Renowned for its intoxicating mix of different peoples, cultures and languages, Oaxaca in the southwest of Mexico still retains much of its indigenous identity and as such it is well worth exploring as it has a very different feel to it from the rest of the country.
While its rugged mountainous terrain helped protect and preserve the homelands of people such as the Zapotecs and Mixtecs from the Spanish Conquistadores, the diverse landscapes also allowed different fauna and flora to flourish around the state. Consequently Oaxaca is one of the most biodiverse regions in Mexico and its incredible scenery includes everything from towering mountains and sweeping valleys to a beautiful beach-filled Pacific coastline. With lots of impressive archaeological sites alongside charming towns replete with native cultures, crafts and cuisine, the best places in Oaxaca really are unlike anywhere else in Mexico.
Map of the best places in Oaxaca, Mexico
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Although Yagul was first settled around 500 – 100 BC, most of the stunning ruins that we see today date to the 1200 – 1500s, which was when the city-state was at the height of its power. Known to locals as ‘Pueblo Viejo’ – the old village – Yagul was still inhabited when the Spanish arrived, although the city was soon abandoned.
Despite being one of only four natural monuments in Mexico, the impressive and well-preserved archaeological site sees relatively few visitors. Wandering around with barely another soul in sight is a fantastic feeling. With a beautiful fort for you to explore alongside breathtaking ballcourts and the remains of a palace, the amazing ruins are well worth checking out. The majestic ceremonial structures and architecture only hint at the power and prestige of the mighty Zapotec civilization that once ruled the area.
Consisting of nine beach-lined bays, each more dazzling than the last, Bahias de Huatulco is a brilliant place to head to if you want to kick back, relax, and take in some rays. While at one time only laidback sleepy fishing villages lined its shores, in the 1980s, the government saw its tourism potential and developed a series of hotels and resorts along the bays.
Fortunately, everything was done very tastefully. The unspoiled feel to the place remains, with all the hotels, restaurants, and bars tucked away among the glorious forests that hug the shore.
Bahias de Huatulco is breathtakingly beautiful. The bays with their pearly white beaches are all backed by vast swathes of forest that are protected by Huatulco National Park. While lounging on the beach amidst the stunning scenery is a great way to spend the holiday, there is also a myriad of different watersports for you to try out, while taking a boat trip offers you the chance to see the glorious coastline from afar.
Named after Mictlan, the Aztec underworld, Mitla is believed by archaeologists to have been the most important Zapotec religious site. The impressive mosaics and geometric designs that cover its tombs and temples are the best in the whole of Mexico. Exploring the archaeological site is a delight, and seeing the intricate designs that coat the ancient buildings up close is an awe-inspiring experience.
Although the site dates back even earlier, it was between 750 and 1521 that Mitla flourished. Its expansion was still ongoing when the Spanish arrived and destroyed much of it. Despite this, the ruins at Mitla are remarkably well-preserved, and the mix of Zapotec and Mixtec architectural influences is fascinating to behold, with lots of people visiting the site every week.
Lying along Mexico’s beautiful Pacific Ocean coastline, Zipolite has long attracted backpackers and hippies to its shores, and there is definitely a very laidback and relaxed feel about the place.
Indeed, anything goes in Zipolite, and it is not without reason that the small town is home to the county’s only nude beach. While chilling out on the pristine beach is many people’s favorite pastime, others prefer to go surfing in the waves or take a dolphin or whale watching boat trip along the coast.
At the end of every day, a glorious sunset bathes the beach in a stunning array of colors. Listening to local musicians or watching fire dancers perform is a magical experience as the night draws in.
Located in a rugged and remote setting just 70 kilometers from Oaxaca, the natural rock formations of Hierve el Agua are sure to be unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Cascading down the cliff face to the valley below, the rock formations look like flowing water; from afar, one would stake money on them being waterfalls. In reality the rocks were formed by the accumulation of minerals deposited by spring water that has flowed down the rocks over thousands of years.
While the rock structures are undoubtedly the main attraction, the view from the top of them out over the valley is marvelous, and there are several natural pools and hot springs which visitors can bathe in.
Encompassing rugged mountain ranges, sweeping valleys, and the upper basin of the Papaloapan River, the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve is home to a wide array of landscapes which are lovely to hike through. Due to the different habitats on show, you can be exploring a cacti-filled desert one moment, wandering through forest-coated valleys the next, and taking in sweeping views from one of the many mountaintops later in the day.
The fauna and flora are just as diverse as the landscapes themselves, with lots of species of bird, fish, and reptiles also residing within the reserve. A delight for nature lovers and outdoor aficionados alike, the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve is well worth stopping by if you want to escape from the city for the day and immerse yourself in nature.
Renowned for its great surfing, Puerto Escondido is the place to head to if you want big waves and near-perfect surf conditions. The gorgeous Playa Zicatela is widely considered amongst the best places to surf in the world; on any given day, a whole host of surfers can be found riding waves or chilling out on its golden sands.
A top-rated tourist destination, Puerto Escondido has a laidback vibe to it, with a number of great beaches for you to choose from if you’re not into surfing. The best of them is undoubtedly Playa Carrizalillo, although Playa Principal and Playa Bacocho also have their charms.
While in town, it is well worth going on a scenic boat trip along the coast to spot turtles, dolphins, and other marine species.
Perched atop a low-lying mountain range near Oaxaca City and surrounded by sweeping valleys, the archaeological ruins of Monte Alban are certainly very impressive, with the well-preserved remains of temples, palaces, and ballcourts all on display. One of the earliest cities founded in Mesoamerica, for centuries, Monte Alban was the center of socio-political and economic life in Oaxaca, with its zenith coming between 300 and 700 AD.
Despite having long been abandoned by the time the Spanish arrived, the site still conveys the majesty and importance of the Zapotecs who ruled from the city; many ornate and impressive stone-carved monuments can still be found scattered here and there. A must-see when visiting Oaxaca, Monte Alban certainly won’t disappoint with its fascinating ruins and sweeping views of the surrounding mountains and countryside.
Nestled alongside two beautiful beaches, the small village of Mazunte is ideal for people looking for a quiet getaway; there is barely anything to do other than lounge on one of the beaches and take in the stunning scenery. As it is very undeveloped and quite rural, most of the accommodation is basic, with ramshackle thatched-roof beach huts and restaurants clustered under the trees lining the beach.
Very popular with both independent travelers and backpackers, Mazunte has an alternative vibe to it, with lots of yoga studios and Spanish schools found around town. Besides the beautiful beaches, the main attraction is the fantastic turtle center. Many people visit Mazunte in May and June to watch the cute creatures lay their eggs on the beach before returning to the sea.
Whether it’s history and culture that you are interested in or gastronomy and nightlife, Oaxaca is the place to go, and no visit to the state of the same name can ever be complete without at least passing by. Home to elegant colonial buildings and leafy plazas, with Zapotec and Mixtec archaeological sites found nearby, the city boasts an intoxicating array of different cultures. Indigenous arts, crafts, and cuisine are also on display at its many merry markets.
Oaxaca has a lot for you to see and do, and simply wandering around town and taking in the ambiance is a great way to explore the city, with beautiful churches and museums lying next to trendy bars, restaurants, and boutiques.
While Oaxaca is excellent to visit at any time of year, it is especially lively and special to check out during Guelaguetza – a month-long festival that showcases traditional Oaxacan dances and music.