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The Silk Route - World Travel: Oaxaca and Guelaguetza, Mexico
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Mexico: Oaxaca & Guelaguetza
July 2016

Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Guelaguetza oaxaca

 

My favourite town in Mexico with lovely people and a great laid-back atmosphere - stepped-up a few notches at Guelaguetza, a fantastic fiesta and celebration of local cultures.

Oaxaca

on the road to oaxaca
On the road to oaxaca.

Our driver was coming from Oaxaca to Puebla to pick us up and take us back to Oaxaca. Unfortunately there were disruptions on the highway - teachers have been in dispute with new rules for some time and cause a lot of problems on the roads as well as there having been some violence. Alejandro, our guide and driver, had called the previous day to let us know that the pick-up would be later than planned but we were away by 10:30.

on the road to oaxaca
on the road to oaxaca

 

 

We made good time taking a break for coffee around mid-day. At first the landscape was very green and agricultural, then arid with an area of densely packed cactus.

on the road to oaxaca
on the road to oaxaca

 

We had to depart again from our planned route and travel on the Pan American Highway because of a road block - again due to the teachers.

on the road to oaxaca
Trouble on the highway.
Burned-out bus from earlier confrontations in Nochixtlan.
oaxaca
Oaxaca

The road was pretty bad but the scenery was spectacular, crossing more green mountains - even Alejandro was taking photographs! We were unable to rejoin the motorway all the way to Oaxaca so it was 4:30 before we arrived.

The Valley of Oaxaca was once the centre of the Mixtec and Zapotec civilisations. The Zapotecs were here in Preclassic times, growing from the agricultural communities which had settled in the three connected valleys, living in small villages as far back as 1500B.C. The Zapotec themselves, as a distinct civilisation emerge around 500 B.C. when they began to build their greatest centre at Monte Alban. The Mixtec occupied a number of fertile valleys to the north and west of Oaxaca from the middle of the tenth century A.D. for about 600 years, first on hill tops, then down in the valleys.1

oaxaca

 

oaxaca

Oaxaca today is a colonial town, very much a relic of the Spanish conquest. It was my favourite of all the towns and cities we have visited in Mexico, it exudes a typically Mexican vibe, very relaxed but exotic.

oaxaca
oaxaca
Protest camp in the Zocalo.

The buildings are low and colourful, the squares spacious, built for people to congregate.

oaxaca

Unfortunately the protesting teachers were also congregating here, camping on the Zocalo. As far as we understood it, new regulations required teachers to be evaluated regularly on performance and positions to be filled by a suitability-based hiring process.

We were told that, before the reforms in 2013, teachers were basically guaranteed a job for life, regardless of performance and jobs could even be passed to other family members bypassing any hiring process at all. Apart from some traffic problems we didn't see any trouble in Oaxaca. We had timed our visit particularly to see Guelaguetza and the teachers' union had promised not to disrupt it.

oaxaca
Molotes
A maize pastry called masa filled with a chorizo/potato mix and deep-fried - or variations thereof!

oaxaca

oaxaca
Jicaletas are a slice of jicama - a root vegetable - dipped in chamoy, a sticky sweet/spicy sauce, and then coated with a flavoured chili powder.

There was a festival atmosphere in the town, with parades in the evenings - it was a lot of fun to be here at this time.

There were lots of food stalls in the streets and a small covered market set up selling local handicrafts - baskets, pottery, clothing etc. A large stage was set up near Santo Domingo and the beautifully dressed women talked about their traditional dress and local customs.

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oaxaca
Beautiful clothing.
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oaxaca
Fried insects, mostly grasshoppers - a very common and popular street food.
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oaxaca
oaxaca

The parade on the first evening was a succession of big flat bed trucks, each with its load of gaily dressed men, women and children from a community. As they passed they threw all kinds of things into the crowds - in a very short time we had collected a large biscuit, several drinking gourds, a plastic bowl, purple flag, palm leaf fan, bandanas and roses!

oaxaca
oaxaca
oaxaca
The little boy was taking his duties very seriously.

Men on horseback, wearing sombreros and all the proper Mexican kit, and a loud marching band completed the colourful joyous spectacle.

oaxaca
oaxaca
oaxaca

At the end of the street leading to the church of Santo Domingo they all got off the trucks and proceeded to the square in front of the church, one of the women carrying the village banner in front of their people.

oaxaca
I don't know how the women keep those fine lace headdresses on - lots of grips I guess!
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oaxaca
oaxaca
oaxaca
oaxaca
oaxaca
oaxaca
Santo Domingo

The procession made its way to Santo Domingo where it broke up and many of the women were happy to pose for photographs -all smiles and no two dresses seemingly alike.

The Dominican church is part of a complex of monastic buildings set around cloistered courtyards which now house a museum. Built between the 16th and 18th centuries the church is baroque in style with a lot of gold leaf in evidence.

However, the ceiling is amazing, studded with carved figures.

oaxaca
Church ceiling.

The figures are set on the branches of a tree - this is the family tree of Felix de Guzman, father of St Dominic, the founder of the order.

oaxaca
Cloisters in what was the Santo Domingo monastery.
oaxaca

 

oaxaca
A human skull covered with a jade mosaic mask found in Tomb 7, Monte Alban.
Oaxaca Santo Domingo Museum
oaxaca
Statue of Xipe Totec, god of rebirth.
Oaxaca Santo Domingo Museum

The museum holds many interesting artefacts from the civilisations which occupied the surrounding area for centuries past.

Most important and impressive is the treasure found in Tomb 7 at Monte Alban, a dazzling array of gold and jewellery, beautiful alabaster vessels and a stunning mosaic jade mask.

oaxaca
Beautiful alabaster vessels found in Tomb 7, Monte Alban.
Oaxaca Santo Domingo Museum
oaxaca
Quinta Real
oaxaca
Quinta Real - Los Lavaderos
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Quinta Real

We were staying very close to Santo Domingo in the beautiful Quinta Real, the former 16th century Convent of Santa Catalina of Siena. The earliest buildings were of adobe and brick; the current buildings date mostly from the 17th century.

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Quinta Real - Los Lavaderos
An octagonal enclosure with twelve basins. Water runs from a well to a central fountain and then to the individual basins, controlled by an ingenious hydraulic system.
oaxaca
Quinta Real - Los Lavaderos
oaxaca
Quinta Real

It was a cool, tranquil place and we enjoyed many a margarita in the former cloisters, though I'm not fond of the mezcal variety - too smoky for me. Andrew liked it though, also the tamarind margarita.

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Drinks and nibbles at Quinta Real.
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Quinta Real
A lovely place to have breakfast.
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Quinta Real
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Quinta Real had its own mini Guelaguetza-style show in the evening.
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... get it grilled - eat!
oaxaca
Chocolate shop La Soledad.

There is a fantastic market in Oaxaca where, as always, there were loads of places to eat. One smoky section was devoted to cooking meat - you choose what you want from a stall then take it to the guy operating the grill - simple!

oaxaca
Choose your meat...

We had to get some chocolate, Mexico being responsible for it! We tried a couple of places, some is extremely granular but we liked the chocolate from La Soledad, much more to our taste, and bought chilli, cardamom and mint.

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Beers at Café Gourmand from Latitud 17.
oaxaca
Great tapas at Gourmand.

We had some great food in Oaxaca. Alejandro had recommended the Latitud 17 Café on Ignacio Allende, he said the mango beer was very good. So we went along one afternoon only to find it was closed. I looked through the barred entrance and saw someone inside and said I was hoping for a mango beer, "no problem - just go into the Gourmand next door". Sure enough, the waitress in the Gourmand (a delicatessen that also serves food) popped into the bar and brought us the mango beers which were really excellent, very refreshing. On top of that, they served superb tapas - goat cheese with nuts, Serrano ham on cheese, chorizo, and Spanish tortilla!

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Praga

We had a great leisurely lunch one day at Praga, excellent spicy burgers on their rooftop terrace and cold Bohemia beers.

The afternoon before the second evening parade there was a huge thunderstorm which barely stopped in time for the festivities but it didn't dampen the spirit on the streets - huge crowds at this one, the previous had a lot of people there but nothing like this!

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oaxaca
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oaxaca



oaxaca

 

Guelaguetza

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Oaxaca
The big tent-like construction on the hillside to the left is where Guelaguetza is held.

Guelaguetza is a Zapotec word for exchange of gifts and cooperation between people. It is in this spirit that communities don their traditional clothes and perform dances, play music and demonstrate local customs in a huge festival in Oaxaca. The main performances take place on two consecutive Mondays in July but there are parades and music and smaller performances in Oaxaca throughout the time of the fiesta. It has taken on religious overtones but for me this is a joyful celebration of people and how they live, love, work and celebrate together.

Oaxaca Guelaguetza

There was a real fiesta feel in the town during the period of Guelaguetza. Alejandro arrived to take us to the huge tent-like auditorium on a hill above the town. He dropped us off - absolutely impossible to park! - but we had no problems, having tickets arranged already for very good seats in the centre four rows back from the front. Free hats as we came in - everyone was given one!

On the left and right of the stage all the performers were seated, there must have been twenty or thirty different communities represented. I went to take some photographs and they were all so friendly, lots of big smiles - lovely people.

Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Very sinister characters!
They did a very strange dance involving lots of rhythmic stamping behind two beautiful girls seated at the front of the stage who all the time quietly shelled nuts into baskets.

Before the start the band was playing with a big bass drum reverberating through the auditorium. It is actually a huge tent, open at the sides which is just as well, it would have been stifling otherwise.

Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
There was an introduction which of course we didn't understand.

The show itself was fantastic, gorgeously dressed beautiful women and their partners dancing traditional dances or enacting local rituals such as a preparation for a wedding where the young girl had her hair washed and bride and groom were dressed in new clothes before their dance.

Oaxaca Guelaguetza
At the start a representative from each community came on stage.
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Firecrackers and fireworks feature strongly at all Mexican fiestas!
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
After the fireworks the show began.
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Not content dancing with huge baskets on their heads, they do it in heels!

 

Four immensely enjoyable hours - what a magnificent spectacle on our final day in Mexico. I make no apologies for the huge number of photos - only a fraction of what I took!

Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Yes, that's a live turkey - it was fine, wasn't harmed at all in the performance!
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Preparing the bride for her wedding.
Oaxaca Guelaguetza

 

Oaxaca Guelaguetza
In the spirit of sharing - mezcal probably.
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza




Oaxaca Guelaguetza

 

People of all ages took part, young and old. They all seemed to be very proud to be there to show off their particular produce or rituals or customs. Some were very serious about their performances, those who were showing the local customs or way of life, exemplifying the ethos of cooperation and sharing. The dances were joyous or, occasionally, sinister or warlike.

 

Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Here come the Zapotecs!
Oaxaca Guelaguetza

Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza

 

Oaxaca Guelaguetza
And the immensely popular Pineapple Girls! After their dance they threw the pineapples into the crowd!
Oaxaca Guelaguetza

 

Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Some kind of battle? Perhaps involving Spanish conquistadors? Those wearing red hats have swords.
Oaxaca Guelaguetza




Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
A very good-humoured rather risqué representation of courting I think.
Note the little boy in the background, perhaps he represents the church come to spoil the fun!



Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
A really exuberant dance, one of my favourites. Another courting dance.
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza


 

 

I can honestly say I've never seen so many beautiful happy people as we did at Guelaguetza.

Oaxaca Guelaguetza

 

Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
Oaxaca Guelaguetza
As many as possible on stage for the finale!
Oaxaca Guelaguetza

 

In the spirit of sharing each community throws out huge amounts of stuff representing local produce or customs including bread, sticky sweets, mangoes, tamales, tortillas, banana crisps, hats, flags and even pottery - I caught a pot which was just as well as it was quite hefty! A couple of men either side were also giving me stuff including a fantastic straw hat and a hunk of bread stuck with a dozen coloured flags.

Oaxaca Guelaguetza

 

 

References

  1. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, Michael D. Coe & Rex Koontz, Seventh Edition, Thames & Hudson,