"You'll like our state. It's wild and mysterious, dotted with abandoned Indian cities, filled with stately temples," Juan, a friendly Mexican Indian student, asserts with pride during our conversation in the arcade-fringed Zócolo, located in the heart of Oaxaca, capital of Mexico's most colourful state. "I'm of Zapotec descent. Two of our country's most important presidents, Benito Juárez and Porfirio Díaz, were Zapotecs. Ours was a civilized Indian country before the Spaniards enslaved our people."
Juan had not forgotten his Zapotec ancestors who had developed one of the great civilizations in the Americas. For an hour that afternoon, as we sip on mezcal, Oaxaca's national drink, we talk in half English, half Spanish about the state's first inhabitants.
Today, the city of Oaxaca is a perfect place to learn about Mexican Indian societies. It has half a million inhabitants, two-thirds of Indian origin, and encompasses one of the most varied cultures in the world. Spanish is a second language to a third of the people, and the city is the focus of Indian life with its richness, folklore, handicrafts and gastronomy, the finest exotic foods in the Americas.
As we dawdle in a cafe on the edge of the Zócolo, the pivot of all activity and one of the liveliest squares in Mexico, the colourful and exciting world of Oaxaca unfolds. "It's like this from early morning until late evening. The Zócolo bustles day and night," says Juan, pointing to the wandering street musicians and marimba bands that seem overwhelmed by peddlers carrying thousands of inflated balloons in a myriad of colours. Amid this panorama moves well-dressed young men and women with distinctly Indian features, sprinkled with a fair number of tourists.
It's a serene and relaxing scene. Unlike many other urban centres, there is no one sleeping on benches and vendors of handicrafts do not force products on passers-by. The streets are free of refuse, cleanest I have seen in Mexico. Only the young children, selling their sparse wares to the café patrons, somewhat mar the scene.
We leave to explore the heart of town, imbuing the provincial charm of an ancient Spanish city. After the Spanish conquest, Oaxaca, occupied a short time earlier by the Aztecs, took on the flavour of the Iberian Peninsula. The ornate buildings, over two-dozen churches, eye-catching balconies, elegant archways, decorative grilled windows and charming plazas are all legacies of the Conquistadors.
Despite Spanish influences, the city remains at heart, Indian. The mixture of pre-conquest, colonial and modern influences, enhanced by the friendly people and superb climate fashion Oaxaca into a year-round favourite for Mexicans and many of the 22 million tourists who annually travel to Mexico.
From the legacy of the Indian culture found in the state of Oaxaca, there are 4,000 archaeological sites, of which some 800 have been excavated. Monte Albán, Mitla and Yagul, three of the most important magnificent ruins, are located within a 40 km (25 mi) radius of Oaxaca.
However, before leaving the city, a Guelaguetza evening offered each Friday evening at Oaxaca's luxury Camino Real Hotel, is a must-do. A mini version of the town's great festival, held in July, it features a fine meal followed by elaborate folkloric dancing. The dancers, present the seven regions of the state and wear authentic multicoloured costumes, with their fruit baskets and pottery. They offer an intense show of colour, talent and tradition. For travellers, the evening is one of the most memorable events they will recall in Mexico's city of Indian cultures, declared a world heritage site.
- Oaxaca has one of the best climates in the world; the entire state is safe; and the people are gentle and friendly.
- The official Mexican currency is the peso currently trading at around 13.25 pesos to a US dollar; 11.4 pesos to a CDN dollar.
- To avoid Montezuma's revenge, do not drink tap water. The best way to avoid stomach distress is to dine in better restaurants and eat yogurt daily.
- Oaxaca has a rich local cuisine. Make sure to try some of the seven local moles and the local cheeses, chile relleno, sopa de garbanzo, sweet tamales and the zapote drink.
- Tours are offered at most hotels and local tourist offices to the Zapotec and Mixtec ruins and the surrounding towns, specializing in handicrafts such as: San Bartolo Coyotepec, black clay; Teotitlán del Valle, hand loomed textiles woven with traditional centuries-old techniques.
- Handicrafts to purchase are: black pottery, alebrijes (richly coloured wood figures for which Oaxaca is noted), brightly coloured blouses, baskets, fine steel hunting knives, small rugs, serapes and, especially, gold and silver replicas of the jewellery that was found in Monte Albán.
Santo Domingo Church: one of the most magnificent of Oaxaca's 27 churches.
Basilica de la Soledad: a 17th century basilica dedicated to Oaxaca's patron saint.
Regional Museum Oaxaca: houses the magnificent treasures found in Monte Albán.
Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre-Hispanic Art: one of Mexico's most beautiful museums.
Museum of Contemporary Art: houses exhibits of contemporary world artists.
Museum of the Cultures: houses ancient Mixtec and Zapotec treasures.
Palacio de Gobierno and the Catedral Metropolitan de Oaxaca: the most important tourist sites
How to Get There
Oaxaca has an international airport. There is an overnight train to Mexico City and bus connections to all parts of the country are excellent. Also, there are several non-stop daily flights from Mexico City.
Habeeb Salloum has authored numerous books, his latest: Arab Cooking On A Saskatchewan Homestead: Recipes And Recollections - winner of the Cuisine Canada and The University of Guelph's Silver Canadian Culinary Book Awards in Winnipeg in 2006. He contributes to Forever Young (Oakville), Contemporary Review (Oxford, UK), Canadian World Traveller (Quebec) and the Toronto Star.
If you go
The Mexican Tourism Board:
2 Bloor St. West, Suite 1502, Toronto, Ontario M4W 3E2.
Also toll free number: 1-800-44 MEXICO.
or E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org;
375 Park Avenue, Floor 19, Suite 1905, New York, NY 10152, USA.
Tel: (212) 308 2110. Fax: (212) 308 9060.
What's happening, money, distance, time?
Media Guide: http://www.abyznewslinks.com/
Currency conversion: http://www.xe.com/ucc/
Distance calculator: http://www.indo.com/distance/
Time zone converter: http://www.timezoneconverter.com/
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/
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