Oaxaca State has one of the country's largest populations of indigenous people. The self-named capital city, Oaxaca (pronounced whoa-HA-ca) is an excellent base for getting to know the culture. Keep your eyes peeled and you'll see people from various ethnic traditions. Triqui women are very noticeable in the cherry-red huipiles (sack-like dresses). Tradition-minded women from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec wear short, boxy huipiles and long, gathered skirts. Other ethnic groups such as Chatinos, Mixes, Mixtecos, and Huaves have migrated to the capital to take advantage of economic opportunities. Oaxaca's rural areas are among the poorest in Mexico, and many men and women have migrated to Mexico City, Oaxaca City, and the United States in search of work.
Oaxaca's history is long and varied. One of the most important pre-Classic era civilizations in Mesoamerica, the Zapotecs were excellent astronomers and architects. They built the city today called Monte Albán ("White Mountain"; it was named by the Spaniards) on a hill overlooking three contiguous valleys. Visit the archaeological site today on daily tours from downtown Oaxaca, or see other Zapotec and Mixtec archaeological sites like Mitla, en route to the coast.
The Spanish brought many of their own skills and customs, and built a lovely colonial city of one-, two- and three-story limestone structures that qualify historic Oaxaca as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today traffic on these narrow downtown streets snarls, so set out of foot to explore the city's urban parks and plazas as well as its many churches, some converted to shops and museums.
Oaxaca has an amazing number of excellent museums. Inaugurated in 2008 were new weaving and railroad museums; the former City Hall, right on the zócalo, was recently transformed to an impressive cultural museum. The Rufino Tamayo museum is an outstanding collection of pre-Hispanic artifacts, while the converted Dominican monastery at Santo Domingo church houses an awesome collection of artifacts spanning Oaxaca's history, including impressive funerary items from Monte Albán. MACO appeals to lovers of contemporary art.
Festivals for All Seasons
If you're interested in music as well as indigenous culture, a good time to visit is during the annual Guelaguetza celebration. Held on two consecutive Mondays in mid-July, this tradition predates the Spanish conquest. Dancers and musicians from Oaxaca's seven regions meet at Cerro del Fortín, overlooking the capital, to perform their regional dances. It's an excellent opportunity to see the typical costumes worn throughout the state and to listen to traditional music.
Oaxaca is one of the best places in Mexico to enjoy cultural holidays. Fabulously decorated altars spring up around Day of the Dead, when families clean tombs and bring picnics and parties to the graveyard to honor their ancestors. (See the article at http://www.mexicoguru.com/articles/day-of-the-dead.php.) In Oaxaca City, plazas fill with vendors selling the bright orange marigolds and velvety red coxcomb flowers that mark the season. In the markets are sugar candy skulls and pan de muerto, bread made specifically for this family-oriented holiday.
Christmastime is equally festive. Colorful calendas snake through the streets, participants carrying on their heads heavy baskets of flowers or other offerings to the Virgin of Guadalupe or to Oaxaca's patron saint, the Virgin of Solitude. One of the season's highlights is la noche de rábanos (December 23), when local growers carve giant radishes in fantastic scenes. During more somber Easter Week, Oaxaca's Silent Procession is one of the most moving in Mexico.
Any Time is the Right Time
Beyond the holidays, this city five hours south of Mexico City is great to visit year round. At 1,550 meters (5,085 feet) above sea level, it has a pleasant mountain climate with summer rains. Artisans sell handcrafts at Oaxaca's many markets and folk art shops; look for charming wooden figures called alebrijes, ceramic pottery in many different glazes and styles, and handmade wool rugs, among many other items. Galleries feature the work of an ever-growing cadre of talented fine artists. There's a significant weaving tradition and in Oaxaca's many fine shops you'll find intricately woven and embroidered huipiles. Styles vary greatly depending on where they were made. Most are tourist-grade quality, but connoisseurs can find excellent workmanship as well. These and many more types of souvenirs await lovers of folk art and other shopaholics.
Oaxaca's cuisine too is rich and varied. In addition to crunchy fried grasshoppers and chocolate-infused mole are more easily recognized but no less exotic dishes. Try the hot chocolate (chocolatequeso oaxaqueño), and mescal (kin to tequila) among lots of other delicious treats.
Between the arts and shopping, festivals, museums, and plenty of great cafes, bars and restaurants, Oaxaca is an ideal introduction to Mexico. Because of its popularity among Europeans, Mexicans, South Americans, and other travelers, Oaxaca has a large number of hotels in all price ranges.
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