For Digital Nomads: Centro — Oaxaca City, Mexico

Jun 14, 2021 by Yihwan Kim. 13 min read.

“What’s a chapulín?” I asked. Our guide grinned mischievously as he motioned towards a food stall surrounded by baskets piled high with dried insects. Nice.

Colorful street in Oaxaca City, Mexico
📸: WiFi Tribe Operations

Oaxaca. It’s a city; it’s a state; and for many, it’s the culinary capital of Mexico.

Also known as Oaxaca de Juárez, Oaxaca City is just an hour’s flight south of Mexico City, but its tranquil streets, colorful alleys, and easy-going pace make it seem a world away. Oaxaca is world-renowned for its cuisine, and clips of bubbling mole, freshly-roasted cacao, Oaxacan cheese, and baskets piled high with chapulines — grasshoppers, often deep-fried and heaped with spices — stir the imagination of traveling foodies everywhere.

I found my way to Oaxaca earlier this year, escaping a dreary February in Seattle for the land of sun, mole, and mezcal with the WiFi Tribe. The idea of traveling with a community, with special pandemic precautions and protocols in place, sounded nice.

This was my first time visiting Mexico, which is a bit ironic considering I grew up 2 hours away from the border. I wonder if it’s because there’s already so much to love about Mexico in Los Angeles. Why fly 5 hours for great tacos when a 10 minute drive will do?

I’d traveled extensively in South America for the past decade, but I’d never visited my neighbor to the south. That finally changed when I stumbled onto a quiet tarmac on a warm, mildly muggy Oaxacan evening. Customs was a breeze (it seemed like they kept the entire airport open for the dozen-or-so passengers on our flight), and I soon found myself in a cab speeding away into the night.

As we turned outside the airport grounds, I was suddenly taken aback by a strange, yet deeply familiar scent when I rolled down my window. It smelled slightly putrid but sweet at the same time. It instantly conjured up memories of former adventures: ferries in Bangkok, motorbikes in Saigon, and street stalls in Quito. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was, but these flashbacks were more than welcome after nearly a year of being locked away in quarantine. I smiled when I realized later that I was smelling untreated sewage mixing with exhaust and diesel fumes.

I spent a month in Oaxaca, in a more than century-old hotel in the northwest corner of the historic Centro area. It was the perfect jumping off point for all the touristy sites in town, the fine restaurants and bougie cafés, and the more local markets and attractions.

I learned about the region’s rich history — how ancient civilizations flourished and stagnated for millennia, well before the Spaniards showed up. I loved the artists’ spirit and ethos that reached every corner of the city, from the vibrant murals that lined the streets to the quiet galleries tucked away in hidden courtyards. It was privilege to experience this and more as a digital nomad, a visitor passing through.

I left Oaxaca full from all that it offered, but also ready to move on. I craved the hustle and bustle and semi-organized chaos of a larger city. After countless tamales and tlayudas, I couldn’t look at a tortilla the same way anymore. A month in Oaxaca was the perfect amount of time for me — any more, and I worried it would start to drag.

But Oaxaca will always have a special place in my heart. I know I’ll visit again someday.

Work ⇌ Caffeinate

must visit
💻 work friendly
good coffee

As far as traditional co-working spaces go, options in Oaxaca are limited. I hear the Selina in Oaxaca is pretty underwhelming, but that Convivio is better. I can’t say for sure. I didn’t visit either because I found Tizne.

Co-working at Tizne Co-working at Tizne Co-working at Tizne
Team work making the dream work at Tizne 📸: Nick Der

I’m not sure what Tizne is. A café? Restaurant? Art gallery? Private event space? All of the above — and more? Whatever it is, Tizne is a hidden gem located just a few blocks from El Templo de Santo Domingo in the center of the city.

The WiFi is fast, the food is good (try el menú del día), and the people are nice. It was never crowded. In fact, it was practically empty whenever I visited, which became nearly every day. A rooftop canopy shields you from the harsh sun, and the thing slides to provide reliable shade throughout the day. The higher tables that line the inner courtyard even make for perfect standing desks. It’s the best non-coworking co-working space I’ve ever seen.

The music can get a little loud for more serious calls, but for fun ones you and your meeting attendees can jam out to downtempo house and electric tango tracks. Don’t forget to take-in the eclectic art and immersive installations after your call.

Art tunnel at Tizne Octopus art at Tizne
Tunnel, octopus, and more at Tizne 📸: Miles Bird

Oaxaca’s also home to a flourishing coffee scene. While there’s a café on nearly every other corner (and a lone Starbucks in the fancier part of town), my go-to picks were Caracol Púrpura, Cafeto & Baristas, Muss Café, and Café Café. Café Café occupies an entire building, including an outdoor courtyard and terrace, which made it another great spot to get some work done.

Eat

must visit
📍 local
🗺 not local
💰 wallet friendly
🥗 healthy(ish)

Food. Food. FOOD.

This section could have been a novel. Alas, given time and space constraints I can’t write about all the wonderful restaurants, stalls, and carts I visited. But I’ll mention as many as I can.

First and foremost, visit the meat street on the east side of Mercado 20 de Noviembre). If you do nothing else in Oaxaca, do this.

Meat stall in el Mercado 20 de Noviembre in Oaxaca, Mexico
No I don't have better pictures — I was too busy eating

This is my happy place, my safe space. It is chaos. As soon as you walk in, vendors will shout and pull you to their tables, all vying for your attention and business. Don’t worry about it; take a seat anywhere. The smoke will choke you a little, but that’s part of the experience too.

From there, order your drinks. Select your meats. Choose your accompaniments, salsas, toppings, and more. Tortillas are included. Things will appear, arriving one-by-one on the coral-colored butcher paper that serves as both tablecloth and plate. Then, eat. You choose how it all comes together. Make a taco, a burrito, or just shove it all in your face. You are the master of this universe.

Meats are usually sold in sets (i.e., for a particular number of diners), while sides like salsas, avocados, grilled green onions (a must), and peppers are sold à la carte. So it’s best to rally a group to try a little of everything, but hey, feel free to show up solo. I know I would.

When you need to walk off the inevitable food coma, consider a leisurely stroll towards Plaza de la Danza, where you’ll find a coterie of nieve vendors selling what I can only describe as a cross between shaved ice and ice cream. They’re available in every flavor imaginable and make for a perfect dessert.

Luckily, I didn’t have to trek all the way to Mercado 20 de Noviembre to get a taste of authentic Oaxacan food. El Mercado Sánchez Pascuas was only a couple blocks away, and I visited nearly every day. I tried what might have been the best tamales of my life, made by the kind tamale lady who sets up shop next to a tiny table and massive stock pot out back. Stop by early to get them while they’re fresh — and before she runs out of the most popular flavors by noon.

I also became a regular at El Punto Cocktelero, located towards the front of the same market. I’d ordinarily advise against eating ceviche or other seafood in Mexico when you can’t see the sea, but I’d say this place was a solid exception.

If you’re hungry for tacos, empandas, and quesadillas, look for Tacos del Carmen and Empanadas del Carmen, both located on the same corner, adjacent La Popular (which gets a solid meh). I have no idea if they’re related (who’s Carmen?), but the taco stand is only open during the day, while the empanada cart doesn’t open until late in the afternoon. Note that these are Oaxacan-style tacos (rolled up) and empanadas (not baked) — both wrapped in homemade tortillas cooked on a traditional clay comal. The chorizo tacos, dipped into spicy chile verde salsa, are my favorite.

But then

All right, I have a confession to make — two, actually. The first is that while I have enormous respect for the history and intricacies of Oaxacan cuisine, I just don’t think it’s something I can eat every day. After a couple weeks the tortillas started weighing on me, both figuratively and literally, and what was once a vehicle for new and wonderful foods started tasting more like cardboard. Mexican food in general can land on the heavier side, with more-than-liberal servings of buttered rice, cheese, meat, and cream-based sauces. Ordinarily I’d be all for it, but things started to get a bit old around the fortieth tamale or so. I also don’t like chocolate (cue angry Internet screaming).

The second confession is that I was underwhelmed by the vast majority of sit-down restaurants in Oaxaca. There, I said it. It’s out there, and the world will judge. But it’s true. Maybe I lack the refined tastes to truly appreciate and understand, but I was uniformly disappointed by meals at La Olla, El Destilado, Pitiona, Hotel Los Amantes (though the views from the rooftop are great), and many more.

The traditional Oaxacan meat plate I had at Las Quince Letras was just plain bad, overly salted and generally lacking in flavors compared to the same meal at the meat street. All you could taste was salt — and a lot of it. The moles I tried weren’t much better. The corncake was a misplaced attempt at dry cornbread, halfheartedly mashed together with undercooked and flavorless kernels that might as well have come from a can.

One notable exception was Los Danzantes. The food there was consistently excellent.

Catedral Restaurant also comes to mind, though that might be due to the friendly and almost aggressively attentive service. You see, they brought out a lot of orange slices with the check. I don’t like wasting food, so I ate most of our table’s. I think the waiters interpreted this to mean I really liked oranges. So they brought out more … which I dutifully finished to waste none. What ensued was a Oaxacan hospitality standoff, with the waiters incredulous of what they probably thought was my insatiable appetite for oranges.

Plate after plate of orange slices arrived, carried by amused waiters who disappeared before I could figure out how to politely decline in Spanish. How many oranges can this guy eat, they must have wondered. Oh god, please no more, I thought and winced whenever a waiter passed by. Thankfully I got out of there alive, though not before I’d probably eaten a whole sack of oranges.

It’s okay to not “eat local” all the time

Not Oaxacan food Also not Oaxacan food
This is not traditional Oaxacan food and that's okay 📸: Miles Bird

I think this is especially true for digital nomads. It’s one thing to fly to Italy for a week and have every meal at McDonald’s and the Burger King. But when you’re travelling full-time, McDonald’s starts to look a lot more appealing. I for one am never ashamed to eat at the house of Ronald McDonald. I like to think it’s part of my American duty. In fact, I have a long-standing goal to eat a Big Mac in every country where it’s available (which is most of them), though that’s a story for another day.

As the weeks wore on, I had to remind myself that it was okay to not eat local all the time, even in the gastronomic epicenter that is Oaxaca. Thankfully, I had plenty of other options.

Boulenc stands out, not just for being a couple blocks from our place, but as a fantastic bakery and restaurant in its own right. Breads, pastries, and pizzas — I tried all of these and more, regularly, frequently, at one point almost every day (low-carb diets be damned). Boulenc gets packed, so I recommend ordering ahead online for pickup at the window tucked into the wall between the main restaurant and café.

Chepiche Cafe is worth the hike from Centro. They offer an extensive Western and Mexican brunch menu, but the star of the show is the bacon. Order the bacon: on the side, with your eggs, whatever. Just do it.

Kintaro was a house favorite for decent Japanese food, especially for being in the middle of Mexico. La Matatena Pizzeria makes a good pizza, though their empanadas (baked Argentinian-style) are even better.

Finally, I’ll give a special shout-out to Santa Hierba, which I ordered on Rappi more times than I care to admit. The food was not great; let’s get that out of the way. But when you’re craving something that passes for remotely healthy, it did fine.

As pitiful as this sounds, I just wanted a decent salad towards the end of my trip. With the bountiful produce available at every market, eating healthy would’ve been much easier if I had just cooked more, as I know others did.

Fresh ingredients from the market
It's easier to eat healthy if you can cook 📸: Miles Bird

As my stay in Oaxaca came to a close, I had my fill of Oaxacan cuisine and Mexican food. But looking back now, I find myself craving a tlayuda filled with quesillo and chapulines. Tacos in LA are great, but few compare to ones fresh off the comal, filled with chorizo, beans, and cheese. I might have gotten a little tired of the food in Oaxaca, but now that I’m far away, I’d like nothing more. It’s funny how that works.

Workout

🏋️ gym
🏃 route

I bought a month pass at Calipso Fitness Center since it was just a block from where I was staying. I regret this. It was a little pricey by local standards (~$35), but more significantly, the open air environment created a breeding ground for mosquitos. Have you ever tried swatting your face while doing dumbbell presses? I don’t recommend it.

Also, let’s just say that Calipso looks nicer in the photos online than it does in real life. I found a lot of equipment broken or missing (dumbbell weights jumped mysteriously from 65lbs to 90lbs), and the lack of A/C, or even air circulation in general, made even light squats feel heavy on the upper floors.

If I could do it again, I’d get by with day passes at Blackwod Strength & Conditioning across town. Each day pass cost something like ~$.50 (that’s fifty American cents). There wasn’t A/C here either, but the high ceilings allowed for better air circulation overall. Also, this gym felt old-school legit, like the original Gold’s Gym or something out of Rocky. It could get packed, but the gym seemed large enough to accommodate everyone, even during peak hours.

Besides that, Oaxaca made for a beautiful backdrop for morning runs. I did laps in El Llano daily, rocking out to the Zumba music that blared from speakers. Judging by how many people did laps with me, it was clearly a popular place for getting your steps in.

If elevation training is more your thing, I’d recommend the steps leading up to Auditorio Guelaguetza, also a popular spot among locals. You can continue past the auditorium to hike the trail to the observatory, or even beyond into Parque Estatal Cerro del Fortin. Try to go with a group during the day though, as a friend unfortunately had her phone stolen while hiking alone.

Puppy somewhere in Mexico
Here's a puppy for reading this far 📸: Powell Pittman

Everything Else

Getting In / Around

Hail a taxi. Yup, the old-fashioned way, holding up your hand, paying in cash, everything. There is no Uber or Lyft. DiDi seems intermittently available, but only in certain geo-fenced areas in Centro. But you’d just be hailing a cab through DiDi anyway.

Cabs don’t have meters, but most drivers are reasonable and won’t try to pull a fast one on you. Most trips around the center of town should be around 50MXN, a bit more if you want to go farther out. Negotiate a rate before getting in to avoid surprises.

Note that airport taxis coming from the airport operate under a regulated flat rate. When I arrived in early 2021, private taxis cost ~$18 (USD), with shared taxis (collectivos) costing less than half that. This was considerably more than what travel blogs and forums were reporting at the time, but was nothing outrageous. Credit cards were accepted for rides originating at the airport. You pay at a booth inside the airport and take the tickets (all of them!) to a driver out front.

Taxis back to the airport from Centro should cost around 200-250MXN. Credit cards will not be accepted.

Most areas of Centro are walkable though. The only times I ever hailed a cab were to get to the airport or Chedraui (Mexican Walmart).

Accommodation & Food Costs

Staying in Centro is pricier than other parts of town. AirBnBs can range from $600 – $1,500+ for a private apartment. However, you can find much cheaper accommodation, generally in the $300 – $600 range, if you look just outside the city center.

As always, finding a local connection will yield a much lower price, but that’s easier said than done. I’ve also heard people successfully negotiate reasonable long-term rates at local hotels. For short-term stays though, AirBnB is hard to beat.

Food can be cheap or expensive. You could eat out like a local (and eat very well) while spending less than $10 a day. Or you could dine exclusively at the finest restaurants and easily spend ten times that daily. Cooking will bring down costs considerably.

Safety

Oaxaca (both the city and state) are generally regarded as among the safest areas in Mexico. For example, I personally felt comfortable wearing an Apple Watch out most days, which is something I wouldn’t even think of doing in some parts of the world.

But basic and sensible precautions are required. We heard that an expat was jumped (assaulted and mugged) while we were in town. He was reportedly plastered drunk and wandering around the downtown core late at night, so this was not surprising.

However, a friend was also mugged while hiking to the aforementioned observatory, past Auditorio Guelaguetza. Her phone was stolen, and she recalled a chilling moment when it seemed like the mugger still wouldn’t let her pass. This happened in broad daylight, with hikers farther up and down the trail.

Be smart, and travel in groups when possible. Don’t carry anything you wouldn’t be willing to give up without a moment’s hesitation if threatened. Yes, Oaxaca is safe — but still, be careful.

WiFi Speed

Fast WiFi is easy to find in Oaxaca, including in Centro. Many cafés (hi Tizne) offer fiber optic connections that approach 100+ Mbps. Even when speeds weren’t as blazing fast, they were more than sufficient for video calls throughout the day. Outages were rare. Actually for me they were non-existent, but you never know.

That being said, fast WiFI isn’t guaranteed everywhere. So you might want to double-check before opening your laptop at a new café or booking someplace long-term. But once you find a place that offers a fiber optic or otherwise speedy connection, you should be good to go.

Laundry

Pay-by-weight places are abundant in Centro and should set you back 50 – 80 MXN per load (depending on how much clothing you have of course). I had great experiences with Díaz Tintorería y Lavandería. When I dropped off my laundry in the morning, everything was ready, clean, and folded towards the end of the day. Just remember to bring exact change or small bills, which goes for a lot of places in Oaxaca.

Language & Communicating

If you’re only visiting the touristy or ritzier parts of Oaxaca, then English is spoken fairly widely. But that wouldn’t be very fun. A little Spanish goes a long way in more local areas. This includes the markets, where you’ll probably want to spend a lot of time.

I found Oaxaqueños naturally kind and easy-going. From the tamale lady that let me open a tab (she didn’t have change and told me to come back next time) to the staff at Tizne that helped organize private birthday celebrations, most people I met were incredibly warm and generous. I like to think that speaking a passable level of Spanish helped me make these connections.

Rappi

Download it. Use it. Love it.

Would I come back?

Yep.

Where to next?

La Punta / Zicatela — Puerto Escondido, Mexico

Vintage VW bug in Oaxacan alley
Punch buggy 📸: Mark Brouch

Comments? Thoughts? Let me know! @yihwan 🐦


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