The state of Oaxaca may be one of the poorest (read: most affordable) in Mexico, but in terms of history, culture, and cuisine, it is rich. It is home to some 17 languages, a dozen thriving indigenous cultures, more than a dozen different climate zones ranging from broad Pacific beaches to cool cloud forest heights, and a cuisine so revered that this is often called “The Land of Seven Moles.”
This is a misnomer. There are dozens of moles—rich, complex sauces for elaborately prepared and meat and vegetable dishes—to be found here, that that is just the tip of Oaxaca’s culinary experience.
All of this fine dining, as well as Oaxaca’s beautiful handicrafts and kaleidoscope of cultures, dances, and musical traditions, are on display in the state capital, Oaxaca City. Resplendent in pale green cantera stone carved into churches, museums, galleries, and other architectural marvels, it is a wonderful, walkable Spanish Colonial gem where you can base further exploration.
At the confluence of the three Central Valleys, Oaxaca City is a day trip away from marvelous Mixtec and Zapotec ruins including Monte Albán and Mitla, dozens of artisanal mezcal factories, wonderful local markets, natural wonders like Hierve de Agua, and more than a dozen pretty handicrafts towns, including Teotitlán del Valle, famed for its rugs, the pre-Columian pottery center of San Bartolo Coyotepec, and San Martín Ticajete, where alebrijes are carved.
Trips into the cool mountains and tropical jungle valleys of northern Oaxaca State take more time and planning. The mountains of the Sierra Juarez, home to the Pueblos Mancomunados, and valley of Santiago Apoala require an overnight at the very least. Adventurous travelers can head further into the mountains, deserts, and Papaloapan jungles, where they will find simple accommodation, incredible food, and experiences they will never forget.
The state’s other big draw is that 300km (186mi) of flawless Pacific coastline, home to dozens of fishing villages, surf towns, and at least one stunning nude beach [Playa Zipolite]. Famous Playa Escondido is known for the Mexican Pipeline, one of surfing’s most famous waves, while Huatulco (WAH-tul-co) is a planned beach resort that can be described as Oaxaca’s answer to Cancún, but less expensive and much lovelier. Both have accommodations for every budget and desire, wonderful restaurants, and all the sun, sand, and surf you need.
Most visitors to Oaxaca State spend a few days in Oaxaca City, then head to one of the beach towns, which are accessible via either a long and winding bus trip or quick, inexpensive flights. But be aware that there so much more to see in this safe, stunning, and easily explored state, which has so very much to offer.
Oaxaca is arguably the richest state in Mexico, from a cultural and culinary perspective. Economically, however, it continues to struggle. This is a challenge for those who live here, but benefits you, the tourist, with some of the cheapest prices on food, lodging, and handicrafts in Mexico.
Oaxaca City and the resort towns of Huatulco, and Puerto Escondido are relatively pricey, but still much cheaper than, say, Cancún or San Miguel de Allende. You can still get a clean, modern double room for less than M$700, and inexpensive hostel accommodations for considerably less. Splashing out on the priciest five-star rooms will run you around US$300, tops, making this a great spot to splurge.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $US.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $20 per person
$$$ => Tickets $25 per person
$ => Rooms less than $75 for a double
$$ => Rooms $75-150 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $200 for a double
$ => $10 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => $25 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $50 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $75 per person
$$ => Tickets $75-125 per person
$$$ => Tickets $125 per person
Many companies offer travel insurance and health insurance for travelers in Mexico for a few pesos for day. Your US health care plan may offer limited coverage in Mexico; call and find out. Europeans do not generally receive reciprocal coverage from the Insituto Mexicano de Seguro Social, so you should also consider purchasing travel insurance.
Mexican health care is relatively inexpensive and high quality, however, so solo travelers on a budget aren’t risking the same potential catastrophic injury to their bank balance that they would in, say, the United States. Your call.
The low rental car prices quoted online probably do not include mandatory basic liability insurance, which you cannot waive. It generally doubles the rental price, and doesn’t cover damage to your car in minor accidents. If you’re worried, you can purchase supplemental liability insurance, which covers more, but not all, damage.
Before you leave the rental office, be sure to go over the car with the attendant and help him or her mark down every single scratch, dent, or imperfection. They can and will charge you for new damage, no matter how unnoticeable. Make sure the car is as clean as possible before returning it, to avoid any other hassles.
Unlike more touristy parts of Mexico, it is inconvenient to buy things using foreign currency, including US dollars. Even in Oaxaca City, Huatulco, and Puerto Escondido, people will be inconvenienced if you try to pay them in US dollars. Your best bet is to get Mexican pesos as soon as you arrive. There are several ATMs, including foreigner-friendly banks like Santandar and HSBC, at the international airport.
In Oaxaca City, there are several banks with 24hr ATMs adjacent to the zÃ³calo. As anywhere, try to use them in broad daylight, and head back to the hotel with your card and most of your cash as soon as possible. Most major cities also have 24hr ATMs.
Credit cards are widely accepted In major cities and tourist spotsâOaxaca City, ?handicrafts towns in the ?Oaxaca Valleys, Huatulco, Huajuapan de LeÃ³n, Tuxtepec, and Puerto Escondidoâas well as at all gas stations and most hotels.
That said, you’re going to want to have cash on hand. You’ll be able to bargain, even at stores where prices are marked, and ?purchase less expensive handcrafts from the smaller, less expensive, and unique crafts studios and street dealers.
If you’re planning to explore rural Oaxaca State, you absolutely need to carry cash to use for hotels, restaurants, and most shops. A surprising number of places accept credit cards and have ATMs, but you just never know.
Is Oaxaca safe?
Yes, although Oaxaca City [POI] and Puerto Escondido [POI] do have the usual smattering of opportunistic crime (theft, mugging) that youâll find in any urban tourist destination around the world. Oaxaca City also has regular political protests that very occasionally become violent.
However, the catastrophic narcoviolence that plagues states along the US border is largely a non-issue in Oaxaca. The region does produce hallucinogenic mushrooms and marijuana, but farmers apparently have a good relationship with law enforcement and are not linked to any violent activity or international cartels.
There is some narcotrafficking activity, however. Cocaine shipments from South America to the United States do go past Oaxaca, and in 2008 the Mexican military intercepted a submarine carrying 5.8 tons of the stuff, just off the coast of Huatulco. That was unusual, however, and you can help keep it that way by NOT doing cocaine while in the state of Oaxaca, orâbetter yetânot at all until itâs legal. Cocaine might not kill you, but itâs sure as hell killing a lot of innocent people on the bloody trail between the Andes and US/European noses. Stop it.
Is it safe to be openly LGBT?
As in much of Mexico, itâs polite (and in some cases safer) to avoid overt public displays of same-sex affection: Kissing, handholding, and so forth. Christianity, both Catholicism and a growing Evangelical presence, is an ingrained part of the culture.
That said, Oaxacaâs tourism bureau is actively developing a marketing campaign and LGBT-friendly business listings to help promote Oaxaca as a gay- and lesbian-friendly destination. And, for the most part, it already is.
Oaxaca was never conquered, per se, by the Spanish. Therefore, local religious beliefsâas in the rest of the Americas, notably absent the Middle Eastern taboo on homosexualityâwere tolerated (more or less). JuchitÃ¡n de Zaragoza [POI], for example, is famous for its transsexual âmuxes,â and the local Catholic Church has basically adapted its mythology to the dominant culture in order to thrive. Which it has.
This respect and tolerance has persisted throughout the conquest, and today Oaxacaâthe most indigenous state in Mexicoâis more than happy to have you visit. Weâll update this page as soon as we know more about the new LGBT-friendly campaign.
Can I visit Community Ecotourism Projects in the Sierra Juarez, Papaloapam, and elsewhere in Oaxaca State on my own, or do I need to book a tour?
The short answer: Yes, you can definitely visit community ecotourism projects on your own, and the community will make more money because the tour company doesnât demand a cut. But, perhaps you should read the longer version.
The longer version: Community Ecotourism Projects are a great way to explore the wild and wonderful hinterlands of Oaxaca. Created by mostly indigenous communities, they offer basic but spectacularly located lodging, simple meals (but bring snacks, just in case), and an assortment of tours that range from hikes and horseback rides to zip lines and spelunking. Each community is different.
While many are well run, be aware that in some cases management can be a little bit flakey. Many people working on these projects are fulfilling their monthly community service (indigenous governments often require communal work), rather than working as trained hoteliers. While most of the projects I visited were ready to receive guests immediately, others took more than an hour, and a bit of asking around (pro-tip: try the Palacio) to find the person with the key. Even then, it would have taken a few minutes to get some of those rooms ready for guests.
Your best bet is to either make reservations, which will require some Spanish skills, and/or show up by early afternoon, to give everyone time to ready a room. If you want to do any special activities, for example, hike from town to town, try to get that sorted out at least a day in advance.
Be aware that cabins may or may not have heat (bring sweaters, the Mixteca Alta gets cold!), and definitely wonât have air conditioning. Cold showers are a luxury, shared cold bath (as in, sponge bath) are more the norm. They may offer simple meals, or might direct you to a nearby restaurant, but bring snacks just in case. You wonât be able to purchase items like sunscreen or insect repellant in most towns, so bring what youâll need. If your Spanish isnât great, a phrasebook is highly recommended. Have fun! These places are some of the most beautiful spots in all of Mexico.
Whatâs the deal with the magic mushrooms?
Oaxaca is well known for its hallucinogenic mushrooms (Psilocybe mexicana), which have been used for millennia as traditional medicine. As you wander through the Oaxaca City [POI] markets, youâll see T-shirts and other souvenirs emblazoned with the wrinkled countenance of MarÃa Sabina, a Mazatec curandera (healer) who introduced hallucinogenic mushrooms to researchers and hippies in the 1960s.
Today, you can still find âmagicâ mushrooms throughout the state, but the most popular spot for tourists to partake in San JosÃ© del Pacifico [POI], a misty mountain town conveniently located between Oaxaca City and Puerto Escondido [POI].
While the widely advertised âshroom tours, shamans, and workshops (as well as the unadvertised dealers) are tolerated by authorities as a tourist attraction, the mushrooms are illegal. They give police a great excuse to incarcerate and/or fine you, should you become a nuisance, particularly outside tourist-friendly San JosÃ© del Pacifico. Be careful out there, and have a great trip.