One of Mexico’s Greatest Cultural Gems

Oaxaca City lies in the southernmost part of Mexico on the Pacific coast, and is the capital of the state of the same name. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, Oaxaca City, founded in 1529 by the Zapotec Indians, offers postcard-worthy images of Colonial Mexico, with colorful architecture, markets, and cobblestone streets.

Although its off the beaten track compared to other areas on the Riviera Maya, foodies flock to Oaxaca City for its world-renowned restaurants, while history lovers come to enjoy its Baroque churches and many festivals. With a population of around 255,000 people, Oaxaca is relatively small for the cultural gems it offers.

Just a short flight from Mexico City, Oaxaca is also located in one of the most bio diverse areas in Mexico. Birdwatchers are in heaven with the 634 different types of birds, while gardeners and animal lovers will be fascinated by the 3,338 types of flowers, and 194 different species of mammals here.

When the Spaniards arrived they created a city grid, laid out a town square, and started building, so there is plenty of Colonial Spanish influence evident in the architecture and design. Like much of Mexico, the city is a blend of vibrant indigenous traditions still carried out by the 16 different indigenous groups in the Oaxaca state, with modern-day Oaxacans going about their lives against this historic backdrop.

Retire in Oaxaca

Retire in Oaxaca

Oaxaca is known in Mexico for its diverse heritage, and with 16 different indigenous cultures, each with their own language and customs, it’s not hard to see why. In fact, it is not uncommon to see people walking along the cobblestone streets dressed in the vibrant garments of their heritage. Some sell handicrafts, from woven textiles to pottery.

There is an 18th-century cathedral on the plaza, and winding streets carry you past multi-hued buildings with beautiful grillwork decorating the windows, while intricate tiles adorn steps and interior walls.

Oaxaca has a temperate climate due to its mountain range Sierra Madre de Oaxaca. With highs of the upper 80’s F in the hotter months and high 40’s F in the cooler months, Oaxaca has enough of a seasonal swing for those who like a change of seasons. Plus, the mountains offer plenty of opportunities for day trips out of the city for hiking and exploring.

Medical care in Oaxaca is excellent, and many medical professionals speak English. With four sizeable public hospitals and multiple smaller private hospitals in the city, any care you need is only a few minutes away. Many expats say their medical care in Mexico is as good or better than what they had back home.

Culture lovers will appreciate the thriving arts scene. There’s a symphony orchestra, all manner of dance performances, including a city ballet, and live music such as jazz and blues. Oaxaca has renowned art museums too, such as the Museum of Oaxacan Painters which showcases contemporary artists, a photography museum, and a cultural history museum.

The city is also well-known for its variety of festivals including Guelaguetza, an annual event held in July which is a colorful celebration of the seven different regions of the state of Oaxaca. The city is also known for its elaborate Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead festival, which attracts visitors from all over Mexico.

Foodies also flock to Oaxaca because the restaurant scene is outstanding. From corner taco carts to restaurants, there is delicious food to eat at all price points. Oaxaca is also known as the home of mole, the flavorful chocolate with a hint of spice sauce that often covers chicken, and mexcal, a cousin of tequila.

Of course, people watching at the zocolo (or Plaza de la Constitution) is also a popular pastime. A city hub for over 500 years, people of all ages enjoy sitting in the shade of the cathedral (perhaps with a coffee from a nearby café) and while away the hours while children play, tourists linger, and couples stroll.

Lifestyle in Oaxaca

Lifestyle in Oaxaca

The town square (zocalo) called the Plaza de la Constitución is nearly 500 years old and has long served as a meeting ground for the city’s residents and visitors alike, with a daily market and public festivals.

There are two 16th century religious structures: the imposing Baroque Cathedral, and the Templo de Santo Domingo. The latter is a former monastery with adjoining Botanical Garden, meant to show the interaction between plants and people in Oaxaca’s history. It is a beautifully designed garden filled with pathways, a huge array of cacti, and hundreds of other plants.

For secular rule, there’s the Palacio de Goberierno—Governor’s Palace which has been rebuilt twice since 1884 due to earthquake damage. It now features murals of local history on the interior walls.

The cobblestone streets and colorful buildings radiating in every direction from the zocalo will charm you, and when you feel hungry, you’re in luck as some say Oaxaca City is Mexico’s gourmet heart.

These days, besides from the traditional Mexican fare, celebrated chefs also offer sophisticated takes on Mexican foods. For street food, don’t miss the markets of Mercado de la Merced and Mercado 20 de Noviembre, where you can find empanadas (a baked or fried pastry), carne asada (dish of grilled and sliced beef), mole (sauce made with hot chiles and chocolate), and other traditional foods.

For a memorable dinner out, Oaxaca City has a number of famous chefs, including Alejandro Ruiz whose restaurant Casa Oaxaca is a regular on the world’s best restaurant lists. He’s known for combining seasonal ingredients in a fresh way, including local favorites like pumpkin flowers stuffed with honey and epazote an herb with hints of oregano, anise, and mint.

Other chefs of note include José Manuel Baños, an alum of Spain’s famed El Bulli, a 3-star Michelin restaurant known for avant-garde cuisine. Nowadays, Chef Baños runs Pitiona, and puts a sophisticated spin on traditional Oaxacan dishes.

The list goes on, and with such dining options, we’d be amiss not to mention the local drink, Mezcal.

While most Americans are familiar with tequila, mezcal which predates tequila is less well-known. But not for long, as Mezcal tastings are popping up all over the country, giving visitors the opportunity to sample the smoky liquor. One notable mezcal distillery near Oaxaca City is Real Minera.

Oaxaca is a city of festivals, with a spectacular Dios de la Muertes  (Day of the Dead)  celebrations that last from late October to early November. You’ll find temporary alters piled high with marigolds, favorite foods, and images of ancestors in commemoration of those who have come before us. In December, there’s Night of the Radishes—think pumpkin carving but with radishes. In the summer there’s Guelaguetza, a celebration of indigenous cultures within Oaxaca complete with crafts, food, and dances.

Those with a penchant for the outdoors, will enjoy the rugged terrain of the Sierra Norte, where you can hike, ride bikes, and camp among striking waterfalls. You can also visit Pre-Columbian ruins like Monte Alban, and the petrified waterfalls of Hierve de Agua.

Cost of Living in Oaxaca

Cost of Living in Oaxaca

In the U.S. monthly bills like rent and utilities are one of the places where you can easily spend a lot, but in Oaxaca, it’s easy to save a lot.

There’s a mix of apartments and single-family residences to rent or buy throughout the city, and many have courtyards tucked away from the city streets.

Rents start at $500 a month for a furnished two-bedroom apartment with a long-term lease. Unlike other parts of Mexico where the rental prices spike in the winter months, Oaxaca is still “under the radar” for most so there are deals to be had if you know where to look.

You can load up on seasonal and locally grown fruit, vegetables, meat, and eggs, for $20. It’s also easy to keep utility bills low due to the temperate climate.

Dining out is cheap too. For lunch or a snack, many retirees enjoy the mercado food vendors who serve up freshly made tacos, tamales, and chiles rellenos. Local restaurants also serve a four-course menu of the day for $3 to $5 per person. Even if you want to celebrate at one of the high-end restaurants in town, a couple can enjoy a memorable meal with wine and a tip for around $60.

Here’s a sample monthly budget for a couple living in Oaxaca.

ExpensesU.S. $
Rent (two-bedroom apartment)$600
Electricity$15
Gas & Water$25
Cell Phones (x 2)$30
Groceries/Household Items$350
Insurance$100
Internet$30
Streaming Media Accounts$16
Dining out (2-3 times a month)$150
Taxis/buses$30
Monthly Total$1,346

The Heart of the City

Th Heart of Oaxaca City

The town square (zocalo) called the Plaza de la Constitución is nearly 500 years old and has long served as a meeting ground for the city’s residents and visitors alike, with a daily market and public festivals.

There are two 16th century religious structures: the imposing Baroque Cathedral, and the Templo de Santo Domingo. The latter is a former monastery with adjoining Botanical Garden, meant to show the interaction between plants and people in Oaxaca’s history. It is a beautifully designed garden filled with pathways, a huge array of cacti, and hundreds of other plants.

For secular rule, there’s the Palacio de Goberierno—Governor’s Palace which has been rebuilt twice since 1884 due to earthquake damage. It now features murals of local history on the interior walls.

The cobblestone streets and colorful buildings radiating in every direction from the zocalo will charm you, and when you feel hungry, you’re in luck as some say Oaxaca City is Mexico’s gourmet heart.

Where to Eat in Oaxaca

These days, besides from the traditional Mexican fare, celebrated chefs also offer sophisticated takes on Mexican foods. For street food, don’t miss the markets of Mercado de la Merced and Mercado 20 de Noviembre, where you can find empanadas (a baked or fried pastry), carne asada (dish of grilled and sliced beef), mole (sauce made with hot chiles and chocolate), and other traditional foods.

For a memorable dinner out, Oaxaca City has a number of famous chefs, including  Alejandro Ruiz whose restaurant Casa Oaxaca is a regular on the world’s best restaurant lists. He’s known for combining seasonal ingredients in a fresh way, including local favorites like pumpkin flowers stuffed with honey and epazote an herb with hints of oregano, anise, and mint.

Other chefs of note include José Manuel Baños, an alum of Spain’s famed El Bulli, a 3-star Michelin restaurant known for avant-garde cuisine. Nowadays, Chef Baños runs Pitiona, and puts a sophisticated spin on traditional Oaxacan dishes.

The list goes on, and with such dining options, we’d be amiss not to mention the local drink, Mezcal.

Mezcal Tastings

While most Americans are familiar with tequila, mezcal which predates tequila is less well-known. But not for long, as Mezcal tastings are popping up all over the country, giving visitors the opportunity to sample the smoky liquor. One notable mezcal distillery near Oaxaca City is Real Minera.

Festivals

Oaxaca is a city of festivals, with a spectacular Dios de la Muertes  (Day of the Dead)  celebrations that last from late October to early November. You’ll find temporary alters piled high with marigolds, favorite foods, and images of ancestors in commemoration of those who have come before us. In December, there’s Night of the Radishes—think pumpkin carving but with radishes. In the summer there’s Guelaguetza, a celebration of indigenous cultures within Oaxaca complete with crafts, food, and dances.

Day Trips from Oaxaca City

Those with a penchant for the outdoors, will enjoy the rugged terrain of the Sierra Norte, where you can hike, ride bikes, and camp among striking waterfalls. You can also visit Pre-Columbian ruins like Monte Alban, and the petrified waterfalls of Hierve de Agua.

The Takeaway

Visitors come to Oaxaca for the food, the history, and the stunning landscapes and biodiversity that only this small cultural gem can offer.