Many people have never heard of Oaxaca and most can’t pronounce it (wuh-HAH-kuh), but this distinctive city and state in southern Mexico should be on everyone’s travel list. Perhaps you’ve partied in Cancun, seen the cliff divers in Acapulco or made a port-stop in Puerto Vallarta, but you haven’t experienced authentic Mexico until you’ve embraced Oaxaca. It’s a goldmine for visitors looking for more than just a sunny getaway south of the boarder. The colonial architecture, the 16 different indigenous cultures, the rich artistic heritage, the archeological wonders, the stunning coastline and the renowned regional cuisine are all exceptional. This underrated gem is one of Mexico’s best kept secrets, but it’s time to spill the refried beans. Here are 11 essential experiences awaiting you in Oaxaca.
1. Zone Out at the Zocalo
The zocalo is the heart and soul of Oaxaca City. There are lots of town squares or central plazas around the world, but this one resonates as the ultimate community hub for chilling away the hours. A cross-section of travelers, gringo expats and locals of all ages gather in this shared living room to eat, drink, chat, read, flirt, stroll, play and people watch. Terraced cafes line the traffic-free square with lots of open air seating ideal for the “perpetual spring” climate. Indigenous vendors may pass by selling anything from hand-woven huipils (traditional shirts) to chapulines (fried grasshoppers). You might catch a concert, festival or protest in the park. Sit on a shady bench near the fountain or promenade around the perimeter as the locals do each evening. The Oaxaca zocalo is a lively yet peaceful place to hang out any time of day.
2. Peruse the Pyramids
Chanel your inner Indiana Jones and explore the important archeological zones not far from Oaxaca City. Monte Alban and Mitla are exquisitely intact sites that predate the popular ruins of Palenque and Chichen Itza. Pre-Columbian Oaxaca never fell under Mayan or Aztec rule, so they reflect the Zapotec and Mixtec influences of the area. Monte Alban was the political crux of the region from 500 BC to 750 AD. Located just 10km out of town, its astronomically aligned pyramids and ball courts are particularly well-preserved. Mitla, 44km from the city, was more of a ceremonial center that had its heyday from 100 to 1521 AD. Its most noteworthy feature are the intricate mosaics and elaborate wall carvings that are unlike any other site in Mesoamerica.