Oaxaca

Travel Guide North America Mexico Oaxaca

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Introduction

Oaxaca 1

Oaxaca 1

© Flav-Greg

Oaxaca is a state located in southern Mexico on the pacific coast just west of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. This area is the traditional home of the Zapotec and Mixtec people making this state contain more speakers of indigenous languages then any other Mexican state. Before the arrivals of the Europeans the Zapotec people controlled the area until they were conquered by the Mixtecs in the 13th century. These cultures developed very complex societies and built several fascinating temples, such as Monte Albán, Mitla, Guiengola and Huijatzoo. During the mid-fifteenth century the area was conquered by the Aztecs and in 1496 the Aztecs built a garrison in the area naming it Huāxyacac, which was later changed to Oaxaca by a Spanish miss understanding of the name.

After Cortez conquered the Aztec Empire, Oaxaca was given to him to govern as his reward. He quickly changed the valley with the introduction of new crops such as sugar cane and silk worms. Also diseases brought in by new settlers killed many natives. After the 1821 revolution Oaxaca remained an agriculture based economy, with very little heavy or light industry.

One of the most famous people in Mexican history, President Benito Juarez, was born and raised in a small village in Oaxaca. When he was elected into office in 1858 he was first full blooded indigenous national to serve as a head of state in all of the Americas in more then 300 years. Also many famous artists and writers have come from Oaxaca.

Today tourism is Oaxaca's main source of income. With over 250 kilometres (155 miles) of beaches, amazing colonial architecture, ancient ruins, crafts and stunning folk art, there is plenty to do in Oaxaca. The best time to visit is to catch one of the amazing local festivals.

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Geography

Hierve El Agua 4

Hierve El Agua 4

© Flav-Greg

The state is located in the south of Mexico, bordered by the states of Puebla, Veracruz, Chiapas and Guerrero with the Pacific Ocean to the south. It has a territory of 93,967 km2, accounting for less than 5% of Mexico's territory. Here several mountain chains come together, with the elevation varying from sea level to 3,759 metres averaging at 1,500 metres. Oaxaca has one of the most rugged terrains in Mexico, with mountain ranges that abruptly fall into the sea. Between these mountains are mostly narrow valleys, canyons and ravines. Major elevations in the state include Cempoaltepetl (3,396 metres) El Espinazo del Diablo, Nindú Naxinda Yucunino and Cerro Encantado. Oaxaca's has 533 kilometres of coastline with nine major bays.

The mountains are mostly formed by the convergence of the Sierra Madre del Sur, the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca and the Sierra Atravesada into what is called the Oaxaca Complex (Complejo Oaxaqueño). The Sierra Madre del Sur runs along the coast with an average width of 150 kilometres and a minimum height of 2,000 metres with peaks over 2,500 metres. In various regions the chain is locally known by other names, such as the Sierra de Miahuatlán and the Sierra de la Garza. The Sierra Madre de Oaxaca enters the state from the Puebla and Veracruz borders in the Tuxtepec region, running northwest to southeast towards the Central Valleys region, then onto the Tehuantepec area. Local names for parts of this range include Sierra de Tamazulapan, Sierra de Nochixtlan, Sierra de Huautla, Sierra de Juárez, Sierra de Ixtlan and others. Average altitude is 2,500 metres with peaks over 3,000 metres and width averages at about 75 kilometres. The Sierra Atravesada is a prolongation of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas. This range is not as high as the other two with an average elevation of just over 600 metres. Most of it is located in the Juchitán district running east-west.

The only valleys of any real size are the Central Valleys between Etla and Miahuatlan, which contains the city of Oaxaca. Smaller populated valleys include Nochixtlan, Nejapa, Cuicatlan and Tuxtepec. Small mesas contain population centers such as Putla, Juxtlahuaca, Tamazulapan, Zacatepec, Tlaxiaco and Huajuapan. The largest canyons in the state are those in the Cuicatlan area and include the Cortés, Galicia and María in the municipality of Tlaxiaco. There are a very large number of small canyons as well as ravines and arroyos of all sizes.

The mountainous terrain allows for no navigable rivers; instead, there are a large number of smaller ones, which often change name from area to area. The continental divide passes through the state, meaning that there is drainage towards both the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. Most of the drainage towards the Gulf is represented by the Papaloapan and Coatzacoalcos Rivers and their tributaries such as the Grande and Salado Rivers. Three rivers account for most of the water headed for the Pacific: the Mixteco, Atoyac and Tehuantepec Rivers with their tributaries. Other important rivers and streams include the Tequisistlán, Santo Domingo, Putla, Minas, Puxmetacán-Trinidad, La Arena, Cajonos, Tenango, Tonto, Huamelula, San Antonio, Ayutla, Joquila, Copalita, Calapa, Colotepec, Aguacatenango-Jaltepec, Los Perros, El Corte, Espíritu Santo, Sarabia, Ostuta, Petapa and Petlapa.

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Cities

With over 570 municipalities, more then any other state in Mexico, Oaxaca has a lot of cities and town.

  • Oaxaca (City) is the capital and largest city in the state. The city and its surrounding area is home to amazing villages, ruins, mountains and deserts. Also the city may be the best place in Mexico to experience traditional Spanish and Indigenous crafts, arts and food.
  • Tehuantepec is a smaller city that has some nice ruins near it.
  • San Pablo Villa de Mitla is home to some amazing ruins and an interesting blend of cultures.
  • Juchitán de Zaragoza is an interesting city that is the centre for Zapotec culture.
  • San Juan Bautista Tuxtepec is the second largest city in the state and has a nice Cathedral.
  • Salina Cruz is a major seaport.
  • Huatulco is a major resort and beach area along the coast of the state.
  • Puerto Escondido was only created in 1928, this beach has crystal clear waters. It is also home to some great surfing and one of the best nightlife's in all of Oaxaca.

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Sights and Activities

Ruins

Monte Albán,Oaxaca

Monte Albán,Oaxaca

© evelynez

  • Monte Albán is a large pre-Columbian archeological site that is one of the oldest cities in all of Mesoamerica, being founded in 500 BC. The city was abandoned by the 9th century although small scale re-habitation did happen over the next few centuries. Many of the later groups even used some of the tombs and temples again but for different purposes. The site is mainly on top of a hill and a good day trip from Oaxaca (City). In 1987 Monte Albán was made into a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Mitla was originally settled around 200 AD and has continued to have residents up to the present day. Although most of the town is built over pre-Conquistador Mitla, some of the original old palace complexes still exist. One of the most fascinating things to see is the unique geometric mosaics that characterize the buildings of Mitla.
  • Guiengola is a much later Zapotec site built after 1350 and 14 kilometres north of Tehuantepec. There are several tombs that were never looted located in this site.
  • Huijatzoo

Other Sights and Activities

  • Beaches here are a great place to hit up for some amazing coastline, surfing and relaxing.
  • Colonial Architecture can be seen in the historic colonial buildings in many Oaxacan cities.

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Events and Festivals

  • Guelaguetza or Los Lunes Del Cerro - This pre-Columbian holiday has changed into a celebration of of the Virgin del Carmen, the city and state of Oaxaca. The celebrations is always the two consecutive mondays after July 16th. Except when the monday falls on July 18th, which is the day Benito Juarez died, then the holiday will be on July 25th and August 1st. There are concerts and festivals held the entire month of July in honour of the holiday.
  • Day of the Dead - Although the Day of the Dead is also celebrated in many Latin American countries except Mexico (and also in parts of Europe, Asia and Africa), the Day of the Dead (Spanish: Día de los Muertos) is most intensily celebrated in Mexciowhere where it is equal to a National Holiday. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. The celebration takes place on November 1st and 2nd, in connection with the Catholic holidays of All Saints' Day (November 1) and All Souls' Day (November 2). Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars honoring the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed and visiting graves with these as gifts. Although it is about the Dead, it is also a celebration where eating and partying both are common as well.
  • Grito de la Independencia - September 15th is Mexican Independence Day! A massive celebration involving plenty of singing, dancing and fireworks takes place in the Zócalo. Everyone here awaits an appearance from Mexico's president who rings a bell from a central balcony of the Palacio Nacional overlooking the Zócalo. The president then shouts out the Grito de Dolores, or the Cry of Dolores which was Father Hidalgo's famous call to arms against Spanish rule in 1810.
  • Dia de la Candelaria. Candlemas is held February 2nd and commemorates Jesus being introduced into the temple 40 days after his birth. This nationwide celebration sees many different ways of celebrating and many towns in Oaxaca State hold processions, bullfights and dances. Of course, plenty of delicious, traditional foods are served during Dia de la Candelaria as well.
  • Carnaval is held in late February or early March throughout Oaxaca State and all of Mexico. This big party is meant to celebrate the 40 day penance of Lent. Carnaval always takes place during the week or so prior to Ash Wednesday, 46 days before Easter Sunday. Mexicans celebrate this holiday with fireworks, food, dancing, parades, dancing and drinking.
  • Semana Santa, or Holy Week, is a huge celebration which starts on Palm Sunday. This is a very popular time for Mexicans to take a short break; as a result, it seems most of the country is on the move, with buses and hotels often booked out. As for the celebration of Semana Santa, expect colorful processions and many masses at churches everywhere.
  • Día de Nuestra Seňora de Guadalupe, or Day of our Lady of Guadalupe, is held December 12th. There is a week-long build up to this religious celebration in honour of the Virgin who appeared to the indigenous Juan Diego in the year 1531. Since then, the Lady of Guadalupe has been Mexico's religious patron and her veneration is very significant. It is traditional for young boys to be dressed as a Juan Diego and for young girls to be dressed in indigenous garb and brought to a special mass, held at many churches throughout the country.
  • New Year's Eve. Mexicans celebrate New Year's Eve or locally known as Año Nuevo, by downing a grape with each of the twelve chimes of the bell during the midnight countdown, while making a wish with each one. Mexican families decorate homes and parties, during New Year's, with colors such as red, to encourage an overall improvement of lifestyle and love, yellow to encourage blessings of improved employment conditions, green to improve financial circumstances and white to improved health. Mexican sweet bread is baked with a coin or charm hidden in the dough. When the bread is served, the recipient whose slice contains the coin or charm is believed to be blessed with good luck in the new year. One can expect a lot of firecrackers, fireworks and sparklers being fired. At midnight there is a lot of noise and everyone shouts: "Feliz año nuevo!" People embrace, make noise, set off firecrackers, and sing Auld Lang Syne.

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Weather

While the state is within the tropical latitudes, its climate varies with altitude.[28] There are three principal climate regions in the state. The first is the hot and semi humid lands. This accounts for about 30% of the state. The next is the semi hot and semi humid regions which account for about 18%, and temperate and semi humid at about 16%. All of these climates experience a rainy season in the summer and early fall. As most of the state is over 2,000 metres above sea level, average temperature is about 18 °C, except near the coast. The coastline along with the regions of Yautepec, Putla, parts of Huahuapan and Silacayoapan are hot and relatively dry. Hot and humid climates predominate in Villa Alta, and the Central Valleys area and all others over 2,000 metres above sea level have a temperate climate. A few of the highest peaks, such as those in Tehuantepec and Putla have a cold climate. Precipitation varies from between 430 to 2,700 mm per year. The Sierra Mazteca, Textepec and other areas near the Veracruz border have rains year round. The rest of the state receives the majority of its rain during the summer and early fall. The higher elevations can experience freezing temperatures in December and January.

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Getting There

By Plane

Oaxaca-Xoxocotlan Airport (OAX) is 10 km south of the city centre with the majority of flights to Mexico City. There are limited flights to other Mexican cities like Huatulco, Cancun, Tuxtla Gutiérrez and Tijuana. There are some international flights including one to Houston.

Puerto Escondido Airport has direct flights to Oaxaca, Mexico City and several other cities in Mexico.

By Bus

There are many busconnections to Oaxaca. From San Cristobal you can take a nightbus which takes about 12 hours. 1st class buses are usually operated by OCC. There are also many connections to Puebla, Mexico City and Veracruz

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Eat

Oaxaca - 06

Oaxaca - 06

© dontrobus

Due to the mix of cultures there is some great food to be found in Oaxaca. The state is known as the "Land of Seven Moles'' because of its variety of food choices. A great variety of fruits and vegetables are frown in the central valley, while tropical fruits are found in the north and fish and shellfish dominate the cuisine along the coast. Oaxaca is also known for its amazing chocolate.

  • Tacos are by far the most prevalent food in Mexico and come in many varieties and regional variances. Here, tacos are more often served on corn tortillas instead of wheat. Flour tortillas are the norm in the northern states of Mexico. Beef is also the meat of choice for tacos here,
  • Mollete is an open faced sandwich consisting of a bolillo roll smothered in refried beans and melted cheese.
  • Carnitas are slow braised meats usually bought by weight. These often come with tortillas to wrap the meat in. Any meats cooked in this fashion are always tender and very rich in flavor.
  • Cabuche is the flower from the biznaga cactus. this edible flower is a delicacy in San Luis Potosi state. There are many dishes this flower can go into and many ways to prepare it on it's own.
  • Chiles en Nogada - this dish is meant to represent the Mexican flag's 3 colors; red, white and green. The red portion of this dish is a garnish of pomegranate seeds, the white from a cream sauce and the green from poblano chili pepper.
  • Huitlacoche is a fungus that grows on organic corn ears due to the lack of anti fungal chemicals introduced to the crop. When cooked and added to certain dishes huitlacoche is very earthy in flavor.
  • Pozole - Choose either red or green pozole. This corn and chile based soup is very tasty and is served at many comedors and loncherias in marketplaces throughout Mexico.
  • Rosti-Pollo - Roast chicken is a hugely popular meal in Mexico and represents an astounding value for travelers on a budget. Order a whole, or half chicken. Each order comes with french fries, unlimited tortillas and salsa.
  • Birria Stew - Birria is typically goat meat but many establishments prepare it with beef. The broth is a tomato and chili based one although it is not too spicy. Fresh diced onions and cilantro always accompany birria stew as a garnish. Of course, unlimited corn tortillas are served with each bowl.

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Drink

Beer

Mass produced Mexican beers tend to be a bit less sweet than their American counterparts. All in all, Mexican beers are quite good and go very well with Mexican food. Microbrews are starting to pop up in big cities and certain varieties are distributed further afield. Many bars catering to a hip clientele will feature imported beers from throughout the world

Montejo, Leon, Victoria, Superior, Carta Blanca and Estrella are national brands that can be difficult to find at times depending on where you are in Mexico. Lately, both Tecate and Indio brands have become the most widely distributed beers next to Corona. Many of the beers mentioned are brewed by Mexico's brewery powerhouses - Modelo and Cuauhtemoc.

One of the traditions in Mexico is to add lime to beer, adding a pleasant acidity. Another popular way to drink beer in Mexico is to mix it with lime, tomato juice, spices and assorted chili-based sauces. This drink is known as a Michelada and is very popular in hotter climates throughout Mexico and actually makes for a very refreshing concoction.

Tequila

Tequila is the signature firewater of Mexico and nearly all of it hails from the state of Jalisco. Here, small agave plantations and larger haciendas churn out a staggering number of brands. Of those brands, there 5 varieties of tequila:

  • Oro, or gold is possibly the poorest quality of the lot. That gold color this variety is known for is artificial and this tequila really burns the throat. It is best used in cocktails and margaritas.
  • Plata is also known as Blanco and represents the next lowest quality of the 5 varieties but tastes better than the Oro variety. This is unaged and the flavor is much less complex, making it suitable as a mixer rather than a shot for sipping.
  • Resapado means rested and this variety is aged for up to 9 months. Flavor profiles become more complex and respado makes for a good introductory sipping variety. Expect a clean, sharp taste with a subtle peppery finish.
  • Aňejo. This aged variety, conditioned in oak barrels for up to 1 year, is very smooth and sweet. Many people enjoy this variety as an aperitif, or even an after dinner drink. Certain brands of aňejo represent a very good value, especially considering the amount of nuanced flavors created by each distilleries' aging techniques.
  • Extra Aňejo, or vintage, is a relatively new variety. This is aged for 3 years, often using other types of barrels aside from the traditional oak ones. This is best sipped neat. Extra Aňejo has boosted the craft tequila market in Mexico.

Mezcal

  • Mezcal can sometimes be as high as 60% alcohol, so enjoy this drink with caution! Mezcal is made from 1 of around 20 different species of agave, some of which can take decades to mature. Only once will a mature agave sprout the flower whose sap is fermented to make this potent potion. Some varieties include:
  • Minero is distilled in clay pots and is a very high quality variety. Subtly smoky in flavor and very smooth.
  • Arroqueňo tends to be a subtly sweet-tasting Mezcal. Many find this to be the most pleasant variety. The flavor begins a bit bitter but quickly finishes sweet and warm.
  • Joven means young, and this variety is simply unaged and therefore a little bit rough.
  • Tobalá is named for an actual variety of agave plant, grown in mountainous regions.

Pulque

Pulque has been enjoyed since well before the Spanish conquest of Mexico but has enjoyed a resurgence in the last decade, especially among the hip crowd. Pulque is simply the fermented sap of the maguey plant. The end result is a very thick, cloudy drink with a slightly acidic taste. This viscous liquid is often given artificial fruit flavoring to improve it's overall uninspiring taste, however many pulque drinkers are purists when it comes to quaffing this strange alcoholic beverage. In Mexico, pulquerias - bars exclusively serving pulque - offer a real authentic drinking experience and many feature roving musicians ready to play a tune for the merry patrons. Pulque has an alcoholic content between 4% and 6%.

Other Drinks

  • Chamoyada is a sweet and spicy type of shaved ice, or raspado or Mango sorbet, prepared with chamoy. It is a part of Mexican cuisine, and is also common in regions of the United States with significant Mexican-American populations. The drink is usually sweetened with mangoes or apricots. It is essentially a combination of chamoy sauce, shaved ice, chili powder, and fruit chunks. In certain variations, a whole fruit popsicle, or paleta, is added to the drink and mixed with the shaved ice. The drinking straws served with chamoyadas also often have tamarind candy on the outside. Chamoyadas do not contain any dairy products. The different flavors of chamoyadas can include fruits like mango, lemon, guava, tamarind, pineapple and strawberry.
  • Champuraddo is a warm and thick chocolate-based drink, prepared with either masa de maíz (lime-treated-corn dough), masa harina (a dried version of this dough), or corn flour (simply very finely ground dried corn, especially local varieties grown for atole); piloncillo; water or milk; and occasionally containing cinnamon, anise seed, or vanilla. Ground nuts, orange zest, and egg can also be employed to thicken and enrich the drink. Atole drinks are whipped up using a wooden whisk called a molinillo (or a blender). The whisk is rolled between the palms of the hands, then moved back and forth in the mixture until it is aerated and frothy.
  • Liquados are a Latin American handmade blended beverage similar to smoothies, made with milk, fruit, and usually ice.They are also sometimes called "preparados" (meaning "prepared"). Licuados and other fresh fruit juice drinks are ubiquitous throughout Mexico. They are sold by street vendors, and in special licuado shops, restaurants, and fruterias (restaurants specializing in fresh fruit).
  • Aguas Frescas, (Spanish for "cool waters", or literally "fresh waters") are light non-alcoholic beverages made from one or more fruits, cereals, flowers, or seeds blended with sugar and water. Some of the more common flavors include tamarind, hibiscus, and horchata. Aguas frescas are sold by street vendors, but can also be found in bodegas (convenience stores), restaurants and juice bars.
  • Atole, also known as atol and atol de elote, is a traditional hot corn and masa-based beverage of Mesoamerican origin. Chocolate atole is known as champurrado or atole. It typically accompanies tamales, and is very popular during the Christmas holiday season (las Posadas).
  • Café de olla is a traditional Mexican coffee beverage. To prepare café de olla, it is essential to use a traditional earthen clay pot, as this gives a special flavor to the coffee. This type of coffee is principally consumed in cold climates and in rural areas. In Mexico, café de olla is made with ground coffee, cinnamon, and piloncillo (known as panela in other countries).
  • Jarritos is a popular brand of soft drink in Mexico, founded in 1950. Jarritos is made in fruit flavors and is less carbonated than popular soft drinks made in the United States or Canada. Many Jarritos varieties are naturally flavored. The word jarrito means "little jug" in Spanish and refers to the Mexican tradition of drinking water and other drinks in clay pottery jugs. Produced in Mexico, they are sold throughout the Americas.

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Sleep

As is typical with all of Mexico, accommodation options in Oaxaca run from budget hotels and hostels to fancier lodges and resorts. Every city and town caters to the traveler as many people traverse the country by bus and often find themselves staying overnight along the way, especially on long-haul routes. Because of this, many hotels can be found around bus stations and in small towns those accommodation options will extend well beyond the transportation terminal. You will find an accommodation type to suit any budget in Oaxaca.

View our map of accommodation in Oaxaca

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Quick Facts

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Coordinates
  • Latitude: 17.059417
  • Longitude: -96.721622

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This is version 30. Last edited at 3:00 on Dec 30, 19 by road to roam. 15 articles link to this page.

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