When you say the word Oaxaca (wa-haa-kah) to someone who’s been there, their reaction is almost universal: “Ooooo…Oaxaca is amazing.” Known for its indigenous culture, colonial architecture, ancient ruins, homespun mezcal, pristine beaches, and robust cuisine, the Mexican state of Oaxaca has a lot going for it. We spent a week in their UNESCO city and capital, taking walking tours, Critical Mass bike riding, sipping our way through mezcalarias, and people watching in the zócalo plaza. We met bloggers and expats…many who came for a few days and have stayed a few months—even years. We tried to pick their brains for a good road trip itinerary but the response was always, “Everything cool is super close to the city; just stay here and do day trips.” And while it’s true that most of greater Oaxaca Valley’s main attractions are within 25 miles of the capital, we know road tripping is the greatest way to understand a region, so we rented a car. Here is the best of our Oaxaca Road Trip, plus another five days beach-hopping the Oaxacan Riviera. It was an unforgettable ride (with just one *very* near-death experience).
Map: Oaxaca Road Trip
This road trip travels in a counter-clockwise circle, through indigenous communities, artisan villages, mezcal country, UNESCO-recognized ruins, millennia-old cave dwellings, the high sierra, to the rugged coast. There are hundreds of blogs about Oaxaca City so we’ll leave that to those who live there and have experienced the city without all the pandemic closures (we’d recommend Nomadic Matt’s guide, recently updated by our friend and Oaxaca City resident Ian, and A Little Adrift’s guide for their sustainability & vegetarian focus) and we’ve got you covered for your off-the-beaten-track Oaxaca road trip! We rented our car from the Alamo office right in the city, for $15 a day with unlimited miles, and used our Allianz All Trips plan for insurance which automatically covers up to $45,000 in damages and saved us from Alamo’s fees and figuring out the Mexican insurance system. In under fifteen minutes, we were on the road!
Traditional Markets: Zaachila
First up, Zaachila: a historic Zapotec capital and trade center, just eight miles south of Oaxaca City. Of the 16 officially recognized indigenous groups in Oaxaca, the Zapotecs are the largest and have left an impressive legacy of architecture, language, and tradition. Zaachila is a thriving community, with important 13th-15th-century ruins and an-open air Thursday market that is said to be the most authentic in the valley. We walked the stalls filled with colorful displays of fruits, mezcals, and freshly prepared delicacies. In Spanish, we ordered a “Tepache” drink from an elderly woman, but it became clear she was a Zapotec language speaker and pointing and head nods were the best way to communicate. Dipping her ladle into a clay pot, she poured this juice of fermented pineapple rind and brown sugar into a cup then pointed at a bottle of mystery alcohol. We couldn’t say no to this undoubtedly wise woman, so we kicked it up a notch and raised our glass to her. We continued our way through the maze and stopped at near every comal roasting veggies. We ordered our first tlayuda, a massive thin tortilla with a layer of refried beans and toppings of choice; we got zucchini flower, mushrooms, onions, and four varieties of salsa. Now for the dessert experience of a lifetime. Just off the market square, we heard a grinding sound and smelled chocolate. “El Vesubio” is a DIY factory where locals bring their cacao beans, sugar, and cinnamon to be ground in the machines and mixed into gooey chocolate. The place was literally buzzing—from the 1950s machinery to little old ladies chattering as they stirred their fudgey blends. The clerk was also selling the ingredients, so we figured why not try our skills as chocolatiers? The little old ladies got such a kick out of us gringos trying their daily trade that they couldn’t help but impart their tips as we mixed it up. Spending time in this locals’ scene was as sweet as our 3.5 kilos of homemade chocolate.
Crafts: San Martín Tilcajete
Oaxaca Valley is renowned for its handicrafts, with many villages specializing in a certain artform—the woven goods of Teotitlan del Valle, the black pottery of San Bartolo Coyotepec, embroidery of San Antonino Castillo Velasco, and (our favorite) the alebrijes of San Martín de Tilcajete. Wood carved and painted into fantastical creatures, alebrijes are a relatively new artform that developed out of a fever dream by sculptor Pedro Linares López in the 1930s, where mashups of animals (imagine lion with wingos, a dragon with an owl head, etc.) were chanting the made-up word “alebrije.” It’s a long-story of how San Martín became one of two towns in Mexico (the other being San Antonio Arrazola) that are famous for their alebrijes, but it’s largely thanks to their abundance of copal wood and generations of craftsman that have been honing their skills. We popped into numerous artist studios to watch them whittle wood and paint these creatures with the finest detail. Though getting off the main drag, we were equally impressed with the street art in this town (I mean really impressed). When not making souvenirs, these young artists are letting their imaginations run wild across every available building and alley wall. See our Instagram gallery for more pics.
Mezcal: Santa Catarina las Minas & Matatlán
While nine states in Mexico can officially make mezcal, Oaxaca is responsible for 90% of the world’s production. Making spirits from distilled agave is unlike any other liquor, since the plant needs 4-30 years to mature…and once it’s dug up for its root ball (la piña), it can’t be used again. And even cooler than its mainstream cousin Tequila, which is made from the farmed blue agave plant, mezcal is most commonly made from wild agave, harvested from the mountainside and produced by small-batch family distilleries—still using wood-fire and horsepower! It is a truly artisanal drink and we had to pay our respects. While Santiago Matatlán is the “World Capital of Mezcal” and has the densest concentration of palenques (mezcal distilleries) and tasting rooms, and is certainly worth a half day, the real mezcal experience is in the countryside. We got some local intel from our Oaxaca City friends to head to the village of Santa Catarina Minas and visit the palenques of Rambha Mezcal, Real Minero, Laloucura, and El Conejo. We wanted to try them all but mezcal is potent stuff, so we honed in on Palenque El Conejo to experience “ancestral” mezcal, the most traditional means of production using wood-fired pit ovens, hand-shredded agave, and clay pot distillation…no stainless steel, no machines, not even a horse to help! The palenque was also apparently his house, so we tentatively walked towards the huge piles of roasted agave and glowing ovens. Then out popped a guy with a Panama hat, “Hola, hola, bienvenidos!” It was Antonio Carlos Martínez (aka Conejo or Rabbit) the third-generation mezcalero. His casual tour was all in Spanish so I caught about 80% of it, but chewing on the smokey sweet agave, peering into huge wooden vats of fermenting juice, watching his nephew tend the fires and bubbling clay pots, and sitting with Conejo as we tried mezcals from five different agave plants, we got the full experience. The tradition of making mezcal is fascinating and largely misunderstood, so we’d also highly recommend taking Where the Sidewalk Ends’ Sacred Mezcal Experience and the English-speaking tour offered at Palenque Malamor in Matatlán, which will allow you to see a “large-scale” distillery…if only to realize there’s nothing mass about this bespoke spirit.
Ancient Ruins: Mitla
Just seven miles past Matatlán in the upper Tlacolula Valley lies the ruins of Mitla—the most important religious center and sacred burial grounds of the Zapotec culture. Though what makes it interesting is the influence from several different cultures. It was where the Zapotec priests would do their human sacrifices, but they were overtaken by the Mistec people who enhanced the complex with incredible geometric fretwork; then came the Spanish who built an elaborate church on top of the ruins. We stayed at Mitla Backpackers; albeit basic and a decent walk from the main town, this affordable hostel ($16 for a double room) gave us unbeatable views of the 16th-century San Pablo church and into the pre-Hispanic ruins. In the morning we entered the multi-part complex that spans this Pueblo Mágico (a national designation of culturally significant places) and we were dazzled by the mosaics. Without the help of mortar, these finely cut and polished stones are perfectly fit together into beautiful patterns that have survived hundreds of years; it’s completely unique to other ruins in Mexico and a must-see!
The Caves of Yagul & Seeds of Mesoamerica
Continuing our Oaxaca road trip down Highway 190, Mike noticed some man-made structures in the cliffs. We got closer, they were indeed cave dwellings and a BIG deal. The prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla are where 10,000-year-old seeds were found and recognized by UNESCO as the earliest known evidence of domesticated plants in North America. To double down on significance, corn cob fragments that were found here are the earliest known evidence of the domestication of maize and thereby the foundation of the Mesoamerican civilization! History kept unfolding down the road as we spotted the Caballito Blanco petroglyphs, dating back 5,000 years. By the time we reached the Zapotec ruins of Yagul, this pyramid complex seemed like a young buck at just 1,600 years old. The site was closed but the surrounding nature preserve was open so we took a hike, thinking we might find some pottery shards or signs of this ancient civilization. We followed some hand-carved stairs, and accidentally (scout’s honor) entered the backside of the ruins! We didn’t explore for more than a few minutes so no one thought we were tomb raiders, but what we saw was incredible.
Mountains: Sierra Juarez & Its Forbidden Fruit
Our itinerary for the 100-mile detour into the biodiverse Sierra Juarez was perfect on paper: a national park, Pueblo Mágico, and a multi-day hike between indigenous villages…sounds awesome, right? Well, the COVID patrol had other plans. Benito Juarez National Park was on lockdown, but we kept our spirits up as we drove Highway 175 into the cloud forest, with the bromeliads clinging to the trees and rustic restaurants hugging the cliffs. By dusk we got to the Pueblo Mágico of Capupulam de Mendez, only to find another chain across the main entrance. The guard broke it to us that the town was closed for the pandemic (yes, the entire town!), which was particularly hard news to swallow because it was where we were going to sleep and the roads were too curvy to drive in the dark. The guard was the least helpful hombre, but thankfully a ranger pulled up and let us know about an eco-resort that had permission to host tourists. Ecoturixtlan Cabanas was open, but man were they taking their covid protocols seriously. Not only did they make us sanitize our hands and shoes, they sprayed us down from head to toe, and insisted on fumigating our car. Mike was not a happy camper about the intrusion, but came on board when he saw our cute fireplace cabin and explored Ecoturixtlan’s impressive grounds with a fun obstacle course, cloud forest trails, and two massive river grottoes. On the next day’s drive, we saw some signs about construction ahead, but we kept going down, down, down, until we hit a road crew that said we could not pass. Turning around would have cost us multiple hours of backtracking, so Mike pretended he didn’t understand Spanish, waited for a cement truck to lead the way, and we made a break for it. (You can imagine the marital debate going on at this time). We reached the town that the construction crew said “No hay paso” and they were in fact correct (point Anne). The town’s two exits towards Oaxaca City were also chained shut. We consulted some locals and they said the road had been closed since the pandemic started, but we could go to the local policeman’s house to see if he would open it for us. Knock, knock. It seemed we had woken him from a nap and that this conversation wasn’t gonna go well. He looked at our Nissan Micra rental and said, “You want to drive over the mountain in that?” The road was unpaved, rutted, overgrown, and not exactly graded for the dinkiest car in the Alamo fleet. We all had our doubts, but few choices, so he swung it open and wished us luck. We bumped and skidded our way up the mountainside, passing 15-foot-tall agave plants that could swallow a car and nary a sign of civilization, but two hours later we came out the other side (2 points Mike). By the time we made it to Oaxaca City, we were happy to give up our rental car and take a bus to the beach for some R&R…or at least that was the plan.
Oaxaca City to the Coast: Our Closest Brush with Death in HoneyTrek History
Oaxaca City to the beach is 86 miles as the crow flies, but when you add a massive mountain range and hundreds of hairpin turns, it’s an 8-hour odyssey. We heard this route was a rollercoaster, but that distance just seemed too short to justify a flight, so we hopped the 3pm minibus to Mazunte Beach. The drive up the 8,000-foot pass was stunning, winding around the misty mountains, terraced with coffee plantations and thick with forests of psychedelic mushrooms. Though it was hard to appreciate the beauty out our window with roads this dizzying and a driver with a lead foot. The sun went down and the rain came with it, but somehow this didn’t slow down Señor Speed Racer. I moved to the front seat to calm my nausea, also hoping some company would make him drive more cautiously. It seemed to be working, but he was no match for the oil-slick roads. He hydroplaned to the left, then whipped the steering wheel to the right, and we were sent uncontrollably towards a cliff. I saw the bottom of the ravine quickly approaching and time slowed just enough to contemplate death or dismemberment, then—WHACK! We slammed headfirst into a telephone pole. It snapped in half, and our transmission dragged along the remaining jagged wood until it brought our car to a halt…a few feet over the edge. We scrambled to the back of the van to keep it from tipping forward and jumped out the rear door. Mike and I looked at each other in a state of disbelief, hugged, and thanked our lucky stars we had annual travel insurance—which literally expired the next day! If we got stranded, hurt, or worse without our Allianz Travel plan and its evacuation and medical coverage, we would have been in deep trouble. Thankfully no one was injured and dozens of locals stopped to bring our car back to safety, but this accident was a grave reminder to renew our travel insurance and never cut it that close again.
Beaches: Zipolite to Puerto Escondido
We’ve been up and down both coasts of Mexico and were blown away by the beaches of Oaxaca. Catering more to surfers and…
We finally reached our hotel in Playa San Agustinillo at 1am, headed to bed, slept off that nightmare experience, and woke up to the dreamiest beach. White sand, teal water, rock islets, and craggy cliffs framed our bungalow. As if our hotel’s location wasn’t awesome enough, Casa Corazon was also the town’s bohemian hangout, serving falafel burgers, mixing delish margaritas, and playing live reggae with sunsets. We quickly fell in love with this beach and the entire Oaxacan coast. The beaches here cater more to surfers and backpackers than resort-goers, and it’s inexpensive enough that fisherman and long-standing locals can still live by the sea. Puerto Escondido is the most developed of the string of towns along the rugged coast (rightfully so with perfect beach coves like Playa Carrizalillo) but just south are the lesser-traveled beaches that really stole our hearts. Our charming and laidback San Agustinillo was sandwiched between the hippy enclave of Mazunte (hello vegan cafes and yoga studios!) and Zipolite, a proudly clothing-optional beach with lots of coves to let it all hang loose. Each coastal town had their own unique vibe and a rugged rocky coastline that made the Riviera Oaxaqueña one of our favorite regions in Mexico. See the photo gallery above for our favorite moments from the best beaches in Oaxaca.
More Oaxaca Road Trip Stops
El Tule: The world’s widest tree, with a diameter of 38 feet and an age of 2,000 Years, is a sight to behold and within biking distance from the capital.
Hierve de Agua: Just outside of Mitla, these hot-spring travertines cascading off the mountains look absolutely incredible.
Monte Albán Ruins: While we loved Mitla, everyone says these are the most impressive ruins of Oaxaca and closer to the city.
Microfinance Tour: Head to the Tlacolula Valley to meet one of the entrepreneurial women who will share the story of her small-business and a homemade meal. Your En Vía tour helps provide interest-free loans and educational programs to the women of these six villages. It’s an inspiring example of the good tourism can do.
A special thanks to Allianz Travel Insurance for sponsoring this post and for giving us peace of mind when we needed it most!
Looking for more Mexico road trips? Check out our journey from Mazatlan to Mexico City and our RV trip down the length of the Baja Peninsula. Ever considered going to Mexico for their legendary Day of the Dead celebration? You’ve gotta see this post.