Welcome to a land bursting with vibrant cultures, rich history, world-renowned cuisine, and breathtaking landscapes! Oaxaca State, located in southern Mexico, is where ancient traditions blend seamlessly with natural wonders.
From archaeological sites and colonial cities to pine forests and pristine beaches, Oaxaca State offers an unforgettable experience for every traveler.
In this Ultimate Oaxaca Travel Guide, we’re covering all of the state’s must-see destinations, best things to do, transportation info, safety tips, and everything else you need to know before you visit.
So, pack your bags and get ready to embark on an incredible adventure through one of Mexico’s best destinations.
¡Vámonos a Oaxaca!
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Oaxaca State: At a Glance
- Country: Mexico
- Capital: Oaxaca City, or Oaxaca de Juárez
- Major Airport: Xoxocotlán International (OAX)
- Currency: Mexican Peso (MXN)
- Languages: Spanish and over a dozen indigenous languages
- Entry Requirements: US, Canada, and Schengen Zone visitors require an FMM Tourist Permit
- Electrical Plugs: North American plug types (120 V Type A and Type B)
➡️ Read our Best Mexico Travel Tips for more tips and insider info from a Mexican.
What is Oaxaca Known For?
Oaxaca State is known for its rich cultural heritage, incredible culinary scene, and spectacular natural wonders, like massive Tule Tree.
The state is named after its capital city, Oaxaca de Juárez, which serves as the cultural and artistic hub of the region.
One of the defining features of Oaxaca State is its remarkable cultural diversity. It is home to numerous indigenous communities, including the Zapotec, Mixtec, Mazatec, and Mixe peoples.
These communities have preserved their ancestral traditions, customs, and languages, creating a rich tapestry of indigenous heritage that is deeply woven into the fabric of Oaxacan culture.
Colonial Architecture and Archeological Sites
The architecture of Oaxaca State showcases a blend of Spanish colonial influences and prehispanic traditions. Oaxaca City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, boasts beautifully preserved colonial buildings adorned with ornate facades and charming courtyards.
Its historic center is a vibrant maze of narrow streets lined with colorful buildings, bustling markets, and inviting cafes.
Several of Mexico’s top archeological sites are located just a short day trip from Oaxaca City, including Monte Albán, Yagul, and Mitla. A visit to these well-preserved ruins gives you a glimpse into the region’s fascinating past.
Oaxaca State is renowned for its exceptional cuisine, which is considered one of the most diverse and flavorful in Mexico.
It is the birthplace of the famous mole negro sauce, a complex and rich blend of spices, chocolate, and chilies.
Food enthusiasts can indulge in a variety of traditional Oaxacan dishes such as tlayudas (giant crisp tortillas topped with beans, cheese, and meats), quesillo (stringy Oaxacan cheese), chapulines (toasted grasshoppers), and delicious street food found in local markets.
Arts and Crafts
Art and craftsmanship thrive in the villages across Oaxaca State and in its capital city.
Skilled artisans create intricate textiles, pottery, woodcarvings, and jewelry using traditional techniques passed down through generations.
The city of Oaxaca and its surrounding villages are a haven for artists, with galleries and workshops showcasing contemporary and folk art.
Oaxaca is characterized by diverse landscapes, including majestic mountains, lush valleys, and beautiful beaches along its Pacific coastline.
The Sierra Norte Mountains offer excellent opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, and exploring picturesque villages nestled in the highlands. You can also go biking, hiking, and camping in the Santa Catarina Ixtepeji Eco Park which is less than an hour outside of Oaxaca de Juarez.
Wondering how to pronounce Oaxaca? Oaxaca is pronounced as wah-HAH-kah. The “x” in Oaxaca is pronounced somewhat similar to the “h” in the English word “hat.” The stress is on the second syllable, “hah.”
The word “Oaxaca” is believed to have derived from the Nahuatl word “huāxyacac,” which refers to the guaje tree (Leucaena leucocephala) native to the region.
The guaje tree holds cultural and symbolic significance in indigenous communities, and its name eventually became associated with the region of Oaxaca.
Where is the State of Oaxaca Located?
Oaxaca State is a breathtakingly beautiful region located in southern Mexico. It’s nestled amongst the states of Guerrero and Puebla to the west, Veracruz to the north, and Chiapas to the east. Its southern side boasts miles of pristine coastline along the Pacific Ocean.
The state is home to a variety of geographic regions ranging from high-elevation mountain ranges with pine forests to arid valleys dotted with agave plants to palm-lined beaches with crashing waves.
Oaxaca State Map
Here’s a map of Oaxaca, Mexico to help you get a better idea of its location in North America.
Best Places to Visit in Oaxaca State
From the colorful colonial streets of Oaxaca City to the otherworldly petrified falls at Hierve el Agua, there are endless wonders to explore in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Whether it’s uncovering ancient ruins or unwinding on the Oaxaca Coast, below are the top places to visit across the state of Oaxaca.
Oaxaca’s capital city, officially named Oaxaca de Juárez, is renowned for its beautiful architecture, vibrant markets, and thriving arts scene.
Explore the historic city center – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – with its stunning Santo Domingo Church and the lively central plaza known as El Zócalo.
This bustling city makes the perfect base for taking day trips to uncover the enchanting villages and stunning natural attractions outside of the capital.
The picturesque town of San Pablo Villa de Mitla is famous for the beautifully preserved Zapotec ruins at the Mitla Archaeological Zone. The Mitla ruins are known for their intricate stone mosaics with unique geometric designs.
Admire the detailed craftsmanship at the ruins, walk through the town’s charming streets, and explore the local market.
Located along the Pacific Ocean on the stunning Oaxaca Coast, Puerto Escondido is a beachfront city that offers the perfect blend of relaxation, culture, and adventure.
Embrace the surfer lifestyle as you soak up the sun on its golden sandy shores, catch some world-class waves while surfing at the famous Zicatela Beach, and witness the mesmerizing sight of bioluminescent waves at the enchanting Manialtepec Lagoon.
Getting to Puerto Escondido from Oaxaca City is simple and its the perfect weekend getaway from the city. You can take a 45-minute flight, hire a private transfer, hop on a colectivo, or book a first-class ADO bus.
Mazunte, San Agustinillo, and Zipolite
These small, laid-back beach towns east of Puerto Escondido are the ideal place to unwind while surrounded by a tropical paradise.
Mazunte attracts plenty of backpackers, yoga enthusiasts, and beach lovers with its bohemian vibes, budget accommodations, and breathtaking sunset vistas.
The clothing-optional beach at Zipolite is the best place to visit to get rid of those pesky tanlines, while tranquil San Agustinillo offers a true off-the-beaten-path escape.
A resort town with world-class hotels and its own airport, Huatulco beckons with its stunning natural beauty and luxury amenities.
Indulge in sun-soaked relaxation by the pool, embark on a snorkeling or diving adventure, and take a boat tour to explore the Huatulco Bays and their pristine beaches.
San Jose del Pacifico
Nestled in the mountains of Oaxaca State, San Jose del Pacifico is a tranquil and mystical retreat. Known for its stunning panoramic views, crisp mountain air, and unforgettable cloud forests, it offers a serene escape from the bustling capital.
Stay in a cozy cabin, hike through scenic trails, and experience the magic of San Jose del Pacifico’s traditional ceremonies and spiritual practices.
Best Things to Do in Oaxaca State
Mezcal tasting tours, surfing lessons, and alebrije painting are just a few of the activities you can take part in to immerse yourself in the culture and learn more about the Oaxacan lifestyle.
From exploring the local mercados, or markets, to savoring authentic mole negro sauce, these are the top things to do in Oaxaca.
1. Visit Oaxaca City’s Historic Center
Oaxaca City’s historical center is an enchanting blend of colonial charm and indigenous heritage. Wander through its cobblestone streets, lined with colorful buildings and ornate churches.
Admire the grandeur of the Santo Domingo Church, explore the local markets, indulge in delectable cuisine, and soak in the uniquely Oaxacan atmosphere that permeates this UNESCO World Heritage site.
2. See the Petrified Falls at Hierve el Agua
Hierve el Agua is a natural wonder in Oaxaca, where petrified waterfalls create a surreal landscape. There are only a few similar places in the world where you can marvel at the mineral-rich, terraced rock formations that resemble cascading water.
Take a refreshing dip in the natural pools, enjoy panoramic views of the lush valley below, and immerse yourself in the tranquility of this incredibly unique natural attraction.
3. Explore the Ancient Monte Alban Ruins
Oaxaca has archaeological ruins scattered throughout the state, providing a glimpse into the region’s ancient civilizations.
Delve into the rich history of Oaxaca by visiting Monte Albán, the state’s most famous ancient Zapotec runs. Wander through the ruins, admire the pyramids and ball courts, and take in the jaw-dropping views of Oaxaca City below.
Admire the intricate stone mosaics at Mitla, whose name means “Valley of the Dead,” and visit Yagul for its impressive ball court and panoramic views.
4. Learn About Traditional Arts and Crafts
Oaxaca is renowned for its vibrant artisan village handicrafts, where centuries-old traditions passed down through generations of skilled crafters come to life.
Each town specializes in its own unique arts and crafts, reflecting the rich cultural heritage of Oaxaca State.
Visit Teotitlán del Valle for exquisite handwoven rugs and textiles, San Bartolo Coyotepec for black pottery, and San Martin Tilcajete for alebrijes (colorful carved figurines).
5. Experience the Village Market Days
Village market days in Oaxaca are vibrant and bustling affairs, showcasing the local indigenous culture and traditions.
Explore the markets in towns like Ocotlán de Morelos on Fridays and Tlacolula de Matamoros on Sundays, where you’ll find a kaleidoscope of colors, flavors, and handicrafts.
Take this Tlacolula Sunday market tour to immerse yourself in the lively atmosphere, sample delicious local foods, and shop for handcrafted souvenirs and textiles.
6. Taste the Flavors of Oaxaca
The state of Oaxaca is renowned for its culinary delights, including mole negro (a traditional sauce), tlayudas (giant crispy tortillas topped with a variety of ingredients), and mezcal (the favorite local spirit).
Visit the local Oaxaca markets, take an Oaxacan cooking class, and indulge in a gastronomic journey through the state’s diverse flavors at one of the many world-class restaurants.
7. Celebrate Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)
Throughout the year, Oaxaca State comes alive with vibrant festivals, fireworks, parades, dancing, and celebrations.
The Guelaguetza, held in July, is a cultural extravaganza where indigenous communities from all over the state gather in Oaxaca City to showcase their music, dance, and traditional attire.
Celebrating the Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, in November is a unique and deeply spiritual experience, as locals honor their departed loved ones with elaborate altars, lively processions, and ancient ceremonies.
8. Go Mezcal Tasting in Matatlan
Mezcal tasting in Oaxaca is an immersive journey into the cultural significance of this traditional Mexican spirit.
Head to the charming towns of Santiago Matatlán (known as the Capital of Mezcal), Santa Catarina Minas, and San Dionisio Ocotepec and see the palenques, or agave farms and distilleries, in person.
Take a guided mezcal tour of the distilleries, learn about the artisanal production process, and savor the rich flavors and aromas of this beloved drink.
9. Hike around the Pueblos Mancomunados
From pine trees covered with whimsical air plants in the Sierra Norte to the agave-strewn landscapes of the Oaxaca Valley, this state offers miles of hiking trails through a spectacular diversity of natural environments.
10. Relax on the Beautiful Oaxaca Beaches
Oaxaca’s beaches offer a paradise for beach lovers and adventure seekers alike. Enjoy the golden sands and turquoise waters while lounging under the sun.
11. Swim in Bioluminescent Lagoons
Oaxaca is home to enchanting bioluminescent waters at places like Manialtepec Lagoon, where nature’s magic comes alive at night!
Witness the mesmerizing phenomenon as the water illuminates with a celestial glow, created by microorganisms that emit light.
Swim, paddle, or take a boat tour through the shimmering waters, immersing yourself in the ethereal beauty of the bioluminescent lagoons, a truly unforgettable experience!
This day trip to Chacahua Lagoon from Puerto Escondido takes you to explore the national park and swim in the glowing waters.
Top Tours in Oaxaca State
They both offer flexible cancelation policies, excellent customer service, and you can book online using your favorite travel credit card for points.
Best Time to Visit Oaxaca
The best time to visit Oaxaca State is during the dry season, which spans from November to April. The weather is pleasant and the rain is minimal, with warm days and cool evenings.
Cultural enthusiasts prefer to visit during the first few days of November to witness Oaxaca’s world-famous Day of the Dead celebrations or during the Guelaguetza festival in late July.
Getting Around in Oaxaca, Mexico
Traveling around Oaxaca State is relatively easy, with a variety of transportation options.
Oaxaca City has an international airport, making it easily accessible from major cities in Mexico and abroad. Within the state, buses and taxis are the primary means of transportation.
For more flexibility, renting a car is a convenient option, allowing you to explore remote areas and hidden gems.
Mexico has a well-connected network of domestic flights, making it convenient to travel between major cities and tourist destinations.
To get to Oaxaca, most people fly to Mexico City and then take a short connecting flight to their destination in Oaxaca.
The state has three major airports with connecting flights from the US:
- Oaxaca Airport (OAX): Officially known as Aeropuerto Internacional Xoxocotlán, it serves the capital city of Oaxaca de Juárez and is the major airport in the state.
- Puerto Escondido Airport (PXM): Officially known as Aeropuerto Internacional de Puerto Escondido, it serves the coastal town of Puerto Escondido, known for its stunning beaches and surfing opportunities.
- Huatulco Airport (HUX): Officially known as Aeropuerto Internacional de Bahías de Huatulco, it serves the resort town of Huatulco, offering access to the beautiful bays and beaches of the area.
✈️ Search Skyscanner and Expedia for the best deals on flights to Mexico.
Renting a car in Mexico gives you the freedom to travel at your own pace, immerse yourself in the culture, and explore off the beaten path.
With a car, you can venture beyond popular tourist destinations and discover the authentic charm of Oaxaca’s diverse landscapes and vibrant towns.
Just remember to familiarize yourself with the local driving laws and make sure the mandatory Mexican auto insurance coverage is included in your rental quote.
🚗 Search Discover Cars to find the best car rental deals in Oaxaca.
Mexico’s extensive bus network connects major cities, towns, and tourist destinations, making it an efficient mode of transportation.
Taking a first-class ADO bus in Oaxaca offers travelers a comfortable, affordable, and convenient way to travel around the state while relaxing and watching the scenic landscapes go by.
First-class buses, known as camiones de lujo or autobuses de primera clase, provide spacious seating, air conditioning, onboard restrooms, and sometimes even Wi-Fi and entertainment systems.
🚌 Use Bookaway to easily buy Oaxaca bus tickets online in English.
Taxis and Rideshares
Taxis are widely available throughout major cities and tourist destinations. Taking a taxi allows you to reach your destination quickly and efficiently. Just make sure to negotiate the fare upfront and always use official taxi drivers.
For the most part, yellow taxis are private taxis and red taxis are shared.
DiDi is the most commonly used rideshare service in Oaxaca City. Uber might work but you won’t find as many rides on the Uber app as you will on DiDi.
Hiring a local driver for the day and booking private transfers are other popular ways for tourists to get around in Oaxaca.
In the state of Oaxaca and throughout Mexico, colectivos are an extremely popular and inexpensive mode of transportation used by many locals.
Colectivos are shared transport vans or other vehicles that operate on specific routes, typically within a city or between neighboring towns. They stop to pick up and drop off passengers along their routes and are usually the cheapest way to travel between two destinations.
Jumping in the back of a pickup truck colectivo is one of the best budget ways to get from Mazunte to nearby Zipolite Beach.
Oaxaca Travel Tips
- Learn a few basic Spanish phrases to enhance your communication with locals.
- Respect local customs and traditions, especially when visiting indigenous communities.
- Carry a reusable water bottle and practice responsible tourism by minimizing plastic waste.
- Stay hydrated and protect yourself from the sun, as some areas of the state can get extremely hot and humid.
What to Pack for Oaxaca State
When packing for your Oaxaca adventure, remember to pack light and always check the weather before your trip.
Bring plenty of layers for high-elevation destinations like Oaxaca City and the Sierra Norte and breathable clothing for hot and humid coastal areas like Puerto Escondido and Huatulco.
Don’t forget the essentials like a sun hat and sunglasses, lightweight and breathable clothing, comfortable shoes for exploring, and a swimsuit to enjoy the beautiful beaches or hotel pool.
- Quick-Drying Towel: This lightweight towel packs down small and dries extremely quickly. It’s a must-have for beach days and waterfall hikes.
- Biodegradable Sunscreen: Protect your skin and the delicate ecosystems in Oaxaca with a biodegradable SPF. When swimming in natural water sources and snorkeling in the sea, we use a combination of UPF rashguards and this reef-safe sunscreen to minimize our impact on the environment.
- Insect Repellent: Pack a reliable Picaridin insect repellent spray to keep mosquitoes and diseases at bay. Dengue fever is one of the most common mosquito-borne diseases in some parts of Mexico.
- Water Purifier Bottle: For access to clean drinking water wherever you go, get a water bottle that purifies sketchy water by removing pathogens, chemicals, heavy metals, and bad flavors. With this water purifier bottle, you can drink from the tap at your hotel or even a nearby river with just one press.
- Travel Adapter and Surge Protector: Mexico uses North American plug types (Type A and Type B) like the ones in the United States. Pack a universal travel adapter to charge electronics if you’re visiting from a country with different style plugs. We carry a travel surge protector to protect our smartphones and laptops from unexpected power surges (a common occurrence in some parts).
- VPN for Travel: Protect yourself from data theft and hackers alike while using public wifi at your hotel or the airport with a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Using a VPN gives you privacy while browsing the internet hides your location, and encrypts your data to prevent theft.
- Travel Insurance: Don’t forget to get comprehensive travel insurance for Mexico that covers medical emergencies, trip cancellations, and lost luggage. It’s always best to be prepared for the unexpected!
Is Oaxaca State Safe to Visit?
The state of Oaxaca is generally considered a safe destination for travelers, but it’s always important to take precautions to ensure a smooth and secure journey.
While Mexico does face some security challenges, it is important to note that millions of tourists visit the country each year without incident. Like many other states in Mexico, it has varying levels of safety and crime depending on the region and the specific circumstances (i.e. walking down a dark alley alone at 1 am).
When traveling to Oaxaca, you should remain vigilant and follow common-sense safety practices.
- Don’t be flashy. Leave designer handbags and expensive-looking jewelry at home.
- Get an anti-theft bag. Be cautious of pickpockets in crowded areas like markets and events.
- Don’t walk around alone at night in dark, isolated areas. Take a taxi instead.
Consider Mexico Travel Insurance
Of course, you don’t want to think about everything that can go wrong on your Mexico vacation, but it’s always best to be prepared.
Getting travel insurance for Mexico protects yourself and your investment during your trip. A good insurance plan provides coverage for medical emergencies, trip cancellations or interruptions, and compensation for lost or delayed luggage.
With comprehensive travel insurance, you can travel to Mexico with peace of mind, knowing that you have financial protection and support if any unforeseen events occur.
- Safety Wing offers travel and medical incident insurance for Mexico and specializes in coverage for digital nomads, remote workers, and longer-term stays.
FAQs: Traveling to Oaxaca State
Is it safe to drink tap water in Oaxaca State?
Don’t drink tap water in Oaxaca State or anywhere else in Mexico!
It is advisable to drink only purified water to avoid any potential health issues. Purified drinking water is readily available throughout the state, including in hotels, restaurants, and convenience stores.
With this water purifier bottle, you can drink from the tap at your hotel or even a nearby river with just one press.
Are credit cards widely accepted in Oaxaca?
Credit cards are generally accepted in larger establishments such as hotels, upscale restaurants, and tourist shops in Oaxaca State, especially around major tourist destinations like Oaxaca City and Huatulco.
However, cash is king in Mexico and you should always keep cash and smaller bills on hand, especially in villages and local markets.
Check out our article on Using Money in Mexico for more tips.
What are some traditional souvenirs to buy in Oaxaca?
Oaxaca is famous for its beautiful traditional crafts and artisanal products.
Some popular souvenirs to buy in Oaxaca State include:
– Handcrafted textiles, such as rugs, blankets, and embroidered clothing.
– Alebrijes, which are brightly colored wooden animal figurines.
– Pottery and ceramics, including the state’s famous barro negro, or
– Mezcal, a distilled alcoholic beverage made from agave, which is a specialty of the region.
– Traditional handicrafts, such as woven baskets, carved wooden masks, and woven palm hats.
Are there any visa requirements for visiting Oaxaca State?
The entry requirements for visiting Mexico apply to Oaxaca State as well.
Many nationalities, including citizens of the United States, Canada, the European Union, and many countries in Latin America, can enter Mexico as tourists for up to 180 days without a visa on an FMM tourist permit.
Check with the Mexican embassy or consulate in your home country for the most up-to-date visa requirements and any travel advisories before your trip.
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