OAXACA, Mexico -- Oaxaca without its zocalo is like Venice without Piazza San Marco or Barcelona without Las Ramblas. But on a visit in June we found this southern Mexican city's famous main square closed for construction, populated by bulldozers and a complement of desultory workers wielding pickaxes where jacaranda trees had bloomed.
The cafes fronting the zocalo, a UNESCO World Heritage site, were cordoned off behind sheets of corrugated metal to protect patrons from the noise and dust -- and the view. It didn't look as if we would be indulging our fantasy of idling at a cozy table as cafe con leche turned to cerveza and then mescal long into the night.
No one seemed to know why the zocalo required excavating. Iliana de la Vega, proprietor of the nearby restaurant El Naranjo, hinted darkly at political corruption. The work has been controversial, with architects resigning and noisy protests; two ancient laurel trees have been toppled in the construction, and locals say they were not consulted about the design or timing of the alterations.
With sitting no longer an option, we decided to keep moving. Happily, this was made easy by the wealth of enticing day-trip options all around the Valle Centrales, the three valleys radiating from the city's high center. For less than 70 cents, we found we could take a bus or collectivo (shared) taxi to famous weaving and pottery villages or ancient Zapotec ruins. Visitors also can go deeper into the Sierra Norte, where lovely white drifts of clouds float suspended below the lush green peaks.
But first we explored the rest of the city, starting where every traveler should: the sprawling Saturday market. In Oaxaca (wah-HAH-kah) that means the Central de Abastos on the southwest edge of the city center.
The ''Center of Supplies" is a seemingly endless warren of stalls. Rows and rows of banana and squash stands, tortilla vendors, chickens, pig heads, and hunks of cocoa meet more rows of cheap clothes and shoes, CDs blaring a kind of mariachi rap, and shoeshine stands. Zapotec women hawk sheaves of herbs or cactus pieces from baskets on their heads. We bought ripe mangoes the size of small footballs for 25 cents each, but skipped the fried grasshoppers, a local delicacy.
Oaxaca was founded in 1532, and much of the city features colonial architecture, wrought-iron balconies, and pastel-colored stucco -- all in graceful decay, with the exception of a few upscale pedestrian streets. It is a rather formal, modest town, with almost no one in sweatpants or baseball caps.
Tiny wizened women in traditional garb sell bunches of garlic on street corners, and 15 indigenous languages are spoken, reflecting to the eye and ear the centuries of mixing between the Native Americans and Spanish colonizers and settlers.
Another example is the food. De la Vega, who teaches cooking classes as well as running the restaurant, explains that the traditional Oaxacan mole -- a thick, complex sauce for chicken or pork -- includes pre-Hispanic ingredients like chocolate and chilis, but also clove, cinnamon, and almonds brought by Hernando Cortez from the Old World.
Oaxaca claims to be ''the land of the seven moles," one for every day of the week, and we got as far as Wednesday. Our favorites: coloradito (or red) mole, made with roasted peppers; almendrado, made with almonds; and mole negro, which can include up to 34 ingredients. Oaxacans speak about the moles in reverent tones, poring over their texture, spiciness, and top notes of smoke and cumin as if they were the finest wines.
Another sort of cultural integration can be found at the spectacular Iglesia de Santo Domingo and the adjoining Museum of Oaxacan Cultures, a few blocks north of the zocalo. Santo Domingo de Guzman was a Dominican monk who converted many indigenous people by standing up for their cultural rights against the colonizers and settlers. Inside, Guzman's family tree branches out in gilded and painted stucco across most of the ceiling.
The towns surrounding Oaxaca offer their own kind of treasure. In Teotitlan del Valle, known for artisanal weaving, we clambered out of a taxi and heard a distant sound of mournful, slightly sour music, as if from an inferior high school band. It was a memorial procession marking the anniversary of a loved one's death. They made a motley parade of men with tubas and trumpets and women carrying long white spikes of gladiolus, and as they marched by, the women smiled shyly while the men stared fiercely ahead.
In Atzompa, we found the workshop of a woman whose work is regularly shipped to galleries in Manhattan. Figures of angels or peasant women, some of them life-size, are carved out of clay and then fired just once for an unglazed, natural look. The ornate figures are covered with tiny carved birds and flowers.
One day, we hired a guide to take us into the Sierra Norte that rings Oaxaca state. We were interested in hiking through the cloud forest, an area said to boast hundreds of species of birds and butterflies and all six of Mexico's wild cat species, including the jaguar. But our guide, Jose, had very firm ideas about where we should go, driving into the tiny hill town of Guelatao, where Mexico's beloved Benito Juarez was born.
It would be possible to design a tour of Oaxaca state entirely around Juarez, whom Mexicans liken to Abraham Lincoln. A poor Zapotec shepherd who was orphaned as a child and walked into Oaxaca city to get an education -- eventually becoming president in 1861 -- Juarez is hailed as the leader who challenged the power of the Roman Catholic Church and reformed the nation's constitution. Jose was intent on showing us where Juarez was born, baptized, married, and where his bones are interred.
After driving from one commemorative plaque to another, we protested meekly to Jose that we really wanted to get into the spectacular nature all around us. Even his friend Rogerio, who carves lovely wooden hot chocolate stirrers and sells them for a dollar, recommended the Latuvi-Lachatao trail, which connects seven villages in Oaxaca.
Bah, spat Jose. There is nothing there but forest.
Yes, we answered, that's the idea.
But there is no Benito Juarez! he said. There is no cultura! There is no trouts!
We had just arrived in Ixtlan, where the baby Benito was baptized. We wanted a walk and Jose wanted to show us a looming statue perched high atop the mountain commemorating a famed alliance between the Mixtecs and Zapotecs in 1462. So we trudged up a dirt road to the summit in a light rain, mongrel dogs sniffing our trail and the occasional jeep splashing us with mud.
Finally, Jose took us somewhere that made us all happy: an outdoor restaurant in a cool, shady grove next to a rushing stream. The water was thick with trout, and we dined on it fried, grilled, and baked in foil, accompanied by several cold beers and baskets of wood-fired corn tortillas.
A local newspaper report said the zocalo was partially reopened on July 16, in time for the Guelaguetza folk dance festival at the end of the month. We will return for that cafe con leche some day, but had it not been for the untimely construction, we might never have seen Atzompa or Teotitlan or hiked the mountains or eaten the trouts. Such serendipity is the essence of travel.
Renee Loth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.