Why Oaxaca City, Mexico Is the Perfect Pandemic Travel Destination
When I returned from my latest trip to Spain in the fall of 2019, I never imagined it would be another 31 months before I next left the country. Then again, nothing about the past few years has been normal. But when things started feeling a little safer this year, I, inspired by many friends and family who were traveling overseas again, jumped at the chance to plan a trip of my own. I’d been dreaming about Oaxaca, Mexico for years, and the more I researched, the more I suspected it would be an ideal destination for seeing something new while staying virus-free.
My instincts were spot-on: Oaxaca turned out to be an incredible place to spend a week in May. For anyone who, like me, has been hesitant to travel abroad during the pandemic, here’s why I think Oaxaca City is the perfect place to venture back out again.
All of the best sights are outdoors
Sticking to outdoor venues is especially important these days, as airflow can make a big difference in transmission. Fortunately, most of the essential spots you’ll want to check out while you’re in Oaxaca are outdoors. Within the city, the best sightseeing is simply wandering around the city center, checking out the colorful, colonial architecture, and enjoying the atmosphere of popular local spots like El Zócalo, the main square.
In the city center, some of the most interesting places to visit are Oaxaca’s various food and artisan markets. While they are mostly indoors, even these have outdoor portions or offer plenty of ventilation and are large enough to keep air flowing. There are a few museums in the city that you may choose to visit, but you won’t be missing out on too much if you decide they aren’t worth the risk.
The must-sees outside the city, such as the Zapotec archaeological site of Monte Albán and the natural pools of Hierve el Agua, are entirely outdoors as well.
There’s tons of outdoor dining too
If you visit Oaxaca, the one thing I would implore you to do is eat, eat, eat! Oaxacan cuisine is some of the best in the country, and the city is filled with fantastic places to dine, ranging from inexpensive but delectable street food to trendy, upscale restaurants and bars. Fortunately, almost all of these have plenty of outdoor dining, and the outdoor tables are arguably the most scenic anyway.
Dozens of rooftop terraces offer stunning views of the city and surrounding mountains. If the restaurant doesn’t have a rooftop, it’s likely to have some sort of beautifully decorated, indoor, roofless courtyard. If you opt to eat at one of the city’s many markets (which I highly recommend, especially Mercado 20 de Noviembre!), as I mentioned above, there’s good airflow, or you can always take your food to a nearby park or plaza.
And the weather is ideal for all this outdoor activity
Oaxaca’s weather is warm year-round, with average highs in the 80s Fahrenheit (aside from April, when it reaches 90) and average lows in the high 40s or 50s. That means you’ll want to spend as much time outside as possible enjoying the aforementioned sights and restaurants. May through September is the rainy season, which makes outdoor activities a little less enjoyable and means some outdoor dining shuts down. That said, when it rains, the rain rarely lasts all day, and the warm temperatures make the rain bearable.
It’s easy to test before returning home
Shortly after our visit, the CDC eliminated the negative COVID test requirement for flights back into the U.S. However, some countries still require a negative test before you can re-enter, and who knows how these regulations will change in the future. If you do need to test before returning home—or if you just want to be cautious and make sure you’re in the clear before sharing a plane with others—it’s super cheap and easy to get tested in Oaxaca. I recommend Farmacias del Ahorro, where you can get a rapid antigen test for 299 pesos (about $15 U.S.). Just make sure you make an appointment ahead of time so you don’t wind up waiting around for ages, and check your country’s requirements.
And if you are unfortunate enough to test positive while you’re in Oaxaca and have to postpone your return? As I learned when our flight was almost canceled because of an impending hurricane, there is no shortage of inexpensive hotels in Oaxaca city that are available to book last minute. You can easily find something decent for about $50 U.S. a night, so it won’t cost you an arm and a leg if you have to extend your trip.
Oaxacans take health and safety seriously
I was pleasantly surprised by just how serious Oaxacans were about keeping themselves and others protected from the virus, especially compared to people in the U.S. (even in liberal, cautious California!). Every employee I saw in restaurants, in shops, and at tourist destinations was masked. Most locals were masked walking down the street as well, even when they were dozens of feet away from the closest pedestrian. Masks were also required on our Aeroméxico flight—and the requirement was actually enforced outside of meals. And though I never saw anyone enforcing mask usage for tourists, everywhere we went encouraged visitors to keep their masks on. Sorry not sorry, anti-maskers.
In addition to that, there were plenty of other safety measures that, truth be told, kind of missed the mark for a respiratory virus, like shops requiring customers to sanitize their hands (and even sometimes their shoes) or check their temperature with a faulty thermometer before entry. (Hey, can’t hurt, I guess!) In fact, when we visited a mezcal distillery, their creative sanitization method was to greet us by dousing our hands with mezcal. And, as our tour van pulled up to the springs at Hierve el Agua, an employee carrying what looked like a pesticide container jumped in our van and aggressively sprayed us with a mystery disinfectant.
While these measures may have been overkill, I appreciate that Oaxacans were clearly making an effort to keep themselves and tourists healthy. It’s possible that these measures have been relaxed since our visit in late May, but Oaxaca doesn’t mess around when it comes to public health.
It’s a short, easy trip from the U.S.
If you’re still a little iffy about hopping on planes, are dreading staying masked for extended periods, or aren’t ready to commit to a long trip, the good news for American travelers is that Oaxaca is pretty easy to get to from most parts of the U.S. From L.A., for example, it was about three and a half hours to Mexico City, then an hour to Oaxaca—or there are direct flights that take just over four hours. From the east coast, it’s slightly longer but not much more than a trip across the country.
It’s an extraordinary travel destination
Finally, if you haven’t been able to travel as much these past few years as you’d like, I think Oaxaca is one of the best cities in the world for jumping back into things. The people are friendly, the architecture is beautiful and historical, the scenery is stunning, the prices are reasonable, and the food is exquisite. The week I spent in Oaxaca this May undeniably made up for my two-and-a-half years without international travel. Whether you’ve been back on the travel train for ages already or are finally ready to explore again, Oaxaca could very well be the place for you in the near future.