Oaxaca is possibly the loveliest state capital in Mexico, with ancient ruins, colonial architecture, distinctive food and friendly, relaxed people. Oaxaca (pronounced wah-HAH-kah) also has several large markets where you can sample the local produce and unique indigenous crafts of the region. Much of Oaxaca's tourist activity is centered in the main plaza, the zocalo, which features many outdoor cafes and restaurants.

Although Oaxaca contains many signs of the modern world, from televisions and Internet cafes to McDonald's and denim, many of the traditional ways and dress are still evident. Along the streets, aproned women with long black hair braided with colored ribbons go to the market with baskets of tortillas, fruits and flowers skillfully balanced on their heads. Even in the Oaxaca city center, an occasional farmer on an alfalfa-loaded burro makes his or her rounds.

Oaxaca's historic center has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its Spanish Colonial street plan and buildings are still intact, making it compact and walkable. The city serves as a commercial center for the farming villages, or pueblos, of the region, and farmers take their alfalfa, corn and other vegetables there to sell. The town is a foodie's haven, with outstanding dishes made from mole that rival Puebla's, plus a local cheese called quesilla and rich chocolate, the best in Mexico.

Oaxaca is especially well-known for its distinctive artisan tradition, which produces pottery, handwoven rugs and textiles, wood carvings and other regional crafts. Tradition-minded residents successfully blocked a government directive to cut down the trees in the zocalo and put up fast-food chain restaurants in the historic buildings.

Popular mainly with Mexican visitors, Oaxaca still draws enough foreign travelers that English is spoken in many businesses in the historic center. However, stick to the big hotels for lodging because smaller inns may not have English-speaking staff.

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