32 Insanely COOL Things to Do in Oaxaca

by | Mar 10, 2022 | Mexico, Travel

Planning a trip to Oaxaca and trying to figure out what to do there? Here is a list of 32 things to do in Oaxaca for those who love food, history, culture, and a bit of adventure.

If you don’t have time to do all 32 of them, my TOP 6 things to do in Oaxaca are …

  1. Go on a Food Tour
  2. Visit Monte Alban
  3. Wander around the historic center and the cool neighborhoods of Xochimilco and Jalatlaco
  4. Visit Hierve el Agua
  5. Check out the alebrije in Arrazole or San Martin
  6. Visit a mezcal distillery or go on a mezcal tour

Are you traveling on a budget? Or do you just like your independence when you travel?

I’ve included detailed info on how to EXACTLY get to the tourist attractions outside of Oaxaca by public transportation. The transport prices I list are from the fall of 2021. However, since it’s now 2022 and gas prices have been rising, I expect the cost of taxis and buses to be higher than what I have indicated. Let me know in the comment section at the bottom what the new prices are.

street lined with colorful colonial buildings and colorful flags hanging across

Why You Should Visit Oaxaca

Every now and then, you stumble across a place that you actually think about settling down in. You know…rent an apartment (or buy), get some furniture, pots and pans, perhaps a dog or cat or both, make some friends…You know, a place you can call home for a while.

That’s how I felt about Oaxaca.

I stayed 3 weeks but really I wanted to stay forever.

There was just something about the place that made me fall in love with it.

I love cities with great food, beautiful architecture, lots of art, a rich culture, and stunning scenery, and Oaxaca had all of that in spades.

Plus, it had the friendliest and most welcoming people in Mexico (a tie with Guanajuato and Puebla).

I could easily get around the city by foot and when I wanted to visit another nearby city, I could easily find public transportation.

As a budget traveler, I was able to find an inexpensive, clean, comfortable, and conveniently located hotel for less than US$20. Read the section on Where to Stay in Oaxaca to find out where I stayed.

I hope you enjoy your time in Oaxaca as much as I did.

small courtyard surrounded by colorful buildings

Things to do in Oaxaca: Historic Center

Let’s start with things to do in the historic center (centro historico) because this area is probably where you’ll be staying. Oaxaca’s historic center is jampacked with art galleries, cafes, restaurants, rooftop bars, churches, parks, indoor and outdoor markets, street art, street vendors, and shops.

1. Zocalo and the Oaxaca Cathedral

The first place to visit in Oaxaca is the Zocalo (the central plaza). The plaza is the perfect place to sit under the shade of a tree and watch the city go by. There’s a beautiful gazebo in the center and loads of vendors, shoe shiners, and protestors all around the park.

An inexpensive and delicious place to grab a cup of hot chocolate

The Zocalo is surrounded by expensive restaurants and cafes. However, Restaurante Mayordomo (Google Maps) is reasonably priced. Grab a seat there to do some more people-watching while having a traditional Oaxacan hot chocolate and bread called pan de muerta (yolk bread).

street at dusk with people, vendors, and buildings

Souvenir Vendors in the square

The vendors surrounding the square are not hard to miss. Day and night you’ll see souvenir vendors under tarp-covered stalls in front of the Palacio de Gobierno or just on the ground around the Zocalo.

They have set up these stalls as a protest against the government not protecting them from being evicted from their land by some developer. Unfortunately, most of the souvenirs that they sell are not true handicrafts and instead have been manufactured in other countries.

Cathedral of Oaxaca

Next to the Zocalo is the Cathedral of Oaxaca. Its construction began in 1535 and finished in 1640. Over the years, it’s been reconstructed many times due to earthquakes.

Oaxaca Cathedral at dusk

The façade is made out of green cantera stone, a material that is particular to Oaxaca. It’s built in the Neoclassical style, another unique feature as most churches in Mexico are baroque.

The Cathedral is often open to the public.

2. Check out the beautiful buildings in the historic center

If you’re into architecture, you can spend a whole day just aimlessly wandering around the historic center taking in all the beautiful buildings that line the cobblestoned streets.

Andador de Macedonio Aclala

One of my favorite streets for architecture is Andador de Macedonio Alcala. Lined with galleries, cafes, and shops housed in pink, blue, green, and yellow colonial buildings, this pedestrian-only street connects Santo Domingo Church with the Cathedral of Oaxaca.

Make sure to break up your wanderings with a stop at a café to get a coffee or hot chocolate or at a rooftop bar to get a beer or cocktail. I highly recommend Praga Coffee Bar (Google Maps).

3. Stop by Santo Domingo Church and Monastery (Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman)

  • OPEN: Around 4:00 or 5:00 pm
  • COST: free
  • LOCATION: Google Maps

Probably one of the most beautiful buildings in the city is Santo Domingo Church and Monastery. Built between 1575 and 1608, The church was named in honor of Santo Domingo de Guzman, a Spanish monk who founded the Dominicans. The Dominicans were a religious order known for protecting the indigenous population against the greed of the colonists.

Santo Domingo church in Oaxaca

The church is usually closed, so if you see the doors (usually around 4:00 or 5:00 pm), don’t hesitate to enter. You’ll be treated to a ceiling covered in detailed carvings and gold leaf and a stunning altar also in gold leaf.

If you still can’t get inside, the exterior’s beautiful baroque facade is still a work of art, so it’s worth stopping by on your tour of the city.

The Cultural Centre of Oaxaca stands next to the church. It’s definitely worth a visit as it holds the contents of Tomb 7 from the Zapotec site of Monte Albon.

Culture Tip: In Mexico and Central America, you’ll find many religious structures referred to as convents. In English, convent is solely a place for nuns. But in Latin America, the word is also used to describe a monastery. Santo Domingo is referred to as a church and “convent”, but it was originally ONLY for monks and NOT nuns.

4. Tour the Oaxaca Botanical Gardens (Jardin Etnobotanico de Oaxaca)

  • GUIDED TOURS: 11:00 am (M-Sa) in English; 10:00, 11:00, 12:00 (M-Sa) in Spanish; 10:00 am (Sa) in French
  • COST: MXN$100 for the English tour and MXN$50 for the Spanish tour
  • LOCATION: Google Maps

One of the hardest places to get into in Oaxaca is the Botanical Gardens (Jardin Etnobotanico de Oaxaca). But it is so worth it even if you’re not into plants and flowers. I’m not in general. But I absolutely adored this place, probably because the gardens are full of many varieties of cactus and there is something about these plants that fascinate me.  

2 rows of Cactus
Cactus

Why is it so hard to get into? You have to take a tour, lasting one hour. Unfortunately, tours in English take place once a day at 11:00 am. To make things even harder for you, tours are limited to 15 people. So, line up 2 or 3 hours beforehand to ensure space on the tour.

Due to the pandemic, the tour times might be even more limited; when I was there, they were only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. According to the gardens’ website, they’re every day except Sunday.

There is a famous photo of a row of cacti reflected on a pool of water. When I visited, the pool was empty in order to prevent mosquitoes from proliferating and causing a dengue fever outbreak.

5. Visit the Solidad Basilica

Just a few blocks from the Zocalo is another not-to-miss architectural wonder: Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Solidad. Mexicans love baroque and Solidad takes the architectural style to a whole new level. Built in 1682 and 1690, the church uses the same green cantera stone found in other churches in Oaxaca except for the front, which uses yellow cantera stone.

Solidad Basilica in Oaxaca

Another reason to add this church to your Oaxaca itinerary is for the view: get a shot of the church with one of the neighborhoods that sit on the slopes of the mountains surrounding the city in the background.

3D relief of Virgin Mary on exterior of Solidad Basilica in Oaxaca

Finally, check out the interesting relief on the outside of the church of the Virgin Mary weeping over the body of Christ (the skull and cross and branches with leaves represent life after death) and the city of Jerusalem in the background over her other shoulder.

6. Aqueduct of Oaxaca

Another historic and architectural feature of the city that you’ll want to take a look at is the aqueduct. Built between 1727 and 1751, you can still find 300 meters of the aqueduct from 2a de Rufino Tamayo (south of 190) to Calle Jose Lopez Alavez (north of 190) in Xilchimilco barrio.

aqueduct in things to do in Oaxaca

The aqueduct used to bring water down from the hillsides of Cerro de San Felipe to the citizens of Oaxaca City (Lonely Planet). It was replaced in 1940 by a more modern system.

7. Free Walking Tour of Historic Center

  • OPEN: 10:00 AM or 4:00 pm daily
  • COST: tip – MXN$100 – $200 (US$5 – $10)
  • MEETING LOCATION: Teatro Macedonia Alcala
  • CONTACT INFORMATION: Facebook or Free Walk Oaxaca Website

I highly recommend doing a FREE walking tour on your first or second day in Oaxaca. A guide generally takes you on a tour on foot of the historic center, tells you the history of the city, and brings you to places that you probably wouldn’t find on your own. Without the tour, I would never have known about the organic food court, some cool restaurants and cafes, and the Xochimilco neighborhood.

a person using a machine to weave rugs

The length of time varies by tour guide and the enthusiasm of the guests. My tour with Raul lasted over three hours!

At the end, you should give a tip depending on how good the tour was, how long it was, how many people were on it, and how much you can afford. I recommend tipping between MXN$100 and $200 (US$5 – $10) if it’s a good tour.

 Contact the tour operators through Facebook or their website to find out the meeting location.

Pro Tips: Wear insect repellent to protect against mosquitoes when in Oaxaca. Dengue Fever is real here and you don’t want to get it. Mosquitoes that are infected with Dengue usually are in urban areas during the day, especially at dusk and dawn.

Things to do in Oaxaca: Exploring its Cool Neighborhoods

If you like street art and architecture, check out some of the neighborhoods of Xochimilco and Jalatlaco.

8. Xochimilco Barrio

One of the coolest neighborhoods in Oaxaca is Xochimilco. It’s a place with old colorful buildings, narrow alleyways and courtyards, small shops, galleries, cafes, hip restaurants, and loads of street art.  The neighborhood is split in half by Calle 190/Highway 190 (it’s easy to cross). Check out both sides of the street.

a purple volkswagen batle on a street in Oaxaca

You can find Xochi’s best street art on the north side of 190. Walk along Calle Jose Lopez Alavez for the best street art in Xochimilco. Then stop for some coffee or brunch in either the garden at Rupestre Pan y Café or the rooftop terrace at Filemon.

Wander around some of the small side streets that go up the hills.

Finally, keep on walking north to the part of the aqueduct where the river flows through the aqueduct (Google Maps).

9. Jalatlaco Barrio

Another charming and historic neighborhood to wander around in is Jalatlaco. Streets are covered with cobblestones and lined with colorful cafes, restaurants, and hotels.

street art of a family of skeletons painted on a building

Like in Xochimilco, you’ll also find lots of fun street art, including the total exterior of restaurants and hotels. It’s a lot of fun.

map of Jalatlaco Barrio

Other than the art and a beautiful eighteenth-century church, there aren’t any other attractions in the neighborhood. It’s very quiet during the day but supposedly comes alive in the evening when the street vendors come out.

Is Oaxaca safe? I was in Oaxaca for 3 weeks and felt safe walking around during the day and in the early evening alone. However, according to ex-pats on a Oaxaca Facebook group, there have been cases of people getting mugged late at night around the historic center. There was one story of 2 guys leaving a bar late at night, being hustled into separate taxis, and then robbed, beaten, and abandoned somewhere in the countryside.

Things to do in Oaxaca: For Food and Mezcal Lovers

Now for my favorite things to do in Oaxaca: eating and drinking. Yes, it’s true. The food in Oaxaca is one of the best in Mexico (Puebla is #1; Oaxaca is #2). There are so many different ways besides visiting restaurants that you can really get to know this city’s cuisine. I did a mezcal tour, a food tour, and a cooking class.

10. Do a food tour

The highlight of my trip to Oaxaca (and perhaps all of Mexico) was the “Eat Like a Local” food tour with Betsy Morales. I’ve been on food tours all over the world (Japan, Vietnam, Singapore…) and Betsy’s tour was THE best one I’ve ever done!

By going on a food tour, you’ll get to try foods that you would normally never eat on your own and you’ll get to learn about the history of Oaxacan cuisine.

a woman standing in front of bottles of mezcal

The tour included a visit to La Cosecha Organic Market, 20 de Noviembre Market, and the Benito Juarez Market. We got to try squash blossom tlacoluya, lacoche (fungus that grows on corn), several moles, barbecue, hot chocolate, chapulines (fried grasshopper), and loads more.

an aisle lined with fresh meat at 20 de Noviembre Market in Oaxaca

The best part was eating grilled Oaxacan meat and veggies at the famous Pasillo de Humo. The guide teaches you how to order the meat and sides, which is something that would be hard to do on your own.

Betsy knows how to pace things so that by the end of the tour you don’t feel like you ate too much.

11. Learn how to cook Oaxacan cuisine

Another great thing to do in Oaxaca if you’re a food lover is to take a cooking class. You get to not only learn about the culture and history of the food, but you also get to learn how to cook it, and then you get to eat it afterward.

a bowl of ceviche with a slice of avocado

I did the Flavors of Oaxaca Cooking Class with Casa Crespo, and to be honest, I have mixed feelings about it. After doing a tour of a local market, the chef had each of the 6 students cook different parts of the meal. For example, one person chopped the onions while the other person blended the ingredients. At the end of the class, we (except for the teacher) all sat down to eat what we made. 

On the positive side, the chef and teacher, Oscar Carrizosa, asked us what we wanted to cook and followed our requests. We got to make a lot of dishes such as a mole, several different salsas, tamales, a dessert, a ceviche, and soup. The food we made turned out to be the best meal I had during my 6 months in Mexico.

On the downside, it’s not cheap at US$88. But more importantly, the teacher was so cold, unfriendly, and quick to criticize that I was stressed out the whole day. It seemed to me that Chef Oscar didn’t really want to be there.

There are a few other cooking schools in Oaxaca. I can’t vouch for the quality of them, but here are just some that I’ve found: Oaxaca Cooking Class with Quinta Brava, La Cocina Oaxaquena, and Seasons of My Heart.

12. Stuff your face at 20 de Noviembre Market

The 20 de Noviembre Market has got all the things you want in a market: cheap, delicious, clean, and authentic food. An added bonus is that the vendors are pretty welcoming and patient to people who don’t speak Spanish very well.

stores selling bread in 20 de Noviembre Market in Oaxaca

The indoor market is just 2 blocks from the Zocalo. It’s a giant building with entrances on every side, and it’s filled with (I think) only vendors selling food and drinks. They’ve got pretty much anything you want here: mole, tlayuda, grilled meats, Oaxacan sweets, hot chocolate, bread, and on and on.

Shop around! You’ll notice one stall charges MXN$90 for a tlayuda while another just a few doors down only MXN$65.

They’ve got one section called Pasillo de Humo devoted to vendors selling grilled meats. The food looks absolutely delicious but ordering the food looks overly complicated and intimidating. However, if you join The Street Food tour that I mentioned earlier in this post, Betsy will take you to this market and show you how to order.

You do not want to miss this market!

13. Chill out at La Cosecha Organic Market

  • OPEN: 9:00 am – 4:45 pm (W – Su)
  • LOCATION: Google Maps

I absolutely love the relaxed vibe of La Cosecha market. The vendors are kind and welcoming, and because it’s small and uncrowded, you don’t get overwhelmed or stressed out by all the hustle and bustle that you find in bigger markets. Therefore, it’s the perfect market to visit when you first arrive in Oaxaca or if you’re intimidated by ordering food in another language. Plus, the food and drinks are delicious, organic, and reasonably priced.

La Cosecha Market in Oaxaca

You can buy all kinds of different foods. You can try different kinds of mole, seafood soup, craft beer, coffee, fruit juices, and the best tlayuda (with squash blossoms) I’ve ever had.

14. Visit the Sunday Market in Tlacolula

The Sunday market in Tlacolula is another great food experience. This market is HUGE! It goes on for what seems like an endless number of blocks. People from all over the area come and sell everything under the sun from backpacks to cowboy hats to computer parts.

peopl selling grilled meat at Tlacolula Market

The star of the show is the food, though. The market is a great place to buy fruit at a far cheaper price than what you would pay in the historic center of Oaxaca.

You can also find people selling food that they made themselves. If you come across a woman and her husband selling cornbread, don’t hesitate to buy some. It’s absolutely yummy.

There’s a huge indoor market with different sections devoted to a specific kind of food. One huge hall is all bread. Another is grilled meats. Another is vegetables.

I highly recommend buying some chapulines (grasshoppers) from vendors walking around and selling them from baskets. You can get the ones with lime or the one with chili. Just buy a few for MXN$5 to see what they taste like.

Make sure to stop in at the church, Templo de Santa Maria de la Asuncion Tlacolula (Google Maps). There is a stunning chapel called the Capilla del Senor de Tlacolula on the side of the church that should not be missed.

The morning is definitely less crowded than the afternoon.

You can either go to Tlacolula on your own with public transportation or join a tour that combines the market with a visit to the fabulous Yagul ruins.

How to get to the Tlacolula market:

I went to the baseball stadium and stood on the corner of 190 and Calle De Los Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Street) (Google Maps), which was in front of a BMW dealership (Google Maps), and waited for a bus or shared taxi that says “Tlocalula” or “Mitla” on it. A blue and white ATSA bus came by and I got on. It cost MXN$20.

A shared taxi from the same place will cost MXN$30 (US$1.50).

The bus stopped in Tlacolula on the corner of 190 and Juarez (Google Maps). Juarez is the same street the Sunday market is on.

The first time I went to Tlacolula, it took 1 hour to get there by bus as the bus kept on dropping off and picking up passengers along the way.

The second time, there was a blockade on the highway. Some people from a town near Oaxaca were protesting that the government had done nothing to help them after a flood destroyed their homes. My friends and I had to get off the bus and walk through the blockade to catch another bus. There were also tuk-tuks there to pick people up.

If you are staying in the southern part of the city, you will probably want to get a shared taxi and bus from the Second-Class Bus Station (Google Maps).

How to get back to Oaxaca from Tlacolula:

I crossed Highway 190 and stood in front of a pharmacy on the corner of Juarez and 190 (Google Maps) and waited for an ATSA bus or a shared taxi to come by. This time a shared taxi pulled up first and that’s what I took to get back to Oaxaca. It cost me MXN$30 (US$1.50).

Shared taxis will go all the way to the Second-Class Bus Station. However, you can be dropped off anywhere along the way.

15. Try some mezcal

Originating in Oaxaca, mezcal is an alcoholic beverage made from the agave plant. Although it’s been growing in the region for centuries (it was even illegal at one point), only in the past 4 or 5 years has it become popular outside of Oaxaca. Now people from all over come to the state just to try the mezcal. It is made in other states in Mexico but Oaxaca’s mezcal is the best due to its altitude and climate.

a row of agave plants

You can join a tour or visit a distillery on your own. There are all kinds of tours. Some are expensive while others are cheap. There are ones where you spend the whole day drinking mezcal, which I heard can be a bit too much if you’re not used to drinking lots of alcohol. If you can’t drink alcohol all day, there are tours that combine mezcal drinking with other activities.

I took a tour through Coyote Aventuras that combined a visit to an agave farm and distillery, a weaving workshop in Teotitlan del Valle, and a hike up a mountain with amazing views of the landscape of Oaxaca. They also have one that combines visiting a distillery with a visit to Hierve el Agua.

A tour will usually take you to a field of agave plants, a distillery that turns the agave plant to mezcal, and a drinking room that lets you sample different mezcals.

If you’re on a budget and want to visit a mezcal distillery on your own by public transportation, you can visit Mezcal El Rey de Matatlan (Google Maps). I didn’t visit, but I passed it several times on my way to other sites around Oaxaca. For info on how to get there, see the section on getting to Tlacolula.

Things to do in Oaxaca: For Indiana Jones Wannabees

I love history and architecture and I used to want to be an archaeologist, so I went overboard on the ruins in Oaxaca. I visited 3 ruins. Monte Alban is stunning for its size and cool statues. Mitla is a must for its beautiful architectural design and Yagul for its mazelike buildings. All 3 are easy to get to from Oaxaca. Another site, Daiznu, was recommended but was a bit hard to get to, so I didn’t make it there.

16. Explore the Ruins of Monte Alban

Just 30 minutes by bus from Oaxaca, Monte Alban rivals even the best Maya ruins. First settled in 500 BCE and abandoned in 1000 CE, Monte Alban was THE political and economic center of the Zapotec people.

stones with carvings of men dancing at Monte Alban

The best structures are around this football-sized plaza that reminds me of the National Mall in Washington D.C.  It’s a long rectangular plaza surrounded on every side by palaces and pyramids and at the north and south ends with two acropolises.

The North Acropolis is the structure to visit first. Give yourself lots of time up here because there are lots to see.  Plus, there are some lookout points that provide great photo opportunities of the valley below—the farms, towns, fields, and mountains of Oaxaca.

The other must-see site is the Dansaka–a row of stone carvings of dancing toothless and disemboweled old men. You can see the blood gushing out of some of them as they’ve had their guts cut out or genitals cut off. They’re very expressive.

You can usually hire guides at the site or you can arrange a guide beforehand with Get Your Guides.

If you’re short on time, you can do a tour to Monte Alban and a visit to some of the towns around Oaxaca to see the local alebrije and black pottery.

How to get to Monte Alban and back to Oaxaca:

The cheapest and easiest way to get to Monte Alban is to take a bus from Autobuses Turisticos on Francisco Javier Milna (Google Maps). They have buses at these times: 9:00, 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, 13:00, and 14:00.

The problem is that they’re not very punctual. And you have no choice on what time you return. I bought the 10:00 am ticket, but the bus didn’t leave until 10:30 am. Thus, it got to the ruins at 11:00, giving me less than 2.5 hours.

I recommend taking the 9:00 am bus as the park limits visitors to 400 a day. You need 3 hours to see everything and not feel rushed.

Return times include the following: 12:30, 13:30, 14:30, and 15:20.

Keep your bus ticket for your return journey. You’ll have to hand it to the bus driver when you return to Oaxaca.

Bus tickets cost MXN$90 (US$4.50) round trip.

17. Explore the Ruins of Mitla

  • OPEN: 10:00 am – 3:00 pm (W – Sa); 11:00 am – 1:00 pm (Su) – only allow 200 persons per day to enter
  • COST: MXN$85 (US$4.25)
  • LOCATION: Google Maps

If you’re thinking about skipping Mitla because you’ve heard it’s small and hard to get to, don’t. It’s worth every blood, sweat, tear, and penny you need to visit. I loved it. It’s a completely different experience from visiting Monte Alban. While Monte Alban wows you with its size and grandness, Mitla gets you with its beautifully designed buildings. You won’t see anything like this anywhere else in Mesoamerica.  

cactus in front of Mitla ruins

Mitla and Monte Alban’s purposes were also different. While Monte Alban was a political center, Mitla was the religious center of the Zapotecs.

There are basically 3 structures open to visitors. The first 2 are the best ones. Right next to the ticket office, the first set of ruins consists of a maze of courtyards and rooms and was probably the home of a high priest. Besides the stunning geometric carvings on the top part of the walls, look out for the original red paint and the pictures of a jaguar, bird, and snake above one of the doorways.

The second structure not to miss is the stunning Group of Columns. It reminded me of the Palace of Knossos in Crete.  

How to get to Mitla from Oaxaca:

I got to Mitla by taking a shared taxi from the corner of Highway 90 and De Los Derechos Hermanos (Human Rights Street), right near the baseball stadium (Google Maps). If you stand on the corner in front of the BMW dealership/repair shop, the red and white shared taxis, as well as buses, will come by one after another. I got a taxi that said “Mitla” on a sign in its window. A taxi cost me MXN$40 (US$2), while a bus cost MXN$20 (US$1).

Taxis are quicker (45 minutes) than buses (over 1 hour), but the taxi driver drives way too fast and takes too many risks passing cars on Highway 190 compared to the bus. My taxi did not wait around for it to fill up. It left with just me in the car and for most of the way, I was the only passenger. The taxi driver dropped me off in the center of town. I then walked for about 15 minutes to the ruins. It was a bit hard finding the entrance to the ruins because what street the entrance is on is not indicated on Google Maps. Just look for signs pointing to the Arsenal Mercado. The ruins are across from a parking lot that is next to the market.

How to get back to Oaxaca from Mitla:

I walked to the bus station (Google Maps) in Mitla. It’s a 15-minute walk from the ruins. I had to wait for 20 minutes for the bus. The ride cost me MXN$20 (US$1). The bus stops and picks up and drops off passengers whenever someone needs to get on and off. It also stops at the bus station in Tlacolula, so if you want to combine a visit to Mitla and the Sunday market in Tlacolula or combine Mitla and Yagul, you can.

18. Explore the ruins of Yagul

The ruins of Yagul are the hardest ones to get to, but they are still worth your time and energy. Part of what makes these ruins so special is the landscape. Yagul is on a hill overlooking the valley of Oaxaca. You get one grand view of fields, towns, and a range of mountains topped with puffy white clouds in the distance.  

ruins of Yagul

The other reason Yagul is so special is the ruins themselves. You get a series of mazelike rooms and courtyards that you don’t generally see in other sites in Mexico. There is also a ballcourt that you can climb to the top of and look down on its sloping sides, which is also something you can’t do at any other site in Mexico.

Plus, you’ll most likely get the whole place to yourself.

There are restrooms at the ruins but no gift shops or food or beverages for sale.

You could probably do Yagul and Mitla on the same day or combine it with a visit to the Sunday market in Tlacolula.

If you don’t want to visit Yagul on your own, you can join a tour with a visit to Tlacolula.

How to get to Yagul from Oaxaca:

You’ll need to head to the baseball stadium and catch a bus or a shared taxi from the corner of Highway 190 and Avenida De Los Derechos Hermanos (The Avenue of Human Rights) (Google Maps). Stand on the corner in front of the BMW repair shop. A taxi cost me MXN$30 (US$1.50). The bus was MXN$20 (US$1).

After about 30 minutes, the taxi dropped me off on the side of the highway across from a sign for the ruins. Crossing the highway was easy as there weren’t many cars.  Then I then walked for about 30 minutes along a road that ended at the Yagul ruins.

How to get back to Oaxaca from Yagul:

You’ll need to walk back to the highway to get a shared taxi or bus. At first, I had some trouble getting a taxi to stop because I didn’t know where to stand and the taxis were driving way too fast for them to see me and stop in time. I think 5 taxis passed by before one finally stopped. It cost MXN$30 (US$1.50).

Things to do in Oaxaca: Art Lovers

Oaxaca is the best destination in Mexico for people who love art and handicrafts. It’s the home of the alebrije sculptures and black clay pottery. It’s also a city known for its street art and more edgy political art.

19. Shop (or just window shop) for Alebrije

Even if you don’t like art or you’re not into it, you really should check out the wooden sculptures of brightly colorful fantastical creatures called alebrije Two small towns near Oaxaca are home to the top workshops and galleries of alebrije: Arrazole and San Martin.

alebrije turtle
alebrije owl

19.1 Voces de Copal Art Gallery

If you’re short on time and don’t want to leave the city, you can visit the Voces de Copal Art Gallery (Google Maps) in Centro Historico.

This gallery features the works of art by Jacobo and Maria Angeles. This is the best alebrije that money can buy. Even if you can’t afford to buy one, it’s fun to just look around.

19.2 Arrazole

Try to fit in a visit to the town of Arrazole, one of the two best places to buy alebrije in Mexico. In the center of the town are about 2 blocks of just alebrije workshops and galleries. You can spend an afternoon walking from one gallery to another.

Raul, my guide on the “free” walking tour, lives in Arrazole, and he spent his Saturday afternoon taking me and two other foreign tourists to check out the workshops and galleries in Arrazole. But you can easily do it on your own.

You can also do a tour with Get Your Guide that combines a visit to Arrazole with Monte Alban and some other towns in the area.

How to get to Arrazole from Oaxaca:

I got a shared taxi here on Periferico Street in front of Mercado de Abastos (Google Maps). Look for taxis that say they are going to Arrazole (there usually is a sign in the taxi’s front window or painted on the side of the taxi). It cost MXN$12 per person. It took 30 minutes to get to Arrazole on a Sunday afternoon.

19.3 San Martin

The other town full of alebrije workshops and galleries is San Martin (Google Maps). Two of the most famous artists, Jacobo and Maria Angeles, have their workshop here (Google Maps), and they give tours in English, where you get to see how the wooden sculptures are made. It’s totally worth it!

You can also sign up for a workshop and learn how to make your own alebrije.

How to get to San Martin from Oaxaca:

Go to Automorsa, also called Auto Transportes Morales, (Google Maps) for vans to San Martin. It’s on 622 Bustamante Street (Google Maps). I paid MXN$30 ($US1.50) for a ride to San Martin (30 minutes).

The van or bus will drop you off at the intersection of Highway 175 and Avenida Ote, which is the road leading into San Martin. Across the street from where the van or bus drops you off is Azucena Zapoteca (Google Maps), a wonderful restaurant that serves some of the best food in Oaxaca and at a reasonable price. Have brunch or lunch here and then walk or take a tuk-tuk into San Martin for MXN$8-12.

How to get back to Oaxaca from San Martin.

Just wait on the side of Highway 175 and a bus or shared taxi will pass by.

20. View the Street Art of Oaxaca

Oaxaca is full of really cool street art: edgy, political, and whimsical. You can go on a street art tour by bike or just walk around yourself. I chose the latter. The best places for street art are in the neighborhoods of Xochimilco and Jalatlaco.

street art of a skeleton surrounded by red flowers

However, I wish I had done the street art bike tour as I would have learned more about the history and culture of Oaxaca and Mexico. It’s 4 hours long and you get to visit 3 neighborhoods: Xochimilco, Jalatlaco, and downtown Oaxaca. You can sign up for a tour with Coyote Aventuras through Get Your Guide.

21. Visit the Textile Workshops and Galleries in Teotitlan del Valle

The rugs in Oaxaca are the most beautiful I’ve seen in Mexico. In the town of Teotitlan del Valle (Google Maps), there are several workshops making Zapotec rugs by hand.

machine making colorful rugs

The local families have workshops where they dye the wool themselves using natural ingredients and then weave the rugs. There are galleries in the town where you can buy these gorgeous rugs.

I visited Josefina’s family’s textile workshop and store on a tour with Coyote Aventuras, where we got to have lunch as well as a demonstration of how they made the rugs.

22. Shop for the Black Clay Pottery of San Bartolo Coyotepec

It seems like the art of Oaxaca is endless. One other ancient craft that the local people have been doing for centuries is making black clay pottery (barro negro). The center of this handicraft is in San Bartolo Coyotepec, where you’ll find a museum dedicated to the art form (Google Maps) and a handicraft market around the main square (Google Maps).

black clay pottery

Black clay pottery is a tradition that dates back 2,500 years. Today they use the technique and pottery to make black skulls that are popular during the Day of the Dead celebrations.

How to get to San Bartolo Coyotepec:

Go to Automorsa, also called Auto Transportes Morales, (Google Maps) for vans to San Bartolo. It’s on 622 Bustamante Street (Google Maps). I paid MXN$30 ($US1.50) for a ride to San Martin (30 minutes).

Get dropped off in front of the San Bartolo sign in the main plaza, which is across from the main church (Google Maps).

How to get back to Oaxaca from San Bartolo Coyotepec:

You can get a shared taxi or bus from in front of the San Bartholomew Church on Highway 175 (Google Maps). Expect to pay MXN$40 (US$2) per person for a shared taxi or MXN$30 ($US1.50) for a bus.

  • OPEN: 11:00 am – 7:00 pm (M – Sa)
  • COST: free
  • LOCATION: Google Maps

Oaxaca has loads of art galleries, but for me, the most interesting one is the Espacio Zapata Gallery. Founded by the art collective, ASARO (Asamblea de Artistas Revolucionarios de Oaxaca), the gallery contains art with a political edge with commentary on historical and current events and people in Mexico.

a drawing of a girl crying

There are 2 particular works of art that you shouldn’t miss. One is the drawing that my guide said you see all over Mexico: a young girl crying and the numbers 68, 43, and 3. The number 68 represents 1968, the year the government opened fire on protesting students, 43 is for the 43 students who disappeared as they made their way to Mexico City, and 3 is for 3 additional people who’ve disappeared.

The other work of art is the Last Supper of Mexico. Notice who takes the place of Jesus and see how many powerful Mexicans you can identify in the painting.

Things to do in Oaxaca: Museums and Historic Places

I love museums, but when I was visiting Oaxaca, almost all of them were closed due to the pandemic. Hopefully, they will reopen soon. Let me know in the comments if they are worth going to. Here is a list of the museums that I wish I had had a chance to visit:

24. Museum of the Cultures of Oaxaca (Museo de las Cultura de Oaxaca)

  • OPEN: closed due to the pandemic; 10:00 am – 6:15 pm (Tu – Su)
  • COST: MXN$80 (US$4)
  • LOCATION: Google Maps
  • WEBSITE

Attached to the Templo de Santo Domingo is the Museo de las Cultura de Oaxaca. It’s devoted to both pre-Hispanic and contemporary Oaxacan history and culture.

The highlight is the Mixtec artifacts from Tomb 7 at Monte Alban. After the Zapotecs abandoned Monte Alban, the Mixtecs came in and used one of the abandoned temples as a tomb to bury one of their kings, his servants, and his treasures of silver, turquoise, jade, and gold.

25. Palacio de Gobierno

  • OPEN: Closed to the public
  • COST: free
  • LOCATION: Google Maps

Palacio de Gobierno is another place I sadly wasn’t able to visit. It wasn’t closed due to the pandemic but because the protesting souvenir vendors had set up camp in front of the building. If you have a chance to get in you’ll supposedly be treated to a beautiful mural by Arturo Garcia Bustos showing famous figures from Oaxacan history and culture.

26. Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre-Hispanic Art of Mexico

  • OPEN: 10:00 am – 2:00 pm; 4:00 – 7:00 pm (M – Sa)
  • COST: MXN$90 (US$4.50)
  • LOCATION: Google Maps
  • WEBSITE

The Rufino Tamayo Museum is another place for those interested in Mexico’s ancient history. It includes a collection of over 1,000 artifacts from the pre-Hispanic cultures across Mexico. There are 5 rooms, each of which is painted a different color that matches the color in the artifacts.

27. Museum of Contemporary Art of Oaxaca

  • OPEN: 10:30 am – 8:00 pm (W – M; closed on Tu)
  • COST: MXN$20; Sundays are FREE
  • LOCATION: Google Maps
  • WEBSITE

Located in a renovated seventeenth-century mansion called the House of Hernan Cortes (the conqueror actually never stepped foot in Oaxaca), the Museum of Contemporary Art of Oaxaca is where you can see both contemporary and traditional works of art of some of Oaxaca’s most famous artists.

28. Museo Casa de Juarez

This small museum is for those who know a bit about Mexican history. It is dedicated to the first and only indigenous president of Mexico, Benito Juarez. The famous man lived here from 1819 to 1828 when he was a young man getting his education.

The house represents a typical eighteenth-century Oaxacan middle-class home. Although the furniture and objects in the museum are not the ones that were originally there, they’re emblematic of ones from that same time period.

You can find a few of Juarez’s belongings and documents in the museum as well.

29. Museum of Oaxacan Textiles (Museo Textil de Oaxaca)

This is the only museum that was open when I visited, but unfortunately, it’s not worth walking out of your way for. Although it’s free and the textiles are pretty, the museum includes only one small room plus a gift shop. Explanations are only in Spanish. It’s really too bad that you can only see a small portion of the museum’s collection of 5,000 textile pieces.

Things to do in Oaxaca: Parks and Nature

The mountains and forests around Oaxaca make for some great hiking opportunities. However, they’re often only accessible by car or on a tour. I’ve listed a few tours from a tour agency that I used for a hike I did called Coyote Aventuras.

30. Hierve el Agua

  • COST: MXN$15 and MXN$50 entrance fee
  • LOCATION: Google Maps

The #1 place that I wish I had visited but didn’t (it was closed due to a dispute between locals and tour companies) is the petrified waterfalls and natural springs of Hierve el Agua. Located 70 kilometers from Oaxaca City, Hierve el Agua means “boiled water” in Spanish.

Hierve el Agua
Hierve el Agua, thermal spring in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico

Hierve el agua is REALLY popular with locals and foreign tourists, so it can get really crowded. There’s a tour through Get Your Guide that gets you to the springs BEFORE everyone else shows up.

Going during the wet season (fall) will provide you with better views and more water but more people. If you go in the summer months, there will be fewer people but less water in the pools.

Hierve el Agua waterfalls

The pools go right up to the edge of the ravine so that they look like infinity pools. There are no safety railings along the edge so you need to be careful.

How to get to Hierve el Agua:

Take a bus or shared taxi to Mitla from the 2nd Class Bus Station (Google Maps) or the corner of the Baseball Stadium (Google Maps) and then a pickup truck to Hierve el Agua. The truck leaves when it gets at least 10 passengers.

31. Hike the forests and mountains of Oaxaca

One tour company that does lots of hikes and gets good reviews is Coyote Aventuras. I went on one of their hiking tours. Although I found my guide, Veronica, to be unfriendly and irresponsible, the things we did on the tour were fantastic. We went to a mezcal distillery, a weaving workshop, and a hike up a mountain with stunning views.

crosses on a mountain

I don’t see that particular tour on their website any longer. However, they have other unique tours in which they combine a hike with a cultural activity like mezcal, weaving, or visiting a local’s home. Here are some of their hikes:

32. Explore Cerro del Fortin

  • OPEN: 24/7 – but may not be so safe in the evening
  • COST: free
  • LOCATION: Google Maps

I never made it to Cerro del Fortin. At the time, there were posts on the Oaxaca Expat Facebook group about muggings taking place on the trails during the day. It was too bad because the hill supposedly has panoramic views of the city.

Cerro del Fortin also has a famous concert venue called Auditorio Gualaguetza (Google Maps), the location of the Oaxacan annual folk dance festival that takes place in July.

You’ll also find a planetarium, observatory, a statue of Benito Juarez, and a Christian cross.

Where to stay in Oaxaca

Make sure you stay in the Central Historic District or the neighborhoods of Xochimilco or Jalatlaco. These are the safest and most convenient places in the city. I particularly liked the area near Jardin Conzatti (Google Maps)–safe, quiet, and beautiful.

I usually use booking.com to book my hotels.

Budget Hotels and Hostels

Posada de Los Angeles – (Booking.com | Agoda) I stayed in this simple, comfortable, and inexpensive hotel in a very safe and beautiful neighborhood and within walking distance of all the main tourist attractions in the city. Rates are usually set at US$21 a night, but I negotiated for a lower rate as I stayed for 3 weeks.

Hostel Nordes – (Booking.com | Agoda) Another hotel with private rooms at an amazingly great price and located close to all the main attractions is Hostel Nordes.

Mid-range Hotels

Comala Bed and Breakfast – (Booking.com | Agoda) This B&B was on my radar when I was looking for a place to stay. Great rating, location, and comes with a rooftop terrace!

NaNa Vida Hotel Oaxaca – (Booking.com | Agoda) This hotel is in a great location and has a 9.5 rating on Booking.com with over 500 reviews.

Luxury Hotels

Casa Antonieta – (Booking.com | Agoda) This hotel has a 9.5 rating with over 200 reviews. Elegant, stylish, and just 2 blocks from the Zocalo.

Where to eat in Oaxaca

Besides the 20 de Noviembre Market, Benito Juarez Market, and La Cosecha Market, which I mentioned earlier in this post, here are some more restaurants that I recommend:

Good coffee and nice place to hang out

  • Cafebre – (Google Maps) Nice coffee shop
  • Boulenc – (Google Maps) Excellent pastries and coffee; there’s pizza and burgers as well; very popular

For those on a budget

  • Comedor La Villa Alta (Google Maps) If you’re on a budget, go here! They have set lunch and breakfast menus for MXN$50
  • Dona Ceci – (Google Maps) For cheap delicious tacos, head to Dona Ceci.

Tasty food at a reasonable price (MXN$100 – $150)

  • Mundo Ceiba A.C.  – (Google Maps) Go here for the shrimp tacos
  • La Olla – (Google Maps) You can’t miss this restaurant as the exterior is bright pink; I had some very good mole roja here at a reasonable price
  • Don Juanita – (Google Maps) You MUST go to Don Juanita’s and get the tacos el vapor! They are to die for
  • Okasa Lovely Food – (Google Maps) I went here several times for breakfast; your meal comes with fruit, juice, and unlimited coffee refills for MXN$100! It was always full of locals

Stop here when in Xochimilco

  • Filemon – (Google Maps) Great breakfast; delicious coffee; and a rooftop terrace with terrific views
  • Rupestre Pan y Café – (Google Maps) Lovely courtyard area with really good food

For a special occasion

  • Casa Oaxaca el Restaurante – (Google Maps) This is THE place to eat in Oaxaca. A bit expensive and at times hard to get into, if you have the money it’s well worth it.
  • Criollo – (Google Maps) A bit out of the way for most people (it’s not in the historic center) but another popular place to visit; get the testing menu or go for breakfast

How to get to Oaxaca Juarez

Most long-distance buses in Oaxaca leave from and arrive at the safe and clean ADO Bus Station (Google Maps). You can buy your tickets ahead of time through the ADO Website (I always do it this way) or go to the station and buy your ticket in person. For some reason, I’m only able to access the ADO website on Google chrome in an incognito window. Not sure why, but if you have trouble accessing their website, try my method.

From San Cristobal to Oaxaca: ADO and OCC have night buses for MXN$914 to $1064 (US$46 – $53). It takes 12 to 13 hours. I took this overnight route and it wasn’t too bad at all. We left at 8:00 pm and arrived at around 9:00 am.

From Puebla to Oaxaca: It takes ADO and ACC buses 4.5 to 5 hours to get from Puebla to Oaxaca and costs between MXN$444 and $623 (US$22 – $31). This is a safe and comfortable route.

From Mexico City to Oaxaca:  There are tons of busses throughout the day traversing from Mexico City to Oaxaca Juarez. It takes 6.5 hours and tickets usually range between MXN$506 and $750 (US$25 – $38), but you can find tickets as low as MXN$320 (US$16).

Popular Destinations from Oaxaca

From Oaxaca to Mazunte and Zipolite: I got a minibus to Mazunte (also goes to Zipolite) at Eclipse 70 (Google Maps) for MXN$300.  Bus left at 7:15 am. You can also get tickets at Lineas Unidas (Google Maps)

From Oaxaca to San Jose del Pacifico: The buses that go to Mazunte and Zipolite also stop in San Jose del Pacifico. You can get tickets at either Eclipse 70 (Google Maps) or Lineas Unidas (Google Maps).

From Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido: You can get minibuses to Puerto Escondido at Terminal de Service Express (Google Maps) or Villa del Pacifico (Google Maps).

How to get around Oaxaca

I walked nearly everywhere in Oaxaca. Most of the best places in Oaxaca are located in the historic center. The two barrios are also right next door o the central market.

Conclusion

If you don’t have time for all 32 places on this list, here are my top 6 things to do in Oaxaca:

  1. Go on a food tour
  2. Visit Monte Alban
  3. Wander around the historic center and the neigborhoods of Xochimilco and Jalatlaco
  4. Visit Hierve el Agua
  5. Check out the alebrije in Arrazole or San Martin
  6. Explore the street art on your own or with a tour

If you’ve been to Oaxaca and you’ve done any of these things on my list, let me know about your experience. If you’re planning on visiting Oaxaca and have any questions, please leave in the comments below. Thank you!

PRO TIP: No one likes to think about insurance, but accidents do happen. I highly recommend getting World Nomads. This is what I’ve used for short-term travel. When  I quit my job to travel around the world, I switched to Safety Wings. They’re very affordable (less than US$100 a month depending on age) especially for those of us who are over 40 years old. They now cover COVID19.

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things to do in Oaxaca - food, textiles, and colorful buildings
things to do in Oaxaca - Monte Alban and Santo Domingo

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6 Comments

  1. Wow! We were hoping to get to this part of the world for only three days before the pandemic ruined our plans. But maybe this was a good thing, we would have missed out on many places and things to do.
    When we do get to Oaxaca, it will be for much longer, and I will be armed with your excellent guide – Thank You.

    Reply
    • Thank you! I really hope you have a chance to visit. Three days is not enough. Five at least.

      Reply
  2. Having not visited Oaxaca, I would not have known where to start my list of things to see and do. So your blog post was a great start. I am glad you included instructions for getting to spots by public transport. Often when we travel we rely on local options if they are safe and reliable. I can see why 3 weeks was still not enough time to enjoy it all.

    Reply
    • Thanks. I hope you have a chance to visit. It’s a great city.

      Reply
  3. Oaxaca looks like excellent place to visit with so many things to see and do. I have never been to Mexico, so it’s something to consider for my future travels.

    Reply
    • I hope you get a chance to travel to Oaxaca. It’s a fascinating and beautiful destination.

      Reply

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The Bamboo Traveler

Welcome to The Bamboo Traveler, a travel & digital nomad blog, dedicated to helping women over 40 travel the world safely, cheaply, and comfortably. Whether you’re going for a one, two- or three-week vacation, exploring the world as a digital nomad, or staying home and discovering the world from the comfort and safety of your home, you’ll find loads of information to help inspire and inform you in your wanderings.

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