Oaxaca Journal


Oaxaca, why not? Las Dias De Los Muertos Coastal Cruising
Update #1 Update #2 Update #3


Wednesday, October 25, 2000

Just let me say that when you arrive in a new country you must always be ready for the unexpected. When we arrived on Monday evening at about 10:00, our taxi took us to the address we had been given. It turned out that the address was incorrect. So we were stranded on a dark street, in an unfamiliar city, with all our bags and no apartment. We tried knocking on the doors adjacent to the address we had been given, but to no avail. There was nothing for us to do but walk down to the main street and hail another taxi to take us to a hotel. Fortunately we had our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook to help us.

In the morning, we walked to our language school (they had made the arrangements for the apartment) and told Luz, our teacher, what had happened. She immediately checked and found that we had been on the correct street, but at the wrong number. After class we collected our things from the hotel and returned north of the zocalo (main square) to the correct apartment.

To add to the success of this Expedition, we had decided to take an "immersion" language course to better understand Spanish. We already spoke some Spanish, but we wanted to learn to put the words we knew together properly. This would help us understand the traditions behind the celebrations for the Dia de las Muertes.

Our class is very interesting. Absolutely no English is spoken. Our teacher, Luz, speaks to us in Spanish and if we donít understand, she will pantomime her meaning or use different words to get her meaning across. It often reminds us of a game of charades. We work for four hours per day and it is exhausting.

When class is finished for the day we go out for lunch and explore the city and the nearby ruins. On our second day, we went to the open marketplace to eat. We found a wonderful side alley filled with smoke from grills cooking carne asada (barbequed meat).

We purchased thin strips of pork and chorizo (pork sausage) from a vendor who then threw it on the grill to cook. Next we purchased chilies, onions, salsa and guacamole from a second vendor who also grilled the vegetables for us. Lastly we purchased tortillas to hold it all.

After combining all of our ingredients on one large tray, we sat down to enjoy our fantastic meal of fajitas.


Friday, October 27, 2000

Every day has been interesting and exciting. On Thursday afternoon we took a bus to the fantastic ruins of Monte Alban. The ruins are spread across the mountaintops for several miles. The main plaza and the surrounding pyramids were built on the edge of the tallest mountain with magnificent views of the Valley of Oaxaca. Click here to read the history of Monte Alban on the Oaxaca, Mexico page.

We spent our time exploring all the ruins within hiking distance. First we visited the ball court. Like most of the cities of ancient Mesoamerica, Monte Alban had a ball court for ritualized games. These games, unlike those held by the Maya, did not result in the death of the losers. We then climbed to the top of the South Platform (pyramid), and back down and across the courtyard to climb the North Platform. Our one disappointment was the closure of tomb 104 due to damage from the 1999 Oaxacan earthquake. The tombs are numbered in order of their discovery.

Tomb 104 is considered to be one of the gems of Zapotec art. A hatchway in the middle the patio leads down to the tombís chambers. What we wanted to discover for ourselves is the facade over the doorway to the tomb itself. There, in a niche, sits a ceramic sculpture representing the deceased dressed as one of his gods. Inside the tomb the walls are still decorated with bright murals, even after nearly 700 years!

Our Spanish is getting better and our class is going well, although we could practice more. Today during our break, Luz took us for a walk around the neighborhood. We visited a school to look at the ofrenda (altar) built by the children for victims of accidents. It was very large and included "flowers for the dead" which are fist sized marigolds called zempasuchil, apples, oranges, calaveras (skulls made from sugar), coffee, tea, alcohol and cigarettes. There were also glasses of water for the souls of the dead to drink on their long journey to and from the afterlife.

We also visited the great cathedral in the zocalo. We have been invited to a quinceanera (15th birthday party) and this is where the religious portion of the fiesta (party) will be held. Our Spanish is improving and the fiesta will be a good opportunity to practice.


Sunday, October 29, 2000

This weekend was extremely busy. On Saturday, we visited the Mercado de Abastos. This is the central market in Oaxaca and Saturday is the day when people from the outlying communities come into town to buy and sell. This weekend was particularly busy because it was the last weekend before

Los Dias de Muertos (The Days of the Dead). The market was filled with people purchasing items for their ofrendas, food, clothing, live animals, flowers, you name it, and itís there somewhere. We spent several hours wandering around and experiencing all the sights, sounds and smells.

On Saturday evening we attended the quinceanera of Luzís goddaughter. The closest comparison to a quinceanera would be a sweet sixteen, but with religious overtones. What a fiesta! The evening started with a church service blessing the girl and her family. This was followed by a sit-down dinner at the family home/business. The parents own a restaurant in an old colonial building in downtown Oaxaca and their home is above it. Entertainment during dinner was provided by a mariachi band. After dinner there was more music and dancing. We left around midnight and the party showed no signs of letting up. We had a wonderful time.

On Sunday, we took a collectivo (shared taxi) to a small town called Tlocolula (pronounced tu-lock-o-lula). Sunday is their big market day and there were lots of people buying and selling their wares. Many of the people who come to the market are indigenous people from the small pueblos, or villages, in the countryside. The market surrounds a Dominican Church, built in the 1500ís, and the church is thought to be one of the most beautiful in the Americas. The walls and ceiling are highly decorated in white and gold paint with raised graphics. There are many indigenous people living in the area and the Dominican brothers were thought to have been protective of them when others were trying to exploit them.

After visiting the market we took a local bus to the town of Mitla to see the ruins there. These pre-Hispanic stone "mosaics" are considered to be unrivaled in Mexico. The history of Mitla dates back as far as 1800BC. The ruins visible today date from 1250AD. The city was believed to have been inhabited by the high priests and rulers of the Zapotec people. After the decline of their empire, the Mixtec people moved into the area and added their stylized murals to the buildings. It was also believed that beneath the temples and palaces were treasure-filled tombs, however, all the tombs found so far have been empty.

In the early 1900ís some restoration work was done to the stonework but Alfonso Caso, the "father" of Mexican archaeology, did the major restoration in 1934 and 1935. The original mosaics were individually cut to fit a design, and then set in mortar on the walls and painted. There were 14 geometrical designs that are thought to symbolize the earth, sky and various animals. There are several groupings of buildings at Mitla and it is believed that each grouping was reserved for specific individuals such as the high priest and the king.

After a very interesting day exploring markets and ruins, we caught the bus back to Oaxaca and a very tasty dinner of typical Oaxacan food.


Tuesday, October 31, 2000

This morning on our way to class we stopped to view the tapetes (carpets of sand) being built in the courtyard of the Cathedral next to the zocalo.  Click here to take a quick look at some photos of tapetes.  They are almost finished and they are really impressive. These are huge murals carved of sand and then "painted" with cement colorant. The murals depict skeletons, katrinas, calaveras, flowers and animals. There are about eight murals and they are each about 625 ft. square (25 x 25 ft).

We have spent yesterday and today preparing for the Days of the Dead festivities. Yesterday the students in our Spanish class went to the mercado (market) to shop for items for our ofrenda. We purchased stalks of sugar cane for the arch, flowers to decorate the arch, calaveras for each student, oranges, kumquats, manzanitas (miniature apples), chocolate for mole and candies, pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and copal (traditional incense).

Today we assembled all of our ingredients. We built our arch and decorated it with flowers and pan de muerto. On our ofrenda we placed the fruit and plates that will hold the mole and chocolate. We also placed candles that will be lit tomorrow night and we created a pathway of flower petals for the souls of the dead to follow home.

Tonight is the first night of celebrations in the cemeteries and we are going to the Panteon San Miquel.  This is the Municipal Cemetery.  There we will find the municipal ofrenda and more tapetes, and at 8:00 they will illuminate thousands of candles. It sounds like it should be beautiful. We canít wait.


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The Days of the Dead  

October 31 to November 2

Evening of October 31, 2000
Click here to read the special Day of the Dead update

The last few days have been just a whirlwind of activity. Along with attending our classes we have been very involved in the celebrations for the Dias de Los Muertos.

On the 31st, what is traditionally Halloween in the U.S., the Mexicans celebrate the day of Los Angelitas, the little angels. This day is for the remembrance and celebrating of the life of those children who have already passed on. At noon, the church bells begin to ring and continue for about 10 minutes. This signals the arrival and welcoming of the souls of the children.

During our morning class, we took our conversational practice on the road and went back to the central market area to buy some final items to add to our school altar. When the bells began to ring, we were in the central market and were able to watch the church bells be rung by hand. One of the items we purchased was some fresh made chocolate, and I do mean fresh.

Chocolate, or rather Cocoa is a major crop grown in the area. All around the market are stores in which to buy the roasted cocoa beans and then we all watched as the beans were ground up and became a thick, liquid chocolate. After we returned from the market, we used our hands to shape the chocolate into balls, bars and skeletal faces.

The market was full of people who were buying flowers, incense, candles, food and just about anything else you could imagine with which to build their family altars with more to place on the graves of their loved ones.

As night fell, we met our maestro (teacher) and walked across town to the Panteon San Miguel, the municipal cemetery. Although it is a bit strange to be wandering around a cemetery at night, it was an impressive sight as the tombs were lit with what must have been two thousand candles. The tombs are in niches, 6 high, in the walls around the cemetery. We located many dates, some as old as the 1870ís.

In addition to the candles, the main draw this night is the viewing of the sand tapestries and the family altars constructed for the holiday. This day was a wonderful way to begin the festivities, yet after a long day, and an even longer walk back to our apartment, we knew weíd sleep soundly.


November 1, 2000

On this second evening of Las Dias de Los Muertos we hired a taxi to take us to the outlying pueblo (village) of Xoxocotlan (simply abbreviated as ho-ho) to explore the old cemetery. Most of the burials here have not just a headstone, but also raised platforms with small altars built in. The graves had been lovingly cleaned before the ceremony were covered with beautiful flowers and candles.

As we explored the cemetery, we were invited by families to view the graves of their departed and to photograph the tapestries they made on the graves. Most of the tapestries are religious in nature as the Catholic Church long ago combined the pre-hispanic traditions of the holiday with the religious holiday of All Saints Day.

After visiting Xoxo, we returned to the Panteon San Miguel. Here we visited with several families who were celebrating the return of their departed family members. At the first grave, the family was sitting together and singing the favorite songs of the departed accompanied by a guitar. It was a very private and moving experience. At the second grave, a very large extended family was celebrating with a Mariachi band, a group of horn players and lots of food and drink. Theirs was a raucous celebration and was quite fun. After enjoying these two different ways of celebrating, we made our way home.


November 2, 2000

On this third and final day of the celebration, we spent the afternoon at the home of Senor and Senora Rafael. They live in a pueblo just outside of the city of Oaxaca called San Augustin. We joined them in their celebration for their departed family members by sharing a meal of Atole (a drink made with chocolate, rice and water), bread and chicken mole Negro, all traditional food items for the Days of the Dead. Mole negro is a sauce made from chiles, chocolate and spices. Preparing it is a very time consuming task and it was an honor to be asked to share it with the family. Food is a very important element of the celebration and much time is spent preparing the traditional items.

After our meal, we joined the family on a walk to the local cemetery to place an additional candle on the grave of Senor Rafaelís parents. His parents were buried in a large mausoleum at the center of the cemetery and he explained to us that his father was a large landowner in the pueblo and had contributed to restoring the local church. As a tribute, his family was given the central plot in the cemetery.

While at the cemetery, we met another family who was visiting graves of family members and spoke to them for a short while. This family were long time residents of the pueblo with their roots going back at least 5 generations. In fact, they were Zapotec Indians so they could probably follow their family tree all the way back to the time of Monte Alban, about 100BC. At the conclusion of our conversation, they shared some of their homemade mezcal with us. It was really strong but we felt honored to be asked to join them.

This was a fitting ending to our celebration of the Days of the Dead. We were included in some very personal and moving celebrations, we shopped in the mercados for traditional food and items for our school ofrenda, we built the ofrenda and we shopped for ingredients for and learned how to make mole. We celebrated with families and shared their meals and stories. We felt very included in this very special Mexican holiday.


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November 6 - 11

The coast of Oaxaca State is full of pristine beaches and lagoons teeming with birds and tropical plants.

The water in the lagoons is primarily saline, so the shores are jammed with mangrove trees with their bizarre root systems making it appear that the trees are standing on stilts in the water.

The lagoons are essential to the ecology of the area as they are the nurseries of the ocean, full of baby fish and other sea life.

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We have arrived at the beginning of the migratory season when huge flocks of birds arrive from the colder areas of North America. We chose to explore the Laguna de Manialtepec, an eight-kilometer (nearly five miles) long expanse of water. 

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On the bus to the lagoon, we met Margarito, a local fisherman who offered to take us out on the lagoon in his canoe. Margarito grew up on the shore of Manialtepec and continues to make his home here.

Over the next three hours, we paddled along the mangrove shore as Margarito pointed out the various animals. We saw small boa constrictors on the branches of the mangroves, iguanas on the rocks and so many birds that we couldnít remember all of their names. There were cormorants, storks, herons, egrets, ospreys, kingfishers and more. Being in a canoe permitted us to glide up very close to the birds.

We had hoped to explore the beach at Playa Escobilla, one of the worldís main nesting grounds for the Olive Ridley sea turtle. However, we found that beach access has been closed and that there are now armed soldiers to protect the turtles from poachers. While we were disappointed, we were pleased that the government has taken steps to protect the turtles.

On another day, we rented a small scooter to give us some mobility and freedom to explore some of the other natural areas nearby. 

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We drove down the coast to the Rio (river) Colotepec. Along its banks, we found a dirt track that we followed to the mouth of the river and the small lagoon which formed behind the beach. We could feel the power of the waves as they pounded the beach.

As we walked along the shore, we came upon a surprising sight. In the water was a small flock of flamingos. This was a very impressive sight, as flamingos are generally only seen along the gulf coast of the Yucatan. We stood and watched them for about half an hour, then they flew away.

When we first arrived on the coast, we heard the distressing news that a tropical storm had developed off the coast. We were very concerned that the storm could increase in size and strength and become a hurricane. Over the course of the next few days, we were able to find an internet cafť where we could check various weather web sites to keep up on the status of the storm.  Check out Hurricanes: The Eye of the Storm.  We had been concerned about the possibility of a hurricane as the coastal area sustained major damage in October 1997 when Hurricane Pauline struck.  In that storm more than 50,000 homes were damaged or destroyed and most of the trees were killed.  

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Fortunately, the storm moved away from us, providing us only a day of rain and some of the largest waves we have ever seen.  We did have some great sunsets as well.

On our return bus trip to Oaxaca city, we were still able to see hurricane damage to the highway and the hillsides.  Many of the landslides were still causing problems, dropping rocks during any rain storm.  Again, we were fortunate not to have any delays on the roads.   This brings to an end a fabulous expedition,  thank you for joining us.

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