Oaxaca, Mexico, Trip Report

Amcan Travel goes to Oaxaca, Mexico, to take part in the Western Hemisphere's oldest, biggest, and best traditional folk music and dance festival, The Guelaguetza.

For the first time in our years of traveling together, Barbara and Richard had separate itineraries. Richard had a very easy flight from Seattle to Oaxaca via Los Angeles and Mexico City, all accomplished in a day leaving at 6am and arriving in Oaxaca the evening of the same day, Saturday the 16th of July. Barbara departed Seattle three days later, and ended up enduring one of the worst flights of her life. Her overnight flight from Seattle on Alaska Airlines was late arriving in Guadalajara, and lost her luggage so she could not go through customs there. So she was five hours later than expected getting to Oaxaca, and having arrived her luggage was still missing. The reason for separate itineraries is that this trip is a special adventure for a group of our musician friends in Seattle. We have an ensemble that was invited to visit Oaxaca to learn more about the local music, get first-hand experience of the music's history and background, and to present a special concert in the town square. Barbara provided travel arrangements for nine musicians and several family members and other friends to visit Oaxaca during their summer festival season. The Guelaguetza is the biggest event, occurring on each of the last two Mondays in July.

Richard's first couple of days in Oaxaca were crowded with rehearsal and performance. He jumped at the chance to sit in as a temporary member of the 50-piece Oaxaca State Band at the first Monday morning of Guelaguetza. This meant rising at 6:00am and arriving at the stadium before 8:00. The Banda Estada provides supporting music for dance performances for a standing-room-only an audience in an 12,000 seat stadium (photo, view from the bandstand). A couple of bandmates came down with a little stomach trouble on Monday, and by Tuesday it seemed the uncomfortable illness was well on its way to working through almost everyone in the band.

On Wednesday evening, we finally retrieved Barbara from the Oaxaca airport. She was tired and frustrated but happy to be in the tender care of our hostess at last. While the band did more rehearsing in the courtyardd, she took a shower and brushed teeth using water from tanks on the roof. Oaxaca has a very dry climate, and in our neighborhood the city turns on the public water delivery just once or twice per week. Most families deal with the situation by storing water, so you see big cisterns and water tanks on the roofs (photo, rooftop water tanks). While hoovering down some hearty soup and fresh home made salsa, Barbara enjoyed the full lecture of how dangerous the local water and raw produce is. She was warned not to even let the water touch her lips while showing, and to always use bottled water for teeth brushing. With several of our travel mates showing symptoms of the "turista," the only bathroom in the house is in great demand.

Thursday morning, 21 Jul, we walked down through the neighborhood to the local bus stop. We are staying in a working class community just a 15-minute drive from downtown. Many of the neighbors are from the same village, a place in northern Oaxaca up in the deep valley called Yalalag. So the neighborhood is known as Colonia Yalalag. It seems almost everybody is related as cousins. Our party is not all staying in the same house, but have been divided among four houses all within about a block. When the band rehearses in the courtyard, chickens and turkeys in their rooftop coops echo the music practice (photo, turkeys).

The local bus costs 3 pesos (30 cents US). Once in El Centro, off the main highway that is Chapultepec Boulevard, the bus runs down narrow city streets, most of them one way only. We went to a tourist hotel on Mina Street, where a local tour bus leaves for Monte Alban every hour or so. Monte Alban is the site of the most ancient ruins in the region (photo, pyramids at Monte Alban). Over 2000 years ago, this was the center of the Zapotec culture. Later, the site was occupied by Mixtec people who made many subterranean tombs. There are impressive platforms 30-40 feet high with steep staircases (photo, platform), and an I-shaped court for the traditional ball game (photo, ball court). There are also the so-called Danzante stones (photo, Dancers' Gallery). These stones were once thought to depict dancers, but a more likely interpretation is that the "dancing" men were prisoners or sacrificial victims. Unfortunately, there is no written history about what really happened then. Back to town, we walked in a torrential rain over to the Rufino Tamayo Museum, only to find the museum closed for mid-day meal and rest. We ran back to the Zocalo, the town square, and enjoyed shelter and some lunch at La Cafeteria. The rain was heavy but brief. Thirty minutes later, the sun came out and we got back on a local bus, making it home in time to catch the early evening band rehearsal.

Friday, 22 Jul, was a big day for our local hosts. Our friend who helped make most of the band adventure possible is a successful visual artist from Oaxaca who now lives most of the time in Seattle. He and another artist have a big show opening in a nice downtown gallery, and our hosts went all out preparing over 300 tamales for the reception. At the market, we got loads of fresh produce brought in from villages in the nearby mountains (photo, giant mushrooms). The band is being augmented by some local musicians, and under the leadership of Chencho (an excellent trumpet player himself, member of the Oaxaca State Band and very respected musician), we are to perform at the art opening that night. But first, Barbara and Richard had a mind to spend the day doing tourism activities. We got out of the house early, and maybe a little too quick. We forgot to bring along our ATM or credit card, so we had almost no money left in pocket after paying the bus fare for a tour to Santa Maria del Tule, Teotitlan del Valle, and Mitla. We took off from the same hotel on Mina St. The seven-hour tour starts in Tule, where there is a giant tree more than 2,000 years old. It has the largest trunk circumference in the world. The church built next to it looks like a toy house by comparison (photo, giant tree). The tour's visit to Teotitlan del Valle was actually a stop in one family workshop of the woven rugs for which the village is famous. In the town of Teotitlan, every household is a weaving and dying workshop. We watched a demonstration of making of the 100% natural rug. Raw wool is washed using a natural plant, instead of soap, then broken into fluffy balls and pulled out of the spinning wheel and onto hand weaving machines. The yarn is dyed with colors made only from natural animal, vegetable and mineral sources such as alfalfa leaves (green), the Indigo plant (blue), nutshells and tree barks (tans and browns), and the Cochineal bug (reds and purples), as well as a variety of seeds, fruits and flowers. The beautiful finished products made us kick ourselves for not having any money. The last stop was at Mitla, a Zapotec site that flourished sometime after Monte Alban declined. The striking architecture (photo, Mitla) is unique within Mexico with the exquisite workmanship on the fine local quarry stone (photo, wall decorations), which ranges in hue from pink to yellow. Unlike Monte Alban, Mitla's attraction lies not in its massive scale, but in its unusual ornamentation. The underground tombs are also highly decorated (photo, Mitla tomb), so the main section of the ruins are fun to climb down into, though pretty humid and warm, and a bit cramped.

Our tour bus driver kindly dropped us a block away from home on his way back to the city. We were back to the house just in time to clean up and depart for the art opening. Everbody all piled into a borrowed van with no back seats, most of the musicians squatting down in the back among instruments, hot tamales and hot sauce. The gallery was situated in an upscale shopping mall, so our 15-piece brass band spreading out in front of the gallery made quite a scene (photo, band). Barbara acted as photographer with limited knowledge of the camera and a lot of enthusiasm. It was a fun event, attended by a lot of people. The art opening sold at least one piece within one hour. Afterwards we all came home for a celebration with the family and neighborhood.

Saturday is the biggest market day in Oaxaca, so we were eager to take in the scene at the central market. We took the early bus downtown, stopped for some nice breakfast of Huevos Mexicana (scrambled eggs with tomato, green pepper to resemble the Mexican flag) and wonderful hot chocolate. We explored the giant market in a couple of hours, much of the time lost in endless stalls of fabrics, clothes, household items, pottery, furniture, souvenirs, shoes and lunch counters. We came away with a nice green-glazed cooking pot with lid and a package of the dark brown bricks for Mexican hot chocolate. We walked back into Centro and returned to the Rufino Tamayo Museum. This time we found the museum open. We enjoyed the collection of pre-Hispanic art, of course Richard's favorites were statues showing musicians and dancers at work (photo, ancient flutist).

Back at the house, Richard joined bandmates for yet another rehearsal. Barbara went to downtown with our host family to see the parade, prelude to the following Monday Guelaguetza. The delegations march with the crowd all the way to the city center, and everyone dances with the various groups (photo, pre-Guelaguetza parade). Barbara learned that women were not allowed to participate in the traditional Oaxacan dance until recent years. Even now, when men and women dance together, they are supposed to feel a spiritual happiness deep inside, which is not expected to show on their faces. So Barbara's smiling face with all teeth and no eye is apparently not considered cool.

Sunday, 24 Jul, was the day all our rehearsing was to pay off. For the Seattle band members the Sunday afternoon Zocalo concert is a bigger deal even than the finale of Guelaguetza. Band members dressed up, sent larger instruments in a car, took the bus to downtown. Barbara again tagged along as the photographer of the concert (photo, band in the Zocalo). The Zocalo event was organized by Oaxaca's Ministry of Culture, and was broadcast live with a local radio host on site. There were about 200 chairs arranged around the band, and a small space in front to allow the dancers to do their show. The weather cooperated very nicely and did not rain during the performance. The local audience seemed interested and appreciative of us foreigners playing their music and supporting a group of local dancers (photo, dancers). A little girl from the village was giving out pretty flowers and candies to the audience for good luck symbol (photo, village girl). She looks like a natural born star, cute as a button (photo, cute). She occupied most of Barbara's camera space and of course Barbara had to get a picture with the little star (photo, stars). Richard was happy and honored to be featured as soloist during one of the Norte Americano numbers (photo, Richard on sax), and felt like a local celebrity. The climax came when the band concluded the concert with the Oaxacan State Anthem, Dios Nunca Muere. Though it is a rather long composition the entire audience came to their feet and stood for the whole piece, some seemed to have tears in their eyes.

After the concert, we took a few obligatory promo photos in front of the Cathedral and then went in search of a restaurant for our afternoon meal. More than 20 of us took up the whole courtyard of a little place that re-opened after lunch just to accommodate us. We somewhat rushed through our meal, since it was the only day we would have available to visit the Oaxacan Cultural Museum. As it was, we had only about two hours to see the museum. We did get to see the Mixtec treasures from Tomb Seven at Monte Alban, and a retrospective of modern Oaxacan painters. The museum is reasonably sized and nicely laid out. It would be easy to spend several hours browsing. We felt the time we had to visit did not do it justice.

Monday, 25 Jul, was the final day of Guelaguetza. Three of our band members returned to support the Oaxacan State Band in the morning presentation. For the afternoon, our whole group was invited to play with the Police Band (photo, Police Band) at the amphitheater (photo, crowd) Barbara was lucky to snag a seat close to the stage and the band. Luckily the seats are more like the cement benches with numbers vaguely written and it is slightly bigger than our bottom so she squeezed in and nobody complained.

The entrance of the 7 delegations from all over the State marked the opening of this most impressive expression of Oaxacan folklore. Dancers in their indigenous costumes dance to the music unique to their area (photo, dancing). Some dancers wear masks, others wear amazingly designed, richly colored skirts (photo, skirts) or spin around in heavy feathered headdresses (photo, feathered headdresses). The dances, songs and poems reflect the people's daily life and struggle. Even though life in the valleys and up in the mountains can be harsh, their performances show their happiness, devotion to family and tradition, and humor. The show went on for several hours, the amphitheatre totally packed. Each group would end their performance by throwing goodies at the audience. Barbara caught a pack of roasted pumpkin seeds, which certainly added to her festival atmosphere.

When the performances ended, the whole stadium emptied into the road that leads downtown and along the streets leading to the Zocalo, thus becoming another big parade through the city center. The bands played, dancers danced along the street all the way to the Cathedral. As darkness fell, we saw a spectacular firework show. The creative flaming pattern designs right above and on the wall of the Cathedral impressed everybody (photo, fireworks).

A few of us decided to have dinner afterwards so we went to a stylish cafe close to Santa Domingo Church. But they had already closed the kitchen so we only got drinks there, and went out to the street vendor for some empanadas with genuine Oaxacan string cheese and zucchini flowers, washed down with hot chocolate. We had so much fun that we did not get home til midnight. Barbara had to get up before 6 Tuesday morning for her early flight back to Seattle. Richard was able to stay in Oaxaca a few days longer. He visited more Zapotec ruins at Yagul (photo, Yagul) and explored the old quarry in Colonia Yalalag (photo, quarry). He spent a day with musician friends in Ocotlan visiting the market, the pretty restored church (photo, Ocotlan church), and a museum dedicated to Rodolfo Morales (photo, Morales cylinder paintings).