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Oaxaca City, Mexico: Artisans, Mole, and a 3,000 Year Old Tree

Oaxaca is like a dream. A picturesque city with a flair to keep your spirit high and heart full. Time seems to slow down in this harmonious place. The city integrates nature in every aspect from the rustic architecture to the cuisine.

Brad and I arrived in Oaxaca eager to recharge after our stay in Mexico City. Something clicked once we saw the surrounding mountain ranges, colorful wedding processions, and bustling markets full of artisans selling their goods.

Oaxaca is worth a visit for the food alone. You can taste the complex flavors and wholesome ingredients with every bite. The culinary scene paired with the natural attractions in the area is the perfect recipe for a fulfilling adventure!

Below I've compiled a list of our favorite experiences with a separate section for day trips. Oaxaca truly epitomizes the corazón, or heart, of Mexico.

Oaxaca Centro

The city center is a tourist hotspot and a great area to book accommodations. Walk along the colorful cobblestone streets and check out the numerous restaurants, cafés, shops, and galleries.

Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán

This Baroque church and former monastery, completed in 1731, boasts an impressive façade. The brilliant interior is covered in over 60,000 sheets of gold leaf! Parts of the complex now function as a cultural museum and botanical garden featuring plants native to Oaxaca.

TIP: Be on the lookout for musical wedding processions which often take place at the church on the weekends.

Andador Turístico (Calle Alcalá)

The main thoroughfare of Alcalá Street will guide you to various artisan shops and boutiques. Beautiful textiles, woodcut prints, clothes, and ceramics are abundant. Oaxaca is known for its traditional barro rojo (red clay) and barro negro (black clay) pottery styles. My favorite stores were Colectivo 1050º, La Casa de las Artesanías de Oaxaca, and Marias Arte & Diseño. Convenient international shipping is available at all three.

Temazcal Ceremony

An unforgettable highlight of Oaxaca was our visit to a temazcal; a traditional sweat lodge to cleanse and purify the spirit. The ritual began upon entering a circular dome and sitting in front of several volcanic rocks heated by a fire. Our temazcalera (female healer) gave us each a bunch of various fresh herbs to rub across our bodies. She dipped eucalyptus into buckets of purified water before placing it over the rocks to produce an invigorating steam vapor.

The session becomes a therapeutic meditation as you breathe deeply to release any stress or tension. After approximately 45 minutes, our guide poured refreshing water over our heads as she softly hummed a melody to bring us back to the present.

We exited the temazcal and proceeded to a room for a couples massage with essential oils and herbs. The calming and relaxing treatment concluded with a soothing tea service. We booked a private session including transportation with Temazcal Oaxaca for $1200 pesos ($60 USD) per person.

Mole and Mezcal Tasting

The two most popular Oaxacan specialities are mole and mezcal. If you desire to learn about the complexities and varieties of each, I highly recommend the pairing class offered by Daniel Rodriguez via Airbnb experiences.

Meet fellow travelers in a friendly environment while you taste several different moles and mezcals. Daniel, a sommelier, shares his knowledge and passion while you note the fragrant aromas and harmonious ingredients on your palate. It's a fun and interactive cultural event!

Restaurants

Oaxaca has a reputation for delicious eats ranging from market staples to multi-course meals. Brad and I tried a bit of everything on the scale including the chapulines (grasshoppers), which seem to be a tourist right of passage. You only live once! Check out some of my favorite picks below.

• Breakfast - Santa Heirba serves delicious and colorful food in a relaxed space. The coffees and fresh-squeezed juices are served in ceramic dishes with abstract faces. Try the açaí bowl with bananas, strawberries, and cocoa nibs or the salmon toast with cucumbers, cream cheese, and capers.

• Lunch - Stop by Mercado 20 de Noviembre to sample some local dishes. Brad devoured a tlayuda, a large toasted tortilla with refried black beans, lettuce, Oaxaca cheese, and chorizo. Craving classic American lunch fare bursting with flavor? Make your way to Onnno Lonchería for the chicken Caesar salad or tangy BBQ pork sandwich.

• Dinner - My top Mexican dish in Oaxaca was at La Olla, which has a rooftop terrace with a hard-to-beat view. The chicken enchiladas with two moles were absolute perfection with its complex depth. The mezcal cocktails were also spot on. If you need a break from the moles (highly unlikely, but just in case), enjoy a filling ramen at Ramen-Ya by Kintaro. The provocative murals add a touch of flair.

Day Trips

Head out of the city to see natural beauty, ancient ruins, and charming towns. All of the attractions below can be reached by bike, car, or bus in 1.5 hours or less. Check out Lescas Company Tours for a variety of affordable tours; we really enjoyed our full-day Oaxaca Mágica excursion.

Árbol del Tule

Venture to the neighboring town of Santa María del Tule to see one of the oldest and biggest trees in the world. Many visitors see images of animals in the gnarled Montezuma cypress trunk. The Tree of Life is approximately 3,000 years old and measures 46.1 feet in diameter!

We opted to rent bikes for the day at Mundo Ceiba A.C. for $100 pesos ($5 USD) per person. A designated bike path starts just outside the centro and makes for a hassle-free 12-mile roundtrip journey.

TIP: Don't forget to inspect the bikes, especially the tire pressure, before you depart. An ID will be required for collateral.

Monte Albán

The pre-Colombian city of Monte Albán was founded in 500 BC, by the Zapotec people. The picturesque site rests on the summit of a mountain range overlooking several valleys. Walk along the complex to see grand plazas, temples, pyramids, ball courts, and an astronomical observatory.

Highlights include the underground tombs and stone carved monuments known as Danzantes, or dancers. Archaeologists believe the carved naked men are war captives in a state of agonizing torture to reinforce the superiority of the Zapotecs.

The ruins are only 6 miles southwest from Oaxaca. An hourly roundtrip bus is available for $90 pesos ($4.50 USD) per person via Autobuses Turísticos. Taxis also make the journey if you desire a private transport. Allow at least 2-3 hours for your visit.

Hierve el Agua

The switchbacks to reach this natural wonder are not for the faint of heart. I was white-knuckling my seat as our tour van traversed the valleys and mountains to reach Hierve el Agua. Hang on tight and don't look down if you're afraid of heights!

Once you've made it to the top, you have two options. Head straight to the relaxing mineral pools or take a hike to see the calcified waterfall-like rock formations. If you have at least two hours, I recommend doing the hike first and finishing with a refreshing dip. The scenic landscape will make your heart skip a beat!

TIP: Bathrooms and food vendors are available. Use caution as you enter the pools since some areas are deep with rough rocks.

San Pablo Villa de Mitla

This town is known for its weaving and embroidery workshops which vary in quality and style. A small number of families still use traditional methods including hand-spun wool and natural dyes. I was most impressed by the skill of the weavers who recall patterns from memory as they operate shuttle looms with foot pedals and treadles.

Many textiles incorporate Zapotec geometric designs found in the adjacent ancient religious center of Mitla, which was founded in 100 AD. Precision cut stone pieces were interlaid together without mortar to cover walls of the complex. The unique patterns are not found anywhere else in Mesoamerica and most of their meanings remain a mystery.

Final Thoughts

Oaxaca definitely lives up to its reputation. The food, attractions, and inviting atmosphere make you feel like an active participant in the culture. Brad and I truly felt connected to the enchanting city during our two-week stay.

The abundant street art was a memorable highlight. We were on a mission to find as many murals as we could as we explored the quaint avenues. The skeleton-inspired works were my favorite!

If you are looking to visit Oaxaca, consider making a trip during the beginning of November for the annual Day of the Dead festival. Oaxaca and Mexico City are some of the best spots to celebrate the holiday.