10 Reasons to Choose Oaxaca for High School Programs Abroad

by Janiva Cifuentes-Hiss

Declared a UNESCO world heritage site, the Mexican city of Oaxaca is a life-changing destination for high school programs abroad. From its irresistible elixir of fragrant night-blooming flowers to the mouth-watering smells escaping open-air restaurants to the live music and laughter that overflows from bohemian cafes, it is easy to fall for Oaxaca, if you let it. Oaxaca will swiftly sweep you off your feet with its undeniable magic and romance. Yet, Oaxaca is much more than what meets the tourists’ eye.

10. Warm Welcome

Oaxaca is known as a safe, charming city with a small-town feel. International high school students are a welcome and common sight in Oaxaca, among colorful buildings, picturesque courtyards, and kind, helpful Oaxacans. It is a place where young people from all over the world can feel at home, make lifelong friends, and explore a rich and intricate culture unlike any other on earth.

Plaza in Oaxaca, Mexico

Gathering at one of the central plazas in Oaxaca

9. Foodie Paradise

A wonderland of artsy restaurants and charming cafes, Oaxaca has an eatery for every taste and budget. Whether you prefer carnitas (thin sliced seasoned beef) and horchata (sweet iced rice and cinnamon beverage) at a mom-and-pop taquería or gourmet coffee and delicate pastries at an upscale bakery, Oaxaca can satisfy just about any culinary craving high school students have during their time abroad.

The region is especially famous for its homemade, traditional recipes and internationally renowned, gourmet cuisine. Taste tlayudas, which have been nicknamed “Mexican pizza” (a crispy tortilla layered with refried beans, Oaxacan cheese, tomato, and avocado), mole (a rich sauce carefully prepared with dozens of ingredients, including chocolate, chilies, spices, raisins, and nuts), and tejate (a frothy drink made of toasted maize flour, cacao beans, and cacao flower). Oaxacan chocolate made with real cacao beans, sugar cane, cinnamon, and almonds will surely “ruin” you for instant hot chocolate for the rest of your life.

Mexico’s famous nieves (literally translates to “snows”) are an old-fashioned traditional ice cream featuring an assortment of curious and one-of-a-kind flavors. The lengthy ice cream shop menu reads like a page out of the classic Mexican film Like Water For Chocolate. Flavors include: rose petals, caramel, cacao, lime, passion fruit, coconut, and cactus fruit. Popsicles too are sold in a variety of refreshing and tongue-tingling flavors, including chopped green mango with spicy chilli, fuchsia dragonfruit, and sweet pineapple (aka. happiness suspended on a stick). High school students will find plenty to refresh themselves with on a hot summer day in Oaxaca.

Market vendor in Oaxaca, Mexico

Local Oaxacan Market

8. Meet Me at The Zócalo 

Oaxaca is a friendly, walkable city known for its colonial architecture, social justice movements, and trendy designers. Young people spend afternoons and evenings together chatting, strumming guitars, and dancing the salsa in the plazas. The zócalo (central park square) and Catholic church steps are the preferred meeting points for friends. It is common for dinner to be a light meal as late as 9 p.m. or 10 p.m., leaving the evenings open to stroll the main streets with local families, couples, and children after sunset.

7. Natural Wonders

While the city of Oaxaca will keep you busy year-round, just outside of the colorful metropolis, adventure and nature await. The state of Oaxaca is home to a surprising variety of life zones, climates, and picturesque villages. The landscape varies dramatically in every direction and at every elevation.

A day trip can take you across arid swathes of cactus and sagebrush, past green fields of maize, through stunning canyons and verdant vistas, or up into tiny mountain pueblos, depending which road you choose.

High school programs in Oaxaca often include classic day trips like hiking the Sierra Norte mountains or swimming at Hierve el Agua, an ancient mineral springs overlooking a stunning view of green canyons. The small town of Santa Maria del Tule is home to El Tule, a massive 2000-year-old Montezuma cypress known as one of the oldest and largest of its kind on the planet. South of the state capital, Oaxaca’s pacific coastline draws visitors to the beach for surf lessons, snorkeling, and wildlife, including dolphins and sea turtles.

High school students at Hierve el Agua in Mexico

Sol Abroad students at Hierve el Agua

6. Marvellous Markets

Oaxaca city and its surrounding towns and villages are home to many vibrant local markets. For students seeking gifts and souvenirs, there are embroidered blouses and dresses, beadwork, precious stone and metal jewellery, woodcarvings, hojalata (stamped tin) wall decorations and mirrors, leather purses, belts, and textiles. In the food markets, each stall is a carefully arranged pyramid of vegetables, fruit, candies, flowers, medicinal plants, spices, or chiles.

Glass barrels glittering with condensation contain aguas (flavored drinks), including hibiscus flower, fruit punch, tamarind, and mango. The more adventurous students should make it a point to try chapulines, crunchy and surprisingly delectable grasshoppers of various sizes, toasted, and flavored with spicy chilies and lime. For the sweet-toothed, there is no shortage of tempting treats, including candied fruits, pan dulce (sweet bread), and and many varieties of chocolate to enjoy.

5. Finding Familia

Mexican families are generally close-knit, friendly, and affectionate. Therefore, they take care of international high school students as they would their own children. Host families allow international students the privilege of participating in real Oaxacan life, from daily conversations to lively celebrations. One of the biggest perks of which is eating delicious local meals every day! If you truly want to learn Spanish and make friends for life during your time in Oaxaca, then there is no question that a host family is the way to go.

Pro Tip: Be sure to choose a high school program in Oaxaca that carefully matches you to a family based on your personality and interests.

4. Indigenous Past, Present, & Future

Monte Albán is a world-famous Zapotec archeological site overlooking the city of Oaxaca, a pleasant ride through pine forest up the mountain from the city center. The descendants of the civilization that built these impressive pyramids, lavish tombs that rival those of Egyptian kings, and elaborate stone glyphs are present and alive today, despite 500 years of Spanish conquest and colonial rule. They comprise not only the majority of the population, but a vital aspect of Oaxacan culture and society in the face of racism and economic marginalization.

While some languages, such as Zapotec, are widely spoken, other languages are in grave danger of extinction, sadly spoken by only a few elders in tiny towns. Look for a high school program in Oaxaca that will give you the chance to learn not only Spanish, but also native languages, such as Zapotec and Nahuatl. Your worldview will never be the same again.

Students at Monte Albán ruins in Mexico

Sol Abroad students at Monte Albán ruins

3. Hands-On Artisan Workshops

To truly appreciate Oaxaca’s world-famous art, it is vital to meet the skilled artisans whose trade has been passed down to them from generation to generation. The best high school programs in Oaxaca include day trips to family-owned, ecologically-minded workshops. Paint your own alebrijes after watching how each piece is transformed from a rough hunk of wood into an intricate whimsical creature. Visit a women’s cooperative to learn how they weave wool tapestries with all-natural dyes sourced from local plants, minerals, and even tiny cactus-dwelling insects.

Pro Tip: Be sure to find a high school program in Oaxaca that promotes fair trade, reforestation, and living wages for the people who make these authentic and original works of art.

2. Festivals & Street Fairs

Fireworks are a common sight in the night sky almost any given night of the week. Oaxaca’s many plazas and cobbled streets regularly host free music and cultural festivals with concerts, food stands, and artisan stalls. It is a city bursting at the seams with theaters, film screenings, museums, galleries, live music, and poetry; Oaxaca is a hub for young designers, artists, musicians, street performers, and entrepreneurs giving old traditions a modern twist. Oaxaca is most famous for its long-standing traditional festivals, such as La Guelaguetza, Indigenous dances that have been recognized as part of our world heritage, and Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) a colorful tradition honoring and celebrating life with loved ones who have passed on.

Local dancers in the Guelaguetza dance festival in Mexico

The colorful Guelaguetza dance festival

1. Expect the Unexpected 

Oaxaca is full of surprises that emerge from the juxtaposition and contrast of intertwining cultures, languages, and origins.

It is a place in which poverty and inequality live side by side. Yet, it is also a place of survival and innovation. Oaxaca’s rich traditions, creativity, and ingenuity are alive and thriving. This is a city of countercultures, artistic expression, social movements, and environmental activism. The walls hide layers of multicolored murals and graffiti art. The streets and plazas echo with voices and stories of resistance and resilience.

Oaxaca itself subverts the unfortunate stereotype of a monolithic Mexico that is all too often played out in the mainstream media. Oaxaca is a face of Mexico that deserves to be known, respected, and understood.

Check out high school programs in Oaxaca and begin your adventure!

This article was contribute by Sol Abroad, an organization that provides high school students with complete study abroad experiences in Spanish-speaking countries across the world. Founded in 2005, Sol Abroad promotes language learning, cross-cultural understanding, leadership skills, and much, much more.