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6 Great Colonial Mexican Cities

In the morning, we take a taxi out to the last studio of the revolutionary muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. An incongruously industrial space in a suburban neighborhood, Siqueiros's studio has remained untouched since his death in 1974: a scaffold is set up at an unfinished mural project; gallons of paint, his own brand of acrylic, are stacked on the steps. We are the only visitors. At the artist's modest house, a woman shows us the desk where Siqueiros's wife wrote him letters during his imprisonment as a conspirator in a plot to assassinate Leon Trotsky.

Oaxaca

Long established as a vibrant market town, Oaxaca has always attracted foreign visitors as well as Mexico's own diverse population. In the marketplaces, Mixtec and Zapotec are heard along with Spanish. We stay at Casa Oaxaca, a colonial house given a serene and understated makeover. Set back from the street, the hotel's first enclosed courtyard is a splendid restaurant overseen by executive chef Alejandro Ruiz Olmedo. Working within the traditions of Oaxacan cuisine—using local ingredients and complex yet carefully calibrated sauces—Ruiz Olmedo creates intense yet fantastically refined dishes: sheer slices of jicama rolled around a subtly flavored eggplant purée, ice cream deliciously infused with almonds and roses.

Oaxaca's covered markets—Benito Juárez, 20th of November, and Abastos—sell everything from tube socks to Day of the Dead dioramas. On Saturdays, the Abastos market is a souk of endless lanes and stalls. On its fringes, tables are set up with pirated DVD's and silk-screened T-shirts; deeper into the tented interior, women glide by carrying flat baskets of flowers on their heads, limes are stacked high into perilous pyramids, braces of live turkeys with their feet tied together writhe about on the ground. Rugs and bags are strung overhead. A young weaver—Gaspar Chavez, who works with his father, Raul—is reading a book about traditional dyes. As he talks about the subject, we notice that his hands are raw and stained from grinding cochineal, a red pigment produced from pulverized indigenous insects that was one of colonial Mexico's most profitable exports.

In the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, a former monastery, the city's extensive history is presented in a grand space: a 16th-century colonial building with vaulted corridors, arched windows, and magnificent staircases. In one of the museum's galleries, there are treasures excavated from Tomb 7 at Monte Albán—the enigmatic ancient city southwest of Oaxaca that was inhabited for 14 centuries. In spotlit vitrines, exquisitely carved objects—made from jaguar and eagle bones, gemstones, and gold—are jewel-like and ominous, hinting at blood-curdling rituals.

Back at Casa Oaxaca is a second, more sheltered courtyard, with an azure-tiled swimming pool and a small clay structure called a temazcal, a wood-fired sweat lodge. The day before our return to Los Angeles, Tom and I make an appointment for a traditional treatment. Don Ignacio, a silver-haired shaman, arrives with gourd rattles and herbs and gets to work preparing the heated stove. In very simple Spanish, he leads us in a round of belly-echoing chants. We step inside the oven-like temazcal, stomp the ground, and emit sounds we don't recognize. Outside, the shaman chants and rattles; occasionally, he opens a slatted window—like a priest's in a confessional—and looks in on us. He calls us out to jump into the cold swimming pool, then sends us back into the heat again. Then he dips a bunch of flowers and herbs into some water and shakes it over our heads. Flooded with cooling fragrance, we leap in and out of the pool once again. The shaman speaks to us slowly and calmly as we stretch out on lawn chairs, swaddled in towels. We must let go of the past and live in the present, we understand. Don Ignacio leaves and we lie spellbound, lost in time, staring up into the azure sky.

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