Oaxaca (pronounced wa-hah-kah), a city located about 300 miles south of Mexico City, is the capital of the state of the same name. Oaxaca city’s pleasantly mild climate, due to its altitude of 5000 feet above sea level, is but one many reasons to visit. Rich in history and culture, Oaxaca is a fascinating destination where you can appreciate ancient civilizations, colonial art and architecture and vibrant cultural traditions. You needn't be concerned about safety here; Oaxaca is one of the safest Mexican tourist destinations you could choose.
Oaxaca city was founded in 1529, but the area has been inhabited since prehistoric times; some of the earliest known evidence of domesticated plants in the Americas was found within the valley of Oaxaca. Monte Alban archaeological site, located on a spectacular mountaintop setting, about 16 km (ten miles) west of Oaxaca city, was the capital of the Zapotec civilization from 500 B.C. to 800 A.D. It is the most important archaeological site to visit in Oaxaca, but there are several others that are also well worth your time, such as Mitla, Yagul, and Dainzu.
The layout of Oaxaca city follows the traditional colonial town plan, with its zocalo (main square) surrounded by the cathedral and government buildings. Many of the city’s colonial-era buildings, dating from the 16th century, have been exquisitely restored and now house galleries, museums, hotels, and restaurants.
Oaxaca's history is strongly felt, but its present day life and culture are very vibrant and colorful, as you will experience through the fiestas, food, handicrafts and markets. Among the many important fiestas that take place in Oaxaca city throughout the year, some that stand out are the Guelaguetza, Day of the Dead, and Noche de Rabanos (Night of the Radishes).
Oaxaca is renowned for its cuisine with culinary specialties including mole, a rich sauce made of ground chilies and a multitude of other ingredients; a local type of string cheese called quesillo; large tortillas called tlayudas; and spicy fried grasshoppers known as chapulines. Try traditional Mexican hot chocolate or sample mezcal, an alcoholic beverage, which like tequila, is made from the agave plant. Many visitors to Oaxaca choose to take a cooking class.
Looking for handicrafts? Many of the villages surrounding Oaxaca city specialize in different types of crafts, including ceramics, textiles, wood carvings, and tin work. You can purchase crafts in the city shops and markets, or go to the villages to meet the craftspeople and see them at work.
Extraordinary cuisine, unique handicrafts, fascinating archeological sites, colonial architecture, vibrant villages and the welcoming locals with their deep-rooted traditions all combine to make Oaxaca one of the most enchanting places to visit in Mexico. Not to be missed!
See & Do
• Monte Alban, Ruins with a View
The most majestic of Oaxaca’s ancient ruins, Monte Albán, meaning “White Mountain,” is an ancient Zapotec capital and archaeological site with a spectacular mountain top location overlooking the valleys of Oaxaca. Monte Albán sits just a few kilometers west of Oaxaca city.
Monte Albán, being one of the culturally and historically significant places to visit in Mexico, received the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 1987. The site is situated an impressive 400 m (1300 feet) above the floor of the Oaxaca valley.
When you arrive at Monte Albán you’ll immediately notice that the ruins of pyramids, temples, plazas, and other residential structures all center on the Great Plaza, a large open area on the flattened mountain top that offers excellent 360-degree views of the city and valleys below.
Across the Plaza, the north platform, home to the largest complex of structures at Monte Albán, rivals the Great Plaza in size and offers the best views of the surrounding area.
Along the eastern side of the Great Plaza you’ll find altars, pyramids and a ball court. The plaza’s west side is lined with ceremonial platforms, including the earliest known structure at Monte Albán that houses the site’s most important discovery, a series of rock carvings known as Los Danzantes (The Dancers).
At the far north end, near the entrance, is an area with tombs, some of which have been excavated revealing a variety of paintings and stone carvings. There are 170 known tombs in Monte Albán and a collection of artifacts discovered in them is on display in the Regional Museum of Oaxaca in nearby Oaxaca city.
• Trekking to Archeological Sites in Oaxaca
The Sierra Norte Range, Oaxaca - With one of Mexico’s most varied landscapes—plus incredible biodiversity—it’s no surprise Oaxaca is such a must see. Many start out at the state’s rugged, unspoiled beaches—and some of the strongest waves in the Pacific. Tropical country the Isthmus of Tehuantepec offers splendid lagoons and amazing wildlife. In the area surrounding Oaxaca City, you can hike an afternoon—or a week—amid soaring, sun-drenched peaks and cool, shady valleys, to Monte Albán and other cities of the Mixtec and Zapotec gods. And if you’re ready for some adrenaline, mountain bike paths offer trails for everyone from novices to hardcores.
• The Mysteries of Mitla
San Pablo Villa de Mitla is a small town located in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca, just 46 km (28 miles) southeast of Oaxaca city. The town is home to the impressive Mitla archaeological site, one of the important places to visit in Oaxaca.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010, Mitla was once an important Zapotec religious and ceremonial center. Here you’ll find a series of structures and patios adorned in stonework mosaics. These ancient cut-stone mosaics, created by fitting together thousands of polished cut stones, are believed to date back to the last two or three centuries before the arrival of the Spanish.
One of the distinguishing features at Mitla is the reoccurrence of 14 geometric designs that are represented in the stone carvings throughout the complex. You’ll be amazed at the intricacy and detail of the carvings, especially those found in the palace building.
The Mitla archaeological site is made up of five groups of ruins and each group is believed to have served a specific purpose. The two best-preserved groups of ruins, the columns group and the church group, are located toward the northern end of the site. Here you’ll find more of Mitla’s best stonework mosaics where you’ll even see traces of the original red paint and plaster.
The 16th century Church of San Pablo, built by the Spanish using materials from the ruins in its construction, sits right in the middle of the archaeological site. Located just outside the entrance to the ruins are several shops and a small open-air craft market.
While you’re in Mitla, you’ll also want to try the local mezcal, an alcoholic beverage made from the agave cactus that is native to the Oaxaca region.
•Made in Oaxaca
The Oaxaca region produces some of the finest handicrafts in Mexico and two of the most unique and sought after items are black clay pottery and colorful painted animal carvings known locally as alebrijes.
•Oaxaca's Never-Ending Fiesta
Every day is special in Oaxaca city. Whether it's a private event such as a wedding or a baptism, the feast day of a patron saint or one of the major holidays, there are always reasons to celebrate throughout the year in a never-ending succession of fiestas. This lively city opens its heart to visitors and welcomes them to join in the fun and celebrate life, death, and all the moments along the way. Have a look at some of the celebrations you may experience on a trip to this beautiful colonial city.
Calendas are traditional processions that can take place any time of the year. Any number of fiestas may be preceded by a calenda. You’ll hear the firecrackers first. No, they're not cannons, and there's no cause for alarm. Your initial response may be to duck for cover. The far-off strains of music gradually develop into the unmistakable sound of an approaching brass band. Go out onto the street and you’ll see them. Following the band, women dressed in brightly colored traditional costumes carry baskets decorated with flowers on their heads. Then come the monos de calenda—huge humanoid puppets with paper maché heads rising above clothed bamboo frames. They whip back and forth, flailing their limp arms in time to the music. Inevitably, there will be more firecrackers. You’ll be forewarned by a shrill whistling sound so cover your ears if you’re close. At various points along the route the procession stops, there is music and dancing, then it continues on. Stop to watch the calenda as it passes by, or follow along and join in the party.
Tourists and locals alike assemble in the Guelaguetza auditorium for a folk dance festival that takes place every year on two consecutive Mondays in July. High on a hill, the auditorium overlooks the city of Oaxaca and offers incredible views that you can enjoy simultaneously with the performances taking place on stage.
A brass band sets the rhythm for swirling skirts, stomping huaraches (sandals), and waving straw hats. In one of the dances the men play the role of bullfighters, waving their bandanas as their partners, pretending to be bulls, try to knock the men down (often succeeding, to the delight of the audience). In another dance, the male partner vies for a kiss as the woman flirtatiously tries to avoid it. In the pineapple dance, performed only by women, the dancers gracefully enter onto the stage wearing beautifully embroidered huipiles (blouses) of myriad colors, sporting long ribbons in their braided hair, each of them carrying a pineapple on her shoulder. Men perform the final dance, known as the feather dance. Wearing huge fan-shaped headdresses, they leap several feet into the air, impressing the spectators with their intricate footwork and the strength required to hoist their heavy headdresses.
At the conclusion of each performance, the dancers throw items to the crowd: gifts of fruit, small handicrafts or other products from their region.
The Guelaguetza presents a visual journey around the state of Oaxaca to enjoy the dances and gifts offered by each of the state's ethnic groups. Guelaguetza is a Zapotec word that means reciprocal sharing. The Guelaguetza festival celebrates the interdependence between the numerous ethnic groups of Oaxaca state as delegations from the various groups perform their traditional dances wearing the costumes from their region.
In addition to the Guelaguetza dance performances in the auditorium, a host of other events are held concurrently in and around Oaxaca city. The delegations that perform in the Guelaguetza dances take part in calendas on the two Sundays prior to the Guelaguetza. A mezcal fair in one of the city's many parks, temporary street markets selling folk art, as well as concerts and shows of all types, provide ample entertainment to the many visitors who arrive in Oaxaca to take part in this spectacular fiesta.
A trail outlined with marigold petals marks the path the spirits follow to an altar laden with flowers, candles, food and libations set out for them. The combined aromas of crushed marigolds, spicy mole, hot chocolate and copal incense fill the air. The alluring fragrance is intended to draw the spirits to the offering their family has prepared.
This is Day of the Dead in Oaxaca. Altars are set up all through the city: in homes, schools, businesses, cemeteries and in the street. The cemeteries are bursting with color as graves are festooned in flowers. Markets are bustling as people make the essential purchases to be able to properly welcome the visitors who will arrive; family and friends will come to visit the spirits of the deceased in each home. Elaborate sand tapestries decorate public spaces with three-dimensional scenes of skeletons and other themes relating to death. These will be blown away by the wind, or swept up in a matter of days—a reminder of the ephemeral nature of life.
The customs surrounding Day of the Dead stretch back to ancient times. With the arrival of the Spaniards, the practices and beliefs changed and adapted. Today's celebration of Day of the Dead holds some of both pre-Hispanic and Catholic traditions, based on the belief that the deceased continue to exist following death and return each year to visit their families. The altars and tomb decorations are designed to assist the spirits in finding their way home and to welcome them so that their family members may spend some time in their company. Not just one day, but several days of festivities and solemn observances, October 31st through November 2nd are the official dates, but related events take place both before and after.
For weeks before, market stalls prepare by stocking the Day of the Dead necessities: candles, chocolate, miniature skulls, skeletons and coffins made of various materials (wood, paper maché, clay, or sugar). Some families may purchase a live turkey a few weeks prior to the occasion to fatten it up for the big day when it will be served with the traditional black mole sauce to the dead and living alike. Pesos are tucked away in advance for the last-minute expenses: flowers to decorate the altar and tombs, fruit and the special bread called pan de muerto for the offering.
Wander around the cemeteries at night and you’ll see candles around and on the graves, which are also adorned with flowers, ornaments and tapestries made of sand. Family members sit by the gravesides, some solemn, others cheerful, they set aside this time to honor their deceased family members. You might bring some flowers and candles to decorate one of the unattended tombs and partake in the custom.
You probably never expected to see architectural wonders, cultural gatherings, mythical creatures and historical moments all reproduced in miniature using a root vegetable as the main building material. That's just a sampling of what Oaxaca's yearly radish festival has to offer.
The custom originated in the 1800s when vendors in Oaxaca's markets started creating more and more elaborate displays with produce in order to attract clients. Eventually, the custom became a competition that was formalized as the Noche de Rábanos (Night of the Radishes) festival that takes place every December 23rd, when local craftspeople create intricate scenes out of carved and assembled radishes.
Craftspeople set up their displays on tables lining Oaxaca's main square, the zócalo. The largest section is devoted to radishes, but there are also sections set aside for scenes made of flor inmortal (dried flowers), and totomoxtle (corn husks). Go in the afternoon to see them setting up and get a good long look at the elaborate process; when you return in the evening there will be long lineups to admire the finished pieces.
The creativity and ingenuity of Oaxacan craftspeople is evident year-round in the finely crafted folk art and handicrafts they produce, but this event proves, without a doubt, that their skills are extremely versatile. A unique precursor of Christmas, Noche de Rabanos is just one of the many colorful, grandiose celebrations in Oaxaca that enliven the life of its residents and visitors.
•Hierve el Agua
One of the most picturesque natural attractions in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca, Hierve el Agua offers a unique and off-the-beaten-path travel experience. It’s a top ecotourism destination in Oaxaca, especially popular among naturalists, hikers and photographers.
The name Hierve el Agua translates to “the water boils,” and the natural mineral springs that are found here take their name from the bubbling of the warm water as it flows up from the earth through the springs and releases oxygen into the turquoise cliff-top pools.
When you arrive at Hierve el Agua you’ll see what appear to be a massive waterfalls frozen to the side of the mountain. These are actually natural mineral formations that have built up over thousands of years as a result of the mineral-laden water spilling over the edge of the cliff and trickling down the rocky mountain side.
It’s hard to resist a soak in the springs at Hierve el Agua. The minerals in the water are said to be beneficial for the skin and the views from the two cliff-top bathing pools, both of which offer expansive panoramas of the valleys below, are some of the most spectacular in Oaxaca.
Hiking is another favorite activity at Hierve el Agua. There are numerous trails and walking paths in the area. You can hike most of them in less than an hour, including the main trail that leads down the side of the mountain to the base of the petrified falls where it’s possible to get a closer view of the mineral formations and even do a bit of climbing.
Hierve el Agua is best visited on day trips and guided tours from Oaxaca City. Some basic cabanas and a few small restaurants cater to overnight visitors.
•The Heart of Oaxaca
Oaxaca’s main square, officially called the Plaza de la Constitucion, but commonly referred to as the zocalo, is the heart of the city. This tree-filled plaza has numerous cafés and restaurants under the arcades. Balloon vendors, musicians, locals, and tourists of all ages congregate in this lively plaza. In the evenings you can enjoy concerts performed by the Oaxaca state band, mariachi or marimba music or performances from touring musicians.
Consult your Oaxaca city map and you will see that the layout of the zocalo and surrounding buildings follow the colonial town plan which dictated that the city should have a central plaza with buildings representing the religious and civil authorities surrounding it.
Oaxaca’s Palacio de Gobierno is located to the south of the zocalo. Historically this building functioned as city hall, but in 2005 the government offices were moved to other premises and it was converted into the Museo del Palacio. Inside, in the stairwell leading to the second floor, fine murals by Arturo Garcia Bustos depict the struggles in Oaxaca during the historical periods of the conquest, independence, and the Mexican Revolution.
To the north of the zocalo you will find the Cathedral of Oaxaca, fronting the Alameda de Leon, another shady plaza where you can get a free Oaxaca city map. The cathedral went through several construction periods and was consecrated in 1733. It is built of green volcanic stone with a fine baroque façade depicting the Assumption of Mary. The cathedral's cupola and twin bell towers are rather squat in order to withstand the frequent earthquakes that have historically caused damage to Oaxaca’s colonial buildings. The cathedral has a basilica style floor plan and 14 side chapels. Inside you'll find an impressive collection of 16th and 17th century paintings.
The zocalo is the ideal place to begin your exploration of Oaxaca. Find a table at one of the many surrounding cafés and restaurants, order a refreshment and watch the life of the city unfold before you.
•Glorious Santo Domingo
Santo Domingo church and former convent are two of the top places to see in Oaxaca city. The church is one of the most magnificent examples of baroque architecture that you will see anywhere on your Mexico trip. The former convent adjoining the church now houses the Santo Domingo Cultural Center, which includes the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, an ancient books library, a periodicals library, and an Ethnobotanical Garden in the area that was once occupied by the convent's orchards.
Santo Domingo church is one of the finest and most lavishly ornamented baroque churches in Mexico. Construction on the complex began in 1555, but it was not completed until more than one hundred years later. The façade dates from the early 17th century and is more sober in style than the extravagantly decorated interior. The ornate Rosary chapel was completed in 1731.
Much of the original art of Santo Domingo church was destroyed in the 19th century during the Reform War when the army took over the building, using the convent as headquarters and the church as a stable. By the end of the 19th century, the church was returned to the Dominicans, but the military didn't completely vacate the former convent until 1994, when a major restoration project was begun. The Santo Domingo Cultural Center was inaugurated in 1998.
The Museum of the Cultures of Oaxaca contains exhibits dedicated to the history, art and cultures of the region. Be sure to see the Treasures of Tomb 7 from Monte Alban, a discovery made in 1932 of a Mixtec burial that included finely crafted gold, silver, precious stones and intricately carved bone. This is the greatest treasure that has ever been found in Mesoamerica.
The Jardin Etnobotanico (Ethnobotanical Garden), located on the grounds of the Santo Domingo Cultural Center, grows a huge collection of living plants that showcase Oaxaca’s rich biodiversity. A strong emphasis is placed on the many uses that these plants have had throughout the history of the region. The garden may only be visited as part of a guided tour (offered daily in Spanish and several times a week in English).