The Experts' Guide To The World: Mexico

I am not sure if it was the cacophony of the zocalo (the main square), the colonial homes and inns along its stone streets or the glory of its churches that first spurred my romance with Oaxaca, a provincial capital squeezed between mountain ranges five hours south of Mexico City. Maybe it was the mole, the spicy chocolate sauce they put on their chicken? (It rhymes with Olé!)

What it wasn't is the fruity reek in that part of its market under tin where the butchers have their stalls. (Lamb tripe is also a local favourite.) Nor can I pretend to be crazy about chapulines – dried, salted grasshoppers piled in red pyramids for the braver among us to sample. I did once, but I prefer my grasshoppers to be cocktails.

Any city with as much Spanish colonial architecture as Oaxaca draws me in. Wandering its streets, spying one baroque church façade after another, peering through wooden portals of cafés and restaurants to the cool and verdant courtyards within, conjures memories of other cities that have stirred similar emotions in me, from Cartagena in Colombia to Puerto Rico's old San Juan.

My love affair with Oaxaca began thanks to a friend whose family has a mansion just behind the cathedral. The latter is imposing enough to warrant a stop on the itinerary of the sightseeing tourist trolleys. So I've been several times now, most recently over Christmas.

That doesn't mean I don't play tourist each time I go, hungrily absorbing its bustle, where backpackers, vendors, wealthy Americans, poets, film-makers and artists all navigate the pedestrian streets together. It is a city with a culinary sophistication and an arts scene that is out of proportion to its remoteness and modest size. Artisans from rural villages converge in Oaxaca to sell indigenous crafts ranging from luminously decorated wooden creatures to home-weaved rugs. It is home also to the contemporary artist Francisco Toledo, founder of the Oaxaca Graphic Arts Institute, which faces the vast plaza below the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzman.

Arguably more imposing than the cathedral, Santo Domingo is dizzyingly decorated inside, with more than 60,000 sheets of 23-carat gold leaf. Attached to the church, founded by the Dominicans in 1570, is a large former monastery, now a museum. A formal garden behind it boasts a collection of rare desert cacti.

Oaxaca has also been fast climbing the rankings of world destinations because of the treasures within easy reach. First among these is Monte Alban. A short drive from downtown, it is one of Mexico's most important pre-Hispanic archaeological sites, and once the capital of the Zapotec empire. On my last visit, I signed on with one of Oaxaca's outdoor adventure agencies for a one-day biking tour in the Oaxaca Valley. Our tour – not all by bike – also took in a factory making the spirit mezcal (the one with the little worm in it) and the giant petrified waterfalls of Hierve el Agua. (Beware: the road up to the falls is narrow and treacherous if you rent a car.)

But what is most intoxicating about Oaxaca is the crush of the market at dawn or, even more so, the zocalo at dusk, where at Christmas I watched as teenagers filled long balloons for their younger siblings to release whining high into the sky, and where a Santa pranced across the paving stones on stilts in search of a few pesos. Travel to Oaxaca and this will be your prime activity: sipping cinnamon hot chocolate on the square and watching the passing drama.

David Usborne is North America editor of The Independent