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Oaxaca City

With its magical concoction of sights, smells, and sounds both ancient and modern, this mountain-ringed city of about 400,000 people, officially called Oaxaca de Juárez, embodies the bundle of contrasts that is modern Mexico. You'll hear the singsong strains of Zapotec, Mixtec, and other indigenous languages in the markets, Spanish rock in the bars and restaurants, and hip-hop in English blaring from passing cars. Affluent families sip tea or tequila in classy restaurants; out on the streets, men, women, and children of significantly more modest means sell pencils, sweets, and ears of delicious grilled elote (corn).

The Centro Histórico is a pastel collage of colonial- and Republican-era mansions, civic edifices, and churches. The colonial heart is laid out in a simple grid, with all the attractions within a few blocks of one another. Most streets change names when they pass the zócalo (town square); for example, Calle Trujano becomes Calle Guerrero as it travels from west to east. Only the two major east–west arteries—Avenida Morelos and Avenida Independencia—keep their names.

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