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Van Life is a very different way to travel. Self Reliant vehicular travel or overlanding is freedom. Freedom from the popular tourist areas and backpacker trails. Van Life is the ability to truly explore regions of a country that not everyone gets to see. Of course, from time to time you want to visit the places where everyone is. Such is the case with the city of Oaxaca, the capital of Mexico’s famous Oaxaca state. After spending a few weeks in Oaxaca, we have a few pointers to get the most out of Van Life Oaxaca City.
Oaxaca City has so much to offer both as a destination in its own right and a base to explore the surrounding region. The state capital retains a small-town feel with colorful, colonial-style buildings lining the warren of cobblestone streets. The city’s tallest buildings are its many ornate churches which act as reference points as you explore the historic town center.
Oaxaca has become a haven for artists, fashionistas, and restauranteurs from Mexico and around the world. Pottery, painting, mezcal, coffee, food, and an exciting bar and cafe culture are just some of the drawcards that have helped put this vibrant city on tourist’s radar.
It is a place you really need to spend a few weeks in to explore each cafe and gallery, to develop a feel for the city and people, and to slowly tick off the day and weekend trips that surround it. Thankfully it is also a wonderful city for Van Lifer or anyone travelling overland to stay in. Oaxaca is safe and friendly and has great free facilities. We comfortably camped in Oaxaca City (on and off for three weeks).
This is Van Life Oaxaca city, the overlander’s guide for camping and exploring Oaxaca. Where to stay and what to see in and around the city if you have your own wheels. Everything you need to make the most out of van life Oaxaca City.
Camping Spots for Van Life Oaxaca City
Ciudad De Las Canteras Park
If you are sleeping in your vehicle, this city sports park offers a great alternative to the busy downtown where late-night noise and petty crime can be an issue. The park entrance on Calle Ignacio Pérez is well lit, and the park entrance is guarded day and night. Although the street is on a slight angle, we camped there for more than a week. The park is open between 7 am and 7 pm and has nice clean toilets, workout equipment, and running-walking trails. The friendly guards even let us in to use the toilet a couple of times after the park closed for the night.
Outside of the central tourist district, you can find great local restaurants and markets. One example is La Chilaqueria a small cafe serving up some of the best chilaquiles we have had in Mexico. Avoid the tourist trap that is Mercardo 20 de November, instead, pick up your fruit and veg at the Victor Bravo Ahuja Market to avoid (or at least soften) the gringo tax.
It is possible to walk from the park to downtown Oaxaca but it takes about thirty minutes and I wouldn’t recommend walking back after dark. Most days we drove into the center (the Zocolo) to explore.
This wealthy neighborhood is situated between the bustling zocolo and the upmarket Reforma area. Again, this area is suited to stealth camping in your vehicle rather than tent camping. Comfortable walking distance yet far enough away from the people and noise that make the centro difficult to camp in. Additionally, Barrio Xochimilco is safe, friendly and has no real through roads, keeping traffic to a minimum. We felt safe and comfortable parking on the quiet streets here.
We enjoyed a few nights out exploring downtown Oaxaca’s incredible food and bar scene. From our street camp in Barrio Xochimilco, we could walk 2km downhill into town. Then, we could either take a taxi back or make the trek on foot, which felt safe even late at night. On top of that, the neighborhood is also home to a number of fantastic, lesser-known restaurants and cafes.
Overlanding Oasis, Tule
Just outside the city of Oaxaca is the town of Santa María del Tule. Famous for its enormous and ancient Tree of Tule, it also has its own charm with local food markets, restaurants, festivals and activities. However, the true reason overlanders must stop by is the Overlander Oasis. This small overlanders camp is close to the central market and the famous tree welcomes overlanders from all over the world.
We don’t normally like to pay to camp, but this place has an additional perk. Besides a safe, clean, and comfortable overlanding camp, the owners Calvin and Leanne are also experts on everything overlanding. Therefore, this is the place to take care of any repairs, upgrades, or full rebuilds for the rig. If they don’t know how to fix it or make it, they know who does.
Ready for a night off from overlanding? Oaxaca City has a great range of chic, boutique and unique hotels check out the latest deals at booking.com.
What to Do in Oaxaca City (When You Have Your Own Wheels)
Explore the Archeological sites of Monte Alban and Yagul
Having your own wheels gives you the opportunity to reach the impressive remains of this pre-Colombian city under your own steam and on your own timetable.
Monte Alban is just 10 minutes from town and has plenty of visitors. Despite its popularity, it’s definitely worth a visit as the well-preserved site occupies a beautiful mountain top with panoramic views.
Yagul is where your own vehicle is a greater advantage. Because it is forty-five minutes from town this ruin doesn’t get the same amount of tourists even though it is as impressive as Monte Alban. Nestled in the foothills outside the city, the ruins of this ancient civilization are made all the more immersive and impressive because you wander through alone.
Discover Pueblos Mancomunados
Eight villages situated high in the mountains that border the city of Oaxaca have come together to form a tourism collective. The purpose of this is to market and preserve the nature and Zapotec culture of this culturally significant mountain region. Enjoy panoramic views of the spectacular mountains as you hike, bike or drive the scenic circuit that connects the towns stopping off to explore what makes each unique. The Pueblos Mancomunados make for a great weekend trip though you could easily spend a week or more exploring here.
The organization of the tourism collective means camping and entry fees to the various villages may seem expensive. Especially when compared to other free camping options in Mexico. However, when you put into perspective what they are trying to do, the amounts become trivial. More so in comparison to national park fees in other countries.
Tour the Mezcal Producers of Santa Catarina Minas
Few tourists get far outside downtown Oaxaca to find out where all that mezcal is coming from and just how it’s produced. As a result, those who make the trek are treated to eager artisans who relish the opportunity to show off their crafts and wares. A handful of boutique distilleries are found in and around the town of Santa Catarina Minas. These tiny distilleries create mezcal using traditional methods. Moreover, tours and samples are often free or tip-based and the passionate distillers have an incredible wealth of information to share. Distillery Lalocura was a particular highlight of ours.
Van Life Oaxaca City Downtown
Just because you live in a van, tent or 4×4, doesn’t mean you don’t enjoy the finer things in life. Luckily Oaxaca has many of those finer things. Since many of Mexico’s best food, drink, arts and cultural events are found within the small city center. Check out our articles on the best things to do, eat, drink, and how to stay caffeinated while overlanding Oaxaca.
Where to Next
Finished overlanding Oaxaca City? Next, head to the beach! One of our favorite places in Mexico and the world is the coast of Oaxaca. Find out our favorite beaches in Oaxaca in our guide to the best beaches in Oaxaca. And be sure to stop by the magical San Jose del Pacifico on your way.
Looking for somewhere to stay on your next adventure? Check out the best deals from our mates at booking.com