Oaxaca state in southern Mexico is one of the most vibrant and diverse regions in all of Mexico. With such a wide variety of experiences, settings, and things to do in Oaxaca there is something here for everyone.
Indulge in Oaxaca city’s rich culinary culture and trendy arts scene or return to nature in the traditional mountain villages of the pueblos mancomunados.
Sunbathe on the glistening beaches of Mexico’s surfing mecca Puerto Escondido or journey to the misty mountains of the Sierra Sur. Be awed by incredible archaeological sites of ancient civilizations or explore the wilder parts of Oaxaca like Chacahua’s maze of crocodile-filled mangrove forests or the unspoiled coastal national park of Huatulco.
There are just so many things to do in Oaxaca, it can be difficult to know where to start. We have put together a list of our absolute favorite experiences, places, and things to do in Oaxaca state to help get you started.
Best Things to Do in Oaxaca, Mexico
Eat Your Way Through Oaxaca City
Few cities rival the culinary pedigree of Oaxaca. Oaxacan cuisine draws on the region’s rich history with influence from the pre-Columbian civilizations that ruled here for millennia and the Spanish who came after.
With its long culinary history and distinct style, you will find flavors here that have shaped Mexican cuisine and beyond. Think rich, dark moles, charcoal-finished tlayudas, and simple memelas.
From street food to casual hole in the wall restaurants to fine dining experiences, the range and variety of food in Oaxaca is matched only by its quality.
On street corners, expect Oaxacan-style tacos, quesadillas, and local staple the tlayuda, large white corn tortillas covered in frijoles, meats, veggies and Oaxacan cheese and grilled over charcoal. Some of the city’s best street stalls include Tacos del Carmen, Lechoncito de Oro, Libre Tlayudas Dona Martha or the marketplace 20 de Noviembre.
For casual sit-down meals, small, simple mom and pop restaurants throughout Oaxaca have been perfecting local specialties for generations. Find pozole, heaped plates of mole, and piping hot tamales.
Our favorite casual restaurants are Cabuche, Chepiche Cafe, Ancestral Cocina Tradicional, and La Popular.
Beyond street food and casual dining, some of Mexico’s, and indeed the world’s, most exciting chefs have been drawn to Oaxaca’s thriving food scene. These chefs are bringing the heritage and history of Oaxaca into the present day as ancient tradition meets modern techniques.
Don’t miss Casa Oaxaca, Pitiona or Enrique Olvera’s Criollo.
Bar Hop the Mezcalarias of Oaxaca City
Jalisco may be the home of tequila, but Oaxaca is the king when it comes to mezcal, Mexico’s popular agave-based spirit.
Visit one (or all) of the many mezcalerias in the city of Oaxaca to sample local Mezcal. Passionate bartenders can guide you through the sometimes confronting savory and smoky flavors for which mezcal is known.
Some of the best bars to sample mezcal in Oaxaca city are Bar Ilegal, Mezcalogia, and La Querencia Mezcaleria.
Visit a Mezcal Distillery in Santa Catarina Minas
While you can visit numerous mezcalerias in the city of Oaxaca, to gain a true appreciation of this important local export you need to visit a local mezcal distillery.
Continue your mezcal education in Santa Catarina Minas, a small village home to a number of mezcal distilleries. Many of the small family-owned distilleries here are small-batch producers still using traditional techniques.
Observe the processes, and of course sample the famous spirit. Tours are often free or have a nominal fee. Distillery Lalocura is one of the small distilleries here producing traditional mezcal and welcoming interested visitors!
Travel Back in Time at Monte Alban
Just outside the modern-day city of Oaxaca, Monte Alban should be on any Oaxaca itinerary.
Set atop a green valley, Monte Alban is one of the best-preserved and most impressive archeological sites in Mexico. Without the hordes of tourists that flood Mexico City’s Teotihuacan pyramids, it offers a wonderful opportunity to absorb the incredible significance and history of this fascinating site.
Discover the rich and storied history of this ancient city which was not only one of the earliest cities in Mesoamerica but also functioned as the center of the Zapotec civilization for nearly one thousand years.
Admire the World’s Widest Tree in Tule
The Tree of Tule occupies pride of place in the central square of the town of Tule. This enormous tree is located just a short drive from the capital of Oaxaca.
With a circumference of over 40 meters, the tree of Tule is listed as the world’s widest tree in the Guinness Book of World Records. The impressive tree is estimated to be around 1,500 years old and is steeped in local legend and history.
The town of Tule is also home to a pretty central zocalo, surrounded by an ornate church and traditional food stall market.
Need a place to stay in Oaxaca? Check out the best Airbnbs in Oaxaca for an awesome stay!
Uncover the History of Yagul
Yagul, which means “old tree” in the Zapotec language, is an architectural site 36 kilometers from the city of Oaxaca.
This large, well-preserved site makes for a fascinating way to spend a morning or afternoon. The Zapotec civilization that occupied Yagul dates back to 500 – 100 BC, however, the most visible ruins only date back to the 1200s.
With very few tourists, you might find yourself alone when visiting Yagul, a special opportunity to wander amongst history and contemplate the rise and fall of a great civilization. Take the time to climb up to the top of the hill behind the ruins for panoramic views over the ruins and the surrounding valley.
Catch a Wave at Puerto Escondido
Oaxaca’s most well-known coastal destination is Puerto Escondido.
It’s home to Playa Zicatela, one of the world’s most renowned surf destinations, known for its monster beach break. Come and try your hand at surfing this heavy wave, or try the more forgiving point break at La Punta.
Alternatively, if surfing is not your thing, enjoy sheltered beaches and coves like Carrizalillo and generally soak up the laid-back coastal atmosphere at this popular beach town.
Relax on the Beaches of Mazunte, San Augustinillo, and Zipolite
The three beaches of Mazunte, San Augustinillo, and Zipolite are some of Oaxaca’s most beautiful beaches and certainly Oaxaca’s most relaxed beach towns.
Popular for their laid-back and alternative vibe as much as their stunning jungle-covered headlands and beautiful turquoise waters, these beaches are among Mexico’s best beach destinations.
Covering a 20-kilometer stretch of coastline, these beach towns each offer something slightly different.
Whether you prefer the picturesque Mazunte with its protected swimming cove and trendy cafes and bars, San Augustinillo with its calm, relaxed vibe, or Zipolite which is known for being the only nude beach in Mexico, you are sure to find a home away from home in one of these three beaches in Oaxaca.
Watch Turtles Hatching at Playa del Palmarito
Some eight kilometers north of Puerto Escondido, on the otherwise deserted Playa del Palmarito, Olive Ridley turtles return each year to lay their eggs. From August to November, visit this remote beach to watch and help guide baby turtles as they make their way into the world and the vast Pacific Ocean.
There is a 6:00pm turtle release and you can volunteer between 9:00pm and 2:00am.
Explore Lagunas de Chacahua
It’s time to get off the beaten path and into wild Oaxaca. A road trip in Oaxaca is not complete without visiting Oaxaca’s Parque Nacional Lagunas de Chacahua, the Chacahua Lakes National Park.
To reach Chacahua, you will need to take a boat ride through the maze-like and crocodile-filled mangrove forests of Chacahua lagoon. Skilled pilots deftly maneuver long boats through tiny openings, speeding amongst thick tangles of mangroves. The boat ride to reach the beach is an adventure in itself.
Once there, you will be rewarded with miles of deserted beaches, a great surf break, and total relaxation.
Basic accommodation is available and booking in advance is only essential if you want to stay somewhere particular or if your trip coincides with the Mexican holiday season. There are no ATMs available, but there are restaurants and bars and stores selling basic goods. This is the place to come and relax, read a book, and catch some rays.
Watch out for the crocs.
Find Your Center in San Jose del Pacifico
Nestled high in the Sierra Sur mountains, halfway between the city of Oaxaca and the coast, is San Jose del Pacifico. 2,500 meters above sea level, this mountain town sits above the clouds but on a clear day, the view stretches all the way to the Pacific coast, some 60 kilometers away.
Here in the misty mountains, lush green forests offer vastly different vegetation from the cactus-covered Oaxaca Valley to the north or palm-tree-lined coast to the south.
The town boasts incredible natural beauty, traditional temazcal sweat lodge ceremonies, and a reputation as a place of restorative power. Also of special significance here are the hongos magico, the local psilocybin mushroom, psilocybe mexicana, which grow abundantly in the mountains.
Against this backdrop, an arts and bohemian counterculture has emerged. It is a place to unplug, to unwind, to reconnect with nature, and to rejuvenate body and mind.
Hike the Pueblos Mancomunados
For a truly local experience, make the journey out to the Pueblo Mancomunados which is a collection of eight small villages in the Sierra Norte mountain range. Explore this beautiful part of the world via the extensive hiking trails that connect these eight pueblos.
This cooperative of traditional Zapotec villages here has long pooled resources as part of an ongoing alliance. Today, the Pueblo Mancomunados aims to bring awareness and tourism to the culturally significant region.
For visitors, the Pueblos Mancomunados offers a glimpse into the rural life of the communities here in this naturally spectacular alpine region.
Celebrate Day of the Dead in Oaxaca
Día de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead, is one of Mexico’s most iconic and exciting cultural celebrations. And nowhere celebrates Día de Los Muertos quite like Oaxaca. The Day of the Dead celebrations are known for month-long festivities, incredible costumes, and exciting parades.
Celebrated primarily between November 1 and November 3, the state of Oaxaca and particularly Oaxaca city, is abuzz in the month leading up to the official fiesta. People dress up and paint their faces, parades move through the streets playing music, dancing, and setting off fireworks in huge mobile parties, and families and friends visit cemeteries not to mourn but to remember and celebrate with loved ones that have passed on.
Getting swept up in this incredible celebration of life, death and remembrance is, hands down, one of the best things to do in Oaxaca.
Explore Wild Huatulco
Here, 30,000 acres of stunning beaches and wild coastal forests have been designated a national park. The park is bordered to the east by the town of La Crucita and to the west by the small beach village of San Agustin.
With only one road into the park and limited beach access, the best option for accessing Huatulco’s stunning and lonely beaches and experiencing its dramatic and rugged coastline is by boat.
Tours can be organized starting in La Crucita or San Augustin. La Crucita is large and developed, with a tourism scene and popular hotel option.
The tiny beach village of San Agustin is beautiful and surprisingly busy with a local community that runs on fishing and tourism. Fishing boats bob in the calm turquoise waters which are protected by the headlands at either end of the beach and the Isla de San Agustin in front.
Tip: For an adventurous day out in Huatulco, check out this half-day excursion! You’ll get wet and wild with rafting and snorkeling on the agenda, plus a chance to take in scenic views of the area. If you prefer to stay dry, then an ATV drive through Huatuclo’s jungle and beach landscapes may be up your alley!
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