The small local bus I’m on pulls over at a gas station about an hour out of Puerto Escondido, still well over six hours away from our final destination of Oaxaca, and I’m struggling. While other passengers are having a smoke or using the facilities, the bus driver glances at me nervously as we both contemplate whether I will make it without getting sick. I fish out the package of dopamine pills from my bag and swallow one, my second of the morning as the first doesn’t seem to have had any effect.

For those looking to travel between Oaxaca City and the Oaxacan coast, there are two main options: a large comfortable ADO bus that bypasses the mountain ranges in Oaxaca State and takes over 10 hours or one of many less expensive camioneta buses that go straight up and over the mountains and gets you there in seven hours. Originally I was drawn to the tameness of the ADO option, but after befriending many locals in Puerto Escondido who looked at me like I was crazy when I explained my reasoning, I switched gears to go for the more efficient, more adventurous option. It’s not that bad, they told me. Everyone does it.

After my double dose of drowsy meds I’m able to keep it together, though I’m in and out of sleep for the remaining six hours of the journey. Finally arriving in Oaxaca city, I can barely keep my eyes open in my doped up state but manage to grab a cab and head off to my Airbnb in a slight daze. I’ve been lured here from the coast by the promise of delicious food and flowing mezcal.

Oaxaca Travel Guide Mexico

Oaxaca Travel Guide

Oaxaca City, the capital of the state of Oaxaca, is tucked in a valley with mountains off in the distance. Known for the traditions and cultures of its indigenous peoples as well as its vibrant colonial architecture, Oaxaca is a city that has been increasingly on the travel radar.

Heralded by locals and travelers as one of Mexico’s top foodie spots, Oaxaca is home to a truly delicious array of traditional foods such as rich mole sauces, crunchy talyudas, and stringy Oaxacan cheese. And it’s also the birthplace of mezcal, the smokey alcohol distilled from agave plants that’s enjoying a surge in popularity around the world, no doubt adding to the city’s travel cred.

But things aren’t all rosy in Oaxaca; teachers have been protesting educational reforms for years. Mass demonstrations are held around the Zócalo, which have occasionally turned violent like a decade ago when 21 teachers were killed in the uprising. Scheduled protests do happen from time to time, though usually with advanced warning.

Oaxaca Travel Guide Mexico
Oaxaca Travel Guide Mexico
Oaxaca Travel Guide Mexico
Oaxaca Travel Guide Mexico

Oaxaca Travel Guide: What to Do

Zócalo

The main square of Oaxaca, the Zócalo is a gathering spot for residents any time of day. The expansive plaza is filled with leafy trees and is lined by the state government palace and restaurants with sidewalk patios. Vendors sell all sorts of things, most charming of which are character balloons that no child can seem to resist. The main benches are a great spot for people watching, though as mentioned above, the Zócalo is the site of the teacher protests.

Markets

Oaxaca’s busiest markets sit next door to each other: Mercado Benito Juárez and Mercado 20 de Noviembre. The former is a large indoor market that has been going for over a hundred years. Be prepared for a labyrinth of food and artisan stalls, and expect to get lost at least once as you make your way through the various sights and smells of this bustling market. Mercado 20 de Noviembre features more food stalls ideal for a quick bite, and offers a unique glimpse into local life.

Mercado de Artesanias

This market is exclusively artisan stalls selling handcrafted items such as textiles, clothing, ceramics, wood carvings and much more. It’s a bit of a ways from the city centre but worth it to buy direct from the artisans themselves. Peruse the stalls first to get a lay of the land and to scout what you want to buy. Price negotiating is common.

Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca

Set in the former monastery of Templo de Santo Domingo, the culture museum of Oaxaca is a lovely diversion when visiting the city. The museum showcases Oaxaca’s rich history from its pre-Hispanic origins to today through many small rooms across its two levels. Other than the fascinating history and artifacts that you’ll encounter, a highlight is the second floor with its large open windows that provide excellent views of the city centre and the botanical gardens.

Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca

Oaxaca’s botanical gardens are an oasis in the middle of the downtown area. The gardens are lush and very well maintained, boasting a plethora of trees and plants. While the biodiversity of the region is impressive, the cacti and succulents are a particular highlight. The botanical garden can only be explored through a two hour guided tour, which is offered in English on Tuesday, Thursday and Sundays mornings.

Oaxaca Travel Guide Mexico
Oaxaca Travel Guide Mexico
Oaxaca Travel Guide Mexico
Oaxaca Travel Guide Mexico

Oaxaca Travel Guide: Where to Eat

Oaxaca is truly blessed from a food perspective. The regional dishes borne from tradition are some of the best in Mexico, while the city’s growing reputation as a food hub has been driven by innovative chefs taking local cuisine to the next level.

Café Brújula

A gorgeous backyard patio awaits you at Café Brújula’s Alcala location, one of Oaxaca’s best spots for an espresso. Also on offer are tasty breakfast and lunch items, as well as cakes and sweets to tide you over.

Casa Oaxaca

As one of the top restaurants in town, Casa Oaxaca is a high-end dining experience that’s ideal for a special night out. The menu is an elevated take on classic Oaxacan dishes that are absolutely deliciously and impeccably presented. With a courtyard and a rooftop terrace, there’s plenty of outdoor seating for diners.

Los Danzantes

The ambiance at this popular restaurant is second only to its food – a contemporary take on Oaxaca’s culinary traditions. Los Danzantes, located a stone’s throw from Santo Domingo church, is a must for anyone who enjoys excellent food in a beautiful setting.

Chilhuacle Rojo

If you like a good hearty brunch, then Chilhuacle Rojo is for you. The passionate chef serves up only local and fresh ingredients in his tasty dishes like enchiladas, chilaquiles, and eggs, and offers cooking classes for those who want to learn how to make Oaxacan food themselves.

Pez

A casual taco restaurant on a quiet street, Pez is not to be missed if you’re in the mood for fish tacos. All the dishes on the small menu are cooked up on the grill in the corner of the restaurant, and a salsa bar includes many delicious toppings to jazz up your taco. And don’t pass up a glass of the juice of the day.

Origen

Led by notable chef Rodolfo Castellanos, Origen offers an inventive take on local Oaxacan foods and a unique dining experience that you won’t soon forget. The modern decor provides a lovely backdrop while the crafted mezcal cocktails are a must pre-dinner drink. Go for the chef’s menu if you’re feeling adventurous and want to treat yourself.

El Distillado

A newbie to the Oaxaca food scene, El Distillado is a hip restaurant on a side street south of Santo Domingo church. Headed by American expats, the restaurant leverages the local food culture in its contemporary menu of sharable plates. While, like other restaurants, the mezcal is flowing, El Distillado features the best craft beer list in town with brews from all over the country.

Tluydas Al Negro

Tluydas, a crunchy tortilla filled with bean spread, meat, avocado, salsa and Oaxacan cheese, is a classic comfort food dish for the people of Oaxaca. Many spots around town serve up these tasty meals, but Tluydas Al Negro is a local favourite with its outdoor seating and quick service. This cheap and delicious meal should not be missed by anyone passing through Oaxaca.

El Sol y La Luna

If you’ve had your fill of Mexican food, take a break at El Sol y La Luna, a local mainstay for over 40 years. The Italian restaurant serves up excellent pastas and pizzas in a cozy and romantic setting. The garlic sauce that accompanies the pizzas is out of this world!

Los Cuiles

Los Cuiles is a traditional eatery in the city centre that does a solid breakfast and brunch. Favourite dishes include Huevos Oaxacanos, Enchiladas, and Huevos Divorciados, along with a strong cup of coffee, of course. The staff are friendly and welcoming, and don’t mind at all if you open up your laptop and work for a few hours.

Oaxaca Travel Guide Mexico
Oaxaca Travel Guide Mexico
Oaxaca Travel Guide Mexico

Oaxaca Travel Guide: Where to Drink

Mezcaloteca

Mezcal is a must when in Oaxaca and there are many bars you could go for one, decide you don’t like it and be done with it. Mezcaloteca, however, is an experience. Knowledgable staff will guide you through various types of mezcal, highlighting the unique flavour profiles for a deeper appreciation of this traditional liquor. Stick with it – it’s an acquired taste!

Santísima Flor de Lupulo

A teeny-tiny craft brewery in Oaxaca’s centro that serves up three of their beers at any given time, including a Saison, Porter, and fruity Guava Wit. The staff are super friendly at Santísima Flor de Lupulo, which translates into the Saint of the Hop Flower, and food such as sandwiches and cheese boards can be ordered from the amazing Gourmand Delicatessen next door.

Cocina Bar Agavero

A welcomed addition to Oaxaca’s bar scene, Agavero is a bright and vibrant bar that attracts a good mix of locals and visitors. It’s a great spot for a mezcal or cocktail, especially during the daily two-for-one happy hour that runs from 6 to 8pm.

Sabina Sabe

You can’t miss the turquoise facade of Sabina Sabe, a hip spot on 5 de Mayo. Mezcal cocktails, cerveza artesanal, and delicious small plates await you in this beautifully designed restaurant-bar. Staff are friendly, knowledgable, and always up for a chat at the bar.

La Salvadora

Stop in for a drink at La Salvadora, a gorgeous courtyard set off of the street that’s decorated with lots of lights. The mostly local crowd gathers here for a beer or cocktail to enjoy live music on the weekends.

Tastavins

A wine and tapas bar just off of Benito Juárez, whose bright pink building you’ll spot a mile away. A very small place, Tastavins fills up on the regular with those looking for a good wine selection and authentic Spanish tapas.

Oaxaca Travel Guide Mexico
Oaxaca Travel Guide Mexico
Oaxaca Travel Guide Mexico

Oaxaca Travel Guide: Day Trips

Teotitlán del Valle

The Teotitlán valley lies less than an hour southeast of Oaxaca and is renowned for its traditional hand-woven and naturally died rugs. While many rugs made here are sold in various shops around Oaxaca, you can head straight for the source and visit artists in their workshops. Either book a group tour or hire a private driver to take you to a few artisans directly.

Monte Alban

A short drive from Oaxaca is Monte Alban, an impressive archeological site that was an ancient Zapotec city from the 12th century, making it one of the first in the Americas. Today, the partially excavated area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that can be explored by visitors either with a guided tour or on their own. Many tour operators with offices along Macedonio Alcala offer tours daily to Monte Alban and a number of other sites outside Oaxaca.

Mitla

Further from Oaxaca is another important Zapotec site: Mitla. Smaller than Monte Alban, the site is still impressive with its detailed carvings and rooms you can wander through that are more than 1,500 years old, giving you a unique perspective on how people lived at that time. Most tours to Mitla are combined with Monte Alban.

Hierve el Agua

Another popular tour destination, Hierve al Agua appears as a waterfall cascading over large rock formations, but is actually calcified spring water. A few small pools of natural mineral water, which locals believe have healing qualities, are swimmable so don’t forget your bathing suit.

Pueblos Mancomunados

Located in the mountainous area of Sierra Norte, a half dozen Zapotec villages have banded together to support ecotourism in the region. Over 100 kilometres of trails link the communities, which can be visited independently or through tour operator Expediciones Sierra Norte. Trekkers can stay overnight in cabanas, are fed homemade meals, and are set up with local guides to lead the way.

Oaxaca Travel Guide Mexico
Oaxaca Travel Guide Mexico
Oaxaca Travel Guide Mexico
Oaxaca Travel Guide Mexico

Oaxaca Travel Guide photos by Lauren Barth and Christopher William Adach