Oaxaca and Day of the Dead

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November 6th 2014
Published: December 14th 2014
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We arrived in Oaxaca on the night bus from San Cristobal, which was surprisingly comfortable and we had a reasonable amount of sleep. However, we didn't appreciate the police stop at about 6am when we all had to get off the bus and have our hand luggage searched. I'm not really sure what they were looking for as it was a rather pathetic search but maybe that was because I look so innocent.

We had decided to visit Oaxaca to be there for Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). It is a holiday for remembering and honouring the dead and Mexico's most important holiday. It is a festive and joyous occasion where Mexicans invest lots of time and money in the celebrations. Oaxaca is well known for their celebrations which last several days.

We arrived at our hostel but couldn't check in until 1pm so went for breakfast and a walk around Oaxaca. On our walk we came across a number of children dressed up in fantastic costumes and school groups making altars and sand sculptures.

Seeing altars around Oaxaca is very common, traditionally each family would make an altar in their home to honour the lives of those who have past. Altars include offerings to the dead, as it is believed that the dead will return to Earth during the Day of the Dead. The offerings include:

Marigold flowers - that symbolise death and help guide the dead back to earth,

Candles - when lit they welcome the deceased back to earth,

Refreshments - favourite foods and drinks of the deceased as it is a long hard journey

Sugar skulls - symbolise death and beyond,

Day of the dead bread - decorated Mexican sweet bread

After checking in we had a shower and a short afternoon nap. Unfortunately my bed was the most uncomfortable bed I have ever slept on as I could feel all the springs, I think the floor would have been more comfortable.

After dinner at one of the many street food stalls we decided to have a reasonably early night as we had booked in for a cooking class the next day. Unfortunately it was one of the staff members birthdays so they were out in the courtyard having some drinks and making lots of noise. They finally headed out around 11pm and we thought finally some peace and quiet. However, this was short lived as they returned to the hostel at around 3am to continue their party and didn't care who they woke up or kept awake. Their party continued until we got up at about 8:30am for breakfast. We told the owner we were leaving and wanted our money back which she agreed to as she knew she could easily resell our beds. We booked into a "fancy" budget hotel at considerably more cost but we had a comfortable bed, private bathroom, great breakfast and peace and quiet. We were so disappointed because when we booked the hostel it had great reviews but in the last few months the reviews have gone downhill so I'm not sure if there has been a change in ownership or what.

Our cooking class began with a trip to the market to buy many of the ingredients we needed for the class. The menu was chichilo mole, stuffed zucchini flowers, hand made tortillas and chicken enchiladas with salsa verde. The market was incredibly busy but really interesting as it was a market for locals (we didn't see any other tourists). The produce all looked so fresh and there were many great sights and smells. After the market it was time to do some cooking. We started with the mole as that was the most time consuming and required a large number of ingredients. The class was great but unfortunately we shared the making of all the dishes so didn't get to do everything and sometimes while doing one thing you missed what was happening with another part of the process. During cooking we had a little snack of grasshoppers which were very crispy and covered in lime and chili. Overall it was a great day with some amazingly good food. Hopefully I can recreate some of it back in NZ!

In the evening we headed towards the main square to see what was happening and kept bumping into various street parades with marching bands and people dressed up in fantastic costumes and dancing.

The next day we had a quiet morning as we had a Day of the Dead tour booked for the evening. In the afternoon we headed back to our original hostel to join the tour. Our first stop was at a local house in Teotitlán de Valle for a traditional Zapotec drink making demonstration. The drink was called Tejate, it is a prehispanic drink made from toasted corn, cacoa, cinnamon, the seeds and flowers from the Mamet fruit and sweetened with sugar water. It had a very strange earthy taste which wasn't very popular among the group. For dinner we had tamales wrapped in banana leaves. The son of the family also demonstrated how he makes traditional rugs on the large loom and the Grandmother showed how she spins the wool to make the rugs. The wool is dyed with colours that come from natural elements such as plants, trees, wood, and bugs.

Our next two stops were alcohol related, a Mezcal factory for tasting and a shop to buy beer. Along the way a part related to the air conditioning fell off the van, we stopped picked it up and carried on our way, it was strange that no one was at all concerned.

We visited the Pantheon General cemetery which is a quiet local cemetery. Here some of the graves had been decorated and there were a few people around visiting but overall it was pretty quiet except for a band playing and the small crowd surrounding them.

The main stop of the tour was at Xoxocotlán cemetery which is one of the main cemeteries where Day of the Dead is celebrated. It was full of people, many had cleaned and decorated their family graves and were either sitting around chatting or singing. Outside the cemetery was a wide path lined with street food stalls, you could buy everything from tacos, to pizza to crêpes.

The next day in the street we received a copy of a timetable of events happening in Oaxaca during the Day of the Dead celebrations. It was great to finally know what was happening at what places and when.

We visited an old convent for an exhibition of altars from the different regions around Oaxaca. In the evening we stopped by at the Basílica of Nuestra Señora de La Soledad as they had a light show on the side of the church. In the square next to the church were four fantastic large sand sculptures.

As most of the Day of the Dead activities were coming to an end we visited the historic site of Monte Albán (means White Mountain). It was the ancient Zapotec capital and was located overlooking current day Oaxaca. It was first occupied around 500 BC and the population grew to about 25,000 people. Monte Albán exercised political, economical, and ideological control over other communities in the area.

We signed up for a cycle trip to see some of the areas around Oaxaca. Our first stop was at el Arbol de Tule, which claims to be the largest tree in the world. It is 42 metres tall with a diameter of 14 metres. There are also different shapes that can be seen in the trunk of the tree such as an elephant.

We cycled to Teotitlán de Valle for a demonstration of preparing wool (cleaning, spinning and dying). All the dyes are natural and made from various plants however the red is from a small insect that lives on the cactus and called a cochinilla, add lemon juice to the red for orange and then add limestone for purple. The father also did a demonstration on the large loom showing how he makes the carpets and rugs which were beautiful.

When we booked Gary had asked to do an extended version of the trip which included a 5km cycle uphill, he was joined for this with the other guy in our group while the ladies enjoyed the view from the comfort of the support vehicle. I then joined the boys at the top to enjoy the downhill, unfortunately shortly after the start of the downhill the other guy hit a pothole and went flying over the handlebars. Gary and I were both behind him and managed to avoid him while skidding to a stop. He was a little shaken but luckily not badly hurt with only cuts and grazes.

We stopped at a local place for a lunch of tlayudas and quesadillas which were really tasty.

Our next stop after lunch was at Hierve de Agua, meaning the water boils. Cold bubbling mineral springs run into cliff top pools with a spectacular view over the valley and of the mineral formations that look like frozen waterfalls. It is actually an archaeological site built over 2,500 years ago as a complex irrigation system.

Our last stop was at the same Mezcal factory we had stopped at on our Day of the Dead tour, however this time we were given an explanation of the manufacturing process as well as some more tastings.

On our last day in Oaxaca we visited the Textile museum. I loved seeing the different designs and it was great that this museum included English explanations about how the different designs were created.

We enjoyed spending some time relaxing in Zócalo, the main plaza shaded by tall trees and arcades around the edges with lots of restaurants. The paths around the plaza were full of stalls selling everything from food and drinks to textiles, CDs and clothes.

We caught the night bus back to San Cristobal.

Additional photos below
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15th December 2014
Locals in the streets

Excellent adventure!
How fantastic that you were in Oaxaca for the Day of the Dead--great planning! The costumes, sand paintings and cemetery visits sound wonderful! So glad you got to try the wonderful Oaxacan tamales and mole--famous all over Mexico. As usual, your tours and cooking classes seemed great. I didn't visit the Hierve de Agua when I was there, so I'll be sure to visit next time. Glad Gary's foot is better!

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