Oaxaca: The 'Paris of Mexico' Delights the Senses

By Erickson, Lori | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), May 25, 2003 | Go to article overview

Oaxaca: The 'Paris of Mexico' Delights the Senses


Erickson, Lori, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Lori Erickson Daily Herald Correspondent

After returning from a recent trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, I can't think of higher praise than this: I was willing to eat the grasshoppers.

Local folklore says that if you sample the crispy arthropods on a visit to this southern Mexican city, then you are bound to return. And so having fallen in love with Oaxaca's vibrancy, color and life, I was willing to swallow a few chapulines colorados in return for the chance to come back. (Actually, seasoned with chili pepper and salt they weren't so bad.)

Grasshoppers weren't my only sensory adventure in Oaxaca, for my week-long stay engaged all of my senses. The plaintive strumming of street musicians, the brilliant colors and pungent smells of the traditional markets, the nuanced flavors of Oaxacan cuisine, trees and shrubs laden with flowers, and the velvety softness of the evening breezes after the warmth of the day all combined to make Oaxaca a sensory feast.

The heart of the city

"Oaxaca is the Paris of Mexico," a friend told me when he heard I was going to one of his favorite destinations.

As my husband and I entered the zocalo (central square) on our first evening in the city, I could see why he made the comparison. Shaded by large trees and dominated by an art-nouveau-style bandstand, the square was full of strolling lovers, scampering schoolchildren and dignified older gentlemen out for a leisurely walk.

Dominated on one side by the city's 18th-century cathedral, the square is ringed by sidewalk cafes. As we enjoyed a leisurely meal of chicken topped with one of the seven moles (sauces) traditional to Oaxaca, we watched as a young people's dance competition was held outside the cathedral, the girls in scarlet dresses swirled by earnest young men. Nearby, balloon vendors sold their brightly colored wares to passersby, while in the distance mountains provided a picturesque backdrop for the scene.

The zocalo has been the lively heart of Oaxaca since the city's founding in 1529. One of the most charming city centers in Mexico, the zocalo and surrounding area were named a World Heritage Site in 1987 by UNESCO. The downtown's well-preserved buildings, particularly its colonial-era architecture, are constant reminders of the city's past.

For us the highlight of our first walk through the city was a visit to the dazzling Santo Domingo Church. Begun in 1572, the baroque-style church features an ornate altar that gleams with gold, and its hushed atmosphere contrasted with the bustle of the surrounding city.

We learned more about the history of Oaxaca (population 245,000) inside the former convent attached to Santo Domingo. A painstaking restoration has transformed its interior into a fine cultural museum that details the history of the region from the earliest Mixtec and Zapotec cultures through today.

The museum's centerpiece is the treasure found at the nearby archeological site of Monte Alban, gorgeously crafted pieces formed from gold, alabaster, obsidian and jade. Outside, a large botanical garden features the desert plants of the region, their beauty visible through the high windows and arches of the graceful building.

Other displays detail the history of the larger state, also called Oaxaca. With nearly 60,000 square miles of mountains, valleys, canyons and beaches, Oaxaca is Mexico's most biologically diverse state. Sixteen ethnic groups, each with its own language or dialect, inhabit different geographical areas of the state. As a result, the state of Oaxaca boasts one of the richest and most varied concentrations of native cultures in the world.

Traditional markets

The artistry of the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca became ever clearer as we explored the traditional markets of the city and surrounding area. While shopping at home is drudgery for me, I found the markets of Oaxaca to be intoxicating in their variety and color (as well as the inexpensiveness of their prices).

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