It’s impossible to convey the magical reality of Oaxaca because it is really magic, with the magic and the reality blending together in ways that are unique to the city. All I can do is offer a few vignettes that I hope will pique your desire to travel there and experience it for yourself.
This was my third visit to Oaxaca de Juárez, the capital and largest city in the state of Oaxaca. Actually, it’s my fourth visit if I count the two times I visited the city in 2007 and 2008, while I was traipsing around in Mexico for five months. Each time I feel more at home. Friendships that began in 2007 continue to deepen.
Oaxaca's rugged topography has played a significant role in giving rise to its amazing cultural diversity. Because individual towns and tribal groups lived in isolation from each other for long periods of time, the subsequent seclusion allowed sixteen ethnolinguistic groups to maintain their individual languages, customs and ancestral traditions intact well into the colonial era and to some extent to the present day. For this reason, Oaxaca is by and large the most ethnically complex of Mexico's thirty-one states. The Zapotec (347,000 people) and the Mixtec (241,000 people) are the two largest groups of Indians, but they make up only two parts of the big puzzle.
Just looking around the Zócalo can give you a pretty good idea of what is valued here. The many identical shoeshine stands demonstrate the importance of having clean shoes. And, of course, music is important. The marimba circles the Zócalo from morning till night. Mariachis show up later in the afternoon. Wednesday evenings bring locals out to dance beside the Cathedral. Clowns and balloons and soap bubbles attest to the importance of children. (You can see some really pampered ones driving realistic-looking little cars around the Zócalo.) And yet, there are far too many hungry, homeless, extremely vulnerable children selling chicles to tourists, or plainly begging. These extremes coexist.