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March 4, 2006
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:: North of the z?calo ::

North of the z
Heading north from the z?calo, Valdivieso crosses Independencia to become Macedonio Alcal?, the city's pedestrianized shopping street, a showcase for the best Mexican and Oaxacan crafts. This is the place to come for exquisitely intricate silver designs, finely executed, imaginative textiles, and the highest prices: check the quality here before venturing out to the villages where they are made. Halfway up Alcal? is MACO , the Museum of Contemporary Art (Mon & Wed-Sun 10.30am-8pm; US$1, free on Sun), housed in a colonial seventeenth-century building, widely believed to be Cort' house although actually built after his death. Founded in 1992 with the intention of preserving Oaxaca's cultural heritage, the museum's permanent collection includes work by leading Oaxacan artists such as Rufino Tamayo, Francisco Toledo, Rodolfo Morales, Rodolfo Nieto and Francisco Guti?rrez. Regular exhibitions by local and international artists are also shown here.

A block further up Alcal? stands the church of Santo Domingo (daily 7am-1pm & 4-8pm; no sightseeing during Mass; free). Considered by Aldous Huxley to be "one of the most extravagantly gorgeous churches in the world", this sixteenth-century extravaganza is elaborately carved and decorated both inside and out, the external walls solid, defensive and earthquake-proof, the interior extraordinarily rich. Parts were damaged during the Reform Wars and the Revolution - especially the chapels, pressed into service as stables - but most have now been restored. Notice especially the great gilded main altarpiece, and, on the underside of the raised choir above you as you enter, the family tree of the Dominican order, in the form of a vine with leafy branches and tendrils, busts of leading Dominicans and a figure of the Virgin right at the top. The place drips with gold leaf throughout, beautifully set off in the afternoon by the light flooding through a predominantly yellow window. Looking back from the altar end you can appreciate the relief scenes high on the walls, the biblical events depicted in the barrel roof, and above all the ceiling of the choir, a vision of the heavenly hierarchy with gilded angels swirling in rings around God. The adjoining Capilla del Rosario is also richly painted and carved: the Virgin takes pride of place in another stunning altarpiece, all the more startlingly intense in such a relatively small space.

Behind the church, the old Dominican monastery (the ex-convento de Santo Domingo) has been restored to house the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca (Tues-Sat 10am-8pm; US$3, free on Sun). The damage caused by its use as a barracks for over 100 years during the Revolution has finally been repaired and the exhibits reinstalled. As if the restoration work itself wasn't impressive enough, inside you can see the magnificent Mixtec jewellery discovered in Tomb 7 at Monte Alb?n, which constitutes a substantial proportion of all known pre-Hispanic gold, since anything the conquistadors found they plundered and melted down. Highlights of the collection include a couple of superbly detailed gold masks and breastplates. The museum also owns smaller gold pieces, and objects in a wide variety of precious materials - mother-of-pearl, obsidian, turquoise, amber and jet among them. An interesting video shows members of each of the state's fifteen indigenous peoples speaking their own language. Through the museum windows you'll see beautiful views of the mountains, plus you'll find another hidden artistic masterpiece - the cactus garden, or Jard?n Etnobot?nico , established in the mid-1990s (free guided tours Tues-Sat 1pm & 5pm. There are more carefully positioned cacti in front of the museum, which make striking patterns across the earth at sundown.

Across the road, the Graphic Arts Institute (Mon & Wed-Sun 9.30am-8pm; donation) displays changing exhibits of works by nationally renowned artists. It's worth popping in just to amble around the small rooms of what was once a rather grand colonial house and to spend an hour in the excellent art library.

The Museo Casa de Ju?rez (Tues-Sat 10am-7pm; US$1.50, free on Sun), a block to the west at Garc?a Vigil 609, is where the young Benito Ju?rez once worked with bookbinder Antonio Salanueva. The renovated house gives an impression of what life must have been like for the middle class in early nineteenth-century Oaxaca through exhibits and reconstructed rooms including the original binding workshop.

Oaxaca is also the proud mother of Mexico's only philatelic museum , east of here at Reforma 504 (daily 9am-5pm; ; US$1.50), which has a decent permanent exhibition of Mexican stamps. Just around the corner at Murguia 302 you'll find the Centro Fotografico (daily except Tues 9.30am-8pm; free) which has three exhibition rooms displaying historic and contemporary photographs, plus a good reference library.

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