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6 reasons to visit Oaxaca (cnn.com travel section)

Cancún and Cabo are great -- sand, sun, surf.

But if you want true Mexican culture, you have to leave the bikinis behind.

Consider the artsy, ancient, high-altitude city of Oaxaca (pronounced "wah-HAH-kah") in southwestern Mexico.

It’s difficult to spell, but easy to love.

In the stateliest of Spanish colonial traditions, Oaxaca City (population 3.8 million) is an architectural gem, filled with fantastic museums, magical festivals, colorful handicrafts, pre-Columbian ruins and baroque churches encrusted with gold.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s revered as the culinary capital of Mexico, packed with inexpensive markets and elegant five-star restaurants serving some of the tastiest food in the world.

Oaxaca remains one of the safest states in Mexico. Even President Obama allowed daughter Malia to visit during spring break, ignoring (as most people do) hyperventilating warnings about travel in Mexico.

And if you’re still missing the shore, Oaxaca State has some 533 kilometers (331 miles) of glorious Pacific beaches, including the cheerfully hedonistic surf town of Puerto Escondido and plush resort community of Huatulco. Either is a 45-minute flight, or six-hour bus ride, from Oaxaca City.

1. Food

In a nation known for flavorful eats, Oaxaca is the "land of the seven moles," so called for legendary and complex sauces made with dozens of ingredients (often including chocolate) over several days.

A thrill of any visit here is sampling the moles, as well as dishes such as tlayudas (thin Oaxaqueño "pizzas"), spicy hot chocolate and asado (barbecue) grilled in smoky market stalls.

Mezcal is a potent liquor made only in Oaxaca from the rare maguey agave. It’s another must-try.

The entire city is geared to foodies, with locals saying that those who partake will one day return to Oaxaca.

2. Shopping

Oaxaca’s artesanías, or folk arts, are prized around the world.

There are plenty of spots to shop in Oaxaca proper, such as Mercado Benito Juárez, Casa de las Artesanías de Oaxaca or Jardín Labastida, for a kaleidoscopic selection of quality souvenirs.

Adventurous travelers, however, will want to head into the surrounding valleys, and visit Oaxaca’s handicraft villages.

Here, in picturesque rural settings, small, family-run workshops welcome visitors.

Alebrijes (fancifully painted balsawood animals) can be found in the towns of San Antonio Arrazola and San Martin Tilcajete.

For tapetes (gorgeous wool rugs and wall hangings), there’s the town of Teotitlán del Valle.

Several towns specialize in ceramics, such as scenic San Bartolo Coyotepec for gleaming black pottery and Atzompa for traditional green-glazed earthenware.


3. History

Pre-Columbian Oaxaca never assimilated under the rule of another region, it was governed from mighty Monte Albán (2,500 years old), with astronomically aligned structures and well-preserved ball courts visible above modern Oaxaca City. Monte Albán had the largest ceremonial centre in the world in the year 200.

Just minutes from the city center, the extant site and museum are worth visiting even if you’re not archaeologically inclined.

This being Mexico, there are plenty of other ruins to see. Known for elaborately carved walls, Mitla (100 to 1521 A.D.) is Oaxaca’s second-most important site.

Smaller ruins include Yagúl, signed by 10,000-year-old pictograms, and Dainzú, with structures that glow at sunset like the postcard models they are.

Zaachila’s underground tombs are best visited on Thursday, during the town’s massive tianguis, or market.


4. Indigenous culture

Oaxaca State is the most diverse and indigenous region of Mexico, where some 17 languages (including Spanish) are still spoken.

You’ll see traditional costumes and handicrafts all over Oaxaca City; or you can visit indigenous-run "tourism projects" in the mountains north of the city.

Participating communities offer basic lodging in beautiful environs, usually including meals and tours.

It’s possible (though difficult) to arrange visits independently, but most travelers go through Sierra Norte Expeditions, which works closely with several villages.


5. Religion

Oaxaca is home to at least 20 historic churches.

Even devout atheists should make time to see 1570-built Santo Domingo de Guzmán, with its psychedelic swirl of gold gilt interior and priceless artifacts.

The 1733-built Cathedral and 1690-built Basílica de la Soledad are also standouts, with massive carved stone facades.

The Dominicans built several enormous churches in the valleys surrounding Oaxaca, using bricks culled from pre-Columbian temples. If you’re in the area, Cuilapam de Guerrero, San Pedro y Pablo Etla and San Juan Bautista Coixtlahuaca are more than impressive.

6. Fiestas

Day of Dead skulls. No Day of the Dead would be complete without a tasty sugar skull on the family altar. Oaxaca is famed for its outrageous festivals, some are worth planning a trip around.

You can check one of the many online events calendars to see if something’s on.

The biggest party is Día del los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, officially celebrated on November 2. The festivities start in mid-October, with beautiful altars erected all around towns.

The Guelaguetza, or Mondays on the Hill, is celebrated throughout July with exhibitions of Oaxaca State’s traditional dances.

Christmas is an extravaganza. The festivities run from mid-December to January 6, with events including Night of the Radishes, the world’s foremost radish-carving competition.

Hotels should be booked well in advance during fiesta periods.
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