I love Mexico, but let’s be honest, many of its cities are not going to be nominated for aesthetic awards any time soon. Mexico city, while vibrant, energetic, and exciting, is also polluted, overcrowded, and generally ugly. Additionally, many of Mexico’s coastal cities (like Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, and Cabo San Lucas) are tourist traps devoid of authenticity and beauty.
Luckily, there are exceptions. Take, for example, one of Mexico’s over one hundred ‘pueblos magicos‘– a designation created by the Mexican Secretariat of Tourism to highlight some of Mexico’s most charming, often overlooked towns.
While the city of Oaxaca de Juárez is too big to make it on that list, it shares many of the characteristics of the smaller pueblos: a rich culinary scene, and strong indigenous culture, beautifully preserved colonial architecture.
It was love at first site when I first visited the small southern Mexico city of Oaxaca (pronounced ‘wuh-ha-kuh’).
Downtown is mostly composed of charming and well-preserved buildings, the highlight of which is the very handsome Templo Santo Domingo. Coming off this Dominican Temple is the foot traffic only Alcala or walking street. The rest of downtown is also quite walkable, with many one way streets and wider-than-average sidewalks.
Oaxaca City’s walkability leads me to my next favorite thing about it and the second of our five reasons to visit: the food.
For such a small city, downtown Oaxaca is full of a high density of high caliber restaurants. The gamut ranges from delicious street food style tacos and tlayudas, to set course meals in modern, desert-inspired architecture.
I lived in Oaxaca for two months in 2016, and I’m not ashamed to say I spent most of that time time eating my way through the city’s many restaurants and taco stands.
The food options are delicious, abundant, and varied.
There are the novelty food items that you’ll probably only have once (if ever). Items like chapulines: grasshoppers toasted on the comal with garlic, lime, and chile, and salt. Then there are other local fixtures that, while equally strange, are really quite good. Take tejate, for instance. This maize and cacao pre-hispanic beverage is surprisingly good.
Besides other culinary novelties like quesillo (Mexican mozarella), tlayudas (Oaxacan quesadilla), and tesajo (a thin, salty steak), Oaxaca abounds in an overall high level of cuisine. There are a great number of high caliber eateries ensuring one doesn’t have to walk far to find a good meal in Oaxaca.
For instance, even though Mexico City is renowned for its al pastor, the best pineapple pork tacos I’ve ever had are at a hole-in-the-wall taqueria called Tacomer in downtown Oaxaca.
On the higher end, I always make sure to visit the beautifully designed and always on point Criollo–a six course set meal affair that is worth every penny of it’s very reasonable $50 price.
All this is to say that if, like me, you like to let your stomach guide you, Oaxaca is a great place to be.
Oaxaca’s excellent culinary options are but one example of its other great feature: the vibrant and unique culture.
As the largest urban area in Southern Mexico’s Oaxaca state, the city is a colorful blend of surrounding Zapotec and Mixtec indigenous cultures.
Don’t be surprised if, when walking back to your hotel from another amazing dinner, you happen upon a costumed parade of women twirling their skirts to the lively sounds of a full brass band. These frequent impromptu celebrations are a big part of Oaxaca’s charm. They belie a deeper fact about culture in this part of Mexico: the people here have a zest for life, and they take every opportunity to celebrate the fact.
If you’ve ever wanted to experience this awesome pre-hispanic Mexican holiday, Oaxaca is the place to do it.
During this period (October 31 – November 2), the city is decorated with many alters or ofrendas for the dead. Many of the local schools and social organizations hold competitions for who can create the best ofrenda. These beautiful alters are full of local specialties like mole negro and marigold.
In addition to the ofrendas there are also beautiful sand tapestries strewn throughout the city–beautiful depictions of saints made out of sand that are later swept up and poured on the grave of deceased family members.
The markets are also full of the things everyone needs for Dia De Los Muertos during this time of year, making it an all around great time to visit.
If you’re an American, the good news is you can experience all these things and more with the ease and convenience of its relative proximity.
As someone who has taken many red eye, multi-day flights, I like the fact that I can board a plane to Mexico City in the morning and be enjoying a delicious dinner of mole negro for dinner the same day.
Of course, when it comes to air travel, proximity usually also means affordability, and flights to Oaxaca are also very reasonably priced.
That rounds out our list of the top five reasons to make a visit to Oaxaca de Juárez.
If you’d like to learn more, I’ve written a very handy pocket guide of everything you need to know before visiting Oaxaca for the first time. To receive the free pocket book guide to Oaxaca, just submit your name and email to the form below.
Also, our small group travel company runs two trips to Oaxaca annually, one in the spring and one during Day of The Dead. If you’re interested in learning more, be sure to check out our Oaxaca destination page.
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