As Oaxaca's superb colonial capital continues to grow in popularity, it's not just the rich culinary scene and myriad cultural attractions which have a lot of travelers singing its praises. It's also incredibly budget-friendly.
What makes it very easy around the wallet? To begin with, the affordable accommodations, dirt-cheap transportation and plentiful free sights equal to big savings. And when you are looking at the famously savory regional cuisine, let's just say a few 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 inexpensively, take the bus
Most international flights get to Mexico City, where you can catch whether connecting flight or perhaps 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 cheapest 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.
Eat like a king for less
Oaxaca's vibrant old markets, for example 20 de Noviembre and Mercado en 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 associated with fixings for tacos. The mercado experience is all about savoring down-home cooking, and it comes at a ridiculously cheap price – what's to not like?
You'll also come across an abundance of classic street-food eats, for example gigantic tlayudas (grilled tortillas full of beans, cheese and optional meats), Oaxaca-style tamales along with a tantalizing variety of corn-based snacks – all tasty treats sure to please the palate and the pocketbook.
Pile into a shared taxi to go to 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 might cost to get there in a regular cab. Granted, you will need to squeeze into a sedan with at least three other passengers (so yeah, ignore social distancing), but they're normally a quicker and cheaper option than taking a second-class bus.
Colectivos run along fixed routes, and their destinations are shown on their windshields. If you're heading out to the towns of El Tule, Teotitlán del Valle or Mitla, you'll discover the vehicles one block east from 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 a backyard gallery of sorts, with brilliantly painted murals adorning the walls in the historic centers of Jalatlaco, Xochimilco and also 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 you 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, a cost-effective hotel in the center of the attractive old barrio.
Know when to score good-value digs
Tourism typically decelerates in May, June and most of September, with the exception of September 15 and 16, when Mexico celebrates Independence Day. They are good months to look around for discounts in Oaxaca's no-frills hotels, holiday rentals and charismatic inns, and you might even find deals in certain hostels, though most are already downright barato (cheap). The Centro, aka the historic center, has the highest power of sleeping options for travelers on a tight budget.
Room rates spike throughout the iconic Guelaguetza festival (a folkloric dance and musical extravaganza) in July, Day of the Dead celebrations at the end of October and early November and also 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 affordable lodging throughout most of the year. Actually, even during the peak season minute rates are a steal, compared to some of Mexico's pricier beach destinations (sorry, Tulum).
Hop on the city bus for the most inexpensive tour in town
You need to love a town where you can reach pretty much any neighborhood for a mere M$8 (US$.40). Sure, it's not the fastest way to zip out and about, but a brand new rapid-transit system called CityBus has been expanding its routes in an effort to make Oaxaca's public transportation network more effective. 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 crafts and arts stores
Oaxaca's thriving crafts and arts 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 can examine out the impressive alebrijes (colorful wooden animal sculptures according to 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, constitutes a great place to begin your search for stores and galleries, such as the magnificent Voces de Copal.
Delight in live entertainment around 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 involves life on weekends, when street performers work the Zócalo's large crowds for tips.
Even when there is a lull within the activity, you can always plop recorded on a bench with an elote (grilled Mexican street corn) and take in 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 go to a variety of noteworthy sights, for example a legendary 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 within the city. Some main attractions offer free admission for kids under 13 and adults older than 60.
Get up close and private with skillful artisans
In a number of Oaxaca's nearby craft villages, gifted artisans provide free around their facilities because they share strategies of the trade with curious onlookers. Within the barro negro (black pottery) hub of San Bartolo Coyotepec as well as 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 taxi to the city center costs M$105 (US$5.20) – about 50 % what you'd pay for a private taxi. Imagine, with savings like that you might be able to treat yourself to an additional round of tacos and mezcal!
Daily costs in Oaxaca
- Hostel dorm room: M$300-500 (US$15-25)
- Basic room for 2 in peak 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)