Mexico has no shortage of intriguing towns and cities, but Oaxaca de Juárez, or just Oaxaca for short, is in a league of its own.
Despite having the amenities of any sizeable Mexican city, Oaxaca’s identity is firmly rooted in its Zapotec past, vibrant art scene, unique and exotic cuisine, and an undeniably rebellious streak.
Despite not being as widely known as the Maya or Aztecs, the Zapotec was one of the most ancient and sophisticated Mesoamerican civilizations. Monte Albán and Mitla are by far the most visited Zapotec archaeological sites. Still, the region surrounding the city of Oaxaca is full to the brim with other ancient cities, including Dainzú, Atzompa, and San José del Mogote, founded in the second millennium BCE.
The legacy of these remarkable people continues to this day through their language, cuisine, and crafts. An immense variety of handmade and naturally dyed textiles are on offer. Many of the same designs found on ancient Zapotec monuments are represented on rugs, pillow cushions, and clothes. These are not mere tourist nicknacks but prized elements of contemporary Zapotec and Oaxacan culture.
Oaxacan cuisine is a revelation. Aside from the endless varieties of mole, there are several other regional staples. Chapulines are fried grasshoppers, usually salted with garlic and chili powder. They are popular snacks or a protein added to anything from omelets to crunchy tlayudas.
Though the idea of eating insects may seem frankly disgusting, they are delicious (especially when hot and seasoned just right) and can become quite the addictive snack; besides, they are much healthier than, say, potato chips. For something a little more familiar, Oaxaca is also home to some of the world’s best cheese and chocolate. The mild and salty cheese known around Mexico as Queso Oaxaca is known locally as Quesillo and was recently ranked by TasteAtlas as the best non-Italian cheese in the world. As for chocolate, it’s virtually impossible to go a single block without running into a cafe or stall grinding fresh cocoa beans, which smell divine and are most commonly enjoyed as a hot beverage.
Another of Oaxaca’s main draws is mezcal, a distilled alcoholic beverage made from various agaves in a process similar to tequila. Meaning “oven-cooked agave” in the Nahuatl language, Mezcal has become one of Mexico’s most popular liquors. It continues to grow in popularity abroad, with Mezcaleras constantly popping up everywhere from Berlin to Hong Kong.
The origins of mezcal date to pre-Hispanic times and was used as a libation as it is today, but it also had an essential role in religious rituals and ceremonies. Though mezcal is now also produced in other states, over 70% of its production is concentrated in the state of Oaxaca. Though large industrial distilleries dot the landscape, so do small artisanal ones, some only producing a couple of hundred bottles yearly. Several varieties of mezcal, including espadín, arroqueño, cirial, and dobadaan, vary significantly in their fermentation, storage and aging process.
Locals often describe artisanal mezcal as being “noble” because unlike other strong spirits, it does not cause bad hangovers. But a word to the wise: despite this claim having some truth, don’t test its limits. And varieties infused with CBD and THC have also become common, so don’t cross any international borders with them.
Oaxaca has an edge to it. Political manifestations, marches, and clashes with authorities that can become violent are not exactly rare, though it’s uncommon for foreigners or outsiders to be harmed.
Oaxaca’s rebellious streak is also visible on just about every street in the form of graffiti and stencils calling out the government for its abuses, especially regarding activism surrounding violence against women. That said, walking around Oaxaca is relatively safe, especially during the day, but venturing out too late after dark is not particularly wise, especially for solo travelers.
There is much more to say about Oaxaca, including its fascinating architecture, folklore, markets and musical scene. Visiting the city is easier than ever, with an increasing number of direct flights from Mérida, Cancun, Mexico City and several other spots around the country.
If you go
Volaris flies direct to Oaxaca from Mérida’s international airport. Additionally, Aeroméxico offers flights that connect through Mexico City. But flying nonstop is much quicker, at one hour and 35 minutes.