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Semana Santa in Oaxaca

MEXICO | Monday, 23 November 2009 | Views [3412] | Comments [1]

Channel bisection, botanical garden, Oaxaca

Channel bisection, botanical garden, Oaxaca

We took the night bus to Oaxaca – an 11 hour journey down into the arid plains and up again into the mountains.  This was our first taste of the massive scale of Mexico – it’s a big country!  It was also our first taste of near ubiquitous cactus desert, which to European eyes is quite a bizarre and alien environment.  The journey through the night was relatively uneventful, except that we were stopped ten times.  Yes, that’s TEN times, by the police and army, who sometimes checked our bags and always ran up and down the coach to make a cursory check that none of the passengers had ‘drug mule’ or ‘indigenous insurgent’ tattooed on their foreheads.  Subsequently, we didn’t get an awful lot of sleep.

Still, we were glad to arrive at Oaxaca, and crashed out at a hostel, before mooching around the centre.  A brass band was played in the Zocalo, watched by hundreds of people, while others (including us) ate dinner in one of the numerous restaurants around the edge.  There were various other musical events on around town too – including a lovely close-harmony guitar group near to the botanical gardens.  The next day we met our friend Jon and my sister Lucy at the airport – they travelled over to spend two weeks with us.  Lucy’s bag had gone walk-about (hmmm, there’s a trend here somewhere), but luckily it turned up the next day, without her having to go out and buy any clothes.  We had hired an apartment on the outskirts of town for ten days – we were lucky to get it, as we’d booked late, and Semana Santa is the week where all of Mexico go off and visit family, so all the hotels were chocker.

I know, let's carve the top off a mountain and build a city miles away from any water!  You have to hand it to the Zapotecs, they had style...

We spent the next few days exploring the city centre.  The architecture with fine colonial buildings, many made from a lovely green stone was really enchanting.  There’s also some great OTT catholic churches and altars (more gold leaf than you shake a stick at), and we enjoyed the culture of art and antiquities museums.  All in all, it’s a pretty chilled place.  Which is good, because its bloody hot – it took a while to get used to lowland life again!  The food in Oaxaca is pretty good by Mexican standards – lots of different ‘moles’ – different sauces with various intensities of chilli heat.  Also loads of people hawking fried grasshoppers.  I’m sorry, I wasn’t game.  Insect eating ain’t my forte (ever since my mum tried to feed me a house spider in my brussel sprouts when I was twelve…).

We had a couple of trips out.  The first was organised by the hotel who owned our apartment, which took in the amazing Cypress tree at Santa Maria del Tule, which is immense (the first tree I’ve ever seen with hundreds of small birds nesting in it), and extremely old (its at least 2000 years…).  It made me wander what primeval forests might have looked like before we got around to chopping most of them down.  We stopped off at a carpet-maker in Teotitlan del Valle where we were shown how they make dyes from natural materials that they find in the desert, before spinning the wool and weaving it into geometric-design carpets.  Very lovely, but I’d already bought one in Merida, so I resisted the urge.  Our trip ended in Mitla, which was a temple site of the Zapotecans – fantastic block buildings covered in geometric designs.  The aesthetic seemed very futuristic, even if they are over 500 years old.  On the return journey we stopped at a Mezcal distillery – the agave-cactus juice drink of which tequila is a variant.  If I’m ever stuck in a desert with nothing but agaves, at least I’ll know how to die having a good time.  However, even then, I’ll stick to not licking ground up cactus worms off my wrist before taking a shot.  That’s just nasty.

Carpet-weaving in Teotitlan del Valle

Our second trip was to take a bus out to Monte Alban.  Another Zapotec site, this one is a temple city on top of a mountain.  Basically, they levelled the top, built a shed-load of massive temples, and then had to carry all their water from the valley some 2 miles away.  These Zapotecans are crazy!  The site really is awe-inspiring, the atmosphere doubled by the incessant atonal chant-like droning of thousands of cicadas.  The whole experience was really quite surreal.

Back in Oacaxa, we spent time in the various markets, buying cinnamon sticks  (cheap as chips - to take home and make tea with), and grass-woven baskets, although I resisted getting one of their fantastic pinatas.  We also sampled (and then bought) some ‘Majordomo’ drinking chocolate, which Oacaxa is famed for (which I’m drinking while writing this.  Yum).

Pinatas in one of Oaxacas markets

Another highlight (there were a lot) were the ethnobotanical gardens, set in the grounds of an ex monastery/barracks, which has a collection of Oaxacan food plants, as well as a brilliantly set-out collection of the numerous cacti and arid trees you find in this diverse region.  We were guided round by a very knowledgeable ex-pat American lady.  We combined this with a trip around the Oaxacan cultural museum – in the monastery itself, which has massive collections of Zapotec artefacts, set in lovely old brick rooms, often with painted doors and ceilings.

Oaxaca was a great location to experience Semana Santa – Holy Week.  As well as numerous smaller parades to various shrines around the city through the week, there’s the main procession on Good Friday, which half of Mexico comes out to see, it seems.  ‘Fraternities’ of masked and robed penitents carry very heavy platforms with statues of Christ, the Virgin Mary and various saints around the city streets.  There are also other masked penitents who carry heavy wooden crosses – the mask is so that people don’t know who you are – its supposed to be an act for God after all.  There’s lots of incense censors, drums, flutes and massive wooden clackers – equivalent to what you’d have at a football game, but five times the size.  The costumes come straight out of classical medieval Spain, although they were unfortunately highjacked by the Klu Klux Klan, which makes them seem rather sinister.

Penitents carry their crosses, Semana Santa.

All in all, we had a really good ten days – a great introduction to ‘Mexico-proper’.  Next up was another long journey up to the centre of it all, Mexico City.

More photos of :Oaxaca : the Ethnobotanical gardens and museum of culture : the surrounding valleys

Tags: mitla, monte alban, oaxaca, santa maria del tule, semana santa, teotitlan del valle




I dont think Oaxaca isthe nicest city in Mexico, its ok, but not the nicest

  April Mar 31, 2010 5:20 AM

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