To reach the ancient weaving village of Teotitlán del Valle from Oaxaca, a shared taxi costs a fraction of a regular cab © Marco Bottigelli / Getty Images
As Oaxaca’s superb colonial capital continues to grow in popularity, it's not just the rich culinary scene and myriad cultural attractions that have so many travelers singing its praises. It's also incredibly budget-friendly.
What makes it so easy on the wallet? For starters, the affordable accommodations, dirt-cheap transportation and plentiful free sights add up to big savings. And when it comes to the famously savory regional cuisine, let's just say some of the city's best eats await in the humble market and street stalls.
Here are some tips on how to make the most of your pesos while visiting this splendid corner of southern Mexico.
To get to Oaxaca on the cheap, take the bus
Most international flights arrive in Mexico City, where you can catch either a connecting flight or a bus to Oaxaca. Buses depart frequently from the TAPO station, conveniently located just 3 miles west of the Mexico City airport, and they're usually the most inexpensive option, especially aboard an economy-class line. The ticketing website ClickBus often offers discounted online fares.
For cut-rate Mexico City-Oaxaca flights, look for off-season deals on low-cost airlines Volaris and VivaAerobus.
Oaxaca's vibrant old markets offer an abundance of classic street-food eats © fitopardo.com / Getty Images
Eat like a king for less
Oaxaca's vibrant old markets, such as 20 de Noviembre and Mercado de la Merced, serve everything from modest three-course comida corrida meals and delectable mole dishes to fresh-baked pan dulce (sweet bread) and smoky grilled meats accompanied with fixings for tacos. The mercado experience is all about savoring down-home cooking, and it comes at a ridiculously cheap price – what's not to like?
You’ll also come across an abundance of classic street-food eats, such as gigantic tlayudas (grilled tortillas filled with beans, cheese and optional meats), Oaxaca-style tamales and a tantalizing array of corn-based snacks – all tasty treats sure to please the palate and the pocketbook.
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Pile into a shared taxi to visit scenic towns nearby
To reach Oaxaca's surrounding towns and outlying craft villages, maroon-and-white colectivos (shared taxis) charge only a fraction of what it would cost to get there in a regular cab. Granted, you’ll have to squeeze into a sedan with at least three other passengers (so yeah, forget about social distancing), but they're often a quicker and cheaper option than taking a second-class bus.
Colectivos run along fixed routes, and their destinations are displayed on their windshields. If you're heading out to the towns of El Tule, Teotitlán del Valle or Mitla, you'll find the vehicles one block east of the Vasconcelos baseball stadium, along Hwy 190. They also congregate around the second-class bus station.
Discover urban art along cobbled streets
Local artists have transformed the streets of Oaxaca into an outdoor gallery of sorts, with brilliantly painted murals adorning the walls in the historic centers of Jalatlaco, Xochimilco and the Centro.
All three neighborhoods are within walking distance of one another, so you can easily explore them on foot on a DIY tour that doesn't cost a single peso. Jalatlaco is home to vivid Día de Muertos-inspired murals by Bouler, a talented Oaxacan artist whose work also graces the exterior of Casa Curtiduria, an economical hotel in the center of the attractive old barrio.
Discover Mexico away from the crowds
Know when to score good-value digs
Tourism typically slows down in May, June and most of September, with the exception of September 15 and 16, when Mexico celebrates Independence Day. These are good months to shop around for bargains in Oaxaca's no-frills hotels, vacation rentals and charismatic inns, and you might even find deals in some hostels, though most are already downright barato (cheap). The Centro, aka the historic center, has the highest concentration of sleeping options for travelers on a budget.
Room rates spike during the iconic Guelaguetza festival (a folkloric dance and musical extravaganza) in July, Day of the Dead celebrations in late October and early November and the Christmas and Easter holiday periods. Mexican vacation season runs from mid-July through August, so expect price increases then as well. In general, though, Oaxaca has reasonably priced lodging throughout most of the year. In fact, even during the high season rates are a steal, compared to some of Mexico's pricier beach destinations (sorry, Tulum).
Hop on a city bus for the most inexpensive tour in town
You have to love a city where you can get to pretty much any neighborhood for a mere M$8 (US$.40). Sure, it's not the fastest way to zip around town, but a new rapid-transit system called CityBus has been expanding its routes in an effort to make Oaxaca’s public transportation network more efficient. If you're arriving at the first-class bus station, "Juárez" buses will take you three blocks east of the Zócalo, the city's main square.
Browse first-rate arts and crafts stores
Oaxaca's thriving arts and crafts scene – arguably the best in Mexico – overflows with galleries, cutting-edge graphic art studios and shops displaying high-quality works.
Even if you have no intentions of buying, you should check out the impressive alebrijes (colorful wooden animal sculptures based on indigenous mythology), hand-woven Zapotec rugs, polished black ceramics and exceptional paintings by revered Oaxacan artists, including Francisco Toledo and Rufino Tamayo. The traffic-free pedestrian corridor of Calle Alcalá, aka the Andador Turístico, makes a great place to start your exploration of stores and galleries, such as the magnificent Voces de Copal.
For a break from the bustling Zócalo, duck into Oaxaca Cathedral and gawk at the soaring ceiling © Paul Souders / Getty Images
Delight in live entertainment on the Zócalo
For some good old-fashioned Mexican fun, don’t miss out on the playful street artists, marimba and brass-band ensembles and traditional dancers doing their thing on Oaxaca's shady main square, and on the adjoining Alameda de León plaza. The atmosphere really comes to life on weekends, when street performers work the Zócalo's large crowds for tips.
Even when there’s a lull in the activity, you can always plop down on a bench with an elote (grilled Mexican street corn) and soak up the scenery amid the square’s colonial splendor.
Enjoy free museums, baroque churches and more
With a whopping 1200 historic monuments, the easily walkable Centro has deservedly earned its Unesco World Heritage badge. Along downtown’s cobbled streets you can visit a range of noteworthy sights, such as an iconic 18th-century aqueduct, exquisite baroque churches and free art centers and museums.
The Museo Textil stocks a collection of some 10,000 textile crafts, and for an early-morning walk, the sentinel Cerro del Fortín affords panoramic views over the city. Some main attractions offer free admission for children under 13 and adults over the age of 60.
Get up close and personal with skillful artisans
In several of Oaxaca's nearby craft villages, gifted artisans provide free tours of their facilities as they share secrets of the trade with curious onlookers. In the barro negro (black pottery) hub of San Bartolo Coyotepec and in the ancient weaving village of Teotitlán del Valle, community-run museums charge nominal entry fees for their interesting folk-art exhibits.
Take a shuttle van from the airport to stretch your dinero
If you're flying into Oaxaca’s airport, Transportación Terrestre's shared shuttle service to the city center costs M$105 (US$5.20) – about half what you'd pay for a private taxi. Just think, with savings like that you might be able to treat yourself to an extra round of tacos and mezcal!
Daily costs in Oaxaca
- Hostel dorm room: M$300-500 (US$15-25)
- Basic room for two in high season: M$800-1000 (US$40-50)
- Self-catering apartment: from M$500 (US$25)
- Public transportation fare: city bus service M$8 (US$.40)
- Dinner for two: M$500-800 (US$25-40)
- Market fare: M$40-80 (US$2-4)
- Tlayudas: from M$60 (US$3)
- Tacos & tamales M$15 (US$.75)
- Mezcal: from M$50 (US$2.50)
- Coffee: M$25-40 (US$1.25-4)
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