Why I chose to spend two months living in Oaxaca, Mexico
Mexico, Travel Tips

Why Oaxaca?

Every time someone would ask me why I was planning to spend the first two months of 2017 in Oaxaca, the colorful little city in southwestern Mexico (in the state by the same name), I found myself at a loss for words.

It’s not that I didn’t have reasons.  I had many, in fact.  But what came out of my mouth more often than not was something hardly more eloquent than “Uhhh, just cause?

The truth of the matter was, I had learned about the city back in early 2016 when a travel company had contacted me about participating in one of their tours.  The trip would begin in Oaxaca before making its way south through the Sierra Madres and ending in a small surf town on the Pacific Coast.Why I chose to spend two months living in Oaxaca, Mexico

Naturally, I said I’d be delighted to come.  I hadn’t been to Mexico since my college days, and that trip was hardly what I would call a cultural experience if you know what I mean–spring break in Baja California with my sorority sisters…I’ll let you do the math.

Oaxaca would be my first opportunity to see what most would consider the “real” Mexico.  A city that plenty of people knew about, but few had experienced.  A destination that maintained its deeply-rooted cultural identity even as more tourists arrived year after year, and as more and more expats called it home.  Even better, the trip would be guided by a local couple who had lived all over the country, and at one time had called Oaxaca home themselves.

After hastily agreeing to travel to Mexico for this tour, my real research began.  What jumped out at me first was simply how beautiful a city Oaxaca was.  Mountains in every direction you looked and buildings painted every color of the rainbow.  Cobbled streets, palm trees, plumerias.  Churches whose ornately carved façades demanded to be examined from a distance of no more than a few feet, lest you missed the details.Why I chose to spend two months living in Oaxaca, Mexico

Everything was falling into place for my triumphant return to Mexico.  Then, not more than a few days after booking my flight to Mexico City (where a van transfer provided by the tour company would whisk me away to Oaxaca free of charge), the email came through.  From my friend’s sunny San Francisco apartment, I read the most disappointing news of my year so far (you know, before that whole Donald Trump thing):

The tour of Oaxaca was canceled–it hadn’t filled up in time.

The company apologized profusely and offered to compensate me for the time I had already spent writing a blog post and announcing my upcoming trip on social media.  Downtrodden though I was, I took their offer–what else could I do?  Sure, I had already purchased a flight to Mexico City, but I still wanted to go, after all, and a little bit of solo travel never scared me anyhow.Why I chose to spend two months living in Oaxaca, Mexico

Once the initial shock subsided, I settled into the idea of an independent trip to Mexico with no return date and carried on enjoying my time visiting friends in San Francisco.  It was Easter Sunday, a holiday San Franciscans really know how to celebrate, and I wasn’t about to let this minor hiccup ruin my fun.

If you have followed my blog since that time, you know how this story ends.  The tour company came back with a new offer just a day later; we’d be touring Mexico City instead, getting an exclusive first look at their newest itinerary.  I silently jumped for joy before almost instantaneously accepting.  On that trip, I fell madly in love with Mexico City in just seven short days.  Then, heeding a mysterious instinct, I flew to the Yucatán Peninsula to spend two more weeks in Tulum where I turned 29 in style and in solitude.

In spite of the incredible time I had in Mexico on that trip–or perhaps because of it–I still wasn’t satisfied.  I had grown so attached to the idea of Oaxaca that even as the year went on and I found myself spending more time in Europe than the Americas, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I still had to go.  And so when I found myself back in the US and dreaming of my next escape, Oaxaca was the one city that surfaced in my mind time and time again.Why I chose to spend two months living in Oaxaca, Mexico

Not being one to ignore such persistence, I conceded and purchased my one-way ticket.  As I write this, I am seated in the studio apartment I discovered on Craigslist; the sun reflects strongly off a mandarin-colored wall just outside my window, lending the room a warm glow.  I have little on my agenda for the day, save for the few hours I’ll need to vacate the casita once the cleaning lady arrives.

My days are mostly reserved for working (which I do from anywhere thanks to my location independent lifestyle) with short breaks in between to run errands and experience Oaxaca as a local would.  I’ve felt comfortable here from day one.

I arrived with no real intentions other than getting to know the city and spending some much-needed time with myself and my yoga mat.  So far, that is precisely what I have done.  I suppose a part of me also wanted to know if Oaxaca could be a home for me on a long-term basis.  Now that I’m here, I certainly understand why it’s a popular expat spot and why so many of my digital nomad friends have decided to set up camp here at one time or another.Why I chose to spend two months living in Oaxaca, Mexico

My stint in Oaxaca, however, is currently limited to two months, and that is likely where it will end.  I have alluded many times over the last year to the fact that my heart simply doesn’t belong to travel anymore, and I have disobeyed its wishes for long enough.  At present, there is more meaning to be derived from a humble life in my home state than any far-flung destination I could imagine, and that is what I intend to pursue.  More on that later…

But, if you’ve read this far and are still wondering what specifically drew me to Oaxaca, well, just about everything.  Where do I begin?

The culture of Oaxaca is distinct–native roots run deep here with a startlingly diverse range of indigenous cultures represented.  The opportunity to learn some of this history was enticing in its own right.  The Zapotec and Mixtec peoples who inhabited this region in the largest numbers left many traces of their ancient civilizations in the wake of the Spanish conquest led by Hernán Cortés.  A notable site just 20 minutes from the city is the ancient Zapotec capital, Monte Albán.  Mexico’s first Indian president, Benito Juárez, also hailed from the city of Oaxaca.Why I chose to spend two months living in Oaxaca, Mexico

It follows that with a distinct culture highly influenced by indigenous traditions, the food would be unique as well.  The geography of the region plays its own important role, creating diversity through the sheer abundance of resources like vegetables and tropical fruits; these factors together mean Oaxacan food is an attraction unto itself.  Oaxaca is considered by many to be the birthplace of mole, a sultry, spicy sauce that can be made from a variety of ingredients like nuts, spices, dried fruits, and chocolate.

There are tlayudas, which are enormous baked tortillas topped with delicious things–if I were making an analogy to another food, I might call it a Mexican pizza of sorts.  Oaxaca also makes its own special version of tamales and is widely know for its quesillo, the region’s distinctive cheese.  These are just a few examples of the delicacies I’ll be researching rigorously during my stay.  The photo below shows a tostada de coco I purchased from the local organic market topped with mole, salsa, and fresh avocado.Why I chose to spend two months living in Oaxaca, Mexico

And did I mention mezcal, the magical drink of the agave plant?  Agave varieties grow all over Mexico, but the majority of mezcal production takes place in Oaxaca, making it the typical drink of the region.  The flavors are complex and vary widely depending on the specific source plant, the method and length of fermentation, the spices added, and a number of other factors.  I love the smokiness and the distinct lack of hangover I experience after a few mezcal drinks.

And then there’s the weather.  Ahhh the weather!  Okay, so some of my reasons for choosing Oaxaca were superficial, but who doesn’t consider the climate of a place they plan to live for months at a time?  The weather in this high-altitude desert region is mild, dry, and cooler than surrounding lowland areas.  That means in the winter it’s especially nice–not too hot during the daytime and refreshingly cool at night.  No fans or AC units needed, just a range of outfits from summer dresses and light jackets to long pants and boots (and a hat to avoid sunburn at all times–the UV index here can be alarmingly high).

Oaxaca is not what I would consider a “digital nomad hotspot” (not yet, anyway) and I prefer it that way.  Not that I don’t love my fellow bloggers and online entrepreneurs, but I personally enjoy feeling anonymous in a new city and free from a crowded social calendar.  I enjoy chatting with locals in their native tongue when I’m out and about and because of the short duration of my stay, have little interest in creating a close circle of friends here.Why I chose to spend two months living in Oaxaca, Mexico

Perhaps that sounds pessimistic to some, but it’s simply a reflection of the realistic and admittedly self-preservational approach I’ve taken to long-term travel.  Goodbyes on the road are not easy, and contrary to logic, repetition doesn’t help.

I hope this explanation serves to clear up any remaining confusion about why on Earth I would choose to spend a few months living in Oaxaca.  For those of you who may be concerned for my safety, you can rest assured that I feel quite secure here–and with several years of solo travel under my belt, I know when to take the necessary precautions and have developed a finely-tuned instinct for who to trust.

If you’re considering a stint here yourself, please do not hesitate to reach out with any questions and I will do my best to answer them.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a massive tlayuda on my plate here and it’s rude to keep it waiting.

Have you heard of Oaxaca or ever considered traveling here?

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  • Reply Rachel January 10, 2017 at 8:37 pm

    Ahh I loved Oaxaca so much! Eat all the mole and drink all the mezcal for me! I definitely feel you on the “no need to make friends” thing – sometimes you just wanna spend time alone and get work done and explore a city on your own terms… especially when “exploring” means I just wanna roam markets, find a yoga class, take photos, and eat.
    Rachel recently posted…“But Like, Really, How Was It?” – Three Weeks in South IndiaMy Profile

    • Reply Leah Davis January 14, 2017 at 8:26 am

      Yesss you literally just explained my day to day routine here in Oaxaca to a tee. That’s all I do, and I’m so happy about it! Well, I guess I do have some blogger friends here that I see a few times a week. But mostly I’m just alone all day every day, and it’s SO NICE.

  • Reply Justine January 11, 2017 at 2:06 am

    Man, lately I have really, really missed Latin America. There’s something about that part of the world that I’ve always loved… the food, the culture, the language. Years ago, during a trip to Central America, I had planned to make it up to Oaxaca but never did. It’s still a place I dream about visiting, and I can totally understand why you would choose it as a place to base yourself for a couple of months. Because my job in Beijing allows me to work remotely for months at a time, Oaxaca would totally be on my list. Too bad I have to stay China’s timezone, otherwise I might be spending the first two months of the year there too. But I had to settle for Vietnam instead 😉

    • Reply Leah Davis January 14, 2017 at 8:32 am

      I know what you mean! And I just had a conversation with some friends about this over dinner last night. There is something really magnetic about this part of the world. I don’t feel the same tug on my heartstrings when I think about Europe. I’ve just had so many good memories here. Vietnam sounds pretty alright in the meantime!

  • Reply Mariana January 11, 2017 at 1:21 pm

    Ahh synchronicity…

    I’ve spent 2 years on an international travel hiatus and am finally itching to get back to it. Mexico has been calling my name over and over those 2 years though. Though I prefer the beach, Oaxaca is high on my priority list.

    Looks beautiful, totally understandable as to why you’d set up shop there for a bit. Enjoy!

    • Reply Leah Davis January 14, 2017 at 8:35 am

      Oaxaca State has lots of great beaches, so you could very feasibly do both in one trip! I hope you make it here! 🙂

  • Reply Eva Casey January 11, 2017 at 9:39 pm

    Oaxaca has been calling to me as well ever since I heard someone utter the phrase “there’s good food there.” hahah..but I can totally relate to almost everything you’ve written here (what else is new? :P) and half the time when people ask me “why that destination?” I just draw a blank. Because I want to! Why isn’t that an acceptable answer? haha..and as far as wanting to just sit still for a bit and be alone, hell yeah I get that. I am in Chiang Mai at the moment and the guy who owns my hostel just asked me, as I left my room to grab a coffee, if I was sick or something because I never left my room. I’m just reveling in the fact that I have my OWN room and I can just lie in bed working all day! Super excited to read about your time in Oaxaca as well as being location independent back home!
    Eva Casey recently posted…Brave? Not me! How To Travel With AnxietyMy Profile

    • Reply Leah Davis January 14, 2017 at 8:36 am

      LOL the food sucks a lot of people in! It’s just so good! Enjoy that solo room and ENJOY Chiang Mai! Gosh, I will always love that city so hard. x

  • Reply Leigh | Campfires & Concierges January 12, 2017 at 12:47 pm

    Oaxaca is high on my wish list. I took two trips to Mexico last year – Mexico City and LaPaz and just want to see more and more of Mexico. I’m now seriously considering incorporating a long stretch in Mexico during my career break next year.
    Leigh | Campfires & Concierges recently posted…Year in Review: 2016My Profile

    • Reply Leah Davis January 14, 2017 at 8:37 am

      Oh you absolutely should! It’s such a big country, there is always more to see 🙂

  • Reply Stephanie January 23, 2017 at 1:07 pm

    Ahaha I got the same question: “What brought you to Sagres?” (A small town at the southend of Portugal), “Why did you choose Sagres?”. Well.. why not?
    And I don’t regret my choice it’s really nice there!

    • Reply Leah Davis January 23, 2017 at 3:13 pm

      I’ve never heard of that place! I think that’s why most people ask me about Oaxaca, because it’s not well-known enough. I would probably ask you “Why Sagres?” too! 🙂

  • Reply Agnes October 3, 2017 at 3:51 pm

    Hello! We are going to Oaxaca soon..Do you have a recommendation for a place to stay?

    • Reply Leah Davis October 5, 2017 at 12:51 pm

      I actually don’t have any good suggestions for you since I stayed in an apartment rental. There are some great affordable hotels though!

  • Reply Patrice Thomson October 11, 2017 at 7:52 pm

    Hi Leah,

    If I was to have just one hour in Oaxaca, what would be your ultimate destination for me – so that I could experience it all in minimal time.

    • Reply Leah Davis October 12, 2017 at 10:52 am

      Oh my, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot you could do with just one hour! But a great place to explore by foot would be the Zócalo (the main plaza, Plaza de la Constitución). From there you can visit attractions like the Oaxaca Textile Museum and La Catedral Metropolitana de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, as well as plenty of restaurants. Enjoy!

  • Reply Héctor Oaxaca October 17, 2017 at 6:47 am

    Thank you for visiting us, although we are constantly immersed in blockades and protests, Oaxaca is a magical place that falls in love and invites you to come back, especially if you ate chapulines, you know what they say, who comes to Oaxaca and eats chapulines, surely returns.

    • Reply Leah Davis October 22, 2017 at 2:01 pm

      I definitely hope to return to your magical city! It’s wonderful!

  • Reply Jackie Rose January 2, 2018 at 7:38 am

    Hey awesome article! I am also hoping to stay in Mexico for six months, there are just so many places to choose! However, I think I will go for oaxaca because of the low price and accessibility to the beaches! I also want to take spanish classes! Do you think it’s better to look at aparments once in the city? Probably prices are better but my Spanish is very basic.

    • Reply Leah Davis January 2, 2018 at 6:55 pm

      Hey Jackie! I’d recommend joining a Facebook group for Oaxaca expats and asking around for rentals. The people in those groups are really helpful!

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