Oaxaca is a state in south Mexico known for it's culture, cuisine and diverse geography. Its capital is a beautiful colonial city of some 300,000 people and it's a popular destination for backpackers, international tourists and Mexicans on short breaks. The state has some of Mexico's best beaches and beautiful mountainous regions too. Oaxaca City is located 6hrs from Mexico City, 4hrs from Puebla and 9hrs from San Cristobal in Chiapas.
Note: The purpose of this guide is to give some tips and secrets that you won't find through tourist information offices, or in your Lonely Planet book. I've listed prices in American dollars for ease of comparison.
Get the best for less in Oaxaca City
Rents are cheap here especially if you are willing to put in the leg work. You can find listings on Craigslist and other sites, but prices will be geared towards Americans as Mexicans rarely use the site.
|A roof terrace overlooking Oaxaca City|
- Pound the pavement. Walking around town is a must if you want to find a bargain.
- Ask everywhere. You can enquire about available apartments in shops, institutes and public buildings. Everyone always knows a cousin or an uncle with a spare room.
- Sacrifice on location. You can save 30-50% on rent if you live a little farther from the centre. Rooms cost around $150 per month in the historical center and $200 in Reforma (a nice neighbourhood). Apartments are around $250 and $400 per month respectively.
- Go offline. Hotels and hostels without a web presence tend to be better value. Oaxaca Magic Hostal offers beds for less than $10 a night!
- Couch surf. There are plenty of options, and it's a great way to get plugged into the local scene too.
Oaxaca is renowned for its cuisine, but you can easily end up with an plate of insects or an expensive watery soup if you're not careful. You have to be willing to forgoe spacious sterile restaurants and enjoy simple tastes to get the best food here:
|Traditional Oaxaqueño food|
- Eat on the street. Ordering a traditional tlayuda in a Zocalo restaurant ($10) won't make it any tastier than a street vendor ($3). For great value order comida corrida from the comedores. You'll a choice of 2 course menus ready prepared for less than $5.
- Get corny. Tortillas come with everything, so get used to eating corn. Why not try an elote? It's a corn cob on a stick with mayo and chilli. It's a great Zocalo snack for less than $1.
- Eat local. Ordering foreign foods or going off menu will result in disappointment or extra cost. If you are missing the tastes of home Walmart or Super Che are the best supermarkets for foreign foods.
- Use the markets. You can buy the best local produce in the markets, at half the price of supermarkets. A kilo of bananas or tomatoes will only cost $1!
- Go big. If you are buying weekly supplies, get yourself a 20L water dispenser, buy beer by the caguama (returnable 1.2L bottle) and get your coffee by the kilo not the cup.
Oaxaca has a thriving art and social scene, but it's all conducted on quite a small scale. Don't expect well publicised events, or famous music groups to come and find you. You have to explore the city to get plugged in to the scene.
|A café in Oaxaca City|
- Look at the calendar. You can find information on the major city events and festivals here. Many of them are free.
- Pick a place. It's a good idea to patronise a local café, gallery or drinking hole to find out about the latest arty events that have slipped under the radar.
- Learn Spanish. The Cultural Institute offers a good Spanish program and will keep you well informed about Oaxaca. If you don't have the money to take a Spanish course, you can always practice online with Duolingo and arrange language exchanges with locals. It's important to persevere with the language. Not that many Oaxaqueños speak English!
- Meet expats. The Oaxaca lending library on Pino Suarez is run by a welcoming group of expats who have many events and socials too. Couch Surfing runs a weekly meet up too.
- Surf in Spanish. It's important to get to grips with websites in Spanish. Many of the English websites are not as comprehensive.
Oaxaca has good transport links with the rest of the country, but don't expect to fly everywhere. Budget airline routes are still limited in Mexico, so buckle up for a long bus ride.
|Suburban transport to the beach from Oaxaca City|
- Book early. If you are travelling out of the city, it'll probably be on an ADO bus. Make sure to buy your tickets online well in advance. They offer sizable discount for 'anticipated purchases'. You can travel to Mexico City for as little as $20.
- Go direct. If you are heading to the beach, don't bother with the long journey to Salina Cruz and back up the coast. Several suburban van companies travel the quicker route through the mountains for a fraction of the cost. Lineas Unidas operates out of Calle Bustamante and charges $14 for the six hour trip to Pochutla (Zipolite and Mazunte beaches). Colombo travel direct to Huatulco for around $20.
- Go collectivo. This means a shared taxi with a set route and price. There are collectivo ranks at the start of all arterial routes out of the city. You can travel to Walmart for $0.80 instead of $4. They also travel to the surrounding towns too.
- Fly smart. International routes from the airport may be limited, but there is a Viva Aerobus flight to Monterrey ($90) and some new routes to Guadalajara and Huatulco with TAR. For those wanting to travel to Cancún, Viva Aerobus offer a flight from Tuxla Gutierrez ($90) which will considerably reduce your travel time.
- Walk the city. Most locals will tell you three blocks is too far and you should take a taxi. Daytime walking isn't dangerous and the weather is often favourable.
While Mexico produces many fine things, clothes, electronics and plastic goods are not among them. When you're shopping make sure to buy the right kinds of goods in Oaxaca or you'll be wasting your money.
|Shopping in Oaxaca City|
- Keep the receipt, it will break. Mexican made goods often don't last long so be prepared to return to the store after a few months.
- Pay for the logo. My advice is to buy foreign branded goods even though the prices may seem high. Quality lasts. Coppel and Fabricas are two more reliable stores.
- Wait for the promo. Ask retailers about upcoming discounts or promotion days, they're quite frequent. Every outlet reduces prices on Buen fin weekend in November.
- Buy artisan. Another good option is traditional goods like clothes, art and furniture. Anything handmade here is often surpirsingly affordable.
- Go to the source. Rather than paying inflated city prices, ask where the goods are made and buy the goods there for a 30% discount.
How to find a job in Oaxaca:
|Teaching in Oaxaca|
- Arrange your visa first. You need to request a work visa through before coming to Mexico. This will involve a trip to the Mexican embassy in your own country. More information here.
- Work multiple jobs. Few jobs in the city will offer full time employment. You may have to work for several companies to make ends meet.
- Work away. Be prepared to live outside the city if you want a university job with better conditions. SUNEO is a system of universities outside of the capital.
- Get private clients. Search for trendy young hangouts to find people interested in one-on-one English classes. Alternatively approach businesses to give company classes.
- Do your research. Read up on other teachers' experiences. Here's what it's really like to be a teacher at a university in Oaxaca.
If you don't have a work visa, there are plenty of ways to make extra cash. Some things are always in demand in Mexico. If you have the means and the drive to leverage that, you can make a nice little side business.
|Selling in Oaxaca|
- Things to import - Quality Scotch or Bourbon whiskeys, high end cellphones, MP3 players, Apple products, musical instruments, Luxury brands, quality tools, and books in English. The exchange rate is extremely favourable at the moment so bring plenty of dollars to sell too.
- Things to export - Hand made jewellery, artisan clothes, carvings and ceramics, leather goods, mezcal, coffee and drinking chocolate.
- Sell to Mexicans on Mercado Libre (it's like eBay)
- Sell to expats on Craigslist
- Know the rules. Do your research so you don't get caught out at customs.
Without a work visa, you are limited to cash in hand enterprises. Luckily, almost everything is cash operated here and there's plenty of ways to earn more pesos.
|Work online in Oaxaca|
Money making Tips:
- Give classes. If you have some other skill, you can always teach exercise, design, music, dance, or even give therapy. If you speak Spanish, just mention what you do, people are always interested and can suggest a price to charge.
- Offer services to expats or tourists. There is still a dearth of English language services for tourists in Oaxaca, which is something you can take advantage of.
- Use your English. Offering an English correction service could secure you work checking business or academic documents.
- Be a digital nomad. Your income will be paid dollars and you don't have to be a web design expert to work online. Some ideas are Audio transcription, Affiliate marketing, Gambling loopholes, Writing articles, Surveys, and a host of others from Moneystepper
- Get creative. Oaxaca is a very artistic city, so if you are a musician or artisan, you will find a market for your products.
How to be successful in Oaxaca:
|Be successful in Oaxaca|
- Don't expect to do everything sat in front of a computer. You will go round in circles searching for non existent information, so just get out there and look for it!
- Don't get frustrated. The pace of life is slower in Oaxaca. People aren't driven by time or money pressure, so you won't get the service you are used to. Getting angry or upset with people will make people less likely to help you. Your concerns won't be important to local people, so just focus your energies on what you can accomplish.
- Don't trust the post. Trying to send or receive anything other than postcards is a recipe for disaster, so don't expect those online deliveries to make it to you in one piece.
- Don't bother haggling. The worst people can say is no, but vendors aren't concerned about whether they make a sale or not. The price is often non negotiable.
- Don't wait for a response. If somebody tells you that they will get back to you, they won't. They won't email, they won't call, and they won't order that part you needed. If you are waiting on a green light for something, just do it anyway. Remember, it's easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.
- Don't ask directions. Very few locals know a lot about the premises on their block, let alone across the city. Get a map, and learn to use it well.
|Monte Albán, Oaxaca|
- Do check the time. Lunch times are less busy at tourist attractions, but remember to check the days when they're closed. Cinema and sports events can be cheaper in the afternoon, and on Wednesdays too. Also, avoid cashpoints on payday, there will be queues around the block. Paydays are 15th and 30th of every month (or the Friday before if they fall on a weekend).
- Do know the rules. It's important to do your research about visa requirements, customs, documents and rules like public drinking so that you don't waste time or have to pay fines.
- Do things in person. One trip to go and see your landlord is much quicker than four phone calls and three emails. People here are used to face to face contact.
- Do keep your change. Try to pay with big bills in supermarkets, banks and bigger stores. Market vendors and restaurants never have much change and you'll be waiting 10 minutes while they run off with your $500 peso note trying to break it with the neighbouring businesses.
The Oaxaca toolkit:
Cost of living
- An article detailing city costs by some clever people with a travel app.
- An financial article I wrote about moving to Mexico.
- A breakdown of my living costs in Oaxaca
What's it like?
- A day in the life of a Oaxaca expat
- The 10 Best and Worst things about living in Oaxaca
- The good, the bad and the ugly.
- Expat perspectives - Oaxaca blogs
- What's on in Oaxaca
- Oaxaca's major newspaper - El imparcial
- The Oaxaca Times
- Mexico news daily - News in English
- Perspectives on Mexico - The Mexico Report
and finally . . .
The everything list