Oaxaca: diverse indigenous cultures, the home of mezcal and some would say the beating heart of Mexican gastronomy. If you find yourself in Oaxaca, chances are, you’re going to want to stay awhile. There’s plenty of things to do in Oaxaca and the list of Oaxacan food you must tick off warrants at least a week in this vibrant state of Mexico. So read on, here’s our Oaxaca travel guide for ideas on things to do in Oaxaca, where you can eat traditional Oaxacan food plus other handy tips…
Disclaimer: Chasing a Plate’s tour with Experience Mezcal and participation in El Sabor Zapoteco’s cooking class was complimentary. All opinions are our own. This post contains affiliate links, thank you for supporting our blog by using these links.
Things to Do in Oaxaca
1. Get an education in mezcal with Experience Mezcal
Oaxaca is mezcal country. Both industrial and artisan palenques dot the countryside and if you’ve developed a taste for this spirit then a day visiting some of these palenques with Experience Mezcal is a must. Accompanied by a passionate local guide you’ll discover the process of making mezcal from the roasting of the agave hearts, fermentation, right through to distillation. Oh, and there’s plenty of tasting to be had!
You’ll learn what types of agave create certain flavour profiles (with the opportunity to try and discern the difference) and visit palenques of varying sizes, from an operation that exports its product to the small shack in the Oaxacan hills. You’ll also get a chance to try freshly collected pulque made from the fermented sap of the agave plant. Trust us, one sip of the aguamiel (the sap prior to fermentation) will have you seek out pulque wherever you go in Oaxaca. Transport and a traditional Oaxacan lunch is included. Experience Mezcal’s mezcal tour in Oaxaca is a must.
Watch our YouTube video of our tour with Experience Mezcal!
2. Learn to cook traditional Zapotec food with El Sabor Zapoteco
El Sabor Zapoteco
Oaxaca is a state rich with indigenous cultures. The largest indigenous group are the Zapotecs and if you want a better insight into this culture, why not through its food? Reyna Mendoza runs El Sabor Zapoteco, a cooking school, out of her family home. Spend the day at one of Reyna’s cooking classes and you’ll visit the Teotitlan market to buy produce before returning to the outdoor kitchen to learn some Zapotecan recipes.
You’ll get to roast corn on a clay comal and grind the kernels and chilli on a metate. You’ll learn the types of herbs and produce that is used in Zapotecan cooking and at the end of it, you’ll get to eat! We guarantee you’ll be amazed at the difference in flavour of the dishes to the ones you’ve been eating on your Mexican adventure so far. The nature of the class is relatively hands off- you’ll help with the preparation but won’t be preparing the actual dishes yourselves. Note that you’ll get a lot more out of the experience if you understand and speak Spanish.
Watch our YouTube video of our cooking class with El Sabor Zapoteco!
3. Discover Oaxaca city’s many markets
Oaxaca city has a number of markets to explore. Some of our best meals were eaten at the small fondas or family restaurants in La Merced market and 20 de Noviembre market. Oaxaca markets are filled with fresh produce, butchers, panaderias or bakeries and stalls selling coffee and chocolate. They’re a wonderland ready to be discovered, especially if you’re staying in accommodation with a kitchen and can take some of that produce home with you!
4. Take a dip in Hierve el Agua
Hierve el Agua is worth a day trip if you have some time in Oaxaca. These petrified waterfalls were created from fresh water springs bubbling up out of the ground. The water is rich with minerals and have created ‘waterfalls’ where the minerals have solidified. There are two man made pools in which you can take a dip too- perfect on a scorching hot Oaxacan day.
If you’re on a budget, the best way to get to Hierve el Agua is to catch a bus to Mitla and then use the dedicated truck which ferries people to and from Hierve el Agua. Alternatively you can catch a colectivo to Tlacolula (20 pesos per person/$1USD) then another colectivo to Mitla (10 pesos/$0.50USD) and then the truck (60 pesos/$3USD per person each way). We suggest arriving at the waterfalls around 10:00am (it takes about an hour and a half to get to Hierve el Agua). You’ll have a decent amount of time to explore and take photos in the pools before the hoards of tourists start arriving.
5. Visit Ocotlan market on a Friday or Tlacolula market on a Sunday
You can’t visit Oaxaca and not make the journey out to one of the traditional tianguis or open air markets in the surrounding towns. The most popular are Tlacolula market on Sunday or Ocotlan market on a Friday. If we had to choose, our pick would be Ocotlan market- there are less tourists and it feels a lot more rural than Tlacolula in the wares being sold and the unique foods to sample.
Ocotlan market is well known for its empanada de mole amarillo, a giant tortilla that is folded in half and filled with amarillo mole, nieves or ices (especially the Oaxacan specialty of leche quemada con tuna, burnt milk and tuna- prickly pear cactus) and barbacoa chivo- goat which can be enjoyed in the form of tacos or soup. Make sure you try the tejate too- the pre-Hispanic drink made from corn, cacao and the pip of the mamey fruit. To get to Ocotlan we took a bus from Bustamante 601 which took us directly there for 20 pesos/$1 USD.
Watch our YouTube video of Tlacolula Market!
6. Cheer on the Oaxacan Guerreros
If you’ve never been to a sports game in Mexico, now’s the time. If the Oaxacan baseball team, the Oaxacan de Guerreos are playing at home, grab a general admission ticket and join the crowd as they cheer on their boys. Mexican sports crowds are lively, passionate and fun. Even if you’re not the least bit interested in sports, the atmosphere more than makes up for it. That plus the food vendors who weave in and out of the bleachers selling everything from tacos to tostadas.
Where to eat Oaxacan food
All the places listed below are either street stands or fondas. You’ll struggle to spend more than 100 pesos/$5USD per person including drinks at these establishments.
1. Comedor Chabelita
Mercado 20 de Noviembre, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner (closes at around 9:30pm)
If you want to sample Oaxacan mole (Oaxaca has seven), Comedor Chabelita is the place to do it. Whether it be enchiladas bathed in a mole coloradito or mole negro ladled over chicken and served with rice, you’ll get your mole fix here. The sauces are rich, complex and the meals are well prices. Their tlayudas are also worth eating!
2. Meat Alley at Mercado 20 de Noviembre
Mercado 20 de Noviembre open for lunch and dinner (closes at around 9:30pm)
Whilst the food is good, it’s the atmosphere of meat alley that’s the biggest drawcard. Vendors selling thin sheets of tasajo (steak), cecina (pork) and chorizo shout for your business as plumes of smoke swirl above head. Choose a stall, the amount of meat you’d like (you can order 1/2 and 1/4 kilos) and take a seat. Vendors selling tortillas, salad, guacamole, salsas and limes will pop by, order a beer and you’re away! Meals cost around 200 pesos/$10USD for 2 people with drinks.
Watch our YouTube video from Mercado 20 de Noviembre!
3. Fonda Rositas
La Merced market (also known as Mercado Democracia)
Breaking your fast with chilaquiles is pretty much a sure start to an epic day. This nacho-esque dish is served slightly differently at Fonda Rositas, here the tortilla chips are drowned in either a green or red sauce with herbs, quesillo (Oaxacan strong cheese), sliced onion and left to bubble for a few minutes on the grill. For an extra bout of protein choose to add tasajo (steak), chicken, eggs or pork on top. Deliciously addictive!
4. Los Amantes Mezcaleria
Allende 107, Centro Histórico, 68005 Oaxaca, open 5:00pm to 11:00pm
If you’ve developed a taste for mezcal Los Amantes is worth a visit for a pre dinner sip or a nightcap. It’s a tiny, eccentrically decorated space with a couple of bench seats. Give the 2 year aged mezcal a try- it’s smooth and mellow with warm caramel tones.
5. El Compadre
El Compadre serves head. Pig’s head to be exact. The meat consisting of cheek, tongue, ear, eyes and lips is chopped up, sprinkled with onion and coriander and packed into a tortilla to make a tacos de cabeza or sprinkled on top of a crunchy tortilla to make a tostada. A squeeze of lime and a drizzle of salsa and you have the perfect snack. Note: whist you’re here nab a tostada topped with salsiccia (sausage) from the gentleman around the corner, he’s a one man band selling them from a tiny stand.
6. Ocotlan Market (on a Friday)
Don’t arrive with a full belly to Octolan Market, there is much to eat! Start with a bowl of tejate, the pre-Hispanic drink which is a beige coloured concoction that looks like it has curds floating on the top of it. It’s a unique flavour- earthy, nutty but undoubtedly refreshing. Next up, hunt down an empanada. In Mexico, empanadas are giant tortillas that are toasted on the comal (a flat griddle), halved and stuffed with filling. The empanada de mole amarillo are a must eat. The amarillo mole is smooth and studded with hoja santa a type of herb and shredded chicken.
Don’t forget to swing by the nieves (ices) section where vendors hand churn their desserts. Leche quemada con tuna or burnt milk with tuna (prickly pear cactus) is a Oaxacan specialty. The contrast of both savour and sweet in this flavour combination is addictive.
Watch our YouTube video of Ocotlan Market!
7. Nieves from one of the stands outside Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad
For a respite from the heat, head to the Basilica de Buetra Señora de la Soledad. Outside the church are a number of nieves (ices) vendors who sell a multitude of flavours for their patrons to enjoy whilst taking in the view of the Oaxacan countryside. Traditional flavours like nut, pineapple and tuna compete with the more avant garde pina colada, mezcal and tequila.
Where to stay in Oaxaca
We found a gorgeous Airbnb in Oaxaca that is owned by a friendly family and was really affordable. It’s about a 20 minute walk to the centre of town but there’s great street food close by and La Merced is about 15 minutes away. There’s also a laundry, bottle shop and small convenience store a minute or two walk away. The apartment has great wifi, a well stocked kitchen and gets cleaned once a week. If you stay here, you must visit the memelita stall in the mornings- they are amazing. Turn left out of the front door and then take the first right. The stall is set up in front of some houses on your left. Use this link for $50 off your first Airbnb stay: https://www.airbnb.com.au/c/ssoutham1
Getting around Oaxaca
You can easily walk around Oaxaca’s central city. Otherwise buses and colectivos (shared taxis) are the way people tend to get around. Vehicles will have the names of the places where they’re heading on the front of their vehicle. To get to Tlacolula and Mitla the bus stop by the baseball stadium is where you can catch a bus (on the same side of the road as McDonalds) and if you’re heading to Ocotlan, a bus can be caught from Bustamante 601. There is no Uber in Oaxaca.
We use the app Maps.Me to guide us around cities by GPS using offline maps.
No matter where you’re travelling to we always recommend you have travel insurance. We use and love World Nomads. The great thing about them is that you can purchase travel insurance while you’re already travelling!
We hope this Oaxaca travel guide has helped you eat and explore like a traveller, not a tourist!
Spending more time in Mexico? Check out our Mexico City Travel Guide!