Oaxaca is one my favorite cities in the world – that’s why I keep coming back again and again. This year is my 3rd trip to the city, and I’ve spent about 7 months here total. I’ve done just about all of the Oaxaca tours and day trips multiple times, so I have lots of opinions about the best things to see and do in this beautiful part of Mexico.
If you only have limited time, it’s nearly impossible to fit this all in, so you’ll have to decide what you’re most interested in. But many of the tours or sites can be combined together, as some are close geographically and therefore easier to pair together.
Oaxaca Tours & Day Trips
If you’re contemplating what Oaxaca tours or day trips to do, check out my list below, I’ll give my honest opinion about the must-do’s even if you’re short on time!
See the Impressive Hierve El Agua
I think Hierve el Agua is a must-must-do! It’s one of the coolest and most impressive natural sites I’ve ever been to. It’s impossible to convey in pictures just how crazy these petrified waterfalls look in person – you just have to go.
This is also one of the best Oaxaca tours or day trips for fans of hiking and the outdoors.
So What are Petrified Waterfalls?
Well, I have wikipedia to help me with this answer. The “waterfalls” at Hierve el Agua aren’t the typical “water cascading over a cliff” type of fall. Instead, it’s petrified rock that cascades (visually looking like a waterfall) over the side of some cliffs. This is caused by the natural mineral springs that bubble at the top and slowly trickle off the side. As they trickle, they leave behind calcium deposits that slowly collect over thousands of years.
Try to go during a slower tourist time (weekdays, and non-holidays) if possible. This site is even more magical without the crowds.
If you’re really short on time, many Oaxaca tour operators do a trip to Hierve el Agua with 5 stops total (including the largest tree in the world at El Tule, traditional weavers in Teotitlan del Valle, the ruins at Mitla, Hierve el Agua, and a mezcal distillery). This can be great to see a lot in one day, but you will get VERY little time at Hierve. We did this Oaxaca tour on our first trip to the city and felt like we only had about a half hour at the site. It definitely wasn’t enough time and I couldn’t wait to get back and explore more.
Do the full circular hike, or at least hike down to the bottom of the Cascada Grande.
The Cascada Chica (which is a bit confusing because it’s a wider cascade and the more heavily visited) is the most accessible. From the parking lot, you need only walk down a short trail to get here. This is where the biggest crowd will be and also where people swim in the few spring pools.
I’ve never been a fan of bathing in these pools, they just feel crowded and I’d rather be taking photos anyway. So spend a little time here, then pass on to the Cascada Grande – follow the trail up and then back down and to the left. Cascada Grande is taller and a more vertical cascade. This is a great spot for pictures since you can see the wide and gradual cascade of Cascada Chica from here, and there are usually much fewer people.
But this isn’t the best part. Find the trail that scales down the cliff on other side. If you head a little way down the stone steps, you’ll be rewarded with an epic view of the vertical cascade/stalactites of the Cascada Grande. It’s really pretty amazing.
And if you have enough time, follow the trail all the way around the loop, it’ll take you below both cascades, and then back up the other side of the Cascada Chica in a loop. It’s a fairly short trail, should only take 1-2 hours, but make sure you wear hiking shoes, be careful of the wet steps on the way down, and be ready to go straight back up in elevation at the end of the trail.
How to Get to Hierve el Agua:
Take a tour – tons of tour operators do Hierve el Agua tours, or tours to several sites that include Hierve (see my above note about the popular 5 stop Oaxaca tour)
Rent a car – This can be a great way to see many of the sites out on the eastern highway (and there are a lot!). Driving in Mexico is always an adventure, but a lot of the highway to Hierve el Agua is well paved and cared for. But beware that the last portion goes through some remote rural towns and the roads there are very rustic.
Public Transportation – I haven’t taken this method but have read a lot about it. Take a colectivo (a maroon colored shared taxi) from the centro to the town of Mitla. Here you will transfer to a camioneta (a truck) that will take you to Hierve el Agua. You’ll sit in the back of the covered pick-up truck bed. Not for the faint of heart, but adventurous for sure!
Learn about Traditional Weaving – Teotitlan del Valle, Mitla, and Santo Tomás Jalieza
Oaxaca is famous for their beautifully woven textiles. They’re unique here because they are still made by traditional methods – either by backstrap loom, or large wooden looms with foot pedals. Most traditional weavers also use natural dye methods which are more vibrant and last longer.
How to See Weavers in Oaxaca
Tour – I think a tour is the best way to see and learn about weaving in the Oaxaca valley. This way, you can have your day arranged, and learn the process from start to finish, as well as the variations in methods. And if you don’t speak Spanish, you can have the benefit of understanding everything through your bilingual guide.
Rent a Car – You can also choose to visit these weavers on your own. I would just recommend you call or contact them ahead of time so they can be prepared for you. Please note that most of the weavers and their staff will only speak Spanish.
Teotitlán del Valle – Master Weaver Jacobo Mendoza Ruiz
Jacobo Mendoza Ruiz is an absolute expert who has won many national and international awards for his beautiful work.
He and his wife show the weaving process from start to finish: from how they clean and spin the wool, to the ingredients used for the natural dyes, to the looms in progress with the work.
He sells mostly rugs – they are extremely high quality and intricate.
Contact – 951 524 41 57
Avenida Benito Juárez #91
Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca
Mitla – Arturo Hernández Quero
Arturo uses both backstrap loom and large wooden looms for his work. He also uses natural dye techniques for his yarn. He sells a variety of beautiful textiles – from scarves, to clothing, to rugs, and blankets.
Contact – 951 189 9147
Santo Tomás Jalietza – Crispina Navarro Gómez
Crispina Navarro Gomez is another weaving master – she’s won national awards for her super intricate work.
She and her sisters work together with 4 generations of the family on backstrap looms in a circle every day. Their work is colorful and vibrant. They sell many types of textiles, belts, bags, and accessories in their adjoining shop.
Contact – 951 528 1114
Benito Juárez # 42,
Santo Tomás Jalieza, Ocotlán, Oaxaca
Visit Ancient Ruins – Monte Alban, Yagul, and Mitla
The Oaxaca area is filled with pre-hispanic ruins. If you’re a history buff, you will love visiting these unique ancient sites.
So which to visit?
Monte Alban is the most famous ruin in the area and the most popular Oaxaca tour or day trip for ruins. And for good reason, it’s a really impressive site!
It’s located up on a mountain at the southern edge of the city. It boasts an amazing view over the city, as well as the whole central valley. Besides that, there are many large temples covering a large swath of land. You can climb over most of the pyramids to explore and get even better views.
If you can only visit one ruin, this is the one to see as it’s the largest and most impressive. The only trick is that it’s not close to many other tourist sites, so it’s typically visited on it’s own. But there are tons of shuttles that go here so it’s not difficult to get to.
How to Visit Monte Alban:
There are daily tourist shuttles from the western side of the Zocalo, so this is the easiest option. They are affordable and leave a few times a day.
You can also organize a taxi or an organized Oaxaca tour if you prefer.
Yagul is the least visited ruin of the 3, but one of my favorites in the area for it’s location and because you will usually have the grounds to yourself!
Yagul isn’t a huge site, but it has several pyramids, and a unique yellow stone “maze” section that is quite picturesque. It’s also on a plateau in the northeast, so it has an amazing view of the mountains and the valley.
Another interesting feature is the additional small mountain you can climb to get to a higher vantage point. There is another very small pyramid up here and even more incredible views.
How to Visit Yagul:
Since this ruin isn’t as heavily visited, it’s not as easy to find transportation.
Tour/Taxi – You could hire a taxi or an organized tour for the day.
Public Transportation – Another option would be take a colectivo that heads east to Mitla, and ask to be let out at the road to Yagul. You would then need to walk about a mile up the hill to the ruin. Just be prepared and try not to do this in the heat of the day!
Mitla is a popular ruin to visit because of the intricate and beautiful carvings in the walls. The carvings are geometric and very detailed, which is quite different from other indigenous ruins, even in the Oaxaca valley.
I do really like this site, but it’s doesn’t have much to offer other than viewing the carvings. If you have to skip a ruin, I think it’s okay to skip this one. But it is well located on the eastern highway on the way to many other Oaxaca tour sites. If you are already visiting Hierve el Agua or a mezcal distillery in Santiago Matatlan, it’s an easy stop.
How to Visit Mitla:
Mitla is easy to visit by tour or transportation
Tour – Many tours come here as a stop during the day. You can organize this with any Oaxaca tour operator.
Public transport – There are many colectivos (shared taxis) that go to Mitla from Oaxaca centro. Once in Mitla, you can easily walk to the entrance to the ruins since it’s a small town.
Tour Some Mezcal Distilleries
A trip to this region wouldn’t be complete without a Oaxaca mezcal tour!
Mezcal is a liquor that is made from the same plant as tequila, but made with different varieties of agaves, and with different production methods – so it has a completely different flavor.
It’s also still made in traditional ways – almost always on small farms in small batches. The traditions are kept alive here and it’s really interesting to learn about and taste it.
Santiago Matatlan is the most famous town for mezcal production in the state of Oaxaca. This town has only 8700 people but 140 distilleries!
How to Visit the Mezcal Distilleries:
Tour – The best way to visit the distilleries is by taking a tour – that way your visit will be arranged and you’ll learn all about the history, as well as the process from start to finish.
I highly recommend using Las Bugambilias to take this tour. Rene is an expert about mezcal, and will take you to the most exciting, authentic and traditional distilleries.
Rental Car – If you’d like to visit on your own, you can rent a car and head out east to Matatlan. Most distilleries will prefer that you call ahead and some will have English speaking staff and some won’t. If you do this I recommend you visit:
El Rey de Matatlan
This distillery is right off the highway so it gets lots of tourists. But because of that, they are really well set up to do a short tour with anyone who drops in at any time. They show you how the agave is roasted and processed, and then lead you through a tasting.
Their espadin varieties are not my favorite but their wild agave varieties (or silvestres) are delicious.
Gracias a Dios
This is a beautiful distillery with well designed logos, and authentic and delicious mezcal.
The mezcal maestro (master mezcal maker), Óscar Hernández Santiago, and his family have been making this traditional spirit for 4 generations.
The most fun varieties they make are a mango infused mezcal (very subtle mango flavor) and a gin made from agave (instead of grain) and 32 other herbs and flavors.
Be sure to call or email ahead of a visit!
This mezcal distillery is also steeped in tradition. The family has been making mezcal for 50 years, winning many awards. Gonzalo Martinez Sernas, the mezcal maestro here, makes it his mission to test, experiment, and refine his varieties and blends. It’s obvious when you taste them how special and unique they are.
Be sure to call them ahead of a visit so they know to expect you.
On your visit to Oaxaca, be sure to leave yourself plenty of time to explore the sites and traditional villages outside of the city!
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Nice post. I’m hoping to go back to Oaxaca one day. Monte Alban is the only one of the above I’ve done and it was spectacular!
Hi Susan, based on your post I reached out to René of Las Bugambilias Tours – however they do not have availability on my travel dates in February 2019. Do you have any other recommendations for tour guides in Oaxaca? I’m particularly interested in seeing Hierve el Agua, Santa María el Tule, Teotitlán del Valle and a Mazcal distillery tour. Thanks!
As someone who grew up in Oaxaca, I enjoyed reading this article. I am wondering however, why don’t you recommend the buses when you discuss methods to reach these places? The bus system is much cheaper than other methods, and a great experience for those who have never done it.
Also, I can’t imagine doing Tule, Hierve El Agua, Teotitlan, and a mezcal tour all in one day. Sounds exhausting. I usually think of Hierve El Agua as a full day trip in and if itself.
Thanks for sharing.