A Festival of Color, Art and Romance on the Streets of Oaxaca

Historic Center, Oaxaca de Juárez, Mexico
30 Comments

After two years of isolation and three jabs for protection, visiting Oaxaca was the shot in the arm I needed to reconnect with the joy of traveling. But was it safe to go? In a world where choosing whether to eat inside or outside ties people in knots, going to Mexico seemed like a stretch.

The debate: On one hand, it was Oaxaca. The colonial city on a plateau in central Mexico is one of our favorite places.

Santo Domingo church in Oaxaca, Mexico with rainbow

The invite for a week-long photo tour in early January came from photographer Eddie Soloway just as I scheduled my booster shot. So far, all good. And Eddie had booked Casa Oaxaca, the hotel where David and I stayed in 1999. I fondly remembered simple but comfortable rooms and generous breakfast platters with mango and papaya in the lovely courtyard.

We sent Eddie our deposit right away. But as Thanksgiving rolled into Christmas and then New Years, and omicron multiplied beyond reason, our anticipation mingled with increasing apprehension. We checked the numbers. They were better in Mexico. What to do?

Worry. Buy masks and tests. Go anyway.

The welcome rituals at the Oaxaca airport were simple and efficient. A quick temp check. Documents perused and stamped. We were greeted with mask signs everywhere.

The city had definitely grown. When we first visited in 1975, we arrived from Mexico City by overnight train, long since discontinued. On the way from the airport we passed a Walmart, Sam’s Club and Mercedes and Audi dealers on what must be Oaxaca’s Auto Row. Minutes later we were in the colonial center of town, where buildings built right up to the sidewalk sport fancy grillwork on their windows. As we entered Casa Oaxaca’s wooden door it felt like coming home.

David Newman drinking coffee at Casa Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico

By design, our first day was a lazy Saturday. It would have been easy to sip coffee or mezcal all afternoon under the pomegranate trees, watching colibrís (hummingbirds) come and go, but we wanted to get our bearings before the rest of the group arrived for dinner on Sunday.

On the streets of Oaxaca

Traveling light with just our iPhones, we wandered past brightly painted homes …

A bright pink building with a painting of a hummingbird, beak down, pointing to a black windowframe with decorative ribbons, in Oaxaca, Mexico

… people reading at cafes …

Man in white shirt reading in front of cafe door in Oaxaca, Mexico

… luscious flowers …

Bright pink bougenvilla flowers against a pink building and a blue sky

… colonial remnants …

… mezcal bars …

La Mezcalerita (mezcal bar) next to Manalo nieves, an ice cream shop in Oaxaca, Mexico

… and ubiquitious street art …

… to ARIPO, a curated artisan shop with treasures from all over the state of Oaxaca. There we were greeted by a giant Tiliche or Rag Man, a folkloric character from the western Oaxacan town of Putla Villa de Guerrero.

Tiliche, aka, Rag Man, a folkloric character from Southern Oaxaca, in front of ARIPO, an artisan shop in Oaxaca, Mexico

Inside we were asked to sign in and do a temperature check. Masks, of course, were required. Only then were we able to enjoy the collection of jewelry, textiles, animal carvings, handwoven rugs and tableware in a beautifully repurposed home built above an ancient Spanish aqueduct. It was all very tempting, but it was only Day One.

One bright, metalic decorative Christmas star in Oaxaca, Mexico

As we turned to leave, giant metallic stars suspended across the courtyard caught my eye. I was enjoying the play of light and color as they twisted in the wind when I noticed the ladder…and the workers.

Workman with Covid mask on a ladder cutting down a bright, metalic decorative Christmas star in Oaxaca, Mexico

Within ten minutes the orbs were all down, ribbons flapping forlornly. Oh. It was January 8, and Christmas was definitively over.

Crickets for lunch

Oaxaca’s cuisine is renowned for its tlayudas (pizza-sized tostadas), salsas, moles, chocolate…and chapulines (roasted grasshoppers or crickets). After catching some more photos we hopped into Zandunga for a light lunch of guac and salad. Would we like some nopales (cactus) and chapulines to go with the guacamole? ¿Por qué no?

Lunch with guacamole, nopales (cactus salad) and tiny grasshoppers in Oaxaca, Mexico

They were crunchy dried little things that get all their taste from frying on the comal (griddle) with spices and S-A-L-T to preserve them. Yes, they were that salty. Later on in the market, we saw baskets and baskets of chapulines in all sizes.

Baskets of edible grasshoppers for sale in the market in Oaxaca, Mexico

Not to mention this chapulín bag for an ironic souvenir.

Souvenir tote bag with colorful grasshopper image for sale in Oaxaca, Mexico

Three weddings and identity politics

Those of you who have followed Hidden-inSite know that I have been collecting street-side wedding photos for years. Oaxaca did not disappoint. That first morning, just as we left ARIPO, we saw a wedding party lined up against a blue building. Ah, photo time, I thought. While David aimed his phone toward a solitary reader in front of a café …

Man in blue shirt reading in front of cafe door in Oaxaca, Mexico

… I concentrated on the wedding party and their photographic team of four.

Four photographers dressed in black in front of the colonial aqueduct in Oaxaca, Mexico

That was our first clue to Oaxaca’s crazy wedding business. Clearly, this couple’s photo director was fabulous!

Wedding party with bride and groom, five bridesmaids and five groomsmen in front of blue wall, Oaxaca, Mexico

We saw our second clue as she hurried down Calle de Manuel García Vigil past the restaurant as we were finishing lunch. In a world where everyone wears logo t-shirts and jeans, she was an indigenous-looking woman with long braids in a brightly colored costume. And she carried something that looked suspiciously like a basket with a turkey.

We couldn’t finish in time to follow her, but when we left the restaurant, we heard the lively beat of a brass band and instinctively set out to follow the music. It led us to the plaza in front of El Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, one of the most iconic sites in all of Oaxaca.

Tuba on left, three women, Las Chinas Oaxaqueñas, in orange, pink and purple skirts and baskets with wedding symbols in front of Santo Domingo in Oaxaca, Mexico

There in front of us was a formally dressed (tuxes and gowns) wedding crowd watching a troupe of six dancers with long braids and colorful skirts balancing baskets with hearts, stars and, yes, turkeys, on their heads. The woman who passed the restaurant was one of the dancers. Even more surprising was a huge balloon with the names of the happy couple, Amelie y Marcelo, bouncing along to the music.

Five Las Chinas Oaxaqueñas dancers in colorful skirts, long braids and masks in front of Santo Domigo church at the wedding of Amelie and Marcelo in Oaxaca, Mexico

And just as the crowd followed the band, the balloon and the dancers out into the street, a second wedding party, a bit less formally dressed, took over the plaza with their own band, dancers and balloon for Iliana and Cole. With both bands going at once, it felt like halftime at a college football game. What a treat for people who’ve been isolating at home for two years!

Wedding parade or calenda with groom in cowboy hat, bride looking back to the crowd and colorful dancers in Oaxaca, Mexico

“Your dad stiffed us,” joked David. “Our wedding was fun, but nothing like these.”

Curious, later on I asked Juan, one of our guides, about weddings in Oaxaca. “Weddings are a huge business here,” he told me. The parades, called calendas, were introduced in colonial times by the Dominican friars to celebrate saints days. There was even an early version of the balloon structure to venerate the saints. Today personal calendas are organized to celebrate weddings, graduations and other happy occasions.

The dancers are part of Las Chinas Oaxaqueñas, a folkloric dance group founded in 1949. The origin of their name is lost in the swirl of history, but speculation centers on its roots in a neighborhood of Chinese factory workers where the Asian women taught their Mexican neighbors how to embroider. Check out this Vogue article to learn more.

Five Las Chinas Oaxaqueñas dancers in colorful skirts, long braids and masks in front of Santo Domigo church in Oaxaca, Mexico

“Local people can’t afford to get married at Santo Domingo. They charge too much for a wedding mass,” Juan continued. He mentioned an article he had just read that criticized Oaxacan destination weddings as appropriation. Indeed. After we got home, I found the English version of  the article from the Oaxaca Post. It’s 2022, and identity politics is an international phenomenon.

What can I say? It may not be authentic. It may be expensive. But following the music was a fantastic, festive re-introduction to Oaxaca.

Watermelon art

Following Iliana and Cole’s parade around the side of Santo Domingo brought us face to face with a display of painted watermelon slices. The block was filled with them, lined up in their own parade.

Watermelon exhibit in honor of Rufino Tamayo in Oaxaca, Mexico

I didn’t understand the reference. I asked Mariana González, galerista of La Máquina, a historic graphics workshop across the street from the church, about the watermelons or sandias.

She explained that the invitational exhibit commemorates the 30th anniversary of beloved Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo’s death. Thirty artists, some once students of his, were asked to participate. Tamayo, a native Oaxaqueño, combined modern international painting styles with Mexican folk themes, including an impressive collection of paintings of watermelons. The story goes that he worked at his aunt’s fruit stand in Mexico City as a youngster. Hence, the watermelons. Since the exhibit was only a block away from Casa Oaxaca, we had ample time, day or night, to enjoy them.

An evening stroll

As night fell, we wandered past another church. They’re everywhere, forbidding and welcoming at the same time.

Church at night, Oaxaca, Mexico

We were on our way to La Plaza de las Nieves, literally, Ice Cream Square, the famous plaza where we tasted zapote negro and mandarina ices.

Zapate negro and mandarina ices at Plaza de las Nieves, Oaxaca, Mexico

Then on to the Zocolo, Oaxaca’s central plaza, where we saw knots of people enjoying themselves in the cool evening, sipping chocolate at Mayordomo, watching their grandkids, buying balloons.

People in front of Mayordomo Chocolateria, the Zocolo, Oaxaca, Mexico

Although we steered wide of crowds and skipped the tempting mezcal bars, just to be safe despite almost universal masking, exploring Oaxaca was a fiesta of life and color. We walked back to the hotel under the rings of paper picado with the moon shining through. It was just our first night, and we wanted to stay healthy for the adventures to come.

Papel picado (cut paper) in colored circles above the street at night with the moon in Oaxaca, Mexico

LATER THIS SPRING: Hidden-inSite will explore the history of the remarkable La Máquina graphics workshop, the indigenous weaving of Teotitlán del Valle and more from Oaxaca.

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30 Comments

  1. Wow! Such color literally and figuratively as you describe their colorful traditions, culture and surroundings. What a wonderful place it must have been to travel to after such a long time inside and sheltering close to home.

    I’ve only been to Tijuana when I was a child briefly when visiting California. Makes me want to explore Mexico!

    Reply
    • Thank you Laurie. Mexico is a wonderful, vibrant country. It’s also a complicated, interesting place to explore.

      Reply
  2. Thoroughly enjoyed your beautiful photos and descriptions. Gives me a sense of how special your experience was. Happy you are getting back to what you enjoy

    Reply
    • Thank you Jim. It was a real treat, especially after all this time at home.

      Reply
  3. What a colorful experience from start to finish. It’s wonderful to walk the streets with you and feel like I’ve visited Oaxaca by your side. And if you want a big party, you can always have a second wedding there.

    Reply
    • Carolyn, you would have loved all the vibrant colors. A second wedding … maybe not!

      Reply
  4. Ellen,
    Once again, you’ve done good–actually you’ve done great. The photos are gorgeous, the texts make me want to leave right now for Oaxaca. I’m glad you and David decided to just go, so glad you’re back to the fun you have traveling and writing about it.

    Reply
    • Judith, thanks so much. I’m so glad you enjoyed this virtual trip to Oaxaca.

      Reply
  5. Ellen, I love your photos and descriptions of Oaxaca! I was there with my parents when I was a kid and have fond memories and some of the black Oaxacan pottery to remember it by. I’m so glad you and David got to go on this wonderful adventure. Stay healthy and adventurous too!

    Reply
    • Thanks Susie! We visited the town where they make the black pottery later on in our trip. We saw some beautiful work there. Maybe we can try a Oaxacan restaurant next time we visit LA.

      Reply
  6. Beautiful images Ellen!

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    • Thanks Andy!!

      Reply
  7. This was a wonderful post Ellen! Sunshine, hummingbirds, celebration and all the colors. Wow!

    It’s so interesting that you were offered the crickets sand grasshoppers for your guacamole. I saw a PBS special on insects for a food source and that was one of the examples. I didn’t know people were actually doing it.

    Reply
    • So glad you enjoyed the post Tonya! The people in the valleys around Oaxaca have been eating the insects since pre-colonial times. I remember them from when we were there in the 1970s, but I wasn’t brave enough to try them then! To be honest, I didn’t love them. It was kind of like eating extra salty bacon bits with legs. Everything else was yummy!

      Reply
  8. Ellen: Another write-up worth looking forward to. You were, indeed, bold to try the Cricket dish; many here in India are awe-struck at your audacity. As someone admiringly stated-Oh, the American Daring! The vibrancy of the colors speak for itself.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much. Mexico reminds me a lot of India with all its color. Regarding the grasshoppers, the ones we were served were very small, just a little garnish, so not scary at all. They were fried long enough that they were very crunchy, and mostly tasted like the spices and salt. They weren’t my favorite, but if I’m going to write about the world, I have to try new things so I can share them with you.

      Reply
  9. Ellen, thank you for taking us on your wonderful and colorful and beautiful trip to Oaxaca.

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    • Thank you Deborah. It was great to get away and lovely to be there.

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  10. Ellen, what a well-written, lovely depiction of Oaxaca! Thanks for sharing!

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    • Thank you Lissa. It was so much fun to travel with you and the group later on in our trip. You had some beautiful photos as well.

      Reply
  11. Wonderful! Your best photos and writing, with lots of atmosphere and humor.

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    • Thank you Leslie. You would love it there. Definitely put Oaxaca on your list.

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  12. Wonderful photos and commentaries. Carolyn and I attended a wedding in Guadalajara about ten years ago. It was great fun—with a reception far longer than those in the U.S. Glad you had such a wonderful trip.

    Reply
    • Yes, David, it looked like those receptions could go on for hours. Many evenings we heard fireworks, which people said were part of wedding celebrations. The calendas or parades were so much fun to watch. If we weren’t concerned about Covid, we might even have joined in, which is the usual custom. Now people just watched from the sidelines.

      Reply
  13. I too am ready to go back to one of my favorite places …. Keep more on Oaxaca coming !

    Reply
    • You would definitely love it there. So many graphics shops … good ones … plus museums. And the streets are fabulous to walk around. A place I didn’t write about, but was quite interesting was the Stamp Museum. It was a real surprise to us.

      Reply
  14. Fabulous virtual visit for us who haven’t yet dared to venture outside the US. Ready to book my flight! Thanks as always for sharing your experience.

    Reply
    • Thank you Meridithe. Our experience was basically good, but we were as careful away as we are at home. Luckily the people we encountered were equally careful. I think we’re al going to have to take care in our travels for a while longer. But I’m really glad we ventured out.

      Reply
  15. What a fiesta of color, art, and food! You tempted me to start traveling again (hoping to venture to Hawaii next month). The photos are magical!

    Reply
  16. Elizabeth, thank you so much. I hope you have as much fun in Hawaii. We just continued to be careful at the same time we enjoyed ourselves.

    Reply

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