Top 5 Travel Experiences in Oaxaca, Mexico

First, let me say that you should definitely go to Oaxaca. It is a surprising, beautiful, warm and complicated place to visit. It’s the second poorest state in Mexico, but the city of Oaxaca is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the home to a cosmopolitan mix of delicious restaurants and people.

Second, let me tell you what you should do while you’re there. My husband, three year old son, Huck, and I returned a year ago from an amazing six month sabbatical in Oaxaca — and here are my top five experiences to have in Oaxaca that also give back to the community.

En Via participant in Teotitlàn del Valle demonstrates the traditional way of brushing out raw wool before spinning it to make into beautiful rugs and tapestries.
  1. Visit with entrepreneurial women who’re participating in micro-lending non-profit, En Via. Nearly everyone who came to visit us in Oaxaca joined on an En Via tour, and without fail, it’s one of the highlights of their trip. You will visit women (En Via loans only to women because they’ve found it’s much more likely for women to reinvest in the community and families) who make rugs and run the family business in the nearby weaving villages; women who own gift stores and restaurants. Here’s Nick, a volunteer’s, take:
Fundación En Vía is a non-profit founded in 2010 with the goal of supporting the development of income generating small businesses, within pueblos around Oaxaca. With interest rates for micro loans in Mexico being anywhere from 75–150%, they are completely out of reach for most people in these communities. En Vía offers a solution as simple as it is well thought out. They provide 100% interest free micro loans to support the growth of businesses; with the loans being fully funded by proceeds from tours to the very communities they help. In addition, they offer free English courses to anyone interested, taught completely by volunteers.”
Ewing family on an En Via tour with a family who makes traditional rugs in Teotitlàn del Valle.

The En Via tours are a great service to the tourist scene because it gives visitors to Oaxaca the opportunity to have a candid conversation with women who wouldn’t otherwise be in the tourist path. It’s also pretty amazing to realize that the $50 USD you pay to go on the tour is passed through directly to the women for their next loan. I also appreciate how En Via is committed to the volunteer model, and offers people who are looking to do meaningful work a chance to do it. They have a tiny staff and all of your tours will be run by very committed and passionate volunteers.

Details: En Via’s offices are located at Avenida Juárez # 909 
Oaxaca Centro, Oaxaca 68000 and the website is http://www.envia.org/.

2. Taste very small-scale (read: micro-scale), traditional mezcal made by local families at Mezcaloteca. The mezcal boom is just beginning, and there’s a chance to shape how the industry can work to protect the customs and traditions and agave plants. Mezcaloteca is an important part of that effort, and dedicated to supporting very small scale mezcaleros who use traditional methods and agave in making their mezcal.

Mezcal tasting session at the Mezcaloteca non-profit tasting room, appointments only.

Mezcaloteca, a nonprofit, is the brainchild of Sylvia and Marco. They moved from Mexico City back to Marco’s home of Miahuatlan to be surrounded by the mezcal — and realized that the mezcal sold in Oaxaca City wasn’t even that high in quality. They built Mezcaloteca, a nonprofit tasting room and line of mezcal dedicated to supporting very small scale mezcal, with recipes passed down in families for generations. These aren’t people building “artisan” brands of mezcal, instead, these are farmers who make mezcal once or twice a year for festivals and baptisms. They care about the agave plant, the traditional way of making it and the taste. Mezcaloteca supports this very small scale mescaladeros by purchasing just a portion of their batch at the significantly higher prices that mescal is currently fetching in places like Mexico City (It’s still much cheaper than artisnal brands, but is often 7x more than these mezcaladerso are paid).

Details: Mezcaloteca’s hip, appointment-only tasting room is located at Reforma No. 506, Col. Centro, 68000 Oaxaca, Mexico. Call +52 951 514 0082 for reservations or put in a request here: http://www.mezcaloteca.com/. Tell Andrea we said hi!

3. Visit mountain villages with the Sierra Norte Expediciones, a community-owned ecotourism collaborative. Oaxaca has a very impressive and complicated governance structure, and many of the indigenous villages were granted greater levels of autonomy. Several of these villages have come together to create community-owned land that is accessible to outdoor enthusiasts via mountain bikes, hiking, zip lines, cabanas, etc.

Emily and Lou on an early morning hike among the agave plants, the trails are co-owned and maintained by the villages.

There are many great outdoor guides in Oaxaca but I’m a fan of Sierra Norte Expediciones because it was formed by several villages who want to do tourism right, and create livelihoods for their residents from the tourism. They offer several outings, and can craft outings for your needs.

We took a trip to Cuajimoloyas and hiked up to Latuvia to stay the night. It was a very demanding hike, which is what we wanted — and we had guides the whole way. Many people don’t want to hike with guides because hiking is often a solo experience, but truthfully, in Mexico, that’s the way it is. It’s not only creating jobs for people in the villages, it’s making sure you don’t get lost AND it is often an informal botany and anthropology lesson about these beautiful mountains. We stayed in community-owned and operated cabanas, and someone will come make you a fire in the evening!

The view from our cabin.

Details: I recommend going to their offices at M. Bravo No. 210-A Plaza San Cristóbal, Col. Centro, Oaxaca if your Spanish isn’t great. You can email them at sierranorte@oaxaca.com or call them 01 (951) 51 4 82 71. Website: http://sierranorte.org.mx/en/

4. Visit master potters, and get your hands dirty, with Innovando la Tradición’s pottery tours. The nonprofit Innovando la Tradicion’s goal is to raise the symbolic, cultural and commercial value of the ceramic tradition in a contemporary global context. They have a great little store near the coffee shop El Volador, and they’ve launched a Deep in Clay program of tours that aims to publicize the wisdom of women potters in Oaxaca and improve their income to support their workshops through participatory tourism.

From Innovando: “In this experience, the artisans immerse us in the mysterious world of mud. Participants will have the opportunity to have their hands, feet, heart and mind in contact with the clay to understand and experience the transformation of mud into beauty and learn about the ancient traditions of pottery in Oaxaca.”

A tour participant and me (!!) watching the master potter at work.

Details: The little shop that sells some of the works, La Tiendita del Barro, is located at Rufino Tamayo 800 Centro Oaxaca. The non-profit’s offices are upstairs, and you can chat with Kythzia and Diego about their incredible work. Drop by or email tours@innovandolatradicion.org to set up a tour.

5. Learn to cook and eat traditional pre-hispanic Oaxacan food in a cooking class. Food is usually high on the list of many people who visit Oaxaca, so a cooking class is a great idea. I took several classes, and each of them was an excellent experience. These chefs are dedicated to Slow Food methods and I am partial to Pilar Cabrera who owns La Olla and Susannah Trilling from Seasons of My Heart (who also has a little shop by Innovando’s Tiendita — above). I found this blog post extremely helpful and accurate in summing up these classes and their differences up very well. I endorse all of them.

Reyna showing us how to use her metate, and the delicious snacks that ensued.

However, Reyna Mendoza offers a class in the nearby village of Teotitlan del Valle that is not to be missed for those interested in the indigenous Zapotec cuisine. Once you drop your stuff and visit her family’s traditional temescal (hot sauna) and amazing outdoor kitchen, you’ll then visit the nearby village market to shop for your class. You’ll return to the beautiful outdoor kitchen to prepare the food using traditional techniques, including the forgoing a blender for the traditional metate. It’s a delightful, immersive experience.

Details: Pilar’s classes are Casa de la Sabores, Susannah’s classes are Seasons of My Heart and Reyna’s classes El Sabor Zapoteca.

A few more pro tips for visiting Oaxaca:

  • Follow Oaxacking on instagram, and if you’re lucky you can hire him as a guide if you want to get the most out of Oaxaca. Omar isn’t a traditional guide, he’s dedicated to off-the-beaten path experiences, often pulling together photo shoots for camera crews or introducing New
  • Bookmark Que Pasa Oaxaca and Margie Barclay’s Oaxaca Calendar to know what’s happening in the city on any given evening. Oaxaca is extremely rich in cultural events: we saw the Nutcracker ballet, hear operas and saw more outdoor concerts and parades than we can count.
  • My favorite boutiques from Oaxacan designers who’re innovating on the traditional: Vianney, Silvia Suarez, Maddalena Forcella who designs beautiful rugs with local weavers, and the Etsy-like local artists who show at Mano a Mano.
  • Art tours! I’m not sure if they’re hosting regularly but “like” Trayectivo on Facebook in case. Knowledgable guys who are dedicated to making the art scene in Oaxaca more accessible.
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