When to visit Oaxaca for festivals, food and fun

When to visit Oaxaca for festivals, food and fun

Take full advantage of the crowd-free attractions during Oaxaca's low season © Marco Bottigelli / Getty Images

With near-perfect weather and a calendar packed with unique fiestas and cultural events, it's no wonder this captivating corner of southern Mexico lures visitors year-round.

One of the city's best shindigs of the year, the Gueleguetza fest electrifies Oaxaca with a brilliant feast of folkloric dance in July, and in November it's all about the soulful and festively macabre celebrations for Day of the Dead.

For both events, along with the expensive spring and winter vacation periods, book accommodations months in advance. Conversely, if you're on a tight budget, make the most of the post-holiday lull and experience dramatic Zapotec ruins and Oaxaca's other unmissable sights without the crowds.

High season: November to April

Best time to embrace traditions

Many folks make it a point to visit Oaxaca for Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), a magical time of year when candlelit altars pop up in the public squares and cemeteries and Catrina figures (elegant skeletons) parade through the historic center's cobbled streets. Día de Muertos falls on November 1 and 2, but celebrations often start several days beforehand.

A lesser-known yet wonderfully Oaxacan tradition unfolds on December 23, when large radish sculptures are displayed on the Zócalo in an age-old competition. The creative and often amusing carvings for La Noche de Rábanos (Night of the Radishes) range from elaborate dioramas to odd animal figures.

Weather-wise, these are the coolest and driest months of the year, making it an ideal time for outdoor activities such as hiking and mountain biking in Oaxaca's wildlife-rich mountain towns. And while this is generally considered peak season, you can usually score hotel deals in late November, early December and February.

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Introducing Mexico

Shoulder season: July and August

Best time to soak up culture and mezcal

Guelaguetza, an annual indigenous cultural event showcasing Oaxaca's folkloric dance and music traditions, is one of the best festivals of the year, and with it comes the Feria del Mezcal, a weeklong fair that draws some 70 mezcal brands, craft beer producers and live music acts.

Guelaguetza (meaning "offering" in Zapotec) usually takes place during the final two weeks of July, and it coincides with the beginning of Mexico's summer vacation season,  which runs through August.

The pleasant summer months bring some afternoon thunderstorms as daytime highs hover in the mid-80s°F.

Low season: May to June & September to October

Best time for budget travelers

September marks the end of the Mexican vacation season, but Independence Day lies just around the corner. On September 15, the eve of Día de la Independencia, large crowds gather in the main square to hear the governor's version of the Grito de Dolores (Miguel Hidalgo's famous cry to rebellion in 1810) from the central balcony of the Palacio de Gobierno.

Despite the busy Independence Day celebrations, these are some of the best months to seek airfare and hotel bargains, especially in the wake of Spring Break. October is generally chilled out until Day of the Dead festivities get underway. (For more on events, see the Oaxaca Culture Secretariat's latest posts.)

January

Usher in the new year over an exquisite mole dish accompanied by an aromatic mezcal on the rooftop of Casa Oaxaca. On January 6 (Three Kings Day), Mexican children receive presents and bakeries sell Rosca de Reyes, a seasonal cake topped with candied fruit. The weather is relatively cool and arid.
Key events: New Year's Day, Three Kings Day (Día de los Reyes Magos)

February

It remains pleasant and dry as February brings exuberant Carnaval celebrations to the city center, and to nearby towns such as San Martín Tilcajete, famous for its exquisitely crafted alebrije sculptures. In El Tule, home to the world's fattest tree, a festive Candelaria (Candlemas) procession winds through the streets on February 2.
Key events: Carnaval, Candlemas

March

Springtime arrives with warmer and mostly dry weather. On the third Monday of the month, the city celebrates the birthday of Oaxacan-born liberal Benito Juárez, Mexico's first president of indigenous origin and Zapotec ethnicity.
Key events: Benito Juarez's birthday

When to visit Oaxaca for festivals, food and fun

May is a scorcher of a month by Oaxaca City standards © Gerard Puigmal / Getty Images

April

The thermometer continues to rise in April, and you may get some afternoon showers. During Semana Santa (Holy Week), expect hordes of visitors at the hilltop Zapotec ruins of Monte Albán and other heavily touristed sights, such as the Zócalo and the Andador Turístico.
Key events: Holy Week

May 

May is a scorcher of a month by Oaxaca City standards, but with highs in the low 90s°F, it's definitely tolerable. In Teotitlán del Valle, a famous weaving town 19 miles east of Oaxaca, the Festival del Mole entices visitors with a tantalizing assortment of nut-, chili- and spice-based mole dishes.
Key events: Festival del Mole

June

The height of the rainy season begins, bringing afternoon downpours but mostly sunny days. June is low season for tourism, so take full advantage of the hotel deals and pleasant crowd-free attractions.

When to visit Oaxaca for festivals, food and fun

Shoulder season is the best time to soak up Oaxaca's cultural traditions © Aleksandar Todorovic / Shutterstock

July

One of the wettest months of the year, but the rain rarely dampens the spirit of Guelaguetza, a first-rate cultural event featuring regional music and dance performances. Stick around in late July for the annual mezcal fair.
Key events: Guelaguetza, Feria del Mezcal

August

After Guelaguetza, a calmness settles over the capital, but the Mexican vacation period from mid-July to late August does mean an increase in hotel occupancy. For a taste of ancestral Zapotec cuisine, head for the yearly gathering of Zapotec cooks in Santa Ana Zegache, 19 miles south of Oaxaca.
Key events: Encuentro de Cocineras Zapotecas

September

Always up for a big bash, Oaxaca celebrates Independence Day with a bang, as fireworks light up the sky and downtown bars party into the wee hours of September 16.
Key events: Independence Day

October

The heat is still on, but the rain tapers off. A visit at the end of the month allows you to get an early start on Day of the Dead festivities.

When to visit Oaxaca for festivals, food and fun

Día de Muertos celebrations are in full swing on November 1 and 2 © Joel Carillet / Getty Images

November

The rainy season ends, and the city looks gloriously colorful. Day of the Dead celebrations are in full swing on November 1 and 2.
Key events: Día de Muertos

December

The temperature drops a few notches as locals celebrate Night of the Radishes, Christmas and Fiesta de la Soledad (in honor of the Virgin of Soledad) at the city's treasured baroque basilica.
Key events: Night of the Radishes, Christmas, Fiesta de la Soledad

 

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