The Oh Wonderful Guide to Oaxaca

730 days ago, I landed back in San Francisco, refreshed, still in awe and maybe just a little hungover from an 8 day trip to Oaxaca. Located much further south (and more central) than resort destinations like Cancun or Puerto Vallarta, Oaxaca City was a vibrant pocket of Mexico just perfect for my first trip to the country. From the bright pink houses (you should know I love those) to the tan mountains set against that clear blue sky, to the rainbow colored woven rugs in Teotitlan—I was instantly smitten by Oaxaca. By the time I left, the food, the beauty of the city, and the vibrancy of the people made me really love this city. 

What to See in Oaxaca   

Hierve el Agua

Hierve El Agua

Do yourself (and your travel companion(s) a favor and head out on a 1.5 hour drive to Hierve El Agua. Depending on the time of day, you might have the natural springs and hike all to yourself—perfect for snagging uninterrupted shots of the spring and the valley below. Do the 30 minute hike underneath the springs to get a full view of the calcified waterfalls, which look eerily look like a real one.

Mitla

Mitla sits 45 minutes outside of Oaxaca City in Tlacolula Valley, where the heart of the Zapotec culture and center of pre-Hispanic Mexican culture. Just like Monte Alban, it’s pretty remarkable that you can wander around an archaeological site almost untethered and climb into underground tombs, climb into the old temples and touch the same rocks (and blocks) that the Zapotecs built and used everyday.

Monte Alban
Monte Alban
Monte Alban

Monte Alban

It’s not every day that you can drive 20 minutes outside of a city and wander into an archaeological site—that’s still being excavated. Get ready to roam around the artificially flattened hilltop that’s surrounded by temples, tombs, more temples and elevated altars that require a steep incline to view. You can’t beat the sweeping vista that you can see once you get to the top of one of the temples.

What to Do in Oaxaca

Palenque Tour
Palenque Tour Oaxaca

Palenque Tour & Mezcal Tasting

So your #1 reason for visiting Oaxaca might be the mezcal, so do yourself a favor and schedule a palenque tour before you leave. Once upon a time, mescal was the poor man’s drink of the Oaxacan state since agave grew nearly everywhere. It’s trademark smoky flavor comes from the 2-3 day process of cooking the agave heart buried under volcanic rock and dirt. But don’t worry, it’s all earthy, not dirty—unless you drink too much.  

Agustin Oaxaca Cooking Class
oaxaca cooking class

Oaxacan Cooking Class

Do yourself a favor and take a cooking class in Oaxaca with Esperanza and the hilarious (and ultra-talkative) Agustin. You’ll learn how to make two kinds of salsa, molé, deep-fried quesadillas and probably some other things that I’m forgetting. Plus, there’s unlimited beer and mezcal if you choose to drink (that much) while you cooking and eating all of this food.

jardin de ehtnobotanica
jardin de ehtnobotanica

Tour Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca

So nice, we went there twice. Right behind the walls of the former convent, turned museum, is the ethnobotanical garden that now grows all the desert and coastal plants that you can find in Oaxaca. We learned so much while we were there—there’s a tree that was used as soap! Bugs that are crushed for their natural dye! Cacti that are used as fences! Perfect spot for learning and plenty of Instagram-worthy shots.

Mercado de Benito Juarez
Mercado de Benito Juarez

Mercado de Benito Juarez

Again, if you know me, you know I don’t miss a market stop. This is where I tried cricket for the second time, where the lady vendors just scooped them from a pile of roasted and spiced crickets into a baggie for you to snack and walk with. This is where you can also browse and try all of the Oaxacan cheese your heart desires, drink more tejate, buy a bag of maize if you please, and see every color of the rainbow in vegetable form.

Templo de Santo Domingo

Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca

Located inside the Templo de Santo Domingo, the Museum of Oaxacan Culture is just that. It’s room after room of Oaxacan history, dating all the way back to pre-Hispanic times and up to modern day. Take at least a half a day to roam and learn, or stop by after you visit the botanical garden, which is located right behind the museum.

museo de filatelia

Museo de la Filatelia

Let me use my 3 weeks of Duolingo to teach you what this is: a stamp collection museum. It was only a matter of time before my long-buried passion for collecting stamps would resurface and I guess Oaxaca wasn’t a bad place to rediscover it. But mainly, it’s worth a stop to see old letters that Frida Kahlo wrote to her San Francisco lover and former doctor—so grab a tejate and stop by.

Where to Eat & Drink in Oaxaca

El Destilado

El Destilado

5 de Mayo 409, Centro

2 years later and I still dream of the grilled octopus dish that I had at El Destilado. Founded by 3 guys from the US (2 of whom came from San Francisco’s Michelin star, Saison)—it’s a hole in the wall restaurant with a killer, but down-to-earth menu and an impressive bar program. So good, I made us go nights in a row.

Boulenc Oaxaca

Boulenc

Calle Porfirio Díaz 207, Centro

3 weeks before I left for Oaxaca, I downloaded Duolingo so that I could master Spanish before my flight touched down. By the time we arrived, I had a very strong understanding of una manzana and un pan. Apple and bread, respectively. Un pan came in handy when I read about Boulenc, a Oaxacan bakery that uses locally sourced regional grains and employs European baking techniques for their baked goods, in an old world meets another old world mix that’s somehow, utterly modern.

El Popular

La Popular

Manuel García Vigil 105 Col. Centro

After dropping off our suitcases from a long day of travel, we hoofed it to no particular place in mind and ended up walking by La Popular, where someone was strumming a guitar from inside the restaurant. It was almost like Oaxaca planted this spot for us after our day of flying. The food is traditional and simple—like pozole and tortas, but it seemed to be a favorite for locals and travelers alike to eat, drink and watch people walk down the calle.

tlacolula market
Tlacolula Market

Tlacolula Market

70400 de, Galeana 2, Tercera Secc, Tlacolula de Matamoro

On the very  first day of our trip, we headed out in a tour van to visit Mitla (see above), El Tulle (the widest tree in the world) and then stopped at Mercado Tlacolula for a bite to eat. This is where I knew that nope, we were not in SF anymore and it was great. There were racks of dried and raw meat just out in the open, women beating flies away from the meat with rubber broom-like brushes, stray dogs roaming through the stalls, and merchants selling more varieties of peppers than I never knew existed. Although it’s not in El Centro, it’s worth the drive for the grilled meat, which is usually just served with radishes, raw onions and tortilla on the side.

Los Danzantes

Jardín Centenario 12 Col. Villa Coyoacán

If you’re the type of traveler who needs their plates and utensils replaced after every dish, white linen service, and a curated wine list—head to Los Danzantes for a night out. Even two years ago, I remember listening to a surfer go on and on to his girlfriend about the surf in Puerto Escondido while I tried crickets for the first time. The restaurant itself is stunning, with towering walls that go up at least 24 feet to reach a ceilingless roof. I guess it was pretty cool to eat crickets under the stars.

Mezcalogia

Mezcalogia

Calle de Manuel García Vigil 509, Ruta Indepenecia, Centro

“Drink mezcal like you treat a woman: with a lot of respect and little kisses,” said Victor, my favorite bartender from Oaxaca. I think this trip was the start of my bar rat tendencies on vacation (see my New Orleans trip),where we spent roughly 4 nights at this bar to end the day (fuzzily) with Mezcal tastings, good company, and some educational moments about the history and production of Oaxaca’s famous spirit (literally and figuratively).

La Mezcalarita

La Mezcalerita

Calle Macedonio Alcalá 706, Ruta Indepencia, Centro

Imagine this: It’s a dry 85 degrees, you’ve been walking around with a backpack for most of the afternoon, your silk dress is getting damp from back sweat—then you stumble upon a dim bar that’s icy cold, just like the beer they serve. If that’s not heaven, I don’t know what is. Stop at La Mezcalerita for a taste of local craft beers from Oaxaca and other Mexican states, but of course, you can also expect to find bottles and bottles of mezcal.

Tejate

Tejate

Tricked you! Tejate isn’t a restaurant, it’s a non-alcoholic drink made with cacao and maize, both ground into a paste then mixed with water and sweetener (honey or agave) to make this mid-day (multiple times a day for me) refreshment. The women who run the stalls dip small painted wooden bowls into larger plastic tubs to swirl the mixture around, before scooping it into a cup for you to enjoy in the shade.

Where to Stay in Oaxaca City

Casa de Los Milagros

Casa de Los Milagros

Matamoros No. 500-C (corner of Crespo), Centro

I’m the type of traveler who likes to make a place my temporary home, where I find a new favorite coffee spot and figure out my favorite route home to the hotel. Part of a small, family-run bed and breakfast chain, this location was our favorite between the two that we stayed at. Los Milagros is located in a quieter part of town and only has 3 rooms, the perfect amount to really get to know your neighbors and swap stories of Oaxaca—like we did when we met a couple doing a road trip across Mexico. Talk about travel goals. Aside from being a comfortable place to lay our heads, we also loved the freshly made breakfast every morning served with a hefty side of sugar-coated pan.

Alright, that’s Oaxaca through my eyes! What’s your take? Got questions? Let me know!

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