Oaxaca, an old city in south central Mexico, assaults the senses. The colors astound and music pounds from loudspeakers and live bands near the zocalo, its colorful and leafy main square. Smells drift from markets and restaurants stimulating appetites and reminding epicurians why this city of 300,000 draws visitors from all over the world to sample a legendary cuisine, all washed down with an astonishing atmosphere.

The city is best appreciated during early-morning or late-afternoon when the tilting sunlight hits its ancient buildings, making facades burn in umber, yellow, tangerine, sienna and other unidentifiable hues. That’s when the place seems to leap out from a landscape by Vermeer.

Oaxaca represents all that’s beckoning about Mexico—people, history, food, drink and music—results of a past reaching back for more than three millennia since the Zapotec people started a settlement on nearby Monte Alba, the ruins of which still loom from the mountaintop.

The Spaniards came in 1529, but the indigenous culture wasn’t completely snuffed out. Zapotec, a native tongue that to the untrained ear sounds like an Asian language, is frequently heard in markets and streets. Garishly colored wooden figurines and ornaments called alebrijes—fantasy works that look like an Aztec on acid carved them—spill from vendor stalls.

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Choosing a Mexican destination is a tricky business, as Mexico—a diverse, often-frustrating country—offers such contrasts, terrain and climate, vacationers can be overwhelmed by the choices within it. There are sandy beaches and sprawling resorts, opportunities to explore the lost world of ancient civilizations scattered throughout, or options to sample the high life in the vibrant neon glare of its great cities.

Aside from oceanfront acreage, Oaxaca has all of that and more. This is where you come to eat, drink and find a Mexico unlike that of travel posters—a sure bet for travelers looking to find a “new” Mexico away from the popular resort towns.

Best of all, it’s not difficult to reach: Mexicana Airlines—recently voted the leading airline in Mexico and Central America by a survey of more than 170,000 travel and hospitality experts—offers connecting flights from Mexico City, as well as a seasonal direct flight from Los Angeles that operates from early-winter to late-spring.

Indeed, the city overwhelms from the moment the airplane touches down to when it lifts off, with passengers carrying pleasing memories stowed like chimerical luggage in their minds.

According to Martin Benitez, director of international tourism for Oaxaca’s ministry of tourism, most visitors to the city—and to the state that bears the same name—indeed leave with pleasant memories.

“Most come to enjoy our history, gastronomy, the colorful city and to participate in exciting ecotourism activities that take place mostly in the nearby Sierra Norte, a place of natural beauty unrivaled in Mexico.”

According to Benitez, more than 38,000 American tourists came to Oaxaca last year and his department is presently undertaking the task of upgrading some of the most popular tourist spots to, “…make them conform to the high standards we have set.”

In addition, he says, “We also have plans to increase Oaxaca’s presence in international travel fairs and such. Presently, we are planning activities in Chicago, New York, Texas and California where travel agents can come to see everything Oaxaca offers in order to sell the destination more effectively.”

And Oaxaca offers much, having long been a favorite destination for Europeans, with hotels that flaunt a quasi-European touch. While many bill themselves as haciendas—ersatz mimics of the area’s rich historic colonial past—most fall short of capturing the spirit of the past.

But Hacienda Los Laureles, a genuine, early-1800s sprawl secluded within lush gardens in a residential district a mere 10 minutes from town center, is the real thing. This is where guests can best experience a taste of the fabled rural Mexican style.

Los Laureles is a 23-room retreat with wood furniture and pastel fabrics that lend a soothing contrast to the frenetic pace found in the city. Rates range from approximately $247 for a deluxe room with garden views, to about $349 for a honeymoon suite with fireplace, views and many luxurious amenities.

Locals favor its restaurant’s subtle serenity for romantic dinners. It is both indoors and outdoors and specializes in local dishes using fresh produce. The tables are draped with native-woven tablecloths and candelabra.