Oaxaca is a little colonial town in the southwestern Mexican state of the same name. Pronounced ‘wa-ha-ca’, its cobbled streets, church domes and nearby archaeological ruins draw in enough tourists to provide tourism-related jobs for around three-quarters of the local population. There are loads of Oaxaca tours to choose from, and they generally include one or more of the following local attractions.
There’s plenty to explore in the town itself, from museums and churches to parks and gardens, although, if you time it like I did, you may need to weave around the brightly coloured tents and tarpaulins of demonstrators to find what you’re looking for. Make sure you check out the markets in Oaxaca for some deliciously fresh ingredients and, if you have the time, sign up for a cooking school to learn how to make local dishes.
If you’re looking to explore further afield, there are two main Oaxaca tours you should definitely consider. The first is the ruins of Monte Alban, and the second is the mezcal tour.
You can make your own way quite easily to the ruins of Monte Alban. Purchase a cheap bus ticket from the Riviera Diamante hotel on the corner of Aldama and 20 De Noviembre. They’ll provide all the information you need on bus times and where to wait. Entrance to Monte Alban itself costs 59 pesos.
There are numerous different tour providers offering Oaxaca tours, each with a slight variation on the same trip. Cielo Rojo is a great hostel in the centre of Oaxaca with two Oaxaca tour options. One includes a place called Hierve el Agua while the other does not. I’d recommend the full trip as Hierve el Agua is something quite special.
This Oaxaca tour costs 150 pesos and leaves at 10 am. Take extra cash for souvenirs and lunch, or take your own food: the lunch option is remote and quite expensive as Mexican prices go.
Most Oaxaca tours stop in a quaint town called Tule. Growing in the centre of town is a very fat tree – the fattest in the world in fact! With a circumference of 42 m and a diameter of just over 14 m, it would take a lot of tree-hugging hippies to link arms around it. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to get close enough to give the tree a hug as it’s protected by a double gate. You can pay a small fee to get past the first one, but it really makes little difference.
Once you’ve had your fill of the famous tree, it’s time to head over to nearby Teotitlan del Valle to learn about the local carpet-making process.
They have both Spanish and English-speaking guides on virtually all Oaxaca tours. First, you’ll learn about the dying process and witness some great demonstrations of how they create such bright hues from natural sources.
You will then be shown how the wool is threaded together to form intricate patterns. Afterwards, there’s some free time to browse the gift shop, which has everything from huge rugs to bags, wallets and toys.
A word of warning, though. Don’t buy the weird chunks of cocoa. Whoever thought it was a good idea to ingest incredibly dry powder with the bitterest taste imaginable was quite clearly deluded.
HIERVE EL AGUA
If you chose the longer of the Oaxaca tours, Hierve el Agua will be your next stop. By this point, you will probably be ready to cool off from the Mexican sun. It’s unclear why this is an optional extra rather than the focus of the tour. Had I known more about it in advance I might have arranged to spend the whole day there.
The name of this place is Spanish for ‘the water boils’.
On top of a cliff are two artificial swimming pools and a number of small natural ones. Due to their proximity to the edge, they resemble natural infinity pools and, as infinity pools go, they must have one of the best views there is.
The pools are fed by natural springs and the mineral content makes the water an inviting shade of turquoise.
From this smaller cliff, there are some walking trails to explore. Make sure you ask your tour guide how much free time you have and how far they think you’ll be able to go.
Rising approximately 90 m above the valley floor is a second cliff with what appears to be a petrified waterfall attached to its surface.
This impressive formation has been created by the accumulation of deposited calcium carbonate crystals and other minerals, which are carried there by fresh water springs.
From Hierve el Agua, you’ll head over to Mitla. After Monte Alban, Mitla is the second most important archaeological site in the state.
While Monte Alban was the most important political centre of the Zapotec culture, Mitla was the focus of religious practices.
Here, you will find elaborate mosaic fretwork and intricate patterns adorning the walls of the tombs. The method of fitting together small pieces of polished stone without the need for mortar is unique to Mitla.
Mitla also has an impressive array of cactus species growing in its grounds.
After visiting so many sites of interest and absorbing so much information, it’s finally time for a late lunch. Most Oaxaca tours will take you to a restaurant but the food won’t be included in the price. Usually, you’ll be in such a remote spot you’ll have no choice but to pay inflated prices unless you brought your own.
Once fed, there’s a demonstration of how the region’s signature tequila-like drink – mezcal – is made.
The best Oaxaca tours wouldn’t be complete without a tasting session and this is included in the tour price.
The owners of the factory hand out small tasting cups and proceed to feed you a very large variety of pure and flavoured mezcals. Don’t miss the enormous jar of pickled ‘tequila worms’!
OTHER COOL STUFF!
As you’re in Mexico already, there are plenty more cool places to visit besides Oaxaca. Start with one of the best colonial cities in Latin America – San Cristobal – before travelling the road from San Cristobal to Palenque to discover one of the most interesting ruins in Mexico. Working your way down the east coast, some of the highlights include swimming with whale sharks at Isla Mujeres or Holbox, checking out some of the best dive sites in Central America and Mexico (Cozumel is fantastic for reef drifts and you can’t miss cenote diving in Mexico), and chilling out at Laguna Bacalar.