The road that leads east out of Mexico City has a roller-coaster surface, and driving it is not normally a particularly uplifting holiday experience. But last year, as I escaped the early Christmas season mayhem of the capital, my route through the mismanaged urban sprawl actually intensified that wonderful sense of impending freedom.
I had promised my carload of visiting family glorious views of the Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatepetl volcanoes on the way – on a clear day they are a near-constant presence all the way to Puebla, about two hours into the journey south to Oaxaca, our destination.
Oaxaca, the capital of the southern state of the same name, is a place where indigenous, colonial and modern traditions meld into an explosion of colour, as well as being a hotbed of political activism. It is also pleasantly Christmassy: there are no jingle bells, nor the weather to go with them, but there is a lively yet unhurried aura of celebration.
The contrast with Mexico City is stark, at least in those frantic weeks of record-breaking traffic jams leading up to Christmas Eve, when Mexican families hold their late-night Christmas feast. This is not to say you cannot have seasonal fun in Mexico City; you just have to plan it. The trendy bars in the Condesa and Roma neighbourhoods and the slowly rejuvenating colonial historical centre are buzzing, while the street markets are filled with modern takes on traditional crafts.
You can go people-watching at the huge ice rink in Mexico City's Zócalo plaza in the shadow of the cathedral, the National Palace and the ruined Aztec Templo Mayor. A punt around the canals of Xochimilco between floating gardens can veer between relaxing and frenetic, with mariachi bands on boats drawing up beside yours, touting serenades.
By contrast, Christmas in Oaxaca is an altogether gentler experience: it's a place to wander through with a vague idea of where to go and a willingness to change your mind if something more interesting crops up on the way.
It is foolish to stay anywhere but in the centre, with its elegant green-tinged stone buildings and squares. Last year I had failed to book in advance so we ended up having to search around for vacancies. We should have put a seasonal spin on the nuisance, given the Mexican tradition of las posadas. These re-enactments of the search for a room at the inn are nightly celebrations that begin on 16 December and end on Christmas Eve. They tend to be private parties, or, in the smaller towns, they are organised by, church congregations and often include processions complete with somebody dressed up as the Virgin Mary, and a plaintive song in which pilgrims holding candles ask for shelter.
Christmas is also a good time to visit the city's many colonial churches. The most impressive is Santo Domingo, a baroque extravaganza next to an austere and imposing monastery that houses a good historical museum and provides lovely views of the surrounding mountains and the city's famed ethnobotanic garden – unmissable for anyone with interest in cacti. Even for those without such enthusiasms, the garden's arid exuberance is oddly beautiful and reflects the input of Oaxaca's most famous living artist, Francisco Toledo. Toledo has been a driving force in ensuring the city's restorations have respected tradition, down to a successful campaign a few years back to keep McDonald's out of the main city square.
Oaxaca oozes confidence in an artistic tradition that goes far beyond Toledo and includes a ground rock of accomplished artisans whose work is on display in shops and markets around the city and in villages outside. But on the night of 23 December it is the turn of the masters of vegetable sculpture. The century-old noche de rábanos, or the Night of the Radishes, is one of Mexico's oddest Christmas festivals. It reputedly builds on a radish-carving tradition said to have first been encouraged by Dominican friars centuries before.
The radish artists take over the city square all day, producing extraordinarily intricate religious and secular scenes in time for the competition that evening. Winners and losers then watch their creations rot away.
Oaxacan food to eat, as well as to look at, is often best in the smaller restaurants and the markets. Snack on fried chapulines (grasshoppers), test out one of the seven varieties of mole (an incredibly complex chilli sauce), and wash it down with tejate (a drink made from corn, cacao beans, mamey seeds and rosita flowers). Christmas also brings street stalls in the city square selling buñuelos, a fried sweet sprinkled with cinnamon, served in an unglazed pottery bowl that you are supposed to throw over your shoulder, making a wish as it breaks.
Between the full-blown resort at Huatulco and the surfers' mecca at Puerto Escondido are a series of quieter and quite lovely little villages, including Mazunte and its next-door neighbour San Agustinillo. The most direct road includes a seemingly endless stretch of switch-back curves leading down from the mountains through tropical vegetation until you finally get to a small town called Pochutla and relief that you are almost there.
Friends swear it takes six hours, but it took us around 10, owing to numerous stops when little faces turned white. A longer but straighter, and in some ways more spectacular, route through the sierra down to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and then back along the coast is easier on the stomach. For either road leave plenty of time to complete the drive in daylight both in order to see the view, and also as a basic security measure. You can also fly to Huatulco and take a taxi.
Mazunte and San Agustinillo are both hippyish hangouts and most accommodation is quite simple, but there is also at least one luxury hotel, some perfectly comfortable cabins and a range of houses to rent.
We rented La Casa del Arquitecto, which was perfect – once we had dragged the bags up 100 odd steps and the owner had dealt with an invasion of giant ants. The facilities were basic but the view out to sea breathtaking, particularly while sipping a beer and watching the sunset from a tiny pool overlooked by vultures.
Mazunte and San Agustinillo are most famous for the sea turtles that nest in the area – particularly the Olive Ridley species that return year after year to Playa Escobilla. These turtles are rather solitary, but between June and November, a couple of nights or so after the full moon, they lumber up the sand en masse, scoop out a nest and lay around 100 eggs before setting off into the waves again.
Villagers depended on the trade in turtle meat and eggs until a 1990 ban forced them to reinvent themselves along eco-friendly lines. There is a museum and breeding centre in Mazunte, and locals tout boat trips out to sea in search of turtles swimming along with what seems like grim determination. We also spotted a few passing dolphins.
The bay at Mazunte is populated but not uncomfortably crowded and the waves big enough to be fun, but not too daunting. There are plenty of places to snack on the beach itself, though the better restaurants are inside the village. Long, deserted beaches stretch beyond, though the open Pacific sea and stories of rip tides ensured none of us dared go in.
After a few days it was time to make the long journey back to Mexico City. This time we caught sight of Popocatepetl volcano along the final approach, complete with a small plume of gas and ash rising out of the crater.
Back in the capital the Christmas season had almost fizzled out bar the last bubble of excitement in the lead-up to El Día de Reyes, Kings' Day, on 6 January. My visiting family had flown away by the time Mexican children were taking part in my own personal favourite of all local seasonal traditions: releasing a small gas balloon and watching it disappear into the distance. The balloons carry letters for the Magi, asking for a particular toy in the hope it will appear on the next morning. And when the Mexican Christmas is over la cuesta de enero, or the January climb, begins.