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Best Things to Do in Oaxaca Mexico

What is Oaxaca known for? Oaxaca is a diverse and beautiful area, making a vacation there one of the most fun things to do in Mexico. Here, you’ll find gorgeous colonial towns, unique and delicious food, rich history, thickly forested mountains, stunning untouched stretches of tropical Pacific coast, and an incredible range of biodiversity.

There are fun Oaxaca things to do for everybody. If you’re planning a trip, check out this guide to the best things to do in Oaxaca City and beyond.

Quick Tip: Book accommodation, tours, and transport ahead of time online to save money and stress. 
Best Oaxaca ToursClick here to check out the complete list of amazing Oaxaca Tours
Best Oaxaca Accommodation: Click here to check out the best accommodation in Oaxaca
Best Oaxaca Transportation: Click here to book a bus, ferry, or shuttle in Oaxaca

Best Things to Do in Oaxaca Mexico

1. Sample the Best Restaurants in Oaxaca City

Best Things To Do In Oaxaca State | Culinary Adventures In Oaxaca City | Oaxaca Food

Oaxaca City (also known as Oaxaca de Juárez) is the capital and most important city in the state.  It’s an amazing place with beautifully preserved streets, colorful colonial architecture, giant maze-like markets, and a vibrant creative scene.

Of course, there’s also the food. One of the best things to do in Oaxaca City is embark on a restaurant tour.

Many consider Oaxaca the culinary capital of Mexico. It’s home to some of the country’s best (and most interesting) food. Traditional Oaxacan food contains a range of unique ingredients that combine to create flavors like anything you’ve never tasted before.  

Popular items include avocado leaves, epazote (also known as wormseed), chile varieties (there are loads!), squash blossom, unrefined cacao (a key ingredient in several moles), and chapulines (deep-fried grasshoppers).

A note on the chapulines:  If you’re not accustomed to eating bugs (I certainly wasn’t), there’s a bit of mind-over-matter involved. However, you must try one. Once you do, you’ll likely want to eat more.  Salty, savory, earthy, and crispy—they’re delicious seasoned with chile and lime!

The city has some of the best restaurants in Oaxaca to try dishes like:

  • Tlayudas: Giant, thin, crispy tortillas covered with various ingredients.
  • Moles: Complex sauces often served with chicken 
  • Pozole: Soup made with corn, herbs, and spices.
  • Chorizo Oaxaqueño: In a word, delicious.

There are many excellent restaurants and eateries in the city, ranging from high-end to ultra-budget. I recommend Levadura de Olla, where you can try a range of authentic local specialties in a tranquil and tasteful courtyard.

In addition to great restaurants, Oaxaca has some of the best street food in Mexico.  All over the city, street food vendors sell delicious, made-to-order dishes. Empanadas del Carmen and Tortas La Hormiga are two of my favorites.

Also, be sure to visit Mercado 20 de Noviembre.  This famous covered market is another excellent place to familiarize yourself with the local food.  Browse the stands piled high with fresh ingredients, pull up a stool, and grab a bite to eat from one of the many local vendors.   

Quick Tip: You can book an Artisanal Chocolate & Cheese Making session with Where Sidewalks End here:

Artisanal Chocolate Making: Discover the traditional methods of chocolate making native to the region, from roasting cacao beans to grinding them on a metate.

Artisanal Cheese Making: This tour offers hands-on participation in the cheese-making process in the picturesque mountain pueblo of San Augustin Etla. We visit local cheese farms to see the traditional methods of curdling, pressing, and aging.

2. Explore Monte Albán

Best Things To Do In Oaxaca State | Monte Alban, Mexico
Best Things To Do In Oaxaca State | Monte Alban, Mexico

Perched atop a hill outside modern Oaxaca City is the ruined city of Monte Albán, once the capital of the Zapotec civilization. Are you wondering, “What is Oaxaca known for?” The state’s rich history and cultural heritage are some of the biggest tourist draws.

Founded around 500 BC, this is one of the most impressive and best-preserved archaeological sites in Mexico. For over 1,500 years, the city was an important regional hub for culture, politics, and economics.

Monte Albán encompasses a large area. At its heart is a sprawling central plaza with many temples, palaces, altars, tombs, a ball court, and a large observatory. From the city’s high points, there are breathtaking views of the Valley of Oaxaca and the mountains beyond.

Walking through the complex gives you an authentic sense of how the ancient city would have looked and felt. Standing in the center of the Great Plaza, you are surrounded by towering pyramids and raised platforms with wide stairways.

Monte Albán is a popular tourist destination, largely due to its importance and proximity to Oaxaca City.  However, the place is so big it rarely feels crowded—it’s a must-visit Oaxaca destination.

3. Marvel At Hierve el Agua (+ Hike & Swim in Natural Springs) 

Best Things To Do In Oaxaca State | Hierve El Agua, Mexico
Best Things To Do In Oaxaca State | Hierve El Agua, Mexico

Hierve el Agua is a series of petrified “waterfalls” in the mountains southeast of Mitla. This spectacular natural phenomenon was created thousands of years ago by freshwater springs bubbling out of the mountainside.

The spring water here is rich in minerals. As the water runs off the edge of the cliffs, some of these minerals are deposited, creating limestone formations similar to the stalactites found in caves. In some places, the formations look like giant candles dripping wax down the side of the mountain. It’s one of the most unique things to do in Oaxaca.

For the best views of these amazing “waterfalls”, take one of the paths that run down below the formations. They look even bigger and more impressive from below! There are several hiking trails in the area. Some are a short loop down to the base of the falls and back up again—others are longer and take several hours to complete.  

Be sure to bring enough water if you’re going on a hike. It gets pretty hot in the middle of the day, and the altitude (1,800 meters) can make some of the climbs tough.

One of the formations at Hierve el Agua, El Anfiteatro (The Amphitheatre), has natural pools at the top and several larger artificial pools. The best of these is the infinity pool—you can swim up to the cliff edge and gaze out over the mountains and valleys beyond. It’s one of the most scenic swimming pools imaginable! 

4. Learn About Zapotec and Mixtec History at Mitla

Best Things To Do In Oaxaca State | Mitla, Mexico | Aztec art

Are you looking for Oaxaca things to do? Mitla is another important archeological site in the Oaxaca Valley, much smaller than Monte Albán.  However, it’s still worth exploring—you can easily visit Mitla and Hierve el Agua in one day.

The site contains ruins of both the Zapotec and Mixtec civilizations. Many of the buildings are low and wide, built around square courtyards and quadrangles in the typical Mixtec style.

Unlike Monte Albán, which was a political and economic center, Mitla was more important as a place for religious ceremonies, including human sacrifices and sacred burials.  

The most distinct feature of Mitla is the intricate mosaic artwork decorating some of the main buildings. These were fitted together and held in place without the use of mortar, making them one-of-a-kind in Mesoamerica.

In the group of buildings closest to the church, you will see a series of ancient Mixtec frescoes decorating the interior of two courtyards. Sections of these are amazingly well preserved. Some depict key events in Mitla history, while others offer important insight into their society and belief systems.

5. Chill in an Idyllic Beach Town

Best Things To Do In Oaxaca State | Oaxaca Beaches, Mexico

Oaxaca’s beach towns are generally more developed than those found in the neighboring state of Chiapas (like Boca del Cielo). However, there are many unspoiled places along the state’s long stretch of the Pacific coast.

Puerto Escondido is the largest and most famous beach town in Oaxaca. Here, you’ll find huge waves for surfing (see below), pumping nightlife, and many places to stay, eat and drink.

If you prefer smaller, more relaxed beach towns, check out the hippie paradise of Mazunte. This is a “no shirt, no shoes, no problem” kind of place.  

Yoga and meditation are popular in Mazunte. Several places offer individual classes or longer, more intensive retreats (including silent meditation retreats). Also, don’t miss sunrise (and sunset) from Punta Cometa, the southernmost point in Oaxaca.

A couple of bays further is Zipolite, which is slightly bigger than Mazunte but shares much of its carefree spirit. Zipolite is also one of the most LGBTQ-friendly places in Mexico and has the country’s first and only legal public nude beach.

Quick Tip: View my full Mexico packing guide here including a downloadable checklist. And check out my Oaxaca Essentials shopping list here.

6. World-Class Surfing

Oaxaca has some of the best waves in North America, with consistent swell throughout the year.

Puerto Escondido has long been a popular spot with international surfers. Playa Zicatela is home to the Mexican Pipeline, one of the world’s most famous beach breaks. The waves here are intense (especially from May to September), with giant curling tubes that challenge even experienced surf pros. It’s not one for beginners!

There are countless other places along the state’s ​​533 kilometers of coastline that are perfect for surfing, offering something for all abilities.

Other standout spots include the area around Salina Cruz (especially Punta Conejo), Barra de la Cruz, Barra de Colotepec, Zipolite, and Mazunte. Ask any local surfer for their favorite spot, and most will tell you somewhere different. The options (especially for experienced surfers) are practically limitless.

Check out this post on the best surfing camps in Mexico.

7. See Incredible Ocean Wildlife

Best Things To Do In Oaxaca State | Marina Wildlife

One of the best things to do in Oaxaca is embark on a boating voyage. Trips can be arranged in most towns and villages along the coast. They typically leave early in the morning and are a fantastic way to see some incredible ocean wildlife.

Many boat operators provide snorkeling equipment. If the conditions are clear, you can jump overboard to observe animals in their natural environments. This is an excellent snorkeling tour for the entire family.

Bottlenose and spinner dolphins live in large pods off the Oaxacan coast. They like following boats, so you’ll likely see them on the water. Swimming with these playful, gracious animals is an incredible experience. You can hear them clicking and “talking” to each other underwater as they dart around (and below) you.

Other animals you may encounter include sea turtles, manta rays, and many fish species. If you’re lucky, you might see a whale shark. These beautiful, mysterious creatures are the largest fishes in the ocean and can grow up to 18 meters in length. They’re gentle, so you can safely swim with them.

Humpback whales also come to the southern Mexican coast to breed and give birth. They are commonly sighted between December and mid-March.

8. Learn About Mezcal (+ Visit a Distillery)

Best Things To Do In Oaxaca State | Mezcal | Travel to Oaxaca

Oaxaca state is the birthplace of mezcal, tequila’s smoky, complex older cousin.

It’s made from agave, which is cultivated and also grows wild throughout large areas of Mexico. Once the plant reaches maturity (which can take up to 20 years depending on the variety), it is harvested, stripped of its leaves, and cooked in an underground fire pit for about a week to create a smokey flavor.  Then, the cooked plants are ground, left to ferment, and distilled (twice) before being bottled.

There are hundreds of mezcal distilleries throughout Oaxaca, with a large concentration in the Matatlán Valley. Many offer tours to explain and demonstrate the process of making this iconic spirit. At the end, you’re usually invited to taste (and buy) the finished product.

If you acquire a taste for mezcal, sampling different varieties at Oaxacan bars is one of the most fun things to do in Mexico. In Oaxaca City, my favorite is Mezcalería In Situ.

Did You Get Travel Insurance Yet?

The Insurance companies I recommend are Hey Mondo and Safety Wing

Hey Mondo is great if you are looking for a great value flexible policy. They offer single-trip cover, annual multi-trip cover, and long-term travel cover. Safety Wing is great value, with monthly coverage starting at $45.08. It’s super easy to use, and it just renews each month. I currently use them as they offer me free cover for my son as part of my policy.

Read my full travel insurance post here, where I go into detail about all companies. 

9. Float Through the Mangroves at La Ventanilla

Best Things To Do In Oaxaca State | Oaxaca Mangroves

The tiny fishing village of La Ventanilla is located on the edge of a swamp and a thick mangrove forest. This amazing destination is home to a large variety of animals and birds. However, it’s also an extremely fragile ecosystem—mangroves are often destroyed by hurricanes and/or careless human activity.

In recent years, an ecotourism program has been established at La Ventanilla. This initiative helps to protect this important natural habitat and provides jobs for members of the local community. You can take a guided trip through the mangroves in a small wooden paddleboat. The guides are knowledgeable and will teach you about the aquatic forest and the animals that live here.

La Ventanilla’s mangrove forest is extremely biodiverse. As you float through the naturally occurring channels in the densely packed trees and shrubs, you will see an incredible range of animals and plants.  

In addition to large numbers of iguanas and turtles, La Ventanilla is home to hundreds of crocodiles. Some of these are really huge (up to six meters long!) and can live for more than 70 years. Although slightly terrifying, they’re pretty docile most of the time and (mostly) harmless to humans. Birds you’ll likely see include herons, cranes, hummingbirds, eagles, and vultures.

The best time to visit is at the end of the day (the last trip leaves at 4:00 p.m.), as this is when you’re likely to see the greatest number of animals.

Quick Tip: Discover other activities

Red Pottery: Explore the rich traditions of Macrina Mateo Martínez’s renowned red pottery in San Marcos Tlapazola, complete with a hands-on workshop from Martinez

Zapotec Candle Making: Set in Teotitlan de Valle, this is a very unique experience that offers insight into the Zapotec traditional wedding ritual “La Pedida de Mano.”

Prehistoric Caves: A truly off-the-beaten-path excursion, this tour embarks on an exploration through 5 prehistoric caves with a local Zapotec guide

Cotton Textiles: Explore the art of Oaxacan textiles, learning spinning, dyeing, and weaving from local artisans.

10. Release Baby Turtles Into the Ocean

Best Things To Do In Oaxaca State | Baby Turtle | Turtle release in Oaxaca, Mexico

The Oaxacan coastline is an important nesting place for several endangered species of sea turtle. Throughout the year, female leatherback, green, hawksbill, and Olive Ridley turtles come to the beaches of Oaxaca to lay their eggs. Sadly, it is common for many of these eggs to be poached.

In response, sanctuaries have been set up on several beaches to protect the eggs and allow as many hatchlings to reach the ocean as possible. Eggs are excavated and re-buried inside protective enclosures, where they are guarded until they hatch.

You can witness the incredible moment when the baby turtles make their way down the beach and into the ocean. It’s a really magical experience and one that I will remember forever.

Important: Please be responsible when selecting which turtle sanctuary to visit.  

Most are ethically run, but a few seem more interested in making money than actually protecting the turtles.  Ensure that the sanctuary you visit releases the turtles into the sea immediately after they have hatched (and doesn’t keep them in tanks prior to release).

Also, baby turtles should not be touched with bare skin, as this can interfere with their natural magnetic orientation and make it more likely that they will die before making it offshore. Instead, they should be placed inside a coconut or calabash shell before being released.

Don’t give money to a sanctuary that allows visitors to play with or otherwise disturb or interfere with the baby turtles. Your Instagram shot is not more important than the lives of these beautiful creatures.

Campamento Tortuguero on Playa Ventanilla beach, close to Mazunte, is a good option. It’s run by kind people who respect the turtles and care for them properly. July to January is the best time to visit Oaxaca to experience baby sea turtles hatching.

Looking for a place to stay in Oaxaca?

Casa Carmen Morelos
Casa Antonieta
AYOOK
Azul Cielo Hostel
Iguana Hostel Oaxaca

Oaxaca Travel Guide Planning

🧳 Any recommendations on what I should pack for Oaxaca?

Yes! I have created a whole packing guide to Oaxaca which you can read here and you can also check out my packing list for Oaxaca on Amazon here.

🚗 Where can I book bus or private transportation while I’m in Oaxaca?

I strongly recommend using GottoGo. You can book almost all transport in the major Mexican tourist destinations through them online. They don’t just cover buses they also cover shuttles, ferries, and private drivers.

🎫 Where can I buy tickets for museums, attractions, and tours in Oaxaca?

First and foremost check out all of the amazing Oaxaca tours Where Sidewalks End has. They are a small local company and they have some really special experiences.

For everything else I recommend either Viator or GetYour Guide

👩‍⚕️ What is the best insurance to have while traveling?

I recommend using Heymondo for a great value policy. The app also offers you 24/7 Dr Chat. For Digital Nomads check out SafetyWing digital nomad insurance.

I have also written a blog post covering all my recommended travel insurance here

✈️ Any flight recommendations?

WayAWay offers you cheap flights with cashback. You can use this code CLAIRE22 to get 10% off. Otherwise Skyscanner or Expedia are my go to flight searching platforms.

📱What do you use for internet connection while traveling?

I’m a big fan of personal WiFi devices and they have saved my ass so many times when traveling. I wrote a full review of the top travel WiFi devices you can read here. I personally use GlocalMe as I can either pop in a physical sim card or use their local carrier.

With regards to my phone connection, I use e-sims while traveling, so rather than having to swap out my regular sim card I can download the app and buy a virtual sim card. I recommend using eitherAirhub or Alosim. Both have great coverage of multiple countries and are very easy to use.

🛏️ What is the best platform to use for booking accommodation?

The 3 best platforms that I normally use are Booking.comHotels.com, and Expedia They offer great deals and multiple options. I always check all three to be sure of the best deals.

🛅 Do you have any luggage recommendations for traveling?

I do have a complete list of the best packing and luggage products that I recommend, you can check the list here. I’m currently traveling with this suitcase and this backpack. 

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Author’s Bio:

Alex is a personal travel planner and the founder of Just Go Exploring, the ultimate resource for adventure and off-the-beaten-track destinations.  Alex is a former corporate lawyer and lifelong travel enthusiast on a mission to make adventurous travel accessible to all.

Follow Alex on Instagram! @just_go_exploring

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