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The people of Oaxaca believe that there is magic in their Zócalo, or central plaza. They have fervently believed this since 1529, the year that Alonso García Bravo—the leading Spanish architect of the early colonial era—laid the first stone. Bravo designed the square with the cathedral on one side—erected over the cemetery containing the bones of the Aztec dead—and the municipal government buildings on the other. The belief was that the Zócalo would become a place of balance and harmony between the spiritual and the temporal, and that this spirit would radiate outward through the growing city.


There is still magic in Oaxaca, and the best place to start looking for it is at the ZĂłcalo. It is a haven of tranquility. Tall trees cast their shade upon locals and visitors alike, as they dine on regional specialties at sidewalk cafes. In the evening, lovers walk hand-in-hand through the lengthening shadows. If the mood strikes, they might hire one of several wandering mariachi bands to play them a song. Vendors of everything from fresh basil and nutmeg to Spider-man blow up toys shuffle cautiously along the streets, offering without harassing. Dignified older men and women aimlessly stroll past stately colonial architecture, giving the impression that time stopped in the square four hundred years ago.


The nearby ruins of Monte Albán (about ten kilometers away) draw most visitors to Oaxaca, but it is the spell-binding charm of the city that compels them to return. The city center, with its magnificent cathedrals, colonial homes and architecture, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The old town’s labyrinth of museums, restored homes, markets and quaint cafes and restaurants beckons travelers to stop and explore.From the Zócalo, you can literally wander off in any direction and bump into something remarkable. Head north and you’ll find the restored church of Santo Domingo, with its dazzling interior of gold leaf. To the south are the Benito Juárez and November 20 markets, sites of organized chaos, where you can buy delicious Oaxaca cheese, fruits and vegetables as well as souvenirs. To the east is the San Agustín church and the Macedonio Alcalá Theater. To the west you’ll find the religious museum and further on, the Monte Albán archaeological complex.


Visitors often leave Oaxaca slightly dazed and more than a little wistful, always promising to return one day. Departing travelers sometimes have trouble discerning what exactly made them fall in love with Oaxaca—was it the food, the history, the architecture, the people? If you find yourself feeling a little melancholy as you’re leaving you may want to bear in mind one final legend of Oaxaca magic: according to the locals, if you eat a dish called chapulines, you’re destined to return to the city one day. The only catch: chapulines are fried grasshoppers. If you find yourself presented with some, take a look around, take a deep breath, and gobble one down: by then, you’ll agree that it’s worth it.

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