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Things to Do in Oaxaca

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Huatulco National Park (Parque Nacional Huatulco)
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In 1998 this national park, which spans tens of thousands of acres of Oaxaca countryside, was declared a protected area and later designated as a UNESCO Biosphere reserve. As a result, Huatulco National Park has become a destination for travelers looking to get back to nature and spot rare species of animals and birds that exist nowhere else in the world.

Exhaustive conservation efforts have preserved the ecosystems of the tropical forests, mangroves, coral reefs and wetlands that make up this park. Visitors agree the park’s untouched beauty makes it worth a trip and easy access from nearby Cruz Huatulco means it a breeze to get to. Despite easy access this crystal blue bay manages to remain untouched. So whether it’s charting a boat to snorkel, dive, or fish in the pristine surrounding waters, or lounging on one of the deserted beaches, Huatulco National Park offers visitors a chance to experience the country as it used to be.

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Monte Albán
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One of the oldest cities in the Americas, Monte Albán—an ancient Zapotec capital—is perhaps the most important archaeological site in Oaxaca and among the largest in Mexico. Head to Monte Albán’s flat mountain top for views of the city, then explore the vast site’s temples, tombs, underground tunnels, and ball court.

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Maguey Bay (Bahía Maguey)
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Maguey Bay (Bahía Maguey) is an easily accessible bay with a popular beach of the same name. A handful of busy seafood shacks line the beach, and visitors can sip cold beers on patio chairs, or splash around in the bay’s calm, clear waters. You’ll find lots of amenities here, too, as Maguey tends to be one of Huatulco’s busier bays.

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Cascadas de Llano Grande (Llano Grande Waterfalls)
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Nestled in the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca, the Cascadas de Llano Grande (Llano Grande Waterfall) is an ideal spot for hiking, swimming, and rappelling. Its shallow pools and multiple cascading waterfalls give ample opportunity for all kinds of water activities: Climb a tree, leap off the rocks, or swing from a rope into the pristine waters below.

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Mitla
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A relatively small Mixtec/Zapotec ruin, Mitla is notable for the detailed and well-preserved geometric stonework that decorates the buildings. The setting is pretty, with a cactus garden and shaded benches. From the ruins you can see the domed Church of San Pablo, built in the 16th century when the Spanish pillaged stones from Mitla. At the gates to the ruins, a small artesanía (folk art) market is home to aggressively competitive vendors, a situation that can yield great deals. Outside the gates, a clean and efficient comedor (diner) serves authentic Oaxacan specialties.

The name Mitla comes from the Náhuatl word Mictlan, which means place of the dead or underworld. An ancient ceremonial center, Mitla includes two cross-shaped tombs, a promenade of hefty stone columns, and an elevated suite of ornately-decorated rooms that were once occupied by the Zapotec high priest. Although theories on the subject differ, Mitla was likely built by the Zapotecs, occupied by the Mixtecs, reclaimed by the Zapotecs, and finally conquered by the Aztecs, who took control in 1494.

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Copalita Ecological Park and Ruins (Parque Eco Arqueológico Copalita)
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Still relatively unknown to tourists, the Copalita Ecological Park and Ruins (Parque Eco Arqueológico Copalita) sit on the shores of the Pacific Ocean in the Huatulco resort area. Remnants of pyramids, temples, a ball court, and a pre-Hispanic lighthouse dot the lush landscape of the archaeological park, which also includes a massive stone believed to have once been used in sacrifices.

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Zipolite Beach (Playa Zipolite)
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Zipolite, or Playa Zipolite, is a beach community that is often referred to as Mexico’s hippie haven. This 1.5-kilometer stretch of beach seems lost in time with its slow pace of life. The beach is divided into several areas—the eastern end is called Colonia Playa del Amor, the central part is Centro and the western end is Colonia Roca Blanca. There is really only one main street in Zipolite: Avenida Roca Blanca, or El Adoquín. It was once the only paved road in Zipolite, but three residential area streets are now paved as well.

Don’t expect the party zone like you find in other parts of Mexico like Cancun, but visitors can take part in the surfing, a major draw to Zipolite. You won’t find high-rise hotels or large fancy restaurants with huge fishbowl-style drinks, but instead, look for the main street for a carnival atmosphere in the evenings, with artists, musicians and street vendors making an appearance.

Colonia Roca Blanca is really the central neighborhood in Zipolite and was named after the large, white rock just offshore. The area has grown but still attracts crowds of yoga gurus, surfers and musicians that pass through town. During high season, the area’s small bars and nightclubs see more activity.

Zipolite’s beach is pristine with clear water and golden sands. You may recognize it from the Mexican blockbuster film “Y tu mamá también.” While swimming is allowed, it is not always recommended due to strong waves and undertow.

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San Antonio Arrazola
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Situated beneath the Monte Albán archaeological site, the artisan town of San Antonio Arrazola offers a respite from the hustle and bustle of Oaxaca. Best known for its fantastical painted wooden figurines called alebrijes—and the street art dotted around town dedicated to them—San Antonio Arrazola is the ideal spot to pick up some souvenirs from your time in Oaxaca.

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Santa Cruz Bay (Bahía Santa Cruz)
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Home to Huatulco’s harbor, Santa Cruz Bay (Bahía Santa Cruz) is located just minutes from La Crucecita and offers shops, restaurants, hotels, and easily accessible beaches. It’s the jumping-off point for boat tours of Huatulco’s bays, or for hiring small fishing boats to visit some of the coast's more remote spots.

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Órgano Bay (Bahía Órgano)
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Órgano Bay (Bahía Órgano) is an isolated stretch of beach just south of Santa Cruz in Mexico. Recommended for travelers who want to get away from it all, it’s an ideal spot for snorkeling and diving with calm, clear blue-green water and several interesting rock formations. Organo Bay is very near Maguey Bay, but not as popular or easy to access.

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More Things to Do in Oaxaca

Cuilapam Convent (Ex Convento de Cuilápam)

Cuilapam Convent (Ex Convento de Cuilápam)

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Situated 30 minutes outside of Oaxaca proper, this former Dominican convent in Cuilapam de Guerrero is an impressive complex which includes cloisters and a roofless chapel. Once home to praying monks and the place where former Mexican president Vicente Guerrero was executed, the 16th-century Cuilapam Convent is now a place to enjoy religious murals and sweeping views over the valley below.

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Hierve el Agua

Hierve el Agua

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One of just two so-called “petrified waterfalls” in the world, Hierve el Agua—which translates to Water Boils—is a rock formation with cliff-top pools above it. Visitors can cool off in natural spring waters, which are touted to have healing properties, then hike down to the base of the waterfalls.

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Chachacual Bay

Chachacual Bay

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Chachacual Bay (Bahía Chachacual) is just half a mile (one kilometer) long, but its world-class snorkeling, impressive birdlife, and serene setting continue to attract travelers to its sunny shores. This tiny bay in Huatulco is best reached by boat and still relatively untouched, making it the perfect destination for those seeking a bit more privacy.

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Cacaluta Bay (Bahia de Cacaluta)

Cacaluta Bay (Bahia de Cacaluta)

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Cacaluta Bay is the largest and least accessible of the Huatulco bays. This heart-shaped Oaxacan inlet, which served as a stunning backdrop to the blockbuster Mexican film Y Tu Mamá También, has good snorkeling just a short swim from shore. Its serene setting offers a nice alternative to the noise and excitement of Santa Cruz Bay.

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Tule Tree (Arbol del Tule)

Tule Tree (Arbol del Tule)

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A tree so fat it seems to strain against the confines of the surrounding square, the Tule Tree (el Arbol del Tule) is at least 2000 years old, which makes it one of the world’s oldest living entities. The tree is a Montezuma bald cypress (Taxodium mucrunatum), a tree the Aztecs cultivated as an ornamental and a source of medicine. Hoary yet flourishing, the giant has a mesmerizing quality: The bark is so thick and gnarled that various growths have nicknames, including “the pineapple,” “the elephant,” and “Carlos Salinas’s ears” (a reference to former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari).

The tree is located in the village of Santa María del Tule, 13 km east of the capital. The square surrounding the tree features souvenir shops, snack stands, and the usual army of roving vendors.

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San Agustin Bay (Bahía San Agustín)

San Agustin Bay (Bahía San Agustín)

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Home to fewer than 100 people—mostly fishermen—San Agustin Bay (Bahía San Agustín) has no electricity or running water. The bay itself is known for its prime snorkeling opportunities. Visitors head into the ocean straight from the shore and are immediately surrounded by schools of tropical fish, coral plates, crabs, snails, bivalves, and sea urchins.

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Santo Domingo de Guzmán Church (Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán)

Santo Domingo de Guzmán Church (Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán)

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Marked by holy cloisters, intricate gilt interiors, and a baroque facade, the Santo Domingo de Guzmán Church (Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán) is perhaps the defining landmark of Oaxaca City. Located just off Oaxaca’s “tourist corridor,” Santo Domingo adjoins the Oaxaca Culture Museum and is backed by the scenic Oaxaca Ethnobotanical Gardens, making it a must-visit for any traveler in the city.

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Mexican Turtle Center (Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga)

Mexican Turtle Center (Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga)

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Opened in response to the dwindling turtle population in Mexico, the Mexican Turtle Center (Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga) is a 10-acre (4-hectare) attraction located in Mazunte, Oaxaca. Here, you’ll find a variety of sea and freshwater turtles across over a dozen aquariums, including hawksbills, leatherbacks, and green turtles, all of which you can learn about on a guided tour of the center.

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20 de Noviembre Market (Mercado 20 de Noviembre)

20 de Noviembre Market (Mercado 20 de Noviembre)

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Replete with fresh produce, grilled meats, fragrant spices, and lots of mole (a spicy sauce), the 20 de Noviembre Market (Mercado 20 de Noviembre) is a must visit for food fans and casual visitors alike in Oaxaca City. Located just outside the city’s central zócalo, the market is also a great place to grab lunch from one of the many fondas and vendors.

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La Crucecita

La Crucecita

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La Crucecita sits just inland from Santa Cruz Bay on the coast of Oaxaca. Originally built as the service town for the Huatulco resort area, today La Crucecita has an authentic atmosphere draws that visitors from the beaches to its lively streets. Highlights include a traditional market, a historic church, specialty shops, and restaurants.

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Benito Juarez Market (Mercado Benito Juarez)

Benito Juarez Market (Mercado Benito Juarez)

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The Benito Juárez Market (Mercado Benito Juárez), which takes up two blocks and is just a short walk from the city center zócalo (square), is one of four markets in close proximity in downtown Oaxaca City. Home to a wide variety of typical foodstuffs and artisanal handicrafts, the market is the ideal spot to browse for souvenirs or just get lost among the stalls.

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Tlacolula Market (Mercado Tlacolula)

Tlacolula Market (Mercado Tlacolula)

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Tlacolula Market (Mercado Tlacolula) is a village market that attracts many locals who come to the market each week both to sell and buy various produce, meat and other products. Tianguis is the name for an open air market that typically operates on the same day each week for a given location. In the case of the Mercado Tlacolula, it is a Tianguis because it operates every Sunday in the main square of the town of Tlacolula.

Many of the villagers who frequent Tlacolula still dress in traditional garb and visitors will get to see the colorful outfits. The market itself has a traditional feel – you’ll see live turkeys you can purchase, plus there are meat stands with grills where you can either get a fresh cut of meat or a cooked snack, such as a taco.

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Ventanilla

Ventanilla

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Ventanilla, or La Ventanilla, is an estuary of the Tonameca River, and is an important ecological area on the Oaxacan coast. A small village is also located here, surrounded by mangroves and the birds and animals that call them home. La Ventanilla gets its name “the window” from a large rock formation on the beach. The huge rock juts out on the coast, featuring a small “window” that looks out to the sea.

Back in the 1990s La Ventanilla was just a stretch of undeveloped beach with a coconut plantation. Three families lived in the area, despite no electricity until nearly 2000. Today, there are approximately 25 Zapotec families that have settled in the area. These inhabitants have established crocodile farms, where they monitor and raise them, setting them free once the reptiles are able to survive on their own. The villagers also work on reforesting the mangroves, with over 30,000 mangroves already replanted.

Visitors to Ventanilla typically journey on a canoe through the mangroves, looking for crocodiles in their natural habitat, along with birds and other reptiles that call Ventanilla home. In addition to exploring Ventanilla via canoe, horseback rides along the beach are also popular. Depending on the time of year, look for sea turtles and dolphins that frequent the area to feed on crustaceans and microorganisms. They are more abundant during a rainy season phenomenon known as “broken bars,” when the sea meets the lagoon.

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Yagul

Yagul

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High on a cactus-studded plateau, the ruins of Yagul offer a view of Oaxaca’s Tlacolula valley. Yagul dates back to at least 500 AD, but most of the existing structures were built several hundred years later, after the decline of the nearby city of Monte Albán . When the Spanish arrived in Oaxaca, Yagul still had a population of 6000.

Due to the easy-to-defend location and fortifications, archeologists believe Yagul was a military center. Like the other major ruins in the area, the site was occupied at various times by both the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs. The ruins include the second largest ancient ball court in Mesoamérica, several typically creepy tombs, and a labyrinthine stone palace with six small stone courtyards.

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