A Guide to Getting from Mexico City to Oaxaca

Even though it’s only 6-7 hours between the two cities, our total journey felt like a lot longer, and yours might too, so here’s some tips to make getting from Mexico City to Oaxaca run a bit more smoothly.

Washington D.C. to Mexico City

You can only fly directly to Oaxaca from a select few U.S. airports like Dallas and Houston. Because we’re from the D.C. area, our most direct flight path/most economical ticket left us with a several hour layover in Atlanta and a 9 PM arrival in Mexico City. This was our first time flying through Atlanta and we really liked it – we opted to walk through all the terminals rather than taking the The Plane Train (which is apparently called an APM – automated people mover) and there were a lot of cool art installations to see along the way.

woman riding horizontal escalator with art installation above
This exhibit had jungle sounds and felt like an interactive museum

In Atlanta, the plane was overfull and we were offered $1000 to change our flight from 5:35 PM to 8 AM the next day, and I’m still kind of kicking myself for not jumping on that. Among other reasons, our experience of sleeping in the airport recently on our way to Costa Rica was fresh in my mind, and I wasn’t eager to repeat it. A funny note, our plane ended up sitting on the tarmac an hour after boarding because they couldn’t find the luggage of the people who had accepted the flight voucher to change flights.

Mexico City Immigration and Customs | 2023

Lucky for us, upon arrival in Mexico City, getting through immigration and customs was a breeze. I have read stories from other travelers saying it took 1-2 hours though, and our past trips through the Cancun airport had very long lines, so keep that in mind if you have a short connection to make.

As I mentioned in a previous post, receiving 180 days on your tourist visa isn’t always the default anymore, and I made sure to emphasize that we would be here for 60 days with the purpose of “vacation” to ensure we were given sufficient time on our passport stamp.

The immigration agent simply asked us where in Mexico we’d be traveling and if we’d visited before. He didn’t ask us for return flight information or addresses of where we’d be staying, which we’ve been asked on previous trips to Mexico in 2018 and 2021. It’s worth noting, he did look through our passports for previous stamps, which makes me think that they are keeping an eye out for excessive return tourist visas.

picture of passport with visa stamps
The bottom stamp shows what to look for so you know how many days you’re approved to stay – mine says 180

Getting from Mexico City to Oaxaca

We had decided not to take a connecting flight to Oaxaca, but rather take an overnight bus. While this is the more environmentally friendly option, the cost was very similar. This left us arriving in Oaxaca at what we thought would be around 7 AM, which we decided was preferable to arriving in the middle of the night if we’d flown, as well as saving us a night of accommodation costs.

How to Take an Overnight Bus from Mexico City

Upon exiting the customs area of the airport, you will immediately see several taxi stands. We were not feeling up to navigating the metro system just yet in an unknown city, especially later in the evening, but that is a cheaper option. I think you can also take a shuttle of some kind, and maybe a bus or collectivo (shared vehicle), but after already traveling for 12 hours, we were ready to get on the bus to Oaxaca and sleep.

The bus station you’ll need to get to is only a few minutes away from the airport. Just go up to the taxi stand and let them know you want to go to TAPO (Terminal de Autobuses de Pasajeros de Oriente), and they’ll print you a ticket. We paid $185 MXN or about $10 USD. Afterwards you’ll go wait in a clearly marked line and wait for your turn.

Our taxi driver was constantly texting on his mounted phone while navigating some fairly heavy traffic, which was nerve-wracking, but definitely not the scariest experience we’ve had in a car while traveling. He almost hit another car as we screeched into the TAPO station and seemed anxious to get rid of us.

The area around the bus station didn’t look very safe, so we immediately went down into the ticketing area where we proudly carried on a convincing conversation with our limited Spanish to select seats on the bus. We paid $1,548 MXN for 2 tickets on the ADO first class bus which is the lowest class ticket that still has a bathroom on board. With the current conversion rate, this was about $40 USD/ticket.

If you’re planning on catching a night bus, they seem to run every half hour until the last one at 12:45 AM. We caught the 11 PM one, and between catching an earlier bus than we expected, and our bus driver apparently driving pretty fast, we actually arrived in Oaxaca at 5:25 AM with an Airbnb check in time of 3 PM. Sleeping on the bus wasn’t impossible, but definitely wasn’t easy, as it was a pretty bumpy ride with a few stops where they turn the lights on. The seats recline though, and there are blackout curtains.

inside of ADO first class bus going from Mexico City to Oaxaca
ADO First Class bus

Arriving in Oaxaca

Needless to say, we were pretty tired when we arrived, but excited to be here. At the bus station in Oaxaca, there are bathrooms you can use for $8 MXN or $.50 USD. If you haven’t had a chance to get pesos yet, there are ATM’s available and a convenience store and coffee stand to get some change from. I was worried it might be rude to brush your teeth here, but almost everyone was doing just that. Just make sure to use bottled water as the water here isn’t potable.

We decided to wait in the station until sunrise before we ventured into the city center and got some much needed coffee to sip on – I tried a cafe de olla, which appeared to be a shot of espresso with some liquid sugar and hot water. It tasted a lot like a black tea and I think it usually comes with cinnamon and brown sugar.

How to Pass the Time

If you choose the same route we did for getting from Mexico City to Oaxaca, you’re probably going to have a few hours of time you need to kill before check-in time.

Around 7 AM we started to walk towards the area of our Airbnb and look for another place we could spend some time while we waited to drop off our bags, which our hosts graciously allowed. No matter how light you pack, it’s never fun carrying around 25 lbs of luggage. Nothing we passed seemed open yet, despite a lot of early morning traffic of what I assume was locals headed to work and school. We finally found an open spot called Oaxaca en una taza, where we got some pastries and cortados to pass the time.

After dropping off our bags, it was only 9 AM, and we still had six hours before getting to lay down in a bed. Our first stop was the zócalo, a public square or plaza typically in the center of town. After taking a seat on a stone wall, we were almost immediately approached by who I can only assume was a mentally ill homeless man who just got very close and stared at us. He didn’t ask for money, or say anything at all, but it was a bit unnerving, so we stood up and walked to the other side of the park.

After people watching for awhile, we decided to get some lunch at one of the restaurants surrounding the square. These restaurants are predictably a bit higher priced as they cater to tourists, and our meal was pretty basic, but filling, and it gave us access to somewhere to sit and a bathroom to use.

brightly colored building and church in city square
The view from Oaxaca zócalo

Close to the square is one of the quintessential markets of Oaxaca, Mercado Benito Juárez, which is where we headed next. Running on steam at this point, and in desperate need of a nap, it felt pretty overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time. We will definitely be giving it a return visit once we are in a better state to appreciate it.

Honestly, it was a long day of aimlessly wandering streets (visually appealing ones) and looking for places to rest/use the bathroom. If you can, I really recommend trying to plan out your arrival for a more convenient time, or at least look for an Airbnb/hotel/hostel with an earlier check-in time.

After spending some time in yet another cafe, ordering copious amounts of drinks to justify our staying there so long and not ordering food, and watching the end of the Mexico vs. Saudi Arabia World Cup game, it was finally time to check-in!

woman laying in bed with closed eyes
32 hours of travel later and it’s time for this voyager to take a nap!

Read about all the wonderful things to do in Oaxaca and Central Mexico here.

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