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With so much sightseeing to do inside and outside Oaxaca, you have to be sure to allow for some idle time in the zócalo. In the traffic-free square, you can relax while getting a feel for the town and Oaxacan society. I recommend going in the late afternoon and taking a seat at the outdoor cafe with a good view of the cathedral. You can get a beer or a bowl of the traditional drink of Oaxaca: chocolate. The afternoon light filters through the glossy green leaves of the laurel trees, heightening the color of the cathedral's green stone. As dusk comes, a small drill corps enters stage left and performs a flag-lowering ceremony with much pomp and circumstance. Then the marimba or the municipal band usually strikes up in the central bandstand.

More Attractions

Besides visiting the places mentioned in this guide, try to get to the Casa de Cortés, which houses the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo , and the former convent of Santa Catalina, home of the Camino Real Oaxaca.

Activities

Cooking Classes -- Susana Trilling (tel. 951/518-7726; www.seasonsofmyheart.com), author of the cookbook Seasons of My Heart, operates a cooking school of the same name just outside Oaxaca. In downtown Oaxaca, Sra. Pilar Cabrera, owner of La Olla restaurant, gives cooking classes at Libres 205. She can be reached at tel. 951/516-5704, or at bugambilias2@yahoo.com.mx.

Spanish Classes -- Oaxaca has about a half-dozen language schools. For total immersion, and with prior notice, most can arrange home stays with a Mexican family. The Instituto Cultural Oaxaca, Av. Juárez 909 (Apdo. Postal 340, 68000 Oaxaca, Oax.; tel. 951/515-3404; www.icomexico.com), has the biggest name and the least flexibility. Besides language skill, classes focus on Oaxaca's history and archaeology. The Instituto de Comunicación y Cultura, Alcalá 307-312 (68000 Oaxaca, Oax.; tel./fax 951/516-3443; www.iccoax.com), provides group and private instruction, and uses music, art, and handicrafts to get students into the swing of things. Classes are small. Becari Language School, M. Bravo 210 (68000 Oaxaca, Oax.; tel. 951/514-6076; www.becari.com.mx), was founded in 1994, and I've heard good things from students -- lots of flexibility and small classes.

Hiking & Biking -- Northwest of the city of Oaxaca is a mountain range known as the Sierra Norte that is cooler and wetter than the valley. The native communities offer guides and simple lodging for active sorts who are interested in seeing yet another side of Mexico. Several ecotourism outfits work with these communities. For information, ask at the State Tourism Office (tel./fax 951/516-0123). Zona Bici, García Vigil 406 (tel. 951/516-0953; www.mexonline.com/zonabici.htm), does bike tours on back roads for about 400 pesos for a 4-hour tour.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.