Part of the allure of traveling to Oaxaca are the day trips to nearby communities located just a short drive from the city. Because every community around Oaxaca City takes immense pride in its food culture, the flavors and textures of staple dishes such as mole, empanadas, and aguas frescas can change dramatically from town to town. And many towns have regional specialties that shine at their best in that one specific place, be it a tlayuda topped with meaty foraged mushrooms enjoyed in San José del Pacífico or a crispy empanada de San Antonino in Ocotlán de Morelos.
Here is a guide to the best day trips (or two-day trips) around the capital city in search of those local specialties. The best time to visit each town or village is the day when the tianguis (local open-air market) sets up. It is often the heart of the community and a surefire way to find all the hyper-local food and drink specialties.
Pro tips: Oaxaca’s public transportation system makes it easy to get around, with bus stops located all throughout Oaxaca en route to the city you want to visit. The concierge at your lodging can usually point you in the right direction, and if you’re still unsure, commuters waiting at a bus stop are generally happy to help as well. If you’re renting a car, be sure to take full advantage and drop by the many food and drink stands along the road.
Driving south from Oaxaca City:
Villa de Zaachila
Distance: 15.6 km south
Drive time: 39 minutes
Tianguis day: Thursday
Eat this dish: Barbacoa and nieve de leche quemada
In Mesoamerican times, the municipality of Zaachila, located 30 minutes away from Oaxaca City, was the capital of the Zapotec empire. Today the town is home to about 43,000 people who live on and nearby what’s now an archaeological site. Zaachila is also synonymous with barbacoa de rollo, a unique regional variation of barbacoa. The Indigenous people in this community use beef instead of lamb or chicken and roll up the meat in avocado and maguey leaves before roasting, creating a succulent barbacoa variation. At the open-air market, ask for Pedro Mendez, whose butcher stand, Carnicería “Dulce Nombre de Jesús,” offers this barbacoa every Thursday. It’s considered some of the best.
For dessert, this town is also known for its intensely smoky leche quemada ice cream, a milk-based soft ice cream purposely left to burn a bit in the bottom of the pot, which creates a delicious burnt-milk flavor. The ice cream has origins nearby, in the Sierra Norte mountain town called La Nevería. According to Oaxaca’s Nieve Museum, one of the first families to run an ice cream business in Oaxaca, in 1877, made it a point to set up shop near all of Oaxaca’s archaeological sites, including Villa de Zaachila.
San Bartolo Coyotepec
Distance: 16.2 km south
Drive time: 36 minutes
Tianguis day: Friday
Eat this dish: Piedrazos
San Bartolo Coyotepec, located about 25 minutes from the city, is known for its pottery, made from black clay, and its pickles — the town’s vendors sell pickled mango, jicama, plum, and other local fruits and vegetables. Here’s where you should try piedrazos (“hard stones”), which is a dish of bread — baked, then toasted — dipped in pickling brine and served with pickled produce and quesillo (cheese). The town’s diversity of pickles means more variety in the vinegars that soak the bread; the region’s pickles are also known for being more strongly flavored. While Barrio Trinidad in Oaxaca City has received the most media attention for its piedrazos, my family and I have been going to a women-owned spot in San Bartolo called La Reyna del Tejate. La Reyna’s style stands out for the subtly acidic punch in all of her pickles, including local jicama and plums.
Ocotlán de Morelos
Distance: 35.8 km south
Drive time: 1 hour
Tianguis day: Friday
Eat this dish: Empanadas de San Antonino
Ocotlán, about an hour away from Oaxaca City, is where you go if you want to buy the freshest meat. Every Friday, an open-air market sets up next to the famous livestock market known as El Baratillo. This market specializes in barbacoa blanca (lamb barbacoa roasted in maguey paddles — those pointy stalks from an agave plant) and regional enfrijoladas made with dried and toasted ground black beans instead of pureed freshly cooked black beans.
But Ocotlán’s main claim to fame is empanadas de San Antonino, which alone are worth the trip to the town of San Antonio Castillo Velasco. The empanadas consist of a freshly made thin tortilla filled with an extra-rich yellow chicken mole — the masa-thickened mole base is a popular Indigenous technique local to Oaxaca — then lightly sealed on the edges and left to cook slowly over a low-heat comal. The mole simmers from within the empanada, and just enough oozes out to create a crispy edge that contrasts with the still-saucy center. Eat it with fresh cilantro, charred chile de agua, pickled onions, and fresh limes. While there’s no consensus as to how this empanada was created, anecdotes via the community’s matriarchs trace it back to the 1850s.
Ejutla de Crespo
Distance: 66 km south
Drive time: 1 hour, 24 minutes
Tianguis day: Thursday
Eat this dish: Salchicha Ejuteca
Ejutla is known for its smoked regional sausage called salchicha ejuteca, which is made from a mix of beef and spices. During the day, vendors swarm the town center, selling it by the link to eat later or sandwiched between two freshly fried tostadas with hierba de conejo (bean paste) and a generous smattering of guacamole. You eat the dish, called tostada de salchicha ejuteca, like a sandwich; it’s one of Oaxaca’s most underrated staple foods.
San José del Pacífico
Distance: 140 km south
Drive time: 3 hours
Eat this dish: Foraged mushrooms
Many tourists from Europe and the U.S. make their pilgrimage to this foggy mountain community to trip on mushrooms, but besides Psilocybe mexicana, you will also find many other edible foraged mushrooms here in soup, alambres (au gratin), empanadas, tacos, and tlayudas. It’s not uncommon to find mushrooms that look and taste like high-priced American varieties, such as hen of the woods in guisado form and on top of a tlayuda. To drink, seek out a bar called La Taberna de Los Duendes, which specializes in mezcal fortified with local wild herbs to make aperitif-type beverages.
Driving east from Oaxaca City:
Teotitlán del Valle
Distance: 28 km east
Drive time: 42 minutes
Tianguis day: Every day before noon
Eat this dish: Anything with masa
Teotitlán is renowned for its beautiful handmade textiles, but also for its high-quality masa-based goods, which still mainly use local heirloom corn of all colors. This full-flavored masa makes even the simplest foods like an empanada de flor de calabaza (a quesadilla with fresh squash blossoms) stop you in your tracks; the same effect happens when the masa is applied to memelas, tamales, and atole blanco (a hot beverage made from fresh nixtamalized corn masa and water), atole de panela (with added unrefined brown sugar), and champurrado (atole with added Mexican-style chocolate).
Tlacolula de Matamoros
Distance: 31.3 km east
Drive time: 45 minutes
Tianguis day: Sunday
Eat this dish: Lamb barbacoa
If you take only one day trip while in Oaxaca, it should be to the bustling Tlacolula Sunday market, the biggest tianguis in the region. Here you’ll find whatever you’re looking for amid the dozens of market stalls, everything from clay glasses for mezcal to locally made canvas bags to freshly roasted cacao. This sprawling market features entire rows dedicated to sopa de pata (a collagen-rich beef broth made from beef trotter and super-tender beef cheeks), tasajo (carne) asada, and rustic pan dulce. But the showstopper is the market’s spicy red barbacoa, served in stew form and with the meat swimming in a spicy broth. My family has been patronizing Barbacoa Adolfa for decades; its proprietor, Dona Adolfa, offers both goat and lamb varieties, served with fresh tortillas. Grab a seat wherever you can and take advantage of the excellent service: Roving servers will deliver your beverage of choice from anywhere in the market directly to your table.
Distance: 44.7 km east
Drive time: 58 minutes
Eat this dish: Plantains
Mitla is one of Oaxaca’s most spiritually charged destinations. Since pre-Hispanic times, it was known as the gateway to the underworld (Mitla is derived from the Nahuátl word meaning just that). During the Day of the Dead, the town’s pan de muerto is regarded as the most original in Oaxaca — for its tender crumb, but more so the elaborate hand-drawn art that adorns it. During the rest of the year, seek out the community’s regional style of fried plantains. After 7 p.m., street vendors on the town’s plaza sell fried plantains that are pounded thin and draped over the side of the pots to cook like clothes set out to dry. The sweet plantain is then topped with sweetened condensed milk before eating.
Distance: 57.7 km northeast
Drive time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
Eat this dish: Mole amarillo de hongos on a tortilla de papa
Cuajimoloyas is the closest dense forest to Oaxaca City, a perfect place to enjoy nature or grab a breath of fresh air. The small mountain community — which is always cold and foggy — is known for its nutritious atole rojo (dyed red with annatto seed), mushrooms, and a tortilla made from potatoes called tortillas de papa.
Capulálpam de Méndez
Distance: 73.1 km northeast
Drive time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Eat this dish: Fresh-caught trout
The rural wilderness community of Capulálpam de Méndez is known for its outdoor activities like zip-lining, stargazing, and other eco-tourism attractions; culinarily, it’s best known for its wild trout, which is plentiful in the local river. Eateries around town take the fresh catch and are usually happy to prepare the whole fish however you’d like: grilled, in a garlic scampi, fried, or stir-fried with chile and served on a plate with rice and black beans. Truchas El Jacal de Pulpis, a restaurant in the town of Ixtlán de Juárez, is particularly well-known for its trucha empapelada, or trout in parchment.
Santa María Tlahuitoltepec
Distance: 114 km east
Drive time: 2 hours, 32 minutes
Tianguis day: Saturday
Eat this dish: Machucado, if you can find it
The Saturday open-air market at Tlahuitoltepec is one of the epicenters of Oaxaca’s Indigenous-centered way of life, where you can find the freshest wild herbs like watercress and a ceremonial beverage called tepache con rojo. It is pulque fermented in a clay pot with panela (unrefined brown sugar), toasted crushed corn, and cacao, and dyed terra-cotta red with crushed annatto seeds.
The town is also known for tamales made in a pre-Hispanic way, without adding any lard or fat to the masa: There are dense potato-filled tamales and salted tamales made from sweet corn rolled in fresh corn husks. Market vendors also sell a particular type of tostada smeared with a seasoned paste made from dried peas. But the regional stunner, and one usually made for celebrations or ceremonies, is a Mixe dish called machucado, which features a ball of parcooked masa seared in a hot pan and finished by slowly adding tomato sauce. It’s then eaten communally with a stew made from guías (tender squash vines) or with carne asada and quelites. If you find yourself invited to a special-occasion meal in this area, don’t miss out on the opportunity to try this.
Bricia Lopez is the co-owner of the James Beard Award-winning restaurant Guelaguetza and author of Oaxaca: Home Cooking From the Heart of Mexico. Javier Cabral is the James Beard-Award winning editor at L.A. TACO and the co-author of Oaxaca: Home Cooking From the Heart of Mexico.