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Things to Do in Oaxaca: Hierve el Agua

9 Out-Of-This-World Things to Do in Oaxaca

To be honest, we weren’t sure exactly what to do in Oaxaca or what to expect from the city before we arrived.

We knew that Oaxaca was known for its delicious food, colorful streets, and access to beautiful ruins. Beyond eating all the mole that we could get our hands on, though, we didn’t have much of a plan for our trip to Oaxaca.

The city ended up stealing our hearts–here are the best things to do in Oaxaca that helped us fall in love with the city.

Things to Do in Oaxaca

Wander through the center of Oaxaca and visit the Zocalo.

Oaxaca’s main square is huge, and is easily the perfect first item to add to a list of things to do in Oaxaca. The gigantic shade trees make it a welcome break from the sun, the balloon sellers throughout the square add eye-catching splashes of color in every direction, and the hawkers are some of the politest that we have come across–they all asked us once, and only once if we wanted to buy anything before moving on.

Prices at the restaurants surrounding the square are a little inflated as compared to other parts of the city, of course–but it’s still worth grabbing a meal here just to people-watch in the square.

Things to Do in Oaxaca

Visit Monte Alban.

The abandoned city of Monte Alban is, in our opinion, even prettier than Teotihuacan near Mexico City–impressive, given how much we loved the first!

Monte Alban is one of the earliest cities in Mesoamerica, and is believed to have been one of major cultural centers of the Zapotecs. It’s one of the most popular things to do in Oaxaca, and it’s easy to see why!

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You can see mountains on all sides of Monte Alban, and ruins all around you–in every direction, there’s nothing but views: the past at eye-level, and the present in the cities occupying the valleys below.

Things to Do in Oaxaca Things to Do in Oaxaca

Taste some Mezcal.

I’m not much of a drinker, but I have to admit that touring a Mezcal factory was grand fun! In exchange for listening to a sales pitch at the end of the tour, we were able to see each step of the Mezcal process, from the beheaded corpses of fresh agave plants all the way to the finished product.

The tour finished with a Mezcal tasting (which is not to be confused with Tequila–Mezcal and Tequila are very different!)–our guide was liberal with the pours, and while I stuck with one small taste, Jeremy tried six or seven!

If you’re not interested in touring a factory, don’t worry: Mezcal is available at just about any restaurant in Oaxaca.

Things to Do in Oaxaca

Check out the Templo de Santo Domingo.

Oaxaca’s most famous cathedral is located in the north of town and is never absent from any list of the best things to do in Oaxaca–for good reason.

Situated with a small square in front and botanical gardens to the rear, the area surrounding the church (despite its draw for tourists) is much quieter and more peaceful than the Zocalo to the south–a perfect area to relax in.

Things to Do in Oaxaca

Visit the Ethnobotanic Garden.

Oaxaca’s botanical gardens are peaceful and pretty (as all botanical gardens should be), and have a different twist than many flower-focused gardens: a lot more cacti, for one! Located right next door to the Templo de Santo Domingo, it’s not hard to find a chance to cross this of the list of things to do in Oaxaca.

Things to Do in Oaxaca

Check out the Oaxaca Cultural Museum.

Oaxaca is the most culturally diverse state in Mexico, and it shows in this cultural museum: artifacts spanning many periods and cultures are displayed here, emphasizing individual cultures and, of course, the impact of Spanish colonialism.

The museum is attached to the Templo de Santo Domingo, in what was once the monastery–meaning that the building is a museum artifact itself!

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Fair warning: all of the signs in the museum are exclusively in Spanish. I stumbled through the best I could, but Google translate was my friend. I have no doubt that I would have gotten more out of the museum with more advanced Spanish, though the artifacts alone are enough to make it worth stopping by.

Things to Do in Oaxaca

Tour Mitla.

It was pure luck that we ended up at Mitla: we visited it as a day trip to several sites, and it was never on our priority list of things to do in Oaxaca. That was a mistake–Mitla absolutely should have been a priority when visiting Oaxaca.

Mitla is a religious and cultural center for the Zapotecs, dating after Monte Alban was abandoned. Our guide referred to the style as “Greek” because of the geometric patterns that dominated what remains of Mitla–the detailed work was mesmerizing.

Sadly, it becomes easy to take the grandiosity of ancient structures for granted during a long trip–the twentieth cathedral is not as remarkable as the first, and so on. Occasionally, though, something strikes me and I spend a few minutes grappling with just how much work had to go into these ancient sites.

Things to Do in Oaxaca

Mitla was once such place: as I ran my eyes over each of the tiny stones that made up the walls of room after room (and tomb after tomb, I’m assuming, though we only visited one), the sheer scale of the project captivated me.

Much of Mitla was torn down when the Spanish arrived in order to build the cathedral that now overlooks what is left of the city–but the remains are more than enough to get the idea.

Things to Do in Oaxaca

8. Enjoy the festivals.

Oaxaca is well known for its exuberant celebrations, and luckily for travelers, they happen all the time.

Jeremy and I didn’t remotely try to plan our trip around any festivals, but that didn’t stop us from hearing fireworks going off every night, seeing the Zocalo covered in people dancing a tango or performing on stage almost every night we were there, or stumbling into two different parades.

A little research showed us that we were most likely seeing preliminary celebrations for the Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe and/or the Fiesta de la Soledad–and, of course, Christmas, for which a Christmas tree taller than the nearby cathedral was being built near the Zocalo when we were there.

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9. Fall in love with Hierve el Agua.

I saved my favorite of our recommended things to do Oaxaca for last.

Hierve el Agua is a petrified waterfall, and the area you visit in order to view it is filled with pools formed of the same calcium carbonate that created the “falls”.

Things to Do in Oaxaca

Stand and look forward from the pools, and you will see the gorgeous mountains opening up before you–the view is irresistible.

The area is extraordinarily peaceful, and while there is a small changing area and bathroom nearby, the expected food stalls and souvenir stands are out of sight and a 10-minute hike up a fairly steep hill from where the pools are located, leaving the entire area feeling less commercial than it could.

Sadly, Hierve el Agua is a couple of hours from Oaxaca by car–but it is a must-see. This is, hands down, our favorite thing that we saw while in Oaxaca, and our only regret is that we weren’t able to stay longer.

Things to Do in Oaxaca

Oaxaca is a perfect stop for dipping a toe into Mexico outside of its major tourism hubs (primarily in Baja and the Yucatan). It feels safe and relaxed, there are fascinating things to do in Oaxaca, the city has plenty of tourism infrastructure without feeling like you’ve inadvertently joined a group tour with other backpackers, it’s easy to get to and get around, and is bursting with culture and history. 

Oaxaca–and Hierve el Agua–we’ll be back for you.

Things to Do in Oaxaca

Group Tours

We took a one day tour from Oaxaca, which included visiting Hierve el Agua, a Mezcal factory, Mitla, a wool rug craftsman, and the Tule tree (the last two aren’t on this list because we found them dull–the first is a predictable sales pitch and the second is a large tree that is not worth seeking out on your own). The cost was 200 pesos per person, and included all transportation and an excellent guide for Mitla.

A few other entrance fees (totaling less than $10/person) were required to be paid on the tour, and though not technically “required”, the buffet lunch that the tour pauses for is predictably overpriced (about $7/person, but very tasty).

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The tour fulfilled our needs and seemed to be available at a similar price from every tourism agency in town.

The downside was our limited time of about one hour at Hierve de Agua–next time we’ll consider renting a car and going for the day as it was one of our absolute favorite things to do in Oaxaca, though the mountain roads to access it are very windy–be prepared for a bit of an adventure if you want to drive.

Things to Do in Oaxaca

Tours are also available to visit Monte Alban, though I wouldn’t recommend taking one unless you really want a guide with you. Monte Alban is about 30 minutes outside of the city, and shuttles that will sell round-trip transportation for 70 pesos/person are everywhere.

The Oaxaca city bus is also an option if you want to stick to a very low budget, but my tendency to get motion sickness made me very grateful for the direct and simple transportation.

Things to Do in Oaxaca

Where We Stayed in Oaxaca

Hotel Oaxaca Magico — This hotel was exactly what we were looking for: clean and in a great location. A budget hotel means a small room, but the 10-minute walk to the Zocalo, daily maid service/replacement of toiletries, and overall smooth experience left the tiny room in the back of our minds. We would be happy to stay here again!

Looking for something a little different? Check out the Oaxaca page on for a huge variety of lodging!

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Things to Do in Oaxaca


18 thoughts on “9 Out-Of-This-World Things to Do in Oaxaca”

  1. Great post! We’re thinking about going. We checked out Mexico City this past year but almost went to Oaxaca and think we might like to make it over in 2018! How did you get to Hierve el Agua and how much time do you recommend spending there?

    • We definitely recommend it! Oaxaca is awesome, as is Hierve el Agua. We visited Hierve el Agua as part of a day trip that included several stops (we booked it in person), but we’d recommend trying to find one that focuses on Hierve el Agua specifically if you can–we didn’t have nearly as much time there as we had wanted.

      I’d only recommend driving yourself if you’re very confident with the directions and mountain roads–it’s about 2 hours of driving, a lot of it on very winding roads with blindspots, from Oaxaca City to Hierve el Agua! 🙂

  2. Hi Kate!! Thank you for this awesome post! My boyfriend and I are going to Oaxaca this week for a wedding and were trying to decide what to do on our free day. This definitely helped us decide on seeing Hierve el Agua! =)

  3. Thank you for your post. We are looking to do a road trip starting in Puebla or Oaxaca , spending 10 -12 days in January in the region to include beach town, villages, culture, national park and fly back either from Puebla or Oaxaca airports.
    we are 7 in total looking for special places and experiences not interested in the tourist attractions too much. and would probably rent a minivan . We do not want to drive all day so no issues in staying i several places and doing tours from each place. Looking forward for you wonderful advice.

    • Hi Joe!

      We haven’t taken that road trip, but I can tell you that around the Oaxaca area we strongly recommend making time for Hierve el Agua and Mitla.

      We also loved the beach/surf town of Puerto Escondido, and would love to go back–can recommend a stop there as well!

  4. Hi both

    Thank you for the article – just super reading. I’m going to be in Oaxaca for around 10 days over Christmas and New Year. Do you have a sense of what will be open for tourists during that time and if guides will be available? And thank you so much for highlighting Hierve el Agua – not in either of my guidebooks!

    • Hi David!

      We were actually there at a similar time ourselves–just before Christmas. Everything should be operating more or less normally, with the usual expected closures for Christmas Day, etc. In the weeks surrounding Christmas, though, you’ll definitely find guides!

      Definitely head to Hierve el Agua if you can! Of all the places in and near Oaxaca, it’s the one we’re most excited to eventually get back to. 🙂

  5. Hi, Kate – Thank you for this VERY informative post! I’m going to Oaxaca with a small group of friends later this month, and you’ve given us some great guidelines for top things to see in town — and we will now definitely make plans to go out to Hierve el Agua! LOL, we were mainly going for the food, as one of our group is a world-traveling foodie, but I’m the “art person” of the group and will now do some research on the Templo and the museum. I also hear there are many art galleries in town?

    • Hi Ganieda! Thank you so much, glad we could help!

      The food truly is amazing, we still miss it all the time.

      I do remember seeing quite a few galleries around, but honestly, I was more like your friend and focused more on the food, so no specific recommendations there, I’m afraid!

  6. Thank you for your suggestions! Can you recommend how many days you think is needed to explore all these spots comfortably? Trying to figure out how many days I should take off from work haha. Also, do you have suggestions for any other day trips that you didn’t get to go to that you thought would be nice? Something a few hours outside of Oaxaca that can still be done in a day? Thank you!

    • Hmm… I’d say probably a minimum of four full days to be comfortable? Two for the city, one for Hierve el Agua and Mitla, and one for Monte Alban, more or less. But a few more days would definitely be helpful!

      I’ve heard that the Yagul ruins are also nice, but we didn’t make it there ourselves. Personally, if we were going back, our first priority would be to dedicate more time to each Mitla and Hierve el Agua, as we felt like we didn’t spend enough time at either!

  7. Great recommendations but in addition I think that a cooking class with visit of a market is a great introduction to Oaxaca’s famous food. I tried 3 and my favourite is Alma de mi Tierra.

  8. Great post! and thanks for all the great information! I am very excited, I am visiting Oaxaca in May, can’t wait to visit all these places you are recommending!


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