Friday, 3 February 2012

Mexican Celebrations: Part Two - Oaxaca: La Guelaguetza

 I would love to tell you about an amazing festival that I am sure many of you have never heard of.

La Guelaguetza (gell-ah-get-zah) or locally referred to as "Lunes Del Cerro"(Monday on the hill).  This festival is celebrated every July in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca Mexico.  I have had the absolute privilege to experience this festival for myself and it was unforgettable!

A brief history of the festival:  The state of Oaxaca is located in the South-West part of Mexico.  The Zapotecs are the indigenous people who inhabit this region.  Guelaguetza was the word the Zapotecs used to describe the ceremony and celebration held each year to appease the gods in return for sufficient rain and a bountiful harvest.  More than three thousand years ago these indigenous people began to cultivate plants to supplement their hunting, fishing and gathering.  The most important of these plants was corn which formed the basis of their diet.  The feast of Xilonen, goddess of tender corn, falls on July 16 (in today's calendar) and is the signal to begin the two weeks of celebration.  When the Spanish arrived in Oaxaca in 1521 they attempted to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism.  Part of their strategy was to re-interpret their customs which honoured pagan beliefs.  In the case of the Guelaguetza, it was changed into a celebration of the feast of the Virgin of Carmen.

Today's Celebrations: The festival now combines precolonial celebrations of the corn goddess, Centeotl, and the Catholic feast day of the Virgin of Carmen.  Every year a young woman from one of the communities of Oaxaca is chosen to represent Centeotl, the corn goddess.  Part of this tradition is a contest to see which young lady is the most knowledgeable about her communities' traditions.

Since colonial times, the Guelaguetza festival has been celebrated on Cerro del Fortin (Fortin Hill) in Oaxaca.  An amphitheatre seating 11,000 people was specifically built for the celebration in the 1970's.  It was designed to allow people to have a clear view of the stage, but also to have a view of the beautiful city sprawled out below -and the view IS truly breathtaking!  During the festival, members of the 16 different ethnolinguistic groups** come to the festival, wearing their traditional clothing, and perform dances that are particular to their region.  At the end of the dancing they throw items to the crowd, products that come from the region they represent.  The festival culminates with the spectacular "Danza de la Pluma" which is a re-enactment of the battle between the Spanish and the Aztecs.
Incredible views from the amphitheater, looking towards the capital city of Oaxaca
**Oaxaca is the most ethnically complex of all of Mexico's 31 states.  The Zapotecs and the Miztecs are the two largest indigenous groups but there are many more groups than just these two.  It is believed that half the population of Oaxaca still speaks an indigenous dialect.  One of the most fascinating things I found while travelling in this region is if you take three separate villages that are each 5 kilometres apart, they will all speak a slightly different dialect.  Village "A" will understand the dialect of village "B" which is next to them, but if they were to travel two villages over to village "C", they will not be able to communicate with them.
Dates for Guelaguetza 2012: In 2012 the Guelaguetza festival will be held on Monday, July 23 and Monday, July 30.

This is a description of the official part of the festival. While it's worth seeing in it's own right, it is the unofficial celebrations around the city that really add to the festivities and make it an item that needs to be on your "bucket list."  During the two weeks of the Guelaguetza, you can attend different concerts, and exhibits. The mezcal fair is also a big draw at this time.

Mezcal Fair (or the "Feria Nacional del Mezcal)- I need to highlight this part of the festival because it is truly spectacular. The state of Oaxaca is arguably the biggest producer of the alcoholic beverage, Mezcal, in Mexico-and the world for that matter. Many years ago when I experienced this festival for myself, the fair consisted of dozens of booths set up along several blocks of a downtown street. Each booth represented one of the hundreds of mezcal producers from around the state. It was free to enter, and every booth handed out free samples of their product. You could find any type of flavor imaginable, from coffee to cinnamon, to a creamy concoction-it was all there! Not surprisingly, my recollection of the mezcal fair is a bit hazy, but I do seem to recall that the booths were manned by scantily clad women and if you were daring enough, you could also sample a true Mexican delicacy; the mezcal worm!
The fair has gone through some changes since I was there. Due to noise complaints from the surrounding hotels where the fair was held, they have moved the location to the largest park in town, Paseo Juarez el Llano. This location is an easy walk from downtown hotels.   Also, there is now a fee for admission which is 35 pesos, or roughly $2.75 USD (so worth it!!)  In addition to the mezcal vendors, the fair also now has a diverse number of booths selling authentic crafts that are produced in this region.  There are also many food booths doling out mouth-watering dishes such as tacos al pastor, carnitas, memelitas, different moles, salsas, and more (oh how I love true Mexican food!)  Renowned Oaxacan artists have been contracted to produce works of art (using all types of medium) of anything and everything to do with the agave plant (which mezcal is made from) and mezcal.  There is also a gigantic band shell in the park and during the fair, the stage is host to amateur artists competing for prizes (performances include singing, playing an instrument, telling stories, etc...) Local bands also take their turns entertaining the crowds.

Apart from all of these organised activities, the city of Oaxaca itself is vibrant, exciting, and a fantastic destination to travel, how can you get here to enjoy it for yourself?

Travelling by air:
Oaxaca does have an airport, however it is small-ish in size so there aren't alot of flights and it can be a bit pricey.  Flights from Western Canada typically cost around $1200.  If you are looking for a cheaper option, you can fly into a bigger hub, like Mexico City (see my previous blog post for this cost) and then take a bus to Oaxaca.  There is also an airport in Huatulco, which is a resort town on the coast of Oaxaca Mexico.  A roundtrip flight from Vancouver/Calgary/Edmonton is approximately $950 and you can catch a bus from here.***

Travelling by bus:
It is a LONG bus ride from Mexico City to Oaxaca, (around 7 hours) Luckily, there are overnight buses so you can hopefully sleep on the way there.  Once you get to the airport in Mexico City, you will need to then get to the bus station (PLEASE ONLY TAKE REGISTERED TAXIS IN MEXICO CITY!)  There are a few different classes of bus - for a long bus trip I would recommend taking first or deluxe class, as they will either be direct to Oaxaca, or have limited stops.  Also, the seats are comfier, they are air conditioned, they have movies and bathrooms on board, and sometimes they will even sell pop and snacks.  A one way first class ticket between Mexico City and Oaxaca is 452 pesos, or roughly $35 USD.   If you are comfortable with Spanish, you can pre-book your ticket here or contact me, (a Travel Agent!) for help.

***The night I almost died:  I have never felt closer to death than during my bus ride between the City of Oaxaca and Puerto Escondido (Huatulco) Mexico.  Oaxaca is mountainous and to get to the coast you must travel down the steep Sierra Madre Del Sur mountain range.  Another factor which makes this very dangerous is that the Guelaguetza is in July, which is smack in the middle of the rainy season.  The roads and bridges actually get washed out, so do the buses stop running?  NO!  The bus driver brings a helper on board to guide him around and over washed out roads. Picture this...the bus stops and the helper jumps out.  There is a cliff on one side and steep mountain on the other. Water and mud cover this passageway that barely resembles a road.  The helper signals to the bus driver to slightly move this gigantic 20,000lb vehicle either a smidge left or right so that we do not plummet off the side of the mountain.  Meanwhile, the passengers on board are white-knuckled, gripping the seat ahead of them, and praying like they have never prayed before!  This beautiful experience costs about $20USD. In case you think I am exaggerating, here is a picture of the road from the air:
Oaxaca is extremely crowded at this time because of the popularity of the festival.  It can be very difficult to find a hotel room, as well as expensive as the hotels tend to raise their prices at this time.  Please book your hotel before you travel, it may be difficult to find a place to sleep once you are there.   I would recommend staying near the main Zocalo in the city.  The zocalo is surrounded by beautiful open air restaurants, which are great for enjoying a leisurely breakfast in the sun.  The hotel Gala Oaxaca is in this area and the cost during the festival is around $100 per night.  It is a clean hotel, but plain and not fancy.

Tickets for La Guelaguetza:
You can get tickets for the Guelaguetza once you are there, but the tickets will probably be in the nose-bleed section.  If you are travelling all that way to witness the event, you will probably want to be closer to the stage.  You can buy your tickets ahead of time on the Ticketmaster Mexico website: and the cost is approximately 400 pesos or $32 USD

Guided Tours:
If you are not comfortable "backpacking" around Mexico on your own, there are several tours that will take you to this region.  Intrepid Travel offers a tour called "Mexico Unplugged" This 15 night tour starts in Mexico City and dips down to Oaxaca before ending on the beach in Cancun.  The tour which departs on July 14th would have you in Oaxaca for La Guelaguetza.  The cost for this tour is $1045, it includes hotel and transportation, as well as some sightseeing.  It does not include food so please budget around $300 for this cost.

Day Tours:
Pyramid at Monte Alban
There are a couple of must-see day trips from the city of Oaxaca that you will not want to miss!  The first one is "El Tule: Tree of Life, Teotitlan Village, and Mitla ruins" tour.  The tree of life is one of the oldest, largest trees on earth.  You will also visit a Zapotec village and archaeological site, as well as an artisan market and a mezcal factory.  The duration of this tour is 5 hours and costs $33 per adult.  The second trip that I highly recommend is the Monte Alban, Zapotec ruins tour.  This tour will take you high up into the mountains to a very impressive archaeological site.  The tour is 4 hours and costs $28, includes pick up and drop off from your hotel.

I hope you find this blog post informative, and that it might inspire you to go on an adventure of your own!  If you have any questions about this destination or the travel products that you have seen here, please e-mail Lisa at  Or if there is another trip you need help planning, please don't hesitate to contact me!
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