Oaxaca with Kids
Mexico is home to many pretty colonial cities but there’s something particularly special about Oaxaca. Colourful, characterful and completely walkable, the old city is a joy to discover with kids. There are lots of museums and galleries and handicrafts stores (which may cause some children to groan out loud!) but there are many activities that culture-wary kids will enjoy. There is also lots (lots!) of fantastic food. We went when my children were five- and three-years old and it was one of our favourite Mexican holidays.
What to See & Do in Oaxaca with Kids
Oaxaca is a very walkable city and it’s a fun, lively place to simply wander around. The Plaza de la Constitución (more commonly known as the Zócalo) is a good place to start. This square is the heart of the city, abuzz with life every day of the week but it really springs into action on weekends. It’s a great place to watch local life or to take a break on a bench beneath a shady tree. It also makes a great starting point for exploring the city. The following are some of the highlights that we enjoyed in Oaxaca with kids.
Admire the Views at Monte Alban
The ancient city of Monte Alban sits on a flattened hilltop 400m above the valley floor, just a few kilometres west of Oaxaca. The views from here are breathtaking although archaeologists are still scratching their heads over the location – it’s positioned on a tall, steeply walled plateau and there is no water source. It’s a fascinating place to visit with the remains of temples, tombs, an observatory and a ball court. The site is very old; the first known buildings date back to 1000 – 800 BC and hieroglyphs found here are among the most ancient writings in all of Mesoamerica. A good museum (explanations in Spanish, only) is at the entrance to the site. The easiest way to get to Monte Alban is to drive or get a taxi.
Open: Daily from 8am – 4.30pm
Grab a Bite to Eat at the Market
Oaxaca is often called the “Land of the Seven Moles“; mole is a rich sauce made from as many as forty different components. Oaxacan cuisine is also famous for some of its more peculiar ingredients including grasshoppers. A visit to the local market, Mercado 20 de Noviembre is a wonderful way to experience some of these traditional local products. This colourful market is packed with stalls selling baskets of dried grasshoppers, bowls overflowing with different kinds of mole, football-sized cheese and more. The bustling cook-to-order food section is a great place to grab a bite to eat, even if you don’t choose the crickets!
Address: 20 de Noviembre, Centro
Open: Daily 7am – 10pm
Cook Your Soup the Pre-Hispanic Way
The pre-hispanic dish, caldo de piedra (stone soup), is a must when in Oaxaca. The soup has been made by the Chinantec people of San Felipe Usila, in the state of Oaxaca, for centuries. Large river stones are heated in flames and then placed into large soup bowls using thick, metal tongs. The contents begin to boil immediately, cooking the tomato-based soup and its ingredients in the process. Kids love watching the soup fizz and bubble – although this dish is obviously best enjoyed with children who won’t stick their hands on the boiling stones! One of the best places to enjoy this soup is at Casa Oaxaca (see our restaurant recommendations below).
Address: Calle Constitución 104-A, Centro
Open: 1pm – 11pm
Tour the Botanical Gardens
We loved our tour of the Botanical Gardens (el Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca) that are located behind the Santo Domingo Cultural Centre. The land was originally destined for life as a luxury hotel when Oaxaca artist Francisco Toldeo proposed transforming the grounds into a beautiful garden. The state of Oaxaca is one of the most bio-diverse in the country and today the gardens showcase the huge range of flora native to this state. Access to the gardens is by tour only (2 hours). Although my kids started to tire towards the end of the tour, our guide kept them entertained for most of it as he shared the story of each plant. Tip! Bring a bottle of water, it gets hot.
Address: Reforma s/n esquina Constitución, Centro
Open: English tours are held on Tuesday, Thursdays and Saturdays at 11am. Spanish tours are held daily at 10am, 12pm and 5pm.
Make Mole in a Cooking Class
My mum, who is an excellent cook, loves to try new foods wherever she goes. And so we decided to book a cooking class with Seasons of My Heart, a cooking school located in the countryside northwest of Oaxaca city. Classes take place in a large colourful kitchen with a number of individual work stations. Our group was joined by another couple and together, the six of us were taught a handful of traditional Oaxacan dishes. The teachers were patient and explained the history of each dish as well as the basic cooking method. We were then assigned a dish each and told to go off and make it! The kids were too small at the time to really get involved but the cooking school organised for someone to look after them while we attempted to make mole. Once our meal was ready, we enjoyed it together.
Address: Given at the time of booking.
Open: Contact them for their cooking class schedule.
Wrap Your Arms Around the Big Tree
It’s not the tallest tree in the world but El Árbol del Tule (the Tree of Tule) has been named the widest. Located in the church grounds of the small town of Santa Maria del Tule, the ‘Big Tree’, has a circumference of 54 meters and weighs over 600 tons. It’s knobbly brown trunk is now so large that it would take around 50 people with arms outstretched to embrace it. El Árbol is an Ahuehuete Cypress and is thought to be over 2,000 years old. It’s an easy half-day trip from Oaxaca. There is a nominal entrance fee of a few pesos. Stop by El Milenario, a family-run restaurant serving tasty Oaxacan dishes, when you’re done. It’s located one block south of the Big Tree.
Address: Santa María del Tule, approx. 9km east of Oaxaca.
Discover the Textile Museum
Although the idea of looking at old textiles might not sound like a very family-friendly activity, the Museo Textil de Oaxca (Oaxaca Textile Museum) is actually an easy stop with kids. Housed within a restored colonial mansion, this museum celebrates Oaxaca’s rich textile traditions. It’s small (and quick to get around with kids!), but the exhibitions are very good. My children enjoyed walking between the giant textile costumes exhibited on colourful wooden stilts. There’s an excellent museum shop (we bought a beautiful wool rug made with organic dyes) and an in-house preservation workshop.
Address: Hidalgo 917, Centro Histórico
Open: Monday to Saturday 10am – 8pm, Sunday 10am – 6pm. Guided tours in English and Spanish are held on Wednesdays from 5pm – 6pm.
One Scoop or Two at Museo de Nieves Manolo
For a museum of a different kind, head over to Museo de Nieves Manolo, a traditional ice cream store that creates all manner of weird and wonderful flavours. Choose from cheese with basil, mescal and rice pudding. If those don’t appeal, there are more traditional flavours on offer.
Address: Calle Macedonio Alcalá 706, Centro Histórico
Open: Daily 10am – 10pm
Wander Around the Museo Rufino Tamayo
Set in a beautiful town house with a courtyard garden is this top-class museum dedicated to pre-Hispanic art. The collection was donated to the city by its most famous artists, and one of Mexico’s best 20th Century artists, Rufino Tamayo. There are a handful of brightly coloured, air-conditioned rooms that are perfect for a quick dose of culture – particularly for those families travelling with museum-wary pre-teens!
Address: Morelos 503, Centro Histórico
Open: Mon, Wed & Sat 10am – 2pm, Sun 10am – 3pm
Paint Your Own Alebrijes
Oaxaca is famous for its handicrafts including the colourful painted animal carvings known locally as alebrijes. Hand-carved from the wood of the copal tree and intricately painted by hand, these figures come in all different sizes and can be both realistic (a frog, for example) or fantastical (a dragon). One of the best places in Oaxaca to experience the art of alebrije-making is in the village of San Martin Tilcajete, located 23 km outside of Oaxaca city.
Some friends of ours visited Oaxaca around Easter and discovered that the Centro Cultural San Pablo (San Pablo Cultural Centre) run children’s art workshops during holiday periods, including painting alebrijes. Their children enjoyed this so much that they bought more figures to paint at home! You can buy unpainted alebrijes from some stall holders or at one of the Cooperativas de Artensanias (try Mujeres de Artesanas, or Casa del Rebozo, both on Cinco de Mayo between Murguia and Morelos). There are local shops near the zocalo that cater for manualidades (hobby crafts) where you can get cheap water based paints.
Address: Centro Cultural San Pablo, Miguel Hidalgo (Av. Hidalgo) 907
Open: Contact the centre for workshop schedules.
Go Mescal Tasting
This is the kind of thing that just wouldn’t happen in England but here in Oaxaca it’s perfectly acceptable to take your kids to a bar. La Mezcaloteca is a low-key bar decked out in speakeasy style that specialises in Mescal. You must book a tasting session during which you get to try three different varieties. Our kids happily sat and watched their iPads and we spent 45-minutes trying to differentiate one Mescal from the other…with little success!
Address: See their website for more details and to book.
Swim at Hierve el Agua
Literally meaning ‘the water boils’, Hierve el Agua are natural mineral springs located about 1.5 hours southeast of Oaxaca. We didn’t get to go but they are on the list for the next trip! The name, as you might expect, comes from the bubbling warm water (though not, thankfully, boiling) that fills the turquoise cliff-top springs. These almost look like infinity pools such is the brilliant blue of their water and their clifftop views over the valleys below. There is also what looks like a frozen waterfall here, cascading off the the side of the mountain. These are actually natural mineral formations caused by the spring water trickling down the mountain side that have built up over thousands of years. Hierve el Agua is best visited as day trip from Oaxaca city.
Shopping in Oaxaca
You can buy beautiful handicrafts in Oaxaca, both in the centro and in the villages surrounding the city. The following are just some recommendations.
- The Textile Museum has an excellent shop attached to it. Address: Hidalgo 917.
- The Mercado 20 de Noviembre is great for buying local produce. There are also stalls selling your usual market stock, including t-shirts and toys. Address: 20 de Noviembre.
- Maro (Mujeres Artesanas de las Regiones de Oaxaca) is a government-subsidised women’s cooperative positioned within a multilevel house. It’s packed with crafts including handmade hammocks, woollen rugs, alebrijes and more. You can watch weavers create naturally dyed rugs on giant looms in the room upstairs. Address: Cinco de Mayo 204.
- Casa de las Artesanias is a fifteen-year old cooperative staffed almost entirely by the artisans responsible for the store’s stock of beautiful handicrafts. Jewellery, barro negro pottery, textiles and more are for sale. Address: Matamoros 105.
- Étnico has three branches in the Centro Histórico, including the one that we visited in front of the Santo Domingo Church. These stores predominantly sell textiles, including the brightly coloured, flower embroidery once favourited by Frida Kahlo. Address: Gurrión 104, between M. Alcalá and 5 de Mayo
- La Casa de Rebozo is another cooperative and is filled with the work of dozens of artists from around Oaxaca state. Come here for pottery, textiles, tinware, palm-leaf bags and more. Address: 5 de Mayo 114
There are dozens of artisan villages surrounding Oaxaca City, some of which hold weekly markets. We visited Teotitlan del Valle, a village located some 30 km from Oaxaca that’s famous for its carpets. Although we didn’t buy anything (we got one from the Textile Museum instead), it was fun to show the kids how the rugs are made. They were amazed to see a child-sized loom and a young boy learning his trade! This is a good article on Oaxaca’s handicraft villages.
Where to Eat in Oaxaca with Kids
Oaxacan food is so good that UNESCO have added it to their cultural heritage list so come ready to eat! There’s lots of yummy food in Oaxaca and some of the tastiest is found on the streets and in the markets such a Mercado 20 de Noviembre. The following restaurants are ones that we enjoyed as well as some that come recommended by friends.
Casa Oaxaca El Restaurante: Located in the hotel of the same name, this is a really lovely restaurant with an innovative menu that is both parent and kid-friendly. It’s also the place to come to try stone soup! Ask for a table on the terrace overlooking the domes of Santo Domingo. Address: Constitución 104-A, Centro
Casa Oaxaca Café: This is a popular local restaurant that came recommended to us by friends. It’s great for breakfast with lots of delicious Oaxacan dishes on the menu including, El Oaxaqueño set menu. It’s also open for lunch and dinner. Address: 518 Jazmines, Colonía Reforma. It’s about a 10-minute drive from the centre.
Pitiona: Pitiona is owned by an El Bulli-trained Oaxacan chef and the menu might be a little ambitious for younger palettes. However, the food, which is based on well-made regionally inspired dishes, is delicious. Address: 5 de Mayo 311
Café Brújula: There are four branches of this coffee chain around town and all are a great place to grab a cup of Oaxacan coffee. They also serve good bagels. Address: Try the branch at Plaza Santo Domingo Alcala 407
Cofetarika: Located in a cheery yellow building, this is another good option for an organic coffee and cake stop. Address: 403 Macedonio Alcalá
Los Danzantes: We enjoyed a good meal at Los Danzantes, one of Oaxaca’s most popular restaurants. The menu is typically Oaxacan and with kid-friendly options such as fideo seco, a Mexican pasta dish. Address: 403 Macedonio Alcalá
Where to Stay in Oaxaca with Kids
Friends stayed at this well-located Air BnB apartment. Note that it doesn’t have A/C or a swimming pool.
Also recommended by friends is the Quinta Real which they described as a lovely escape from the city centre. We also spent an afternoon here using the hotel swimming pool when we were in Oaxaca. If the hotel is not too busy then they do allow day guests in for a fee.
Casa Oaxaca is a beautiful boutique hotel next to Santo Domingo and the Botanical Gardens.
When to Visit Oaxaca
Easter is celebrated with great fervour as is Dia de Muertos, Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations. Check the political situation before visiting; Oaxaca is the scene of regular political protests and roads may be blocked. The drive from Mexico City, through coffee-coloured hills and prickly cacti, is beautiful.
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