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2013 and earlier

Don't fill your suitcase

The Guardian's Simon Burnton stocks up on trinkets and treasures in Oaxaca, Mexico.

For every destination there is a golden rule, and for this one it is simple. Leave plenty of room in your luggage, because it will be full by the time you leave.

Ask me what memories I have of Oaxaca, and I’ll point to the one on the mantelpiece, the one on the windowsill, the one on that shelf above the sink in the kitchen, and the one on the bedroom floor.

But the arts and crafts are not the only attraction of this wonderful colonial city, where the days are warm, the skies are blue, the beer is cold and the grasshoppers are lightly fried with a squeeze of lemon juice. Yes, you did read that right. Oaxaca is known as one of Mexico’s culinary capitals, where chicken is served in a mole sauce (featuring bitter chocolate) - nothing’s perfect. The food here is barely related to what us Brits are fed in Mexican restaurants: much more subtle and infinitely more rewarding.

Local legend has it that he who eats grasshoppers will return to Oaxaca. This may well be true, but it almost certainly won’t be for a second helping. Of course it’s all a matter of taste, and I’m sure they make an extremely healthy and nutritious snack, but to this western palate they were awful. Not even a swig of the local firewater, mezcal, could tempt me back - there were quite simply too many legs for my liking, and too much of a crunch.

But the grasshoppers were a rare failure. Instead, our favourite treat was to be found a few hundred yards from the zócalo, Oaxaca’s impressive main square. In the shadow of the Iglesia Santo Domingo, a splendid, ornately carved church, sits a small group of ice cream vendors selling home made ices in a bewildering array of flavours. To a non-Spanish speaker (speaking the language would be a great help here, even my rusty Italian came in handy) the selection is quite impossible, so perversely I chose tuna. Thankfully, it referred not to the large fish but to the fruit of the prickly pear cactus.

Winter, from late October until May, is the dry season. All day, every day the sun shines down on some of the most colourful streets you are ever likely to find. The very walls of this place scream summer, especially when it’s winter.

But there is more to do here than wander around the town admiring its bright streets, its myriad museums and eating its ice cream. Indeed, Oaxaca boasts some of Mexico’s most colourful fiestas, including Semana Santa (Easter), the Guelaguetza Festival (July), Day of the Dead (2 Nov) and the Noche de los Rábanos (23 Dec), a parade of Oaxaca’s finest sculpted radishes!

Perhaps the most attractive thing about Oaxaca however, is the number of day trips that can be undertaken using it as a base. Just outside the town lie the hilltop Zapótec ruins of Monte Albán, a fascinating and truly beautiful archeological site. Come between October and early December and the mountainside is illuminated by the white blossom which, according to some (no one really knows), gave the mountain its name. The view from the top is extraordinary, and at its best early in the dry season (UK winter), before the grass that covers the ruins dries out and loses its colour.

Further afield, but all within a couple of hours of town, lie the ruins of Yagul and Mitla, the jewel-encrusted mineral pools of Hierve el Agua, and the unfeasibly big tree at Santa María del Tule (the oldest tree in the Americas). And while examples of their trades are readily available in Oaxaca itself, it is also well worth spending a day visiting the local crafts villages, each of which has its own historical speciality, from the beautiful rugs of Teotitlán del Valle, to the brightly coloured hand-carved wooden armadillos (nicer than you think) of Arrazola.

Only then, after all, will you understand what I mean about the suitcase.

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