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The state of Oaxaca (wah-hah-ka) lies deep in southern México on the Pacific coast, the landscape rising and falling, ranging across high, heavily forested sierras, temperate highland valleys, and hundreds of kilometers of desolate, semi-tropical coast. The state is littered with archaeological ruins, long ago abandoned by their Mesoamerican builders. And everywhere there are colonial churches and monasteries, in even the smallest villages, hundreds of them, ensconced for centuries, exuding an ancient weariness, manifestations of Spain’s earlier imperial dreams. The markets overflow with the creations of local artisans, and the festivals are colorful and lively and seemingly endless. The cuisine is distinct, considered one of the finest in the country by aficionados of Méxican cooking. The people are imbued with a strong indigenous pride, hardworking, though plagued by a long history of economic hardship for the many, yet plenty for the few, the disparity the cause of periodic, sometimes violent political turmoil.

Over the centuries, Oaxaca’s almost impenetrable mountain terrain has left its more inhabited regions isolated, in many ways, from the rest of México, leaving intact elements of its indigenous cultures, perhaps more so than anywhere else in the country. And even today, there exists contrasts and tensions and fusions between the traditional and the modern, and for many that is the allure of Oaxaca — to experience and learn from a place that has not given itself over completely to modernity, holding on, sometimes fiercely, to its traditional way of life, yet is still modern México.

Oaxaca City

Iglesia de Santo Domingo — Oaxaca City, Oaxaca

Nestled in a valley a mile high between two mountain ranges, the colonial city of Oaxaca is the state's geographic, cultural, and political center, as well the primary destination for travelers. Because of the abundance of colonial churches and monasteries and mansions in the city's center, UNESCO designated the area a World Heritage Site in 1987. By then, however, many of the city's centuries-old buildings had begun to fall into disrepair. Sensing an opportunity with this lofty new designation, the city began restoring its colonial heritage, sparking a renaissance that attracted many of the state's most creative modern and traditional artists, handicraft makers, and chefs. A mix of foreign and Mexican visitors, both bohemians and bourgeoisie, soon discovered and began flocking here. No strangers to opportunity, a bevy of hoteliers, business people, and state bureaucrats quickly moved in, renovating centuries-old colonial mansions for modern and traditional art museums and galleries, building brand-new five-star hotels for the jet set alongside remodeled old buildings as hostels for the backpacker set, opening trendy bistros serving international cuisines, some of which could easily fit in San Francisco or New York, next door to mom-and-pop restaurants and cafés that have been serving traditional Oaxacan cooking for generations. And everywhere in the city there are these contrasts, tensions, and fusions between the traditional and the modern that exemplify Oaxaca today.

If the city of Oaxaca is the state's center, then the Zócalo is the city’s center, bustling day and night with live music, mime and dance performances, arts and handicrafts displays, sidewalk cafés doing a brisk business, and occasional eruptions of political discontent. This is a place to linger or drop by often; something is always happening here or about to. The city's other premier attraction is the colonial-era Santo Domingo Church, as fine an example as any in México of the baroque architecture popular in New Spain during the 17th century. Although the church's exterior is simple, its interior is covered with ornate and gilded statues, walls, ceilings, and altarpieces. Here too, a single visit is not enough to fully appreciate the beauty of the architecture of this church and the craftsmanship that went into it.

The city's mile-high elevation ensures spring-like weather year round, making any time of the year a good time to visit. Winters are mild and dry, with pleasant temperatures during the day and cool nights. Summers are warm and wet, with afternoon showers usually capping off the worst of the days heat. Most international travelers reach the city by air, though it is easily accessible by express bus from numerous cities throughout southern and central México. There's more...

The Valleys

Moving out from the city of Oaxaca are three valleys, often referred to as Los Valles, mostly inhabited by the same indigenous Zapotec and Mixtec peoples who lived there before the Spanish arrived. The valleys are rich in ancient Zapotec and Mixtec ruins and full of villages and cities with bustling markets where indigenous artisans sell their creations. The valleys' main ruins—Monte Albán, Mitla, Yagul, and Zaachila—are not as well known as others in México, but they're every bit as magnificent and archaeologically important. Artisans in the valleys are known for their colorful wool carpets, black and green pottery, embroidered dresses, and alebrijes, carved wooden animals unique to Oaxaca. Indigenous village life in the valleys can be experienced first hand by arranging an overnight stay in a Tourist Yú'ù facility. Travelers who do so almost always praise the experience. The valleys' mile-high elevation ensures spring-like weather year round, making any time of the year a good time to visit. Winters are mild and dry, with pleasant temperatures during the day and cool nights. Summers are warm and wet, with afternoon showers usually capping off the worst of the days heat. All valley locations are easy day trips and can be reached by bus, colectivo, taxi, or van from the city of Oaxaca.

Pacific Coast & Southern Sierra

Enclosing the valleys of Oaxaca to the south is the high, rugged, heavily forested, beautiful Sierra Madre del Sur coastal mountain range. To the south of the range's 12,000' (3750m) peaks, the highest in Oaxaca, lies the stunning Pacific coast, with hundreds of miles of undeveloped beaches and waters full of whales, dolphins, sport fish, pelicans, and all manner of wildlife. By far the two most visited destinations on the coast are the world-class surfing resort of Puerto Escondidio and the planned, but still beautiful and relaxing, resort of Bahías de Huatulco. A favorite of the backpacker set or anyone looking for a less-developed and inexpensive place is the tranquil fishing village of Puerto Ángel and the nearby beaches of Zipolite, Mazunte, and San Agustinillo. Regardless of where you go on Oaxaca's Pacific coast, there always seems to be ample opportunities for lazing away the day in a shaded hammock with a good read, savoring some delicious seafood caught fresh that day while sipping an ice-cold Méxican cerveza followed by a bitter shot of mezcal, swimming or body surfing, snorkeling, charter fishing, visiting a sea turtle sanctuary, or whatever your interests happen to be. All coastal destinations can be reached overland by bus or van from the city of Oaxaca (6-8 hours) via the spectacular, but sometimes heart-stopping (the bad kind) winding mountains roads, which climb up and over the coastal range and then drop drown to the ocean's edge. Alternatively, air taxis (a 30 minute hop) can be taken from the city of Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido and Bahías de Huatulco, another heart-stopping experience (the good kind), or direct from México City to either airport via airliner. And lastly, from the coast upland forays can be made easily into the cooler mountains for trekking or bird or butterfly watching.

The Mixteca

The Mixteca region, home to the Mixtec people, famed for working with gold and precious stones, covers the entire northwest of the state, ranging from the the cool, spruce-covered 10,000' (3300m) mountains of the Mixteca Alta to the warm, dry, barren hills of the Mixteca Baja basin. Few travelers venture here, yet those that do find natural springs, towering cliffs, massive gorges, magnificent groves of cypress trees, ancient ruins, crumbling Dominican colonial churches, and charming villages. The entire region can be easily accessed by bus or van from the city of Oaxaca.

Northern Oaxaca

Enclosing the valleys of Oaxaca to the north is the high, rugged, beautiful, pine- and oak-forested Sierra Madre de Oaxaca mountain range (Sierra Norte). Containing the greatest diversity of natural wildlife in the state, the mountains are home to hundreds of species of birds and butterflies, thousands of plants, and all six forest cat species found in México. With easy accessibility from the city of Oaxaca by bus or van and with so much natural beauty and diversity of wildlife so close by, ecotours have begun to crop up, offering comfortable lodgings and excursions by foot, mountain bike, and horseback into some of Oaxaca's (and México's) most beautiful landscapes. From May to September the rains come, along with cool temperatures. Winters are dry and they can be downright cold, especially in the higher elevations, dropping below freezing at nights.

Isthmus of Tehuantepec

In eastern Oaxaca the North American continent narrows to a thin strip of land, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (teh-wahn-teh-pek), separating the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean by only a couple hundred kilometers. There, the two mighty sierras of southern México converge and shrink to a mere plateau-like ridge a couple hundred meters above sea level. As the elevation descends, the climate turns hot, steamy, tropical. Indeed, the descent from the seemingly perpetual spring of the temperate highland valleys and the even cooler sierras can be a visceral shock, a reminder that sea-level Oaxaca is the tropics. What's more, this is Zapotec country, albeit with some cultural differences from its upland brethren, namely, a strong spirit of autonomy and a long history of matriarchal culture. The Isthmus is another place in Oaxaca where few travelers venture. Those that do, though, find a lively, welcoming people and a seeminly continous stream of fiestas.

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