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.
While perhaps not enjoying as high a profile as the ancient Mayans or Aztecs, Oaxaca’s pre-Hispanic Zapotecs left plenty of fascinating remnants of their civilization across the state. The best-known must-see site is Monte Albán, a fabulously mysterious collection of structures set on a leveled mountaintop just outside of Oaxaca City. Competing for the most impressive archeological site is Mitla, set high up in the Tlacolula Valley. Here, mosaics of intricately worked stone decorate well-preserved low-rise structures in a site that was mostly used for religious ceremonies – or human sacrifice.
Get acquainted with mezcal – the state’s favorite tipple
When visiting the birthplace of mezcal, it would be silly not to explore the smoky firewater in a little more depth. There are literally hundreds of palenques (mezcal distilleries) scattered around the state, many of which are more than happy to welcome you with tours. They show you the whole process, from extracting the cactus juice to fermentation and distillation, and end their demonstrations, of course, with a tasting. Don’t forget to buy a bottle of the good stuff before you leave.
Immerse yourself in some untamed Mexican landscape
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.
Deep dive into the Oaxacan gastronomy at a food market
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.
Support local artisans, and snag an authentic piece of Oaxacan art
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.