City of gastronomic pleasures
The city of Oaxaca de Juárez, or just Oaxaca, serves as capital for the homonymous state and is a World Heritage Site declared by UNESCO. This is a very popular place thanks to the beauty of its historic center and neighboring archeological sites and to its delicious cuisine along with its cultural riches. Its altitude above 1.500m (5,000ft) contributes towards a pleasant climate through most of the year and its location, 465km (290mi) from Mexico City, allows it to be easily reached by road or in a short one hour flight from the national capital.
The Zócalo is Oaxaca's central square and exists since it was originally draw in 1529. Its surrounding buildings are beautiful examples of colonial architecture. One of these buildings, the Government Palace, was built in the 19th century and currently hosts some pretty interesting scientific expositions. Still around the Zócalo, it is possible to visit the Cathedral, dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption, in 1733, and several restaurants where regional food can be tasted paired with typical drinks, like chocolate or mezcal, always accompanied by the omnipresent Mariachi, who will make sure to create the right ambiance by playing classics of the Mexican music.
Generally speaking, the areas to the north of the Zócalo have a greater touristic appeal than those located to the south: houses are better preserved, streets are cleaner and quieter in the northern sector. Besides, most of the museums, churches and other places of interest are within a few blocks to the north of the city's central square.
The highlight among all attractions found in the city center is the complex formed by the Temple of Santo Domingo de Guzmán and its annex, the former Santo Domingo monastery. Opened in the early 19th century, this architectonic marvel of the Dominican order is an excellent showcase of Mexican baroque. The temple's interior presents a sumptuous decor, which includes thousands of gold leafs used to coat textures sculpted on its walls and roof. The former monastery building currently hosts the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures, the most important museum in the whole state which, in 14 rooms, tells the history of this region since the first traces of human presence in the area, more than ten thousand years ago. This museum shelters the treasures of Monte Alban's Tomb #7, made of gold, silver, jade, turquoise and obsidian pieces.
A few blocks to the north of the Santo Domingo complex are the arches of Xochimilco. These arches were once part of the old aqueduct, built during the first half of the 18th century, and today form a beautiful landscape along some 300m (1,000ft) of the Manuel Garcial Vigil street (a pretty walk from the Zócalo) and Rufino Tamayo street.
The areas belonging to the historic center located to the south of the Zócalo are mainly commercial and, overall, of lower interest. An important exception must be made, however, to the two markets located just a couple of blocks to the south of the central square. The largest and most traditional among them is the Benito Juárez Market, which occupies a whole block and is well organized in sectors specializing in the commerce of handcrafts, leather and metal products, traditional food like Oaxaca cheese, mezcal, chocolates and local specialties like chapulines (dry crickets) and gusanitos de maguey (the worms traditionally added to mezcal bottles). The neighboring 20 de Noviembre Market is the best place to try the typical Oaxacan cuisine at very convenient prices. The several stalls in the market offer dishes like tasajos, tlayudas, empanadas, chiles rellenos, tamales and the seven regional moles.
Located only 9km (6mi) away from the city center is Monte Alban, one the most important archeological sites in the Americas. This ancient Zapotec capital was founded around 500BC on the top of a hill some 400m (1,300ft) above the main valley of the region, at a height of 1,940m (6,365ft). Between 100BC and 200AD, Monte Alban had grown to become one of the main cities of Mesoamerica in those days, with an estimated population of around 18,000 inhabitants. The main set of ruins open for visitors comprise a large rectangular square circled by temples, palaces, ball game and tombs. One of its highlights is the "Dancers" building, where estelas of human figures in uncommon positions are found. The most important tomb is #7 due to the large quantity of offerings found - they were removed for safety and preservation reasons are now showcased in the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures. The archeological site is very well maintained and also features a museum where a limited collection of sculptures is exhibited. The site also offers local guides to support tourists during their visit.