The best thing to do in Oaxaca is explore. The city of Oaxaca has a rich downtown area with plenty of architecture and handicrafts (a theme continued throughout the state) as well as galleries and museums. Outside the city, outdoor adventure and cultural immersion rule. Where to go in Oaxaca is an easy question to answer; start in the capital city. The real challenge is where to go next.

The arcade at Convent Santo Domingo in Oaxaca City.

Convent Santo Domingo. Photo © Richard Robinson/123rf.

Oaxaca City

At the crossroads of the mountain-rimmed Valley of Oaxaca, the capital city offers virtually everything within its strollable downtown. Start from its charming central plaza to explore baroque churches, eclectic handicrafts markets, distinguished galleries and museums, a new wave of contemporary art galleries and shops, and inviting restaurants serving both authentic Oaxacan and international cuisine.

The Valley of Oaxaca

The banquet of old-Mexico experiences continues in the valley outside the city. Visit native markets with colorful arts and crafts at villages such as Teotitlán del Valle and Tlacolula on the east side; San Bartolo Coyotepec on the south side; and Zaachila, Arrazola, and Atzompa in the southwest. Or seek out lost cultures at Mitla and Monte Albán. Don’t miss the strangely compelling landscapes of Hierve el Agua.

Pacific Resorts and Southern Sierra

This long, lazy land of eternal summer is embellished by its resort trio: Puerto Ángel and Huatulco, on the east side, and Puerto Escondido on the west. Enjoy beachcombing, sportfishing, swimming, snorkeling, surfing, kiteboarding, stand-up paddleboarding, and scuba diving. On the Puerto Ángel-Huatulco side, add plenty of golf and tennis, river rafting, and jungle coffee farms. On the Puerto Escondido side, add abundant wildlife-viewing at Laguna Manialtepec and Parque Nacional Lagunas de Chacahua.

Oaxaca travel maps by region.

Oaxaca travel maps by region.

The Mixteca

This homeland of the Mixtecs, Oaxaca’s “People of the Clouds,” is a virtually untouristed domain, ripe for adventuring. Visit a monumental 16th-century Dominican ex-convent at Yanhuitlán, and the elegant open chapel at Teposcolula. Farther south, the cool, pine-tufted plateau of the High Mixteca offers groves of ancient sabino trees, plunging waterfalls, and Tlaxiaco, the “Paris of Oaxaca” with its splendid Saturday market. Even more is tucked in the Mixteca’s hidden corners, especially the idyllic Valley of Apoala.

Northern Oaxaca

An exploration of northern Oaxaca begins in the villages of the Sierra Juárez, scarcely an hour north from Oaxaca City. Farther north, past the towns of Tuxtepec and Ixcatlán, the highway climbs past the gigantic whale-back massif of the Cerro Rabón, the holy mountain of the Mazatec people, to the summit, at Huautla de Jiménez, their spiritual home. Stroll the native markets and shop for prized huipiles (traditional embroidered dresses). Or continue another half an hour to enjoy the twin waterfalls of Las Regaderas, or explore the limestone cave near Eloxochitlán.

The Isthmus

Nothing embodies the independent Isthmus spirit more than its near-continuous menu of fiestas, especially in Tehuántepec and Juchitán, where istmeño hearts beat fastest. Women dress in their spectacular floral huipiles and sway to the lovely, lilting melody of “La Sandunga,” the song of the Isthmus. For surfers, kiteboarders, and other lovers of the wind and waves, the coast west of Salina Cruz offers a dozen world-class surf spots.

Excerpted from the Seventh Edition of Moon Oaxaca.