Soaring Mountains and Indigenous Traditions: Oaxaca City's Magic Is Just Outside of Town

Oaxaca city is a dazzling destination in its own right, but you'll want an up-close experience with the region's Indigenous pueblos and dramatic landscapes, too.

The Sierra Norte is the mountain region north of Oaxaca, and within the highlands lies remote villages that offer wilderness escapes and Zapotec life. These villages are known as The Pueblos Mancomunados
Photo: Wu Swee Ong/Getty Images

Oaxaca is a spell-casting city with a red-hot culinary scene, incredible local arts, boutique hotels, and a colonial atmosphere. But even more magic comes from the surrounding valleys and mountains, which are home to Indigenous pueblos continuing centuries-old artistic traditions, massive regional markets, and amazing hikes. Best of all? By renting a car, all of these experiences are an easy day trip from the city.

Read on for tips on where to go, how to get there, what to buy, and where to sleep on your next Oaxaca escape.

A Zapotec woman is preparing a loom for weaving a carpet at a weavers home studio in Teotitlan del Valle, a small town in the Valles Centrales Region near Oaxaca, southern Mexico.
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Score original handwoven tapetes in Teotitlán del Valle.

Tapetes, or textiles, are everywhere in Oaxaca's historic center, but many are mass-produced knockoffs or sold at a hefty markup. Instead, head 45 minutes east to Teotitlán del Valle, an Indigenous community that continues centuries-old Zapotec loom-weaving traditions.

Teotitlán is one of the most famous centers for textile production in Mexico, and the legendary tapetes produced here can be found in boutiques around the country. Among the most famous artisans in town is Bulmaro Pérez, whose family has created tapetes for numerous years. "We now represent the ninth generation to continue with this beautiful textile art," he told Travel + Leisure.

For the Pérez family, the connection to their Indigenous roots is central to their work. The family wants visitors "to appreciate the tradition and work" that their Zapotec ancestors have given them. And that work can take up to 14 months, depending on the size of the piece. The designs are endless, inspired by Zapotec symbols, patterns, and their Native lands. That influence can be seen in Pérez's "Mountains and Rain" design, which is the workshop's most popular, inspired by the towering Sierra Norte just outside town.

Brightly painted wooden animals known as alebrijes - San Martin Tilcajete, Oaxaca
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Go straight to the source for dazzling alebrijes from San Martín Tilcajete.

If you've been to Mexico, you may have come home with an alebrije or two. Though the bright patterns and fantastical creatures you see now are a more modern development, the origin of alebrijes can be traced back to the fever dreams of Pedro Linares, an Indigenous Oaxacan living in Mexico City.

San Martín Tilcajete, a town just 45 minutes south of Oaxaca city, has made a name for itself as the center of alebrije design in Oaxaca. Local artisans carve the figurines from sacred copal wood and paint them with their iconic patterns. Among the many studios in town, the Workshop of Jacobo and María Angeles has become the most well known, offering tours for visitors and programs for the community.

This massive compound on the dusty fringes of town has been in operation since 1994, and here, artisans use copal to carve tonas (animals of the Zapotec calendar) and nahuales (animal-human hybrids). "Our pieces are related to our Zapotec culture that we portray through distinct ancient codices," a representative of the workshop told T+L. "The copal, for us, is a sacred tree. Working with this wood to create tonas and nahuales provides the essence or spirit that's necessary for each one of our pieces."

The workshop also focuses on sustainability in the region, working to preserve Indigenous agricultural traditions and spearheading the Palo que Habla initiative, which conserves and replants copal groves in the region.

Members of the 'Red Clay Women' carry natural clay deposits in the Zapotec village of San Marcos Tlapazola, Oaxaca state, Mexico
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Give your home some history with barro rojo from San Marcos Tlapazola.

Oaxaca's Centro is packed with famous restaurants, from stunning Criollo — helmed by Luis Arellano and Pujol's Enrique Olvera — to intimate gourmet spots like Teocintle. The one thing they have in common? Heavy, perfectly worn dishware that has historical roots in the region.

Made from clay mined in the region's foothills, barro is one of Oaxaca's original art forms. While numerous finishes are available, barro rojo — ranging from brick red to rich brown-blacks — is the original and has been produced by Oaxaca's Indigenous communities for centuries.

Barro rojo shines brightest in San Marcos Tlapazola, just over an hour from Oaxaca's center. Here, women keep the tradition alive in the face of modernization. Barro rojo was historically utilitarian, used to fashion kitchenware and dishes, though in San Marcos, you'll find exquisite vases and other objects to choose from, all crafted from clay that the women mine themselves.

Street with market stalls in the city Tlacolula de Matamoros, Oaxaca, southwestern Mexico
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Get lost in the frenzy of Tlacolula Market.

Every Sunday, residents of the region's towns and pueblos gather in Tlacolula de Matamoros for one the largest markets in the state. It's a riot of sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that make Oaxaca city's markets look tame, and you can find it under an hour from the city center.

Bring plenty of cash and bags large enough to haul your wares — and make sure that you're hungry. Even before entering the market hall, the frenetic warren of streets are filled with vendors selling tejate (a sweet, frothy, cacao-based drink), tamales, roasted yucca, and chapulines (grasshoppers). Inside the market, the strains of roving mariachis accompany endless stalls offering pan dulce, tetelas, tlayudas, and other local fare.

Once you're fueled up, wind your way through stands of cowboy hats, handwoven baskets, molcajetes for cooking, live turkeys, Virgen de Guadalupe T-shirts, and quite literally anything else you can imagine. Items here are far cheaper than you'll find in Oaxaca's city center, and it pays to go early because parking can be tough.

Drive up the Sierra Norte for a glimpse of Oaxaca's wild side.

From materials to visual inspiration, Oaxaca's landscape is an inextricable part of the art, culture, and cuisine of the region. Best of all, much of the region's most beautiful scenery is just over an hour away by car.

Santa Catarina Ixtepeji, up a well-paved but vertigo-inducing road into the Sierra Norte, is where desert vistas change to alpine forests. Just outside of the village, La Cumbre Ixtepeji ecotourism center is a private reserve with numerous trails for all skill levels, plus mountain biking and simple lodges for overnight stays. Many viewpoints and scenic clearings make for excellent picnic stops along the way.

A bit further from the city, you'll find the popular Pueblos Mancomunados. Two to three hours from Oaxaca's city center, these Indigenous mountain communities have developed a well-maintained network of trails and lodges. Many travelers spend several days in the area, trekking from one town to the next.

Where to Stay in Oaxaca

El Diablo y la Sandía Boca del Monte is an exceptional boutique hotel that's around 10 minutes from the city's main attractions on foot. Each room is individually designed with subtle Mexican touches, soft colors, and incredibly comfortable beds. Centered around a flower-filled courtyard, owner Maria Crespo and her team create an atmosphere that's truly homey. Days start with phenomenal breakfasts at a communal table while the sounds of laughter shared over mezcal drift along the evening air.

Tips on Renting a Car and Driving in Oaxaca

Renting a car in Oaxaca is affordable and simple, though advanced reservations are recommended. GPS programs generally work well in the region, but download offline maps if you're heading into the mountains. While most highways are decent, speak with your hotel about protests (bloqueos) that often close major routes. Street parking is easy, but note that many lots are closed on Sundays.

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