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People walk near the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption (Catedral de Oaxaca) in Oaxaca, Mexico.holgs/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Nestled in a valley abutted by three green mountains – the most famous dominated by the ancient ruins of Monte Alban – lies Oaxaca. The beautiful, mid-size city southeast of Mexico City is famous for walkable, tree-lined streets, majestic colonial architecture, lively public squares and – best of all – warm hospitality. It is a prime destination not just for adventuresome foreigners but for Mexicans themselves, who appreciate its charming mix of tranquility and bustle.

All of which makes it a wonderful spot for a snow-free Christmas holiday. It’s not an escape suited for sun-seekers addicted to beaches, resorts and golf courses, but for those interested in experiencing another culture, Oaxaca is full of opportunity.

The first of our 10 days in Oaxaca last December was sunny and warm – as were most of the ones that followed. Exploring the city is easy, as my wife and I discovered, thanks to the grid pattern of streets laid out by the Spanish in 1529. Car traffic is limited in the core and Calle Alcala, the pedestrian-only main shopping street, is perfect for a wander. Giant Christmas trees – lavishly decorated with large glittering stars, angels, balls and ribbons – dotted the route, but almost seemed superfluous. Everything was so bright – shoppers, peddlers, the fine old colonial buildings painted brick red, maroon, yellow, ochre, pastel green and blue – that the atmosphere was festive regardless of the season.

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People walk through a textile market in a main square of Oaxaca.Joel Carillet

We decided to start our visit by diving into the city’s superb cultural scene. Arriving at the Museo Rufino Tamayo just after opening, we found we had the building to ourselves. The museum holds more than 1,000 pieces of precolonial art collected and donated by Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991), an internationally renowned surrealist painter born in Oaxaca. The ancient pieces were beautiful, dramatic and unforgettable – particularly the pre-Columbian fertility goddesses and chieftains with elaborate headdresses.

After a delicious, cheap lunch of mole rojo with chicken at La Popular, we continued with a visit to Museo Casa de Juarez, the boyhood home of Mexico’s great 19th-century reforming president. As a young orphan, Benito Juarez trekked from his village to Oaxaca where he found work and a home with a bookbinder, Antonio Salanueva. The museum has preserved the bookbinder’s simple house and workshop, along with memorabilia from Juarez’s career. Yes, we were a long way from the typical sunny escape, but for this history buff, it was riveting.

Some last-minute gift shopping filled the next couple of days. We browsed craft shops crammed with brilliant weaving, elaborate jewellery and quirky pottery. Other stores sold an impressive array of stylish, locally made cotton and linen clothing. Attractive prices and eager, English-speaking sales staff meant we didn’t leave empty-handed.

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A wide variety of items can be found at the Mercado Juarez and Mercado 20 de Noviembre, two markets just south of the main square.Gogadicta

But nothing matched the bargains and excitement of the Mercado Juarez and the Mercado 20 de Noviembre, two popular markets just south of the Zocalo, or main square. Straw hats, shoes, cheap clothes, jewellery, leather goods, tools, flowers, spices, Mexican coffee, meat, cheese, ready-made mole, fruit, vegetables and grasshoppers – you name it, you’ll probably find it. Lunch at one of the food counters in the Mercado 20 fuelled our adventures and immersed us in the hustle and bustle.

At the top of my Christmas wish list, though, was one thing that couldn’t be found in town: the pre-Columbian Zapotec pyramid city of Monte Alban, situated on the edge of Oaxaca. I was the only one in our van with enough energy to climb the slope up to view the ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On top, it looked vast. I clambered up and down remains of temples, palaces and other buildings that spread across the mountain ridge, providing a panoramic sweep of the valley. Despite being jammed with throngs of tourists, it was still an awesome sight.

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The pre-Columbian Zapotec pyramid city of Monte Alban is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.Gilles Belanger

Hiring a local tour operator – an early present to ourselves – proved an excellent decision as our day exploring the Tlacolula Valley unfolded. Another remarkable stop was the Zapotec city-state of Mitla, famous for its well-preserved palace and temples decorated with geometric stone mosaics. We took a break at Hierve El Agua (Spanish for “the water boils”) to watch people splashing about in pools near the edge of a smooth, white cliff. Mineral-rich springs bubble up there and flow over the precipice, depositing layers of calcium carbonate much like cave stalactites.

The Arbol del Tule, a sprawling churchyard tree reputed to be more than 2,000 years old, with a trunk (at 14 metres in diameter) claimed to be the stoutest in the world, made for a terrific photo op. In Teotitlan del Valle, we toured one of the region’s leading weavers and learned how they create bright Zapotec designs with natural dyes made from sources such as indigo, cochineal and moss. Later, we visited a mezcal factory, a major industry here. The tasting was, um, enlivening, but not enough to convince me to try the traditional bottle with the gusano (worm) at the bottom.

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At the Hierve El Agua, visitors splash in pools near the edge of a white cliff.Jakub Zajic

On that note, Oaxaca is noted for its lively nightlife. In the city, we enjoyed dropping in for a nightcap at the Cocina Bar Agavero, just down the street from our hotel in the old centre, sampling their cocktails and chatting with one of the owners.

Oaxaca also has a reputation for good, authentic Mexican food and, aside from the markets, you can dine cheaply and well at simple, homey restaurants. Probably the best meal we had was at the 100-seat Las Quince Letras, but we also came to love the small Geronimo’s, run by a young man and his mother. He gave us the excellent advice to skip the tourist-packed seafood restaurant La Red for our planned meal of fresh shrimp, and instead go around the corner to the cheaper version of La Red, “where Mexican men take their mistresses.”

As Christmas drew closer, celebrations took over the streets. Couples and families strolled down to enjoy the fun in the squares. At night, parades of giant, papier-mâché mannequins, called chinelos, accompanied by brass bands frequently marched to the Zocalo. On Christmas Eve, fireworks exploded into the sky.

The party was biggest on New Year’s Eve, which we spent at an open-air table at El Importador, a favourite restaurant facing the square. A band entertained the guests and, as the night wore on, a large dancing crowd took over the space in front. Even I was up, faking a salsa. By midnight, everyone was hugging and wishing each other the best.

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