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The Real Oaxaca: Beyond Mexico’s Day of the Dead

Published 30 March 2016

Thomas Rees

Thomas Rees

Playfully-macabre fancy dress; altars adorned with marigolds; candy skulls and photographs of the deceased displayed in homes and cemeteries… For many intrepid travellers, the Mexican city of Oaxaca is synonymous with the Day of the Dead. But while the celebrations, which took place at the start of this month (November), are undeniably spectacular, there’s still a great deal more to Oaxaca than ghouls and graveyard vigils.

Oaxaca city - shutterstock

The city of Oaxaca

Laid out by the Spanish in 1529, Oaxaca is the capital of the state of the same moniker, a patchwork territory of barren mountains, fertile valleys, dun-coloured desert and sweltering jungle that tumbles down towards the Pacific coast. Its colonial centre is postcard pretty, crisscrossed by cobbled streets, shaded by vivid orange flame trees and dotted with stalls selling kaleidoscopic alebrijes (fantastical wooden beasts painted with polka dots and flowers). The buildings themselves are cut from pale green cantera stone, including the churches, which have elaborately carved facades.

The church of Santo Domingo is the most beautiful of them all. The first time I went inside I was completely unprepared. I’d read nothing. I hadn’t seen a single photograph. Then I crossed the threshold and for the first time in my life I felt my jaw drop open – the full Tom and Jerry. It’s like stepping into a jewellery box. The far wall is dominated by a vast gold altar and every inch of the ceiling is decorated with swirling vines and painted figures sparkling with gold leaf. Stay for mass if you can, when the whole place is ablaze with candles. 

The Church of Santo Domingo, Oaxaca - shutterstock

The church of Santo Domingo

Heady history

Behind the church is a botanic garden filled with peculiar plants from across the state. There are strange varieties of grass that shrink at the touch and a ‘gringo tree’ that sheds its damaged bark like sunburnt skin. The monastery buildings now house the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, which explores the state’s pre-Columbian heritage. Its most prized exhibit is treasure from the ruined city of Monte Albán, a UNESCO World Heritage site which includes a gruesomely beautiful skull decorated with turquoise mosaic.

Monte Albán itself commands a hilltop a few kilometres to the west of the city. At its heart is a vast plaza with temples and stepped pyramids, tombs, a ball court and an observatory. It was once the capital of the Zapotecs who ruled Oaxaca’s central valleys and among its most famous sights are stone reliefs of writhing prisoners of war. The city reached its height between 350 and 700 AD. Thereafter it was progressively abandoned, though Mixtecs from the north of the state used the ruins to bury their nobles, adding further richly furnished tombs.

Monte Alban Oaxaca - shutterstock

Monte Alban

In the early 16th century, the region fell under the sway of the Aztecs and then the Spanish, but Oaxaca is still home to a large indigenous population descended from the Zapotecs and Mixtecs of old. Many women wear traditional handwoven fabrics, which add further flashes colour to Oaxacan street scenes.

Flavour-packed food

Once you’re done with the history, eating should be a priority. The state is nicknamed the Land of the Seven Moles (mo-lays) – intensely flavoured sauces made with ground chillies and spices – and the city is widely thought of as Mexico’s culinary capital. Explore markets and linger on street corners to inhale the heady scent of empanadas – oval shaped tortillas served with quesillo cheese, courgette flowers and mole amarillo (a piquant sauce made with tomatoes and tomatillos). Chicken with mole verde (made with pumpkins seeds) is another popular filling and other moles – including smoky, bittersweet mole negro and tangy red mole coloradito – make an appearance inside tamales, maize dumplings steamed inside corn husks and banana leaves.

For the best tlayudas – dinner plate-sized tortillas cooked over charcoal grills, spread with black beans and topped with beef, quesillo and chorizo – head to Cenaduría Tlayudas Libres (Libres 212). It’s a scruffy local favourite and consistently packed, but completely worth the wait.

Tlayudas, Oaxaca - shutterstock

Oaxacan tlayudas

Want to construct Mexican flavour for yourself? Restaurants including Casa Crespo and Casa Oaxaca offer day-long cookery courses. Most involve a trip to one of the city’s many markets to buy rust-coloured spice pastes, herbs and baskets of emerald cactus paddles. There are hundreds of varieties of chillies here alone, everything from dark green poblanos to shriveled, brick-red anchos and black pasillas.

Oaxacans get a further kick out of mezcal – tequila’s complex, unpredictable big brother – made by distilling roasted agave cactus. You’ll find it in bars around the city but you can also take tours of nearby distilleries and try it at source. There’s even a mezcal fair in the summer, when regional specialities like mole and quesillo, are also celebrated.

Day of the Dead - shutterstock

Day of the Dead alter

Flamboyant festivals

Which brings us back to festivals – after all, the Day of the Dead is one of many. Just as spectacular are the Guelaguetza dance festivals held in July, when representatives from indigenous villages across Oaxaca state converge on the city armed with flutes, rattles and drums. The most famous of the dances is the Zapotec Danza de la Pluma (Dance of the Feather) in which leaping figures in oversized extravagant headdresses re-enact the Spanish conquest.

When I first visited Oaxaca, in 2012, I arrived during Semana Santa (Easter) and watched the city grind to a halt as barefoot penitents in robes and druidic hoods processed through the streets, carrying richly embroidered banners or dragging heavy wooden crosses in acts of pious mortification. Following behind were men swaying beneath the weight of elaborate pasos (religious floats), like hysterical wedding cakes with virgins in lacy white dresses, surrounded by lilies and ivory-coloured candles.

The zócalo (Image: Thomas Rees)

The zocalo (Image: Thomas Rees)

In February and March the nearby village of Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán plays host to the Martes de Brujas (‘Tuesdays of the Witches’), a series of concerts and tamale-focused food festivals, so called because the guttering flames of the lamps used to light the central square cast spectral shadows. And on 23rd December each year, Oaxaca city marks the wonderfully bizarre Noche de los Rábanos, when thousands of intricately-carved radishes are displayed in the zócalo (central plaza).

Oaxaca is a city with all the depth and complexity of a good mole negro. Whether you visit for the Day of the Dead or at any other time of the year you’ll find it’s beautiful, right down to the bones.

Want to experience Oaxaca for yourself, or plan a trip to coincide with Day of the Dead in 2016? Speak to one of our Travel Experts about our Best of Mexico Escorted Journey today.

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