If you’re planning a trip to Oaxaca during your time in Mexico, you’re really in for a treat. Aside from eating yourself into a salsa-induced stupor and drinking mezcal and micheladas all day long, there are all kinds of great things to see and do in Oaxaca City and the surrounding areas.
From cool cacti to political histories, petrified waterfalls to lucha libre, here are a few of my you-absolutely-must-do-this things to do around Oaxaca.
1. Visit the botanical garden
Jardin Etnobotanico de Oaxaca – Oaxaca’s botanical garden, en ingles – is bang in the middle of the city, so there’s no excuse for missing it. The walled gardens spread around the Santo Domingo church, and entrance is allowed via guided tour only.
To be shown around by an English-speaking guide, you’ll need to arrive just before 11am on any Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday, and pay 100 pesos per person for a two-hour tour. If you’re fluent in Spanish, you can come at 10am, midday or 5pm Monday to Saturday, and just pay 50 pesos for a one-hour tour. (At the time of writing, £1 is about 25 pesos)
The gardens are home too a wide variety of indigenous plant life, and as well as learning all about the huge cacti, succulents, chillis and other flora on display, you’ll also get to find out more about the history of Templo de Santo Domingo and the grounds the gardens are set in.
2. Admire the view from Monte Alban
Monte Alban is described as a ‘pre-Columbian archeological site’ in many guides, but to give it a bit more colour, I’d describe it as a vast and truly awesome collection of Zapotek ruins, sat high on the mountaintop overlooking Oaxaca City and easily accessible by shuttle bus.
For 70 pesos you can grab yourself a return bus ticket from Lescas Co Travel, who have stands and sales staff hovvering around alongside the Zocalo. Shuttles leave hourly to half-hourly depending on the time of day, and whatever your departure time is, you’ll have a guaranteed return journey from the drop-off and pick-up spot four hours later.
It takes around half an hour for the bus to wind its way to the top of the mountain, and the views along the way are really something. We met another couple on our bus and bonded over our terrible Spanish, before exploring the ruins of the ancient city together. Alternatively, you can pay a bit extra for a guided tour – there are tonnes of tour operators throughout the city so finding a place to book is incredibly easy.
There’s a visitor centre at Monte Alban where you can find out a bit more about the various structures still standing at the site, and see interesting findings from excavations. There’s also a bar selling cold beers and bites to eat, so if you manage to make it round with time to spare you can catch some shade and check out the vistas.
3. Go to a Lucha Libre show
Even if you’re like me, and you generally don’t think sports involving any kind of violence are for you, there’s something surreal and magical about a live lucha libre show. I won’t go into loads of detail here as I’ve written a whole other post about where and how to see lucha libre in Oaxaca, which covers venues, pricing and all the good stuff, but I will reiterate that at 100 pesos a ticket for at least four hours of entertainment, it’s absolutely money well spent.
4. Shop for artisan crafts
Oaxaca City is known for being the food and art capital of Mexico, which is no small claim to be making. We arrived with an empty suitcase each, primed and ready to funnel money into the local economy by buying as much handmade Mexican handicraft as we could – and judging by how Mexican parts of our house currently look, I would say we succeeded.
Prices vary from shop to shop in Oaxaca, so it is worth looking around before committing to a purchase of traditional black pottery, handwoven rugs, tin ornaments or even the colourful bunting that some parts of the country are known for. Some of our highlights were:
- The MARO shop, aka the exhibition store of the Regional Association of Craftswomen in Oaxaca – an organisation committed to supporting indigenous ethnic groups and preserving traditional crafts. This store had the cheapest hand-painted tin ornaments we saw, even on the markets. Find it at No 204, 5 del Mayo, in the Centro area
- The shop with no signage on the corner of 5 del Mayo and Calle Consticution – this place isn’t the cheapest, but the stock is incredible. Lots of amazing hand-painted denim jackets, colourful cushions and household ornaments.
- Artesanias en Oaxaca / Casa de las Artesanias de Oaxaca– a touch touristy, but these shops have just about every traditional craft you might want to buy, and for super reasonable prices
- Amate Books – just across from Santo Domingo is this wonderful little book shop, which sells plenty of household decorations as well. There are as many English language books as there are Spanish, with tonnes about Oaxacan food and culture. We snapped up a copy of Lucha Loco for 50% off.
5. Haggle at the markets
Proper shops are all well and good, but there’s something a bit more exciting about an indoor market. Some of the most popular, and ones we really enjoyed, are the Benito Juarez market and 20 November market, which are conveniently located right next to each other. It’s also worth scouting out either of the artesanal markets a few blocks away.
20 November market is predominantly food-focused, so it’s a great place to head at breakfast or lunchtime if you want some truly authentic Oaxacan cuisine. Just across the road, the Benito Juarez market is better for things like clothing, accessories, mezcals and general souvenir goodness – luchador masks, tin decorations and so on. Both are just two blocks south of the Zocalo, so you don’t have to schlep around for long to find them.
In terms of haggling, you will need to know a little Spanish. We got by with memorising denominations of ten and one hundred, along with single digits, after which point you’ll just need to know your ‘Cuanto cuesta?‘ (how much?) and ‘demasiado caro / muy barato‘ (too expensive / very cheap!’)
6. Go on a free walking tour
One of my favourite activities in any new city is strolling around seeing what’s what, and if you’re looking for things to do in Oaxaca, a free walking tour should definitely be on your list.
There are a couple of different free walking tours in Oaxaca, both run on a you-really-should-tip-at-the-end basis. One leaves from outside the Our Lady of Assumption church every day at 10am, and lasts for two hours – just look for the pink umbrella.
The other tour, which is the one we took and actually ended up having all to ourselves, lasts for three hours and leaves at 10am and 5pm each day from outside Teatro Macedonio Alcala. This is not your typical tourist tour, instead taking you to off-the-beaten-track destinations and educating you on local political movements along the way.
As well as visiting a couple of artesans you would never otherwise find during your stay, you’ll get to visit political artistic collectives, cultural hidden gems and a few good food and drink destinations to return to once you’re done, and find out all about modern Oaxacan history.
7. Take a trip to Hierve el Agua
If you want a break from the vibrant city itself, one of the most popular things to do while you’re in Oaxaca is take a trip out to Hierve el Agua, a bubbling spring and group of petrified waterfalls a relatively short drive away from Oaxaca City.
Salespeople and stores advertising tours pop up every few seconds as you walk through Oaxaca, all competing to offer the best deal. Most offer trips to Hierve el Agua as part of a bundle of activities, stopping at the world’s widest tree in Tule on the way, and the mini Monte Alban-style ruins at Mitla. These are worth exploring in their own right, as the ornate designs and patterns along each wall are all slotted together without cement to fix them in place – think more like a giant jigsaw than a traditional building.
When you’re picking a tour, check to see whether your ticket price includes entree fees to any paying attractions. These are trivial amounts, but worth being ready for – e.g having 10 pesos spare to get up close to the Tule tree, or 25 pesos to enter Hierve el Agua. You can also make your own way to the springs, but it involves a public bus to Mitla followed by waiting around for a collectivo (shared taxi) to fill up and take you the rest of the way. We saw a few people stuck at Hierve el Agua trying to get back, because not enough people were around that day to split the collectivos with.
The springs themselves offer phenomenal views and Instagram photo ops aplenty, though it is definitely very much a tourist spot. Running down the mountain from each side of Hierve el Agua’s bathing pools, both of which you can swim in, are easy-but-sweaty walking routes that offer even more amazing views of the countryside. Take plenty of water, and wear proper sandals or trainers instead of flipflops to avoid regret.
8. Head out of town on a valley hike
Finally, and really still my number one ultimate thing to do in Oaxaca and its surrounding areas, is to get out of the city and go hiking in the Sierra. We went on a hiking and caving expedition with Zapotrek, which you can read about right there, and it was a truly unforgettable and awe-inspiring experience. They do all kinds of different hikes and mountain biking trips, with the focus being on small group, sustainable travel, and I absolutely recommend them to anyone.
If you’ve been to Oaxaca and found something brilliant that isn’t mentioned here, let me know!