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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
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
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.
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.