One Week in Oaxaca

Unlike most cities, we didn't research much about Oaxaca before arriving. On the road you hear of the attractions and ruins when you talk to other travelers, but for us the focus in Oaxaca was always going to be food, and we knew that before leaving New York. I'll save the food for another post, because Oaxaca deserves that much, and our two major excursions will have their own as well; this will cover the other exploration we did during our stay.


I can't talk about any our stay in Oaxaca without explaining the Guelaguetza (no translation). A fellow traveler in our shuttle to the Tuxtla airport was the first to mention that we were arriving in Oaxaca right as they entered their festival season: Guelaguetza. He explained that there are several individual festivals and events in the second half of July, such as the mole festival and mezcal festival, and the Guelaguetza itself.

During our stay, we learned a few things about the Guelaguetza, but never came to a clear understanding of what exactly it is. I've supplemented that knowledge with a bit of Wikipedia reading, and although I understand more of two themes of this event, I have no idea how they relate.

Indigenous Cultures and Dance

The most recognizable part of the Guelaguetza celebration is the dancing, costumes, and customs of the indigenous peoples of the modern state of Oaxaca. Wikipedia says that the Guelaguetza is a celebration that brings together the many distinct indigenous cultures in the area so that each one can demonstrate their dances, their style of traditional clothing, their culture and their food. As with many cultural expressions in Mexico, its roots are definitively pre-Hispanic, but it has changed since Hispanic conquest and arrival of Christianity.

It's important to understand that there many indigenous culture around Oaxaca, unlike the Yucatan where the Mayans still exist and are one large, cohesive culture. Due to the divisive mountains, the state of Oaxaca is known for its many microclimates (I've seen a mention of as many as 1000 microclimates somewhere, I think), and I think this extends to the people of the area as well. There are larger groups, but the state has many distinct cultures that speak mutually unintelligible languages and have their own culture and lifestyle. As an example, the treatment of women and their role in society can vary widely from one group to the next (see Zapotec women).

Given the historical difficulty of traveling in Oaxaca (mountains) and the diversity of the groups, the Guelaguetza is a gathering in July where people can display their culture. One of the most entertaining examples I saw was the pineapple dance: we listened to about 10 minutes of this on our ride back from the mezcal distillery from our Mitla tour.

I love the little girl shouting some narrative in Spanish.

Reciprocal Giving

The other aspect of the Guelaguetza is reciprocal giving, briefly mentioned in Wikipedia but covered in more depth at our cooking class. The chef explained that reciprocal gift giving is a important part of the collective culture here, publicly on display at the Guelaguetza. She gave examples such as the marriage of a daughter: rather than the woman's family paying for everything involved in a lavish wedding, they call upon neighbors and friends to provide the items needed as gifts. In this situation, the neighbor may give "a 10 kg turkey with feathers on" or "a large bag of maize," that would be used to prepare the wedding feast. Every gift given is carefully recorded, so that in the future the gift giver can call upon the father of the bride to give the same gift in return.

How exactly this plays into Guelaguetza is unclear. Perhaps it was a form a trade between the indigenous mountain peoples who may have specialized in producing different goods and foods. Or maybe it's a demonstration of an important aspect of their every day culture. I'm not going to read up extensively on this, so let me know in the comments if you happen to be well informed on Oaxacan mountain cultures and the Guelaguetza!

Modern Guelaguetza

So with that bit of history in mind, what we saw at this year's Guelaguetza was art, dancing, dresses, parades, and lots of side festivals. I wonder if the side festivals are traditionally associated with the Guelaguetza, or if smart festival planners just schedule them for the time of year when lots of visitors and mountain folk are in town. There are probably a couple of dozen individual festivals - the ones that we saw flyers for include:
  • Mole festival - expensive!!! Sold out and probably not worth it (at least $40 USD per person)
  • Mezcal festival - we went to this one! Totally worth it at $40 pesos ($2.25 USD) for unlimited mezcal tasting from at least a hundred distilleries
  • Tamale festival - One of Melissa's top foods, but this was way outside of town
  • Pozole - Another one of Melissa's favorites and also way outside of town
  • Mushrooms - Yet another one of Melissa's favorites and didn't start until after we left
  • Carne asada
  • Barbacoa - like bbq; tickets were sold out
  • Arteians - As in clothes and souvenirs. Was right next to the mezcal fest so we walked through this one. Nothing that we hadn't seen before
  • Manzanas - a.k.a. apples; was not a priority
Our participation in the Guelaguetza was limited to the Mezcal Festival and a noon dance performance at the Teatro Macedonia Alcalá. The mezcal festival was great, on par with Whisky Fest NY (I went in 2012) in terms of variety, ahead in production values (they had some demo distilling equipment on display there and great displays explaining the history and state of mezcal production), and was less than 1% of the cost.

Mezcal festival

Pozole Fest would have been nice

The noon dance performance was held in the beautiful Teatro Macedonio Alcalá near zocalo. I insisted we go because we kept missing the nighttime outdoor performances due to rain, lack of tickets and exhaustion. Fortunately it ended up being really cool!

Now we have no idea what they were saying, so we lost a lot of narrative sung by a female singer. Many of the dances were demonstrative enough to understand though, such as when one guy was jumping around with a marlin (Melissa swears it was a shark or a swordfish) prop on his head and three fishermen danced with nets and occasionally tried (and failed) to catch the marlin dancer. I'm pretty sure that dance was clearly about how indigenous people harvest corn in the fall...

The dancing women wore very colorful dresses in similar cuts but with different designs. A lot of the show was them presenting the dress and dancing in circles with the men. At the end, the women came out in groups of three with banners displaying their dance troupe's name and coat of arms (odd), so we wonder if each trio was a different town or if the entire show was one town's presentation.

The Teatro on the left

At the end of this show, the women went into the crowd and took audience members up on stage for some informal dancing. Sadly, I hadn't figured out what was happening when one of the women approached me and held her hand out. Naturally I understood none of what she said and thought they were asking for tips or something, so I waved her onto the next person and missed a chance to be part of the show. Oh well, even if I had understood perfectly, I would have had no idea whether these dance steps were common knowledge, so I probably would have declined anyway. If given another chance though, I'd definitely go up and make a fool of myself.

Line dancing with some interesting dresses

Santo Domingo

We'd heard that the Church of Santo Domingo was a big deal but didn't understand why until we made it there on our third day. It turns out that many of the good restaurants, bars, and mezcal shops are in the Santo Domingo part of town, as well as a huge, beautiful cultural museum on the church grounds.

We first tried to make it to the church just as the rain was starting one day and ran the last block or so only to find out that the church takes a break from being open for three hours every afternoon. Rather than wait in the rain we hid in a coffee shop for a while and visited the shops that some mezcal distilleries have set up in town. These shops are like information centers for a single distillery - the point isn't so much to sell mezcal, but to have some real estate in town that gets your distillery's name out there and lets aficionados sample everything you make - for free. I ended up buying a bottle of Del Maguey Chichicapa for less than half of what it would cost in New York. Melissa even bought an airplane sized bottle of a passion fruit mezcal crema! That may be the first bottle of alcohol I've seen her purchase.

We also kept dry in in the "Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca" (Institute of Graphics Arts) that was really a library with a small art exhibit in the front. It was a relaxing way to spend an hour, flipping through picture books about Amazonian and Siberian tribes in a quiet library while it rained outside.

Santo Domingo on a rainy day

So fancy with all that gold leaf covering every ornate surface

When we finally made it to the church, we were surprised to see that the entire interior is covered in gold leaf. I suppose for some people this is the height of taste, but it didn't do much for us. A guide just inside the church offered to take us on a guided tour but we declined, took a few pictures and bought a post card in the attached gift shop.

I'm going to blame the rain for the fact that we didn't initially notice the huge museum on church grounds. We only heard about it from our tour guide at the Mitla, so we went back on our last full day in town. It's astonishing because as gaudy and flashy as the church is, the museum is understated, elegant and serene. It used to be a Dominican monastery that has been converted into the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca and gardens.

Courtyard at the monastery museum

Also the courtyard

Serene hallway

This museum houses artifacts from a wide range of Mesoamerican cultuers, not just the local indigenous civilizations. They have artifacts ranging from Olmec stone heads (the predecessors to the Aztecs and Mayans), to desks used by one of the first presidents of modern Mexico.

One of the coolest displays is of artifacts from the ruins of Monte Alban, the major site near Oaxaca that we skipped (can only do so many ruins!). The centerpiece is a skull covered in a jade netting or mask that was discovered in a tomb at Monte Alban. We learned on our Mitla tour (Mitla is a town and an archeological ruin site) that the residents of pre-Hispanice Mitla learned of the conquistadors approaching, and emptied their own tombs out, moving their ancestors remains and artifacts to Monte Alban, which was never found and destroyed by the Spanish.

Maybe Olmec artifacts

The jade skull mask

Jesus cake artifact?

It's hard to overstate the incredible architecture in this former monastery, not that it was extraordinary but that it was such a big contrast from the church, and looked so great in its surroundings. I really liked the massive open windows that looked out from the shady hallways onto the sunlit Oaxacan city and mountainsides. These were popular Instagram spots for everyone.

I think we could have made it into the gardens on the museum grounds, but didn't see anybody on them when we looked out from the monastery windows the day we visited. It's too bad because they were quite well maintained and had a huge variety of spectacular trees, agaves, cacti (I swear some were single straight cactus tubes 30 feet tall) and other plants. Something to revisit if we return to Oaxaca.

I loved these enormous windows

Tall cacti in the gardens


Like any good Mexican city, Oaxaca has some notable mercados: markets with hundreds of vendor stalls. We visited the pair of Mercado 20 de Noviembre (named for the Revolution Day) and Mercado Benito Juarez (named for Mexico's first indigenous president). These markets are right across the street from each other in the southwest quadrant of centro.

The 20 de Noviembre market is a dense network of stalls selling moles, tlayudas, snacks and meals. It had a couple bread and mezcal stalls but the majority were tiny restaurant stalls that seemed to have the same menu. We sat at one that had giant pots of colorful moles simmering and had our first tlayuda con chorizo, topped with frijolitos, super stretchy Oaxacan cheese (quesillo) and some vegetables. I got a mole rojo, a red spicy sauce, over a chicken leg and rice (mole is almost always served over rice). Both were really good; Melissa even liked the mole!

After entering the market, to the left there is a smokey hallway that extends out to the street. This is the "meat section," packed with stalls displaying thin cuts of raw meat draped over rods and cutting boards. This meat alleyway was intense; we couldn't figure what was going on until we talked to another travelers about it days later.

"Meat hall"

The way it works is the vendors all sell their meats in large portions, at the same price. When you buy a portion, they cut it off and grill it up for you over a hot coal grill right at their stall. While they do that you take a number and go find a seat or buy toppings to be prepared as well. Other stalls sold bunches of young onions with long green shoots attached, chiles, and other vegetables. For some reason we weren't allowed to by those, our "waiter" kept ushering us to a seat and ignoring our questions about "verduras y vegetales."

We were able to obtain some giant tortillas (almost tlayuda sized) and a saucer of spicy pico de gallo from a woman there who spoke some English. A few minutes later our cooked meat arrived at our cramped table. I think we got a marinaded pork cur, I thought the tacos were pretty good but Melissa only considered them OK. The smokiness and chaos of the hall makes eating here a challenging and unique dining experience.

Across the street is the Benito Juarez market, which has a much broader mix of offerings but much fewer ready to eat foods. I had struggled to find many mezcals in Oaxaca before we made it here, at one point getting really frustrated when a fellow traveler couldn't fathom how we hadn't seen them, didn't we know they were everywhere? Well the Benito Juarez market has many mezcal stalls selling a dozen or hundreds of different mezcal varieties. Most excitingly, one of the well marketed mezcals I saw here was selling for only half the price we saw at a fancy shop just a block from the market!

Worm and grasshopper hot sauces for sale

Mercado Benito Juarez goes far beyond mezcals though; we saw shops selling raw meat, tortas and tacos, trinkets, fresh produce, bread, candy (so many candy shops), toys, hats, swords, belts, clothes, house goods, pets (mostly lizards, guinea pigs and fish), chapulines, pastries, mole concentrates, hot sauces, and more.

The Rest of Centro

The rest of our time in Oaxaca City was just wandering around and experiencing some of what the city had to offer with no particular destination. The mezcal cocktail scene is vibrant; in some of the reading I've done, a lot of chefs at popular restaurants say they came to Oaxaca to explore this scene and end up staying. We visited one bar that only used the two or three bottles produced by a single distillery. They made impressive cocktails with their limited liquor selection.

One day we wandered into a beautiful little museum + library + church building that we still don't understand. Nice courtyard and architecture though.

I was actually surprised at how good the art scene in Oaxaca seemed to be. Melissa and I are probably best described as mildly indifferent to art: we appreciate some things and really like a few others but never seek art out and know almost nothing that wasn't covered in college courses (EDITOR'S NOTE: uh, probably don't know anything that wasn't covered in elementary school for me, when we used to have moms come in once a month to talk about artists). In Oaxaca, good, interesting, contemporary art galleries were everywhere; we walked into a few with really interesting paintings and bizarre sculptures.

Full wall hair painting

Some tableware that we liked

A common sight here are these tiny malls that are a collection of six to a dozen stores arranged around the courtyard of a colonial building. They usually host a mix of art (sometimes quite expensive), cafes, restaurants, mezcal shops and other small businesses. One in particular caught our eye: an artist who made ceramic bowls, cups, plates and other tableware. Melissa and I rarely like the same pieces of art, but usually see eye-to-eye on items like these.

The Santo Domingo area has a lot of rooftop bars and restaurants that offer amazing views on a clear Oaxacan night. We managed to get up to one for a decent drink and watch the sunset while the block lost power for about five minutes. I would have liked to explore these more, but it's not free to hang out on a rooftop for hours and it could be tricky to find the street entrances for those places!

Hover for Oaxacan blackout (picutres taken at different times of the night)

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