The Oaxaca Itinerary Roundup
We spent two weeks in the Mexican state of Oaxaca with kids – well, tweens! I am writing this with a spot of mole on my glasses as I cook up a pot of my new favorite dish for friends. Oaxaca surprised us with its ability to transition us from big city bustle to cool, wet pine forests with wild mushrooms and silent trails to the heat of its isolated beaches monitored by black iguanas. All the while, the friendly people of Oaxaca gave us directions, taught us about ancient traditions and cultures, and blew us away with the life of their art. We had a wonderful time and would love to inspire you to have your own Oaxacan experience. I hope this Oaxaca itinerary will help you plan your own trip. I break up the post to cover four phases: the city, the mountains, the farm, and the beach.
- Read first. Check out our Oaxaca reading list. One of my all-time favorite books is on the list.
- Rent a car. Driving was easy, the roads were smooth (except for several thousand topes – speedbumps), and GPS worked with our cell phone data.
- Pack well. Be prepared with a variety of clothing types, especially if you hit both the mountains and the beach. Check out the link for a printable packing list for four.
- Talk to people. Be ready to initiate conversation, people are welcoming and interested in being helpful.
This is a map of our 14-day trip, starting in Oaxaca City and looping around the state.
Summary of all the good stuff
Trip Length: Two weeks
Time of year: Early August
Car rental: Europcar (don’t recommend this company but there are lots of others to try)
The City: Stay at Casa Ollin
The Mountains: Work with Sierra Norte for hiking, horseback riding, ziplines, mountain biking, etc.
The Farm: Stay at Dixza Rugs and Organic Farm with Samuel and his family
The Beach: Stay with Fran and Alfonso at Casa Calypso
We arrived in Oaxaca City late on a Saturday night so we woke to Mexican sunshine quickly warming the morning air; a mouth-watering tamale con mole negro; and a sleepy, clean neighborhood. What a welcome! Casa Ollin lived up to its top rating on Trip Advisor. Judith and her team made us feel welcome, well-fed, and gave recommendations for the city. The girls loved having their own room and being able to have “siesta” in the pool. I thought that having a siesta meant a nap, but I guess not.
With only two full days in the city we had more on our to-do list than we got to. I guess that leaves us some new discoveries on our next trip. Here are some of the best things we did (this doesn’t include random wanderings through the city and different parks). We wrote about some of these in this post.
- The Centro Cultural de Santo Domingo‘s spiky, imposing landscaping is somehow quite welcoming. We only wandered through a portion of their comprehensive exhibits, focusing on the library and antiquities from nearby Monte Alban.
- The Jardín Etno-Botánico de Oaxaca felt like we were walking through a living art piece – tall cacti, blooming trees, and reflecting pools. There are tours in English Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 11am. The entrance is at the back of the Centro Cultural de Santo Domingo.
- We spent a fair bit of time in the bustling center of the zócalo where you can take in sidewalk dance performances, enjoy open-air cafes, buy freshly made horchata or lime drinks, and learn about the protests that take place there every day.
- MARO is a women’s collective art market (we like girl-power things in our family). MARO stands for Mujeres Artesanías de las Regiones de Oaxaca. They showcase art made by women in all parts of Oaxaca. Their prices are great and I love what they stand for.
- Mercado Juarez is the perfect place to explore with the family. You should wander until you get visual, olfactory, and taste overload. We walked around gathering the elements of a fabulous picnic and a few souvenirs: roasted peanuts, mole paste, tortillas, quesillo, bananas, fingernail clippers (not part of the picnic), and big chunks of chocolate. Don’t miss this purely Oaxacan experience!
- El Llano park was a great spot in the early evening. We wandered around for a couple of hours with Oaxaqueños roller skating, eating roasted corn, walking their dogs, and just chatting with one another. It was wonderful people-watching and was an experience made for locals and temporary locals like us.
- Another fun thing we often do is walk with no real direction. We saw a big white roof at the top of a hill so we felt our way through back alleys and steep walkways all the way up to an amazing view of the city and Auditorio Guelaguetza. The perspective on the city and surrounding mountains was breathtaking and we tried to trace our footsteps from different landmarks earlier in the day and where we were headed in the mountains the next day. We had quite an adventure on the way down…more on that soon.
- On our last day in Oaxaca City we had planned on going to Monte Alban. I realized that it was a Sunday (sometimes we lose track of the days when we are on vacation) and entrance is free to Mexicans on that day. Knowing that, getting there immediately when it opened at 8 am seemed like the best approach. After a rushed and decidedly unhealthy breakfast at a gas station, we were the first car in the parking lot. We paid our $5 entrance fee and ran across the field in the center of Zapotec and Mixtec life going back to 500 BC. The climb up the South Platform was fueled by the promise of seeing the sun rise on the empty ruins before the hundreds of tourists started trickling in. Fabulous and worth the early roll out of bed!
Cuajimoloyas, Latuvi, la Nevería, Benito Juárez
We worked with Sierra Norte to help us coordinate a four day hut-to-hut hike in the Zapotec communities of the Sierra Norte mountains. This group of communities, Pueblos Mancomunados, collaborates to create sustainable ecotourism that supports their members. They will customize your hikes based on time, distance, and activities you’d like to do. We hiked through the mountains from town to town with local guides learning about the flora, fauna, and culture. At the end of each day there was a cozy bunkhouse and loads of delicious food.
Elevation was definitely an issue the first day since we went from about 5,000 feet above sea level in Oaxaca City to nearly 11,000 feet in the village where we started our hike. The gorgeous scenery and flowers distracted us to some degree, but we probably could have used a little more time to acclimatize before we tackled the ambitious hike.
In between days of hiking we did a morning of horseback riding and rode a towering zipline over the village of Cuajimoloyos. We also visited some wonderful greenhouses, a trout farm, and learned to make mole on Rufina and Eli’s farm. Of course the biggest draw was always the puppies. I also took a traditional temazcal (a version of a sweat lodge) after a day of hiking.
Looking back, the Sierra Norte was a highlight of our trip. It offered real views into mountain life and opportunities to connect with the local guides. We were able to challenge ourselves physically and mentally and see what we were made of. For those thinking about this wonderful option I’d like to introduce a dose of reality – it was VERY difficult hiking for lowland weekend warrior-types. The altitude and climbing (how can there be so much *up*?) made for excellent nights of sleep. The rain on a couple of days added a new level of trial and some gastrointestinal distress made us look deep into our souls for our last bits of strength to climb the next incline. I’d consider your level of fitness and grit before building a full four days of this incomparable element into your trip. Probably not for small kids or the semi-fit.