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Oaxaca. How do I say that?

Oaxaca. How do I say that?

story by: Tom Ricketts

Oaxaca is the name of a city and a state in the south of Mexico. Tongue tied? It’s pronounced wa-ha-ka. Although Oaxaca is one of the poorest and least developed parts of Mexico, it’s popular with tourists thanks to several archaeological wonders, a unique, well preserved culture and an iconic Mexican culinary delight.

Oaxaca was home to two ancient civilizations, the Zapotec and the Mixtec. These two civilizations are two of a lucky few who managed to escape being wiped out by the dominant Aztecs and Mayans. Because of this, their cultures are two of the best preserved in Mexico. Perhaps the best example of this is the UNESCO World Heritage listed site of Monte Alban.

Sitting atop a hill in the middle of the valley, Monte Alban was a Zapotec city. The site contains several small yet impressive pyramid structures surrounding a central square, as well as an ancient ball court complete with grandstand seating. The pyramids have amazing views over the whole valley, and were of course built there for this reason.

The main attraction here though is the many human carvings throughout the site. However these aren’t your typical human stone carvings… Instead the models are tortured, twisted and contorted in all sorts of gruesome and horrible ways. There’s several theories on why the carvings exist here, one being that it was perhaps a hospital, another that it was a sort of research centre for disfigured people, or more chillingly that they are ways the Zapotec would sacrifice victims to their gods. Whatever the reason, the morbid carvings are extremely interesting to see.

Like most of Mexico’s older cities, Oaxaca is situated around a central square called a Zocalo. This is the best place to start your exploration of the city. The dominant feature is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption. Although it looks rather run down from the outside, the inside is a whole other story. The cathedral has marble floors and pillars, theatre royal style balconies, and a stunning ceiling painted in beautiful shades of blue and gold, worthy of churches in Spain, France or Italy. Another notable church is the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán. This church is in a much better state, and you’ll see why once inside. The interior of the church is literally caked in gold. Incredibly ornate carvings covered in gold decorate the entire interior of the church; pillars, ceiling, everything. Be sure to turn your flash off when photographing!

Gorgeous Spanish Colonial buildings surround the rest of the Zocalo and downtown Oaxaca. Many are home to restaurants serving up a local specialty called mole (pronounced mole-lay). Mole is a type of sauce made from chilli powder and other various ingredients depending on whether you want sweet or sour etc. It’s not the most appealing sauce you’ll ever see, but when eaten with traditional beans, rice and meat, is very tasty! Many different types of mole exist and are usually only named after whatever colour it turns out to be once cooked up!

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