In pursuit of Oaxaca’s most magical places
What makes a town magic? It’s such a powerful concept that many countries around the world have adopted their own ways of recognising beautiful & culturally significant hotspots to preserve, protect & promote. France has the Ville Fleurie, Colombia the Pueblo Patrimonio, and Guatemala have Pueblos Pintorescos – in Mexico, it’s the Pueblos Mágicos.
The Pueblos Mágicos highlight the towns in the country deemed to be the most truly magical. Currently, there are 132 Pueblos Mágicos recognised across Mexico with six of those in the state of Oaxaca, each of them a wonderful day trip or weekend getaway from Oaxaca City, which is easily one of the best vacation spots in Mexico.
Exploring the beauties of Mexico beyond the more typical tourist sites is a worthy pursuit, the country has far more to offer beyond resort towns and taquerias. Oaxaca immediately became such a precious state to me, a fusion of incredible history, culture, hospitality, and beauty – the whole state is a work of magic in its own right.
Mazunte is magic for tortugas
Nowadays, Mazunte is arguably the most well known of Oaxaca’s Pueblos Mágicos – word has gotten out that this chilled out little beach town is not like the others. The vibe is truly laid back, there’s not a resort in site. Each nook and cranny of the truly charming town feels like it’s been dusted in a special kind of fairy dust.
This town just glows, and I don’t mean that because it’s become a yoga and meditation paradise with juguerias, smoothie bowls and mindfulness retreats abound.
Human wellness aside, Mazunte is home to spectacular natural beauty. It is the only coastal Pueblo Mágico in Oaxaca, and the beaches are magnificent. Forested hills creep down to golden sandy beaches, dusty paths and coconut palms line the mostly unpaved roads; from up at the Mermejita lookout you can spy migrating whales and magestic sea turtles in the sparkling ocean, and down at the Ventanilla mangroves live crocodiles and herons.
One of the most magic things about Mazunte is the connection here to tortugas, or sea turtles. Some legends have it that the word Mazunte is derived from the Nahuatl maxotetia, meaning something along the lines of “please deposit eggs here.” because of how many sea turtles come here to lay their eggs.
Thankfully turtle poaching was banned in Mazunte, and in its place the Mexican National Turtle Center was born.
Capulálpam de Méndez is magic for the nature
If you venture eastward from Oaxaca City, up into the Sierra Juarez for around two hours you will find your self in the magical small town of Capulálpam de Méndez. This town was the first in Oaxaca to earn the prestigious Pueblo Mágico title.
The name Capulalpam means “land of the chokecherry tree” in Nahuatl, named after a variety of tree found here in abundance. The name fits well such a place: further up into the evevated mountain ranges than Oaxaca City, sprawling with forests and a perpetually cool and wet climate lending itself to verdant greenery and maginficent views.
It is here where you can find a traditional indigenous medicine center, created by the OMJSJO (Organización de Médicos Indígenas de la Sierra Juarez de Oaxaca) which serves to conserve indigenous population’s knowledge of traditional medicine and local plants.
In the surrounding area you’ll find many cabins to rent, forest walks, zip lining at Centro Recreativo Los Molinos, spectacular views at El Calvario, horse riding and lots of trout to eat, a fish which is so readily available here that it shapes the local cuisine. Capulálpam de Méndez is a well maintained small town with plenty of eco tourism offerings, and a wonderful spot to escape the city and breathe in some fresh mountain air.
Huautla de Jimenez is magic for rituals & mushrooms
The town of Huautla de Jimenez is steeped in magic, ritual, and an infamous history of María Sabina the Mazatec priestess, and her psychoactive mushroom rituals, which inevitably spurred the psychedelic movement in America. Although María is no longer living, and the village has suffered the consequences of western tourists seeking psychoactive rituals, it is nowadays a traquil and beautiful town to visit and is home to both a museum and annual festival in María’s honour.
The Museo Casa de María Sabina is found at María’s former house, turned museum at Calle de Hidalgo No. 30. The building is decorated with photos of María Sabina with many of her famous guests, different paintings inspired by her and the journeys she led, and many other interesting tributes to her.
Then when July comes, the town bursts into celebration for the Festival Internacional María Sabina, focused celebrating natural medicine. During the festival, healers and shamans come from across Mexico to join in and perform rituals. There are also numerous cultural events handicrafts for sale during the festival.
In Nahuatl, the name means “Place of the Eagles” and this remote mountain town does not dissappoint on the nature front, too. Explore the coniferous forests, visit the Puente de Fierro Waterfall, or take a guided walk up to see the incredible views & experience the cultural and shamanic significance of Cerro de la Adoración (Devotion Hill).
San Pablo Villa de Mitla is magic for the land of the dead
The first time I visited Mexico I had the luck of visiting the Mitla archeological ruins, one of Oaxaca’s most important archeological sites. I was swept away in a whirlwind of history, archeology, and myth out in the magical Sierra Madre del Sur mountains.
It’s difficult to describe the immense sense of importance you can feel around the San Pablo Villa de Mitla and Mitla ruins, but the feeling is pervasive and important. The ruins are an ancient, re-Columbian burial site, known as the place of the dead. Those buried here were destined to become “cloud people”, supernatural beings in Zapotec belief who lived among the clouds, and at death would return to the clouds once more.
One of the most captivating details for me of Mitla, a memory which persists from ten years ago now, is the intricate mosaic/geometic patterns known as grecas. These polished stone tiles are held together only by the weight of the other tiles which surround them, and are completely mortarless. The patterns of the tiles all tell stories, each has a meaning, and no design is repeated exactly the same anywhere else in Mitla – these designs are unique in all of Mesoamerica, which I find incredible.
The surrounding village of San Pablo Villa de Mitla is a cultural hub full of handicrafts markets, traditional dance classes, and very good locally produced mezcal. For the culture, history and architecture, this truly is a Pueblo Mágico.
San Pedro y San Pablo Teposcolula is magical because of architecture & Mixtec culture
Just two hours out of Oaxaca city you will find the magnificent San Pedro y San Pablo Teposcolula, a beautiful small town hued purple due to an abundance of magnificent orchids which grow naturally all over the town.
Amidst the cobbled streets and famous arcitecture, one thing not to miss is the House of the Cacica, possibly the most famous building in town – a 16th century palace where the last queen of the Mixtec culture lived.
The historical center is home to the magnificent terracotta and white Palacio Municipal, with a large garden in front, the perfect spot to take a stroll in the morning and enjoy the cool weather before the day heats up. Teposcolula is a great spot to enjoy some particular Oaxacan deliacies: pozole with hierba santa, tamales with champurrado, mole amarillo, and chiles rellenos.
Santa Catarina Juquila is magical because of tradition
Nestled into the La Sierra Madre mountains south of Oaxaca city you will find Santa Catarina Juquila, the sixth and final Oaxacan Pueblo Mágico of this list. A natural wonderland surrounded by forests of topehuaje, blackwood, mahogany and jacaranda, where badgers and armadillo roam, Santa Catarina Juquila is one of the most significant religious pilgrimage sites in all of Mexico and a site of natural beauty in the region.
One of the most important landmarks of Santa Catarina Juquila is the Sanctuary of Nuestra Señora Inmaculada de Juquila, an 18th century neoclassical sanctuary which sees large numbers of pilgrims coming to visit the important 30 cm statue of the Virgen de Juquila – especially in the month of December.
Wandering around the town you will hear the indigenous language of Chatino spoken, find numerous wood carving workshops crafting intracite figures and virgins, see steelwork and knives being made, and experience the traditional art of chatinos embroideries. There are many handicrafts to discover in the town!
But the township aside, the area surrounding Santa Catarina Juquila has a number of beautiful views, forest, rivers, and waterfalls to explore, especially the Chorro Conejo Waterfall, and the natural fresh water spa of Río Olla – which is touted as a place of peace and tranquity, the perfect spot to spend a day getting back in touch with nature.