What You Should Know About Traveling to Oaxaca for the First Time

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If it was possible to rate entire cities on Yelp, Oaxaca Mexico would always receive two stars or five.  You either love it or hate it, depending on how you approach the trip and what you want from your travels.  It’s not for everyone, but it’s the perfect destination for someone. 

So is traveling to Oaxaca right for you? Let me see if I can help.

Oaxaca City Mexico: A Quick Overview

Oaxaca is both a city and a state in Mexico.  The state is home to the Sierra Norte mountains, gorgeous Pacific beaches (like Huatulco and Puerto Escondido), and Zapotec and Mixtec ruins. 

The primary reasons to go to Oaxaca include the history, art, and gastronomy.

Where is Oaxaca City?

Oaxaca City is in the mountains, with a beautiful downtown center.  Since it’s at 5,000 feet elevation, the weather is warm rather than tropical and nights can be cool.

map of oaxaca in relation to rest of mexico
Oaxaca City is shown by the blue dot.

As of February 2020, Oaxaca state is not one of the five with travel warnings from the U.S. State Department.  As a solo female traveler, I felt very safe during my visit. Read more in my Oaxaca travel safety guide.

Oaxaca Pronunciation

It stumped my husband, so don’t feel bad if it stumped you too!  Here’s how to pronounce Oaxaca: wuh – HAH – kuh.

Clear as mud?  Maybe this will help:

So…Is Oaxaca a Good Fit for you?

Oaxaca Requires a Few Days

Oaxaca isn’t close to anywhere.  It’s 4 hours to Puebla, 6 hours to Mexico City, or about ten hours by bus from San Cristobal de las Casas.  Even the beaches in Oaxaca state are six hours away since the roads wind up and down mountains in-between. 

If you don’t have at least three full days to spare, don’t waste your time going there.

You Should Be Prepared to Walk in Oaxaca Mexico

There are plenty of taxis in Oaxaca, but traffic is heavy and there are tons of one-way streets so walking is often faster.  Most trips in El Centro are no more than 20 minutes by foot.  As a bonus, walking lets you peek into open doorways, which often lead to lovely surprises.

If You’re Scared to Eat the Street Food, You’re Missing the Best of Oaxaca

carne asadas mercado 20 de noviembre oaxaca mexico
The pasilla de carne asada in Mercado 20 de Noviembre, Oaxaca City Mexico. Choose your meat and they’ll grill it for you – then choose condiments like limes, green onions, and guacamole for your tacos.

Oaxacan cuisine is world-famous for bold, fresh flavors like moles.  You’ll also find adventurous dishes like grasshoppers and fermented cacao drinks. 

Although the city has high-end restaurants, some of the best meals are from local markets and street carts.  Choose a busy one and lick your lips from grilled meats, tlayudas, and fresh juices.

Where to Eat in Oaxaca City

Los DanzantesThis five-star restaurant is a “splurge” (you’ll probably pay less than $20 for two courses) but worth every penny.  Best meal — and best service — of my trip.  Hint: if you want to try chapulines, this is a not-scary place to do it because they use ground grasshoppers so you’re not staring at the whole insect.  On Wednesdays 1-4pm, they have major lunch specials if you have a reservation.

PAN:AM: With a lovely courtyard and life-changing hot horchata, this is a great place for a light breakfast.  Their baked goods are homemade and as always, my favorite was the concha.

Caldo de PiedraThis restaurant is closer to Tule than Oaxaca, but is worth the trip out of town to the Oaxaca Valley.  Their seafood soup is made the way it has been for hundreds of years: by putting a fire-blazed stone right in your bowl to cook raw river fish to perfection.

Los PacosAs far as I know, the only spot in Oaxaca with a sampler entree of six different moles.  My favorite was the mole verde, but you can try them all for yourself.

Itanoni In the Reforma neighborhood and only open for breakfast and lunch.  All their tortillas are freshly made with a strong corn flavor..  Be prepared for a long meal and slow service, but it’s really good.  Order a tascalate to drink.

Oaxaca Isn’t Built for Checklists

There are a lot of places that lend themselves well to rapid travel.  Oaxaca is not one of them.  Much of this city is built on ambiance, which means you need to spend time doing nothing. 

Oaxaca Mexico church
A quiet morning in Oaxaca Mexico

Order a glass of wine on a rooftop bar, grab a coffee in a courtyard, or people-watch in the Zocalo.  Besides, if you’re impatient, you’ll hate every s-l-o-w restaurant experience.

Let Out Your Inner Extrovert

You might have to stumble over broken Spanish or you might need to enter an art gallery even if you hate art.  But guaranteed, if you make an effort, there are passionate people all over Oaxaca who would love to chat with you.  Mexicans love to share their culture, so strike up a conversation and see where it leads.

Oaxaca is Perfect for Night Owls

There’s not much going on in Oaxaca before 10am, so there’s no reason to get up early.  Instead, do what the locals do: eat a late dinner and then go out afterward.  Bars are dead for the first half of the evening, but there’s plenty of live music and fun scenes as the night goes on.

Give in to Your Curiosity to Explore Some Cool Things to Do in Oaxaca City

bright colorful Oaxaca alebrijes
Some of the amazing alebrijes in Oaxaca.

Just a handful of things to do in Oaxaca:

Explore Beyond El Centro

The city center is beautiful, with churches, pedestrian streets, and the zocalo.  But walk fifteen minutes away to the Reforma neighborhood and you’ll find trendy restaurants, cute boutiques, and fun-loving bars where you’ll make friends in no time.  You don’t have to spend forever there: just go in the evening for a few hours to explore.

Oaxaca Travel Isn’t For Everyone But It’s Magic for Many!

If you made it this far, traveling to Oaxaca is probably a great fit for you!  Oaxaca has so much to offer for intrepid travelers.

So go: drink mezcal, walk up and down Calle Alcala, and give in to the little voice telling you stay awhile.  This is a city that I gave five stars.

MORE INFO FOR VISITING OAXACA MEXICO

The best time to visit Oaxaca is the dry season, November through April.  Throughout winter, days are pleasant but you might need a sweater at night.  For fewer crowds, avoid Dia de los Muertos (October 31 – November 2) and Christmas/New Year’s.  For the lowest prices without downpours, the best time to go to Oaxaca is the shoulder seasons of May and October.

Staying overnight in Oaxaca? Book early at Hotel Parado de Alcala before the cheap rooms get snapped up.

Don’t have a travel insurance policy yet?  My pick is always RoamRight.

Going anywhere else in Mexico? Check out another guide like what to do in San Cristobal or why I love Cancun.

26 thoughts on “What You Should Know About Traveling to Oaxaca for the First Time”

  1. Hi, Becky. Thank you so much for your write-up of Oaxaca. I want to go there next year to take a couple weeks of Spanish classes as well as explore the culinary scene and arts and crafts of the area. I’ve been on the fence trying to decide if going to Mexico is safe and/or a good idea for a solo female traveler. You’ve given me the courage to take the leap of faith and start planning my trip to Oaxaca now. Thanks. Continued fun and safe travels to you.

  2. I just got back from Oaxaca and I would agree with everything you said here. I think it is important for people to know that this city is very safe. In fact, it really pointed out to me how unsafe cities in the U.S. can be. I am certainly in the 5 star category rating of Oaxaca City. We are already talking about going back since 10 days there was only enough to scratch the surface.

  3. Hi Becky,
    I’m very interested in the weaving and art of this area. And also the food. I’m thinking of going there solo but am a but hesitant. What suggestions do you have for accomodations?
    Thanks, Karen

  4. Hi, I have never visited Oaxaca, but am considering a long winter vacation there in December-January. As a senior, solo female traveller, what area is best for apartment rentals. I don’t want to walk up steep hills, but would want to walk to restaurants, shops etc. I usually stay in San Miguel de Allende, where there are bridge clubs, english movies, and active expat community. Are there such activities in Oaxaca? any information greatly appreciated.

    1. @Yvonne, Oaxaca is very friendly toward travelers, but it does not have the same expat community as San Miguel de Allende. I don’t know, off the top of my head, about activities like the ones you mentioned. It is more geared toward short-term visitors (or long-term visitors who wish to partake more in local activities vs. those geared toward expats). That said, you’ll find plenty of English-speakers and I think if you asked around, you might find a few things going on.

      The streets surrounding the Zocalo are mostly flat with easy walks to restaurants and shops. North of the Zocalo, you will start to see more and more hills, and again south of the Atoyac river.

      1. Oaxaca is a fine spot for a single female. Dec/Jan is high season so it’s a little tougher to find affordable accommodations. Might try the one recommended in this article. There’s a strong expat population. Try googling Oaxaca Lending Library. It’s where many Canadian and American expats hang out. There’s a bulletin board with rentals and Spanish language learning options and they have a newsletter with upcoming events including language exchange on Saturday mornings. You won’t be sorry if you come to Oaxaca

    2. If you want to meet expats, go to the OLL (Oaxaca Lending Library). It’s mainly English language material, but there ‘s plenty of Spanish materials too. It’s just south of Parque Llano, and on Saturday mornings (10-12), there’s intercambio (language excange), where you can meet both Spanish and English speakers.

  5. Hi! I am a first time female solo traveler in my late 20’s . I am wanting to go for dia de los muertos celebration, but I am a bit hesitant since it will be my first trip alone. What recomendantions do you make for a solo first time traveler. I’ve gotten a lot of encouragement but I also need to be safe. I still have not booked anything
    !!!

    1. @Ana, Oaxaca is a very safe part of Mexico to travel to and at Dia de los Muertos, there will be plenty of other travelers in town. I’d recommend staying somewhere close to the Zocalo so you can walk back to your hotel after dark (and not have to worry about taxis) and maybe also join a tour the first day or two to help get your bearings.

    2. Many local language schools and tour companies offer group excursions for dia de muertos. It’s so friendly here, you’ll be sure to find people to join up with for local activities. Contact Oaxaca Lending Library. it’s an English language library with lots of resources and activities.

    3. Hi Ana,
      I’m also in my 20s, female solo traveller planning a trip to Mexico, although not likely to be in Oaxaca until early December, then onto Mexico City, Guanajuato and Guadalajara, then Guatemala in Jan. Are you planning a longer trip, or just Dia de los Muertos?
      Also, I’m planning to take the overnight bus from San Cristobal to Oaxaca, does anyone have any safety insights about this?

  6. Thank you! I was having second thoughts about visiting my mom as she lives in Oaxaca. I have not seen her in 10 years and I would love to go visit now that I am older and can travel alone and have the money to do so. I was feeling worried that maybe it was not safe , my mom says it is safe and keeps telling me to go but after reading everything you wrote I just want to book my flight already ! And the best part is , I will stay at her house and will save on hotel and food 🙂

  7. Victoria Clement

    Hello, I’m planing to go explore with my daughter and grand-daughter Feb 2020…I’m looking forward to any or all recomendations. We will be travelling from Vancouver BC Canada
    Thank You
    Vickie C

  8. I’m going solo and will be traveling from the OAX international airport to Puerto Escondido where I’ll be staying for a few days. I’m renting a car and plan to take Highway route 175. I know it’s twisty and mountainous, which I’m fine with as I’m from Vermont, but people are freaking me out about driving alone. I don’t plan on stopping anywhere on the drive.

    1. @Chantelle, I’ve driven solo in Mexico before also. Even if you don’t PLAN on stopping, please be prepared for the possibility (e.g. flat tire, etc) and have an idea of what you’ll do “just in case”. Hide your valuables, even as you drive through toll booths. You likely won’t have any problems and if you do, it’s more likely to be extortion than any type of violence. However, if you’re not planning on stopping, you might want to look into buses as an alternate. They can be just as fast and very easy!

  9. Hey Becky,
    I seem to be the only guy with questions about Oaxaca. My wife, who is Chinese, and I are retirees, and are considering relocating due to the progressively xenophobic atmosphere here in the US. I love Ajijic/Chapala, and Su loves Oaxaca. I have never been there. We are planning a month long stay in Oaxaca next Dec. – Jan. It seems to me that there must be more to Oaxaca than the Centro Historico. What makes Oaxaca a vibrant, modern city as well as a foodie’s and culturalista’s heaven? I’m sure the precolonial and colonial aspects of Oaxaca, as well as the multiculturalism make the city worthwhile on their own, but is there more?

    Jim

    1. @Jim – I’ll do my best to summarize:

      Culinary: Oaxaca lies in an agricultural heaven, so food has been and continues to be incredibly fresh and flavorful. There are seven traditional moles, but of course you’ll find hundreds of wonderful dishes to try (even more so than the rest of Mexico). Many talented chefs have started restaurants in Oaxaca, so the dining scene is fantastic and that’s not even counting the street food which is amazing.

      Cultural: There’s a ton of history in Oaxaca, ranging from Zapatec and Mixtec peoples (visit Monte Alban and/or Mitla to tour the archaeological sites) to the Spanish/Colonial. Oaxaca is also an amazing spot for art — there are lots of traditional artisans, who you can meet in their studios/workshops, and more conteporary artists as well with galleries that often have special events. Museums range from Pre-Hispanic art to contemporary.

      Outdoor: Outside the city, there are many opportunities for hiking or lighter exploration in the surrounding mountains. You can go on your own to some spots or go with a group/guide for other options. The Sierra Norte are beautiful.

      Vibrancy: In general, Oaxaca is large enough to have several neighborhoods, each with their own personality. It’s worth visiting multiple spots to see what clicks for you. Some have great shopping, others nightlife, some with local vs. expat identities. Truly something for everyone.

      What I very much enjoyed: everyone I met was happy to share a conversation, whether you meet them at the park or the bar. The human connection is hard to put into objective terms, but it can make your trip particularly special.

      P.S. Right before Christmas, Oaxaca has a weird radish-carving festival, which is worth a visit if it overlaps with your stay.

  10. Hello Becky,
    I would like to visit where Maria Sabina has her practice in Sierra Mazateca. Do you have any information on how to get there and any reservations etc…needed?

    1. @Bryon, That area is several hours from Oaxaca City (definitely too far for a day trip). You can get a bus from Oaxaca to Huautla through Autotransportes Maria Sabina. I would imagine that any hotel in the area would be able to help you arrange a visit from there.

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