Budget Mexico Guide: Oaxaca
Oaxaca Guide: Oaxaca City, San Jose del Pacifico, Puerto Escondido and Mazunte/Zipolite
STATE OF OAXACA
Oaxaca is a magical place. Not as many tourists get here as it’s not so much on the main tourist path. But boasting some of the strongest native culture in Mexico, coupled with dramatic mountains and epic coastlines, it’s definitely worth the effort. The state is probably best known for it’s indigenous peoples; the Zapotecs and Mixtecs. These cultures have survived better than most others due to the rugged and isolated terrain in which they live. Oaxaca boasts a vibrant crafts and arts scene and and unique cuisines, colourful festivals and diverse plants and animals.
Oaxaca City (Oaxaca de Juarez) (4 days)
Oaxaca City is one of the Central American cultural hub. Bustling with traditional markets, local delicacies and indigenous traditions and nestled in a mountain region, it also boasts some seriously breathtaking scenery on the city outskirt. Oaxaca is possibly most famous for it’s Mezcal – a tequila-like alcohol made from the agave plant. If you’re looking for ‘traditional’ Mexico – here’s where you can find it!
Things to do in Oaxaca City
The Zócalo: Thriving and bursting with activity it’s pretty hard to go past the centre Zócalo. Stay a while and watch a demonstration, eat something from the food vendors or sit and people-watch. Come with a book or just a smile to meet some of the local people.
Día de Muertos: I specifically came to Oaxaca for the ‘Day of the Dead’ celebrations after hearing this city was one of the most traditional places to see it. Here you will notice houses and businesses brightly decorated with orange Marigold flowers in the weeks leading up to the celebration. Be sure to visit a cemetery at nighttime to see the locals celebrating with their loved ones at their graves.
READ: Beautiful Photography from Mexican Day of the Dead
Hierve el Agua: About an hour and a half drive from the city, Hierve el Agua is a fascinating calcified waterfall and swimming area. Hierve in Spanish means boil, so you can be forgiven for thinking the water might be hot. Instead, it is the opposite, with the water standing at about 22°C. The waterfall itself takes on a petrified look, standing frozen, as it’s bursts over the cliffs edge.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH IN OAXACA: Tehuacan-Cuicatlan Biosphere Reserve
Where to stay in Oaxaca City
Couchsurf: There’s a strong Couchsurfing scene in Oaxaca. I met a couple of locals and they were really lovely, even taking us out to a traditional graveyard out of town for the Day of the Dead celebrations.
Hotel Posada del Centro: This lovely little place is quintessentially Mexican. Brightly coloured paint and bedspreads with a gorgeous terrace garden nestled in the middle and only 200m from the main square.
Where to eat and drink in Oaxaca City
Royalty: If you’re eating cheap in Mexico I highly recommend the Menu del Dia (Menu of the Day) where you’ll get 4-5 different foods to try for a set price. The Menu del Dia at Royalty was damn good and so damn cheap.
Mercado 20 de Noviembre: Visit the November 20 Markets to indulge in traditional Oaxacan foods like tejate (corn and cacao beverage that tastes better than it sounds), chapulines (seasoned crunchy grasshoppers) or mole (a traditional style of sauce using cacao and is usually made into a curry-style dish with chicken).
Mezcal tours: Oaxaca is one to the biggest producers of Mezcal. All Mezcal, imported and local, is still made in the traditional way from the agave plant. If you’re interested in learning about this process – do a tour!
How to get to and from Oaxaca City
Oaxaca to Mexico City: To Mexico City from Oaxaca is super easy and there are lots of buses doing it. The obvious tourist bus is with ADO where you can get between the two cities for about $30 USD. To do the same trip for only 200 pesos ($10 USD) there is an entire terminal for second-class buses next to the Central Abastos, a huge market about 15-minutes from the centre of town. Here you can travel all over Oaxaca and to nearby states for super cheap.
Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido: To get to Puerto Escondido you can take on overnight ADO bus for about $25 USD that takes around 11 hours. However, if short on time, you may consider taking a camioneta (mini-bus/van) rather than the ADO bus as it takes almost half the time (the bus can’t cut straight through the mountains like the van can… but prepare of a sickly ride). Transportes Villa del Pacifico has camionetas that leave from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido once every hour.
San Jose del Pacifico (2 days)
High up in the mountains of Oaxaca sits a tiny town, consisting of about 2 streets. San Jose is a must for anyone who likes peace, tranquility and being alone. A town permanently surrounded by mist, San Jose only has only a small tourist scene, yet it is a destination that is quite famous. San Jose is well known for its hallucinogenic mushrooms that can be obtained easily, since they grow freely in the surrounding forests.
Things to do in San Jose del Pacifico
Mushrooms: Firstly I must mention that mushrooms are an illegal substance in Mexico, however, in San Jose it seems to be relatively un-policed. You will probably be approached by a seller at some point, but if you are not, just ask someone where you can get them.
4 Elementos Thermazcal: The thermazcal is a traditional Mexican sauna inside of a mud brick “igloo”. In the middle hot rocks are splashed with water using a bouquet of healing herbs and plants. 4 Elementos is located on a huge block of magical land owned and run by Shaman Navarro. You can do as I did and indulge in a thermazcal and mushroom tea combo for 450 pesos.
Where to stay in San Jose del Pacifico
Casa Catalina: You might have heard about this interesting hostel on the backpacker trails of Oaxaca. This little hippy house isn’t for everyone, though. It’s more like crashing on your messy friends floor than actually staying in a hostel. Catalina, the owner, wasn’t there when we stayed but we’d heard she is a kind of witch or magic woman who’s cured sicknesses of the local people. It costs only 50 pesos per night to stay there, super cheap even by Mexico’s standards.
Sueño Atrapado hostel: If the above isn’t really your thing there’s a really lovely brand new hostel across the road. The owner/manager is awesome and cooked meals for us! The bedroom is cosy and the views are great.
Where to eat and drink in San Jose del Pacifico
Main road: There are only a few places to eat out in San Jose and they can all be found on the main road going through town. I highly recommend the street-food place that sells Pazole (chicken stew) with a side of chilli.
How to get to and from San Jose del Pacifico
San Jose to Oaxaca: San Jose del Pacifico is 3 hours drive from Oaxaca City and 4 hours from the Pacific Coast on a windy, mountainous road. The only way to get there is by camioneta (van), as no buses will fit the roads. The van from Oaxaca to San Jose is 90 pesos
San Jose to Puerto Escondido: Getting to the coast is going to be a very windy drive. It takes about 4 hours to get to Pochutla from San Jose and costs 80 pesos. From Pochutla, grab a cheap and quick camioneta to Mazunte or Puerto Escondido.
Puerto Escondido (3-4 days)
Long beaches, rolling waves and scorching sun is what is brought to mind when thinking of Puerto Escondido. The name in Spanish means Hidden Port, referring to the bustling fishing scene. But, Puerto Escondido is one of the busiest coasts in Mexico, with surfers and domestic tourists streaming here in droves for the Pacific surf and cooler waters. Buzzing with juice bars and nightlife, there’s something here for everyone.
Things to do in Puerto Escondido
Surf on Carizalillo Beach: This is an especially good beach to surf on if you are a beginner. You can rent a board right off the beach for 50 pesos and then enter the contained bay with the other learners. If you feel like a break try a banana boat ride for a bit of fun (40 pesos).
Phosphorescent Laguna de Manialtepec: If you’ve never swum with bioluminescent plankton before – do it now! This lake is packed full with it, so bring your goggles! Cost is around 270 pesos for a night tour. Try to do it when there is no or little moon light.
Horse riding: This was the BEST horse riding I’ve ever done. If you’re scared of horses or worried about safety – do not do this one. If all you want to do is canter but you’re never allowed, then this is the horse riding for you! Do the 5 hour ride to Aguas Thermales de Manialtepec and bring your swimmers. Cost is 700p with discounts for extra people. Call Joe Martinez on 9545592431, or email email@example.com. They are speedy to reply by email.
Where to stay in Puerto Escondido
Tower Bridge Hostel: I’m a sucker for a hostel with a big garden, and Tower Bridge has just that, with a pool nestled in the middle. It also has an epic drinking game board played every night and some really cool people working there. Only downside is it’s a little far from the main area so a bus will be needed to get into town.
Hostel El Lugar: The area that this hostel was located (La Punta) was just my type of place. Sandy roads, little street food stalls and a chilled vibe. The Hostel is clean and cheap.
Where to eat and drink in Puerto Escondido
Cafecito: This touristy place on the main strip serves up a whole baked snapper with dessert for only 200 pesos – and it’s goooood!
Pinches Tacos: Possibly the best tacos I had in Puerto Escondido. Considering the area, they are well priced with fish tacos and a beer at 60 pesos.
Lychee Thai: Sometimes on the road I just need to have some Thai (my fave!) and Lychee definitely satisfies that craving. A little pricier than the street food, this place has a great Asian fusion menu and a cosy atmosphere.
Congo Bar: Live music and great atmosphere, with bright walls and an arty feeling.
DANGERS: I was robbed in Puerto Escondido when a friend bought a Mexican woman into our room that he’d picked up at the club. She was so sneaky that I didn’t realise she’d stolen my wallet and billed $700 AUD on my credit card until 10am the next day. Puerto Escondido can have a sinister undertone and tourists are warned not to get too drunk and watch themselves in this seaside town.
How to get to and from Puerto Escondido
You can fly in (boring!) or you can get one of the many buses going anywhere and everywhere. There is a main bus terminal where you can get to Oaxaca City for 180 pesos and takes 9 hours. Mexico City is 11 hours on a bus and San Cristobal takes about 10 hours.
Mazunte / Zipolite (3 days)
I’ve put these two amazing places under the same heading because they are so close to each other it’s basically like choosing which side of town you want to stay at. Mazunte has all the facilities and things to do, like turtle hatching and yoga retreats, while Zipolite is the sleepy beach town next door. Zipolite was my favourite beach of the two. It’s a lot longer, with less people and the vibe was more chilled (maybe because it’s officially a nudist beach…?).
Things to do in Mazunte / Zipolite
Watch the sunset from Punta Cometa: An easy 30-minute walk from the centre of town this grassy hill is a great place to watch the sun dip below the sea. The 360° views are incredible!
Nude beaches on Zipolite: Clothing optional. People mostly wear clothes along the main stretch of the beach but if you really want to get your kit off head to the West end of Zipolite, or to Playa de Amor on the East end.
Yoga at Casa Om Shanti: Hatha Yoga each day at 9am is paid for by donation.
READ: The above is just a snapshot, so here’s a whole bunch of Free Things to do in Mazunte
Where to stay in Mazunte / Zipolite
Mazunte and Zipolite are the kind of laid-back towns that you can easily just rock up, check a few places out and find one you like on foot. There’s no need to book in advance. But if you really need to book, here are a couple of good ones;
Villa Luna de Miel: Just minutes walk to the town centre and also close to Punta Cometa. Has a huge palapa that overlooks the whole town. So pretty.
Casa De Iguanas: This Airbnb is an actual tree house. Super private and comes with a hammock and amazing views. Um, yes please.
Where to eat and drink in Mazunte / Zipolite
Prasad: Located on the main drag in Mazunte this “by donation” restaurant serves up delicious vegan food every Sunday.
Los Traviesos: Meaning “The Mischievous Ones” in Spanish it’s located on the Mazunte main road. It has really tasty traditional local food for only 40 pesos a pop.
Sal y Pimienta: Right on the beach this place sells grilled fish with chips and salad for only 65 pesos and huge hamburgers with the lot for the same. And it’s REALLY good.
How to get to and from Mazunte / Zipolite
Puerto escondido to Mazunte: It’s a quick and easy ride from both Puerto Escondito and Pochutla. From Puerto Escondido grab a bus heading towards Pochutla and ask them to stop at the Oxxo Supermarket at San Antonio. Cost is 35 pesos and takes 1.5 hours. At the Oxxo get a colectivo (truck with tarp roof) to Mazunte for 10 pesos, or Zipolite for another 6 pesos.
Pochutla to Mazunte: From Pochutla it’s only 20 minutes drive and is an easy 10 pesos colectivo from near the main bus station.
WHERE TO NEXT? Heading over to San Christobal in Chiapas?
MEXICO IN A NUTSHELL
Tourist Bus Company: ADO. You may need a translator installed in your browser to use this site.
Supermarkets: Oxxo (like 711), Chedraui and Walmart. P.S. Oxxo sell $1 hot dogs with DIY toppings and the melty cheese is flipping amazing!!!
Cheap Accommodation: Mexico and especially Chiapas, has a strong CouchSurfing scene that I highly recommend you try, even if it’s just to meet locals. I’ve met some great people and only had positive experiences!
Speaking Spanish: You won’t NEED Spanish in touristy areas in Chiapas, but if you want to make the most out of your travels and also get the local prices on buses, etc, I suggest you spend some time learning Spanish. You can take private lessons all around Mexico for as little as $5 USD an hour. Just ask your reception for a tutor.
Place: The Free and Sovereign State of Oaxaca; Oaxaca City, San Juan del Pacifico, Puerto Escondido, Mazunte and Zipolite
Currency: Mexican Peso
$1 USD = 18.92 Mex$
I was here: November 2014
WHERE TO NEXT? Here’s my Budget Guide to Mexico City