Have you every wanted to visit Oaxaca, Mexico? Or just wanted to know how to SAY Oaxaca?
Both a state (and city) in southern Mexico.
What brought us to Oaxaca? Well, it might have been the 100 articles we’d read about this gorgeous city. Or maybe it was the countless videos we watched on YouTube, showcasing the people, the food, the colorful streets and out-of-this-world craftsmanship. Or quite possibly the countless recommendations from people we met along our travels. Regardless of the reasons, we went and we stayed…for like a month!
Well, the truth is, we stayed in El Tule, a neighboring town to Oaxaca City. Oaxaca is known for a lot of things, but amazing camping spots is not one of them. But, El Tule shouldn’t be skipped either. Famous for this little tree in town, “The Tule Tree,” it draws people from all over the world to stand in its enormous shade. Little was a joke. The tree is the 3rd largest tree in the world, not for its height, but it’s girth. But don’t take my word for it. Noah did the research and wrote a little piece about the not-so-little tree here:
The Tule Tree (by Noah Jakoby)
The first reason for our trip to Oaxaca was to enroll in Spanish school. We had actually planned to attend classes in the coastal surf town of Puerto Escondido, where we planned to spend part of our day in school and the rest of our time catching the rad waves. Well, between the heat, lack of campsites without AC, and complete lack of surfing abilities, we opted to move inland and enrolled at the Oaxaca International School, which I’d highly recommend if you ever find yourself in southern Mexico., looking to learn the language.
The school was located right in the heart of the city, and getting there was half the fun. It was a one-hour trip (one way) from our campsite to school each day, requiring a 20-minute walk to catch a colectivo (a shared taxi) at the bus stop, a 20-minute ride into Oaxaca, followed by another 20-minute walk from the drop-off to school. Needless to say, it was great exercise and we soon became experts in navigating the streets of Oaxaca. Well, that is until the day I got lost in Oaxaca.
The Streets of Oaxaca, Mexico
You never know what you’ll find while walking the streets of Oaxaca, Mexico. For instance, one day I found myself lost. Thanks to a very nice colectivo driver who was kind enough to drop me closer to (what he thought) was my intended destination, I found myself wandering the streets of Oaxaca for a few hours looking for my Spanish school. I did eventually find my school but not in time to make it to class that day. However, I did find a great little place to have a margarita and plug in my dead cell phone. You know what they say. When life gives you lemons in Oaxaca…
What Oaxaca does have, besides streets that all look the same after a few hours, is beautiful colonial architecture in a wide pallet of colors, historic churches, dating back to the 16th century, art galleries, museums, markets, and hundreds of cafes and restaurants, some no larger than a broom closet.
Luckily, our time in Oaxaca was pre-COVID, which means the streets were bustling with people and activity, including a wedding we stumbled into in the middle of the Zocolo, where hundreds of people- wedding attendees, passersby and tourists- paraded down the streets, dancing to a louder-than-necessary band, while Mojigangas (giant, paper-mache puppets) lead the way, busting out their own dance moves. It was amazing!
The Zocolo is the main square, or plaza, located in the center of a Mexican city. It is a meeting spot for both locals and tourists, and apparently wedding parties, of which we saw several in one evening. The square and surrounding streets are full to the brim with food carts and merchandise stalls, selling all the things tourists desire: traditional Mexican clothing, hand-woven bags, belts and linens, and cute little bobbleheads carved out in the shapes of turtles, bulls or even cowboys riding bulls. If you can imagine it, they’ve probably made it. We picked up a few in Loreto, Baja, which became our dash buddies for the remainder of our trip.
If you’re looking to shop, listen to music, eat cheaply or jump in on a quick game of chess with a random Mexican gentleman, the Zocolo is the place to be.
Camping in Oaxaca
El Tule, Mexico
As previously mentioned, there is really no camping available in the city of Oaxaca, unless you’re small enough to park on the streets and blend in. I would not put La Tortuga in that category, so instead, we found the perfect spot to hang out (for a month) in El Tule, at El Rancho RV Park.
El Rancho offered a pool, a beautiful outdoor community kitchen, bathrooms and showers (with hot water), complimentary bikes for exploring town, and even a private Mezcal-tasting party. But the best part was they had one of those real fancy laundry contraptions that washes clothes with the use of electricity, a huge step up from my buckets and plunger method.
During our three weeks there, we made some pretty amazing discoveries: The attractions listed below, pizza delivery, and a Walmart service, which brought food, tequila and wine right to our RV. Now, if that’s not “assisted living,” I don’t know what is. It’s probably the reason we still have friends staying (living) there today.
Places to Visit Around Oaxaca, Mexico
Besides the town of El Tule itself, there are many towns and attractions around Oaxaca worth a visit: Monte Albán, the town and market of Tlacalula, Teotitlán del Valle, Hierve El Agua, and Mitla. Read more about each below:
The archeological ruins of Monte Albán are just a short drive from the center of Oaxaca, and can be easily accessed with a smaller vehicle, taxi or through a tour company, which is what we chose to do, just for the ease of travel. Unfortunately, we waited until the hottest part of the day to visit, which resulted in a pretty hot mood from Noah during our visit, putting us on the speed-track tour. As our experience didn’t provide a lot of new knowledge to share with you, feel free to learn more about Monte Albán here.
Tlacalula Municipal Market
The town of Tlacalula (pronounced exactly as it’s spelled) has one of the best markets we’ve ever come across. And at this point in our trip, we had been to quite a few. But none came close to the one in Tlacalula. All municipal markets have vibrant and colorful fresh fruits and vegetables, all kinds of raw meats dangling from hooks, and selections of tasty, seasoned crickets to munch on. But Tlacalula, specifically on Sundays, is on a a different level than the rest.
To reach the town and market of Tlacalula, we hopped aboard the public bus, easily caught at the edge of town in El Tule, costing a mere 11 pesos each- that’s about 50 cents. Unfortunately, we found out later the bus doesn’t return you directly to El Tule without a long detour through the town of Oaxaca, so we opted to make our way back home in a taxi, not a mere 11 pesos!
One of the biggest differences I found in Tlacalula was the people. Locals from surrounding villages come not only to sell but to shop, and are dressed in their village’s traditional clothing, specific to their region. It’s quite the sight and definitely a photographer’s dream, but beware! You either need to be really good at taking photos on the sly or you’d better be prepared to shell out some pesos to those you’re photographing. The shop keepers are used to tourists coming through with expensive cameras dangling from their bodies, and they aren’t about to give their faces away for free. Enjoy a closer look at the Tlacalula Market here.
Teotitlán del Valle
Known as the “weaving village,” Teotitlán de Valle was one of the highlights of our time around Oaxaca. Walking through the streets here felt a bit like we’d been swallowed up in a color wheel from the 1970’s. Bright colors and fabrics hung everywhere, woven into rugs, bags, pillow coverings, dresses, belts, and more. I loved and needed it all! Thank goodness Gregg was there to tell me I didn’t need it all, or we would have been hauling a U-Haul behind La Tortuga for the rest of the trip.
We spent more than half our time in Teotitlán with one lovely family at their factory…aka, their home. After purchasing a beautiful woven bed spread and a few other items, I was offered a weaving lesson on one of the families 5 looms, while Noah got his own lesson in spinning yarn on the ancient yarn-spinning wheel, giving Gregg plenty of time to snap pictures of everything he could find.
It was the perfect day, which ended in us walking away with some beautiful pieces, and the family walking through La Tortuga, to tour our crazy home-on-wheels they were so curious about. You can check out more about Teotitlán here.
Hierve El Agua
The site of Hierve El Agua (meaning Boiling Water), is a set of calcified rock formations, or petrified waterfalls. They are created from slow-moving water, oversaturated with calcium carbonite, leaking down the hillside 12-30 meters below and hardening onto the rock face, creating “Cascada de Sal” (salt waterfall). It is similar to the stalactites formed inside caves. The smaller of the two waterfalls (Cascada Chica) pools at the bottom, and is easily accessed by a walking path from the parking lot above.
The waters, with their high mineral content, are said to have healing qualities for those who come to soak in them. But this is no typical soak. With a high temperature of somewhere between 2-25 °C, I wouldn’t be looking to ease my sore muscles here. There is so much more to know about this magnificent and natural site.
We arrived at Hierve el Agua late in the afternoon, after a windy drive through a small village, and paid a small fee to camp in their parking lot overnight. We took advantage of the many food stalls situated above the falls and spent our time hiking around the rock formations and soaking in the refreshing waters. Read more about it here.
The Mesoamerican archeological site of Mitla is one of Mexico’s most popular ruins, and just minutes from the town of Teotitlán. This sacred burial site sits at an elevation of 4,855 ft (1,480 m), surrounded by the Sierre Madre del Sur mountain range, which would have made it a much more popular choice for Noah. You’d think between it’s cooler elevation and proximity to Teotitlán, we would have never missed the opportunity to visit this beauty, but we did, miss the opportunity, I mean. I literally watched as it passed by out the window of the RV, feelings of regret already growing inside me. Unfortunately, out time in Teotitlán put us behind schedule and it we wanted to make it to Hierve el Agua by nightfall, we had to get moving.
Fortunately, many others before us didn’t let Mitla go unexplored, so we can all visit it virtually through them here.
Hopefully, some of the above inspired you to visit the amazing state of Oaxaca, Mexico. It certainly was one of the highlights of our trip.