Oaxaca City is the most beautiful capital city I have visited in Mexico. Cobblestone streets, colorful colonial architecture, a vibrant art and music scene, and incredible traditional market places with some of the best local cuisine in the country are all surrounded by the stark beauty of a rugged mountainous terrain studded with majestic maguey cactus fields. While there is plenty to do within this wonderful city, there are plenty of day trips to surrounding cultural and natural attractions that are well worth a visit. I will expand upon 3 day trips to explore around Oaxaca City: Hierve el Agua, Monte Alban, and Mitla.
Located around 70 km outside of Oaxaca City, Hierve el Agua (which literally means “the water boils”) is a series of unique interconnected mineralized springs that literally boil up out of different openings in the mountain. Additionally, there is a short hiking trail from the springs to a petrified waterfall that can be seen from the springs themselves. There are two different entry fees to Hierve el Agua that together cost 30 pesos per person. Once inside the park, there is a fairly extensive marketplace with all kinds of food and drink that can be purchased and enjoyed in the open-air seating offered by these small restaurants and stands or to take into the main attraction area for a springs side picnic. Depending on the season, the canals can be running or dry, but there is always water magically bubbling out of the various source points, and one larger spring for wading. There are collectives and buses that will take you out to Hierve el Agua, but the fastest and easiest way to get there is by renting a car or booking a guided tour. The drive in and of itself is an attraction as you wind your way through forested mountain canyons.
For anthropology and history buffs, Monte Alban is a must-see. The Zapotecas are the major indigenous peoples that have and continue to inhabit the central valleys surrounding Oaxaca City. Monte Alban is one of the oldest Mesoamerican cities in America as well as one of the first sites in Mexico where written hieroglyphs in stone were found. The site dates back to 500 B.C. and is located atop a massive plateau with magnificent views in all directions of the surrounding mountains and valleys. There are tombs, pyramids, ball courts, and ancient sundials and inscribed stones. As a government-protected archeological site, there are no food stands in the area, but you are allowed to bring food in and there are plenty of trees and benches on the edges of the plateau where you can enjoy a picnic with a view. The entry fee to Monte Alban is 64 pesos, and it is a 10-minute bus ride from Oaxaca City making it the most accessible day trip in terms of both time and economy.
Mitla is yet another Zapotec archeological site, however, this site is very unique because it dates to the period of contact and subsequent conquest by the Spanish colonialists. Not only are there beautifully preserved ruins of temples and intricately designed city walls, but the site also contains the perfectly preserved church the Spanish conquistadors erected using the stones and glyphs of the very Zapotec altars they destroyed with the conquest of its peoples. This visual history lesson is a highly evocative and powerful symbol of the violent clash and subsequent mix of the native with the colonial which defines the modern Mexican mestizaje (mixture).
I consider the architecture, highly artistic walls and complex facades in conjunction with the natural landscape of mountain vistas and large flowering cacti that sprout up around the grounds to be far more beautiful than many of the Mayan sites I have visited. Mitla is located 44 km from Oaxaca City in the same central valleys region of Oaxaca state. The entrance fee is very accessible at 75 pesos and there is an artisan and food market right outside of the entrance worth exploring.
Not only are there countless markets, plazas, restaurants, bars, museums, and festivities to explore within Oaxaca City, but there are plenty of rich cultural and natural attractions a short car or bus ride’s distance away. Do not miss out on Hierve el Agua, Monte Alban, and Mitla as you explore this amazing capital city and its surrounding valleys.
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