The state of Oaxaca (wah-hah-kah) has a special magic felt by Mexicans and foreigners alike. A bastion of indigenous culture, it’s home to the country’s most vibrant crafts and art scene, some outstandingly colorful and extroverted festivities, a uniquely savory cuisine and diverse natural riches. At the center of the state in every way stands beautiful, colonial Oaxaca city, an elegant and fascinating cultural hub. Nearby, the forested Sierra Norte is home to successful community-tourism ventures enabling visitors to hike, bike and ride horses amid delicious green mountainscapes. To the south, across rugged, remote ranges, is Oaxaca’s fabulous tropical coast, with its wide sandy beaches, pumping Pacific surf, seas full of dolphins and turtles, and a string of beach towns and villages that will placate even the most anxious of travelers: surfer-heaven Puerto Escondido; planned but relaxed Bahías de Huatulco; and the mellow delights of Mazunte, Zipolite and San Agustinillo.
Mexico's best off-the-grid-beaches
5 min read — Published Oct 15, 2020
Finding a beach in Mexico is easy, but getting away from the crowds is a little more challenging. Here are the best off-the-grid beaches to get away.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Oaxaca.
Got two hours? You'll need it for the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures, housed in the beautiful monastery buildings adjoining the Templo de Santo Domingo. This is one of Mexico's best regional museums. The rich displays take you right through the history and cultures of Oaxaca state up to the present day, emphasizing the continuity between pre-Hispanic and contemporary cultures in areas such as crafts, medicine and food. A gorgeous stone cloister serves as antechamber to the museum proper. The greatest treasure is the Mixtec hoard from Tomb 7 at Monte Albán, in Room III (the first on the right upstairs). This dates from the 14th century, when Mixtecs reused an old Zapotec tomb at Monte Albán to bury one of their kings and his sacrificed servants, along with a stash of beautifully worked silver, turquoise, coral, jade, amber, pearls, finely carved bone, crystal goblets, a skull covered in turquoise and a lot of gold. The treasure was discovered in 1932 by Alfonso Caso. Halls I to IV are devoted to the pre-Hispanic period, halls V to VIII to the colonial period, halls IX to XIII to Oaxaca in the independence era and after, and the final room (XIV) to Santo Domingo Monastery itself. At the end of the long corridor past hall IX, glass doors give a view into the beautifully ornate choir of the Templo de Santo Domingo. Some of the museum’s explanatory material is in English, but most is in Spanish. Also, there's a good book/souvenir shop and a fascinating on-site library with 30,000 titles in various languages, with some books dating to the 15th century.
Legendary 3.5km-long Zicatela is the best-known surfing spot in Mexico courtesy of the tempestuous surfing waves of the Mexican Pipeline. The heart of the action, including the Pipeline, is at Zicatela’s northern end. Nonsurfers beware: the waters here have a lethal undertow and are not safe for the boardless, or beginner surfers either. Lifeguards rescue several careless people most months. Surfing aside, the beach is a beauty: wide, golden and gloriously laid-back – man! The main beach area is backed by Calle del Morro, a kind of gringo-ville meets Mexican beach town where locals, along with visitors from colder climes, mix seamlessly. The Punta Zicatela area at Zicatela's far southern end has mellower surf and a mellower vibe to go with it. With its unpaved roads overlooked by vegan cafes and yoga retreats, it's favored chiefly by backpackers and beginner surfers.
The former capital of the Zapotec people is today an illustrious ruin, but for over a thousand years it served as the second-largest ceremonial site in Mesoamerica, after Teotihuacán. Sitting atop a flattened hill, 9 miles west of present-day Oaxaca, Monte Albán's setting is spectacular. The site is known for its expansive Gran Plaza, ancient ball court, excavated tombs, astronomical 'observatory' and, uniquely, its mysterious danzantes (carved stone figures depicting what are thought to be dead or tortured prisoners of war). At the entrance to the site are a good museum (explanations in Spanish only), a cafe and a bookstore. Official guides offer their services outside the ticket office (M$500 to M$600). The heart of the site, the Gran Plaza, is wheelchair accessible via an elevator and special walkways (ask at the ticket booth for the elevator to be activated). Explanatory signs are in Spanish, English and Zapotec.
Zipolite's beach is huge, running for a good 1.5km and dispatching massive waves. It's famous for its nudity; you'll see people randomly swimming, sunbathing or happily walking across the wet sand minus their clothes at any time of day, although it is more common in a couple of coves at the western end of the beach and in the small bay called Playa del Amor at the east end, which is a favorite spot for gay men. The eastern end of Zipolite (nearest Puerto Ángel) is called Colonia Playa del Amor, the middle part is Centro, and the western end, where most of the traveler scene is centered, is Colonia Roca Blanca, where you'll find what amounts to the main street, Av Roca Blanca (also called El Adoquín), a block back from the beach. Surfing is better toward the west. For more seclusion and the best boutique hotels, retreat to the far western end of the beach behind several rocky knolls.
Halfway between the western edge of Parque Nacional Huatulco and Puerto Ángel awaits some of the most precious coastline in Oaxaca. The water can be somewhat rough on the main beach but there are several swimmable beaches nearby that you can easily walk to along jungly dirt roads. Ask for directions at Manta Raya Hotel, where you can stop for lunch or spend the night in spacious oceanfront rooms with private balcony. The Swiss owner Reto will gladly point you in the right direction. To get here, take Hwy 200 west to the Cuatunalco turnoff and follow the Manta Raya signs along a dirt road for about 7km.
Small is beautiful at Carrizalillo, set in a sheltered cove west of the center that's reached by a stairway of 157 steps. It’s popular for swimming and bodyboarding, and is the place for beginner surfers. Book a lesson and you'll probably end up here making a splash or three 50m offshore. There's a mellow line of palapa (thatch-roofed) beach bars when you finish.
Gorgeous Santo Domingo is the most splendid of Oaxaca’s churches, with a finely carved baroque facade and nearly every square centimeter inside decorated in 3D relief with intricate gilt designs swirling around a profusion of painted figures. Most elaborate of all is the 18th-century Capilla de la Virgen del Rosario (Rosary Chapel) on the south side. The whole church takes on a magically warm glow during candlelit evening Mass. Santo Domingo was built mainly between 1570 and 1608 as part of the city’s Dominican monastery, with the finest artisans from Puebla and elsewhere helping in its construction. Like other big buildings in this earthquake-prone region, it has immensely thick stone walls. Santo Domingo de Guzmán (1172−1221), the Spanish monk who founded the Dominican order, appears as the right-hand one of the two figures holding a church in the center of the facade, and his elaborate family tree adorns the ceiling immediately inside. The Dominicans observed strict vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and in Mexico they protected the indigenous people from other colonists’ excesses.
This rocky cape, jutting out from the west end of Mazunte beach, is the southernmost point in the state of Oaxaca and a fabulous place to hike at sunset amid crashing waves and dreamy Pacific vistas. To walk to the cape, take the lane toward Playa Mermejita off Calle Rinconcito, and go left up the track immediately after the cemetery to reach the community nature reserve entrance after 250m. Here you have two choices. Take the path leading down to the right (Sendero Corral de Piedra Poniente) and you'll join a winding sometimes rough trail that ultimately gets you to the Punta in 20 to 30 minutes (the last part crosses a small beach). Take the central path and you'll be led more directly through trees and then across a grassy headland to the Punta. Ideally you can combine both paths for a round-trip that takes around one hour without stops.
Natural springs have never looked this good. Set in truly ethereal surroundings amid low brush-covered mountains, Hierve El Agua (meaning 'the water boils,' but the water temperature is actually cool) is a set of bubbling mineral springs that run into natural infinity pools right on a cliff's edge with spectacular panoramas over the sierra. Water dribbling over the cliff edge for millennia has created unique white mineral formations that resemble huge frozen waterfalls. Arrive early to avoid the crowds. There are two ghostly ‘waterfalls’ at the site. The ‘cascada chica’ is the one nearer the visitor car park and supports four popular mineral pools (the one nearest to the lip of the cliff is humanmade). From here you get perfect views of the more impressive ‘cascada grande.’ To get to the second ‘waterfall’ follow the trail for 1km to its end, where you can enjoy a much quieter more natural spot (with few bathers). The mineral-laden water is cool to cold, though usually swimmable. Altogether it's an utterly unique bathing experience and stunningly beautiful to boot. There are changing rooms just above the pools. Unofficial roadblocks – the result of a local feud – sometimes spring up close to the springs and charge you an extra M$10 to enter.