Mexico's most exotic state will make you forget about the beach.
CNN  — 

Cancun 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 the southwestern part of 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 former President Barack 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.

Here are six things you’ll love about Oaxaca:

1. The food

Oaxaca is a taste sensation.

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. And who could forget toasted chapulines (grasshoppers) with their crunchy, delicate taste.

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

2. The shopping

Hang around for long enough and you'll want to buy some  artesanias, or folk art.

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. The history

The Zapotec cultural stronghold of Monte Albán once reigned over the Oaxaca Valley.

Pre-Columbian Oaxaca never assimilated into Aztec or Mayan rule, and was instead governed from mighty Monte Albán (500 B.C. to 750 A.D.), with astronomically aligned pyramids and well-preserved ball courts visible above modern Oaxaca City. 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 Yagül, signed by 10,000-year-old pictograms, and Dainzú, with pyramids 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. The indigenous culture

The region is one of Mexico's most culturally diverse.

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. The religion

Oaxaca is a city of churches.

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. The fiestas

Mariachi magic. The "Night of the Radishes" is the world's foremost radish-carving competition.

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.

Editor’s note: This article was previously published in 2012. It was reformatted, updated and republished in 2017.

Editor’s note: This article was previously published in 2012. It was reformatted, updated and republished in 2017.