Oaxaca is one of the most biologically diverse states of Mexico, with more than 50 percent of all species in Mexico staking a claim in Oaxaca. Birdwatchers in particular will be in heaven in Oaxaca, as the state is home to a staggering 70 percent of all of Mexico's 700-plus bird species. Hike in the mountainous area surrounding Hierve el Agua for a better chance at spotting some of the region's beloved birds.
At Hierve el Agua, you can find two stunning petrified waterfalls, the result of centuries of calcium-rich flowing springs that are now literally set in stone. Adding to the magic are two spring-fed, manmade infinity pools set into the rock. The pools overlook the blue-green mountains beyond, with a lone tree growing up from the cliff edge.
One of the most archaeologically rich regions of Mexico, the Oaxaca Valley has a number of well-preserved ruins. Mitla is famed for its intricately carved fretwork mosaics, which are slotted together perfectly without the use of any mortar, as if pieces of a puzzle. The exact meaning of the mosaics is unknown but thought to be related to the afterlife, as Mitla means "underworld" in Zapotec.
A short distance from Oaxaca's center, the UNESCO site of Monte Albán is one of Mexico's most jaw-dropping ruins, continuously inhabited over a span of 1,500 years by Zapotec, Mixtec, and Olmec peoples. Several ancient pyramids, an observatory, and a ball court have withstood the centuries, overlooking Oaxaca City from their privileged vantage point 400 meters above the valley floor.
Cultural Site Experience
When in Oaxaca, you can't miss tasting mezcal, tequila's smoky, grown-up sibling. Whereas tequila is made from slowly baked agave hearts (piñas), Oaxacan mezcal utilizes piñas that are roasted in a fire pit before being distilled. The result is delightfully complex and smoky. Try it at a local mezcaleria or visit a mezcal distillery (palenque) outside the city.
Best Day Trip
Explore Oaxaca Valley by checking out a tiangui, a local open air market that runs on different days of the week in various towns. The largest is in Tlacolula, about 60 minutes away by car or collective taxi, where artisans and farmers shut down the streets to set up a Sunday market full of handicrafts, produce, and—this being Oaxaca—food stalls. Don't miss the delicious barbacoa.
Most Iconic Place
With its opulently painted ceiling and Baroque architecture, you can't miss the Templo de Santo Domingo, the church and former monastery in the heart of Oaxaca. In addition to the gorgeous church, you can explore the accompanying museum full of pre-Columbian artifacts, the peaceful cloisters of the old monastery, and the lush ethnobotanical garden in the back.
The Oaxaca Cathedral is the jewel in the centerpiece of the zócalo, Oaxaca's main square. Construction started in 1535, yet the cathedral was so ornate that it took nearly 200 years to complete. The cathedral has been reconstructed several times, as the region's many earthquakes have taken their toll, but it remains an icon of Oaxaca nonetheless.
Only in Oaxaca are grasshoppers one of the city's most ubiquitous snacks. Listen for the melodic calling of the word chapulines and give them a try if you're feeling adventurous. Salty, crunchy, and drizzled with a bit of lime, these fried grasshoppers are an unusual albeit undeniably local foodie experience.
If you're intrigued by curious festivals, you can't miss Noche de Rábanos (Night of the Radishes) held every 23rd of December. Using enormous radishes as their medium, contestants carve elaborate displays such as nativity scenes, traditional Oaxacan motifs, and other more light-hearted designs to be judged by a panel.