Tips for Visiting Oaxaca, Mexico

Greta Samuel /
Greta Samuel / | © Culture Trip
Shyal Bhandari

Oaxaca City is historic but modern, traditional yet progressive. It’s large enough that there are numerous things to do and see, while small enough that you can walk the entire historic center. It boasts legendary cuisine, some of Mexico’s finest examples of colonial architecture and an avant-garde graphic arts scene. These tips will help you settle in smoothly and make the most of your time in the city dubbed La Verde Antequera (its old name during Spanish rule).

The best time to visit

With year-round spring-like temperatures and intense sunshine even during winter, there is no bad time to visit Oaxaca City. However, if you can make it for the Guelaguetza, you’re in for a treat. Every year during the last two weeks of July, Oaxaca goes into full celebration mode; the Guelaguetza is a colorful and joyous festival that centers around traditional dress, music and dance, with origins in the worship of the Aztec corn goddess Centeōtl.

Getting to the city from the airport

Travelers on a budget might want to consider taking a taxi from outside of the airport to the city center. If you walk out of the terminal and follow the sidewalk towards the exit, after five minutes or so, you will see black and red taxis lined up on your right-hand side. They charge roughly half the price of the taxis that operate within the terminal and are trustworthy. Expect to pay around 200 Mexican pesos ($8.30).

Getting around the city

Oaxaca is a great city for walking. You should be able to get around most of the historic center on foot. However, if you want to explore some of the city’s other great neighborhoods, such as Xochimilco or Reforma, taxis and buses are your best bet, especially around midday when the sun is at its strongest. Yellow cabs charge a base fare of 60 pesos ($2.50) for a local trip, and the buses will take you anywhere within the city for eight pesos ($0.35). At the front of the bus, there will be a sign that says where it’s going; if in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask the driver, ¿A dónde va? (“Where’s it going?”).

Carry cash

Oaxaca City is, in many respects, a modern city. Most restaurants, cafés and bars will accept all major credit and debit cards; many even take contactless card payments. However, you should still carry some cash on you while out and about in Oaxaca. If you decide to eat at a market or local restaurant (cocina económica) or go for some mezcal at a cantina, it is very unlikely that these establishments will take a card. Taxis and buses are also strictly cash only.

Try not to take excessively long showers

Currently, Oaxaca is facing a water shortage. With an increasing population and the city growing, the supply can no longer keep up with the demand. Water in Oaxaca used to be plentiful due to the two rivers that flow through the surrounding valley, but nowadays, those rivers have shrunk and dried out almost completely. Water supply trucks are a common sight across the city. So, be sure to avoid leaving the tap running or taking overly indulgent showers.

Do not leave without eating at a market

Oaxaca’s markets are sensory bliss: envision the red of ripe tomatoes, the smoky smell of grilled cecina and the taste of warm tamales. Indeed, some of the city’s most delicious and fresh food is prepared daily at its numerous markets. It would be a crime not to eat at the shared table of at least one market stall before leaving Oaxaca.

Visit the Mercado 20 de Noviembre to try a rich, chocolatey mole negro for only 50 pesos ($2.10). The tlayudas (giant tostadas topped with beans, quesillo and veggies) are also some of the best and cheapest in the city. If you are searching for a meatier affair, venture towards the back of the market where you will find an alleyway lined with tasajo vendors. This thinly sliced quality cut of steak is cooked over charcoal and best eaten with handmade tortillas, guacamole, salsa and grilled whole spring onions. ¡Buen provecho!

Learn the difference between queso and quesillo

Oaxaca is famous for its cheese. Indeed, across Mexico, the stringy, mozzarella-like cheese that is used in quesadillas is known as queso oaxaqueño (Oaxacan cheese). However, its real name is quesillo (at least while you’re within state lines). You might just offend some very proud Oaxacans by failing to get its name right. Remember, while you’re in Oaxaca, queso is the name they give to the crumbly, feta-like, fresh cheese called panela in the rest of the country. So, when ordering your food, try to specify whether you want quesillo or queso, but if you get it wrong, don’t worry. Both are delicious!

Watch out for museums closing on Mondays and Tuesdays

Oaxaca City has a great deal to offer in terms of museums and art galleries, with everything from pre-Hispanic sculptures to paintings by the Zapotec artist Francisco Toledo on display. But don’t plan your day of gallery-hopping without first making sure that the attractions you want to visit are going to be open. Avoid the disappointment of an encounter with a closed 15ft-tall (4.5m) colonial front door. Museums tend to shut for the entire day on either Mondays or Tuesdays. For example, the Museo de Sitio Casa Juárez and the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca are closed on Mondays, while the Museo Rufino Tamayo and the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca are closed on Tuesdays.

Support local artists

Oaxaca City is full of talented artists. Tourists to the city can support them by visiting the many studios where they work and sell their art to the public. In 2006, there was a boom of grabado (graphic art) in the city. Since then, dozens of studios have opened within the historic center alone, producing everything from graphic T-shirts to linoleum prints. Much of the artwork has a political dimension and reflects the social and environmental realities of the region. Pick up a Graphic Passport at one of the 12 participating independent studios and get it stamped with an original print from each.

Don’t be afraid to try out your Spanish with residents

You might be surprised by the number of travelers that continue to say “thank you” when everyone – yes, everyone – knows it’s gracias. The local people are quite used to welcoming visitors from all over, especially from the United States, and while many Oaxacans will be happy to speak English, residents really do appreciate it when visitors make the extra effort to speak their language. If your Spanish skills are somewhat limited, a simple buenos días or buenas tardes when greeting hotel staff or your waiter would certainly not go amiss. If you can order a meal in Spanish, that’s even better. Spanish is a wonderful language, and what better place to practice than in Oaxaca!

Get the pronunciation of Oaxaca right

Finally, whatever you do, don’t mispronounce Oaxaca by saying something that sounds like “oh-axe-aca” or “wax-a-car.” It’s pronounced “wa-ha-ca.”

Culture Trip Summer Sale

Save up to $1,395 on our unique small-group trips! Limited spots.

Edit article