Mexico is a vast and incredible country so it can be hard to know where to start when planning a trip “south of the border” as they say in the USA.
I had the chance to visit the beautiful Mexican state of Oaxaca thanks to a cave exploration trip to the Proyecto Espeleologico Sistema Huautla (PESH) in 2017. The caving is an entirely different post but I was truly impressed by the city of Oaxaca and in my opinion, every food or culture lover should put it on their to-visit list in Mexico.
And here’s why…
“Oaxaca” comes from a word meaning “The Place of the Seed” in the Náhuatl language: Huayacac. Most likely this refers to the sacred copal wood. Oaxaca’s history is vast and multi-cultural with hundreds of indigenous languages and the majority of its citizens speaking at least two.
From ancient cultures through the Spanish conquest, Oaxaca is right in history, culture and a fascinating place to visit.
The buzzing heart of Oaxaca city is its Zócalo or ‘town square’. This is a large park with a pagoda in the centre and always lots of things going on. Huge hoards of balloons float around the perimeter of the park in the hands of sellers, fresh street corn (epazote) with shredded Oaxaca cheese is always on offer and simply people watching in the Zócalo is always a worthwhile activity.
Oaxaca center feels very safe with plenty of people in all the streets and cars (mostly) stopping at streetlights properly. On the weekends the streets closest to the Zócalo erupt into a myriad of market stalls selling everything from souvenirs to dresses and the traditional “ribbon dress” costumes. Most things come in one size only and you adjust the fit with a belt. Perhaps this has to do with the other local favourite pastime – eating.
From the famous Oaxacan molé to mojitos that will knock your socks off and a bounty of other delicious local dishes, the foodies will simply want to restaurant-hop your way through the city. Eating in restaurants isn’t incredibly cheap but by Los Angeles standards it’s very affordable. If you want to eat cheap, snack your way through the street stalls!
Here’s a basic guide to Oaxaca and some things you must do, see, try and buy!
Do: Get outside! The hotels are lovely but Oaxaca has as many experiences on offer as colours in its streets.
Walk around the main city center, people watch in the Zócalo, church-hop (there are an incredible amount of beautiful churches with incredibly intricate artistry), wander down side streets and if you like history, think about booking a day tour to see the surrounding sites like Monte Albán and the artistic artisan towns outside the city.
I highly recommend this tour on Viator.com https://www.viator.com/tours/Oaxaca/Monte-Alban-Archaeological-Site-and-Oaxaca-Artisan-Towns-Trip/d23876-36200P4, the guide spoke excellent English and had a deep knowledge of the archaeology and history of the area plus he put up with me taking too many photos and exploring Monte Albán for far too long.
See: See as much as you can! If you’re an archaeology buff, you can’t miss Monte Albán, it’s grandeur is staggering and as you walk up the ridge and gaze down at the enormous campus try to imagine these building as a hive of activity over 1,500 years as an important site for the Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs.
You will also find carvers and local artisans selling their wares inside the site. I’m sure this isn’t technically legal but if you pull up a 1,500 year old brick and speak some Spanish you can enjoy an incredible conversation with these men and learn about traditional life in rural Oaxaca.
Eat: Molé! Molé! Molé! Made with a chocolate base, this sauce is a Oaxaca signature and tastes like heaven when paired with handmade tortillas or tamales and your choice of filling. Oaxaca is incredible vegetarian-friendly with plenty of non-meat options that are magnificently delicious.
These little beauties might not look like much but they are hand-made tamales with soft, succulent maize flour filled with juicy, flavoursome molé. Wrapped in the traditional banana leaves these should be on every foodie’s ‘to eat’ list.
Oaxaca also has a special type of cheese that you won’t find anywhere else. Aptly named it’s called “Oaxaca cheese”. If you get the chance, try this flavoursome, fantastic filling in your quesadillas.
Drink: Mojitos. I love a good minty mojito pretty much anywhere in the world but I don’t think they’ll ever taste the same after I tried one with fresh Tequila, hand-muddled and made with love in Oaxaca.
Suffice to say I had more than one..
Stay: There are plenty of options for hotels in Oaxaca and I tried several of them. The cardinal rule however is DO NOT (and yes, I will use all capital letters here because you need to remember this) DO NOT WALK IN AND BOOK AT RECEPTION. The “rack rates” are at least 10x higher than if you use Booking.com or Kayak.com or another search / booking engine.
The first hotel I stayed at cost nearly $80 for the single night because I walked in off the street carrying bags as big as I am and sick as a dog. I shivered feverishly on my bed overheating because the air conditioner didn’t work and booked myself a room for $25/night right next to the Zócalo for the next day.
You should pay around $10-40 per night depending on the location, quality, and amenities of your hotel.
I highly recommend the Gala Oaxaca. Clean, friendly, free Wi-Fi and smack-bang kitty-corner to the Zócalo, this is a gem. A link to Gala Oaxaca is here: http://www.booking.com/Share-KJXXy8
Another secret is on sites like Booking.com which offer a map view of hotels, set the filters to your budget and then search outwards from the Zócalo. You’ll end up going there every day anyway so you might as well stay as central as your wallet allows.
Buy: There are souvenirs to suit every taste and budget in Oaxaca but my personal favourite included the fantastical wooden animals called Alebrijes. These animals were the brainchild of artist Pedro Linares in the 1930’s. He dreamt of a magical world filled with bright, colourful mystical creatures and after waking, Linares began to construct the creatures from his dreams in paper mâché. His creations earned important attention and filled an exhibition in the same gallery as Freida Khalo’s work.
The concept was picked up by Oaxacan artisans and evolved over the following decades from paper mâché into copal wood. This lightweight, elegant wood is fabled to have magical properties in Oaxacan lore.
I found these beautiful creatures fascinating and stunning. The quality of Alebrijes available in Oaxaca varies enormously from chunky, roughly carved examples to extremely elegant, perfectly painted animals like the prawn I picked up or the dainty hummingbird.
Despite my visit to a large factory in San Martín Tilcajete, my favourite (by far) Alebrijes were found in the covered market next to the main Zócalo in Oaxaca. Walk three blocks from the Zócalo to the Mercado Juárez and take the first entrance. On your right will be a small stand full to the brim with Alebrijes. A very fair price and family-made, these animals took my breath away and I happily snapped up two which now live happily in my home.
Oh and yes, you can (and should) bargain for just about everything you’ll buy in Oaxaca.
So in closing, don’t let any silly travel warnings by over-concerned governments deter you from visiting the vibrant, vivacious, beautiful Mexican city of Oaxaca.
I look forward to returning.