The day of the dead, food, and colorful streets are some things people instantly associate with Oaxaca in Mexico. Let’s explore these and other things Oaxaca is known for.
Located in Central South Mexico, Oaxaca is the capital of the Federal state with the same name and one of the most important cities in the country. It is also one of the most popular destinations in Mexico, and foodies and cultural travelers particularly favor it.
Furthermore, there’s much more to Oaxaca than its unique and marvelous food scene. It is one of the oldest colonial cities in the New World, with unexpected architecture, Precolombian ruins, a unique natural wonder, and some of the most famous landmarks in Mexico.
So, with no more delays, let’s discuss what is Oaxaca known for.
Ten things Oaxaca is famous for
Day of the Dead
The Day of the Dead is probably the most famous festivity in Mexico. It is celebrated throughout Mexico but is most famous and traditional in Oaxaca city.
On the 2nd of November, people from all over Mexico (and the world) go to Oaxaca to celebrate the Day of the Dead, or dia de los Muertos. People tend to dress in traditional costumes, wear beautiful face paintings, and then partake in parades (called comparsa) while singing and dancing.
Families gather at night at the cemeteries, but it’s a festive gathering. It’s not about mourning the dead but celebrating and honoring them. They place flowers on the burial sites and light candles.
The flowers, altars, la Catrina, parades, skulls, and music are all essential to the holiday. The altars are possibly the most important tradition in the festivities. Families (and even business owners) set up altars with photos of their deceased loved ones and offer food and water to them.
The Day of the Dead parades in Oaxaca are magical and vibrant. You’ll identify them easily with the live music, fireworks, and huge crowds surrounding them.
The catrinas are another very recognizable symbol of the Day of the Dead and one that became incredibly popular among tourists as it is striking. La Catrina is an elegant skeleton lady with a hat created by the artist Jose Guadalupe Pousada. The women with colorfully painted faces and dressed elegantly evoking la Catrina are some of the most striking things in Dia de Los Muertos.
Oaxaca was an important urban center during the colonial period. The city grew, and many famous buildings were constructed, including the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption from the 16th century and the Santo Domingo church, built in the 17th century.
Built on a typically colonial grid pattern, Oaxaca is an excellent example of Spanish colonial planning. The battered mansions and bright, colorful houses are the final elements that make Oaxaca’s city center both peculiar and incredibly attractive to visitors.
Neighborhoods like Jalatlaco and Xochimilko are some of the most popular for travelers and Instagrammers due to the colors of the houses’ façaces. Some are painted with bright colors (yellow, orange, red, green, blue, you name it), and others are even more impressive with beautiful murals and paintings. It is extraordinary.
Oaxaca regional food is heavily influenced by indigenous cuisine but includes Spanish colonial traditions and some African influences.
Some of the most popular dishes in Oaxaca include mole sauces, tlayudas, tamales, pan de yema, mamelas and chapulines.
Chiles, beans, corn, and cheese are the main ingredients of the Oaxacan cuisine. The most well-known cheeses are quesillo, a stringy, white salty cheese used thoroughly in Mexico in enchiladas, quesadillas, and everything that takes cheese.
The moles are the signature dish of Oaxaca. Although the exact origin of the dish is unknown, it has been eaten in Oaxaca for centuries and has become an essential part of the region’s cultural identity.
A mole is a sauce typically made with several kinds of chiles and spices, and some even include unsweetened chocolate. They are usually served over meat – chicken, beef, or pork. The exact ingredients and preparation of the moles vary from family to family and region to region; some are sweeter, and others are spicier. Despite taking chiles, the mole isn’t usually hot.
Their popularity led to the surge of many variations, regional styles, and peculiar family recipes. However, there are seven famous kinds of moles: verde (green mole), negro (black mole), rojo (red mole), amarillo, coloradito, and manchamantel.
Today, the moles of Oaxaca are enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. Although, tourists usually prefer the negro, coloradito, and rojo because of the unusual presence of chocolate in the main dish.
Oaxaca is one of the most important chocolate-producing regions in Mexico and the world. The soil and climate conditions are perfect for growing cacao, one of the region’s classic industries.
Oaxaca has many small artisanal chocolate makers that still use the old traditional methods using local cocoa. It’s no surprise that Oaxaca’s cacao (and consequently the chocolate) is of the highest quality.
As cocoa has been part of Oaxaca for so long, it is naturally part of the history and culture of the region. As mentioned above, it’s a key ingredient in the famous moles and is used in ceremonies.
If you want to try the typical Oaxacan chocolate, we recommend going to Mayordomo, a local cafe/shop, and trying their hot chocolate with pan the yema. You dip the bread in the chocolate and eat it. They also sell their chocolate/cocoa to-go, so you can buy a delicious souvenir from Oaxaca.
Another important Oaxacan produce is coffee. It is one of the primary income sources for multiple farmers and families in Oaxaca, particularly in the regions of Sierra Norte, Sierra Sur, and Tehuantepec, where most of the Oaxacan coffee is produced.
Oaxaca coffee is well-known for its distinct aroma and flavor. Unsurprisingly, it is considered one of the best in the world and one of the things to try in Oaxaca, mainly if you are a coffee lover.
Besides being vital for the local economy, coffee also plays an essential role in culture and society for a long time. It is one of the main ingredients of Oaxacan cuisine, served on special occasions, and even used in traditional medicine.
What is Oaxaca famous for? Many people will quickly answer mezcal! This double-distilled alcoholic drink is made from any agave – a Native American plant ubiquitous in Oaxaca. The word mezcal comes from Nahuatl and means literally oven-cooked agave. So, it is very self-explanatory.
Although produced in several other regions of Mexico, more than 70% of mezcal comes from Oaxaca and is now sold nationally and internationally. Mezcal is very popular among Mexicans, and its popularity has been increasing in other countries like the USA and Japan.
There is a saying in Oaxaca: “Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, también; y si no hay remedio litro y medio“, which translates to something like: “For all bad, mezcal, and for all good, as well; and if there is no remedy, liter and a half”.
Mezcal is a cousin of the much more famous tequila. The main difference is that mezcal can be made from several kinds of agave, and tequila is specifically from blue agave.
Similarly to tequila, mezcal is distilled twice to increase its alcoholic content to 55%. So, it’s very strong liquor. Mezcal also has a distinctive smoky flavor from roasting the agave underground for several days.
Hierve el Agua
Hierve el agua is one of Mexico’s most remarkable natural wonders and, naturally, one of the things Oaxaca is famous for.
Located about 70 km from Oaxaca City, it is an easy day trip, so it is very popular among all kinds of visitors. Hierve el Agua is a petrified waterfall, one of the only two in the world. The other is Pamukkale, in Turkey.
Consisting of two rocky cliffs with 50 and 90 meters in height, their formations are created by freshwater springs on the top. The water is saturated with minerals, which are deposited as it drips from the cliff and evaporates.
Also, the top of the cliffs has natural (and artificial) pools where one can bathe, relax, and have fun. One of them is like a natural infinity pool. It is pretty amazing.
The easiest way to reach Hierve el Agua is by taking a tour from Oaxaca. Some of them even include Mezcal tasting, which is a nice bonus.
Monte Alban is one of Mexico’s most spectacular pre-Columbian ruins and, consequently, one of the most famous landmarks in Oaxaca. Located on a hilltop with the same name, it overlooks the central part of the Oaxaca Valley, where today’s city is located.
Monte Alban was the center of the Zapotec civilization and one of the earliest large cities in Mesoamerica, as it was founded in about 500 BC. It lost prominence only between 500 and 750 AD, and then it was abandoned around 800 AD.
These magnificent ruins include pyramids, plazas, tombs, ballgame courts, and stone carvings. The location and how it is designed make exploring the site fascinating and a much better experience than other similar ruins.
Naturally, it has been a UNESCO heritage site since 1987.
Oaxaca also has an extensive history of producing handmade embroidery and woven goods. This tradition comes from several indigenous peoples (mainly Zapotec, Nahua, and Mixtec), each with distinctive textile customs.
The Oaxacan textiles are beautiful and diverse, as each community has its own unique style that reflects its beliefs, myths, and ancestry. The intricate patterns and bright colors also make them popular among visitors.
However, more than beautiful pieces of craftsmanship, they are also a testament to the people’s heritage and tradition.