Oaxaca city is nestled between valleys, surrounded by mountain ranges, market towns, cobblestone streets, artisans and world class cuisine. We decided to drive there for a whole week leading up to the Easter weekend.
On Saturday we left Mexico City at 9 a.m. in the morning. We got very turned around leaving the city — then realizing our Waze was set to non-toll roads — and then after Puebla we hit a massive car accident. A truck had spilled vegetable oil, followed by a three car pile-up and then an overturned yogurt truck. It was like a Richard Scarry book come to life. After a two hour wait we were back moving. Bring lots of snacks as after Puebla the only places to stop are gas stations or the public washrooms beside the toll booths. They have basics, like chips and pop and one toll booth had a mini cafe. The tolls were about $840 pesos one way. We finally arrived at 6 p.m.
We wanted to book accommodations with a pool, wifi and air conditioning. Most days it was 30C by 9 a.m. so we were glad for a pool. When looking at what there was to do it seemed to me there was a lot to outside of Oaxaca city, and parking within the city could be tricky. So we booked five nights at an Airbnb on the outskirts of the city at the foothills of Benito Juarez national park. This ended up being a great location to explore the towns and villages surrounding Oaxaca city and to have easy access to our car.
I organized our week based on interests that were close together and when different towns had their market days. We drove Saturday to Saturday to avoid traffic (but perhaps nothing can prepare you to avoid accidents!)
We left early to go to Hierve el Agua, a petrified waterfall surrounded by bathing pools. We left at 9:15 and arrived about 10:45 a.m. Go via Mitla, ignoring the GPS and follow the (sometimes handmade) signs for Hierve el Agua. There is a road fee at one of the villages before you start climbing up the switchback, gravel road to go up the mountain of $15 pesos per person. When you arrive at the site there is and another $50 peso per person entrance fee. There is limited shade so bring sunscreen, hats and sneakers to walk down the dirt and then cobblestone path. Then you will want flip flops for by the pools. The roofed area at the top behind the market stalls looks like it is where you should go, but that pool is empty. Instead, wind your way behind the market stalls to the bottom. There are free changing rooms and toilets for a fee. The water is cold, but refreshing!
My geologist friend said the rocks are tufa, she said they are formed because the hot water in the ground leaches out minerals from the rock, then when it cools, it deposits the minerals again. Because the water is moving, the formation is globular and not crystal. You can hike around to to the top of the big petrified waterfall, or take a dip in the pool below one that is currently forming. The views out over the valley are gorgeous. There is a man with a donkey and a horse who will take you back up the hill for $50 pesos per person which we did for our two youngest. We left at 1 p.m. and we were really glad we did as the whole road was full of mini vans, small buses and cars squeezing their way up the dirt road. Maybe because it was a weekend it was busy? Either way, I would go in the morning.
On our way back we went to the Tloculoa Sunday Market — one of the oldest in the areas. I had read it was 400 years old. In Mexico they call the market stalls tianguis. They have everything for sale — but in this market we wanted to try barbacoa, a saucy barbecue of goat (chivo) or lamb (borrego). The barbacoa section of the market is inside the market hall behind the chapel and beside where they sell the bread. We had tacos and one soup. It was delicious. All the children gave it a try, but only our middle son was brave enough to eat all of it. We think, even including some goat tongue. We also bought cazuela de pan here (bread with chocolate streaks and pureed raisins).
After this we were exhausted so we went back for a swim but you could also do the archaeological site of Mitla on this day or visit one of the many mezcal distilleries. Gracias a Dios distillery is close by but it was too far for us to add it to our day.
I happened to have booked our Airbnb very near an outdoor paintball field, something my eldest has been desperate to try. So we spent the morning playing paintball at Gotcha Soles and having lunch there. (You need to pre-book a day ahead.) He said it was the best part of the whole trip.
In the afternoon we drove a 15 minute drive down the road to Oro de Oaxaca mezcal to see how mezcal was made. It takes 8 to 23 years for the agave cactus to be ready to harvest. Then they chop off the leaves and there is a bulb — called a piña / pineapple — in the earth and that is what they use. Then they put the piña in a dirt pit, cover it in firewood and rocks and slow roast it. When it’s done, it is taken out and put in a stone circular platter that has a stone wheel, and a horse or donkey walk around it in a circle, using the wheel to crush it to a pulp. Then, the pulp is fermented. In this case it was in wooden barrels covered in water and let to sit for days or up to a week. It was 35C when we were visiting so it was extremely hot. No wild yeast is used, they just let it ferment outside naturally. Then it is siphoned off. A very interesting process, and now I understand more why it is so smokey in flavour.
One thing Oaxaca is really known for is their chocolate and cooking. We didn’t really have time for a cooking class with the children, but we all wanted to learn about chocolate. A friend had booked with Flor to do just that so we did the same for Tuesday morning. She was really accommodating as we said we didn’t need four hours but could we please have maybe two hours instead. We met just outside of Tlacolula and followed Flor to another nearby village where we drove to Dalia’s house. Dalia and her daughters taught us how to sort the cocoa beans, roast them, peel them, grind them to a paste over coals and then finally enjoy a hot chocolate! Complete with homemade tortillas, guacamole, salsas and sweet breads. We all really enjoyed it. To book, contact Flor, she speaks Spanish and English. +52 951 149 3394.
Then we drove to nearby Teotitlan de valle for wool rugs. First we went to this very random Amor Zapoteco shop which is off the main square but I really liked all his designs. All were sold sadly — to places all around the world — but he would ship to Mexico City. In town by the church there was a really nice shop called Casa Don Taurino which we happened to park in front of and they have really nice items.
There is a market square below the church filled with all sizes and shapes of rugs. You will also see many shops lining the main highway before you even enter Teotitlan. I would come with measurements of what size you need. The weaving is done on a loom they sit at and with hand dyed wool. It is a nice tight weave. I bought three rugs and have ordered a fourth! Prices are somewhat negotiable, and range from $1,000 pesos for a small bathroom mat to $14,000 for an extra large living room sized carpet. We ate at El Descanso and it had tasty food and something for everyone on the menu.
Lastly, we went to Tule to see the Tule Tree. It is located in the church grounds and is a Montezuma cypress, and has the widest trunk in the world. The little town is cute with more shopping and ice cream. There are bathrooms on the square where the tree is and you need to pay an entrance fee to see the tree. It is $20 pesos per person ages six and up and people with disabilities enter for free.
We decided to go to Monte Alban — built in 500 BC it was a Zapotec centre for 1,000 years. But perhaps, more importantly for our children, it is in the closing scene of the Jack Black movie Nacho Libre when he takes the orphans on a field trip. (Highly recommend this hilarious movie filmed entirely in Oaxaca and actually based on a true story). We left at 8:30 and arrived by 9:15 a.m. The parking lot was already filling up even by then. It was $80 pesos per person, children under 13 are free. Guides will offer their services, either in a group or private tour. We booked a private tour which was $1,000 pesos for a few hours but we asked him please to keep it to an hour and a half as the kids wouldn’t be able to handle three hours. It was very hot so bring water, hat and sunscreen. When we went it was quite dry, so I would recommend sneakers over sandals as it was dusty. Of the sites in Mexico they have discovered there are 198 pyramids open to the public, 10 of these are world heritage, including Monte Alban. They estimate there are over 40,000 total in Mexico. We saw houses, what they think was a hospital, the observatory and the ball court. You can still climb the two main pyramids at either end. In the 1960s and 70s, however, you could drive up and camp in the middle of them! We ate lunch at the cafeteria onsite, comparatively it was quite expensive but the food was really good, service was quick, it was outdoors and shady and they had a hot dog wrapped in bacon (one child) and pancakes for the other two, so it was worth it! We left at 12:45 and the parking lot was packed by then so I would recommend doing Monte Alban in the morning.
We then took a back road of sorts to nearby Arrazola which is where they make the alebrijes. The alebrijes began in the 1930s when Mexican folk artist Pedro Linares had a fever and started to hallucinate about animals that were mystical brightly colored creatures and in his dream where shouting ‘alebrije!’ This is one of the towns where they make them, carved out of wood and painted in bright colours. There aren’t many services in this town so we were glad we had eaten at Monte Alban. There are paid washrooms on the main square and a nice ice cream shop.
Our finally stop of the day was to San Bartolo Coyotepec where they are famous for black pottery. There are stalls ringing the main square. We bought some fun Darth Vader mugs (which leaked when we got home so now they are fun pen holders!) and some carved candle holders. They are rather fragile as one of them smashed in our roof box, so wrap them carefully. They are double or quadruple the price in the city of Oaxaca so if you see something here it is definitely cheaper.
You could also go to see the town and monastery in Cuilapam de Guerrero as this is also in the area, but we were too tired.
We packed up the Airbnb and headed into Oaxaca City. When looking for a place to stay my criteria was a pool and centrally located as our youngest was having walking troubles. As it is an old town I didn’t expect the hotels to have onsite parking, and parking can be quite tricky so read the reviews carefully. We stayed at CasAntica which was clean, lovely, nice pool and perfectly located. Valet parking is $200 pesos a day and the car in only accessible 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. so we planned our time in Oaxaca to not need access to the car. I really liked the location of the hotel as it was between the zocalo and Santo Domingo church and I found this area to be really nice, especially up by Santo Domingo.
We first went to Santo Domingo church, which was a good thing as it closed from 1-4 p.m. There are really nice shops across the street as well. Then we went to Zandunga for lunch, they were great with the children and made them simple chicken and rice and cucumber for lunch. One child had delicious cheese empanadas. I had the tasting plate which was really nice and a great way to try everything. They had a Mexican gin as well. There are nice shops surrounding the restaurant. We wandered around the streets and then went to La Catedral for supper. They were also wonderful with children bringing them pasta. We had chapuline tacos (crickets), my husband had the green mole and I had shrimp tacos — the best meal I have had in Mexico.
For breakfast we went around the corner to Boulenac, the best coffee and amazing pastries. Delicious egg English muffin and children loved their pancakes. So good we went back the next day! Get in line at 8 a.m. for the 8:30 a.m. opening.
We walked down to the two markets, 20 de noviembre and Benito Juarez to try hot chocolate, one with water and one with milk. We also bought chocolate to take home.
Then we wandered to the Zocalo and Cathedral, down to the Textile Museum (which is more of an art display) around to an outdoor art space called Centro Cultural de San Pablo and up to Mezzaluna for a pizza lunch. Their upstairs terrace has great views. We were supposed to try Oaxacan tejate — an ancient drink you can find in markets and on the side of the road — but we were too stuffed!
For supper we went to Origen, which has had rave reviews. They made chicken and an amazing homemade pasta for the kids. My husband had the seafood chorizo stew which he said was fine. I had the ceviche which, to be honest, was really not to my liking. It was not a typical ceviche (which normally I love!)
It was Good Friday and the tourist agents who asked us to do a survey (they somehow always find me for a survey in Spanish!) but they were very nice and told us the Procession of Silence route which I was quite keen to see. In the end it went right by our hotel and was so lovely to see the whole buzzy city turn to silence. The different churches and chapels had their banners and icons out for a parade, some men carried crosses for the whole route, and others wore names of the apostles. Some people who were carrying different statues wearing hoods which area meant to symbolize humility and mourning. It was a reminder of Easter and the gift that truly was given for us.
On a Friday you could drive out to Ocotlan Market, followed by San Martin Tilcajete and Maria y Jacobo taller for alebrijes. Which is also close to San Bartolo Coyotepec for black pottery. It was an alternative Friday route I had planned but in the end we were glad to stay in the city.
For a family with young children, and with a lot of museums still closed due to covid, we were glad in the end we mixed it up with a house with a garden and then a hotel downtown. It worked really well for us. We didn’t have traffic nor accidents on the way home so we left at 10:30 a.m. (after ANOTHER breakfast at Boulenac) and were home by 4 p.m.
I would bring good walking shoes, hat, sunscreen, insect repellant (we were bitten at night), cloth bag for all those market purchases and cash. Cash is king and even some places we ate only accepted cash.
Other restaurants that were recommended but we couldn’t get a reservation with (I suggest booking your restaurants as soon as you book your accommodation as they book up quickly).
- Los Pacos (mole)
- Criollo (but it said online not really for children)
- Casa Crespo has a fun looking cooking class
- Epicuro is another pizza place
- Quince Letras (fully booked)
- Pitiona (tasting menu and didn’t look great for our children)
- Casa Oaxaca was fully booked as was Los Danzantes
- El Nuevo Mundo coffee shop for frappuccinos
Centro de Artes was also recommended but we ran out of time. Please leave me a comment with your favourite places in Oaxaca as it looks like we need to go back!