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From zip-lining through the jungle to snorkelling secluded bays, there are so many things to do in Huatulco, Mexico you could easily stay a month and still have lots left to do.
Whether you’re planning a week-long vacation or are on a cruise and just have one day to take a Huatulco excursion, you don’t want to miss out on this beach destination’s incredible local experiences.
While living in Puerto Escondido researching Mexico’s Pacific Coast for Fodor’s guidebook and Lonely Planet’s Mexico from the Source, I’ve spent a lot of time in Huatulco.
Since 2003, I’ve stayed in every major hotel and taken every Huatulco tour, some of them multiple times. I’m happy to share my advice on the best tours and excursions (and untouristy places to visit) to help you plan the best vacation possible.
Although Huatulco is fast-growing in popularity, I’m convinced it’s still one of Mexico’s hidden treasures!
Where is Huatulco?
The Bahias de Huatulco are located in the southern state of Oaxaca on Mexico’s west coast facing the Pacific Ocean. It’s south of Puerto Escondido and north of the border of Guatemala.
Huatulco is a clean, safe destination best known for its abundant sunshine and sustainable tourism. It’s achieved Green Globe certification and Huatulco National Park is one of the largest protected areas in southern Mexico.
How do you pronounce Huatulco? It’s pronounced ‘wa-tool-ko’ with the emphasis on the second syllable. It’s sometimes spelled incorrectly as ‘watuka’ or ‘hua ulco’ but is officially known as the Bahías de Huatulco.
If you look on a map (or a weather forecast), it’s important not to confuse Santa Maria de Huatulco (in Sierra Madre Sur mountains) with the resort destination of Huatulco. They’re totally different.
Here are my top choices for the best things to do in Huatulco, Oaxaca whether you’re on a family vacation, solo getaway or couples vacation:
1. Go on a Snorkeling Tour or Scuba Diving Excursion
Whether you’re interested in Huatulco snorkeling from shore or a boat excursion to one of its hidden bays, exploring the Pacific Coast’s extraordinary underwater life is one of the top things to do in Huatulco.
Much of this coastline of Mexico is protected from development which helps support rich marine life and healthy reefs.
You can expect to see sea turtles, parrotfish, needle fish, grouper, snapper, angelfish as well as manta rays and more.
Read our complete Guide to Snorkeling in Huatulco for tips on the best beaches for snorkeling from shore and the best (and safest) Huatulco snorkeling tours.
2. Take a Sightseeing Tour of the Seven Bays
No trip to Huatulco is complete without exploring the seven bays and 36 beaches along the stunning coast of Oaxaca. Many of the golden sand beaches are accessible only by water so they are especially pristine and beautiful.
If you have time to take only one tour in Huatulco, this is the best tour to take.
On a full day Seven Huatulco Bays tour. you’ll explore remote coves and bays, often seeing dolphins, sea turtles and even whales along the way. There’s generally a stop for lunch at a beach palapa and time for snorkeling.
Another option is to hire one of the small boats known as lanchas at the ticket office located on the east side of the Plaza in the Santa Cruz marina. There is a taxi stand and bus stop directly in front of the ticket office.
For safety and comfort, it’s important to book a tour on a quality boat.
While it’s certainly possible to charter a boat independently in Santa Cruz marina or join a group of tourists on a large party boat, it’s important to consider that a luxury water craft offers shade and superior comfort.
Read our guide to the best beaches in Huatulco for more information about choosing a hotel on the beach in Huatulco.
Check prices and availability of a Full Day Tour of Huatulco’s Seven Bays on Viator.com.
3. Relax on one of Huatulco’s Beautiful Beaches
Without a doubt, one of the top things to do in Huatulco is to relax on one of its stunning beaches. The beaches in Huatulco consistently receive high marks for cleanliness by SEMARNAT, the government agency that monitors the water quality of the beaches in Mexico.
Rent a lounger and beach umbrella and enjoy a seafood lunch under a thatched roof palapa and you’ll be well on your way to the quintessential day in paradise.
If you’re arriving in Huatulco by cruise ship, Playa Santa Cruz is the first Huatulco beach you’ll see. Located at the Santa Cruz marina, this small golden sand beach offers clean, calm waters suitable for families and children.
Another one of the best swimming beaches is Playa Tangolunda. Although you’ll need to pay attention to water safety conditions (watch for a green flag) conditions are generally safe for swimming. Tangolunda Bay is dominated by major resorts so there aren’t as many beach bars and restaurants to choose from.
If you want to snorkel, do some people-watching and swim in relatively calm waters, be sure to make a stop at La Entrega, Huatulco’s most popular beach. Its shores are lined by palapa-style restaurants so it can get busy, especially on weekends. Go early to enjoy the clearest water.
One of the best beaches in Huatulco (and my personal favourite) takes some effort to get to. Playa San Agustin is located at the end of a dirt road an hour outside of Huatulco. This means you need to book a taxi, rent a car or take a boat to get there.
Home to a large coral reef, there’s excellent snorkelling from shore and several seafood palapas.
4. Soak up Some Wellness with a Mud Bath at La Bocana Beach
If you’re looking for a wellness boost, one of the top things to do in Huatulco is to take a restorative mud bath at Playa La Bocana.
Popular throughout the world, mud therapies are believed to absorb toxins out of the body and nourish the skin, relieving conditions such as headaches, sluggishness, exhaustion and constipation.
In Huatulco, the mud treatment is based on traditional Zapotec customs and takes place at La Bocana Beach. This undeveloped beach features a powerful surf where the Copalita River enters the Pacific Ocean just past Secrets Huatulco Resort and Spa.
At La Bocana, the mud therapy treatment begins with local women applying layers of cool, mineral-rich mud to your body and face. You then relax on one of the rocks and “bake” in the sun to activate the mud’s healing properties.
The mud bath experience wraps up with a rinse-off in the ocean. It’s definitely a unique, invigorating and relaxing way to spend a day in Huatulco.
Visit the mud baths independently or take an escorted tour with Amazing Huatulco Tours that includes transportation and admission to the Mud Bath and La Copalita Archeological Site. Contact Tomas Vicente Contreras via Facebook or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He speaks fluent Spanish, English, Zapotec and several other languages.
5. Take a Cooking Class with Chiles & Chocolate
The best way to experience a culture is to dive into its local cuisine. Chiles&Chocolate located in the pueblo of Zimitan on the outskirts of the Bahia de Huatulco’s hotel zone offers hands-on instruction on Oaxacan cuisine.
Learn about local indigenous Zapotec culture and how to use regional ingredients such as nopal, chapulines (toasted grasshoppers) and Pacific Coast shrimp to make street food, party fare and traditional main dishes. The reasonably-priced tuition includes pick up and drop off at Huatulco hotels.
Jane Bauer also happens to be the publisher of The Eye, a local English-language magazine that’s a valuable source of insights into happenings around Huatulco and Oaxaca.
6. Explore Bocana del Rio Copalita Eco-park and Archeological Site
For culture-lovers, one of the top things to do in Huatulco is visit the Bocana del Rio Copalita Eco-Archaeological Park.
This sprawling archeological zone features pyramids, ball courts and other ruins dating to 500 BC when the site was home to the ancient city of Copalitan.
A top attraction in Huatulco, this recently excavated site features a small but top quality museum as well as a vast protected zone dotted with ruins of pyramids, a ball court and temples.
The site was the ancient metropolis of Copalitan, occupied by the Zapotec and Mixtec people from 500 BC onward. It’s easy to visit this archeological site independently by taxi.
If you take a taxi to the site, be sure to ask the driver to return to pick you up at a specific time as there may not be taxis waiting when you complete your visit.
If you’re interested in culture and history, this is definitely a bucket list activity to add to your Huatulco vacation.
Insider Tip: Be prepared for heat, humidity and insects. Pack insect repellent, wear long pants and bring lots of bottled water.
7. Explore La Crucecita on a Downtown City Tour
One of the top things to do in Huatulco whether you’re on a cruise ship excursion or staying at an all-inclusive resort, is to visit La Crucecita, the economic hub and cultural heart of Huatulco.
It also serves as the downtown for Huatulco. The main attractions in La Crucecita are within easy walking distance of the zocolo or parque central (town square) so this activity is easy to do independently, allowing you flexibility and saving you money.
The top things to do in La Crucecita include shopping for souvenirs (such as Pluma Hidalgo coffee and vanilla), sampling mezcal and browsing for artisanal crafts.
Another major attraction is La Iglesia de la Crucecita (located on Gardenia St. across from the parque central). This pretty Catholic church is a peaceful space that’s home to Mexico’s largest mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
While the church itself isn’t historic, the mural on the ceiling painted by Mexican artist José del Signo is very impressive as it seems to convey a comforting sense of peace and tranquility through its use of vibrant celestial blue tones.
8. Release Baby Sea Turtles at the Mazunte Turtle Center
If you’ve read my post 7 Reasons to Love Mazunte you’ll already know I’m a big fan of this small, eco-friendly town.
The best Mazunte tours from Huatulco combine a visit to the Mazunte Turtle Center (located on the site of a former turtle processing factory) with a boat tour of the mangroves of La Ventanilla for some crocodile viewing.
If you take the 10-hour, full-day tour, there’s usually time to lounge at Zipolite beach as well as stop to shop for the natural cosmetics made by the Mazunte Natural Cosmetics Factory, a local women’s cooperative.
Check prices and availability of a 4-in-1 Tour to Mazunte, the Cacao Factory, La Ventanilla and Turtle Experience on Viator.com
9. Witness a Sea Turtle Nesting
It’s definitely a bucket list experience to witness a giant sea turtle lay its eggs. However, if you’re really interested in witnessing a sea turtle nesting, you may be disappointed with the Mazunte Turtle Center.
It’s more of a research and education facility.
The official sea turtle nesting period for olive ridley turtles takes place between July and November. So if you’re visiting in January or February it’s very unlikely you’ll see any sea turtle nestings.
But you may get lucky. There are so many sea turtles laying eggs on this stretch of the Pacific coast, I’ve actually seen nestings in front of hotels such as Secrets Huatulco and Dreams Resort.
But the absolute best way to see a sea turtle nesting or turtle release is by taking a tour to La Escobilla, one of the world’s most important nesting sites for olive ridley turtles.
During an arribada, you can see up to 5,000 sea turtles nesting on this protected beach.
Read our article on 8 Incredible Outdoor Adventures in Puerto Escondido for information on this incredible event.
Check rates and availability of the Sea Turtle Tour on Viator.com.
10. Make a Pilgrimage to a Holy Chapel
One of the most unique things about Huatulco’s Santa Cruz Beach is that it has its very own chapel! The Capilla de Santa Cruz is an important pilgrimage site. It was erected on the spot where a holy tree shaped like a cross once grew.
According to local legend, the tree was given by the god Quetzalcoatl and was being worshipped when the Spanish arrived. The name Huatulco is based on an indigenous word meaning “where they worship wood.”
Today, holy relics of the tree are stored within the chapel as well as in Mexico City.
The chapel also contains statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, the patron saint of Oaxaca and fishermen.
On Sundays you can attend a service and it’s actually possible to see the beautiful blue waters of Santa Cruz beach while seated in the chapel pews!
11. Swim Under a Jungle Waterfall
In the rainy seasons, dozens of misty waterfalls cascade through the jungle in the foothills above Huatulco National Park, a protected zone established in 1998.
Even during the dry season, one of the best Huatulco excursions includes a hike to the Copalitilla Magical Waterfalls where you’ll be rewarded with a refreshing swim in cool waters.
On this easy day trip, expect to spot iguanas, hummingbirds and orioles along the way. Most group tours also include a stop at a coffee plantation and a lunch of regional foods such as chicken mole, rice and tortillas.
Check rates and availability of the Copalitilla Magical Waterfalls Tour on Viator.com.
12. Get Wet and Wild with Whitewater Rafting
If you love outdoor adventure and crave an adrenaline rush, one of the top things to do in Huatulco is to go whitewater rafting.
Local tour operator Aventura Mundo provides certified guides who’ll lead you on a full day outdoor adventure on the Copalita River, a waterway known for its steep drops and valleys.
Thrill seekers will want to opt for the upper section of the river, an adrenaline-pumping descent through 22 kilometres of Class III and IV rapids but other more leisurely options are available.
Their Floating Tour is an ideal day trip for birdwatchers as you’ll drift peacefully along the river, arriving at La Bocana beach where you can swim and chill out for a few hours.
Check rates and availability of an Easy Rafting Tour Floating to La Bocana on Viator.com.
13. Learn about Mezcal Production and Sample Mezcal
The state of Oaxaca is the birthplace and heart of mezcal production in Mexico. So one of the top things to do in Huatulco is to sample this artisanal agave-based product at its birthplace.
The easiest place to sample mezcal in Huatulco is at La Probadita in the heart of La Crucecita. They have wide selection of aged, cream and flavoured mezcals to taste and purchase.
But to really learn about how mezcal is made and sample it at its source, take a guided tour to one of the local mezcal distilleries. Here, you can witness ancient production methods and sample mezcal straight from the still.
If you’re keen to delve deeply into the traditions of distilling mezcal, the best multi-day mezcal tours are offered by Alvin Starkman of Mezcal Educational Tours in Oaxaca City.
A local option is to take a private mezcal experience tour. It includes a tutored tasting of scorpion-infused mezcal, coffee mezcal and various premium wild agave mezcals such as cuishe, tobala and tepextate.
14. Sample Authentic Oaxacan Cuisine in Huatulco
Oaxaca is world-famous for its distinctive cuisine, regional ingredients and indigenous cooking techniques. So, another bucket list thing to do in Huatulco is sample some delicious traditional Oaxacan cuisine.
Here’s what to look for and where to find it.
- Oaxaca is known as the Land of Seven Moles, so many restaurants in La Crucecita and Huatulco feature mole on the menu. Mole negro is the most popular. This rich, mildly spicy and smoky-sweet sauce is made from tomatoes, almonds, raisins, chocolate, plantain and chilies, including the rare chilhuacle variety, grown only in southern Mexico. Try a sampler platter of stringy quesillo cheese, grilled meats and tamales topped with mole negro at El Sabor de Oaxaca (Guamuchil 206).
- Chapulines (toasted grasshoppers tossed in chile salt and lime) add a boost of protein and flavour to many Oaxacan dishes.
- Known as the Mexican truffle, huitlacoche, a unique black corn fungus, is revered for its earthy flavour. Try it stuffed in a savoury crepe at Terra-Cotta restaurant in Mision de los Arcos in La Crucecita.
- To cool off in Huatulco’s heat try an icy paletas, made by freezing purified water with sugar and fruit. Expect to find watermelon, guava and mango along with exotic creations like gooseberry or jicama with chili and gardenia petals.
- Look for nopal cactus at La Crucecita’s Mercado Municipal. Watch Zapotec vendors remove the spiky spines, peel the rind and then slip the paddle-shaped leaves into plastic bags to go. Sample it in a salad or drink it in a smoothie. Nopal is full of antioxidants and soothing on the stomach.
- Pluma Hidalgo coffee beans are hand-picked, shade-grown, Arabica beans grown at a high altitude in the Sierra Madre Sur mountains of Oaxaca. The coffee plants are dusted by ocean breezes, which adds minerality to the flavour of the coffee. To buy pluma hidalgo coffee in Huatulco, visit the coffee vendors located near the intersection of Bugambilia and Guanacastle in La Crucecita.
15. Spend an Evening Eating Street Food
If you’re wondering what to do in Huatulco at night, do as the locals do and get out on the streets. This is the best time to enjoy La Crucecita. The air is cooler, there’s less traffic and you’ll see families listening to mariachi music in the town square, couples strolling the cobblestone streets and everyone lining up to enjoy a taste of the local street food.
Don’t miss trying the Oaxacan tlayuda. It’s the most popular street food in Huatulco. This Oaxacan version of pizza features a giant sized corn tortilla toasted on a comal (grill) and topped with tasajo (beef), refried beans and white cheese.
16. Sip Coffee at a Coffee Plantation in Pluma Hidalgo
If you’re interested in exploring beyond the beach, one of the top things to do in Huatulco is to spend a day in the Sierra Madre Sur mountains.
At 1350 meters (over 5,000 feet) above sea level, the fresh air is a welcome relief from the hot temperatures along Oaxaca’s coast.
The full day Three Levels Tour (which goes to Santa Cruz, Santa Maria Huatulco and Pluma Hidalgo . Don’t do this day trip independently as the roads can be poor.
17. Go Zip-lining at Hagia Sophia Eco Park and Gardens
One of the top things to do in Huatulco is to spend the day at Hagia Sophia Sabiduria Sagrada, an eco-park, adventure park and botanical gardens set in the still-wild Sierra Madre Sur mountains.
Founded by Armando Canavati Nader and set on an expansive nature preserve, this sustainable attraction is well worth visiting either independently or as part of an organized Huatulco excursion.
While there, stroll a botanical trail, hike across a suspension bridge and go zip-lining across a series of four zip lines while surrounded by birdsong and hundreds of butterflies. You might even see clouds of blue morpho butterflies if you’re lucky!
Choose from a full-day excursion (includes breakfast and lunch featuring regional ingredients and seasonal fruit). Or create your own package by selecting from one of the many activities available onsite.
18. Shop for Quality Oaxacan Textiles
Oaxaca is rich in cultural diversity. So one of the top things to do in Huatulco is to shop for Oaxacan handicrafts. Oaxacan weaving is rare, beautiful and highly-prized by collectors.
One of the reasons the local weavings are so valuable is due to the natural dyes being used.
The remote bays along the coast of Huatulco are the habitat for the tixinda snail. This rare purpura sea snails is a source for the “royal purple” dye used by the Mixteco weavers of Oaxaca.
It can take the milk from 1000 snails to dye one reboso (shawl). The women of the Tixinda Cooperative weavers create magic on their backstrap looms.
They wave colourful huipils (tunic dresses), bed linens, table cloths and smaller items such as wallets, purses and pillows.
Stop into the Museo De Artesanias Oaxaquenas and browse a fine selection of quality artisanal crafts.
Read more: Quest for Oaxaca’s Sacred Sea Snail
19. Support Local Artisans by Shopping for Oaxacan Crafts
In addition to its textiles, the state of Oaxaca is also famous for its crafts. Watch for barro negro (black pottery), alebrijes (brightly painted wooden figurines) and wooden masks. They’re all top souvenirs to keep a lookout for while you’re in Huatulco.
One of the best places to shop for Oaxacan arts and crafts is at El Sueño Zapoteco A.C. This fascinating store and education centre is located in Tangolunda Bay across from the Barcelo and Dreams Resort & Spa.
You can feel good about shopping for souvenirs here. All of the handicrafts are made of natural materials and created by local artisans. Established by the Bacaanda Foundation, proceeds of each sale go to support local indigenous communities and rural schools.
Insider Tip: Plan to eat breakfast or brunch at Juanita’s Cafe located above El Sueño Zapoteco A.C. This cheerful restaurant is famous for its traditional breakfasts and Sunday brunch.
20. Bask in Luxury with a Huatulco Resort Day Pass
If you’re only in Huatulco for one day it’s still possible to enjoy all the perks of a luxury resort without paying for an overnight room. This can be handy if you’re on a cruise or staying at a budget hotel.
Many of Huatulco’s five star resorts offer day passes outside of peak holiday periods. And a day pass can be a very reasonable option when you factor in the all-inclusive dining, drinks and amenities.
For example, it’s just $45 USD (9:00 am to 5:00 pm) and $90 USD (5:00 pm to 12:00 am) at the Barcelo Huatulco (prices effective August 10, 2022 and subject to change without notice).
These are my favourite Huatulco resorts for a day pass:
- The Barcelo Huatulco Resort & Spa – family-friendly on Tangolunda Beach.
- Review of Dreams Huatulco Resort & Spa Day Pass – family-friendly on Tangolunda Beach.
- Review of Secrets Huatulco Resort & Spa Day Pass – adults-only on Conejos Bay.
21. Go Surfing in Puerto Escondido
A popular day trip from Huatulco, the city of Puerto Escondido with its diverse beaches and famous surfing scene is located 2.5 hours northwest up the Pacific coast from Huatulco.
It’s well worth visiting for its string of beaches, rich cultural scene and eclectic bars and restaurants.
It’s best to stay overnight. But if you only have one day in Puerto Escondido, it’s possible get there and back on a day trip. Read our complete Guide to Puerto Escondido for details about the city.
Then, consult our transportation guide for details on getting from Huatulco to Puerto Escondido by bus. It’s easy and inexpensive.
You can also rent a car in Huatulco, which gives you the freedom to make stops along the way. Get information about the types of cars available, tips on saving money on your rental car and reserve online at Discovercars.com
If you don’t have time to get to Puerto Escondido, you can surf at La Bocana beach near La Copalita River. It’s home to several surfing tournaments and has a powerful surf.
22. Shop the Weekly Market in Pochutla
There’s no better way to experience Mexican culture than to spend time in one of its bustling food markets. They’re a snapshot of local life.
While the municipal market in Huatulco (La Crucecita) is quite small, Pochutla’s weekly market is big, busy and fun.
You’ll meet vendors who’ve brought their vegetables, chiles and fruit down from the mountains, women riffling through mountains of new and second hand clothing, campesinos with live animals to sell and lots of street food.
It takes place on Mondays. Pochutla is located 50 minutes from Huatulco. It’s easy to do this trip independently.
The Sur bus goes to Pochutla hourly and the market is within walking distance from the bus station in Pochutla. Or you can rent a car and combine it with a trip to Zipolite or Mazunte.
23. Explore the Monte Albán Archaeological Site
Further afield, it’s worth a road trip to Monte Albán, an archeological site built by the Zapotecs.
This impressive site is one of exico’s most important ruins. You’ll need at least two days for this trip as it’s a 5-6 hour drive from Huatulco to Monte Alban, Oaxaca (each way).
You can cut that time if you fly to Oaxaca City via AeroTucan and overnight.
Another option is to take an organized tour to Monte Alban with private driver and guide or rent a car in Huatulco or Puerto Escondido.
24. Kayak and Enjoy Water Sports in the Bahías de Huatulco
One of the most popular outdoor activities in Huatulco is to go kayaking on one its quiet bays. You can also go stand up paddle boarding or sail a Hobie Cat.
Virtually every major all-inclusive resort includes complimentary access to non-motorized water sports. You can explore secret coves and circle picturesque rocky outcroppings with only the seabirds for company.
25. Soak up Mexican Culture With Live Music and Food
No matter how you plan to spend your vacation in Huatulco, make soak up some culture at the restaurants in Santa Cruz or central park in La Crucecita.
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Dividing her time between Canada, Guatemala and Mexico (or the nearest tropical beach), Michele Peterson is the founder of A Taste for Travel. Her award-winning travel and food writing has appeared in Lonely Planet’s cookbook Mexico: From the Source, National Geographic Traveler, Fodor’s and 100+ other publications.
Read more about Michele Peterson.