Top 10 Tips for Visiting Oaxaca, Mexico

Submitted 7.03.11 in Travel, Travel Tips
By Kathleen

Mexico has made the news a lot recently because of drug-related violence. There’s no doubt that the situation remains serious, but many parts of Mexico are still perfectly safe for tourists, as long as you take the usual precautions.

An increasing number of tourists are flocking to Oaxaca, a charming, colonial city in southeast Mexico. Although Oaxaca isn’t home to white sand beaches and turquoise waters like Cancun and other well-known destinations in Mexico, it is a beautiful city where you can learn loads about Mexican history and culture. Here are some tips for planning an unforgettable trip to Oaxaca.

1. Visit during important holidays

The warmth and joie de vivre of people in Oaxaca is particularly noticeable during important holidays. Christmastime is a colorful, joyful time to visit Oaxaca because of the parades and neighborhood celebrations. The festivities last from December 6 to January 6. Guelaguetza is a regional festival held each July that features folkloric singing and dancing from different regions of the state. The Day of the Dead celebrations on November 1 and 2 are another great time to visit Oaxaca. People gather with friends and family members at cemeteries to remember and pray for the deceased, who they believe return to earth on this holiday.

2. Take a cooking class

Oaxaca is commonly referred to as the culinary capital of Mexico. Sample and learn to cook regional cuisine at one of Oaxaca’s many cooking schools. Most of the schools offer half-day classes, which you can easily fit into your travel itinerary. One of the most well-known cooking schools in Oaxaca is Seasons of My Heart, led by Chef Susana Trilling at her ranch in the Oaxacan countryside.

3. Visit ancient, archaeological ruins

The Mitla archaeological site in Oaxaca is famous for its ancient palace buildings, which feature geometric mosaics. Monte Alban is Oaxaca’s most important archaeological site; it was one of the first cities in the New World, as well as capital of the Zapotec civilization for over a millennium. It sits atop a mountain and was built to serve as a meeting point between heaven and earth.

4. Visit one of the biggest trees in the world

The Tule Tree, located in a quiet town called Santa Maria del Tule, about 10km southeast of Oaxaca, is between 2000 and 3000 years old. A convenient time to visit this tree is on your way towards the ruins in Mitla.

5. Watch the Guelaguetza regional dances

If you can’t make it to Oaxaca in July, when the Guelaguetza festival takes place, watch the Guelaguetza dinner performance at the Camino Real Hotel, which features 20 regional dancers in costume, a 14-piece brass band, and a buffet. The performance is held in a scenic, 16th century chapel at the Camino Real every Friday night.

6. Eat at the market

Want to try delectable regional cuisine without learning to prepare it yourself or eating out at an expensive restaurant? Enjoy a meal at the Mercado 20 De Noviembre to savor traditional foods, like mole, enchiladas, and hot chocolate, for a fraction of what it would cost at touristy restaurants.

7. Don’t drink the water

The tap water in Oaxaca is contaminated, so it’s not safe to drink. Stick with bottled water and don’t eat any raw fruits and vegetables when you go out to avoid stomach upset. The small containers of salsa that sit on the tables at local restaurants are also a common culprit of traveler’s diarrhea, so steer clear of them.

8. Visit craft villages

The villages surrounding Oaxaca City are famous for their crafts. Each village specializes in a specific artisan tradition. For example, San Antonio Arrazola is famous for its wood carvings, while Teotitlan Del Valle is famous for its woven rugs.

9. Take a temazcal bath

The temazcal bath is an ancient ceremony consisting of music, chanting, an herbal sweat bath, and a massage. The ancient Aztecs, Zapotecs, Mayans, and other indigenous groups in Mexico performed the ritual. The temazcalera, or leader of the ceremony, will choose herbs that alleviate your specific problems. The temazcal bath is offered at several local spas and hotels, including Las Bugambilias Bed and Breakfast.

10. Tour a mezcal plantation

Mezcal is an Oaxacan spirit made of the maguey plant, a form of the agave cactus. Tour a family-run still in Santiago Matatlan, Oaxaca to see how mezcal is distilled.

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