Experience the Magic of Oaxaca, Mexico

Sitting in Oaxaca’s historic town square, or zÃ?³calo (SO-ka-lo), where time barely seems to penetrate the leafy canopy, it is easy to fall under the spell of a Mexico that is every day more elusive. Without stirring from your bench, you experience the most irresistible of Oaxaca’s attractions, the coexistence of ancient traditions with the modern world.

In the z�³calo, young professionals with suits and cell phones walk side by side with women in traditional dress who balance baskets of wares on their heads. Tourists of every nationality while away the hours at street-side caf�©s, sipping mugs of frothy hot chocolate made from an ancient indigenous recipe. Eager venders work the tables, offering everything from one hundred dollar woven rugs to carved toothpicks for a peso.

The state of Oaxaca encompasses seven distinct cultural regions, each with its own languages and customs. In the capital city of Oaxaca de J�ºarez, the center of trade and government, these diverse traditions merge to create a pageantry of art and culture.

This pageantry is best on display in the z�³calo. Here performers from all 17 regions come to proudly exhibit their traditional dress and folkloric dance. Among these is the Danza de la Pluma, Dance of the Feather, from the community of Cuilapam de Guerrero, just outside the capital. These young men wear towering feather headdresses called penachos as they execute athletic leaps and turns in perfect unison. Another standout is the Dance of the Pineapple Flower, from Tuxtepec, in which women in brightly tasseled outfits move gracefully while balancing pineapples on their heads.

A trip to the historic Benito JuÃ?¡rez markets takes you deeper into Oaxaca’s cultural riches. From the southwest corner of the zÃ?³calo, follow the Calle Flores MagÃ?³n for two blocks. The market, situated in a warehouse-like structure, takes up an entire square city block and is a city within itself. Leave plenty of time to wander and take in the overwhelming sensory experience.

It’s easy to lose yourself in the labyrinth of market stalls. You pass through corridors draped ten feet high with colorful textiles: shawls, skirts, dresses and blouses with intricate hand embroidery. Then there are the long aisles lined with barrels of every imaginable chile, not to mention nuts, seeds, and dried hibiscus petals. The latter are called jamaica (ha-MAY-ka) and are used to make a popular drink or the same name.
The artisans’ booths overflow with examples of regional crafts: green and red pottery, black pottery with an obsidian sheen, and alebrijes (a-le-BREE-hes), the world-famous fanciful animal carvings.

In the food stalls you can sample mole (MO-le) and quesillo (ke-SEE-oh), the typical Oaxacan string cheese, as well as chapulines (cha-poo-LEE-nes). They say that if you eat the chapulines, a traditional snack of grasshoppers fried with chile, garlic and lime, you are destined to return to Oaxaca.

For ten pesos you can buy a bag of one of Oaxaca’s delicious breads, like Pan de Yema, a rich egg yolk based bread seasoned with sesame and anise seeds, or hojaldre (oh-HALD-re), hollow, crusty wedges gaily decorated with red sugar.

It’s also well worth succumbing to the temptation of the nieve (NYE-beh)
Nieve, which means snow, is comparable to sorbet, only better. Choose from a wide range of exotic flavors: tuna, (a variety of prickly pear fruit), tamarind, mango, rose petal, coconut, pi�±a colada, guayaba and many more. You may want to avoid the local favorite, leche quemada, which tastes like exactly that, burnt milk, a flavor few foreigners appreciate.

And the above just serves to scratch the surface of things to see and experience in the Benito Juarez.

Once you’ve worked up an appetite, cross the street to the equally massive Mercado de Veinte de Noviembre. Choose from the moderately priced offerings of countless family-run comedores: tender chicken smothered in a rich mole, chilaquiles (chi-la-KEY-les), fried tortillas strips doused in red or green salsa, and tamales steamed in banana leafs. If you like it hot, try the Chiles Rellenos filled with cheese or sweet-spicy shredded pork. Make sure your food is served fresh and not reheated to avoid food-born parasites.

Work off the calories with a leisurely stroll up the Macedonio Alcal�¡ pedestrian mall, which begins at the northeast corner of the z�³calo. The cobblestone street is lined with beautifully restored colonial buildings, which house classy restaurants, gift shops and galleries.

The pedestrian mall takes you up to the Templo de Santo Domingo, the Sistine chapel of Oaxaca. The vaulted ceilings overwhelm with their excess of gold leaf and biblical images. Don’t miss the Museum of the Cultures of Oaxaca, housed in the converted Santo Domingo monastery, open from 10AM to 7:30PM except Mondays. The meticulous displays guide you through centuries of local history and include the glittering treasure trove unearthed from Tomb 7 of the nearby Monte AlbÃ?¡n archeological area.

And this is just the beginning. The richness of Oaxaca’s offerings only grows with familiarity. But its biggest treasure is its warm and proud people, who are delighted to share their home and traditions with visitors. It’s not surprising then that Oaxaca is full of repeat visitors and expats (myself included) who first came here as students or tourists and returned to stay. Some people blame the chapulines, but I think it’s the unique energy of the place that draws us back.

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