The vibrant city of Oaxaca is known for being a place where ancient civilizations, diverse cultures, and mouthwatering cuisine converge into a mesmerizing mosaic of experiences. Here’s a handy guide, written with love and a dash of picante, to give you a taste of what our city is famous for.
- TRAVELING TO OAXACA?
- 🚩 Top Tour Activity: Authentic Oaxaca Food Tour
- 🚌 Top Day Trip: Monte Albán
- 👍🏼 Region Intro: Hierve el Agua, Tule Tree, Mitla & Mezcal Distillery
What Is Oaxaca Known For?
Oaxaca is famous for its flavorful mole sauces, smokey mezcal, colorful celebrations like Dia de los Muertos, and vibrant Zapotec tapestries that reflect the deep-rooted artistic tradition. This remarkable region is a sensory overload in the best way possible – it’s not just a place to visit; it’s an experience to savor.
Oaxaca is known for its melting pot of rich history, vibrant culture, and delectable cuisine that leaves visitors captivated and yearning for more. Every turn is a gateway into a new world of flavors, colors, and stories. Be prepared for a myriad of experiences when you visit.
History Oaxaca Is Famous For
Zapotec And Mixtec Civilizations
Long before the Spanish stepped onto the Mexican shores, Oaxaca was home to the Zapotec and Mixtec civilizations. They built impressive city-states, like the archaeological site of Monte Albán.
UNESCO World Heritage Site is like a massive, open-air museum where every stone has a story to tell, and the panoramic views aren’t half bad either.
This hilltop archaeological wonder was once the Zapotec’s snazzy capital. Here, ancient temples, tombs, and glyphs narrate fascinating tales of the city’s pre-Colombian past. It almost feels like you’re on an Indiana Jones adventure as you roam around the ruins.
This is one of the amazing facts about Oaxaca for history buffs. The city’s got enough ancient history to rival your grandma’s attic. Many of the historical sites surrounding and within Oaxaca are worthy visits.
Hot tip – remember to wear comfortable shoes; the Zapotecs didn’t consider elevators when they designed the city! Consider packing a hat and sunscreen as well.
When the Spanish conquistadors showed up in the 16th century, they brought along their own building plans, and this was when Oaxaca’s historic center was born.
The region then became settled by mostly Spanish immigrants from Europe and the African slaves they brought with them. This new population mixed with the indigenous population and cultures, such as the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, resulting in the rich and complex tapestry of cultures today.
As such, you can explore many historic buildings and landmarks, which provide a glimpse into the region’s unique and fascinating past. Some feature the Baroque and Neoclassical styles that the Spanish brought along.
The star of the show is probably Santo Domingo, a grand 16th-century monastery that lies in the heart of Oaxaca. The beautifully preserved colonial architecture hints at our Spanish past. It is now a museum and cultural center that combines religious history with an extraordinary ethnobotanical garden.
Culture And Traditions Oaxaca Is Known For
If there’s one thing Oaxacans know how to do, it’s how to throw a fantastic fiesta! And the Guelaguetza Festival is one of the biggest parties of them all.
Every July, Oaxaca explodes in a riot of color, dance, and music during the Guelaguetza Festival. It’s our most cherished tradition, where indigenous communities come together to share their unique cultures. Imagine Mardi Gras, but with more folk dancing and less jazz.
This colorful celebration is all about the different regions of Oaxaca, showing off their unique traditions. You will find plenty of music, dance, and, of course, those mouthwatering Oaxacan foods. Not forgetting the beautiful traditional costumes on showcase!
The parades in Oaxaca are so vibrant that you will just find yourself shimmying along to the beat. This is a great time to visit if you want to witness this extravaganza for yourself.
Dia de Los Muertos (Day Of The Dead)
Wait what? A festival about death? While you might think it sounds kind of morbid, that’s not the case at all in Oaxaca.
Mexico is famous for the Day of the Dead, or Dia de Los Muertos, but many consider Oaxaca to be where the best celebration is at. As such, this becomes a peak tourist season in the city.
If you have watched the Disney animation “Coco,” you will know the general gist of the festival. And if you haven’t, we highly recommend that movie; so good!
Dia de Los Muertos, takes place at the end of October and beginning of November, and it’s all about remembering and celebrating loved ones who have passed away. But don’t imagine a somber event. Nope, think sugar skulls, marigold flowers, and candlelit altars piled high with offerings like tamales, chocolate, and mezcal (who wouldn’t want to come back from the afterlife for that?).
It’s a bit like Thanksgiving, but with more ancestors and fewer turkeys! Graveyards are transformed into lively places of celebration, filled with music, dancing, and storytelling. You might just find yourself having the time of your life… at a death festival.
Areas And Districts Oaxaca Is Famous For
Zócalo (Plaza de la Constitución de Oaxaca)
First off, here’s a helpful fact about Mexico; the term “Zocalo” often refers to the main square in any city. So if you are wondering where to start your exploration, it’s usually the easy place to begin.
You can use that generic term to communicate that to your taxi driver in all Mexican cities. In Oaxaca, the main square’s specific name is Plaza de la Constitución.
This is the prime place for people-watching and feeling the heartbeat of the city. Surrounded by charming colonial buildings, cafes, and a whole load of trees for you to lazily lounge under, it’s Oaxacan life in a neat little package.
You will find plenty of locals, especially retired folks hanging around here too. So grab a coffee, some Mexican snacks (don’t forget the churros!), and soak in the local bustle, or rather, local chill vibes. You will very likely see street musicians, mimes, balloon sellers, and maybe even political protesters.
Oaxaca’s Zócalo is situated in or near the Centro Historico, and this is easily a key highlight of the city.
With its cobbled streets, colorful houses, and, of course, that famous yellow Oaxaca Cathedral, it’s an Instagrammer’s dream. And it’s not just about the visuals, every cobblestone street tells a story.
Here, the stunning Spanish colonial buildings house quaint cafes, intriguing museums, and artisan shops. It’s where history meets hipster, and you won’t want to miss it. Make sure you have enough space on your phone or memory card for all the photos you are going to snap!
Want to get out of the city for a day of adventure? The beautifully preserved archaeological site of Mitla, about 40 km from the city, is a popular option.
This archaeological site was an important religious center of the Zapotec civilization. The name eerily translates to “Place of the Dead” in Nahuatl language. However, the place is less creepy and more captivating.
The intricate mosaic fretwork and red-and-white-striped pottery are seriously mindblowing. The detailed fretwork and geometric patterns in the buildings are like an ancient version of a brain teaser. And these were believed to have been created without any sort of cement or mortar.
Apart from the mesmerizing designs, one of the mysterious highlights here is the column of death in the burial chamber. There are many legends around it, many of which relate to your life span (I mean, this place is called the “underworld,” so that’s probably apt). One of which is that when you hug it, the distance between your hands determines how long you will live.
Landmarks And Architecture Oaxaca Is Known For
Templo de Santo Domingo
It’s no surprise that this temple is the key landmark in Oaxaca City. This baroque-style church is an architectural gem that features intricate gold leaf work that will leave you in awe.
There is more bling on this structure than your average rapper. We’re talking gold, gold, and, you guessed it, more gold.
Built in the 16th century, it’s chock-a-block with intricate sculptures and elaborate frescoes, all covered in a thick layer of golden paint. But it’s not all about the exterior glitz and glamor. Templo de Santo Domingo has seen its fair share of history, and you will find plenty of impressive art and frescos in the chapel.
Oaxaca Ethnobotanical Garden
Along with the impressive Santo Domingo Church, you will find the equally incredible Ethnobotanical Garden.
The garden exhibits hundreds of live plant species, many of which the locals have used for centuries for everything from food and medicine to building materials. As such, they are mainly native to Oaxaca and surrounding areas.
You can explore the garden’s different sections, which are organized by plant type and use. Some of the garden’s highlights include its collection of cacti and succulents, medicinal plants, and agave plants used for making mezcal.
And when it comes to history in Oaxaca, it’s hard to get any better than Monte Alban. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was the ancient capital of the Zapotec civilization. It’s relatively well preserved, which gives you insights into the life of ancient ones.
You will find remains of temples, tombs, and a ball court where losers really lost. It’s believed that sometimes the losing team gets sacrificed to the gods, so it’s serious business.
Needless to say, this is one of the famous historic landmarks in Mexico. The hike to the top of the Main Plaza is worth the effort, especially if you want to feel like you’re on top of the world or at least on top of Oaxaca. The reward is a 360-degree view of the valleys below.
While you’re soaking it all in, consider how these massive structures were all built without a crane or bulldozer. Mind blown!
Hierve el Agua
Now, if you want to know Mother Nature’s answer to an infinity pool, Hierve el Agua certainly fits the bill.
This is a set of stunning, petrified waterfalls that look like they’re cascading down the side of a mountain. Perched on a cliff’s edge, you’ll find natural mineral pools where you can kick back and enjoy a scenic soak with stunning views over the valleys.
Although the name translates to ‘The Water Boils’, the water isn’t actually boiling. In fact, the pools aren’t even heated. It’s a perfect spot for a refreshing dip. So don’t forget your swimsuit, or you’ll have to do it the way the ancient Zapotecs did… and let’s just say they weren’t big on tan lines. (But seriously, that’s probably going to be frowned upon if it’s even allowed. Nude bathing is just not in the current culture)
Food Oaxaca Is Known For
It’s a word you’ll hear a lot in Oaxaca, and trust me; you’re going to want to remember it. Because you sure want to at least sample, if not consistently, indulge in it. These complex sauces, each with a unique blend of ingredients, are the soul of Oaxacan cuisine.
Oaxaca is known for being “The Land Of Seven Moles,” and locals take this title seriously. You will find different moles, from red to black, each with its own unique charm. They are elegant, sophisticated, and downright impressive.
Mole Negro (Black), the most famous of the lot, is a delicious mix of over 30 ingredients, including chocolate, chilies, spices, fruits, and nuts. It’s sweet, it’s spicy, it’s smoky – like a rich and thick party in your mouth.
Drizzle it over chicken, pork, or your favorite veggies, and get ready for a flavor rollercoaster ride! We enjoyed the best ones in the local market, and they are super affordable. You can go back every day to try a different mole.
Mexico is famous for its tequilas, but you will be missing out if you sleep on the mezcal. This is a smokey, potent spirit that’s been produced in Oaxaca for centuries.
Made from the heart of the agave plant, this potent libation is an integral part of Oaxacan life. Remember the Spanish motto, “Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, también” (For everything bad, mezcal; for everything good, the same). It just means Mezcal for good or bad times.
This stuff has a real kick; it is meant to be savored, one slow sip at a time. One of the best things to do in Oaxaca is to visit a local distillery or hop on a Mezcal tasting tour around the best in the region.
Picture a giant, crispy tortilla loaded with beans, cheese, meat, salsa, and a rainbow of veggies – that’s tlayuda. If you think that sounds like pizza or a taco, you’re right. Tlayuda resembles a combination of those goodies, and it makes for a favorite late-night snack in Oaxaca.
This is a plate-sized fiesta of flavors. But be warned, the tlayuda is not a dish for the faint-hearted; it can be a big, hearty eat – but hey, you’re on vacation, right? That said, it is also great for sharing!
Now if you are looking for something sweet, Oaxacan chocolate is a must-try. To be honest, this isn’t your typical candy bar, but oh so good! It’s more of a hot, frothy, sip-able treat.
Oaxacan chocolate is a blend of cacao beans, sugar, cinnamon, and almonds that are ground into a paste and then whipped up with hot water. Similar to regular chocolates, there are variations of different sweetness levels.
You can, of course, get a ready-made cuppa, which feels like a warm, sweet hug in a mug. Or you can buy the chocolate bars so you can make them anytime you want! These make for great souvenirs as well.
And for the brave ones, you can try innovative ones with a dash of chili. Spicy chocolate can definitely be a new hype; it has an acquired but also rather addictive taste.
People Oaxaca Is Known For
The master craftsmen of the Oaxcan textile world have to be the Zapotec weavers. They’ve been honing their craft since ancient times and utilize traditional techniques passed down through generations. That includes using natural dyes made from local plants, insects, and minerals.
You’ll find these artisan geniuses in Teotitlán del Valle, a small village in Oaxaca, weaving the most gorgeous rugs, blankets, and tapestries you’ve ever laid eyes on.
The vibrant, intricate designs they create will make your grandma’s knitting circle green with envy. So if you are looking for a statement piece for your living room floor, this is where you might just find it!
On the other hand, you also have the creative minds behind Alebrijes, which are these fantastical, brightly painted mythical creatures. Some say they ward off evil spirits, but mainly they make pretty cool souvenirs!
The source of brilliance is none other than the artisans of San Martín Tilcajete. They craft a surreal world of dragons, armadillo-eagle hybrids, or psychedelic rabbits with their handy skills – it’s like a full-on fantasy menagerie. And each one comes with its own legend.
Every Alebrijes is hand-carved from copal wood and hand-painted with dizzying patterns and colors. If you’re not on the Alebrijes train yet, you want to check them out.
Discovering More Things Oaxaca Is Known For
When you think of Oaxaca, it’s not just about its fantastic gastronomy or its breathtaking natural beauty. It’s also about the warmth of the people, the richness of its culture, and the magic that’s woven into every tapestry and brewed into every bottle of Mezcal.
Oaxaca is known for many things, from the Zapotec weavers’ vibrant creations to the mythical Alebrijes that fill your imagination with color. Every corner of this Mexican gem has a story to tell.
This is a place that promises a feast for the senses and a treasure trove of experiences that will linger in your memory long after you’ve left its borders.