The riches, both cultural and economic, of the city of Oaxaca  flow largely from its surrounding hinterland, the Valley of Oaxaca, a mountain-rimmed patchwork expanse of fertile summer-green (and winter dry) fields, pastures, villages, and reed-lined rivers and streams.
By far Oaxaca’s largest valley, both in size and population, with an aggregate population of about half that of the central city, the Valley of Oaxaca consists of three subvalleys—the Valley of Tlacolula , the Valley of Ocotlán , and the Valley of Etla —that each extend, respectively, about 30 miles east, south, and northeast of Oaxaca City .
The Valley of Oaxaca is unique in a number of ways. Most importantly, the inhabitants are nearly all indigenous Zapotec-speaking people. You will often brush shoulders with them, especially in the big markets in Tlacolula , Ocotlán , Zaachila , and Etla .
The women traditionally dress in attractive bright skirts and blouses, with their hair done up in colorful ribbon-decorated braids. Although only a fraction of them speak fluent Spanish, they will nearly always understand and appreciate a smile and friendly “buenos dias” or “buenas tardes.”
The Valley of Oaxaca’s vibrant and prosperous native presence flows from a fortunate turn of history. During the mid-1800s, Mexico’s Laws of the Reform forced the sale of nearly all church lands throughout the country. In most parts of Mexico, rich Mexicans and foreigners bought up much of these holdings, but in Oaxaca, isolated in Mexico’s far southern region, there were few rich buyers, so the land was bought at very low prices by the local people, most of them indigenous farmers.
Moreover, after the Revolution of 1910–1917, progressive federal-government land-reform policies awarded many millions of acres of land to campesino communities, notably to Oaxaca Valley towns Teotitlán del Valle  and Santa Ana del Valle , whose residents now husband many thousand acres of rich valley fields and foothill forests.
Although the grand monuments, fascinating museums, good restaurants, and inviting handicrafts shops of Oaxaca City  alone would be sufficient, a visit to Oaxaca is doubly rich because of the manifold wonders of the surrounding Valley of Oaxaca. The must-see highlights of the valley are the timeless Mitla  and Monte Albán  archaeological sites and the tianguis (literally, “shade awnings” and synonymous with “native markets”) with fetching crafts—wool weavings, pearly black pottery, floral-embroidered blouses and dresses, and alebrijes (wood-carved animals).