I had a checklist of the things my summer vacation needed to be. It needed to be inexpensive, somewhat close to home (but international), warm weather was necessary, and I wanted to go solo. I asked a friend who had lived abroad in Mexico for ideas. Oaxaca was a place she mentioned and I’d never heard of it. I researched and saw quaint, cobblestone streets, vibrantly painted walls, art bursting out of shops, looming mountains, and lots and lots of simmering street meats. I was sold.
In the coming months I would tell people I was going to Oaxaca and they would roll the world around in their mouth quizzically. Where is this place and why go, they asked. Oaxaca is a state in southwestern Mexico and Oaxaca City, where I would be staying, was its capital. I was going because I’d never been and my god, it looked beautiful.
The colonial architecture makes walking around the city an event in itself.
Santo Domingo is a church that I’d heard was a must in my research, but honestly, I wasn’t too interested. I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe and I had more than enough of my fill of cathedrals and churches. But when I wandered in front of Santo Domingo, I was blown away by it’s solemn beauty. I went inside to look at the cultural museum (cost 70 pesos) and I felt like I had gone back in time. The vaulted ceilings, collection of historic art pieces, and views of the botanical garden make Santo Domingo well-worth an hour or two.
Ruins are also things I’ve come across all over the world, but Monte Alban is unique. It was a capital of the Zapotec people and there are still carvings that depict characters dancing, swimming, and most morbidly, being castrated. I didn’t say the Zapotec were nice….
The grounds are vast and it’s only 30 minutes from the city center. I took a bus for 58 pesos and entrance was close to that price. Besides enjoying the high-up views, there’s tombs, a palace, an area where games were played, and residences to explore. Interestingly, this painstakingly-built community was deserted one day and no one knows why. Perhaps it was because of all the vendors chasing them down and trying to sell trinkets..oh wait, that’s present day. If you’re not looking to buy, I recommend moving along without a second glance. I made this mistake of looking things over and was hounded the whole way down to the bus and eventually persuaded to buy a few gifts. (Luckily, most of this happens outside the ruins, but there are vendors inside, too).
Hierve el Agua was one of the main reasons that I was interested in Oaxaca. It’s all over Instagram because of its otherworldly views and perfect places to pose. Girls in carefully picked outfits teeter on the edge of natural and artificial pools that look out over the valleys and at the nearby calcified waterfall. Surprisingly, the mineral water is not hot or even lukewarm. Many think it will be like a hot springs due to the water that boils out, but it’s quite cool. You are allowed to take a beer or snack down, but be respectful and clean up after yourself! This spot is around 2 hours from the city center and I found it most convenient to take a day tour that cost 200 pesos. The tour also included the ruins of Mitla, Tule, a carpet making shop, a mezcal factory with tastings, and a buffet lunch that we paid for. I went with ContinentalIstmo.
Last but not least, food, glorious, food! Oaxaca is known for having some of the best cuisine in Mexico. Oaxacan cheese is a revelation. They put it on everything, but it’s especially good in tlayudas, or thin, crispy tortillas piled with chorizo, avocado, tomatoes, and of course, stringy, chewy Oaxacan cheese. You can buy them on the street or in a market, like I did, for around 30 pesos. Mole in Oaxaca is also popular and it comes in black, green, orange, red, etc. I liked having it poured over taquitos at Casa Taviche. If you like sweets, then the drinking chocolate is for you. I got a large cup that was iced and flavored with cardamon at Oaxaca En Una Taza aka Oaxacan Coffee. It was delightfully sweet, but it was a mistake to order an apple cinnamon pastry as well. I didn’t need all that sugar, although the pastry was delicious as well!
To wash all that down, there’s always mezcal, the spirit of choice in Oaxaca. I found the smokey potentness of this cousin of tequila to be far too strong for me, but my mezcal tasting at Mezcaloteca was fascinating. I much prefer all the coffee shops in Oaxaca. Cafe Brujala and Boulenc are both full of foreigners, but they both share a calming, lovely ambience and a damn good cup of coffee.
As a solo traveler, five days was perfect for me, but any longer and I might have been a bit lonesome and looking for something to do. This would be a great trip for a couple and even a group of friends. I recommend at least three days to see the sights and soak up the culture. Oaxaca will soon enough be a name that everyone knows, so go now 🙂