29 Mar Perfect Day Trips From Oaxaca City
Day trips from Oaxaca are a great way to get to know the city and state a little bit better. Beyond the colorful sights and savory smells of Oaxaca City (not to mention the abundant brain candy in Oaxaca’s museums), there are ample choices to explore, like ancient ruins with Zapotec stories, natural wonders, a unique eco-inspired art center in a picturesque town, and many tiny eco-villages nestled in the verdant wild of Oaxaca’s portion of the Sierra Juarez mountain range. You won’t want to miss exploring some of the fantastic day trips from Oaxaca!
But before we dive in, you may be wondering, Why Oaxaca?
Prior to visiting Oaxaca, I had been hearing about it for a long time. It seemed to constantly crop up when Mexico was mentioned. Most often cited reasons for it being a topic of conversation were its internationally acclaimed gastronomy (considered one of the best worldwide), it’s vibrant cultural diversity, and the bohemian renaissance that was happening there.
As you may already know, Mexico’s states are extremely varied, much like the states of the US. Among them, Oaxaca is one of the most internationally recognized. Likely their culinary traditions and innovations placed them on the map for outsiders. But within Mexico (and in circles interested in culture), they are quite famous for the depth and breadth of their culture. Twenty-two languages are spoken in the state, and the indigenous communities maintain centuries-old traditions in gastronomy, textiles, herbal medicine and customs. Community-owned and managed land is common.
While several indigenous groups exist in this area, many people are interested in Oaxaca because of the mighty Zapotec empire that left archaeological ruins in the area. The history of this advanced culture is fascinating and much of it has been preserved in Monte Alban, Mitla and Oaxaca’s museums.
Oaxaca is also the home of indigenous resistance. Protests and strikes happen with regularity; people are willing to push back against human rights abuses and corrupt policies or officials, something rarely seen elsewhere in Mexico. In Oaxaca, it takes the form of prolific street art, lithograph prints pasted in popular areas of the city with direct, powerful messages.
Hierve el Agua should be known as one of the wonders of the natural world. It’s 40 meter tall mineralized stone waterfall, brings visitors around the world to witness it’s majesty in person. Massive, and seemingly frozen in time, the waterfall is fed by cool mineral bathing pools spilling over the edge where they seem to disappear as the waterfall stands still. Hiking trails and resting areas around the “falls” offer spectacular views, nearly 360 degrees of them, overlooking the famous Oaxacan valley below.
This popular destination, about an hour and a half outside of Oaxaca city, is best seen in the morning, before about 10am, when most tourists arrive. Relax and refresh in the crater pools. One has a natural infinity edge, looking over the valley below. Experience the view from atop the surreal waterfall, permanently frozen, mid-tumble off the cliff ledge. From the hiking trails below, you can feel the mist.
Delicious food and drinks are available here too, like tlayudas (giant crunchy quesadillas topped with varying ingredients inside) and piñas locas (an alcoholic or virgin bevie made inside a pineapple with fresh fruit and chile). Getting there is totally do-able with or without a car. Read more about this epic destination, what to expect and how to get there (plus see some beautiful photos) by clicking here.
Mysterious Mitla, the Zapotec portal to the afterlife, is a unique archeological destination. Though small, it has a fascinating history as an ancient religious center, once believed to carry the most devout spiritual leaders to the underworld. Later, it functioned as the capital of the Zapotec’s governmental activities. And later still, the Spanish conquest decimated the existing structures and built their own church directly on top of the site, leaving it as half Zapotec ruin and half Spanish colonial church, blurring the line between cultural indoctrination and spiritual colonialism. Its bizarre appearance and its history, make this a very interesting site to explore.
Mitla is also famous for its local textiles, woven by hand on a large wooden loom. Many shops in town sell these traditional textiles, as well as embroidery from other areas of Oaxaca. There is a large market just outside of the archeological site which also sells them.
Mitla is about 45 minutes outside of Oaxaca City, halfway between Oaxaca and Hierve el Agua. An ideal trip (in my opinion) would be to leave Oaxaca city early and go directly to Hierve el Agua, enjoy the site for a few hours and then stop in Mitla on the way back for lunch, textile admiration and a visit to the ruins.
Want to read more about Mitla’s sacred ruins? Click here for details, like how to get there on public transport.
Monte Alban, the impressive capital city of the Zapotec empire, is a sight to behold. The mighty maze will impress even the most seasoned archaeologist. Seemingly never ending, the mountaintop ruins boast a particularly advantageous view of the valleys that surround them. Enormous structures conjure up images of a time when the Zapotec people, and later Mixtec, held great power.
The history, cultural importance and natural beauty of Monte Alban is astounding. Don’t miss the informative and interesting museum inside, filled with Zapotec and Mixtec artifacts. Only a few minutes outside of the city, about 15 or so, the archeological site is a perfect last minute decision or half-day plan when you have something else you’d like to do in the city. Be forewarned though, the sun is intense! Sunscreen, a hat, and water are all highly recommended.
Another one of the fantastic day trips from Oaxaca is San Agustin Etla and CaSa. About 45 minutes outside of Oaxaca city, sits the beautiful town of San Agustin Etla. Full of cool trickling streams and waterfalls, the lush greens mountainside village is a welcome change to the arid city and its surrounding areas.
Here, you’ll find the first ecological art center in Latin America, CaSa, Centro de Las Artes San Agustin. CaSa’s grounds are extensive with gorgeous verdant mountain views, a water feature that creates waterfalls in the bathrooms coming from a man-made pond above, and an iconic red clay cubic stairway leading to a secret garden.
Famous Oaxacan artist, Francisco Toledo, was central in its creation. Beyond its exhibition spaces, it has workshops and a variety of unique spaces dedicated to eco-friendly artistic processes. Read our blog on San Agustin Etla to learn more, including how to best get there.
We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the small eco-villages, tucked away in Oaxaca’s temperate and sub-tropical forests. 1-2 hours outside of the city, these villages offer great outdoor opportunities, like hiking, cycling and camping, and also provide a unique cultural exchange while benefiting the villages’ economies and nature conservation efforts.
The Pueblos Mancomunados consist of 13 eco-villages. The Rainforest Alliance named them a sustainable tourism destination, and they’ve won the sustainability award and modernizing ecotourism award by the Secretary of Tourism. Expediciones Sierra Norte and Sierra Juarez Ecotourism are the two official tour guides for this region, although the communities work together, volunteering much of their effort and resources to take care of the land and maintain themselves. It’s inspiring to see this model of community management and how respectfully they take care of their villages and surrounding natural resources.
We’ve spent time in two of them, Benito Juarez and Jaltianguis, and loved them both. Want to know about the Pueblos Mancomunados? As we explore more of them, we’ll craft a blog specifically about each one and what we loved. ‘Till then, read my story from a visit to Benito Juarez.
Commonly known as “Arrazola“, the town is famous for a particular type of art, the alebrije. Birthed in the dream space of woodworker and artist Manuel Jimenez, the alebrije appeared in the form of fantastic imaginary animals. Traditionally carved from copal wood and painted in vibrant colors, the alebrije born of a dream has become representative for an entire people.
The town has dedicated itself to the creation of these artworks. While visiting, you can go into workshops and see artists at work, even pick out your ideal design. San Antonio Arrazola is about 10 km from the road to Zaachila, close to Monte Alban.
These are my favorite day trips from Oaxaca, but don’t underestimate this incredibly diverse state! It has such diverse culture, terrain, gastronomy and traditions just a little farther afield. Oaxaca city and it’s surrounding areas are only one part. Interested in exploring more of the state? Coming soon: take a look at our blog about the magic of Oaxaca, discussing their western beaches and relatively unknown eastern jungle lowlands, full of pristine waterfalls and rivers.
Have stories about day trips from Oaxaca? We’d love to hear them! Please share your experiences in the comments below. Additionally, any and all questions are welcome.