The state of Oaxaca is one of the most enticing destinations in Mexico. Indigenous traditions remain powerful in this area and nowhere else in the country are the markets so infused with colour or the fiestas so exuberant. The old languages are still widely spoken, and there are traditions in the villages that long pre-date the Spanish Conquest. Here too the landscapes make a fundamental break with the barren deserts of the north, replaced by thickly forested hillsides, or in low-lying areas by swamp and jungle.
The striking differences of the region are compounded by the relative lack of development. Industry is virtually nonexistent, and while the city of Oaxaca and several coastal hot spots such as Puerto Escondido have thrived on tourism, the rest of the state is woefully underdeveloped – the “Mexican economic miracle” has yet to reach the south. Indeed, the region has witnessed considerable political disturbance in recent years. In autumn 2006 the political situation reached its nadir when striking teachers clashed with riot police in a dispute that had begun over wages and mushroomed into protests over the alleged corruption of state governor Ulises Ruíz Ortíz.
The city of Oaxaca is the region’s prime destination, close enough to Mexico City to attract large numbers of tourists to its fine crafts stores, markets, seemingly constant fiestas, cobbled, gallery-lined walkways and sophisticated restaurants. Here you can see one of the region’s – and the whole of Latin America’s – most magnificent Baroque churches, notably Santo Domingo, which fuses Spanish and native influences to spectacular effect. Nearby, the Zapotec and Mixtec ancient sites at Monte Albán, Yagul and Mitla are less well known than their contemporaries in central and eastern Mexico, but every bit as important and impressive.
The Pacific resorts of Puerto Escondido, Puerto Ángel and Huatulco are now firmly on the map and are easily reached from the city, though their reputation for being unspoiled beach paradises is no longer justified – Escondido in particular is a resort of some size, and Huatulco, conceived as an environmentally conscious international development, is a characterless resort with an artificial Mexican flavour. Yet along this coast you’ll discover some of the emptiest and best Pacific beaches in Mexico, including tranquil Mazunte, accessible from the main centres. The resorts are all around 250km from Oaxaca city, reached via spectacular mountain roads that take a minimum of six hours to traverse. The highway robberies that once plagued this part of Mexico are largely a thing of the past – increased security makes bus travel safe – but it’s still advisable to avoid driving at night. Many people prefer to fly down, either from Oaxaca to Escondido – an experience in itself – or direct from Mexico City to Escondido or Huatulco.
The fastest route to Oaxaca from Mexico City is the 465-kilometre toll-road Hwy-135, which links to the Mexico City–Puebla–Córdoba autopista and takes only five hours. On the way you can stop at the spa town of Tehuacán or explore the Mixteca, one of the state’s most intriguing regions and home to some of the finest colonial buildings in the country.
To reach Oaxaca from Acapulco, it’s probably quickest to go through Mexico City, though there are frequent buses down the Pacific coast to Puerto Escondido or Pochutla, the service town for Puerto Ángel. However, if you are travelling along the Pacific coast, it seems a pity to miss out on the region’s excellent beaches just to get to Oaxaca quickly.Read More
Market days in the villages around Oaxaca
Market days in the villages around Oaxaca
Despite Oaxaca’s many craft stores, if it’s quality you’re after, or if you intend to buy in quantity, visiting the villages from which the goods originate is usually a far better, cheaper bet. Each has a different speciality (rugs in Teotitlán del Valle, or black pottery in San Bartolo Coyotepec, for example), and many have their own market each week. At these you will be able to see the craftspeople in action and you may be able to have your own design made up; quite apart from all that, a village market is an experience in itself.
Miahuatlan: mescal, bread, leather. Ixtlan de Juárez: flowers, produce.
Santa Ana del Valle: rugs. Santa Maria Atzompa: pottery.
Etla: cheese, flowers.
Zaachila: meat, nuts. Ejutla: mescal, embroidered blouses.
Ocotlán: flowers, meat, pottery, textiles.
Oaxaca: everything. Tlaxiaco: leather goods, blankets, aguardiente (the local firewater), baskets.
Tlacolula: mescal, ceramics, rugs, crafts.
Staying in local communities around Oaxaca
Staying in local communities around Oaxaca
Indigenous communities in the mountains and valleys of Oaxaca have been developing their ecotourism potential since the 1990s, when the Tourist Yú’ù (pronounced YOU) – Zapotec for “house” – programme was established. These small, self-contained cabañas ecoturísticas were designed to bring income to the local villages while minimizing the disruptive effects of mass tourism. These days many villages organize tours (from hiking and fishing to adventure sports and horseriding) and some sort of “community lodging”, from homestays to simple but comfy cabins usually arranged through a Comité local de Ecoturismo. Either type of accommodation makes a convenient and economical base for exploring the villages and archeological sites of Oaxaca state. Many communities have particular handicraft traditions, such as carpet-weaving, wickerwork or pottery; others have museums devoted to local archeological finds and the life of the villagers.
The best place for information and reservations – ideally made a few days in advance, especially for the more accessible sites – is Oaxaca’s tourist offices at Independencia 607 or Juárez 703. For the Sierra Norte and the Pueblos Mancomunados, contact Expediciones Sierra Norte, which coordinates all the local community programmes in that area. For Ixtlán, contact Ecoturixtlán directly. Note that the Tourist Yú’ù in Teotitlán del Valle and Tlacolula are now closed.
Cabins usually cost M$140–450, depending on how many people are sharing, with a bedroom, a fully equipped kitchen and outside shower and toilets (which can also be used by people camping in the grounds). Campers pay around M$45.
New Year’s Day
(Jan 1). Celebrated everywhere, but particularly good in Oaxaca and Mitla.
Día de San Sebastián
(Jan 20). Big in Tehuantepec.
Día de la Candelaria
(Feb 2). Colourful Indian celebrations in Santa María del Tule.
(the week before Lent; variable Feb–March). At its most frenzied in the big cities – especially Oaxaca – but also celebrated in hundreds of villages in the area.
Día de San Isidro
(May 15). Peasant celebrations everywhere – famous and picturesque fiestas in Juchitán.
Día de San Juan
(June 24). Falls in the midst of festivities (June 22–26) in Tehuantepec.
Fiesta de la Preciosa Sangre de Cristo
(first Wed in July). Teotitlán del Valle, near Oaxaca, holds a festival with traditional dances and religious processions.
(last two Mon in July). In Oaxaca, a mixture of traditional dancing and rites on the Cerro del Fortín. Highly popular; tickets for the good seats are sold at the tourist office.
(Aug 13–16). Spectacular festivities in Juchitán (Vela de Agosto) and Tehuantepec (Fiesta del Barrio de Santa María Relatoca).
Fiesta de San Bartolomé
(Aug 24). In San Bartolo Coyotepec, near Oaxaca.
Blessing of the Animals
(Aug 31). In Oaxaca locals bring their beasts to the church of La Merced to be blessed.
Fiesta del Señor de la Natividad
(Sept 8). In Teotitlán del Valle.
(Sept 16). Celebrated everywhere.
Feria del Árbol
(second Mon in Oct). Based around the famous tree in Santa María del Tule.
Día de los Muertos
(Day of the Dead; Nov 2). Observed everywhere, with particularly strong traditions in Xoxocotlán and in Atzompa.
Día de la Inmaculada Concepción
(Dec 8). Observed widely. There are traditional dances in Juquilla, not far from Puerto Escondido, and Zacatepec, on the road inland from Pinotepa Nacional.
Fiesta de la Virgen de la Soledad
(Dec 18). Celebrations in Oaxaca in honour of the patroness of the state – expect fireworks, processions and music.
Fiesta de los Rabanos
(Radish Festival; Dec 23). There’s an exhibition of statues and scenes sculpted from radishes in Oaxaca.
(Dec 24). In Oaxaca there’s music, fireworks and processions before midnight Mass. Buñuelos – crisp pancakes that you eat before smashing the plate on which they are served – are dished up at street stalls.