Meagan Drillinger
Meagan Drillinger

Three of Mexico's cities rank among the top five on Travel + Leisure's 2019 World's Best list: San Miguel de Allende (No. 2), Mexico City (No. 4) and at No. 5, Oaxaca City, the capital of a state that is a microcosm for the very best of what Mexico has to offer.

According to Zach Rabinor, CEO of Journey Mexico, Oaxaca's rising popularity is due to its "exquisite architecture, living indigenous culture, spectacular Zapotec and Mixtec archaeological sites, to-die-for cuisine and some of the most exceptional artisans in all of Mexico."

According to Mexico News Daily, Oaxaca City has introduced 15 new flights from around Mexico, and has six direct U.S. connections, making it easier than ever to access. If your clients are looking for a Mexico vacation that would truly give them a taste of everything, look no further than Oaxaca.

At this point we can all agree that travel to Mexico rests on several pillars: culture, gastronomy, history and beaches, to name a few. Oaxaca not only has some of the best examples of all of these, it goes above and beyond, and at an average daily rate that is considerably cheaper than other, more tourist-heavy destinations.

Culture

A snapshot of Mexico in itself, Oaxaca City exudes culture better than almost any other destination in Mexico, or Latin America, for that matter. Picture towering churches and spacious, tree-framed plazas, brightly colored colonial buildings that hug cobblestone streets. A photographer's paradise, the lighting always seems to be just right in Oaxaca for capturing that perfect color-filled Mexico shot.

Visit the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, next door to the equally impressive Templo de Santo Domingo. One of Mexico's premier regional museums, this is a deep dive into the history and culture of Oaxaca state. Don't miss its greatest claim to fame: the Mixtec treasure trove found in one of the tombs at Monte Alban. Dating to the 14th century, it contains a stash of silver, coral, jade, amber, pearls, gold, a skull covered in turquoise and so much more. It was discovered in the early 20th century and now rests at the museum.

Visitors can also soak up Oaxaca City's culture by simply strolling the Zocalo, or main square. It has an near-24/7 liveliness to it, which starts early in the day and flows late into the night with live music, hawkers, food stands and souvenir peddlers.

Rabinor recommends a visit to the Isthmus region, "especially during the numerous festivals throughout the year. Juchitan de Zaragoza is the largest and most vibrant city of the Tehuantepec region and the colorful processions and festivals feature amazing costumes, masks, dancing music, and more."

Gastronomy

When it comes to Mexican cuisine, Oaxacan cooking is talked about in hushed, reverent tones. In fact, many of the Mexican dishes you recognize hail from the state of Oaxaca: mole, tamales, quesillo, chocolate, etc. Many Mexican dishes you might not recognize hail from Oaxaca as well, all of which are absolutely worth a try. Tlayudas, for example, are one of the most iconic dishes of Oaxaca. These giant corn tortillas are stuffed with black bean paste, quesillo, vegetables and a choice of meat, and then folded and grilled over hot coals.

In Oaxaca City the best spot for tlayudas is Cenaduria Libres Tlayudas Dona Martha. But travelers can find a whole medley of Oaxacan specialties at the central markets, Mercado Benito Juarez or Mercado 20 de Noviembre. Oaxaca is also at the cutting edge of haute Mexican cuisine. Take Restaurante Catedral, for example, which is one of the most upscale dining establishments in the city, known for its roast pork and moles.

History

Most visitors to Mexico know all about the Mayan or Aztec civilizations, whose presence is felt all throughout the Yucatan and Central Mexico with towering pyramids and ancient ruins. But Oaxaca was home to another of Mexico's ancient civilizations, the Zapotecs. The most remarkable remnant of their reign is just outside of Oaxaca City at the ancient site of Monte Alban, a Unesco World Heritage Site. The initial construction of Monte Alban began around the eighth century BC. It is one of the most expansive ancient sites in Mexico, with plazas, pyramids, a ball court, underground passages, and about 170 tombs.

Beaches ... and beyond

But Oaxaca is so much more than its capital city. Over the Sierra Madres, along windy mountain roads, highways trickle down to the expansive Oaxacan coast, along which are several top resort towns, and several tucked-away beach villages waiting to be discovered. The biggest Oaxacan beach getaways are the cities of Huatulco (and its surrounding nine bays), and Puerto Escondido, about two hours north of Huatulco. Here you'll find beach hotels, restaurants, fishing, diving, surfing -- all without the volumes of crowds that are typically found in destinations like Cancun, Los Cabos or Puerto Vallarta.

There are several ways to get to the coast: there is a bus from Oaxaca City, which is an eight-hour journey, or travelers can drive themselves. There are a variety of routes, some more direct than others, but all wind through the mountains to get to the sea. There is also the option of flying. Fly into either Puerto Escondido International Airport or Bahias de Huatulco International Airport.

"If it's the right time of the year you can see some of the most amazing migrations in the world along the coast between Puerto Angel and Mazunte, where literally hundreds of thousands of sea turtles nest and hatch," Rabinor said. "I love the small village of Barra de la Cruz for its world-class surfing, but also just to spend the day and see the way the fishing communities live along this pristine coast line." 

But beyond the beaches, there is so much more to be discovered in nature. Using Puerto Escondido or Huatulco as a jumping-off point, travelers can explore the nearby hot springs, bioluminescent bays near the town of Manialtepec, or the supremely beautiful and secluded Lagunas de Chacahua National Park.

Visitors can also experience Oaxaca's mountain vibes with a stay in a mountain town like San Jose del Pacifico, an almost Alpine-esque experience at 8,000 feet above sea level. This bohemian, offbeat town is tucked amid misty mountains -- a popular destination among backpackers, but certainly enjoyed by anyone who appreciates nature walks, endless mountain views, and a local temazcal ritual.

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