The sculpture's nutritious; the medium, radishes

For at least 50 years, Dec. 23 has been Oaxaca's Night of the Radishes (La Noche de Rabanos). This southeastern Mexican state is well known for the skillful craftsmanship of its mostly Indian residents. So it shouldn't be too surprising to discover that it is in Oaxaca (pronounced wa-HA-ka) that artisans hold a craft-based fiesta. The first step is to grow some long, twisted pink-skinned white veggies, especially selected for their exotic shapes. Then, just days before the big contest, parents, children, and assorted relatives begin carving people, animals, and even whole Nativity scenes - all out of raw radishes.

Thousands of tourists from all over the world come to marvel at the beauty and ingenuity of these creations, which are exhibited for a single night in the town's main plaza - the z'ocalo - and awarded prizes by the local governor.

According to one tradition, the festival began as an agricultural fair, introduced to the Indians by the Spanish conquerors in hopes of boosting production. Apparently on one occasion crop failures prevented the community from holding its usual fair. Only radishes were successfully harvested that year. The farmers held the fair anyway, showing their radishes.

Everyone got creative, and carved all kinds of figures. The governor gave out awards, just as he usually did for the other vegetables. The whole thing was such a success that it became permanent.

Oaxaca has been an important center of Indian culture as far back as the 7th century B.C., when the ancient Zapotecs first built a religious center at Monte Alb'an. Today this archaeological site is one of Oaxaca's most popular attractions, with its mountaintop setting and spectacular view.

Situated 250 miles southeast of Mexico City, Oaxaca Valley is a favored destination all year. Its climate is mild, rarely straying from 70 degrees F. during the day. Christmastime is an especially festive season, with parades, marimba bands, and fireworks just about every night for weeks.

Mitla, about 25 miles southeast of the city, was built by the Zapotecs in the 12th century. Although the Spanish destroyed 70 percent of it, today its beautiful and delicate mosaics still resemble lace made of stone. The ancient architects must have made detailed advance plans to construct such a technically precise structure. Each mosaic design is made of individual stones that fit into symbolic patterns, so perfectly cut that no bonding material is needed.

Shopping for local crafts is always a favorite pastime, especially at the open-air markets. You could easily visit an outdoor market every day. Not only is there the giant daily Oaxaca Market (it's most active on Saturday), but all the surrounding villages have their own weekly market day.

Hand-woven serapes (rugs) are still made with wool yarns colored by natural plant and animal dyes. Classic Indian motifs are available, along with designs copied from Picasso, Mir'o, and Escher. Success of its weavers has led to the growth of Teotitl'an del Valle (16 miles southeast of Oaxaca) from a small village to a larger town. Several weaving studios and shops there offer a larger selection and better prices than what's available elsewhere.

Embroidered shirts, black and green pottery, and brightly painted wooden animals are some of the area's other prized crafts.

Practical information

There are no nonstop flights to Oaxaca from the United States, but Pan Am, Delta, American, and M'exicana fly to Mexico from various US cities. M'exicana and Aero Mexico offer daily flights to Oaxaca from Mexico City and Acapulco.

Decent accommodations aren't hard to find in Oaxaca, except during major festivals. El Presidente, the most elegant hotel, is the choice of many visitors. The spacious former monastery is just four blocks from the z'ocalo. Room rates begin at about $80 (single or double). Advance reservations are necessary; from the United States, call 800-472-2427.

Another popular option is Casa Colonial, a cross between an inn and a boardinghouse, which can accommodate about 20 guests in its lovely garden setting. Room prices start at $27, all meals included. For information, contact Mary Hallock, 1315 14th St., Santa Rosa, CA 95404; tel. (707) 542-4094. She also leads tours to Oaxaca.

Womantrek, a Seattle-based adventure travel company for women, offers a one-week escorted tour to Oaxaca and Puerto Escondido Beach ($995). For details contact Womantrek director Bonnie Bordas, at 1411 E. Olive Way, PO Box 20643, Seattle, WA 98102; tel. (206) 325-4772.

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