of direct democracy.
The easiest way to experience the pueblos is to book a trip with the community run travel agency, Expediciones Sierra Norte. The prices are pretty high, though the money goes directly to the communities. Another option is to volunteer with one of the region’s organic mushroom farms, such as Micologica. I did just that last year, and had a great time. You can read about my experience here.
Alternatively, pack a rucksack, lace up your hiking boots and grab a bus from Oaxaca City’s chaotic Periférico Bus Station at 3pm on Friday. Expect the trip to take around three hours.
Hierve el Agua
Hierve el Agua (boil the water) is a curious, petrified waterfall about two hours away from Oaxaca City. At the top of the “waterfall”, there’s a handful of natural springs bubbling with warm water. There’s some great views, and there’s a few trails for anyone keen to stretch their legs. Bring a hat though, because out here the sun means serious business. To reach Hierve el Agua, take a colectivo bound for Mitla from Oaxaca City’s Periférico Bus Station. Then, you’ll have to wait around for a combi to fill up. On weekends or during school holidays, it’s pretty easy to hitch around here. If you happen to have private transport, the road between Hierve el Agua and Mitla is dotted with mezcalerias. These roadside mezcalerias are always happy to entertain passerbys. Think of them a bit like vineyards. Rock up, take a tour, then sample the produce.
First published at Dissent Sans Frontieres.