I am a T2 paraplegic and I travelled through Mexico for a month in a manual chair with my boyfriend, who is not in a wheelchair in 2016. I spent the majority of my time in the city of Oaxaca and a few days in Mexico City. Depending on where you visit, you will likely encounter varying levels of accessibility as the country is adopting public accessibility features at different rates. Nonetheless, both Oaxaca and Mexico City are incredibly interesting and rich cities in their own way and are worth the journey.
Mexico City is a bustling and cosmopolitan city. Accessibility in the streets was generally manageable (though sometimes the condition of sidewalks and curb cuts are questionable), especially in more modern or touristy areas such as el Polanco, la Condesa, or Roma Norte/Sur.
The city of Oaxaca is the center of Oaxaca state, one of the southernmost states of Mexico. In general it is less of a tourist destination than the beach resort cities like Cancún so discovering the local rhythm of life and escaping hordes of people speaking English is easier; however, accessibility is less modern so expect some obstacles.
Transportation: Taxis, Traveling from City to City, and Renting a Car
The easiest way to reach Oaxaca from larger hubs like Mexico City or Cancún is to fly. AeroMexico, Interjet, and Volaris are some domestic airlines that have relatively inexpensive and regular flights to Oaxaca. I requested an aisle chair at the airport when I checked in since there wasn’t an option to request it online (the word for aisle chair is silla de pasillo).
Bus travel is also possible and would be much cheaper but could take several hours and be less accessible. There are different tiers of buses: Second Class, First Class, and Deluxe. I took the Deluxe overnight bus from Oaxaca to a city called Puebla. At the Oaxaca station they provided an aisle chair into the bus, and there was a restroom onboard. However, there was no aisle chair at the Puebla destination so I had to be carried off the bus. Just be aware that accessibility is not consistent!
While in Oaxaca the best mode of transportation besides walking/rolling is taxi (Uber hasn’t reached Oaxaca yet) as the only public transportation are old buses. A taxi ride across town was an average of 50 pesos (about $3). However, Uber does exist in larger cities like Mexico City and Puebla.
We rented a car to do a weekend trip in the mountains. There are several car rental locations in the city center, all of which are about the same. The daily rate for a car is only about $10 USD/day but you are required to purchase Mexican car insurance each day, about $40 USD/day. Renting a car was definitely easier than finding the small buses or colectivos to get out of town. FYI, no hand controls and many cars are manual!
Transportation in Mexico City: The simplest way to get around for me was to Uber. There is an extensive metro system, however accessibility is not always consistent. For example, there may be an elevator into the station from the street but not to the platform. The city is making efforts to incorporate accessibility though, the accessible metro stations have elevators exclusively for the disabled that can only be unlocked by the police in the station or by a special access card that you can apply for! Here is a website listing station access. The metrobus, which is like a light rail that runs above ground in the street is way more accessible and even has designated cars for people with disabilities and women. Not every stop is accessible so best to ask the police officer at the station that you board (every station has an officer).
Lodging in Oaxaca
Once in Oaxaca I highly recommend staying in the centro, where most streets have curb cuts and where most of the tourist attractions are. The center of the city possesses a colonial charm with its brightly painted buildings as well as examples of the indigenous diversity in the colorful textiles and handicrafts sold on the streets and in artisan workshops. However, the vast majority of buildings are older and lack elevators or lifts, even in museums and tourist attractions. In fact, most businesses and residences have at least one step into the entrance, so it is helpful to have a travel companion. If you ask though, sometimes shopkeepers have wooden ramps (una rampa) that they bring out for wheelchair users. The locals, and Mexican people in general, were really friendly and always eager to help out so asking a stranger for some assistance is always an option if you feel comfortable and can manage a little Spanish.
I stayed in an AirBnb, which I would not recommend because it was difficult to find anything remotely accessible. There are some beautiful hotels and hostels throughout the city, many of which I noticed have a step at the entrance but if you call ahead it is likely that they will make accommodations. Bathrooms were often a challenge as the majority of restrooms do not have accessible stalls. Even those that were marked accessible barely fit my chair, so using the restroom in hotels is your best bet. The one hotel in a modern building that I saw near the city center was One Hotel.
Oaxaca Points of Interest (Around the City & Day-Trips)
- Zócalo – the central square in the center of the city. Touristy, but a pleasant area to pass the day in a cafe or perusing street vendors.
- Macedonio Alcala – a pedestrian mall extending north from the zocalo. Lined with art galleries, cafes, shops, and often the starting place of local parades.
- Mercado Sanchez Pasqua y Mercado Merced – to experience where locals go to buy groceries or eat, visit a market or tianguis (local word for marketplace).
- Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca – my boyfriend and I spent two weeks studying Spanish at this school, which I would recommend if that is one of your goals. The school is in a beautiful campus in the north side of the city center. If you tell the staff about your wheelchair they will put wooden ramp out for you; however the bathroom is not accessible. My boyfriend had to lift me into the stall, so be aware. The school offers a variety of excursions outside of the city and with some notice they can arrange an accessible van, so a good option if you want some day trips.
- Monte Alban – famous Zapotec ruins about twenty minutes outside of the city. There is an accessible driveway that leads to the entrance of the ruins from the parking lot, however to get to the top I had to be pushed (by several people) up a steep and sandy slope. Totally worth going if you don’t mind asking for some willing volunteers. I would go with a tour group.
- Hierve el Agua – a mountain spring that you can swim in and offers a panoramic view of the Oaxaca valley and a petrified waterfall. Difficult to access without help as there is a steep dirt slope to the springs.
- Los Pueblos Mancomunados de la Sierra Norte de Oaxaca – if you want to experience the beautiful mountains surrounding the valley of Oaxaca, I recommend visiting the office of the ecotourism company Sierra Norte. They can arrange for an overnight tour to visit a circuit of tranquil mountains pueblos, all of which are autonomously run and dedicated to responsible tourism as well as environmentalism. I myself didn’t book a tour through them so I’m not 100% of their transportation accessibility, however they did help us reserve a cabin. We told them ahead of time about my wheelchair so they found the town called Llano Grande, which had cabins on flat ground as opposed to steep hills. Surprisingly, the cabin was the most accessible place I stayed in while in Oaxaca. The bathrooms are large, you can roll into the shower, the cabin is spacious, and there is a great fireplace to warm up by.
More Places of Interest
- Lucha Libre – a must-see Mexican wrestling tradition. You can purchase accessible seating.
- Frida Kahlo Museum and Coyoacan – A beautiful museum that captures the life and essence of Frida Kahlo. There is a small portion of the museum up a flight of stairs, which is the only inaccessible part of the museum. Museum bathrooms were very small (most public restroom stalls in Mexico are too small to fit even my manual chair). Coyoacan is a quaint colonial neighborhood about 20 minutes drive from the city center.
- National Museum of Anthropology and Parque Chapultepec – an important and impressive collection of artifacts documenting the cultural evolution in Mexico.
- La Condesa, Parque España and Parque Mexico – the hippest neighborhood in Mexico City. With a European vibe, this a great place to spend a day trying the many trendy restaurants and cafes or lounging in one of these popular parks.