Of the hottest 21st-century tourist destinations in Mexico, Oaxaca City, officially called Oaxaca de Juárez, is also the most urban. This vibrant city of about 260,000 still feels surprisingly authentic for a place that has been so “discovered” of late. Perhaps no small city better embodies the bundle of contrasts that is modern Mexico, with a commingling of sights, smells, and sounds both ancient and new. You’ll hear the singsong strains of Zapotec, Mixtec, and other native languages in the markets, Spanish rock in the bars and restaurants, and hip-hop in English blaring from passing cars. Scions of affluent families sip tea or tequila in classy restaurants; out on the streets, men, women, and children of significantly more modest means sell pencils, sweets, and ears of delicious grilled elote (corn) — and let’s not forget the plethora of often bohemian, savvier-than-average American tourists who roam the streets.
Spreading south and east from Oaxaca City, the Valles Centrales, or Central Valleys, are well worth exploring. You could easily fill a week visiting the dozens of villages here. Looking for colonial-era splendor? There are charming squares dominated by graceful churches in Ocotlán and Santa Ana del Valle, to name but two. Unique crafts? San Bartolo Coyotepec is known for its beautiful barro negro, or black pottery, made without the benefit of a pottery wheel, while in Teotitlán del Valle the streets are lined with shops selling tapetes, the woven wool rugs that are known all around Mexico. Colorful markets? Take your pick. There are outdoor markets each day of the week, and each is different. In Zaachila, for example, you could pick up some animals — either small carvings or the real thing. Best of all, most markets are geared toward locals, so you really get a sense of each village.
Oaxaca’s 520-km (322-mi) coastline is one of Mexico’s last Pacific frontiers. The town of Puerto Escondido has long been prime territory for international surfers. Its pedestrian walkways, crowded with open-air seafood restaurants, shops, and cafés, is indeed lively, but also incredibly relaxed. Fishing boats pull double duty as water taxis, ferrying folks to lovely scallops of sand up the coast. Across the highway, the “real” town above provides a look at local life and a dazzling view of the coast.
No matter where you hole up along Mexico’s southern Pacific coast, you’ll find that it’s all about the beach, the water, and the waves. Surfers and bodysurfers whoop it up at Zicatela and less famous breaks; snorkelers hug rocky coves in search of new and unusual specimens; and divers share the depths with dolphins, rays, eels, and schools of fish instead of shoals of other humans. Friendly locals, superb vistas, and first-rate beaches combine to make Oaxaca’s coast a stunner.