Oaxaca City is located in a valley surrounded by the rugged Sierra Madre mountains. The city is well known as a center of art, food, and indigenous culture, but its surroundings also offer much to explore, including colonial period churches, handicraft studios, mezcal distilleries, archaeological sites, and indigenous markets. You can combine visits to different sites along the same route, so check this list and plan your day trip combining a few different stops.
Mitla: Stone Fretwork Mosaics
Oaxaca’s second most important archaeological site after Monte Alban, Mitla was at its peak much later, during the post-Classic period, with most of its remaining structures dating from 1200-1500 AD Unlike Monte Alban, which boasts grand views and wide open spaces, in Mitla the emphasis is on secluded inner spaces, with some very private chambers, almost all decorated with a characteristic stone mosaic forming geometrical patterns in panels on the walls. The stones were cut precisely to fit together without the use of mortar, quite a feat considering they were made without the aid of metal tools. There are two tombs that are open to the public, although getting into them requires some dexterity and not recommended for those who have claustrophobia. Mitla also has a 16th century church, built on the ruins.
Getting There: The town of San Pablo Villa de Mitla is located 30 miles east of Oaxaca city. Take public transportation from the Central de Abastos or by the baseball stadium, Mitla-bound bus will drop you off at the crucero in Mitla leaving you with a short walk to the ruins. Or take a colectivo or private taxi.or take an organized tour.
Travel Tip: Combine your visit to Mitla with one of the other sites in the eastern valley such as Tlacolula, Teotitlan del Valle, or Hierve el Agua.
Hierve el Agua: Spectacular Petrified Waterfall
This isn’t like any waterfall you’ve seen before. A mineral spring dripping over the side of a mountain has left behind deposits which over the course of thousands of years have built up to create an impressive formation, like a waterfall frozen in time. Besides the mineral formations, the natural scenery here is stunning. Wonder at the natural beauty or take a dip in an infinity pool like no other.
Getting There: Hierve el Agua is about an hour and a half drive (38 miles east) of Oaxaca City, past Mitla on a windy and partially unpaved road. Getting there on public transportation is complicated, so either rent a car or go with an organized tour.
Travel Tip: If you can, time your visit during the week, and not on the weekend or holidays when the site can get crowded. Take a swimsuit for a dip in the mineral springs. Visiting this site requires walking on uneven terrain and up and downhill. Intrepid and fit travelers may enjoy a hike around the bottom of the falls, just hire a local guide to show you the way.
Tlacolula: Indigenous Market on Sundays
A bustling town in Oaxaca’s eastern valley, Tlacolula has a market that functions every day of the week, but on Sundays people come from Oaxaca city and the surrounding villages and the market expands, filling up the streets with stalls covered by a colorful series of tarps blocking out the harsh sun. You’ll find produce, handicrafts, clothing, farm tools, household staples, and almost any other type of goods you can think of. This market is not geared to tourists, but there is a section with handicrafts on a street adjacent to the church. Be sure to try the local barbacoa, and in the bread section sample “pan de cazuela” a local sweet bread that has swirls of chocolate and raisins.
Getting There: Tlacolula is 20 miles east of Oaxaca city. You can catch a bus near the baseball stadium headed toward Tlacolula or Mitla, or take a taxi.
Travel Tip: Be sure to check out the 16th Century church with its richly decorated Chapel of the Martyrs. Beware of pickpockets in crowded sections of the market. If you can’t make it to the Sunday market in Tlacolula, you can go to market day in Etla on Wednesday, Zaachila on Thursday or Ocotlan on Friday.
Cuilapan: Massive Church and Dominican Priory
The small town of Cuilapan de Guerrero is home to the fortress-like Santiago Apóstol church and Dominican friary. Although the church was never completed, its thick walls have stood the test of time and the whole structure gives some insight into the architectural trends of the early colonial period. On the rear wall of the open chapel, there’s a plaque which bears the Mixtec calendar inscription "10 reeds" as well as the year 1555 written in Arabic numerals. A tomb in the church is according to legend that of the last Zapotec princess, Donají. Enter the old friary (closed Mondays) around the side of the church, and you’ll see remnants of the murals which decorated the walls, and enjoy great views of the surrounding countryside from the second floor terrace. On the grounds there is a statue of Vicente Guerrero, one of the heroes of Mexico’s independence movement, who was imprisoned and executed here in 1831.
Getting There: Just 7 miles southwest of Oaxaca city, Cuilapan can be visited on a day trip including the town of Zaachila, which has its market day on Thursdays.
Travel Tip: Stop for lunch at La Capilla, a rustic restaurant in Zaachila that serves delicious traditional Oaxacan food in an outdoor setting.
Oaxaca is well known for the multitude of handicrafts produced in the surrounding communities. The small town of Teotitlan del Valle has a long tradition of making woolen rugs. Visit a family weaving workshop for a demonstration of their work to see the whole process from carding the wool, dyeing with natural colors to weaving. Perhaps you’ll find a rug to take home as a souvenir of your trip. The small museum in the town has some archaeological remains and interesting explanations about the weaving process and local customs.
Getting There: Just a 30-minute drive from Oaxaca City, you can get there on public transportation. Get a bus or a colectivo (collective taxi) near the Central de Abastos or by the baseball stadium on the road out of town. The bus to Mitla will leave you at the intersection and you can get a taxi or moto-taxi (auto-rickshaw) from there (it’s a long hike into the town).
Travel Tip: Make a stop at the church to see the impressive decorated candles this town is known for, and take a walk behind the church to see the remains of an ancient Zapotec temple.
San Bartolo Coyotepec: Black Pottery Workshops
Oaxaca’s famous black pottery is produced only in this small town. The largest workshop is run by the family of Doña Rosa, who is credited with having popularized the black pottery in the 1950s, before which most of the pottery produced here was grey in color (and used for more practical purposes). However, there are many families in the town who produce this pottery, sometimes as a supplement to other activities. Visit a family workshop for a demonstration to see how the pieces are produced using methods that have changed little since ancient times.
Getting There: Located 10 miles southeast of Oaxaca City on Highway 175, you can catch a collective taxi to San Bartolo Coyotepec on Valerio Trujano street, just south of the Oaxaca Zocalo.
Travel Tip: The town is also home to the State Museum of Popular Art of Oaxaca (Museo MEAPO), which is well worth a visit to see some of the other crafts produced in the region.
San Martin Tilcajete: Wood Carving Workshops
The curious carved wooden figures commonly referred to as alebrijes are another of the crafts Oaxaca is known for. The town of San Martin Tilcajete specializes in producing these fantastical animals and other creatures from the wood of the copal tree. You’ll see a variety of different workshops along the main road into town. Take a wander so you can see the work of a few different artisans. Look for Efrain Fuentes and his wife Silvia, or find the Jacobo & María Ángeles workshop which has expanded into a small factory producing high-quality pieces.
Getting There: San Martin Tilcajete is located 17 miles south of Oaxaca City (about a 45-minute drive ) on the way to Ocotlan. Take a bus or collective taxi heading to Ocotlan and get off at the entrance to town. A stop at this village is often included on day tours to market day in Ocotlan on Fridays and can include a stop at San Bartólo Coyotepec for black pottery.
Travel Tip: The Azucena Zapoteca restaurant at the intersection on the main road is a good place to stop for lunch.
Mezcal Distilleries: Meet Agave Spirit Makers
Mezcal is produced in a handful of states, but the vast majority is made in Oaxaca by small-scale producers. A visit to a few distilleries will allow you to see the entire process of how mezcal is made, from harvesting the agave plant to distillation, and the different methods used including the ancestral technique, which involves a clay rather than copper still. Of course, the highlight is the opportunity to sample a wide variety of mezcals. The town of Santiago Matatlán is a good place to start your explorations, but if you go with a guide, you can visit a variety of mezcal producing towns like Santa Catarina Minas, Sola de Vega, and more on a day trip.
Getting There: Santiago Matatlán is a 45-minute drive from Oaxaca city (26 miles east). You can get there by bus or colectivo (shared taxi), but it’s a good idea to hire a driver or guide so you can visit a variety of mezcal producers in different locations and don’t have to worry about trying to find your way back to the city after sampling copious amounts of mezcal.
Travel Tip: If you’re pressed for time, instead of dedicating a day, you can visit a small distillery at the intersection of Highway 190 and Teotitlan del Valle where you can make a quick stop to see the process and sample some mezcal on your way back from a day trip to one of the other spots in the eastern valley.
Sierra Norte: Cloud Forest and Mountain Villages
The mountains surrounding Oaxaca City are a great place to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, spend time in nature and get your pulse racing with some adventure activities. Whether you’re interested in hiking through beautiful landscapes, seeing birds, doing some mountain biking, or foraging for mushrooms (during the summer season), a visit to the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca is a fun way to spend a day. This area is rich in flora and fauna. Start your explorations in the picturesque small town of Cuajimoloyas.
Getting There: Book an excursion at the Expediciones Sierra Norte office in Oaxaca city or rent a car.
Travel Tip: The weather is a few degrees cooler up in the mountains, and it rains more often, so be sure to take a sweater or jacket.
Dominican Route: Historic Churches and Friaries
Dominican friars arrived in what is now the state of Oaxaca in the first half of the 16th century and organized the construction of a few spectacular churches with accompanying friaries. In the Upper Mixteca region west of Oaxaca city, there are three you can visit on a long day trip: Santo Domingo Yanhuitlan, San Pedro and San Pablo Teposcolula, and San Juan Bautista Coixtlahuaca. Besides their massive architectural scale, these churches still have their original tracery vault and restored altars and paintings. Each one houses a small museum where you can see some of the original artwork that decorated the churches.
Getting There: If you would like to see the three churches in one day, rent a car to go on your own or take an organized tour. The closest is Yanhuitlan which is 58 miles from Oaxaca City.
Travel Tip: The museums are closed on Mondays so plan to go on a different day of the week. There are not a lot of tourist services in the small communities where these churches are located. There are some local eateries, but if you have any dietary restrictions, pack a lunch.