October 22, 2023
Coming from freezing (read: 8c Celsius) Mexico City, disembarking the plane into the dry Oaxacan desert was a welcome change for someone who didn’t pack jeans.
Getting the 6am flight from Mexico City meant that we arrived by 7:30am, with the whole day stretching ahead of us to explore. With instructions to head to Boulenc, we headed off through the streets, bags embarrassingly in tow – one element we hadn’t considered in our early morning arrival. A strong flat white (!!) and a delicious breakfast of black beans on rustic bread, with sour cream, salsa and mole later, we were ready to wander. Note: If you’re heading to Boulenc, make sure you go early and be prepared to wait – we got there just after opening and the benches at the entrance were full of other travelers waiting for a table.
Even with no plan and no knowledge of Oaxaca, just walking around the streets is a perfectly acceptable way to spend the day. Street art sprawls across colourful buildings, piñatas hang through the laneways and handicrafts are everywhere. Known for its incredibly skilled artisans, we found ourselves constantly stopping to flick through linocut artworks – a signature of the area – and duck into galleries and cafes laden with handmade pottery to sip steaming spiced hot chocolate from.
Absolutely make some time to explore the Mercado Benito Juárez and Mercado 20 de Noviembre markets, which offer up an array of items from food to party supplies, herbs to trinkets. If you are on a more targeted shopping mission, there is the Mercado de Artesanías handicraft market the block over which we also picked up some (more) embroidered things at. It’s hard to resist when everything is so beautiful, well-crafted and so different from the offerings at home!
I’m not going to recommend a place to stay in Oaxaca, because we weren’t overly enamoured with our very basic Airbnb. I would however recommend that you stay in walking distance to the old town, as we always felt safe walking around, and it eliminated the need for too many taxis.
One benefit of our accomodation was the excellent seafood-focused restaurant next door, Humar, that we actually ended up visiting two nights in a row. I’m quite sure that the combination of lightly battered fish tacos, perfectly seasoned squid and an ice-cold Pacifico is a holy trinity somewhere.
Also around the corner was a hole-in-the-wall patisserie, offering up pillowy pastries and strong coffee. The Google Maps link is here, as it’s called Cafe Oaxaca, which makes finding things via the internet a little bit confusing.
A tour to the petrified waterfalls – Hierve el Agua – is a must-do while you’re in Oaxaca. While we did read various methods online about visiting yourself (as the idea of joining with hordes of tourists at peak hour on a tour is always the least appealing option), we ended up booking an experience through Airbnb (the exact one is here). I can’t recommend it enough.
You start the day with the drive through the mountains, before stopping at a home in the village near the waterfalls for a traditional breakfast cooked over flames. This was probably my highlight of the day – while we expected breakfast, this experience felt so authentic and it was nice to be supporting a family in the village (plus, it was absolutely delicious).
We then progressed to the waterfalls for a very manageable hike, followed by a dip in the mineral-rich water while taking in the surreal view over the hazy valleys. It is difficult to describe Hierve el Agua – it is so otherworldly, and unlike any other place I have visited. While absolutely a tourist attraction, in my opinion it is for a reason. Luckily the timing of our tour meant that we got to enjoy it before too many people started to arrive.
Knowing we were going to be driving for a decent chunk of time following this, we took advantage of the tourist stalls that had opened up at the entrance during the time that we were visiting the waterfalls – and it was here that we experienced a true Mexican icon: the Michelada. Picture this: a supersized plastic cup (enough to hold two Mexican lagers of your choice), filled with the aforementioned lagers of your choice mixed with Bloody-Mary-esque ingredients like tomato juice and spices, lime and rimmed with spicy Taijin. Paired with a quesadilla for the road, you’re sorted. 10/10, would recommend.
Following the Herve el Agua visit, the tour drove through to another town of Teotitlán del Valle. Another area known for its handicrafts, it was hand-loomed rugs in particular that we saw made and it was such a wholesome and heartwarming experience to see the passion for dyeing and weaving that the family of artisans had. While there was absolutely an opportunity to purchase something to take home (and that we did), it didn’t feel like a gimmicky tourist trap. It was just a really nice experience. To round out the tour, we of course visited a local mezcal producer which was good to do however perhaps wasted on Jordie and I, with our inexperienced and not-mezcal-loving palates.
If you’re keen to visit the archaeological ruins of Monte Albán, which you really should, book a taxi to take you up there at 9am. We actually got there 30 minutes before it opened and had to walk the last little bit but it was amazing to have the whole thing to ourselves. For me, it’s incomprehensible to be wandering around ruins so old, and it was nice and cool before the heat of the day kicked in. As we were leaving, the line of tourists waiting for entry was far longer than when we arrived, so getting there on opening is absolutely worth it. We just booked a taxi the night prior while we were walking through town.
Speaking of walking through town, the same evening we came across an elotes stall setting up for the night. It had already attracted a few people in line, so it seemed a good time to jump in and see what the fuss was about. As we waited, our line-neighbours informed us that the same cart had been featured on a Netflix street food special about Oaxaca. Watching the lady pour kernels of corn into a polystyrene cup, cover it with an unidentified soupy sauce and then cheese was one of those moments when I was wondering if I was about to regret the last 30 minutes in line. Alas, our time was not wasted, and I can safely say that it was the most delicious cup of corn I’d ever had. We snacked on this as we wandered around the main square, which develops a party atmosphere and gathers a crowd of all ages well before the sun sets.
On our final day, we had time to kill and I had two things on my list that I didn’t know if we would make it to. The first: visiting Casa Viviana, the home of the renowned traditional candle maker and her family. On a whim, we hailed a taxi in the centre of town and made our way back past Titelan de Valle (yep, the rug town). Winding down side streets and arriving to a locked steel gate, we were crestfallen. However, at the urging of our taxi driver to knock, we did, and luckily got to take a look at how the candles were made by Viviana and her family.
On our way back, we stopped in at another place that had been on my dream ‘to visit’ list for a while, Texere. A textile space that hosts artist residencies, it also has an attached shop showcasing textiles collected from around the world. We just stopped in to take a look, and it was so nice to be shown around the beautiful compound that resident and visiting artisans create from.
There is so much to do in Oaxaca and in three nights, we only just scratched the surface. However, it was a great amount of time to explore such a unique and beautiful place – the perfect taster for a return trip sometime in the future.