Tierra del Sol


Oaxaca Festival

Traditional dancing at Lunes Del Cerro Festival in Oaxaca.

“Chapulines, chapulines, chapulines,” she called out in a creaky voice and made me look up from my beer. The little wizened old lady stood before me with a bagful of purplish brown powdered goodies.

“Es una flora?,” I asked “Is it a flower?”. “Si,” she answered rather too sheepishly, but I was too absorbed in my own curiosity to notice.

I placed with a few pesos on her palm and put a thumbful of my purchase on my tongue. It had an unpleasand acidic and salty taste sensation. Then I looked closer to see the legs and those small eyes. I had eaten Grasshopper. I recoiled at the thought of the assault on my vegetarian sensibilities.

Mexico’s Oaxaca is the place to go if you like to wash down your fried grasshoppers with good tequila or perhaps slurp on some of the bizarrely named sopa de nada (nothing soup). Geographically in central Mexico in the state with the same name, Oaxaca is an elegant Spanish colonial city situated in a beautiful lush green valley in the “Land of the sun”. For centuries, the pleasant year round temperate climate and relaxed pace has been a magnet for expats and Spanish linguists from north of the border.

Oaxaca is steeped in ancient history. High above the city stands one of the most archaeologically important sites in the Americas. It may even have been the first city in the entire area. The 2,000-year-old city of Monte Alban was built by the Zapotec Indians and at one time was home for as many as 20,000 people. Most of the site is in ruins but the scale of the place when you climb the steep pyramids and view the vast plazas is awe inspiring. At its peak the whole site would have been a feast of dazzling colour shining in the sun. The carved stone reliefs called Las Danzantes (the dancers) are the most interesting feature left intact, not because they are a shower of naked men dancing around but because of their curiously African features – they may have been slaves. There is a ball court at Monte Alban where the strange ancient game was played. It is thought that a rubber ball was kept in the air using an elbow, a knee or a toe for as long as you could – a bit like looking at Ronaldinho, the Brazilian, playing soccer.

Take your trip up to Monte Alban early in the morning as the mist is dissipated by the sun’s heat. It is less crowded, as the more leisurely tourists are probably still in their hotels eating breakfast. Regular shuttle buses run from the centre of Oaxaca City up to the ruins throughout the day.

Fans of the rather curious and dubious practice of trepanning won’t get it done here, as Zapotecs no longer drill into each other’s skulls. Plenty of skull remains have holes in them in the museums of Oaxaca and Mexico City and are testament to the ancient surgery. Their healing scars prove they survived the experience. There is no evidence thought that their lives were made better or worse.

It is not known why ancient peoples all over the world drilled skull holes. Some claim it signifies the birth of neurosurgery or an attempt to cure diseases like epilepsy. It is more likely to have been a superstitious attempt to get rid of evil spirits.

Modern trepanners claim it decreases the blood flow to the brain and spinal fluid and allows attainment of a higher state of consciousness. It is not really a surprise that it is difficult to get it done by a real medical doctor, so a lot of self-drilling has been carried out with some reported success. It is the kind of thing you might try only once.

The biggest festival in Oaxaca is called the Lunes del Cerro (Mondays on the hill) or La Guelaguetza (Zapotec for offering or mutual help) and it is in celebration of the ancient corn goddess Centeotl. A huge extravaganza of music and dance it is held in a specially constructed amphitheatre at Fortin Hill, which overlooks the city. The festival is usually on two consecutive Mondays in mid July unless the anniversary of former Mexican president Benito Juarez’s death falls on a Monday then it is put back a week. Juarez is the city’s most famous son; the tyrannical former Mexican president Porfirio Diaz was also Oaxacan, but he is not remembered so fondly.

For the fiesta the villagers from the seven distinctive regions of the state congregate in Oaxaca to perform regional folkloric dances and generally have a good time. After each dance the dancers and musicians throw local snacks or fruits, sweets, or clay pots filled with mescal towards the up stretched arms of the crowd who shriek with joy.

The most important dances are the pineapple dance and the Zapotec dance of the feathers, which re-enacts the destructive conquistadors conquest of the local Indians. In the evening, a local ballet troupe puts on a rendition of the tragic fable of the Zapotec princess Donaji. The air is filled with magic and mystic as the giant lights illuminate the stage only as thousands of spectators watch through the darkness in transfixed silence. The performance I saw ended in an explosion of fireworks, both artificial and natural as the Gods rumbled before the warm rain fell. Then everyone raised brightly coloured umbrellas and went home to their beds.

In Oaxaca, the November the great Mexican Day of the Dead festival is celebrated with aplomb. The Night of the Radishes at Christmastime is the most bizarre Oaxacan festival with huge radish sculptures paraded around the city and displayed in the zocalo.

Oaxaca boasts one of the most beautiful churches in the world – the baroque Santo Domingo. Even those who haven’t an ounce of religion in them or who are artistic ignoramuses will marvel at this one. The roof inside is the major attraction and you will get a creak in your neck looking at the incredibly intricate detail. It is decorated so lavishly with enough gold leaf that if melted it could probably feed the inhabitants of the city for a decade on its worth. The elaborate tree of life was created in honour of Felix de Guzman, founder of the Dominican order. The Dominicans provided some protection for the indigenous Indians from the marauding conquistadors so they are popular in these parts. There are 27 other churches in the city if visiting churches is your thing. The imposing cathedral near the zocalo is rather austere and a bit of a letdown, as it is dour, dark and earthquake damaged.

There are markets in the surrounding villages in the central valleys on each day of the week and if you catch one of the bone rattling rickety buses or a more comfortable taxi out to one of them you can catch a real flavour for village life. Bargain hunters will find the best deals for souvenirs in these village markets, which are most famous for their woollen blankets and serapes. There is a Saturday market in Oaxaca itself, but the best ones to go for are Ocotlan (for textiles and pottery), Tlacolula (for ceramics and rugs), Teotlan del Valle (for serapes) and Zaachila (to see a traditional farmers market). Haggling will save you some money especially if you speak Spanish. Other attractions in the area are the huge cypress tree at Tule, which is in the Guinness book of records for being the world’s widest tree, and the ruins at Mitla (with excellent Mixtec stone mosaics) and Yagul.

The alcohol in Oaxaca ranges from a variety of quality local beers to a dangerously toxic variety of tequilas and mescal (with the worm) and the best place to drink is at a spit-on-the-ground cantina. Drink in moderation if you hit the mescal as you don’t want to head the way of “The Consul”. Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano hero fell into the bottle of Mescal and his final words echo an eponymous warning: “Christ this is a dingy way to die”.

The temptation is to say in the lap of luxury and romance in the Camino Real during your Oaxacan sojourn. A stay in the converted 18th century Dominican convent and former city jail won’t break the bank. But for us we had to stay in the wonderfully named Hotel Chocolate. For some waking up to the sound of Gregorian chants echoing through the majestic cloisters of the ex-nunnery and former prison is the ultimate heaven, but there is no describing the experience of waking up above a chocolate factory. The smell of chocolate first thing in the morning is ecstasy inducing. You can keep your mescal.

Imbibing a hot chocolate drink will wash away the remaining alcoholic taste from your mouth after a night in the bars. It will definitely remove any lingering aftertaste of chapulines. Eating fried grasshopper according to legend will guarantee your Oaxacan return; for me the taste of chocolate is more likely to trigger a returning reverie.

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