What to Know Before a Visit to Oaxaca City

Dreaming of mezcal and mole? Us too.

Gonzalo Azumendi/Stone/Getty Images
Gonzalo Azumendi/Stone/Getty Images
Gonzalo Azumendi/Stone/Getty Images

NOTE: We know COVID-19 is impacting travel plans right now. For a little inspiration, we’ll continue to share stories from our favorite places around the world. Be sure to check travel restrictions and protocols before you head out.My first trip to Oaxaca was over 17 years ago, and I can still recall the newness of those sights and smells: a cacophony of vendors hawking their wares as I wandered the labyrinthine Central de Abastos market; the bright, smoky, herbaceous aromas of my first, second, and third mezcal; the crimson stains on the hands of a wool weaver as she demonstrated the natural dying powers of the cochineal insect. The city made an indelible impression on me, and after repeat visits over the years, I finally took the plunge and moved here permanently. I feel privileged to call this welcoming city my home. 

My number one tip for your first trip to Oaxaca? Be open. Oaxacans are friendly, and the best way to connect with them-and with the city’s seemingly endless cultural riches-is to mirror their warmth. From logistics like getting around and not getting ripped off at the ATM, to must-try street food and where to find the best mezcal bars, here’s how to do Oaxaca right.

 Jan Sochor/Contributor/Getty Images News
Jan Sochor/Contributor/Getty Images News
Jan Sochor/Contributor/Getty Images News

The best time to visit Oaxaca

For sunny skies and perfect temperatures, aim for mid-October through April. It just so happens Oaxaca’s major festivals take place during these months, including the spectacular Día de los Muertos celebrations on November 1 and 2. Hotels and Airbnbs will be pricey this time of year; personally, I love the summer rainy season, when the surrounding mountains turn a lush green and accommodations are more affordable. Find an amazing Airbnb in Oaxaca City.

Greet people like a local

Across Mexico, especially in smaller cities and towns, strangers still greet each other when they pass on the street. It’s important to learn three key phrases before you come to Oaxaca: “buenos días,” for morning salutations before noon; “buenas tardes,” from 12 p.m. until dark; and “buenas noches,” for evening greetings. Pre-pandemic, the beso-one kiss on the cheek-was an important way to say hello and goodbye to friends and family (mostly between two women, or a woman and a man). The verdict is still out on if this heartwarming custom will endure.

Tips for exchanging money in Oaxaca

You’ll find the best exchange rates at ATMs, and the machines surrounding the zócalo, or main square, are reliable. My best ATM withdrawal tip? When the bank’s exchange rate pops up, choose to decline the offered rate. It will force the machine to offer you your home bank’s exchange rate, which is always better. 

Trying to pay with large bills in Mexico can be an issue. Even with a $100 bill (approximately $5 USD), vendors often raise their hands apologetically because they don’t have change. You’ll have to be strategic about breaking larger $200 and $500 bills: my preferred way to do this is to grab a snack or a drink at an Oxxo or Pitico-sort of like the 7-Elevens of Mexico, which usually have change. Otherwise, make sure you always have some $20 and $50 bills on hand, as well as plenty of 2-, 5- and 10-peso coins.

Marcos Castillo/Shutterstock
Marcos Castillo/Shutterstock
Marcos Castillo/Shutterstock

The deal with tipping

Some of Mexico’s most celebrated restaurants are here in Oaxaca. There’s Criollo, owned by Chef Enrique Olvera of famed Mexico City spot Pujol, along with perennial favorite Casa Oaxaca, whose stunning terrace looks out over the Santo Domingo church. Eating incredibly well at these high-end establishments doesn’t have to break the bank, considering the exchange rate averages about 20 pesos on the US dollar. 

With that in mind, visitors should be sure to pay it forward. “If you eat at a restaurant or get a cocktail in one of Oaxaca’s super cool bars, tip your waitstaff or bartender well-15 to 20 percent,” says Aaron Robinson, a fellow expat who owns the city’s first and only tiki bar, Aloha Oaxaca. “Servers live off tips.”

Make sure you eat on the street

Incredibly delicious-and incredibly cheap-meals can be found at the puestos, or food stalls, lining the streets of Oaxaca. Popular dishes include tlayudas, massive corn tortillas griddled to perfection and stuffed with melted cheese and meats; empanadas, pockets of steaming masa filled with rich stews such as yellow mole; and, of course, tacos of various stripes. 

Looking for the best street food? Scouring for online reviews isn’t how it’s done. Use the powers of observation to scope out which puestos draw the longest lines of in-the-know locals. Look for crowded quesadilla and empanada stands around lunchtime (2-4 pm), and lively tlayuda and taco stands starting around 7pm.

El Cortijo - La Mezcalería
El Cortijo – La Mezcalería
El Cortijo – La Mezcalería

Sample some agave

No trip to Oaxaca is complete without a thorough sampling of mezcal. The agave-based spirit is produced in various Mexican states, but reaches its highest expression here in Oaxaca. As the local saying goes, “Para todo bien, mezcal; para todo mal también” (for everything good, mezcal; for everything bad, too). 

Like wine, mezcal comes in a staggering variety of styles and flavors, ranging from “de pechuga,” a luxury type infused with fresh botanicals and fruits, to smoky, herbal, floral, or earthy tastes. The best way to find a mezcal you like is to try a sampling, leaning on a trusty bartender to help you hone in on your preferences. Some excellent spots around town to learn about mezcal include Mezcaloteca, Archivo Maguey, In Situ, Cuish, and El Cortijo

Getting around Oaxaca City

Oaxaca is extremely walkable; within the historic center, most bars, restaurants, museums, shops, and markets are reached easily on foot. After living here a few months I was able to learn the bus routes and now I use them all the time; if you’re traveling longer distances, you can’t beat the 8-peso fare. Still, the routes can be inscrutable. “They’re so esoteric you need to be a local to have a clue which one to get on and where to get off,” Robinson says. 

Instead, stick to the yellow cab companies that drive around town, which are very safe and reliable. They’ll take you most anywhere in the city for a flat 50-peso fare. If you’re looking for an Uber-style ride, download the DiDi app to call a cab straight to your location.

Take a day trip

While you could spend weeks just gallivanting around Oaxaca City, much of the region’s charm lies in nearby pueblos which boast well-preserved traditions that are not to be missed. Teotitlan is the place to find hand-woven, naturally dyed wool textiles, while Ocotlán is an important center of traditional black pottery. For a dose of history, Mitla and Monte Alban are home to stunningly well-preserved archaeological ruins. And don’t forget about Matatlan, where you can find a variety of mezcal distilleries and stock up on bottles to bring home. Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat!

Lauren Rothman is a Mexico-based food and drinks writer. Check out her collection of food snapshots on Instagram at @laurenoliviarothman.


Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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