Things to Do in Oaxaca
One of the oldest cities in the Americas, Monte Albán—an ancient Zapotec capital—is perhaps the most important archaeological site in Oaxaca and among the largest in Mexico. Head to Monte Albán’s flat mountain top for views of the city, then explore the vast site’s temples, tombs, underground tunnels, and ball court.
One of just two so-called “petrified waterfalls” in the world, Hierve el Agua—which literally translates to "Water Boils"—is a rock formation with cliff-top pools above it. Visitors can cool off in natural spring waters, which are touted to have healing properties, then hike down to the base of the waterfalls.
Hierve el Agua is currently closed to the public as a result of a local land dispute.
Estimated to be around 2,000 years old with a 177-foot (54-meter) circumference, the gnarled Tule Tree (Árbol del Tule) is one of the world’s oldest and widest trees that was once thought to be multiple trees merged together; however, it's actually a single Montezuma cypress specimen. Visitors can admire its girth both up close and from a distance, as well as explore the pretty church courtyard it calls home.
A relatively small Mixtec/Zapotec ruin, Mitla is notable for the detailed and well-preserved geometric stonework that decorates the buildings. The setting is pretty, with a cactus garden and shaded benches. From the ruins you can see the domed Church of San Pablo, built in the 16th century when the Spanish pillaged stones from Mitla. At the gates to the ruins, a small artesanía (folk art) market is home to aggressively competitive vendors, a situation that can yield great deals. Outside the gates, a clean and efficient comedor (diner) serves authentic Oaxacan specialties.
The name Mitla comes from the Náhuatl word Mictlan, which means place of the dead or underworld. An ancient ceremonial center, Mitla includes two cross-shaped tombs, a promenade of hefty stone columns, and an elevated suite of ornately-decorated rooms that were once occupied by the Zapotec high priest. Although theories on the subject differ, Mitla was likely built by the Zapotecs, occupied by the Mixtecs, reclaimed by the Zapotecs, and finally conquered by the Aztecs, who took control in 1494.
Let it all hang out on Zipolite Beach (Playa Zipolite), the only legal nudist beach in Mexico. Popular among LGBTQ+ travelers, hippie spiritualists, and adventurous backpackers, Zipolite Beach is characterized by clean sands, swaying palms, and rough seas better suited to surfing than swimming.
Tracts of untouched forest, coral reefs, and mangroves characterize the UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve Huatulco National Park (Parque Nacional Huatulco). Unlike other stretches of the Oaxacan coastline, Huatulco National Park is a meticulously preserved hotspot for rare creatures, virgin beaches, and hiking trails.
Still relatively unknown to tourists, the Copalita Ecological Park and Ruins (Parque Eco Arqueológico Copalita) sit on the shores of the Pacific Ocean in the Huatulco resort area. Remnants of pyramids, temples, a ball court, and a pre-Hispanic lighthouse dot the lush landscape of the archaeological park, which also includes a massive stone believed to have once been used in sacrifices.
The southernmost beach in the Santa Cruz area, Playa La Entrega—or La Entrega Bay—offers over 600 feet (182 meters) of sandy shoreline; beautiful coral reefs; and clear, calm waters ideal for swimming, scuba diving, and snorkeling. Highlights include a variety of tropical fish, on-site seafood stalls, and proximity to the scenic Huatulco Bay Lighthouse lookout.
Maguey Bay (Bahía Maguey) is an easily accessible bay with a popular beach of the same name. A handful of busy seafood shacks line the beach, and visitors can sip cold beers on patio chairs, or splash around in the bay’s calm, clear waters. You’ll find lots of amenities here, too, as Maguey tends to be one of Huatulco’s busier bays.
Opened in response to the dwindling turtle population in Mexico, the Mexican Turtle Center (Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga) is a 10-acre (4-hectare) attraction located in Mazunte, Oaxaca. Here, you’ll find a variety of sea and freshwater turtles across over a dozen aquariums, including hawksbills, leatherbacks, and green turtles, all of which you can learn about on a guided tour of the center.
More Things to Do in Oaxaca
Situated beneath the Monte Albán archaeological site, the artisan town of San Antonio Arrazola offers a respite from the hustle and bustle of Oaxaca. Best known for its fantastical painted wooden figurines called alebrijes—and the street art dotted around town dedicated to them—San Antonio Arrazola is the ideal spot to pick up some souvenirs from your time in Oaxaca.
Replete with fresh produce, grilled meats, fragrant spices, and lots of mole (a spicy sauce), the 20 de Noviembre Market (Mercado 20 de Noviembre) is a must visit for food fans and casual visitors alike in Oaxaca City. Located just outside the city’s central zócalo, the market is also a great place to grab lunch from one of the many fondas and vendors.
Known for its distinctive black clay ceramics, San Bartolo Coyotepec is a must-visit for fans of traditional crafts in search of the perfect Oaxacan souvenir. Situated just 9 miles (15 kilometers) south of Oaxaca City, San Bartolo Coyotepec’s quiet streets are lined with shops, galleries, and studios selling this regional pottery that’s now an essential part of Oaxacan tradition.
Cacaluta Bay is the largest and least accessible of the Huatulco bays. This heart-shaped Oaxacan inlet, which served as a stunning backdrop to the blockbuster Mexican film Y Tu Mamá También, has good snorkeling just a short swim from shore. Its serene setting offers a nice alternative to the noise and excitement of Santa Cruz Bay.
Marked by holy cloisters, intricate gilt interiors, and a baroque facade, the Santo Domingo de Guzmán Church (Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán) is perhaps the defining landmark of Oaxaca City. Located just off Oaxaca’s “tourist corridor,” Santo Domingo adjoins the Oaxaca Culture Museum and is backed by the scenic Oaxaca Ethnobotanical Gardens, making it a must-visit for any traveler in the city.
The Benito Juárez Market (Mercado Benito Juárez), which takes up two blocks and is just a short walk from the city center zócalo (square), is one of four markets in close proximity in downtown Oaxaca City. Home to a wide variety of typical foodstuffs and artisanal handicrafts, the market is the ideal spot to browse for souvenirs or just get lost among the stalls.
La Crucecita sits just inland from Santa Cruz Bay on the coast of Oaxaca. Originally built as the service town for the Huatulco resort area, today La Crucecita has an authentic atmosphere draws that visitors from the beaches to its lively streets. Highlights include a traditional market, a historic church, specialty shops, and restaurants.
Nestled in the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca, the Cascadas de Llano Grande (Llano Grande Waterfall) is an ideal spot for hiking, swimming, and rappelling. Its shallow pools and multiple cascading waterfalls give ample opportunity for all kinds of water activities: Climb a tree, leap off the rocks, or swing from a rope into the pristine waters below.
One of the oldest and largest markets in Oaxaca—if not the entire country—the fragrant and bustling Abastos Market is a hub of fresh produce, Oaxacan goods, and more. Also known by its official name of the Central de Abastos, this market is the perfect place to pick up Oaxacan snacks and souvenirs, from local pottery to chili-laced candies and freshly made mole.
Connected to the Templo de Santo Domingo, the impressive Oaxaca Culture Museum (Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca) is housed in a beautifully restored monastery. Well-curated exhibits featuring crafts, herbal medicines, and local dress transport travelers through the history of Oaxaca, from ancient times to the modern day. A particular highlight is the collection of Mixtec silver, jade, and gold.
Situated 30 minutes outside of Oaxaca proper, this former Dominican convent in Cuilapam de Guerrero is an impressive complex which includes cloisters and a roofless chapel. Once home to praying monks and the place where former Mexican president Vicente Guerrero was executed, the 16th-century Cuilapam Convent is now a place to enjoy religious murals and sweeping views over the valley below.
Chachacual Bay (Bahía Chachacual) is just half a mile (one kilometer) long, but its world-class snorkeling, impressive birdlife, and serene setting continue to attract travelers to its sunny shores. This tiny bay in Huatulco is best reached by boat and still relatively untouched, making it the perfect destination for those seeking a bit more privacy.
Travelers seeking a true Oaxacan culinary experience will find it at Casa Crespo, a popular restaurant and cooking school that serves up traditional regional cuisine that highlights age-old flavors and market-fresh ingredients. Settle in for an alfresco cocktail on Casa Crespo’s rooftop, enjoy a multi-course meal at the restaurant, or opt for a hands-on cooking class.
Quieter than its more popular sister sites of Monte Albán and Mitlá, Yagul is home to the second largest Mesoamerican ball court after Chichén Itzá. Visitors can admire striking views over the Tlacolula Valley below from the vantage point of these elevated ruins; explore the elaborate stone palace and courtyards, which date from between 750 and 950 AD; and enter the underground tombs.
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