Before moving to California, I had never even heard of Oaxaca, Mexico. And, what I had heard about the place didn't seem compelling enough to make me want to visit—like ever. But what really booted the city of Oaxaca off my Top-Places-To-Visit list was the fact that it's a full eight-hour drive from the nearest beach.
Oaxaca Mexico is a totally land-locked city.
Yeah, what the what?!? I mean, what's the point of going to Mexico if you're not going to get drunk and pass out on a beach? Does the Mexican Board of Tourism honestly expect people (Americans) to go to Mexico for the culture? For the arts? The archeology? The cuisine? The music? In two words, yes.
Imagine that you're a big wave surfer, paddling around in the warm Pacific Ocean off the western coast of Mexico. Now, imagine if you rode one of Mexico's famously gnarly waves all the way to shore and just kept on going for about a mile.
If you somehow managed to accomplish that feat, two things would be true: 1.) you'd be an unbelievably impressive surfer, and 2.) you'd come to a stop in a place most tourists never see or experience—a place known to the locals as “Mexico.” And that's where Oaxaca is located.
Yeah, Mexico is a whole country. Who knew?
Americans are often surprised to learn that their neighbor to the south comprises over 750,000 square miles of sun-drenched and mountainous real estate, of which only Mexico's outermost edges are made of beach. Americans are equally surprised when told that much of that interior land is populated, too.
Yet America's gross ignorance of Mexico's interior is our own loss, because places like Oaxaca are fairly jam-packed with impressive ancient ruins and freakish natural anomalies. But that lack of awareness is probably a boon for Mexicans, who might prefer that American tourists not overrun their country and ruin everything.
A brief historical history of the Oaxaca Valley in Oaxaca Mexico.
Though generally considered a large, single valley, the Oaxaca Valley is technically three that kinda all string together.
All three lie within the Sierra Madre mountain range and were initially home to the awesomely named “Zapotec” peoples and, later, the less awesomely named “Mixtec” peoples (who I presume were mostly either DJs, salad-eaters, or both).
The Zapotec and Mixtec cultures thrived more or less in this part of Mexico between 1800 BCE and 1500 CE—they even co-existed peaceably for a while without utterly decimating each other. That unpleasant job fell to the mighty Aztec Empire, an imposing people feared throughout Mexico for their warrior ethos and quilted cotton armor.
The warring Aztecs soon occupied much of the region until the Spanish showed up in 1521 CE—fully attired in both metal armor and metal weapons—to give the Aztec a life-lesson about bringing quilted cotton armor to a rifle and bullet fight.
None of the pre-Hispanic cultures survived the Spanish arrival, but a good number of their buildings did.
During their respective reigns over the southern tip of Mexico, the Zapotecs and Mixtecs built two pretty sweet-looking archeological sites: 1.) Monte Alban, their main political center whose name means “sacred mountain of life,” and 2.) Mitla, a unique religious site named after the underworld.
These two major religious mega-churches are located a mere 9 and 44 kilometers outside of Oaxaca City, respectively, on top of the least mountainous mountains within the expansive valley.
They're both well worth visiting if for no other reason than the plethora of Mescal tasting rooms you'll find scattered all along the route.
1.) Monte Alban is kinda like Machu Picchu only without the hellish climb.
Monte Alban, much like the Vatican in Rome, was home to assorted priests and other rich Zapotec and Mixtec folks who also probably had a beach house in Tulum. The impressive site was designed to accommodate huge religious celebrations, epic ball court tournaments, and countless human sacrifices. Monte Alban was basically a dual-use facility for the community that was half-House of Worship and half-Thunderdome.
It's entirely possible to walk up to Monte Alban, but I wouldn't recommend it because you'll be too tired to walk around once you're there. You can also take a local bus, but they're pretty crowded. Instead, we chose to hire a van to take us up the mountain because it was hot, and we're lazy. Also, bring water with you, or buy it at the site entrance, or you will die—the place is huge, there's no shade, and there's lots of walking and climbing to do—without continuous access to hydration, you will not survive.
Get a guide to take you around and point out interesting rocks, because the infrequent plaques around the place aren't super informative. And bring change, because if you want to use the water closet (aka, bathroom), it costs three pesos.
See more photos of Monte Alban >
2.) Like intricately carved rock? Then Mitla is your jam.
The least impressive ruins in size and scope—but second most important archeological site—in the upper end of the Tlacolula Valley was Mitla. Its name comes from the Nahuatl name, Mictlán, meaning “place of the dead” which was simplified to the more pronounceable “Meet-la” by the linguistically lazy Spanish Conquistadors (as if “Conquistador” couldn't have lost a few syllables).
While Mitla lacks the wow-factor of Monte Alban, it does offer intricate, geometric designs all over its buildings. Mitla is unique among the many Mesoamerican sites in the country in that it has crazy elaborate mosaic fretwork that covers the tombs, panels, friezes, and even entire walls.
The mosaics are made with small, finely cut and polished stone pieces which have been fitted together without the use of mortar. No other site in Mexico displays this level of ingenuity, nor OCD. As an added bonus, Mitla has some extremely claustrophobic tombs that you can climb down into if you like dark, scary places that trigger panic attacks.
See more photos of Mitla >
3.) Hierve el Agua is one of only two petrified cascades in the whole world.
Seventy kilometers outside Oaxaca lies Hierve el Agua, a unique natural phenomenon that only exists in two places: Oaxaca, Mexico and Pamukkale, Turkey. This rare “petrified cascade” is the result of a calcium carbonite-rich waterfall slowly solidifying over the eons.
The cold-water spring that feeds these crazy cascades also fills a few pools at its top, in which locals and tourists can swim. Its almost neon-green colored water ensures that no one will know that you peed in it.
Our guide, Jose Ramos of El Andador Tours, took us down the winding cliff-side path that leads to the bottom of the cascades, all the while helping us avoid falling to untimely and painful deaths on the valley floor.
Inexplicably, the Mexican government hasn't installed any safety measures around this rare sight to prevent gawking tourists from sliding off said cliff. They leave that job to your own sense of self-preservation—something that's not always on display, as we saw a woman in flip-flops almost careen off the edge trying to get a selfie on her iPad.
So, is visiting Oaxaca Mexico better than a beach town?
Oaxaca is deservedly popular with hipsters and artsy types, but is it better than going to the beaches at Cabo or Cancun? That depends on why you're going to Mexico. If you're going to lay on the beach, then the answer is pretty obvious.
But if you're going for a cultural experience with great food, or a getaway to avoid extradition by US Marshals, then Oaxaca, Mexico might just be the place for you.