Things to Do in Oaxaca
In 1998 this national park, which spans tens of thousands of acres of Oaxaca countryside, was declared a protected area and later designated as a UNESCO Biosphere reserve. As a result, Huatulco National Park has become a destination for travelers looking to get back to nature and spot rare species of animals and birds that exist nowhere else in the world.
Exhaustive conservation efforts have preserved the ecosystems of the tropical forests, mangroves, coral reefs and wetlands that make up this park. Visitors agree the park’s untouched beauty makes it worth a trip and easy access from nearby Cruz Huatulco means it a breeze to get to. Despite easy access this crystal blue bay manages to remain untouched. So whether it’s charting a boat to snorkel, dive, or fish in the pristine surrounding waters, or lounging on one of the deserted beaches, Huatulco National Park offers visitors a chance to experience the country as it used to be.
One of the oldest cities in the Americas, Monte Albán—an ancient Zapotec capital—is perhaps the most important archaeological site in Oaxaca and among the largest in Mexico. Head to Monte Albán’s flat mountain top for views of the city, then explore the vast site’s temples, tombs, underground tunnels, and ball court.
Maguey Bay (Bahía Maguey) is an easily accessible bay with a popular beach of the same name. A handful of busy seafood shacks line the beach, and visitors can sip cold beers on patio chairs, or splash around in the bay’s calm, clear waters. You’ll find lots of amenities here, too, as Maguey tends to be one of Huatulco’s busier bays.
Nestled in the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca, the Cascadas de Llano Grande (Llano Grande Waterfall) is an ideal spot for hiking, swimming, and rappelling. Its shallow pools and multiple cascading waterfalls give ample opportunity for all kinds of water activities: Climb a tree, leap off the rocks, or swing from a rope into the pristine waters below.
A relatively small Mixtec/Zapotec ruin, Mitla is notable for the detailed and well-preserved geometric stonework that decorates the buildings. The setting is pretty, with a cactus garden and shaded benches. From the ruins you can see the domed Church of San Pablo, built in the 16th century when the Spanish pillaged stones from Mitla. At the gates to the ruins, a small artesanía (folk art) market is home to aggressively competitive vendors, a situation that can yield great deals. Outside the gates, a clean and efficient comedor (diner) serves authentic Oaxacan specialties.
The name Mitla comes from the Náhuatl word Mictlan, which means place of the dead or underworld. An ancient ceremonial center, Mitla includes two cross-shaped tombs, a promenade of hefty stone columns, and an elevated suite of ornately-decorated rooms that were once occupied by the Zapotec high priest. Although theories on the subject differ, Mitla was likely built by the Zapotecs, occupied by the Mixtecs, reclaimed by the Zapotecs, and finally conquered by the Aztecs, who took control in 1494.
Zipolite, or Playa Zipolite, is a beach community that is often referred to as Mexico’s hippie haven. This 1.5-kilometer stretch of beach seems lost in time with its slow pace of life. The beach is divided into several areas—the eastern end is called Colonia Playa del Amor, the central part is Centro and the western end is Colonia Roca Blanca. There is really only one main street in Zipolite: Avenida Roca Blanca, or El Adoquín. It was once the only paved road in Zipolite, but three residential area streets are now paved as well.
Don’t expect the party zone like you find in other parts of Mexico like Cancun, but visitors can take part in the surfing, a major draw to Zipolite. You won’t find high-rise hotels or large fancy restaurants with huge fishbowl-style drinks, but instead, look for the main street for a carnival atmosphere in the evenings, with artists, musicians and street vendors making an appearance.
Colonia Roca Blanca is really the central neighborhood in Zipolite and was named after the large, white rock just offshore. The area has grown but still attracts crowds of yoga gurus, surfers and musicians that pass through town. During high season, the area’s small bars and nightclubs see more activity.
Zipolite’s beach is pristine with clear water and golden sands. You may recognize it from the Mexican blockbuster film “Y tu mamá también.” While swimming is allowed, it is not always recommended due to strong waves and undertow.
One of just two so-called “petrified waterfalls” in the world, Hierve el Agua—which translates to Water Boils—is a rock formation with cliff-top pools above it. Visitors can cool off in natural spring waters, which are touted to have healing properties, then hike down to the base of the waterfalls.
Chachacual Bay (Bahía Chachacual) is just half a mile (one kilometer) long, but its world-class snorkeling, impressive birdlife, and serene setting continue to attract travelers to its sunny shores. This tiny bay in Huatulco is best reached by boat and still relatively untouched, making it the perfect destination for those seeking a bit more privacy.
Órgano Bay (Bahía Órgano) is an isolated stretch of beach just south of Santa Cruz in Mexico. Recommended for travelers who want to get away from it all, it’s an ideal spot for snorkeling and diving with calm, clear blue-green water and several interesting rock formations. Organo Bay is very near Maguey Bay, but not as popular or easy to access.
A tree so fat it seems to strain against the confines of the surrounding square, the Tule Tree (el Arbol del Tule) is at least 2000 years old, which makes it one of the world’s oldest living entities. The tree is a Montezuma bald cypress (Taxodium mucrunatum), a tree the Aztecs cultivated as an ornamental and a source of medicine. Hoary yet flourishing, the giant has a mesmerizing quality: The bark is so thick and gnarled that various growths have nicknames, including “the pineapple,” “the elephant,” and “Carlos Salinas’s ears” (a reference to former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari).
The tree is located in the village of Santa María del Tule, 13 km east of the capital. The square surrounding the tree features souvenir shops, snack stands, and the usual army of roving vendors.
More Things to Do in Oaxaca
Massive Indian Laurel trees line the winding roads that lead to this picturesque town at the foothills of Monte Alban. Known for its famous painted wooden animals called alebrijes, some 80 families craft these popular souvenirs by hand using local copal, Sierra Sur and Mixteca trees. Travelers can explore the markets, museum and galleries of San Antonio Arrazola, where these one-of-a-kind pieces are on display and learn more about the age-old tradition passed down through generations. Those in the know say it’s best to have artisans pack up figures to keep them safe to travel and that once visitors arrive home the alebrijes should be popped in the freezer temporarily to kill off any termites.
Still relatively unknown to tourists, the Copalita Ecological Park and Ruins (Parque Eco Arqueológico Copalita) sit on the shores of the Pacific Ocean in the Huatulco resort area. Remnants of pyramids, temples, a ball court, and a pre-Hispanic lighthouse dot the lush landscape of the archaeological park, which also includes a massive stone believed to have once been used in sacrifices.
Tucked away into the hillside of Culipam, this former Dominican convent offers travelers a bit of Mixtec, Spanish and Zapotec history, as well as some spectacular views. Once home to praying monks, today this tranquil destination draws travelers in search of a quiet respite from the hustle of city life. It showcases black and white mural paintings, as well as artifacts from the Anthropology and History National Institute, which is housed on the convent’s second floor. The nearby open-air chapel, which was built without a ceiling due to ancient fears of closed spaces, is another convent site worth checking out.
This famous religious structure in the heart of Oaxaca attracts tourists and travelers to its quiet courtyards, holy cloisters and peaceful altars. Founded in the late 1500s by the Dominican Order, Santo Domingo de Guzman is now home to the Cultural Center of Oaxaca.
Visitors can wander through halls lined with pre-Columbian artifacts like ancient tombs and handmade crafts. Well-kept gardens and impeccable interiors offer visitors a taste of religious life of the past. Be sure to check out the ornate ceilings inside the chapel, as well as the brilliant white open-air cloister hallways with stunning arches.
Travelers seeking a true Oaxacan culinary experience will find it at Casa Crespo, a popular restaurant and cooking school that serves up traditional regional cuisine that highlights age-old flavors and market-fresh ingredients. Visitors can settle in for an el fresco cocktail on Casa Crespo’s rooftop, where scenic views of the Church of Santo Domingo and the Oaxaca countryside offer a perfect backdrop.
It’s best to arrive ready to relax with the expectation that this traditional dinner will be served at a leisurely pace that’s perfect for enjoying company and cocktails. Caldo de piedra, a seafood stew that’s cooked over hot stones tableside, offers up a bit of dinner drama that’s worth every savory bite.
If you love meat then the 20th November Market (Mercado 20 de Noviembre) in Oaxaca, Mexico, is a must visit. This market is centrally located in downtown Oaxaca and puts a strong focus on meat plus has a variety of other products for sale.
Of the meat offerings at Mercado 20 de Noviembre, its claim to fame is the section of the market dedicated to Carnes Asadas, which means grilled meat. You can buy cuts of meat raw to grill it up yourself if you're staying somewhere that has such capabilities, or you can take the easy route and purchase the sizzling slices of meat grilled right in front of you at the market and enjoy it at one of the stall-side tables. To really make your Carnes Asadas experience fun, pick up some chiles or veggies at one of the produce stalls by the lane of Carnes Asadas stands and ask your meat vendor to grill them up with your Carnes Asadas.
Mercado 20 de Noviembre is also home to a variety of stalls filled with buckets and containers holding spices, fruits, mole (a Mexican sauce that Oaxaca is known for) and much more. You can also find local arts and crafts, though the focus at Mercado 20 de Noviembre is largely on the food.
Tlacolula Market (Mercado Tlacolula) is a village market that attracts many locals who come to the market each week both to sell and buy various produce, meat and other products. Tianguis is the name for an open air market that typically operates on the same day each week for a given location. In the case of the Mercado Tlacolula, it is a Tianguis because it operates every Sunday in the main square of the town of Tlacolula.
Many of the villagers who frequent Tlacolula still dress in traditional garb and visitors will get to see the colorful outfits. The market itself has a traditional feel – you’ll see live turkeys you can purchase, plus there are meat stands with grills where you can either get a fresh cut of meat or a cooked snack, such as a taco.
Visitors looking for the perfect Oaxaca souvenir can find a unique reminder in the municipality of San Bartolo Coyotepec, located about 15 kilometers south of Oaxaca. Known for its black clay pottery, its quiet streets are lined with shops, galleries and studios selling this regional pottery that has been a part of Oaxacan tradition for hundreds of years.
Visitors can check out the work of local artisans, which ranges from old school matte finish pottery to shiny and black, then head to Museo Estatal de Arte Popular de Oaxaca, where a large collection of this state treasure is on display. Afterwards, stop by the newly opened Baseball Academy, where a massive mural of barro negro (black pottery) is painted.
The state of Oaxaca is famous for the rugs and blankets of Teotitlán del Valle, a small town 24 km southeast of the capital. Weaving is chiefly a cottage industry in Teotitlán del Valle; you can buy rugs and blankets from street vendors, from hole-in-the-wall shops, or even from private homes.
If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see the artists in action. Although the modern weavers of Teotitlán del Valle work on a style of treadle loom introduced to the area in the 1500s by Dominican friars, Zapotec weaving traditions date back to at least 500 BC. If you visit the Zapotec ruins of nearby Mitla and Monte Albán , you’ll spot consistencies between the geometric wall frescos and the rug patterns of Teotitlán del Valle. Traditional motifs includefleches (arrows), a zig-zag pattern calledrelampago (lightening) and a floral shape known as thesol Zapoteca (Zapotec sun). Traditionally, these designs are woven from handspun wool colored with natural dyes made from cactus fruits, walnut husks, pecan bark, indigo, and the larvae of cochineal, an insect that lives in thenopal cactus.
If you want to continue your weaving education, check out the interesting little community museum across from Teotitlán del Valle’smercado de artesanias (craft market).
Benito Juarez Market, or Mercado Benito Juarez, takes up two blocks in central Oaxaca, Mexico, and is located a short walk from Zocalo, Oaxaca’s main plaza. The market offers a variety of food and handicrafts.
You’ll encounter many different types of food when walking through Benito Juarez Market. Dine on the Oaxaca delicacy, Chapulines while you’re at the market…a fancy way of saying you’ll be eating grasshoppers. There is also fresh seafood and hanging cuts of meat you can purchase to prepare back at your accommodations if you have a kitchen or grill. Get some fresh tortillas from the market as well and turn your dinner into tacos.
In addition to heaping baskets of grasshoppers and produce, you can also find artisan products ranging from weaved purses to clothing to ceramics. You may find similar products at each stall, so don’t be afraid to browse first and then barter.
Cacaluta Bay is the largest and least accessible of the Huatulco bays. This heart-shaped Oaxacan inlet, which served as a stunning backdrop to the blockbuster Mexican film Y Tu Mamá También, has good snorkeling just a short swim from shore. Its serene setting offers a nice alternative to the noise and excitement of Santa Cruz Bay.
In September 1991, in response to the dwindling numbers and near extinction of many turtle species, the Mexican government banned the trade of sea turtles and created the Mexican Turtle Center, or Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga.
The 10-acre center, located in the town of Mazunte near Zipolite, is home to various varieties of sea turtles, fresh water turtles and even some land turtles. Some of the species of sea turtle you can find at the center include green turtles, hawksbill, leatherbacks and olive ridley turtles.
The center is located nearby to what used to be the Mazunte region’s turtle slaughterhouse, making reuse of the area in a constructive manner. The main exhibition contains 13 aquariums showcasing sea turtles through various stages of their development, and other aquariums feature the six freshwater species and two land-based species.
There is also a botanical garden on site featuring local cacti. The garden is dedicated to Dra. Helia Bravo Hollis, in honor of her 62 years of researching the cacti. The center also has a multi-purpose room and a cafeteria and gift shop.
Ventanilla, or La Ventanilla, is an estuary of the Tonameca River, and is an important ecological area on the Oaxacan coast. A small village is also located here, surrounded by mangroves and the birds and animals that call them home. La Ventanilla gets its name “the window” from a large rock formation on the beach. The huge rock juts out on the coast, featuring a small “window” that looks out to the sea.
Back in the 1990s La Ventanilla was just a stretch of undeveloped beach with a coconut plantation. Three families lived in the area, despite no electricity until nearly 2000. Today, there are approximately 25 Zapotec families that have settled in the area. These inhabitants have established crocodile farms, where they monitor and raise them, setting them free once the reptiles are able to survive on their own. The villagers also work on reforesting the mangroves, with over 30,000 mangroves already replanted.
Visitors to Ventanilla typically journey on a canoe through the mangroves, looking for crocodiles in their natural habitat, along with birds and other reptiles that call Ventanilla home. In addition to exploring Ventanilla via canoe, horseback rides along the beach are also popular. Depending on the time of year, look for sea turtles and dolphins that frequent the area to feed on crustaceans and microorganisms. They are more abundant during a rainy season phenomenon known as “broken bars,” when the sea meets the lagoon.
Home to fewer than 100 people—mostly fishermen—San Agustin Bay (Bahía San Agustín) has no electricity or running water. The bay itself is known for its prime snorkeling opportunities. Visitors head into the ocean straight from the shore and are immediately surrounded by schools of tropical fish, coral plates, crabs, snails, bivalves, and sea urchins.
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