One of the most exciting places for food in the world – and the birthplace of mezcal – also lays on Pacific surf, laid-back beach towns, ancients ruins and arts and crafts.
From its gloriously rugged, surf-swept Pacific coast studded with golden coves to soaring sierras, lush valleys and magical lagoons, the natural phenomena in Oaxaca State alone single it out as a special place indeed. Add a rich cultural heritage rooted in ancient civilizations, exuberant festivals and, undisputedly, some of the most exciting gastronomy in the world, and you have no end of reasons to visit. We’ve turned up the heat and boiled it down to this list of the best.
Most visitors to Oaxaca make a beeline to one of its numerous sunny beaches, and it’s not hard to see why – there’s really something for everyone. Puerto Escondido has long been a popular beach resort thanks to its beautiful sweeping bay and superlative surfing conditions. Mazunte’s blissed-out natural beauty attracts dreadlocked backpackers and seasoned hippies. For the even more easy-going, Zipolite is the only official clothing-optional playa in Mexico. Neighboring cliff-enclosed Playa del Amor is one of the most dreamy in Oaxaca.
The state of Oaxaca has more than its fair share of extraordinary natural wonders to discover. One of the best-known is the “frozen” waterfall of Hierve el Agua (boiling water), a spectacular mineral rock formation cascading down a cliff. The cool bubbling spring water here is actually lovely to cool off in. Other swimmable springs can be found at Zuzul in Vega del Sol and Ojo de Agua in Tlacotepec. For a magical night-time experience, head to the Manialtepec Lagoon just outside Puerto Escondido, and swim amid bioluminescent plankton.
If you’re keen to experience some wild, unspoilt Mexican countryside, then a trip to Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve is a must. This is as off-the-radar as you can get (without actually getting totally lost) and listed as a Unesco World Heritage site. The landscape is genuinely spectacular, with veritable forests of cacti, lush mountain ranges and a series of microclimates harboring incredible biodiversity. Jump on a guided tour, or do it under your own steam, but be sure to stop off at the superb Helia Bravo Hollis Botanical Garden, across the state border in Puebla.
There’s no doubt about it, Oaxacan cooking is among the finest in the world. But to really understand the flavors and aromas of the Mexican foodie and gastronomic hub, you can’t get better than a market. The ultimate one is Mercado 20 de Noviembre in Oaxaca City – a rollercoaster for the senses and a real education, too. Within the market, it doesn’t get more real than stand-cum-restaurant El Pasillo de las Carnes Asadas, where you choose your meat, and they cook it in front of you. Slap it in a steaming tortilla, slather on the salsa, and enjoy.
With people who love their food and drink, it’s no surprise they’re up for a bit of a shindig, too. Hands-down, the main event in Oaxaca is the Guelaguetza (also known as Los Lunes del Cerro). Taking place over two Mondays in July, it’s a festival for Centéotl (the goddess of maize) and deeply rooted in the region’s pre-Hispanic calendar. Expect a riot of colorful dresses, walking bands and lots of dancing. Above all, it’s a jubilant celebration of indigenous identity, and one not to be missed.
In a destination as culturally rich as Oaxaca, you can always find wonderful examples of local arts and crafts – much of it particular to the region. One great place to start is the Museo Textil de Oaxaca, a museum dedicated to Oaxaca’s traditional textile crafts, featuring over 10,000 pieces. For top-quality artisan crafts, head to the Instituto Oaxaqueno de las Artesanias (also known as Aripo), where everything you buy helps support a community of artists all around the state.
Still not found your ideal Oaxaca hotel? Book your stay for a local experience in the city now with Culture Trip. Fill up your vacation using this five-day itinerary, and make sure you read these tips for visiting Oaxaca before you travel. Make sure you check out the best vegetarian and vegan restaurants there, too.
This is an updated version of an article by Lauren Cocking.
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