I thought I knew what to expect the first time I came to Oaxaca. I was sure that I’d see some grand Baroque churches, cool colonial-era buildings, and some impressive street art, and I’d heard that Oaxaca was the capital of mezcal, the smoky, tequila-like drink that comes from the agave cactus. I’d seen Oaxacan handicrafts before, even in the U.S.—brightly painted carvings of hummingbirds and armadillos, day-glow dogs, and other fantastic psychedelic creatures.
What I didn’t know was how much Oaxaca would exceed my expectations. I was awed by the rich, sophisticated, and varied cuisine, full of dishes with nuanced sauces, exciting flavors, and complex seasonings that are different from the food I’m used to in my home town of Querétaro in the central highlands.
In Oaxaca, I was charmed by the nearly infinite number of murals, paintings, art museums, galleries, and public art exhibits in the Centro Histórico. Neighborhoods like Barrio de Jalatlaco have murals on practically every other building; I saw them wherever I went. I walked everywhere, along the cobblestone streets, past churches, colorful residential neighborhoods, and peaceful parks, taking one photo after another. There was always something to catch my attention, to make me want to pause, reflect, and admire.
I was amazed by the pre-Hispanic ruins where the indigenous Zapotec people mastered not only art but astronomy, the 10,000- foot mountains, hot springs and petrified waterfalls, and market villages tucked away in quiet valleys.
I was surprised at the number of expats in Oaxaca. They tell me they’ve come for the art, the colonial-era architecture, the exquisite food, the genuinely welcoming locals, and for Oaxaca’s low cost of living. I understand why.
Diversity Makes Oaxaca Interesting
Oaxaca de Juárez, or just Oaxaca City, is the capital of the state of Oaxaca (pronounced wah-HAH-kah) located in the highlands of southern Mexico. Its population of approximately 715,000 consists of more than a dozen ethnic minorities. A full 48% of Oaxaqueños are indigenous to the area, including the Zapotec and Mixtec people who make up a significant minority of the inhabitants. Oaxaqueño native, Benito Juárez, the president of Mexico from 1858 until 1872, was a Zapotec and Mexico’s first indigenous president.
Spain conquered most of Mexico in the early 1500s and ruled Oaxaca for 300 years, establishing churches, schools, and—sometimes forcibly—converting the populace to Catholicism. When the Spanish ceded control of the state to Mexican revolutionaries in 1811, they left behind parks, plazas, churches, and residences that have shaped modern day Oaxaca City. The Centro Histórico has so many breathtaking buildings and monuments from this era that it’s designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Oaxaca City is also home to several thousand expats, most of whom come from the U.S. and Canada. Many of them are remote workers, though there is also a sizeable community of retirees.
Centro Histórico: A Step Back in Time
Oaxaca’s historic district—which encompasses all of downtown—is one of the finest reasons to visit the city, and it’s certainly why so many foreigners have chosen to live here. Brimming with Spanish-colonial charm, it’s packed with plazas, fountains and shady trees, museums, galleries, parks, and plenty of street art. Murals, statues, and public exhibits decorate practically every block in the city. I heard the chime of church bells and listened to talented street singers and musicians perform traditional and modern songs. My husband David and I passed by a noisy, swirling, impromptu parade, then found a tranquil place on the edge of one of the plazas and relaxed over cool drinks. It was a perfect spot to soak up the sights and sounds of the city.
We took so many pictures. Oaxaca is a photographer’s dream. From the main town square, or zócalo, we were within a short walk of Oaxaca’s most impressive sites. The imposing centuries-old Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption is adjacent to the zócalo. The Baroque-era Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán is a short walk from there along picturesque cobblestone streets, past gaily painted art galleries and colorful residences.
Brimming with Spanish colonial charm.
We almost got lost exploring the Mercado Benito Juárez—one of the city’s largest traditional markets. It has aisles of handwoven textiles, shops with locally produced handicrafts, blocks of rich, dark Oaxacan chocolate, and innumerable shelves full of fiery mezcal.
The sprawling Mercado 20 de Noviembre covers two full blocks; one building offers mostly prepared food—breads, tacos, enchiladas, and local specialties— while the other part is a more traditional market where vendors sell meat, eggs, and staples. This is where I’d buy my groceries if I lived in Oaxaca…but I’d go on an empty stomach and explore the busy and inexpensive little food stalls first.
I had underestimated the food scene here. Restaurants, even the most humble, made the most flavorful, freshest, and creative traditional and locally influenced food. Oaxaca has a well-deserved reputation as a foodie’s paradise.
A Budget-Friendly City
It costs less to live in Oaxaca than in many Mexican urban centers. Two people could easily live well on a monthly budget of $1,500 or less. Rents will range from around $400 for a one-bedroom apartment in a good neighborhood to more than $1,000 for three bedrooms, which hands you a lot of value. Since there’s little need for either heating or cooling, most landlords include utilities with the rent.
Well-deserved reputation as a foodie paradise.
Aside from rent, your biggest monthly expense is likely to be eating out—the food is so good you’ll want to go out at every opportunity. We enjoyed a tasty al fresco lunch of steak, tlayudas (Oaxacan-style pizza), and beverages at Bar Jardin, next to the zócalo, for only $17 including the tip. We had three delicious quesadillas with savory green chili salsa, a molote, and Mexican hot chocolate at a little no-name restaurant for only $5. Even our mole splurge at the upscale Los Pacos Centro cost less than $50, including beverages and a decadent dessert.
California native M’kali-Hashiki Nln says her average monthly budget in Oaxaca is between $800 and $900 per month. North Carolina retiree Cheryl Goldberg says that she and her husband average $4,000 to $4,500 a month here for their higher-end lifestyle.
There isn’t a part of town where expats are most likely to live—they’re scattered throughout the area. Living in the city center, you’ll likely pay higher rent than in the suburbs. M’kali-Hashiki, who pays $475 per month for her one-bedroom apartment, lives in the Barrio de Xochimilco, which is an easy walk from the historic district; she says that she would have a difficult time finding a place in her price range in the city center. When I went to the Xochimilco neighborhood, I noticed an expat influence, with several international-themed restaurants and a few stores selling organic and natural foods. The beautiful, mural-laden Barrio de Jalatlaco, and the Reforma boroughs are other popular neighborhoods for expats.
Hospitals providing international-standard care and English-speaking doctors in Oaxaca include Hospital del Valle (see: hospitaldelvalle.mx), Clínica Hospital Carmen, and Hospital Reforma (see: hospitalreforma- oaxaca.miadn.mx). If you participate in Mexico’s national healthcare plan, there is also an IMSS hospital.
$475 for a two-bed apartment, utilities included.
New York expat Julie May Locke says, “My daughter was hospitalized for kidney stones. She spent the night in the hospital, and with IVs and meds—everything— it cost about $400.”
Oaxacan expats speak highly of the healthcare provided by doctors who practice out of private clinics. A doctor’s visit at a private clinic costs about $20 or $25 and they’ll likely spend an hour or longer with you.
With such low prices, many expats haven’t felt the need to keep health insurance. That’s the case with M’kali-Hashiki Nln, who says, “I saw a doctor here and paid $20 for the visit. It’s cheaper to pay out of pocket than to pay for insurance.”
An Active Expat Community
Thousands of expats have settled in Oaxaca City. Long-time resident John Brough from Santa Cruz, CA, says he’d noticed that many retirees had returned to their home countries since the pandemic began, while more remote workers moved in. I saw plenty of expats of all ages living in the city. The majority come from the U.S. and Canada.
The Oaxaca Lending Library (see: oaxlibrary.org), a non-profit, Englishlanguage library in the historic district, is a gem. Besides having a respectable selection of books and DVDs, the library is an active expat community center. They hold newcomer meetings every Monday, and their bulletin board lists all sorts of events—from yoga classes, hiking groups, and language exchanges, to picnics and volunteering opportunities. The staff is knowledgeable and helpful, able to advise on nearly anything regarding life in Oaxaca. Every expat I met here said that the Oaxaca Lending Library should be the first place to go if you’re a newcomer.
To explore what’s currently happening around town of interest to the English-speaking community, there’s also the Oaxaca Events informative website (see: oaxacaevents.com).
Oaxaca has many restaurants with loyal expat followings. The Chepiche Café (see: chepichecafe.com) gets high marks among hungry diners, and wildly popular Boulenc, which I visited twice during my stay, has delicious baked goods, pastas, burgers, and sandwiches, though the service is a bit hit-and-miss. The cozy Tastavins wine bar comes highly recommended for their wine selection, tapas, and pasta dishes, and the Oaxaca Brewing Company is popular for their selection of quality craft beers. The friendly El Tendajon restaurant has a broad selection of local mezcals, as well as great breakfasts and what I think are some of the best fish tacos outside of Baja California. (If you’d like more info on these bars and restaurants, they all have pages on Facebook, just search by their name.)
Ideal Year-Round Climate
Oaxaca’s 5,102-foot elevation moderates the temperature; it’s cooler and less humid than in the lowlands. Though the city’s average annual temperature is a balmy 70 F, days may top 90 F any time of the year. Fortunately, evenings are cooler, with daily lows usually in the high 40s or 50s F. The high-altitude sunlight is quite strong even on mild days (travel tip, bring a hat). The average annual rainfall is about 30 inches, most of which occurs during brief afternoon storms between June and September.
A Regional Transport Hub
Oaxaca is served by the Oaxaca-Xoxocotlan airport (code: OAX). Most flights require a change of plane in Mexico City, though American Airlines, through Dallas, and United Airlines, via Houston, offer direct flights to Oaxaca; that trip takes less than three hours. Mexican budget airline Volaris has direct flights from Los Angeles. It’s also possible to fly nonstop from Oaxaca to a few Mexican destinations including Tijuana and Cancún.
If you’re driving to Oaxaca on the safe, well-maintained toll roads, the 800-mile trip from the U.S. border takes about 16 hours. Several major bus lines also serve Oaxaca, and are useful for regional travel to the beaches and beyond.
If you’re staying in or near the Centro Histórico, you’ll be able to walk just about everywhere you need. The city center is level and many central streets are pedestrian only. To go beyond the center, there’s DiDi taxi—a ride-hailing service similar to Uber—and public metered taxis. For short trips beyond the city, collectivos— shared taxis that pick up and discharge passengers en route—and private drivers are the best way to get around. Prices for private drivers range from around $85 to $200 per day. Collectivos cost less than a dollar. Oaxaca also has a public bus system. The buses aren’t fancy, but for about 40 cents, you can catch a ride to most parts of the city.
Come Home to Oaxaca
Oaxaca doesn’t have the glamour and glitz you may find in some of Mexico’s more popular retirement havens, and that’s a large part of its charm. If you know a little Spanish, or are willing to learn some, Oaxaca could be a perfect place to call home.
Wendy Justice, IL’s Mexico Correspondent, took early retirement at the age of 51 and has lived abroad, traveling, writing, and taking photos, since 2005.