Coming to Oaxaca is like falling in love; you walk the streets and feel as though you’ve found a part of yourself here amidst the Sierra Madre mountains and cobblestone streets of the Old City. At once immediately familiar–like recognizing yourself in another–but exhilarating like love.
Oaxaca is located in Southern Mexico and is known for its indigenous culture, which remains remarkably intact when compared to other states in the country. Oaxaca is an odd juxtaposition–both one of the poorest states in Mexico yet richest in terms of its local cuisine, crafts and heritage. Hazy mountains rise in the distance, colorful streets extend in every direction, music plays, people dance and irresistible smells from local food markets fill your nose. Hemingway might have once called Paris “the moveable feast” but perhaps he never set foot in Oaxaca, never tasted how five simple ingredients can taste more complex, fresh and memorable than any gourmet dish served up by a Michelin-star chef.
I am traveling in Oaxaca with two local photographers from Mexico City–Samantha and Bernie–who are the sort of harmonious, artistic-type couple that draws envy. Samantha and Bernie founded Cantimplora Travel–a brand new travel company inspired by their love of Mexico and desire to take travelers off-the-beaten-path. Cantimplora Travel is founded on the idea of having professional photographers snap photos of you during the trip (given to you each morning) so you can put your camera, GoPro, iPhone and iPad down and simply enjoy the moment. It’s a radical and welcoming idea at a time when self-documentation has run amok and travel is all too often measured in the number of likes and comments we get on social media.
I met with a local mezcal farmer, experienced a traditional “temascal” with an Oaxaca shaman, explored the delicious streets of the Tlacolula market, surfed at the picturesque Zipolite and did so without a screen in front of my eyes. I lived in the moment, I connected with the destination, I found inspiration and in the end, I still got the photos. There are countless reasons to visit the state of Oaxaca–whether you’re a foodie or thrill seeker–here are 6 reasons to book this trip immediately!
1. A Stay in Oaxaca City
Oaxaca City is hailed as the culinary capital of the state and one of Mexico’s most captivating places. Colorful buildings line cobblestone streets, mountains rise in the distance, music pours out from windows and every corner seems to promise a better meal than the last. Oaxaca City is surrounded by archeological sites and villages and seems to sit right on the pulse of Oaxaca’s popular indigenous culture. The Zócalo Square in Oaxaca City is the main hub of activity and where you’ll find markets, artisans, rallies and local events unfolding on a daily basis.
Where to Stay
I recommend staying at the charming Hotel Azul in the heart of Oaxaca City. The hotel is walking distance from the main Zócalo Square and offers a private courtyard for hotel guests, rooftop access to watch the sunrise and sunset over the city and excellent cooking (go for the morning tacos!).
2. A Taste of True Local Mezcal
Mezcal comes from the agave plant, which—upon flowering—is then harvested and let to sit for a year until the base of the plant becomes fat and bulbous (otherwise known as maguey). Once the plant is ready, the maguey is burnt for eight days , which gives mezcal that irresistible smoky flavor it has come to be known by. The burnt plant is then crushed into a pulp before it is fermented for up to 15 days and then distilled for 24 hours. When done correctly, the entire traditional process of making mezcal—from the agave plant being picked to the drink touching your lips—can take well over a year! Mezcal is more than a drink in Oaxaca, it is a religion of sorts that is savored and respected; the best way to embrace the culture of mezcal is to go to the source and visit a mezcal farm.
Where to Go
I was introduced to local mezcal farmer, Alberto Martinez, by Samantha and Bernie of Cantimplora Travel who have made it their mission to help Alberto’s artisan drink become a household name. If traveling with Cantimplora Travel, you’ll be able to meet Alberto, visit the sights of Oaxaca and be happy knowing that a percentage of proceeds from trip bookings go towards helping Alberto!
3. A Visit to the Natural Wonder of Hierve el Agua
Hierve el Agua is a little over an hour from Oaxaca City and is a sight to behold! A set of rock formations that look like cascading waterfalls, Hierve el Agua is a popular spot to visit for hiking, photo opportunities and wading in the natural spring pools that have uninterrupted views of the surrounding mountains. The reason for Hierve el Agua’s natural wonder is the fresh springs whose calcium-carbonate rich water creates mineral deposits as the water goes over the cliff—creating the incredible formations seen today.
Tips to Keep in Mind
Hiking in Hierve el Agua can be a hard hike so prepare yourself! Bring plenty of water, comfortable shoes, sunscreen, a hat and get ready to climb up and down hills. The payoff? Your hike will end right at the spring pools so you can strip off your clothes and take a refreshing dip before grabbing some cold coconut water and a bite nearby. Or–if hiking is not your thing—you can go straight to the spring pools and soak up the view and sun.
4. The Mercado Tlacolula
Every Sunday in the town of Tlacolula, one of the largest and oldest markets in Oaxaca takes place. The streets of Tlacolula shut down, the air fills with the irresistible smells of barbacoa and other delectable bites as locals from near and far come to town for their Sunday shopping. Perhaps one of my favorite experiences in Oaxaca, the Tlacolula market captures your senses and whips them into an absolute frenzy. The brightest fruits you may ever see are laid out with care, baskets of crunchy crickets (known here as Chapulines) sit beside tables of homemade mezcal.
Further, into the market, you find the meat–rows upon rows of butchers chopping, cooking and serving simple meals packed with rich flavor. A visit to the Tlacolula market is to realize why Oaxaca is known as the foodie destination of Mexico–the pretension of white-clothed tables and Michelin-star ratings doesn’t matter in Tlacolula where some of the best meals are served at the hands of hard-working Oaxacans paying homage to the traditional way of doing things.
5. Step into the Dream of the Taller Jacobo y Maria Angeles
Jacobo Angeles is a Mexican artist who founded–along with his wife, Maria–the Taller Jacobo y Maria Angeles in Oaxaca. Oaxaca is known for its indigenous crafts and culture and a visit to the Taller Jacobo y Maria Angeles shows the tradition, love, and skill that goes into every brightly-colored figurine.
At Taller Jacobo y Maria Angeles, soft copal wood is used for expertly carving animal figures that weigh heavy with symbolism. Every detail–the swirl of a paint brush, the inclusion of a human face—is representative of Zapotec designs and beliefs. For example, Jacobo’s art reflects the belief that humans can resemble animals and take on their personalities, so these nahuals are wildly popular. My Zapotec animal? It seems I am a “healing owl” and I am now the proud owner of a mini Zapotec figurine.
6. Escape to the Beaches of Zipolite
On the coast of Oaxaca—about an hour outside of Puerto Escondido–is the sleepy, ex-pat community of Zipolite. Zipolite is the destination one imagines when they daydream about “throwing it all away” to go live on a beach. French, Canadians, Germans and the like have come to this corner of Mexico to set up cafes, hotels, shops, teach surfing and live out their days amidst the swaying palms and crashing waves of the beach.
Where to Stay
If headed to Zipolite, consider a stay at El Alquimista–one of the better accommodation options to stay at that is right on the beach. Be fair warned though, Zipolite is very European and therefore nudity is frequent on its beaches. The reason to stay at Zipolite over the tourist attraction of Puerto Escondido is to escape the crowds, towering hotels and busy streets that can often eclipse a destination.
*Thank you to Cantimplora Travel for inviting me to travel with them and experience Oaxaca! As always, all opinions shared here are my own.