Oaxaca is a southern state of Mexico, well-known for its high percentage of various indigenous people, largely Zapotec and Mixtec, 1/3 of which still speak their native language. It’s a state keen on tourism, but which easily maintains a vital native heritage, unscathed by the progressive economic and social influences so apparent in many Mexican states.

The reason the Oaxaca people, living in small secluded villages, have been able to hang on to their simple heritage for so long is due to the mountainous terrain that isolates their towns and communities from, well, anyone. However, with the expansion of several infrastructures, the world seems to have awakened, wide-eyed, and blinking at the state’s wonderful natural tourist attractions, as well as its scenic beach towns along the Pacific coast.

Most inhabitants live in the center of the state, namely the beautiful, colonial, capital city of Oaxaca de Juárez (Oaxaca) and the Valles Centrales (Central Valleys) directly surrounding. The capital city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, still alive with indigenous markets selling handcrafted artwork, and the area beyond offers important tourist attractions that anyone visiting the area will not want to miss!

A leading producer of Mexico’s handcrafted goods, the Oaxaca people have made creative use of their abundant raw materials. Traditionally made with wood, wool, cotton, clay and leather, the goods are sold in many venues from local markets to chic international stores.

If you love pottery, Oaxaca is the place to collect colorful, imaginative pieces of earthenware. Select pieces with styles that originated right in Oaxaca, like the jade-green glazed pottery from the village of Atzompa – the pottery and the village rose to fame when Nelson Rockefeller purchased 67 mother earth figures from the Teodora Blanca family – and the Barro negro (black clay) that heralds back to the historic Monte Alban period.

And let’s not forget the incredible wood crafting of “alebrije” figures - typically diminutive, brightly painted real or imaginary animals from the towns of San Martín Tilcajete and Arrazola.

A municipality particularly noted for its beautiful embroidered huipils (dresses and shirts) is Santo Tomás Jalietza, located just south of the capital city. In the capital, the Xochimilco neighborhood is also known for its embroidery; here you’ll find beautifully stitched table linens as well.

Across the Sierra Madre del Sur Mountains to the south of Oaxaca city are the state’s most beautiful beaches, and the trip down to the coast from Oaxaca city is a spectacularly scenic experience in itself. Although once there, with the Pacific Ocean’s white-sand beaches stretching for miles in front of you and the mountains behind, you might find yourself in landscape heaven.

The surrounding small beach towns appeal to a variety of beach lovers. From the quiet calm of lesser known beaches like Puerto Ángel, Zipolite, San Agustinillo and Mazunte to the more developed beaches at Huatulco with its 9 idyllic bays, and Puerto Escondido with its world-class surfing beach at Playa Zicatela, along these shores there is something for everyone. Even kayaking is available along the Copalita River in Huatulco.

If you love wildlife, you will be thrilled to know that Oaxaca’s coastline is one of the most important natural sea turtle nesting areas in the world. Incidentally, a “must see” for the small beach town of Mazunte is the popular Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga, a research center and turtle aquarium with exhibits of all 7 species of Mexico’s marine turtles. Take a guided tour and view these extraordinary animals in huge tanks.

The waters and lagoons along Oaxaca’s Pacific shores are teeming with migratory birds and dolphins, but they are a great draw for sport fishermen too. Sport fishing, as well as tournaments, is common in Puerto Escondido, Huatulco, and Huajuapan de Leon. Imagine catching sailfish, dorado, or a huge marlin!

Eco-tourism is alive and well in Oaxaca’s Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve, and anyone visiting the area must check out its Chimalapas rain forest – the largest tract of tropical rainforest in Mexico! If you are into helping eco-tourism, attend the Festival Música por la Tierra (Music Festival for the Earth) at Huatulco, an event designed to raise environmental awareness.

Located on a mountain to the west of Oaxaca city is the state’s most important archeological ruins, Monte, a UNESCO World Heritage site. At its peak, Monte Albán was home to around 25,000 people and was the capital city of the Zapotec nation for nearly 1,000 years.

The mountain range near Monte Albán is an ideal setting for the active vacationer. The magnificent landscape is perfect for mountaineering, mountain biking, rock climbing, rappelling, hiking, and horseback riding. Locations like the Sierra Norte in Ixtlan de Juarez, San Antonio Cuajimoloyas, Santa Catarian Ixtepeji, Benito Juarez Lachatao and San Isidro Llano Grande are great for these adventurous pursuits. Varying grades of difficulty are available for each activity, but why not make the most of your trip with a guided excursion?

To Oaxaca city’s east is another designated World Heritage site. The Guilá Naquitz cave near the town of Mitla has the earliest documented evidence of domesticated plants (maize) on the continent. In addition, the archeological ruins at Mitla were important Zapotec religious centers, dominated by high priests who performed horrific human sacrifices. The architectural ruins of Yanhuitlán and Laguna Zope are located nearby as well, with the latter being known for its small “pretty women” or “baby face” statues.

Whatever time of year you visit the state of Oaxaca, the weather will be perfect, and you will find much to do – and if you visit in July be sure to take in the Fiesta del Lunes del Cerro (Festival of Mondays at the Mountain), the state’s most important annual festival!

Spanish version of this page: Oaxaca