Oaxaca City Guide
At over 5,000 feet you’ll find Oaxaca City, located in a valley between two converging branches of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range. The city is best defined by its colonial heritage, but today it is a diverse mix of cultures and influences, namely those of the pre-Hispanic indigenous populations that continue to thrive in the areas surrounding the city. The variety present in Oaxaca City caused the city to be dubbed the artistic and cultural center of Southern Mexico, if not the entire country, despite the relatively small size of its populace: 800,000. It’s also a safe city, the second safest in Mexico – it’s a place where you can explore by day and walk the streets at night free from worry.
Oaxaca City enjoys a pleasant climate year round: It rarely gets above 90 or below 55 degrees Fahrenheit. December temperatures are frequently in the 80s during the day and 60s at night. Most days are sunny and cloud free. The hottest months of the year are April and May and the rainy season lasts between June and early September.
High season in Oaxaca City is similar to the rest of southern Mexico: Late December and early January. Oaxaca City also sees high tourism during early November as people come to watch and participate in Day of the Dead festivities.
I came to Oaxaca with a basic understanding of the Spanish language, but I was by no means fluent. Most people here speak a very small amount of English, and if you’re lucky, you’ll run across one of the many American or Canadian ex-pats that populate the city. That being said, come with an open mind and a lot of patience if you don’t speak any Spanish! The language barrier might be frustrating at times (I know it has occasionally been for me), but the effort you put in will be worthwhile – Oaxaca City is filled with some of the kindest, humblest people I have ever met. The people here are also curious, and will frequently try to talk to with you without wanting anything more than a good conversation (often a strange phenomenon for city dwellers from the U.S.!). It would be a good idea to carry a phrase book or memorize a few basic words before your journey so that you can more easily enjoy some of the hospitality people here have to offer.
Prices in this guide are listed in US dollars. At the time of writing, the exchange rate is approximately 11 pesos to the dollar.
In this guide you’ll find information about:
1. Where to stay
4. What to do in Oaxaca
5. General information
Where to Stay:
Hotel rates in Oaxaca depend largely on season and inflation. The prices listed herein are intended to serve as an approximate guide: Actual prices may vary.
Paulina Youth Hostel
If you’re looking for an inexpensive place to stay, try Paulina Youth Hostel, which has prices from $11. The hostel is clean, offers twenty four hour reception, has a limited number of private rooms available (book ahead) and is located in the center of town. Address: Trujano 321 col. centro, Oaxaca, 68000, Mexico. Tel: 01 951 62005. Reservations.
La Casa de Los Sabores
This tidy bed and breakfast doubles as a cooking school where you can take cooking lessons in your free time or kick back and enjoy cuisine prepared by the skillful cooks who teach the cooking classes. Rooms are large and comfortable, and breakfast is served daily as a two course, traditional Oaxacan gourmet meal. Price depends on room which vary from $60-75. Address: Libres No. 205 Col. Centro C.P. 68000 Oaxaca, Oax. Mexico
Tel/Fax: 011 52 (951) 516 5704. Website.
Widely considered the best hotel in Oaxaca City, the Camino Real is located near the city center and offers a gym and several restaurants within its grounds. If you’d rather relax than exercise, check out the indoor garden or lounge by the pool. Make advanced reservations during high season. Prices range from $250-300 a night or more depending on room. The Camino Real accepts American Express, Master Card and Discover Card. Address: 5 de Mayo 300 Oaxaca, Oax. 68000 Tel: (01 951) 5 01-6100 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Oaxaca City does have an international airport, but it’s often cheaper to fly to Mexico City and take the bus to Oaxaca City. The bus ride lasts for ten hours or so and is inexpensive (less than $50 depending on the class of bus you take). That being said, flying directly into Oaxaca is faster and much more comfortable.
It’s noisy, it’s crowded, it’s often kind of stinky, but it works! Oaxaca is equipped with a well functioning bus system, although traffic congestion is common in the city, which frequently makes the bus a slow option. Street signs with large bus pictures will direct you to stops. Depending on your destination, bus tickets cost about $1.
Taxis are easy to find in most parts of city at most times. It’s a good idea to establish the fare for your destination before entering the vehicle if possible, although that may require a basic understanding of the Spanish language as the majority of taxi drivers do not speak English. Do not sit up front while riding in taxis unless the backseat is full since that is considered suggestive and may be offensive to the driver or create unwanted attention for you. Do not enter a taxi that is already carrying passengers, as this has been known to occasionally cause safety issues. Wait for another taxi or have the restaurant, establishment, etc. that you are leaving call a taxi for you â€” Oaxaca City has proven to be especially helpful to tourists and most anyone will be happy to provide assistance assuming the language barrier can be overcome.
Several locations offer car rental services on a daily basis for between $50 and 80 a day. The kind of car that you’ll find for rent will likely be lower in quality than the rental cars available in the U.S. (think old style VW bug) and all of the rental cars available are manuals.
Alamo: Address: Cinco de Mayo #203-A; Tel: 5148534
Budget: Address: Cinco de Mayo #315-A; Tel: 5164445
Hertz: Address: Labastida #115; Tel: 5115378, 5162434
Economica Rent-A-Car: Address: Internacional #1818; Tel: 51 5030842
If there’s one thing I like, it’s food! Oaxaca offers a large number of inexpensive dining options and wonderful Southern Mexican cuisine. You won’t find American “Mexican” favorites like burritos or hard shell tacos, but if you come willing to try something new, or you’ve had traditional Southern Mexican food before, you won’t be disappointed. Highlights include quesillo a rich, local cheese and enchiladas con mole. Mole (mo-lay) is a local sauce made from chili peppers, chocolate, ground chicken and a variety of other spices â€” try it at least once during your stay!
Casa del Angel (House of the Angel)
Every city has at least one, and Casa del Angel is Oaxaca’s earthy, hippie hangout where you can enjoy a tasty salad or sit and enjoy well made Oaxacan coffee. The atmosphere can best be described as a good place to study, read, or write in your journal. Order pan integral (health bread), a salad and hot chocolate. The Casa has the best hot chocolate in the city, and the city is known for its chocolate. Service is relaxed. $3-7. Open 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Address: 200 Dalevuelta.
If you’re looking for something slightly more upscale, Terra Nova grants you the option of sitting in Oaxaca’s center square while you enjoy their meal. Go on Sunday nights for dinner and enjoy the live orchestral musical performed by musicians sitting inside the large French inspired gazebo. Order the tortilla soup, enchiladas con mole negro (black mole) and a suero. A suero is a large glass with a salt-ringed edge filled with the beer of your choice and fresh squeezed lime juice. It’s the beer equivalent of a shot of tequila and it packs a flavor punch. $3-12. American Express, Master Card, Visa. Portal Benito Juarez 116. Open 7 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Vips is the Mexican equivalent of Denny’s â€” it’s not a good restaurant per se, nor is it especially easy on the wallet, but it’s open early until late and its as good a cure as any for homesickness. If you’re missing American food, order the waffles and ice cream sundae and sit back, relax, and listen to American music play over the restaurant sound system. $4-12. Open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Located at the corner of Dalevuelta and Avenito Juarez.
Don’t miss this quiet, traditional Oaxacan restaurant tucked away in an enclosed garden patio. Order the tacos de pollo (chicken tacos) and one of the many mixed juice drinks on the menu. Also worth trying are the nachos, which should resemble the nachos you may be accustomed to in the U.S. $3-9. Open 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., closed Sunday. Address: Licencia Verdad 100.
Not for the carb conscious, Itanoni, a restaurant serving pre-Hispanic indigenous cuisine, offers an all (or mostly all) corn menu. Forget your diet and try one of the corn and bean tamales wrapped and cooked in a banana leaf. Also, don’t miss the ground corn, milk and cinnamon drink called Tescalate. Prices range from $2-5. Open 10 to 10. Adress: 515 B. Dominguez.
If you’re feeling the economical squeeze of your vacation, try the X taqueria. I’m a big eater, and I can frequently fill up for under $3. Try the memelitas (think of an unfolded quesadilla with only one tortilla, slathered in beans and cheese) and the atole, a rice milk drink with cinnamon for flavor. Open 7 p.m. to midnight. Address: 1004 Las Rosas.
As much as I like Mexican food, during the last three months I have occasionally found myself craving a different kind of cuisine. Unfortunately, despite being a cultural hotspot, Oaxaca City is somewhat behind the times when it comes to international cuisine. In that respect, Dangelo’s is a ray of hope: The restaurant offers delicious, authentic Italian cuisine in a “mix and match” style (choose your noodles, your sauce and your veggies or meat). It’s also a good place to take a date or a loved one for a romantic evening out since there’s live guitar music in the evenings and an air of old Europe throughout restaurant. Prices: $5-15 or more. Open 5 to midnight. Address: 150 J. Allende.
What to Do:
A trip south of the border wouldn’t be complete without at least one salsa dance lesson. There are several clubs in town, but I have found that Salon de Salsa offers the best instruction. Don’t worry about not knowing how to dance â€” I didn’t and people were still nice to me. I’m sure they’d be nice to you, too. Classes last between one and two hours and cost $5. Weekly and monthly lessons are available for reduced cost. Open 5-10 p.m. Monday-Friday. Address: Licencia Verdad 108.
Once you get your dancing shoes warmed up, check out the night life in Oaxaca. There are many good clubs in the city, but the best are probably Azukar and Candela, both of which offer regular salsa dance exhibitions and competitions. Both employ bands to play live rock and salsa music, and their dance floors are almost always full on Friday and weekend nights. Candela is somewhat hipper, but the dance floor at Azukar is bigger. Azukar: Address: H. Escuela Naval Militar 103 Reforma; Tel: 513-1170. Candela: Address: MurguÃa 413 Centro; Tel: 514-2010
Sit in the Zocalo at Night
If the idea of going out at night appeals to you, but you’re not sure you want to brave the clubs, try dining in one of the many fine restaurants in the Zocalo. The French-inspired center feels very European: strolling lovers, live music and outdoor cafes provide a relaxing atmosphere for those interested in passing a few hours or slowly drinking coffee over a good conversation.
Oaxaca is famous for its mountains, which yield a beautiful view of the city for anyone adventurous enough to climb their slopes. Just north of the city is a small, relatively easy climb called MontaÃ±a de la Cruz, which is home to a giant cross that overlooks the city. It can be climbed in under an hour. If you’re looking for something more strenuous, stop by La Gran MontaÃ±a, Hidalgo #1111 and ask about equipment rentals and guide services.
Before leaving for Oaxaca, I spoke to a family friend who knows the city well, and he told me that if there was only one thing I did while in Oaxaca, it should be Te Mezcal, an indigenous healing and massage practice. During the healing ceremony, you enter an incredibly warm steam room and meditate for thirty minutes (or as long as you can stand it!). A healer enters and hits you (gently) with special herbs to help detoxify your body. Afterwards you receive a massage and aroma therapy. At $60 to $70, it’s expensive, but worth it. I was had the beginning symptoms of a cold before I went in, and I felt completely better when I came back out. Sign up for Te Mezcal at Mano Magica. Address: Alcala 203 Tel: 01 951 514 3733.
There are nearly a dozen markets in Oaxaca City and they could probably comprise their own guide. Each week people from the villages around Oaxaca City enter the city to sell crafts, rugs, clothes, food and other goods at the local markets.
Benito Juarez Market
The city’s oldest market takes up several blocks just west of the Zocalo. Expect to find everything from Oaxacan chocolate to Nike shoes. The market is open on the weekend and you should go early and prepare for crowds since the market attracts many visitors, especially on Sunday.
Abastos is the largest market in Oaxaca and is located across the street from the Central Caminorea bus station (I recommend taking a bus or a cab since it will be easier to find the market â€” it’s about two miles from the city center). Inside you’ll find hundreds of shops specializing in pottery, wooden crafts and inexpensive jewelry. The center of the market is filled with restaurants in case you get hungry. If you’re a serious shopper, plan on spending all day at the market â€” even that probably won’t be enough time to see everything.
Machismo culture is alive and well in Oaxaca City and it’s common for Mexican men to make inappropriate comments (in both Spanish and English) to women as they walk past. This is especially true of foreign women, which draw special attention. With very few exceptions, the attention is not threatening, even if it is unwanted â€” just ignore it and continue walking. Further, in three months I have had no problems walking alone at night, although as with any city, it is best to exercise good judgment if you have any doubts. A last word of caution: Pedestrians do not have the right of way in Oaxaca City! Be especially careful when crossing the street, as cars will not stop, and cross walks exist only in theory.
Also, avoid eating food served by street vendors, as it is often under prepared and not safe to eat for non-Mexican people whose stomachs are not yet adjusted to the different bacteria. Fruit and vegetables bought from street vendors or the grocery store should be thoroughly washed and peeled before consumption. It is a good idea to treat produce with iodine before eating if you’re going to eat it raw. Cooked vegetables should be washed as normal, but the cooking will sterilize them. Finally, don’t drink water from the tap â€” but you probably already knew that!
Consult your doctor prior to travel to find out if you need to receive immunizations before traveling to Mexico. Hepatitis A and typhoid vaccines are commonly recommended and are a good idea, just to be on the safe side.
Calling out of Mexico is often very expensive. If you do need to call out, visit one of the many phone stations located throughout the city or buy a phone card at the same locations to use on the pay phones. Make sure you buy a card for the pay phones and not a cell phone calling card (although that’s a good option too if you have a cell phone). To call the U.S. from Oaxaca costs about one dollar per minute from the pay phones. The most economical option is to contact your cell phone provider, if applicable, to set up a North American phone plan â€” calls can cost as little as twenty or thirty cents a minute from Mexico to the U.S. and perhaps less.
The number of internet cafes in Oaxaca is impressive. You can find an internet cafÃ© within blocks of any part of the city, and prices range from 5-10 pesos an hour depending on the quality of the cafÃ© and its location. A few of the cafes, such as Internet Infinitum (9 a.m. to 10 p.m., closed Sunday; Pino Suarez 204), offer printing services and headsets complete with microphones. Since calling the U.S. or other countries from Mexico is expensive, try using the free internet calling service Skype. Skype allows two people to connect for live chat via the internet provided that each person has a headset and microphone. And the best part is that it’s completely free to download and use! Also, avoid making credit card purchases over the internet on computers in the internet cafes as they are not secure.
If you’re in Oaxaca long enough, sooner or later you’re going to need to do laundry. Fortunately the city is packed full of Laundromats (lavanderias) which will wash your clothes for a reasonable price. The price depends on weight, but a weeks worth of clothes usually costs about five or six dollars to wash, dry and fold. The process takes about 36 hours, but you can usually request faster service if you’re in a pinch. A note of caution, however, the Laundromats claim no responsibility for lost clothes, and it is not especially uncommon for clothes to get put in the wrong piles. This happened to some of my friends and they had to buy new shirts! I recommend Lava Facil (8 to 8, closed Sunday; 1516 Jose Lopez Alladez) which individually tags and catalogues each piece of clothing during the wash process to avoid mishaps. They charge a little more, but don’t you think it’s worth it?
Banks and Money
Paying for things in Oaxaca can occasionally prove difficult. Most stores and restaurants will not accept credit cards or checks, leaving cash the primary method of payment, which can be surprising to many Americans. To further complicate things, ATMs frequently distribute 500 peso bills, which are difficult to use in many locations. If possible, enter the bank and ask for smaller bills â€” they’ll usually give you change free of charge. You should also know that only ATMs connected with bank branches are secure. There are “free floating” ATMs that may have a reputable banks’ logos on them, but which are disconnected from the actual bank building. Avoid using these as it is not uncommon for people to have their accounts cleared out shortly after entering their card and pin numbers. Also, often times tellers in stores will refuse to accept ripped money, even money with very small rips on the edges. If given a ripped bill after paying for something, politely request a non-ripped bill to save yourself future hassle.
The post office is located on the corner of Independencia and the Alameda Park and is open from 9 to 5.
Learn Spanish: Instituto Cultural Oaxaca
The institute is located near the city center and offers reasonably priced Spanish lessons to students of all levels. Classes are taught in small rooms and larger lecture halls located in a beautiful, walled in colonial garden. Having studied at the institute for the last three months, I can personally testify to the quality of the teachers who work there and the tranquility of the campus â€” it’s an ideal place to learn Spanish! More information, including how to register, can be found online.