Best Things to Do in Oaxaca, Mexico While on Vacation
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Best Things to Do in Oaxaca, Mexico While on Vacation

village and mountains

The only complaint one might hear about visiting the southwestern Mexican state of Oaxaca is that there are too many things to eat, drink, see, and do—a seemingly impossible amount of worthwhile activities to conquer in a single excursion. Oaxaca offers landscapes that transform from pristine, fine-sand beaches to craggy mountain ranges to vibrant city centers. This region is to thank not just for introducing the rest of the world to mezcal, a spirit that’s distilled from the revered agave plant, with ancestral recipes passed down from generation to generation, but for rich culinary and artistic traditions that have also proliferated the globe.

But the true heart of Oaxaca is its people. Along with the Yucatán, the state boasts one of Mexico’s largest Indigenous populations, with Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Mixe, and Mazatecos representing a few significant groups. The Zapotecs in particular do not have a migration story and have called the state home for thousands of years, long before borders intersected it—it’s not uncommon to hear the language spoken in rural areas outside of Oaxaca City and you can visit the ancient Zapotec city of Monte Albán, which was founded around 500 BC and is one of the oldest cities in Mesoamerica.

Yet as the state explodes in popularity, many Indigenous Oaxacans are being cut out of the picture. According to Ivan Vasquez, a Oaxaca native who visits often to source items for his Oaxacan restaurants in Los Angeles, many local Oaxacans are being priced out of the region.

“Oaxaca is booming right now,” he says, “Which is great for local businesses, but also, many of those new businesses are not Oaxacan-owned. Local Oaxacan merchants aren’t able to afford rent anymore because people with money are coming from different Mexican states or outside of Mexico and taking over.”

Zapotec tour guide Lily Santos agrees, saying, “Gentrification is definitely happening. Oaxaca is one of the main states that migrates to the US, and it’s because they don’t have access to resources to make the life they want here. The money that tourists are spending is often not going to support local Oaxaqueños.”

The Oaxacan-owned businesses that Vasquez and Santos are referring to often lack resources that would help international tourists discover them, like English websites or social media accounts. Many English-speaking tourists don’t make attempts at other languages, which can alienate business owners who only speak Spanish or an even lesser-known Indigenous dialect. Such businesses tend to exist through word of mouth, which can be a hurdle when attracting new customers, but makes the eventual experience all the more special—if you can find it.

From annual Guelaguetza festivities to Día de los Muertos and colorful holiday displays, Oaxaca stands out as a tempting destination regardless of the time of year. It might take a little more effort to create an inclusive itinerary that uplifts local communities, but we promise it’s worth it. And thankfully, we’ve got tips from Santos and Vasquez to help you plan the ultimate trip.

bright yellow bedroom
Photo by Lily

Stay in homey accommodations

One of your best bets for a real cultural exchange is to stay with an Oaxacan family, or at the very least privately renting a true Oaxacan home. You’ll find plenty of shared and private accommodation options on Airbnb—the trick is to find the ones actually owned by locals.

Santos suggests, beyond perusing the pictures, to look at the host profile. “There, you can see if the listing is managed by a leasing agency, how many rentals they have, and often they’ll tell you a little bit about themselves,” she advises. “A lot of Oaxacans have started identifying themselves on their profiles, saying ‘rented by a local,’ ‘family-owned,’ ‘Indigenous,’ or ‘Familia Oaxaqueño.’ It takes an extra step, but that’s how you start to become more intentional about the way you travel.”

You can also stay at Santos’ family ranch in Tlacolula, which can accommodate up to eight guests and acts as the perfect gateway for exploring the town’s famous Sunday market.

people at a market
Photo by Ivan Vasquez

Shop locally in markets and on guided tours

Vasquez’s number one travel recommendation for tourists heading to Oaxaca?

“Get outside of Oaxaca City,” he commands. “The city is beautiful, but if you want to learn about Oaxacan culture, go to different municipalities and communities where you can buy local textiles from local people.”

He suggests Tlacolula’s Sunday market or Teotitlan del Valle as starting points, but finding a trustworthy tour guide like Santos can also help ensure that textile artisans and gallery owners get a fair cut when selling their wares.

“Most guides and travel agencies are working in this hush-hush system of 30–50% commission,” Santos shares. “If you buy a rug, it may be 10,000 pesos, but half of that is going to the guide. For me, my priority is bringing income and tourism to different communities and small businesses. It’s why I don’t take a commission and why I’m committed to working only with Indigenous-owned businesses. In each community, I work with about five to seven businesses on a rotating basis.”

woman celebrating day of the dead
@zapotectravelbylily

Santos offers an array of experiences based on travelers’ interests and that change depending
on the time of year—for example, she’s currently gearing up for
Lanii Tu’Guul, a Zapotec celebration of the dead that overlaps with Día de los Muertos.

You may notice popular sites like Hierve el Agua missing from Santos’ tour options—that’s by design. While she’s beginning to explore options for visiting the famous petrified waterfall rock formation with mineral pools, she’s mindful of creating an itinerary that supports the two local Indigenous communities that call the landmark home and often have to work outside of the area in order to make ends meet. “I will be taking people there very slowly and only if they will email me with intention,” she clarifies.

If you do decide to venture out on your own, taking the extra step to be a responsible traveler can add up to a lot of support for the local community. For example, avoid haggling at the markets—even if you see locals engaging in the practice.

“A lot of people have this perception—not only in Oaxaca, but when they visit Mexico in general—that they get to ask for a discount just because they’re tourists,” Vasquez explains. “It’s important to remember: you are a guest on our lands. Paying the asking price is a way of respecting our cultures and the traditions that these families have preserved for generations and centuries.”

He continues, saying, “A lot of these business owners, they might not have the financial education that we do. They might see this business as their only resource to survive, pay expenses, and make a living. That’s where they get intimidated sometimes, where if someone asks for a discount, they’ll just agree because they know they need to sell their product and aren’t thinking in terms of profits and losses.”

view off deck
Dixza Rugs & Organic Farm

Visit small towns and art enclaves

There are so many worthwhile landmarks to check off your Oaxaca agenda. Make a visit to the small village of San Martín Tilcajete to marvel at the paper-mache sculptures called alebrijes that you might remember coming alive in Disney’s Coco. Or Pluma Hidalgo, a mountain town known for its amazing coffee.

For arts, Centro de las Artes de San Agustín is a historic textile factory turned modern art museum. Check out Dixza Rugs and Native Farm to learn about the Zapotec’s millenary weaving tradition. And at Manos Que Ven, you’ll find handmade ceramics by blind artist José García Antonio, with the help of Teresita Mendoza.

For nature, head to Oaxaca City’s Ethnobotanical Garden to learn about the local flora and fauna. Or explore the Sierra Norte mountain range in Ixtlan de Juarez, which is full of nature hikes. You can also admire the oldest tree in Mexico at Santa María del Tule, which has a 2,000-year-old Montezuma cypress boasting the widest tree trunk in the world.

There are also the Monte Albàn ruins mentioned above, the impressive Mitla ruins that once served as an important religious site for the Mixtecs, and Yagul, an ancient Zapotec city that’s home to the state’s largest ceremonial ball game court, just outside of Tlacolula.

There are also, of course, Oaxacan beaches like surf capital Puerto Escondido and clothing-optional Zipolite, but exploring the coast is its own separate trip.

person holding salsas and soup
Tierra del Sol Cocina Mixteca

Eat goat barbacoa and yellow mole

From street food to markets to fancier sit-down restaurants, the food in Oaxaca is unparalleled. Start with the buzzing markets to get a real sense of the local scene. Like the famous Sunday one in Tlacolula, many Oaxacan villages designate one day a week for a massive, town-wide market offering food, drink, and handcrafted specialties.

On Wednesdays, Vasquez recommends a visit to the market in Etla, which is famous for its goat barbacoa. But if for whatever reason he can’t make that one, he’ll opt for getting the stewed meat at Tlacolula’s Sunday market. Ocotlán’s Friday market rivals Tlacolula in size and is a great place to try empanadas de amarillo, which are filled with chicken and a yellow mole sauce.

If you’re still craving meat, head to the Pasillo de Humo—which literally translates to hallway of smoke—in the 20 de Noviembre Mercado. There you’ll find an array of meats on sale from different vendors, which you can have smoked on-site and paired with accompaniments like tortillas, pickled veggies, salsas, and cilantro. Enjoy it with a beer or other beverage, while the sweet smells of charred chorizo, chicken, pork, and beef waft by your table.

There are also plenty of street-eating opportunities after the bars close. La Chinita is renowned for massive tlayudas smeared with pork drippings and bean paste, your protein of choice, and griddled with stringy quesillo. It opens around 7 pm and has a tight operation with a steady line until about 3 am most nights—or whenever they sell out. You’ll also find street vendors selling elotes, tacos, memelas, and more near the Velasco Mercado. El Lechoncito de Oro is another late-night favorite for juicy chicharron tacos.

If you’re looking for a higher-end option in Oaxaca City, you can’t go wrong with Origen, a stylish, multi-level spot with heirloom corn cobs hanging from the ceiling and regional produce featured in inventive dishes. There’s also Tierra del Sol in Oaxaca City’s Historic Center, with stunning rooftop views and traditional plates made in an open kitchen, with attached concepts like La Atolería, for thick, corn-based atole drinks, and Masea, a family bakery focusing on Oaxacan breads.

If you make it to San Antonino Castillo for a visit to Manos Que Ven, be sure to try the empanadas de amarillo that the Zapotec village is known for. There’s also Santos’ family restaurant Criollito in Tlacolula, where dishes are prepared with native Oaxacan corn.

bartender holding drink
Sabina Sabe / Restaurante-Bar

Drink mezcal the right way

It speaks volumes how popular mezcal has become, considering it can only be produced in Mexico through specific methods, with definitions laid out by the Mexican government. Wherever you end up going, remember: sip, don’t shoot. In fact, bartenders will often encourage you to give your shot glass a besito, or a little kiss that provides just a taste of the earthy spirit. When you go to get your fix in Oaxaca, keep in mind another reason to go local: sustainability.

The spirit is distilled from mature agaves, and because most agave take anywhere from 7 to 20 years to reach harvest, overharvesting has serious environmental implications. Oaxaca has also been suffering from drought in recent years, making production all the more complicated. The expansion of the mezcal industry has led to bigger brands setting up shop in Oaxaca, often buying out local farms or plots of land, but intensifying monoculture and over-planting the fields, which eventually strips the land of necessary nutrients. They also compromise indigenous recipes that have been meticulously crafted and handed down through generations.

Whether you’re in Oaxaca City or exploring the larger state, it won’t be hard to find Oaxacan-owned mezcal bars (known as mezcalerias) or palenques, farms where the mezcal itself is made. Whenever Vasquez lands in Oaxaca City, his first stop is Sabina Sabe, a vibey, low-lit bar with excellent cocktails and bites. From there, he makes a stop at Los Amantes, the first mezcaleria in the city. After that, he’s off to spots like Cuish Mezcaleria, In Situ Mezcalería, Casa Grande, Mezcalogia, Mezcaloteca, Mis Mezcales, El Cortijo, and Puro Burro.

But to Vasquez’s earlier point about higher city rents, you’ll find smaller, family-owned palenques outside the city, where you can learn the different mezcal production methods firsthand and participate in tastings.

“You have to go outside the box,” he urges, “Visit the palenques and the regions of mezcal, like Matatlán.” Commonly known as the capital of mezcal, Matatlán hosted the first annual La Fiesta Del Mezcal last summer, with traditional dances, food, and lots of toasts with mezcal as locals honored its longtime role in their economy. Outside of Matatlán, Vasquez recommends visiting palenques in the villages of Santa Catarina Minas, Miahuatlán, and Ejutla, like Real Minero and Mezcal Macurichos.

“Be conscious in Oaxaca,” Vasquez insists. “It’s a sacred place in Mexico, and it’s one of the last states that’s still bursting with ancient cultures and traditions.”

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Danielle Dorsey is the West Coast Editor for Thrillist.