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Tips and Things to Know Before Traveling to Oaxaca

Updated: Apr 12

If you are unfamiliar with Oaxaca, this is the place to start for planning your travels. Below I've provided information on what to expect in Oaxaca including safety in Oaxaca, tips on what to wear in Oaxaca, and an introductory guide to things to do.

Note: Always Pack Tissues represents many tried and tested travel sites as what is called an 'affiliate' partner. That means if you click on my ads I may get a commission from a resulting sale.

In this article you will find:

girl walks by ruins and cactus

Must-See Sites and Things to Do in Oaxaca

First it is important to understand that Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in Mexico. Do not expect luxurious resorts, swimming pools, beach vistas, or easy living. Oaxaca is very much a dusty, hot destination and should be remembered as such when planning.

That said, the most visited sites in Oaxaca will surely include a list of archaeological zones, mezcal palenques, artisan markets, and lots of eating opportunities.

Known as the mezcal capital as well as a foodie haven, it is common that visitors fill their time with mainly culinary delights, with an ample dose of Zapotec history and shopping in between.

In subsequent articles (conveniently linked above and throughout) you will find in-depth information on much of what you see in this article, so be sure to click through to the other links provided.

For now, let's dive into some of the must-see sites and things to do in Oaxaca!

paper mache woman in front of blue building

Oaxaca Markets and Artisan Shops

In my separate guide to artisan shops and markets in Oaxaca, you will find out about the many (and I mean many!) markets to choose from, narrowed down to the best spots for tourists to visit on a short stay in Oaxaca.

For me, markets and shopping was the primary focus of my entire visit, so don't discount this as a MAJOR activity for your time in Oaxaca.

Paint your own alebrije (or nahual), take home some black or green pottery, or discover the lively and colorful markets for food, handicrafts, souvenirs and then some at the markets in Oaxaca.

Be sure not to miss the Tlacolula Sunday Market or the Mercado Benito Juarez!

Seek Out Palenques for Mezcal

Even if you are not sure if you like mezcal, treat the day like a day out at the vineyards in wine country. It's a nice time getting on the road, seeing beautiful mountain vistas and fields full of agave, and tasting is fun too. Sip a little or sip a lot, but the day will be an enjoyable one.

Pair it with a stop for lunch or a visit to a market.

Church of Santo Domingo

Closed on Mondays, other days you visit and enter this massive church in the city centro. A clear representation of Spanish colonization, it is an impressive place to snap some photos.

large colonial church

Ex Convent of Guerrero Cuilapam

Another popular tourist site, this one is a bit far from the Centro so you'll need a car or to take a tour. It's a lovely old convent (in ruins) that sets a nice backdrop for photos and understanding the Oaxacan history of Spanish rule.

Must-See Oaxaca Archeological Sites

You'll need to be sure and visit the Zonas Archaeologicas in Oaxaca, and there are several of them! Of the best, I recommend visiting Yagul, Lambityeco, Monte Alban and Mitla, in that order.

Grab a hat and a big jug of water, because it will be a hot visit, but an interesting one. See ruins, carvings from the Zapotec people, and more.

Other Great Things to Do:

Tips and Things to Know Before Traveling to Oaxaca

The Basics

Americans can bring their standard plugs for electronics. There is no need for a plug adapter.

Also, Americans can use their cell phones without any added fees. If you are unsure about this, check with your cell phone provider.

If you are coming from abroad, consider purchasing a digital eSIM card in advance, or consult my list of easy ways to call internationally.

What to Wear in Oaxaca

What to wear in Oaxaca definitely depends on the time of year that you visit, however I can tell you what to wear in Oaxaca in February based on personal experience.

First, understand that the temperature can differ 45 degrees or more a day, but somehow due to the lack of humidity (and very spicy sunshine) it never feels too hot or too cold.

woman eats food on a stick with a cowboy hat on

You will want to bring loose fitting clothing that covers your skin (and of course use sunblock), but anything with UV protection is going to be a good bet.

I live in Florida and we get moderate sun exposure, but nothing like Oaxaca's UV 11+ on the UV spectrum. Even if the air feels cool, expect the sun to penetrate everything.

That said, I recommend flowy pants and tops to protect while walking around ruins or mezcal fields and really good hiking boots.

Additionally, this is not a beach town, so don't dress like it is. Cover your body with appropriate clothing! It's a hot, arid desert so you need to think along the lines of layers and air wicking items.

My favorite piece of clothing was my Aldi black jean jacket. It was loaded with pockets to keep my phone, passport, and other gear handy during travel days or for cash and snacks at markets. This jacket kept me warm in the mornings (even with 45 degrees outside) and by midday I was able to take it off.

Bring plenty of fun jewelry and accessories to accompany your outfits, but save room to buy more! Also, you really don't need any fancy outfits. I brought my interchangeable solely jane sandals to mix and match styles with my flowy pants and market blouses, but that was as dressy as I got.

woman in yellow pants and embroidered top

If you are planning on buying mezcal, I also suggest considering a wine suitcase for maximum bottle protection. It worked so well for this trip! You can read all about wine suitcases from FlyWithWine here.

wine suitcase full of mezcal

Lastly, as I always say, pack lots of tissues. The dusty air will nip at your nose and make you sneeze a lot.

Bring Lots of Cash

One of the most important things to know before traveling to Oaxaca is that it is largely a cash state, meaning - don't expect many places to take credit cards and don't expect to see many ATM's. Get lots of cash in advance. Don't know how? I've detailed how to get cash abroad here.

You'll want to break your 500 bills early on to have plenty of small change for the markets. Keep the coins for bathrooms or odds and ends like snacks and candy.

Safety Considerations

Oaxaca is super safe. There was no apparent evidence of crime or pickpocketing during my weeklong stay. You can rest assured that we saw no evidence of cartels or anything that you may hear of in the news near the border states.

Oaxaca is a very lively, happy city, but with that there are general things to always consider.

rainbow colored banners above a street market

First, pedestrian safety. In the city center it was hot, loud, dusty and busy. People were loitering around the main zocalo square, mostly just relaxing in the shade, but it was still crowded. For me, the centro experience was largely displeasing, having come from the desert pueblos nearby. It's a shock, really, to be staying in a tranquil space then be thrust into CITY mode. That said, watch where you walk - there is a lot of road work going on downtown. Abide by the traffic lights and don't just jaywalk. Keep kids away from roadsides and sidewalks where they can easily get clipped by passing cars.

Tap Water in Oaxaca

I am just going to be honest here and say, there is no world where I am drinking tap water in Mexico. It's just a known fact, you don't drink the tap water in Mexico. Period. Make sure you are brushing your teeth and rinsing with bottled water, as I know I tend to swallow water while I'm brushing, and don't go singing in the shower with your mouth open, yea? You won't die or anything, but you'll get a fun stomach bug that is better avoided and left to all the spicy things you may be ingesting.

Bottled water is readily available just about everywhere, so stock up cause it's hot out there. Also, if you are in a rental property, consider boiling water 3-4 minutes for cooking (adjusted for high altitude too), and potentially using bottled water for making coffee, although I'm not sure that's completely necessary.

Driving in Oaxaca

empty road

This one is a fun topic. First please notice on day one at the rental car desk that these cars are not all polished and perfect. In fact, you don't want them to be. It's better to blend in! Our car was all sorts of dented, dinged and beat up. It ran with bad brakes, dusty seats and a questionable transmission. This is Mexico. Expect it and prepare for it. Take lots of photos of any damage before you ever drive off the lot.

Next, do as the locals do. They essentially create a lane from the breakdown lane, effectively making one lane two - one for slower traffic, and one for passing traffic.

view of road from car

Dirt roads are unavoidable in Oaxaca, as are "reductors" or "topes". These are ever prevalent speed bumps that if caught unaware, will do some damage to your underbelly. Take it slow.

Road closures are possible. We were around during a teacher's union protest, which really messed with our day plans. We ended up taking a "faster route" back, which took us over two mountain passes in the middle of nowhere. Our only road companions were donkey led carts and the occasional stray dog. Don't be us. Be safe and make good choices. Stick to the main roads as best as you can for the safety of your car, and for you, if you were to get a flat or run into trouble.

That said, keep snacks and water in the car at all times, and maybe even an umbrella or shade cover. Just in case.

Other than all those ominous warnings, the roads are actually pretty good and easy to navigate, so try not to worry too much.

Where to Stay in Oaxaca

We stayed at an AirBnB outside of the city center, but in the process of booking I found several city center hotels that I considered. Personally, if I had stayed in city center I would have been really disappointed in our trip to Oaxaca, but some people like the bustle of busy downtowns. If that's you, here's a few places I looked up that I may recommend: