Wha’ Happened in Oaxaca? Part 2

crispydoc Uncategorized 6 Comments


By sheer dumb luck, our trip coincided with the annual Guelaguetza celebration. It began in pre-colonial times as an event where representatives from far-flung villages came together in shared worship of corn and the deities that brought the harvest, and included exchanges of food and textiles as a form of reciprocity between villages.

The event brings rural indigenous cultural practices (music, dance, dress) from extremely remote villages together, which eventually attracted the attention of both foreign and Mexican tourists eager to witness something authentic that had resisted the onslaught of global pop culture.

As it became a source of tourist revenue in a relatively poor state, the authorities built a stadium to house it and began to charge tiered admission fees, ostensibly to support cultural preservation and attempt crowd control.

While time has changed the event, the strong indigenous roots and the flavor remain. Half of all Oaxacans are of indigenous origin, primarily from Mixtec and Zapotec cultures, and 300,000 Oaxaca residents are monolingual non-Spanish speakers.

Guelaguetza remains an event centered on fierce local pride and spectacle. Indigenous groups (who are lower-income relative to the population of Mexico) present their local culture via delegations of dancers dressed in elaborate outfits highly specific to each mountain village, often accompanied by indigenous bands. Textiles and food from each village are both gifted to the audience (I ducked a flying pineapple more than once during the festivities) and sold in a pop-up market that surrounds the arena.

Many dances included religious iconography, home-made fireworks ignited with a safety-last philosophy, and costumes that take years to sew and impart tremendous prestige and social standing on the persons wearing them (who are as likely as not to be the persons who sewed them).

Standout performances included a re-enactment of the arrival of colonialism, complete with masked knights in armor; witty, innuendo-filled exchanges between men and women professing romance; and a dance where two live turkeys were spun at a dizzying pace while intermittently guzzling mezcal.


The pyramids of Monte Alban offer an ideal day trip from Oaxaca City. Mindful that the kids might not last the full day nor take kindly to a package tour, we hired a cab for half a day (the fee was negotiated by our airbnb hosts on our behalf, and was very reasonable) and set out for the ancient Zapotec capital that was the New York City of mesoamerica for a thousand years.

Climbing ancient stone steps, ducking into small courtyards, taking in the commanding views of the valley below and finding haunting new stone carvings at every turn had my son and I humming the theme to Raiders of the Lost Ark for most of the day.


While I might have led instead of ended with our experience with the people, Oaxacans are no monolith. To the contrary, there's a large indigenous population (mostly of Mixtec and Zapotec origin) that I encountered in the markets near our airbnb. They were generous and welcoming, moreso to family travelers. In a family-oriented culture, children unlock doors that might otherwise remain closed - folks in the market offered us samples and engaged my son and daughter at every opportunity.

Our interactions with locals tended to be (unsurprisingly) with those in the service industry - chatting with the lone waiter in the hot, humid afternoon when we were the only folks in a restaurant; hearing about the disparity and political neglect from the federal government from a taxi driver we hired for an afternoon to take us to Monte Alban or to the towns; hearing about the process of creating an alebrije from the artist who sold us one of his creations.

Since we'd already traveled to Greece two weeks earlier, we suffered a bit of travel fatigue and were less extroverted than usual. Many of our travel experiences tended to focus on our kids and their responses to what we'd encountered. This inward focus admittedly came at the expense of getting to know more people.


The trip went surprisingly smoothly behind the scenes.

Our phone service on Google Fi functioned flawlessly. It simply worked from the time we stepped off the plane. I felt an almost delirious joy in knowing I'd saved time and avoided aggravation by not needing to call customer service, upgrade to an international plan for a couple of weeks of travel, and downgrade on my return.

Data rates were identical to what I pay in the U.S., with any unused data credited toward the following month's bill. Calls were $0.20 per minute if not over wifi. I switched a two person plan from Sprint to Google Fi and our bill went from $150/month to $45-50 / month. In fact, above-average data use and a few phone calls made in Oaxaca only went over our usual bill by $15.

If you are thinking about switching over to Google Fi, I'd be grateful if you'd consider using my referral code: 5UP4VD, which gets you and I $20 credit apiece.

Unlike Mexico City, Uber has no presence in Oaxaca City, but the cabs were plentiful and generally adequate (defined as having functional seatbelts). They were easy to find, and when we wanted to try side trips like a visit to villages specializing in alebrijes or hiring a driver to and from Monte Alban, we arranged it via our airbnb hosts.

Oaxaca City is an eminently walkable town, and we stayed at an airbnb near the city center, near most major attractions. We deliberately chose a place located in a residential rather than tourist area. The benefit was getting to know the rhythm of the area, seeing shop owners sweep their front porches every morning and parents walking uniformed kids to school.

I made it a daily custom to stroll to the nearby (non-tourist-oriented) market for fresh tropical fruit, yogurt from a local dairy and still-warm bolillos (Mexican dinner rolls) that sold for pennies and made a perfect breakfast. Extra rolls were ideal snacks to toss in a backpack and stave off the hangry during a day of sightseeing.

By the time we arrived in Oaxaca we were a bit tired from having returned 2 week earlier from our trip to Greece.The hedonic treadmill reared its head, and the delightful surprise of "We get to go to a restaurant for dinner again tonight!?" gave way to "There again?!"

We put an immediate stop to that response, but in retrospect, the turnaround time was not enough. My take home lesson for family travel with elementary school-aged kids is that one big trip works better.

We did well with our master plan to strive for one thing a day - a single museum, walking tour or destination neighborhood followed by unstructured wandering,plus exploring a nearby park was a recipe for happy kids.

Quiet time back at the airbnb during siesta (coinciding with peak heat) made me realize the superior self-care that Mexican culture supports.

Henceforth we'll plan to do one trip a summer.

In spite of mild travel fatigue, Oaxaca earned its reputation as an artistic, culinary and cultural treasure.




Comments 6

  1. Great adventure to say the least expertly narrated. Interesting how your travel appetite kind of took the same turn as your restaurant enthusiasm. Travel though fun, has it’s downside. Put that into your equation while planning your exit, you may not travel nearly as much as you think you might, because though unique, ya had one breaky bun ya pretty much had them all.

    I think knowing the locals is the most fun. In Italy my kid toured with her choral group who had dates all over the country, 12 venues including the Vatican twice. Parents came, often whole mischkah so going to a restaurant basically meant taking over a restaurant. One of the Daddy’s owned a restaurant and had about 9 family in tow and he would run interference with the owner of whatever place we went, and the good stuff would come out and the party would ensue and the kids always sang for their supper. The group was world class and could stop a city when they sang so everybody from wait staff to cooks to dogs came out to listen and enjoy. It was a very humbling experience. We weren’t interacting with buildings and cobblestones and trying to not get killed by crazy Italian drivers but with the people living their lives in their little part of the world. They shared their food and care, we shared a dab of culture. It’s that experience I like best. I had similar experiences in Hong Kong and China so it’s everywhere.

    1. Post

      Singing for supper sounds heavenly. Your daughter had her voice, and that’s a wonderful key to unlock access. I recall being an exchange student in Beijing where one spring day I ended up drawing on the high school singing group skills (love of music lasted, voice did not) to join a group of 50-somethings with guitars who had gathered to practice singing and insisted I join them in a round of Jingle Bells and a few of John Denver’s greatest hits. The photos still make me smile.

      My alternate keys when traveling solo (pre-kids and pre-wife) was a small but elegant kite and some finger tricks picked up from a summer as a camp counselor. Hang out in a park in China flying a kite and you are immediately drawing both elderly and kids like a magnet that only attracts the extremes of age. Next you offer to let them fly it (for kids, only once the nearby parents have nodded approval). I traveled by myself but never felt alone.

      What can I say? Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy.

  2. I actually did not know of Google Fi and will have to explore that option further. I recently returned from Bermuda and ended up doing without cell phone for majority of day with only data access points at the resort’s free wifi.

    In the past when I am on an extended trip I would purchase a local sim card but that was a more expensive option and I typically over purchased the data I needed.

    1. Post

      It eliminates the hassle, and the transparent pricing in an opaque market is refreshing. They now permit you to bring your own phone, which was the reason certain holdouts ostensibly avoided Fi in the past. Worth considering.

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