MEXICO, OAXACA WITH KIDS – Oaxaca de Juarez, the city more commonly called Oaxaca, is the Mexico of old movies.
Positioned in a protected valley in the southwest of the country, it’s a colorful colonial city full of charm, and rich in culture and tradition. A place where festivals are given with great gusto and food (including street food) is considered an art form.
The city hosts some of Mexico’s biggest Día del los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations and is also the birthplace of mole, the complex and flavorful sauce that’s revered in much of Mexican cuisine.
Oaxaca State is the most diverse and indigenous region of Mexico where some 17 different languages, including Spanish, are still spoken. This rich heritage reveals itself in the vibrant costumes and handicrafts both in the state’s capital city of Oaxaca and in the surrounding artisanal villages where weekly markets are staged.
Within the old city, life revolves around the lively Zocalo (Plaza de la Constitución de Oaxaca), the main, tree-lined square. It’s an easy, kid-friendly place to wander around and, apart from the odd spot of political activity, it’s safe to visit (make sure to check with your Embassy before traveling).
If you’re planning your first vacation in Oaxaca with kids (one of my favorite places to visit in Mexico) here are my top recommended things to do, along with recommendations for where to eat and where to stay on your Oaxaca vacation.
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1. Explore the Ancient Ruins of Monte Alban
It’s hard not be to wowed at Zona Arqueológica de Monte Albán, a UNESCO World Heritage site just outside of Oaxaca City. This ancient Zapotec capital sits on a flattened hilltop 400 m high with spellbinding 360-degree views over the city, the valleys and the Sierra Norte mountains beyond.
Meaning ‘White Mountain’, Monte Alban is the second largest ceremonial site in Mesoamerica, out-sized only by Teotihuacan near Mexico City. But quite why this site was chosen, and what for, puzzles archaeologists.
Located on a tall, steeply walled plateau, it has no water source. It was not used for habitation, nor is there any evidence of it having been used for strategic or military purposes. Yet its ruins are extremely old. The first known buildings at this archaeological site date between 1000 – 800 BC.
Be sure to allow a few hours for this stop in your Oaxaca itinerary. You’ll want to take your time visiting these fascinating ruins of temples, pyramids, tall stepped platforms, underground tunnels, an observatory, and a ball court. And don’t miss the hieroglyphs — those found here are some of the most ancient writings in all of Mesoamerica. (Click for map.)
2. Test your Taste Buds at the Market
The Mercado 20 de Noviembre (The 20th November Market) is the largest, and one of the busiest markets in the centro histórico (old city) and a wonderful place to experience day-to-day life in Oaxaca. Rows of lively stalls vie for attention selling all manner of goods from bootleg Disney T-shirts to traditional Mexican dresses.
But it’s the food stalls that are the most fascinating. Baskets of crunchy grasshoppers flavored with chili peppers sit alongside towers of chicharon, large squares of fried pork fat that’s a favorite national snack.
You’ll find bowls of mole paste, bags of dried chili peppers and tall, metal urns housing various flavors of ice cream. Some stalls offer communal seating where you can enjoy your tamales or chilies rellenos accompanied by a local mariachi singer.
It might not be what you eat at home, but traditional Oaxacan cuisine is definitely worth trying. Address: 20 de Noviembre, Centro, Oaxaca (Click for map.)
3. Visit the Botanic Garden: Jardin Etnobotanico de Oaxaca
One of our favorite activities when we visited Oaxaca with kids was our tour of the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca (The Ethnobotanic Gardens of Oaxaca). The gardens are located behind the Santo Domingo Cultural Centre in grounds that were once owned by the church and later occupied by the Mexican army.
The land nearly became a luxury hotel and car park. Fortunately, Oaxaca artist Francisco Toldeo had other ideas. He designed a beautiful garden that showcases the diverse range of flora native to Oaxaca, the most bio-diverse region in Mexico. The gardens were opened in 1988.
Access to the gardens is by tour only and the tours are two hours long. My children loved this tour. Our guide was informative and knowledgeable as he shared the story of each plant. Join English tours Tuesday, Thursdays and Saturdays at 11am. Spanish tours are held daily at 10am, 12pm and 5pm. (Click for map.)
4. Measure Oaxaca’s Big Tree (AKA El Arbol del Tule)
It might not be the tallest tree in the world but El Árbol del Tule (the Tree of Tule) is certainly the widest. Boasting a circumference of 54 meters, the ‘Big Tree’ resides in the church grounds in the small town of Santa Maria del Tule. It weighs over 600 tons and looks like half-a-dozen or so trees growing together in close proximity.
El Arbol is an Ahuehuete Cypress estimated to be over 2,000 years. Among the oldest living trees in the world, you’ll find it on the UNESCO tentative list of World Heritage Sites. Address: The Big Tree is located approximately 6 miles (9km) east of Oaxaca. (Click for map.)
Where to Stay in Oaxaca with Kids: El Diablo y La Sandia
The best way to enjoy Oaxaca is to stay within walking distance of the Old Town. We really enjoyed El Diablo y La Sandia, a welcoming, five-bedroom B&B that’s both wallet- and family-friendly.
All rooms open onto a bougainvillea filled courtyard where a semi-open air kitchen is available for guests to use (always handy if traveling with young children).
The bedrooms small but cozy bedrooms suit families perfectly, especially those who plan to spend their days sightseeing. Room rates include an excellent breakfast, the only meal served at the hotel.
Or if you prefer to find a family-friendly vacation rental in Oaxaca, check here.
Where to Eat in Oaxaca with Kids: Casa Oaxaca
Often referred to as the The Land of the Seven Moles, foodies delight in Oaxaca. Moles aside, don’t miss the caldo de piedra, otherwise known as ‘stone soup’. And one of the best places to enjoy this local specialty? Casa Oaxaca, with a lovely roof terrace overlooking Santo Domingo (plus high chairs and free wifi).
Stone soup uses an old, indigenous method for heating soup broth: extremely hot stones. A waiter will come to your table and place burning hot stones into a delicious bowl of tomato-based broth.
Watch as the liquid sizzles and bubbles up; the stones cook the soup almost instantly. Theatrics aside, it’s also very tasty. Take care if dining with children not old enough to know not to stick their fingers on burning hot stones!
Address: Garcia Vigil 407, Centro. (Click for map.)
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An earlier version of this post was first published July 22, 2016. It has since been updated and revised.