520km (322 miles) SE of Mexico City; 230km (143 miles) SE of Tehuacán; 269km (167 miles) NE of Puerto Escondido

What you see today when you walk through the historic district of Oaxaca (Wah-hah-kah) is largely the product of 3 centuries of colonial society. The city is famous for its green building stone and for its own particular style of colonial architecture -- an adaptation to the frequent earthquakes that plagued the city in colonial times and still occasionally shake things up. Walls and facades are thick and broad, with heavy buttressing; colonnades are low and spaced closely; and bell towers are squat with wide bases. The overall impression is one of great mass and solidity.

Before the arrival of the Spanish, the central valley of Oaxaca was an important cultural center. Civilization began to take shape 3 millennia before their arrival, when Olmec influence extended into this region from the east sometime around 1500 B.C. This influence shaped the nascent civilization of the Zapotec (the original builders of Monte Albán) who established several cities in the central valleys. The Zapotec civilization flourished with the growth of trade throughout Mesoamerica. The rise of Teotihuacán in central Mexico in the early part of the Classic Period (A.D. 300-900), and the Maya in the highlands of what is now Chiapas and Guatemala created two important sources for commerce in goods and new ideas. This became the golden age of the Zapotec, which lasted until the rise of the neighboring Mixtec in the 9th century. The Mixtec had expansionist policies and through war and diplomacy gained political control over much of the Zapotec homeland before both peoples were humbled by the Aztec and later the Spaniards. To this day, the two principal ethnic groups in Oaxaca remain the Zapotec and Mixtec, whose tonal languages are closely related to each other but far different from the Aztec language Náhuatl.

The city of Oaxaca, originally called Antequera, was founded just a few years after the Spanish vanquished the Aztec. Most of Oaxaca's central valley was granted to Hernán Cortez for his service to the crown. Three centuries of colonial rule followed, during which the region remained calm.

In the years following independence, there was more or less continuous upheaval. From the 1830s to the 1860s, the Liberals and Conservatives fought for control of Mexico's destiny, with the French eventually intervening on the side of the Conservatives. One man, a Zapotec Indian from Oaxaca, led the resistance against the French and played the key role in shaping Mexico's future. He was Benito Juárez, and his handiwork is known to history as La Reforma.

Born in the village of Guelatao, north of Oaxaca City, Juárez was adopted by a wealthy Oaxacan family who clothed and educated him in return for his services as a houseboy. He fell in love with the daughter of his benefactor and promised he would become rich and famous and return to marry her. He did all three and became president of the republic in 1861. Juárez is revered throughout Mexico.