If you want sun, sand, surf, and wild adventures, Cancún and Cabo are terrific. But if you’re looking to leave the tequila shots and the bikini bottoms behind in exchange for some true Mexican culture, consider this artsy, ancient, high-altitude city in southwestern Mexico. It’s called Oaxaca (pronounced "wah-HAH-kah"), and though it may be difficult to spell, has got enough vibrant history, mescal-fueled night life, stately Spanish colonial traditions, dense forests and rugged mountains brimming with plant and animal life—not to mention some of Mexico’s most exciting regional cuisines-- to have you head over heels in love from the moment you enter the super safe and economically stable region.
What’s more is that the entire city is an architectural gem that’s filled to the tee with pre-Columbian ruins, fantastic museums, and baroque churches encrusted with gold—as well as a whole bunch of inexpensive local markets and elegant five-star restaurants to browse and enjoy. Travel to this ever so charming UNESCO World Heritage Site that provides travelers of all sorts with a more than easygoing pace of life that’ll have you joining in all the fun of fireworks, fiestas, and other brightly colored events unfolding in the streets or at the Zócalo (Oaxaca’s lovely central square) almost every day!
Chock full of Mesoamerican ruins, colonial wonders, pristine beaches, diverse crafts, and gorgeous natural scenery, there’s never a shortage of adventures to be had in Oaxaca. There’s a special sort of energy like no other, and with a temperate climate year-round, there is never a bad time to visit the city. Climb up to the infamous ruins of Monte Albán, which was built by the Zapotecs and remains one of the country's most important archeological sites. Or do some craft shopping in and around the array of village markets like the Mercado (Market) Benito Juárez or the Abastos Market (with hundreds of stalls under a makeshift roof of plastic tarps) before chowing down on some authentic cheeses, empanadas, tamales, soups, tlayudas (thin Oaxaqueño “pizzas”), and rich or spicy hot chocolates at dining faves such as Restaurante Los Pacos, which offers a rooftop dining area as well as great three-mole sampler. Deemed the “Land of The Seven Moles” the entire city of Oaxaca is geared towards foodies because of the variety of legendary and complex sauces that are made using dozens of ingredients over several days. So get ready to get your grub on! Be sure to also try the specialty spirit, mezcal, which is made from the rare maguey agave.
After satisfying your belly with a meal (or two!), get artsy by checking out the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (Museum of Contemporary Art) or the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre-Hispanic Art. Some Mexico's most famous contemporary painters, including Francisco Toledo, Rodolfo Morales, and Rufino Tamayo, were born in the state of Oaxaca so museums and galleries crowd the center of the city. There are also smaller treasures, like the Museo de Filatelia, which exhibits Mexican stamps from as early as the nineteenth century. The city even contains a number of parks, gardens, and plazas, many of which were former monastery lands. There’s Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca, surrounding the former monastery of Santo Domingo or the Plaza de la Danza y Jardín Sócrates complex on Morelos Street at the foot of the Cerro del Fortín, which is part of the area bounded by the Basilica de la Soledad and the Church of San José. And for some quiet time, why not swing on by Amate Books for a spectacular collection of English titles on Oaxacan history and Mexican street art. You can even stare in awe at the one-of-a-kind doorway that’s lined with a foot-wide border of dried red, orange, yellow, and white marigolds. Careful though, because sometimes, it's guarded by a neatly dressed Day of the Dead skeleton!
Many day trips to the east of Oaxaca city begin with a stop in the small village of Santa María del Tule, which features a massive 2,000-year-old cypress tree at its center. More than 130 feet tall and with a trunk that's almost fifty feet in diameter, “El Tule” is described as the largest tree in Latin America. Local area tours also provide easy access to daily trips to sites like Monte Albán, as well as not so near archaeological sites and villages outside the city such as Mitla (an ancient burial site for the Zapotecs and Mixtecs just 30 miles southeast) or the town of Teotitlán del Valle, where weavers such as Demetrio Bautista Lazo craft appealing rugs with patterns inspired by tomb designs. Plus, you can also lunch over at the Mendoza sisters' Tlamanalli restaurant, where all dishes are made in the traditional Zapotec style.
Why not get a little tipsy through some area mescal tastings at Mezcal Benevá, which offers group tours and samples of the unique smoky and earthy-flavored local spirit that’s traditionally served in small earthenware cups along with lime wedges and sal de gusanito, an orange-colored salt spiced with smoked, ground worms. And if you you happen to be missing the sights and sounds of the seashore, there are always 533 kilometers (331 miles) of glorious Pacific beaches to flock towards, including the cheerful surf town of Puerto Escondido or the plush resort community of Huatulco. Both are just a 45-minute flight or a six-hour bus ride from Oaxaca City!
Lucky for tourists, many of the city's old colonial villas have been beautifully restored and turned into boutique hotels, offering plenty of accommodation options for travelers on any budget. There’s Casa de Sierra Azul, a centuries old house just two blocks east of the center of the city, which manages to keep the bustle of street life at bay with an ornate wrought-iron gate, thick adobe walls, a super private shaded courtyard, as well as seventeen spacious rooms that open up directly onto a quiet patio where potted geraniums and ferns. For a stay that’s way more contemporary and minimalist, check out Casa Oaxaca, a refreshing hotel filled with abstract paintings by local artists on loan from a nearby gallery that dot the whitewashed walls in its central courtyard and adjoining garden. The hotel’s small in-house restaurant, run by Chef Alejandro Ruiz Olmedo even offers popular and tasty nuevo-Mexican fare.
Seaside stays such as popular beach areas in Puerto Escondido—a former fishing town that's become a magnet for sun-seeking beach babes and bums—boast terrific world-class luxury resorts, while Camino Real Oaxaca, which was originally built as a convent in 1576 by Dominican monks (and later served as a government office, a jail, and a school), features a five-star hotel experience with doubles starting at just under $300 a night. You can even unwind, relax, and take a traditional temazcal steam bath to clear the mind, body, and soul at B&Bs such as Casa de las Bugambilias Bed & Breakfast, where you can take in the scents of herbs such as eucalyptus, mugwort, and rosemary, or enjoy a two-hour treatment of aromatherapy therapy and massage, as well as a few gentle whacks of a juniper branch. There someplace nice to live and stay all around this Mexican city.
Plane, train, or automobile, Oaxaca has got you covered transportation-wise. Fly in through Xoxocotlán International Airport or make good use of the local bus or taxi system, which can take you anywhere from Juárez and Ocampo, to the Zócalo, down to Tinoco y Palacios, or up to Pino Suárez or Crespo. Cyclists will be glad to find not one but two full-service shops, including Bicicletas Pedro Martínez and Zona Bici, both of which rent and sell awesome mountain bikes and equipment. And for those who like to travel around old school style, break into those newly bought sneakers from the village marketplace by doing some major walking. Oaxaca's streets slope gently downward from north to south toward the Zocalo, where the city flattens out, so not only is it super walkable, but everything is literally within walking distance!
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