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Explore Mexico: Oaxaca

The state capital OAXACA sprawls across a grand expanse of deep-set valley, 1600m above sea level, some 500km southeast of Mexico City. Its colour, folklore, numerous fiestas, the huge extent of its indigenous market and its thoroughly colonial centre combine to make this one of the most popular, and most rewarding, destinations for travellers, many of whom come here to study. Even the increase in package tourism and the pedestrianization of Macedonia Alcalá, the main thoroughfare from the zócalo to the cathedral, a street now lined with high-class handicraft and jewellery shops, have done little to destroy the city's gentle appeal. Furthermore, Oaxaca is also widely seen as the artistic centre of Mexico, with several state-run and private galleries, resident artists, art and jewellery master classes and regular exhibitions (including free ones in the zócalo). In the market and in shops everywhere, you'll find Oaxaca's trademark fantastical and fantastically coloured model animals.

Once central to the Mixtec and Zapotec civilizations, the city later took a lesser role. Cortés, attracted by the area's natural beauties, took the title of Marques del Valle de Oaxaca, and until the Revolution his descendants held vast estates hereabouts. But for practical purposes, Oaxaca was of little interest to the Spanish, with no mineral wealth and no great joy for farmers (though coffee was grown). Nevertheless, by 1796 it had become the third largest city in Nueva Espa?a, thanks to the export of cochineal and subsequently textile manufacturing. Meanwhile, the indigenous population was left to get on with life far more than was generally the case, with only the interference of a proselytizing Church to put up with. An earthquake destroyed much of the city in 1854 and the slow rebuilding was shaken to pieces by another quake in 1931. The city's most famous son, Benito Juárez, is commemorated everywhere in Oaxaca, a privilege not shared by Porfirio Díaz, the second most famous Oaxaque?o, whose dictatorship most people choose to forget.

Nowadays Oaxaca is becoming an industrial city - the population is well over 200,000, the streets choked and noisy, with large numbers of people choosing to retreat here from Mexico City, resulting in an increase in property values - yet it seems set to remain easy to handle. In the colonial centre, thanks to strict building regulations, the provincial charm is hardly affected, and just about everything can be reached on foot. Provincial it remains, too, in its habits - the big excitements are dawdling in a café, or gathering in the famous zócalo to stroll and listen to the town band; by eleven at night much of the city is asleep, although late-night dancers are still going strong.

Surrounding Oaxaca is some fantastic topography, making an impressive backdrop to the city skyline at sunset. The Sierra Madre del Sur enters Oaxaca state from the west, while the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca runs down from Mexico's central volcanic belt. The two ranges meet in the centre of the state and between them, converging in Oaxaca town, lie the three Valles Centrales

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