Most Americans who have traveled to Mexico have never been anywhere but the coast. Maybe this is for the best -- if Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco, Cancun and Los Cabos weren't so popular, the inland might be overrun by gringo tourists and all they leave in their cultural-imperialist wake.

If you're not going to Mexico exclusively for sun and surf, try to head for Oaxaca, the capital city of the state by the same name. The city, in its current incarnation, was founded by conquistadors in the middle of the 16th century (Cortés himself lived there for a while), and looks a bit like small European cities of the same vintage. For 2000 years before the Spaniards showed up, the same area (centered around the now-ruins of Monte Albán in the hills above the Oaxaca Valley) was a center of Zapotec and Mixtec civilization.

Spend a week. We sat for hours in the sidewalk cafes that ring the zócalo (central square), wandered through the narrow streets and dreamed at the colonial buildings, and took our time visiting the traveling markets in the outlying villages. We hit one or two "must sees" (like the 16th century baroque cathedral and the aforementioned ruins) every day, but left plenty of time for watching people, getting lost, eating (see below), and listening to the nightly "battle of the mariachis" at the zócalo.

Our first night there, we were eating dinner (again, see below) at around 9 o'clock, when we began to hear occasional large explosions outside. ("Oh boy," we thought, "here comes the EZLN!") When we left the restaurant, the streets were crowded with people all heading off in one direction. We followed them to the crowds at the source of the explosions -- a big-as-fourth-of-July fireworks display being launched from the square in front of another huge 16th-century church. The fireworks accompanied the penultimate night (this was a Monday!) of what we dubbed the "Fiesta de Santa Tequila," a fair of twenty-odd mezcál distilleries, hawking their wares and pouring endless free samples. (Mezcál is the fermented juice of the agave cactus which, in the better of the samples we tried, tastes a bit like an Islay scotch.)

August is the height of the rainy season at the 15th parallel (apparently), so the temperature was tolerable, the hillsides were green, and the flowers were blooming in this 6000-foot-above-sea-level mountain valley. The mornings were overcast, and every day at four o'clock it would rain like crazy. But everything was dry again by seven or eight, around the time the restaurants started serving dinner.

FOOD! Oaxaca is famous for its cheese (kind of like a string-cheese mozzarella); its mole (MOH-lay, not rodent) sauce, a blend of chocolate, herbs, spices, and other yummy stuff; chapulines -- tiny grasshoppers fried in lemon and pepper, and absolutely scrumptious no matter what you're thinking; and mezcál. We had all of these multiple times, and other incredible fare in between: enchiladas verde, enfrijoladas, carne asada, chiles rellenos, y más, más, siempre más. Two people can fill themselves to the gills for as little as four or five bucks apiece.

It's not all easy living, though. The poverty is staggering, a fact you can't ever forget, especially when you're paying a third of what you would for food and lodging in Europe or the US, or haggling over that vest that you could certainly afford at the merchant's initial $6 asking price. Be on your toes about sanitation, otherwise you'll be on the can. And there's no McDonalds, Starbucks, or Hard Rock Cafe.

But if you're worried about that kind of thing, may I suggest Acapulco?

- nw

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