This article is from the July 1999 The Mexico File newsletter.
Back to Articles List

Christmas in Oaxaca

by Marilyn Sharp

Marilyn is a full-time teacher of English as a Second Language who has had a special love for Mexico ever since her first trip there to study Spanish in 1964. She plans to retire somewhere in Mexico in the near future. Her company, Amigos Travel Services, represents language schools throughout Latin America.

Oh Those Radishes!

Since there have been many people who wanted to hear about my adventures in Oaxaca, I have decided to make an official report of my latest trip there last Christmas.

First of all, the person who said “getting there is half the fun” has never traveled at Christmastime when most planes are overbooked and there is bad weather in many parts of the country. Chlele, Lori and I were dreading a five-hour layover in Los Angeles. Instead, our flight from Sacramento was four hours late, we missed our flight to Mexico City, and were stranded at LAX at 2:00 a.m. It took us until 9:00 the next night to get to Oaxaca, so we missed one whole day.

Things improved after that. Our hotel, the San Felipe, was very pleasant – it was located away from the center of town, on a hill with nice grounds, a good restaurant, boutique and even a disco (which we didn’t try). It wasn’t on the zócalo, where the action was, but the hotel had a shuttle to downtown every hour, a pleasant 15-minute trip. On the way into town we could appreciate the beauty of the city, the many colonial buildings with large wooden doors leading into cool patios, the intricate wrought iron balconies, and many trees and parks. The weather was perfect – about 80 degrees in the daytime, cool at night.

After a well-deserved sleep and a great buffet breakfast at the hotel, we went on our first tour – to Monte Alban, the Zapotec/Mixtec ruins high on a hill overlooking the city. Monte Alban is a very impressive set of pyramids and tombs with some carvings and remnants of murals. The views from the highest points of the ruins are beautiful. There was a lot of climbing up and down rocky stairways, the sun was hot and strong, and I gave up halfway through the tour and retreated to the cool museum and store near the ruins.

The Night of the Radish

Later we prepared for the highlight of our trip, the “Noche del Rabano” (Night of the Radish). I had read so much about this festival that I thought I knew all there was to know. One guidebook said that the festival started at 6:00 p.m., but that it would be advisable to arrive early because the square gets very crowded. Later we learned what an understatement that was! Quite by accident, we arrived at about 4:00 p.m., planning to sightsee and shop, and then to take a seat at one of the sidewalk cafes around the zócalo. When we got there, we saw that the displays were already set up and there were quite a few people viewing them. We joined them and had no trouble seeing each display and taking pictures. The radishes have a red surface and are white inside, like our usual salad radish. But these radishes were much bigger and longer, about one foot or more in length. They are carved into every imaginable shape – dancers, saints, animals, nativity scenes, etc. Each display had many different figures making up a scene. There were also creations made of corn husks and dried flowers, which, I assume, are modern additions to the festival.

After leisurely viewing all these sights, we grabbed a streetside table and observed the activity. More and more people were gathering around the square –  local families (some in their colorful traditional clothing), visitors from other parts of Mexico, and a few tourists from the U.S., France, Germany, Italy and possibly other countries. Vendors appeared everywhere selling balloons, dolls, flowers, chicle toys, and cascaras (eggshells filled with confetti which were to be cracked over a friend’s head). We were constantly approached by vendors, including small children, and we soon learned the technique of looking the other way and shaking our heads “no.” Wandering through the midst of the crowd were uniformed police and soldiers carrying various types of large weapons.

Soon the entire zócalo, as well as the streets surrounding it, were crawling with people enjoying the festivities. One brass military-style band was playing on a corner, and later, another band started to play in the bandstand in the center of the zócalo – all at the same time! Next we noticed a line of people, one-half block long, one block, two blocks long, winding around the square. They were waiting to see the radishes! Eventually we lost sight of the end of the line – but sat sipping our cervezas and feeling ever so lucky that we had arrived early. We were told later by other tourists that they had waited in line more than one hour to see the rabanos.

I heard several different explanations about the origin of this strange festival. The most probable one states that years ago villagers began to bring food to present to the priests in the city. Soon each village was trying to out-do the others, making more elaborate displays of food – and the competition was started. I don’t know if this is true, but it sounds logical.

We did not stay to see the judging or the presentation of the awards because we had to make sure to take part in another unique Christmas tradition in Oaxaca. Behind the cathedral we found the buñuelos. I had expected a little cake or fritter, but these looked like fried flour tortillas dipped in a syrup and served in large clay bowls. After eating the buñuelo, we smashed the bowl on the pavement next to the cathedral for good luck. They say the more pieces the bowl breaks into, the better your luck will be. We did our best!

The next day we had two tours scheduled – one to Mitla and one of the city sights. On the way to the village of Mitla we stopped at El Tule to see the giant cedar tree which is said to be 2,000 years old. It is located right next to a small country church. The highlight of this stop was the little boys, aged 8 to 10, wearing official turistico shirts, who pointed out about ten different animal shapes in the gnarly trunk and branches of the tree. I think they made very good tips.

Mitla

Mitla is a small, pleasant village lined with shops. At the far end of town is a typical church set high on a hill, or, according to our guide, on a mound of ruins (building on these mounds was a common practice of the church in Colonial Mexico). Although the ruins of Mitla are much smaller than those at Monte Alban, the advanced building and decorative techniques, especially the stone mosaic work, was quite impressive. Later we spent some pesos on goods sold by the many Indians who had spread their wares around the church. I bought a piece of the unique black pottery which is famous in this region.

Our afternoon tour of the city started at El Cerro del Fortin, site of the Guelaguetza, which is a large dance festival held every July. We also stopped at a nearby viewpoint near the giant statue of Benito Juarez to view the city. Next we visited Santo Domingo Church where we were dazzled by its interior, an elaborate maze of gold, white porcelain and paintings. This is really indescribable. Most of the decoration had been destroyed by the government when it was used as a barracks and a jail – and it was restored to its present splendor only in the 1950's. Next door is the Museo Regional de Oaxaca, which is housed in the remains of a convent. It was closed for restoration, but we were able to see the most important exhibit, the treasures of the tombs of Monte Alban. The jewelry, as well as other items of gold and precious stones, were fascinating. We wandered through the Camino Real Hotel, built inside a 16th century convent – a series of connected stone buildings and pleasant courtyards.

After the tour our little group of three was tired, so we returned to the hotel. We heard later that we had missed several processions and posadas that paraded around the square. From our place on the hill we heard singing, fireworks and a group of people at our hotel noisily smashing piñatas.

Teotitlan del Valle

On Christmas Day we felt we had to fit in one more excursion since we were leaving for Huatulco the next morning. So we arranged for a driver to take us to Teotitlan del Valle, famous for its fine carpets and weavings. The shops are located in front of family homes, and most were open but deserted. We apologized to the shop owners for bothering them on Christmas, but our guide, Abel, assured us that they would be happy to see us, even on a holiday. There were carpets, large and small, in every imaginable color – from the most traditional designs to copies of the artists Escher and Miró. In one spot a weaver gave us a demonstration and showed us some of the materials – moss, bark, bugs – that are used to make the natural dyes for the wool. Although we were tempted, none of us bought anything large because of the problem of flying it home.

In the afternoon I went to see a couple of bed-and-breakfasts that were advertised in a local trilingual newsletter. Neither of these was remotely what I would call a B&B. They were in old colonial-style buildings, but were dark, shabby, and didn’t even serve breakfast. I think some locals have learned that the name “B&B” sounds elegant and they use it to attract Americans. Beware!

Returning to the zócalo, I picked a table in the corner in front of the Marques del Valle, the grand patron overlooking the square, and enjoyed a chicken mole – spicy, but very good. Peek into the small lobby of the Marques to see the floor, walls and counters covered with shiny green onyx. I sipped a cerveza and the enjoyed the peaceful view. Families strolled the streets and gardens of the square. My only distraction was the stream of vendors passing by. There is much poverty in Oaxaca and it is depressing to see so many people, especially the children, selling trinkets in the street. But few of them are simply begging, and they do take “no” for an answer.

That evening we treated ourselves to the nightly mini-Guelaguetza at the Monte Alban Hotel. It was very colorful, with beautiful local-style costumes and lively dances, and it was quite inexpensive.

We returned to the hotel satisfied that we had seen and done as much as possible in our three days in this wonderful city – and knowing that we must come back.

Huatulco

The next morning we left in a little “puddle jumper” and flew over some amazing terrain to Huatulco. There were houses and small villages hanging impossibly off of towering mountains and cliffs. There is evidently a road that goes to Huatulco but I can’t imagine how it could be built.

Huatulco is a series of bays, as it is described in the guidebooks. There are some beautiful resorts, and very nice beaches, but the only real town is la Crucecita, which was built ten years ago to house the employees of the many resorts. There are boat tours of the bays available, and even a trip to a coffee plantation. But we chose to snorkel (La Entrega Bay was great!). We also checked out the huge Sheraton resort and Club Med. Our hotel, El Castillo, was nice, with a pool, restaurant and bar, and it overlooked a marina – but it was a few blocks to the beach.

After three full days of busy relaxing, we headed back through Mexico City and made it to L.A. and Sacramento with a few delays, but nothing compared to our trip down.

I loved Oaxaca and must go back – but the next time it will be for three weeks or three months, not three days. If you plan to go at Christmas, book very early. The whole town fills up quickly.