Ten Great Reasons To Wander To Oaxaca

by Allison Rosewicz

Oaxaca is one of the top states in Mexico for tourism growth, and it's simple to see why. For an unforgettable, authentic Mexican experience — colonial history, ancient architecture, beautiful beaches, fantastic food, easy traveling — this state offers it all. For lots of reasons, you'll be glad you decided to “wander to Oaxaca” for study abroad:

Typical Oaxaca dish
Typical Oaxaca: tempting dishes by a tantalizing beach. Photo by Eileen Loh

10. Stellar Spanish Studies

The state capital, Oaxaca City, is filled with language schools offering Spanish lessons at any level, from basic to advanced and even specialty courses (such as medical or business Spanish). Because of the many options, it isn't difficult to find an affordable school, as well as accommodations during your studies. If structured lessons aren't your style, Oaxaca can still be an excellent place to learn Spanish. You will find little English here; Spanish dominates every aspect of the traveler's day-to-day life, including road signs, menus, maps, and informational posters. Through the immersion experience in Oaxaca, study abroad there guarantees you'll pick up at least some Spanish.

9. Heady History

Oaxaca is a testament to the rich history of Mexico, as well as its individuality as a state alone. This is an amazing place for anyone interested in learning more about Latin American history when studying abroad. Oaxaca City is filled with colonial churches, architecture, and monuments, not to mention a plethora of museums dedicated to the state's past. About 10 kilometers outside the city lays Monte Albán. This was the capital city of the ancient civilization of the Zapotecs, and today is a well-preserved archaeology site. Throughout the state, many citizens still speak the Zapotec language, as well as other indigenous tongues. Some parts of the southern Oaxacan coast have an ethnic population of Afro-Mexicans, which tells the story of the slave trade in times past. All cities and towns in Oaxaca offer interesting historical elements, whether it be churches, ruins, museums, architecture, language, the people, or simply stories and legends of the past.

8. Wonderful Weather

Mexico is famous for its lovely climate, and Oaxaca makes no exception to that. The average high temperature is above 80 degrees Fahrenheit. It is warmer on the coast and cooler in the mountainous regions, but weather is never extreme in Oaxaca. A volunteer or study-abroad trip to Oaxaca guarantees opportunities for a hot, sunny visit to the beach, perfect for surfing and sunbathing; a crisp, cool trip to the mountains, ideal for hiking and an overnight stay by the fire in cabin with breathtaking views; and a tourism-filled day, walking from site to amazing site in Oaxaca City, all without breaking a sweat.

7. Vehicular Variety

Once in Oaxaca, you'll find traveling from place to place a budget-friendly breeze. From Oaxaca City, it is possible to travel to many other large cities in Mexico. Many travel companies also offer excursions to tourist sites in the area surrounding the city. If you are looking to make your own way, there are seemingly endless forms of cheap public transportation in Oaxaca, such as camionetas (covered trucks that travel from town to town, costing just cents), colectivos (small taxis that make similar routes as the camionetas, at about the same price), suburbanes (medium to large-sized vans that cover farther distances), and micros or autobuses (buses that work within a town or city, or travel between them). A six-hour trip from Oaxaca City to the state's coast by suburban, for example, costs roughly $10. Oaxaca City also has an airport, where domestic and international flights are available. Whether going town-to-town or site-to-site within Oaxaca's borders, or journeying to another state or even country, public transportation in and out of Oaxaca is affordable and efficient.

Church in Oaxaca, Mexico

Church in Oaxaca, Mexico

6. Plentiful Pueblos

The Mexican state of Oaxaca is divided into eight regions — the Cañada, the Mixteca, the Sierra Sur, the Costa, the Istmo, the Valles Centrales, the Sierra Norte, and the Papaloapam. None of them claim huge cities, other than Oaxaca City in the Valles Centrales. This is a state made up by the pueblo (which, coincidentally, also means “the people”). In the towns and villages, the true spirit of the Oaxacan lifestyle thrives through holistic medicinal tradition; indigenous languages; family farming; homemade handicrafts; traditional art, clothing, and dance; and freshly prepared drinks and dishes. Oaxaca City may be the central hub for tourism in the state, but the pueblos provide the true Oaxacan experience.  

5. Superb Souvenirs

All travelers and international students have endured it: the insufferable experience of trying to find really worthwhile souvenirs. In Oaxaca, that depressing duty is turned into a delightful one. An expanse of quality folk art exists here, just waiting to be picked up at a cheap price. The following are some of the best traditional handicrafts in Oaxaca:

Barro Negro. This decorative black clay pottery is beautiful and highly affordable. Vases, jugs, and candleholders are just some of the forms available. The town of San Bartolo Coyotepec, just south of Oaxaca City, is famous for producing this pottery. Here you will find numerous shops and demonstrations dedicated to the barro negro.

Textiles. Weaving has been popular in Oaxaca for centuries, and today this art is still used to produce beautiful textiles. Tourists can purchase durable, colorful, intricately woven rugs, blankets, clothing, tablecloths, and more.

Alebrijes. Possibly the most unique handicrafts available in Oaxaca, alebrijes are usually animals or other earthly figurines. They're carved from wood and hand-painted with vivid colors and designs, giving them an imaginative vibe.

4. Magnificent Monte Albán

The well-preserved ruins of this site, once the capital city of the Zapotec civilization, is an archaeology lover's dream. Located at the top of a ridge less than 10 kilometers east of Oaxaca City, Monte Albán offers incredible views and a glimpse into the lifestyle of an ancient time. The site includes plazas, platforms, tombs, an altar, a ball court, and other stone monuments and buildings, all with incredibly intricate carvings depicting practices from a long-ago era.

Those who wish to visit Monte Albán will have no trouble getting there; numerous tour offices throughout the center of Oaxaca City offer affordable trips to and from the site. Once there, you can explore the grounds yourself or choose to take a guided tour. Famous throughout the country of Mexico, Monte Albán is a must-see for anyone visiting Oaxaca.

3. Celebrated Cuisine

After all the adventures you'll experience, you deserve to treat yourself to some good food…and Oaxaca is one of the regions of the world where you're likely to find it everywhere. This state stands alone with some of the most famous traditional Mexican foods, and the region is renowned in the international culinary world for the innovative, vivid, elevated flavor profiles and combinations in its traditional recipes.

The chocolate crafted in Oaxaca, for example, is country- and world-renowned, usually served as a hot beverage with water or milk. Mole (pronounced MOW-lay), is a thick sauce made from dried chiles and a variety of other spices. There are many colors of this sauce, but black and red are the most common. Mole is typically served over chicken, accompanied by tortillas and sometimes rice. Oaxacan tamales are a delicious way to start the day. A type of corn flour cake steamed inside cornhusks or banana leaves, tamales are generally savory with flavors like salsa verde (green salsa), rajas (chiles and tomato), and mole negro (black mole), though tamales dulces (sweet tamales) and other flavors can be found.

2. Bodacious Beaches

Oaxaca Beach

Oaxaca Beach

It's not uncommon to hear someone who has traveled the world say, “Oaxaca's beaches are still my favorite,” and with good reason. The entire southern border of the state touches the Pacific Ocean, which means Oaxaca has plentiful opportunities for beach excursions. To the east, Huatulco is the best-known coastal area, with a huge tourism industry, vacation packages, and luxury resorts; but there are many beaches in Huatulco, including hidden tropical coves that provide a more private setting. On the west side, Puerto Escondido is popular, and surfers from around the world flock there year-round for its killer waves.

Some smaller beaches are located along the coast's center. Puerto Angel is a quaint town with a couple of beaches and is located right next to Zipolite, the only beach in Mexico with a nude section. A few kilometers further west is San Agustinillo, a small, family-oriented beach. One kilometer more brings you to Mazunte, which is very popular among backpackers and is home to the Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga, a wildlife center dedicated to Mexico's vast sea turtle population. No matter what type of beach you prefer, you'll find it in Oaxaca.

1. Outstanding Oaxaca City

Formally known as Oaxaca de Juarez, the capital city is the heart of the state of Oaxaca, literally and figuratively. Tourism thrives in this capital, named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and besides Monte Albán, it features a variety of museums, excellent cafés and restaurants, theatres, galleries, shops, hotels, musical performances, and more. Because of its location, Oaxaca City is a perfect jumping-off point for other adventures throughout Mexico. All forms of cheap public transportation and also tours come into and go out of the city to the pueblos and beaches of Oaxaca. Yes, it's a city with many modern elements, but Oaxaca City has also maintained the history and culture of such a unique state.