There are several bus options to choose from when travelling from Mexico City to Oaxaca.

Is Oaxaca Worth Visiting & Who Is It Right For?

Last Updated on April 17, 2024 by Ashlea J. Russell

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When you hear the name ‘Oaxaca’ you probably think Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead. This spectacular festival pops up all over Mexico at the beginning of November but the best known version is that of Oaxaca City. But what about the rest of the year? Is Oaxaca worth visiting?

Is Oaxaca Worth Visiting?

Mexico is an enormous and diverse country. From deserts to jungles, beaches to mountains and all the culture in between, there’s something here for everyone.

If you’re looking to lounge beachside with a cocktail, or museum hop your way through a metropolis, Oaxaca is probably not worth visiting for you.

However, if you’re seeking authenticity, Indigenous culture, and oodles of history, Oaxaca is worth visiting.

The state of Oaxaca is widely regarded as the cultural centre of Mexico. Often overlooked by tourists in favour of the glitz and glam of the Yucatan, Oaxaca is an incredible place to get a taste of “The Real Mexico”.

Top Things To Do That Make Oaxaca City Worth Visiting

Oaxaca City is so well known as the home of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) that is can be difficult to know what to do here when the festival isn’t in full swing.

After spending some time exploring Oaxaca City, I’ve put together my top picks of things to do to help you decide if Oaxaca is worth visiting for you and what spending a few days in Oaxaca City would look like.

1. Step Back In Time At Monte Alban Archeological Zone

It would be an actual sin to visit Oaxaca City and not visit Monte Alban. Monte Alban is a very important [and impressive] Pre-Columbian archeological site that dates back to the 6th century BC.

I’ve visited many archeological sites all over the world and few compare to this one.

If you have any interest in visiting ruins, Monte Alban alone makes Oaxaca worth visiting. The sheer size of the site is astounding and what we visit today only represents 10% of the original site.

Monte Alban in Oaxaca is worth visiting as one of the most impressive archeological sites in Mexico.
Archeologists working on Monte Alban during my tour

Many sources say to just grab a taxi and have a wander around but I don’t recommend that.

Taxi drivers will be happy to take you up the mountain but a line of vehicles forms before the site opens every day so you will either find yourself running up a metre or standing on a very hot, very steep hill amidst the vehicles waiting for access.

I decided to book a local guide on a tour that cost about $1,200MXN [$55USD/$70CAD] for two people. This included an English-speaking driver in a modern air conditioned vehicle, entrance to the site and Hector, our certified guide.

The Mexican government takes their history very seriously, so they offer a licensing program for tour guides. The program requires that guides prove extensive knowledge about history and historic sites before they are able to hold tours.

Hector has been guiding at Monte Alban since the early 90s and there was nothing he didn’t know. You will spend an hour being guided around the spectacular site and then you’ll have another hour or so to explore on your own before being returned to the city.

Make sure you bring water and sunglasses because it gets hot on the mountain during the day.

2. Sip Mezcal Like the Gods

A trip to Oaxaca is never complete without trying some mezcal. Although mezcal is made from agave it is not tequila, it doesn’t taste like tequila and unlike tequila, you don’t take it in shots.

Also known as “the Elixir of the Gods” this unusual liquor was born in Oaxaca and more than 70% of the global supply comes from this state. This versatile spirit is one of the top reasons why Oaxaca is worth visiting.

In Oaxaca City bars that specialize in this drink, known as Mezcalerías, can be found just about anywhere and they usually have something for everyone. Whether you prefer your drinks fruity, sweet, salty or tart, or even just neat, there is a drink for you.

Mezcalerias are the perfect place to enjoy a tasting and learn more about Oaxacan culture.

If you are interested in really finding your feet with mezcal it’s worth visiting a Oaxaca Mezcalería to do a tasting and a great place to start is Mezcaloteca.

This intimate spot is by reservation only, they have limited hours and they do book up a week or two in advance, so you’ll want to plan ahead. You can choose tastings of 3 – 5 mezcals and the experience lasts about an hour.

There are many flavour profiles within mezcal so a tasting is a great way to figure out which speed is right for you. Tastings range from $320-$410MXN [$15USD/$19CAD – $19USD/$25CAD] per person and this includes a bottle of water.

For a bit of a more social experience check out Expendio Tradición. The extensive mezcal and cocktails menu gives lots of opportunity to experiment with mezcal. The vibe almost feels like a cool speakeasy with a modern twist. They also offer lots of great Mexican dishes to snack on.

If you want to sound like a pro, make sure you pronounce ‘mezcal’ the Mexican way. Soften the ‘z’ sound and emphasize the last syllable like meh-SKAL, instead of the common mispronunciation MEZ-kal.

3. Taste the Culture with Mole at Los Danzantes

If there is one food that defines this region, is it definitely mole [pronounced MO-leh]. For foodies, this dish makes Oaxaca worth visiting. Oaxaca is actually referred to as “the land of the seven moles” so when I was heading to Oaxaca, I made it a mission to have a mole tasting.

Mole is one of the most important dishes in Mexican cuisine. The name comes from Nahuatl, the language of the Nahua people, the largest indigenous group in Mexico and it literally means “sauce”. A simple name, for a complex dish.

Traditionally it can up to a few days to make a mole and each family or cook has their own unique blend of ingredients so you could probably have a mole a day and never taste them all.

Before visiting, I did a lot of research about where to eat in Oaxaca City and where to find the best mole and I feel confident when I say Los Danzantes is where you want to be.

Los Danzantes is just unlike any other restaurant I’ve visited. They seem to tread the line between fervent tradition and the avant-garde with ease.

The restaurant itself is a large, rustic, stone patio with a tented roof. Birds fly freely over the walls and wander the floor of the restaurant, accompanied by warnings to please not feed them.

The menu ranges from octopus to pork shank and everything in between but I came here for the Degustación de Cinco Moles Oaxaqueños [Tasting of Five Oaxacan Moles].

Oaxaca is worth visiting just for the food. Try a mole tasting at Los Danzantes restuarant.

For the tasting you choose your protein from the list, I opted for grilled organic chicken breast and it comes beautifully presented with five small pots of mole.

This dish is actually intended to be a sharing platter but since I ordered it as my main meal they offered to bring me some tortillas to make little mole tacos, which I happily did.

The five moles included are mole amarillo [yellow mole], rojo [red mole], chichilo, negro [black or chocolate mole] and manchamanteles [tablecloth stainer mole – no, really it means tablecloth stainer].

This wasn’t just a meal, this was an activity. When my lovely server explained what each of the moles were I had an idea of which ones I would like and which ones I’d probably only taste once, but I was wrong. This is a flavour rollercoaster and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in food.

If you love Mexican food you might want to try an authentic Oaxaca cooking class. My favourite cooking class offers a private experience where you learn to make a three course meal using traditional methods and ingredients.

4. Support the Indigenous People By Shopping for Handmade Goods

My final pick for things that make Oaxaca worth visiting is doing some shopping. As I travelled around Mexico I would visit different mercados [markets] and almost everything I picked up and purchased actually came from Oaxaca.

The merchants are quick to show the difference between something handmade and something machine made to demonstrate the quality that comes from the crafts of this region. Items are produced by families, women, indigenous groups, charities and even in some cases prisoners, as a means of boosting their economy and bringing money into the hands of the individuals who live in Oaxaca.

The quality of what they produce is indisputable and travelling around Mexico it became easy to spot the Oaxacan products in the mercados because the standard is so high.

In addition to handmade goods, Oaxaca is also a great place to find silver products. Mexico produces over 80% of the world’s silver supply and the variety of what you can find here is dizzying and for really reasonable prices.

Mexico is the world's largest silver supplier and Oaxaca is worth visiting to pick up some new pieces.

I’ve put together a handy walking map. I recommend starting at the Mercado de Artesanias [Artisan Market] just a few blocks from the Zócalo [town square]. This market is great for handmade clothing, linens, bags, etc.

When you’re done here make your way to 20 de Noviembre and head back in the direction of the Zócalo. Along the way you’ll find the Mercado 20 de Noviembre which is a local food market and then the Mercado Benito Juárez which has everything you could think of.

Inside, the market is a maze of rows upon rows of merchants selling anything you could be looking for. Outside the streets are lined with even more vendors.

The merchants here are a little bit pushier than what I found in other parts of the country so be prepared to say “no gracias” hundreds of times. This is also somewhere you can haggle on price, especially for larger items like handbags and hats. The merchants were often quick to discount themselves and begin the barter process.

It is a common misconception that it’s the norm to barter in Mexican markets. Most places list their prices and function as a regular store would but in Oaxaca it was more common to negotiate on price.

With that being said, Mexico much like the rest of the world has taken a hit during the pandemic. While it is culturally acceptable to barter a bit, I would encourage you to find a price you think is mutually fair, rather than just driving the price down as far as you can. After all, these people are just trying to make a living.

Is Oaxaca Safe?

Largely due to an unfair reputation in the media, travellers considering a trip to Mexico are often worried about safety. I have travelled Mexico many times as a solo female and I have found it to be safe.

Oaxaca is considered to be one of the safest states in Mexico. In general, you are not likely to experience any safety concerns. However, travellers should take the usual precautions when visiting and choosing where to stay in Oaxaca City. There are still a few things to consider when deciding if Oaxaca is worth visiting for you.

Oaxaca is a beautiful colonial city but there is also some political unrest.

Politics In Oaxaca

Oaxaca City has been and remains to be an important centre in Mexico and this includes politically. When I look at pictures of Oaxaca City I see the colourful banners and charming vibrant buildings and while this is accurate, there is another side to it.

For the last few years, the Zócalo has been home to encampments of a well-known displaced indigenous group. This means the centre of the town is filled with makeshift tents, political signage and unfortunately the main square is used as the bathroom for the encampments.

There is also an apparent political charge behind the street art which can be found on walls all over the city and it is not uncommon to see political demonstrations. For example, during my time there, the garbage collectors had gone on strike resulting in mountains of waste on every street corner.

Avoid sharing opinions about local issues and entering into political discussions, especially when not fully informed. If you have an interest in the political landscape you may like to take a tour of the town where the guide would be best placed to answer questions.

Women’s Safety In Oaxaca

This is also a place to be conscious of how you dress, especially the ladies, as they are more conservative. Some places will actually refuse entry for exposed knees, shoulders and cleavage.

Political street art is common in Oaxaca. Is it worth taking a street art tour when visiting Oaxaca.

Compared to other parts of Mexico I would not encourage walking around Oaxaca City at night especially if you are a woman or travelling alone. There are a few strips that are quiet bustling and well-lit but much of the city and bars close down before midnight. It’s a good idea to be at your accommodation at night rather than wandering around.

Oaxaca City is an interesting and vibrant place however this was the only place where I was followed [in broad daylight] and felt any amount of danger during my time in Mexico. I do not say this to deter you but rather to encourage you to manage your expectations and exercise additional caution and awareness of your surroundings while exploring this interesting place.

Where Is Oaxaca?

Oaxaca state is located in southwestern Mexico, sharing borders with Guerrero, Puebla, Veracruz, Chiapas and the Pacific Ocean. It is the second most southern state in Mexico, after Chiapas.

Oaxaca City is located in the Central Valleys of the state, in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains.

How To Get To Oaxaca

If you’re wondering how to get there, you’ve probably decided Oaxaca City is worth visiting. It is undoubtedly an interesting place to visit but I would recommend visiting it as part of a larger trip, rather than as a single destination.

I’ll cover the basics below but for the full scoop check out my How To Get To Oaxaca Guide.

Getting To Oaxaca By Plane

Oaxaca City has an international airport located 20-30 minutes south of the city, longer if there are roadworks.

The majority of flights to this airport are from Mexico City, taking just over an hour by air. This is good news because Mexico City is so worth visiting and is a fantastic travel destination. Flights from Mexico City are very inexpensive and frequent.

Some direct flights are available from Texas in the US but the majority of international and domestic flights require a connection in Mexico City.

Travelling by plane is worth considering when visiting Oaxaca.

Getting To Oaxaca By Bus

Day and overnight buses run between Oaxaca City and several other Mexican destinations.

Mexico actually has an excellent bus network. ADO [pronounced ah-day-oh] buses are large, comfortable and air conditioned – sometimes a bit too air conditioned, so pack a sweater. Bus tickets are cheap and the bus stations are well located, normally right in town and sometimes even at the airports.

Using the ADO bus network you can get to pretty much anywhere you’d want to go south of Mexico City, and a few places north of it. The downside to travelling on the bus is that you will need to have a certain amount of working Spanish to purchase tickets, find your bus and navigate transfers.

The ADO website is only available in Spanish but you can purchase tickets through BusBud in English.

Buses from Mexico City take around 7 hours, and cost between $400-800MXN [$25CAD/$20USD] depending on dates and times.

Regular buses are also available to the coastal town of Puerto Escondido. The journey takes 10 – 12 hours, often overnight. Tickets cost anywhere from $360-760MXN[$25-50CAD/$20-40USD] one way depending on when you purchase and the class you opt for.

Getting To Oaxaca By Car

If you are comfortable renting a car in Mexico it is possible to drive to Oaxaca City from anywhere. There are a few things to consider before taking on this adventure.

  • It’s common to lose phone and internet signal in Mexico when you leave the towns and cities.
  • Gas stations are not always easy to come by outside of the towns. Make sure you have cash because many of the more rural ones don’t have ATMs or accept card payments.
  • Mexico loves a sneaky speed bump! The speed bumps are high and narrow so if you hit one going top speed you could do some serious damage to your vehicle. Do as the Mexicans do, slow way down, put your hazards on and take it easy.
  • Road closures without notice in Mexico are fairly common and without internet connection it can be tricky to find an alternate route. I recommend download offline maps through Google or picking up a good old fashioned paper map before you head out.

Best Time To Visit Oaxaca

Arguably the best time to visit Oaxaca would be during the beginning of November to enjoy the Día de los Muertos festival.

April, May, and October offer comfortable temperatures and minimal temperatures. During this time of year, Oaxaca is warm during the day and cooler at night.

The rainiest months of the year fall on June and September so if you like to walk, this would be a time to avoid.

Further Travel In Oaxaca State

The state of Oaxaca is definitely worth visiting and offers more than just Oaxaca City. The Oaxaca Coast is a fantastic stretch along the Pacific Ocean. Because it isn’t as easy to access than other parts of the country it sees fewer tourists and lower prices.

The beach town of Puerto Escondido in Oaxaca is worth visiting and is often described as ‘Tulum before it got cool’. With long sandy beaches, world-class surfing, barefoot bohemians, and a lively nightlife, Puerto Escondido has all the vibes without the price tag.

Huatulco in Oaxaca is a great alternative to the glitz and glam of Cancun

For an quieter alternative to Cancun, check out the beach beauty of Huatulco. The best of many worlds, Huatulco offers a charming town centre, fantastic resorts, 9 bays and 36 beaches! There’s also an international airport with direct flights from Canada and the US.

Puerto Escondido and Huatulco are located only two hours apart. The magic town of Mazunte is a great mid-point to stop for a night or two.

Oaxaca FAQs

How Many Days Should I Spend In Oaxaca?

How much time you spend in Oaxaca depends on what your interests are and how much you’d like to see and do. I think Oaxaca City is worth visiting for anywhere from three to five nights before moving on.

You should allow one to two full days to explore the city itself and an additional few days for day trips. If you don’t intend to do many day trips, three nights would be ideal.

Do They Speak English In Oaxaca?

As a rule, no, people don’t speak English in Oaxaca. Everyone in Oaxaca speaks Spanish and many speak native languages, but finding English speakers is rare.

Customer service positions at popular hotels and restaurants often have one or two English speakers, however if you find yourself in local establishment you are sure to encounter a language barrier.

It is helpful to download Spanish Offline using the Google Translate app to have access to translations without internet. You can also download my Useful Mexican Words and Phrases Cheatsheet at the bottom of this page.

Can I Use US Dollars In Oaxaca?

It is a common misconception that you should bring US Dollars to Mexico. It is possible to use US Dollars in some highly touristic areas of Cancún, particularly the hotel zone, however this is never advisable as US Dollars are subject to harsh exchange rates and price gouging.

It is worth purchasing pesos at home before visiting Oaxaca. It is always ideal to use the local currency. For the best exchange rates, withdraw directly from a local bank using an ATM inside. Avoid stand alone ATMs inside or outside of stores as they tend to have high fees.

Should I Buy Travel Insurance For Oaxaca?

Yes, everyone traveling internationally should purchase travel insurance. Travel can be unpredictable so it is a good idea to purchase a comprehensive plan which covers (at a minimum) emergency medical, emergency transportation and trip cancellation and interruption.

Can I Drink The Tap Water In Oaxaca?

No, Mexico does not have a universal clean water program across the country. Drinking from the water supply can cause what Mexicans call “Montezuma’s Revenge” which consists of severe diarrhoea, vomiting and flu-like symptoms.

Although Oaxaca is in the mountains, temperatures can soar during the day and the sun is hot. Staying hydrated is extremely important. Bottled water is available in the vast majority of restaurants, hotels, bars, shops, supermarkets and is also often available for purchase from street vendors.

There are products like water purification powders and straws that can purify tap water in Mexico but finding bottled water is easy to do.

Can I Brush Your Teeth With The Tap Water In Oaxaca?

The rule for testing brushing your teeth in Mexico is the same rule you should use for testing street food: Try once and see how it goes.

How your body reacts to the bacteria in Mexico is unpredictable. It is best practice to brush with bottled water however I have spent months in Mexico using tap water to brush my teeth and didn’t experience any adverse affects.

Summary: Is Oaxaca Worth Visiting?

So, is Oaxaca worth visiting? The answer to this question is going to be different for everyone. Oaxaca City is a hub for culture, history and an all-round interesting place to spend a few days.

Oaxaca state has so much to offer. Stunning beaches, world-class surfing, bags of Indigenous culture, and unforgettable food and drink are just a few things that make this state worth visiting. All that’s left is to go check it out for yourself!