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Boasting an endless supply of mezcal and mole, Oaxaca is undoubtedly one of the ultimate food and drink destinations on the planet. So, it's perhaps no surprise that in Travel + Leisure's 2022 World's Best Awards, it was named the best city in the world. This dynamic state in southwestern Mexico also holds vibrant culture, beautiful weather, a landscape that spans from soaring peaks to cerulean surf, and some of the country's most iconic architecture. You could spend several weeks here and not even scratch the surface — if you weren't planning correctly, that is. To that end, we've compiled a list of the best things to do, see, and sip while exploring this exciting part of the world.
Best Times to Visit Oaxaca
Oaxaca is a big state — a little larger than the state of Indiana — occupying several tropical and subtropical climates. Most of the land is more than a mile above sea level, where it's often much cooler than along the coasts. All this is to say, the temperature can vary wildly depending on where you're visiting and when. But the good news is that it's almost always pleasantly warm and abundantly sunny. The one exception is the rainy season that extends from late June into September.
Kelly Pastori and Manon Houston for El Destilado
Early November is a perennially popular time to visit. The weather is dependably inviting, and you'll also experience Día de los Muertos celebrations, bringing mirth, marigold, and mesmerizing pageantry into the streets of cities and villages throughout the country. Even if you miss these particular festivities, arrive sometime between fall and spring break, and you'll leave with little to no regrets.
The Best Hotels in Oaxaca
Oaxaca features all manner of lodging, ranging from unassuming bed-and-breakfasts to historic converted convents, all the way up to the most opulent and palatial of modern luxury. You'll find a little bit of each in every major section of the state. For example, if you're staying surfside, Villas Carrizalillo in Puerto Escondido is idyllic yet accessible. Secrets Resort & Spa in Huatulco is a jewel of Conejos Bay, flaunting oversized suites and 24-hour concierge services.
In the eponymous capital city of Oaxaca, you can throw a rock in any direction and hit a hotel worth overnighting at. If you're not afraid to spend a few hundred per night, you can enjoy the modern boutique beauty of Hotel Casa Santo Origen, or if you want something more old-fashioned, check in at Quinta Real Oaxaca — a 16th-century nunnery retaining a thorough throwback charm.
Perhaps you'd prefer to stay in the heart of mezcal country. For that, you'll want to book your stay at the stunning Casa Silencio, about an hour outside of Oaxaca City. This upscale shrine to agave features multilevel guest rooms, a spa, Michelin-caliber cuisine and mixology, and, oh yes, a working distillery pumping out the native liquid.
Onnis Luque/Courtesy of Casa Silencio
Things to Do in Oaxaca
Well, drink mezcal, of course. But we'll get to that later. First, you'll want to savor the world-class cuisine offered throughout Oaxaca. And you'll have no trouble finding it when you're strolling the streets of Oaxaca City. The hub's bustling market scene is a great place to absorb a bit of everything. Mercado 20 de Noviembre is famous for its variety of food stalls featuring everything from baked goods and pastries to an entire aisle of roasted proteines: "El Pasillo de las Carnes Asadas." For something smaller and more vegetarian-friendly, explore Mercado Organico La Cosecha.
If you're craving more of a sit-down experience, book a reservation at either Criollo or Origen — two of the top-rated restaurants in town. The former showcases local ingredients within a charming open-air courtyard, and the latter goes significantly more global under the watchful eye of master chef Rodolfo Castellanos. And if you want something completely unexpected, though equally as delicious, take a seat at Convivio, where flawless cocktails are paired alongside Asian-infused Oaxacan dishes.
Just make sure to save room for Lechoncito de Oro. Open nightly from 8 p.m. until…whenever, this unassuming tented stall is an after-hours institution. They specialize in mouth-watering pork tacos covered in crispy pork rinds and spicy salsa verde.
When it's time for sightseeing beyond the city, one of the top natural wonders to explore is Hierve el Agua. These calcareous rock formations in San Lorenzo Albarradas look as if a waterfall has been frozen to the side of a cliff. Established hiking paths bring you right up to the cascade's edge.
Perched atop a 1,300-foot tall plateau, Monte Albán is a UNESCO World Heritage Site containing a well-preserved terraced pyramid and other pre-Columbian cultural artifacts. Much of what you'll explore here was built by the Zapotecs, an Indigenous peoples who are thought to have settled in the region as early as 800 BC. It is the second largest ceremonial site in all of Central America.
How to Get to Oaxaca
Oaxaca is most easily reached through Xoxocotlán International — a smaller-sized airport located in the capital city. Direct service from the United States arrives by way of Los Angeles, Dallas, and Houston. If you're heading to the beach, it'll likely involve a transfer. Most Americans traveling to Puerto Escondido Airport will layover in either Guadalajara or Mexico City. But that might change soon, as the Pacific coast community becomes an increasingly popular tourist destination.
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Mezcal in Oaxaca
Mezcal is a distilled agave spirit traditional to the Oaxacan region. It has been made here for centuries using techniques that have largely resisted the prying hands of modern machination.
Running down the many "palenques" — farm distilleries — where it is made and the enchanting sipping parlors where it is served would require an entirely separate article (in fact, this is a good one right here). But assuming you're starting your liquid journey in the city of Oaxaca, these are four tasting opportunities you should not skip over: Mezcalería In Situ for a broad collection of bottles and emphasis on education; El Distilado to enjoy how mezcal pairs with the local cuisine; and Selva Oaxaca to see how it mixes into artisanal cocktails.
For a sip with a view, take your thirst to the rooftop of Puro Burro, a hip watering hole founded by native agave impresario, Asis Cortes — the man behind Mezcal Dixeebe. If you're alright with venturing several hours beyond the city limits, book a Mezcal Educational Tour with resident expert Alvin Starkman. His legendary day excursions afford you a front-row seat to the time-honored processes of the palenque. (They can be booked here.)
Best Beaches in Oaxaca
Puerto Escondido is amassing a lot of tourist attention with beachgoers these days. And for good reason — its tropical seas are breathtakingly gorgeous and its community undeniably charming. But the state of Oaxaca state is actually home to over 300 miles of coastline, so there's plenty more to explore beyond the obvious destinations.
Mazunte is a worthwhile example, with its cerulean surf crashing into the jagged shore. You'll have no trouble settling in, given the warm and welcoming vibe of the locals. Check out the Mexican Turtle Center in town, dedicated to the preservation of everyone's favorite slow-moving reptile.
If you want to speed things up a bit, head several miles east along the coast to Zipolite. There are powerful waves pummeling this sand, popular with surfers. Though others opt to simply lay and tan, enjoying the sunset over surrounding cliffs. Or you can choose to snorkel the protected coral reefs of neighboring Huatulco National Park.