Oaxaca (pronounced Wahahka) is a state on the Pacific Ocean in southwest of Mexico. The state is well known for its cuisine, and its indigenous peoples and cultures. Its Pacific coast has the major resort of Huatulco and sandy beaches of Puerto Escondido, Puerto Ángel, Zipolite, Bahia de Tembo, and Mazunte. Oaxaca is also one of the most biologically diverse states in Mexico, ranking in the top three, along with Chiapas and Veracruz, for numbers of reptiles, amphibians, mammals and plants.
- 1 Oaxaca – the capital, officially named Oaxaca de Juárez, but always referred to simply as Oaxaca, is an inland capital city of great history, innovative cuisine, and lively markets.
- 2 Capulalpam - small village with natural areas and holistic Zapotec healing. A Pueblo Magico.
- 3 Huautla de Jiménez — historic town of the Mazatec culture, famous for indigenous shamans willing to share psychedelic mushrooms and interesting smokeables
- 4 Mazunte – a small town with a number of pristine beaches nearby. Gorgeous Pacific beach with famous Sea Turtle Museum. Lots of Italians, and Italian restaurants in town. A stop on the Pacific Coast Backpacker Route. Popular with European, North American and Mexican tourists.
- 5 Puerto Escondido – a prime surfing destination. Beach catering to middle class Mexican tourists, backpackers, and surfers. One of the best places to surf in Oaxaca.
- 6 San José del Pacífico – a small town high in the mountains famous for its psychedelic mushrooms
- 7 Zipolite – beautiful 2 km (1.2 mi) long beach, home to many Canadian and American expats, popular since the 1960s. Relaxed atmosphere with a dedicated stream of travelers from Europe and "hippie" Mexican college students following the Pacific Coast Backpacker route. Growing tourist destination for high-end travelers as well. Mexico's only official nude beach.
- 8 Salina Cruz – Commercial port and transportation hub for Mexico's southern Pacific coast
- 9 San Pedro y San Pablo Teposcolula — colonial town known for its mixture of indigenous design and textures with European styles of the 16th and 17th centuries
- 10 Santa Catarina Juquila — famous for its diminutive statue of the Virgen de Juquila, which has been venerated since 1633
- 1 Huatulco — bays, resorts, and ecological preserves
- 2 Hierve el Agua — one of two calcified waterfalls in the world, where calcium in the water is deposited on a cliff to create a permanent, white waterfall.
- 3 Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve — world heritage listed biosphere reserve.
- 4 Monte Alban — archaeological site of 2,500 year old Zapotec city. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- 5 Mitla — archaeological site of the Zapotec/Mixtec religious center. A UNESCO World Heritage Site. Prehistoric caves at Mitla and Yagul are also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- 6 Lagunas de Chacahua National Park — Fishermen village, mangroves, surf and lot of birdlife.
- 7 Santiago Apoala — Waterfald and beautiful hikes in the Mixtec mountains.
Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in Mexico. Therefore, there's a great lack of public services in the whole state. While visiting Oaxaca, you will find a lot of roads and places in poor conditions, but people tend to be friendly if you give them nice comments about their place of origin.Regardless of the lack of services, Oaxaca has much to be proud of. Its great biodiversity and cultural heritage is reflected in having almost every type of ecosystem and many monuments from different epochs, including pyramids, churches and some new buildings in the capital city. So for an open-minded visitor, there is much to learn and enjoy in Oaxaca.
The most numerous and best known of the state's indigenous peoples are the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs, but there are 16 that are officially recognized. These cultures have survived better than most others in México due to the state's rugged and isolating terrain. Most live in the Central Valleys region, which is also an economically important area for tourism, with people attracted for its archeological sites such as Monte Albán, and Mitla,and its various native cultures and crafts.
Oaxaca is well-known for its cuisine. American food and travel television host Anthony Bourdain proclaimed that "as Lyon is to French cuisine, Oaxaca is to Mexican cuisine." The markets of Oaxaca are packed with stalls operated by indigenous women selling their amazing culinary creations.
- D. H. Lawrence, Mornings in Mexico. The first half of this classic collection of traveler's tales recounts the writer's sojourn in Oaxaca, while the second covers his time in New Mexico.
- Oliver Sacks, Oaxaca Journal. Written by an amateur naturalist, this delightful journal documents not only the author's quest for exotic flora but also his observations of local foods and customs.
Oaxaca is known for its linguistic diversity. Many indigenous languages are spoken in the state. Fortunately, most speakers of these languages also speak Spanish, even if their knowledge of the language is limited sometimes, and their accent may be difficult for some native Spanish speakers to understand.
The government is now doing a Hispanization work in all the indigenous communities in order to guarantee the knowledge of the Spanish language by every single person in the state. In Oaxaca de Juárez it's still very common to hear indigenous people who are selling some kind of merchandise talking to each other in their native language (Zapotec, Mixtec, Chontal, etc.) However, they'll always address you in Spanish, so the English-speaking tourist should make an effort to learn at least the very basics of Spanish.
Oaxaca's Xoxocotlán International Airport (OAX IATA), has flights from Mexico City, Cancun, Guadalajara, Monterrey, and Tijuana. In addition the airport also has nonstop flights from the US (Houston and Dallas).
Aerotucán flies from Oaxaca de Juarez to Puerto Escondido and Huatulco.
The primary highways in the state include Oaxaca (city)-Cuacnopalan toll road and the Pan-American highway, which crosses the state completely from Puebla to Chiapas. Federal highway 200 hugs the coast connecting communities such as Puerto Escondido, Salinas Cruz and Huatulco with Acapulco and Chiapas. Federal highway 185, also called "Transístmica", crosses the state from the Veracruz border to the coast at Salina Cruz. Federal highway 125 runs from the Puebla state line along the western part of the state. Federal highway 135 leads from Puebla to Oaxaca City then down to Pochutla. Federal highway 175 runs from the Veracruz border to the city of Oaxaca. Other highways include Federal highway 147 and Federal highway 182.
Local public transportation is offered various local business using pickup trucks, buses and small cargo trucks. Oaxaca city has separate first class and second class bus stations, offering services to most places within the state of Oaxaca, including the coastal resorts of Huatulco, Puerto Escondido, Puerto Ángel and Pinotepa Nacional, and also long-distance services to Puebla and Mexico City and other Mexican locations such as Veracruz. Intercity bus services is provided by companies such as ADO, Cristòbal Colòn, SUR, Fletes y Pasajes and AU. Smaller providers provide service in vans, especially between the city of Oaxaca and the coast.
Most tourist attractions are located in the city of Oaxaca and the Central Valleys region that surrounds it. This area is the cultural, geographical and political center of the state, filled with pre-Hispanic ruins, Baroque churches and monasteries, indigenous markets and villages devoted to various crafts. The capital city and nearby Monte Albán together are listed as a World Heritage Site.
The largest and most important archeological site is Monte Alban, a 2,500-year-old Zapotec city built atop a mountain outside Oaxaca City. It was capital of the Zapotec empire. Also important as an archaeological site is the ancient Zapotec center of Mitla at the eastern end of the Central Valleys which is noted for its unique ancient stone fretwork and abstract mosaics. Between Mitla and Monte Albán there are a number of other important archeological sites such as Yagul, Dainzú and Lambityeco. The most important of these three is Lambityeco, in the middle of the Tlacolula Valley. It was occupied from 600 BCE to 800 CE and coincides with Monte Alban. Yagul is a ceremonial center on the side of a mountain.
Other attractions in the area include colonial constructions such as the monasteries in Cuilapan, Tlaxiaco, Coixthlahuaca, Yanhuitlán and Santo Domingo. Churches include the Cathedral in Oaxaca and the main church of Teposcolula. Hierve el Agua is an area with "petrified" waterfalls, where water with extremely high mineral content falls over the side of cliffs, forming stone waterfall-like structures. Santa María del Tule is home to an enormous Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum) tree which is over 2,000 years old. The town of Zaachila is known for its archeological site and weekly market.
The coast, especially from Puerto Escondido to Huatulco, has sandy beaches on the Pacific Ocean, dolphins, sea turtles, and lagoons with water birds. Many beaches are nearly virgin with few visitors but several areas have been developed such as Puerto Escondido, Huatulco, Puerto Ángel, Zipolite, San Agustinillo and Mazunte. Puerto Escondido is an important destination for tourism from within Mexico with beaches such as Playa Carrizalillo, and attracts international surfers to Zicatela Beach, where an annual surfing competition is held. There are also areas of Oaxaca that are promoted for ecotourism such as Lagunas de Chacahua National Park set in 14,000 hectares of lagoons, rivers, beaches, mangroves, rainforest and grasslands with some 136 species of birds, 23 of reptiles, 4 amphibians and 20 types of mammals.
Yagul Natural Monument in the Tlacolula Valley, 35 km to the east of Oaxaca city, was a settlement in the early part of the Monte Alban 1 Period (500 CE). The Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla in the Central Valley of Oaxaca are a World Heritage Site.
Santo Domingo. This beautiful cathedral is a must-see of Oaxaca, attached to the cathedral is a botanical garden and museum that are both worth visiting.
Oaxaca is an ideal destination for active travelers, especially those who love outdoor activities. The whole state is mountainous, covered by the Sierra Madre Sur, with miles of backcountry areas criss crossed by deep ravines. One of the best places to hike and mountain climb is the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve high up in the mountains with a desert climate that's perfect for cacti, the area's most famous type of vegetation.
Ecotourists who prefer coastal sealife can visit hundreds of miles of coastline that feature lagoons, mangroves, and isolated beaches free of resort hotels, commercial enterprises, or people of any sort. Lagunas de Chacahua National Park is known for its mangrove, birdwatching, and three species of sea turtle who hatch their young on its beaches. If you're interested in a mix of marine species and land species, head to the resort area of Huatulco, which is also a national park and biosphere reserve.
Adrenaline seekers will find lots to do in Oaxaca, including:
- Surfing - Oaxaca's Pacific coast is famous among surfers for its laid-back beach towns and its variety of great surfing conditions. A couple of Oaxaca's most famous surf destinations are Zipolite and Mazunte, though even a non-touristic town like Salina Cruz has a surprising number of surf shops, hostals, and surf instructors (not to mention some tasty waves)
- Caving - Oaxaca isn't known for its commercial "show caves", but there are a number of caves in its many mountains, including the deepest cave in the Americas, the Sistema Huautla in the town of Huautla. This is a wild cave that requires a permit from the local government to explore. It's about a mile deep and has more than 100 miles of mapped passageways. A serious challenge for the expert caver only.
Archaeology is a big draw for Oaxaca, which hosts ancient ruins of the Zapotec and Mixtec civilizations that date back as far as 1800 BC, as well as some caves near Mitla that are thought to be one of the earliest places where humans developed agriculture. Monte Alban, Mitla and the caves are UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Take a cooking class! Foodies generally regard Oaxaca as having the most fascinating and delicious regional cuisine in Mexico with ingredeitns and cooking techniques that have been passed from generation to generation for more than a millenium. The food is tightly tied to the state's agriculture, which is unique in Mexico for relying on heritage varieties of corn, squash, tomatoes, cacao and other products that are produced locally on very small scale farms. Many of the chiles and spices used in Oaxacan dishes are unavailable outside Oaxaca. Famous cooking schools are in the city of Oaxaca and there are tours to mezcal distilleries in remote villages.
Oaxaca has a very rich gastronomy that offers a wide range of dishes. Most commonly in Oaxaca de Juárez you will have the chance to eat the famous tlayudas, a giant tortilla filled with beans and the Oaxacan quesillo (wrapped cheese) and accompanied by tasajo (beef). Dauntless travelers should also try chapulines (grasshoppers), which are a popular dish.
Oaxaca's gastronomy is known for its "seven moles," chapulines (grasshoppers), Oaxaca tamales in banana leaves, tasajo and mescal. Regional variations include the wide variety of vegetables in the Central Valleys region, fish and shellfish in the Coast and Isthmus regions and the year-round availability of tropical fruit in the Papaloapan area on the Veracruz border. Like most of the rest of Mexico, corn is the staple food, with corn tortillas, called "blandas" accompanying most meals. Black beans are preferred. Oaxaca produces seven varieties of mole called manchamanteles, chichilo, amarillo, rojo, verde, coloradito and negro. These moles and other dishes are flavored with a variety of chili peppers such as pasillas Oaxaqueños, amarillos, chilhuacles, chilcostles, chile anchos and costeños. Epazote, pitiona and hoja santa are favored herbs in Oaxacan cooking. The last is indispensable for the preparation of mole verde.
There is a saying in Oaxaca, "Para todo mal, mezcal, para todo bien, también" (For everything bad, mezcal; for everything good, the same.) Alcoholic and non alcoholic drinks based on the maguey plant have been consumed in many parts of Mexico since early in the pre-Hispanic period. The tradition of the making of the distilled liquor called mezcal has been a strong tradition in the Oaxacan highlands since the colonial period. One reason for this is the quality and varieties of maguey grown here. Some varieties, such as espadín and arroquense are cultivated but one variety called tobalá is still made with wild maguey plants. It is made with the heart of the plant which is roasted in pits (giving the final product a smokey flavor) and is sometimes flavored with a chicken or turkey breast (pechuga) added to the mash. It is mezcal, not tequila, and may contain a "worm," which is really a larva that infests maguey plants. The final distilled product can be served as is or can be flavored (called cremas) with almonds, coffee, cocoa fruits and other flavors.
The town of Matatlán (officially, Santiago Matatlan) calls itself the world capital of mezcal. The best known producer here is Rancho Zapata, which also has a restaurant. It is owned by a man that goes only by the name of Tío (uncle) Pablo, who won first prize for his mezcal in Chicago in 2003. In many parts of the Central Valleys area, you can find small stands and stores selling locally made mezcal on roadsides.
Chocolate, which is grown in the state, is known for its role as a beverage. In Mexico, the cacao beans are ground then combined with sugar, almonds, cinnamon and other ingredients to form bars. Pieces of these bars are mixed with hot milk or water and then served hot.
Oaxaca is generally peaceful and tourists have few problems in popular coastal areas like Huatulco and Puerto Escondido, the city of Oaxaca, or the archzeological zones of Monte Alban and Mitla. Rural areas are also generally safe. However, crime can always be an issue and things get a bit dicey in the far western rural areas near the border with Guerrero and in the far southeast between the port of Salina Cruz and the Chiapas border.
Any trip to Oaxaca just wouldn't be complete without a visit to the Pacific beaches. From Oaxaca de Juárez, take any bus ADO, OCC, or local busses to Pochutla, the regional hub and market for the coast. There aren't many attractions in Pochutla, but there are several banks and ATMs which many travelers from nearby towns come to use when ATMs in their village are out of cash. The ayuntamiento building and red and white church here are quite beautiful. From Pochutla you can catch a collectivo to Mazunte, home of the famous sea-turtle museum, or the increasingly popular Zipolite.