Mexico Travel Journal Week 4: Pyramids, Mariachi, Fiesta and Love at 2nd Sight

Day of the Dead parade

Mexico Travel Map

I have no idea how we are going to top last week. We started in Mexico City, where we visited the incredible pre-Columbian site of Teotihuacan, home of the 3rd highest pyramid in the world, were serenaded by Mariachi’s in Plaza  Garibaldi and traveled to Oaxaca for the surrealistically beautiful Day of the Dead fiesta. I realize the week has just happened and I’m on a bit of an emotional high from it, but it has to rank as one of the two best weeks of my travels, the other being a week of safari in Africa.

As one might imagine, I have a lot to write about the Day of the Dead and tons of photos to sift through (there will be several future posts). We went out of our way to be in Oaxaca for the festival, as I heard it was not only one of the best places to see it, but it isn’t overwhelmed with tourists. Although I was very much looking forward to the fiesta, it exceeded my wildest expectations by far. Every day, parades of cosutmed people flowed through the streets, accompanied by marching bands and throngs of onlookers. They’d pause every few blocks and dance and play songs, and even pass out free shots of mezcal, and then move on down the street, only to be replaced later on by another raucous parade. It seems that nearly everyone in Oaxaca can play an instrument in a marching band.

On Oct 31 and Nov 1 the cemeteries were full of families, some mourning, some dancing to live mariachi bands, and almost all of them drinking heavily. All through the days, fireworks exploded in the distance and the streets, parks and squares were full of vendors, tourists, families, revelers, parties, special events, street performers, political protests, musicians and bands. Each evening, we intended to go to bed early; each evening we stayed up way past our bedtime because something fascinating was going on.

All the festivities and fun of Oaxaca sort of obscure the fact that our last three days in Mexico City were nothing short of spectacular. Below is a recap of our week.

Day 20 – Street Photography workshop with Alex Coghe

On Monday, I did a one-day street photography workshop with professional photographer Alex Coghe. It was a great experience and I learned things that immediately improved my photography. Alex, originally from Rome, has been in el D.F. for 5 years and his approach to photography really opened my eyes.

I won’t divulge any of his secrets – you will have to take a workshop if you are in central Mexico – but I will say that I am now shooting almost exclusively in manual mode. I used to shoot mostly in aperture priority, but now I am going full manual with aperture, time, and focus, with only ISO on automatic. It has already helped me get sharper images when shooting street photos.

Day 21 – Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan in the rain

We took a day trip to Teotihuacan, the great pre-Columbian pyramids just outside the metropolis. We arrived early to beat the crowds, but as soon as we approached the 3rd highest pyramid in the world – the Pyramid of the Sun – the heavens opened up and we were caught in a heavy downpour. After taking refuge under a tree that provided almost no shelter, we retreated to the entrance, dried off, drank coffee and did the whole tourism thing again.

Even though it spit rain all day and the tour buses had arrived by the time the rain stopped, the site is nothing short of spectacular. The best views were actually from the smaller Pyramid of the Moon, which gave an overview of the entire site.

Day 22 – Plaza Girabaldi and the Mariachis

Mariachi

You can’t say that you’ve been to Mexico unless you’ve been serenaded by a mariachi band. We went to Plaza Girabaldi, where mariachis in full regalia, convene every night and play songs for anyone willing to pony up the pesos. Like the day before, a huge thunderstorm rolled through and we were forced to take refuge in a cantina. Inside, we were 2 of 4 patrons. We payed for a song (Son de la Negra) and found ourselves surrounded by a fiddle, three guitars and two trumpets. We were blasted with music – it was incredible.

I am not an emotional person, but the music was so powerful and the scene so beautiful, that I actually teared up. I am not exaggerating.

In addition to being unemotional, I am also a cheapskate very frugal. After the rain, we took a seat on the outside deck and luckily the ladies next to us had a mariachi music listening orgy. They paid for about 7 songs and another table paid for 3 or 4, and so we heard mariachi – for free! – all night.

Day 23 – Oaxaca – Love at 2nd Sight

Oaxaca Church

How did this city not impress me?

“How was I not impressed by this?” I kept saying over and over as we walked the streets of Oaxaca, a place I’d visited 12 years ago but did not enjoy.

Oaxaca is beautiful, yet somehow I didn’t remember it that way. In my mind, I edited out the color, deleted the magic and smoothed over the granduer of this colonial city. For whatever reason, I was totally unimpressed the first time I visited 12 years ago.

This time around, I was immediately smitten. Of course it didn’t hurt that we arrived on October 29 as the Day of the Dead activities were in full swing. Immediately upon arrival, we saw a parade with with about 30 kids dressed up and a marching band flowing through the streets. We followed them until they stopped in front of a photogenic church at sunset. It was just a taste of things to come.

Day 24 – 26 – Day of the Dead Celebrations

Cemetery at Xoxo

The next three days are all a blur. On Oct. 31, we went to three different cemeteries at night. At the San Miguel cemetery in central Oaxaca, the scene ranged from beautiful to serene to surreal. Families go to the cemeteries on the 31st and Nov. 1 as the spirits of the dead return on these days. At San Miguel, only the children’s graves were decorated, but a central area of niches were all lit with candles. It was a beautiful, peaceful scene. Sort of. Right in the middle of the cemetery, there was a Beatles tribute band rocking the house. People stood atop tombstones to get a view of the band and a irreverent, party vibe permeated that section of the cemetery.

Just outside the gates, there was a carnival with games, rides and tons of food. The juxtaposition of the somber, candlelit tombs and the concert and carnival created one of the most bizarre atmospheres I’ve seen.

From there, we went to Xoxocatlan (The locals call it Xoxo, pronounced Ho Ho). In the new cemetery, nearly every grave was curated with marigolds, photos, food and candles. There were mariachi bands and lots of heavy drinking. The old cemetery of Xoxo was a more tranquil affair, but outside the walls of both cemeteries were make-shift bars, street food stalls, artwork, vendors and revelers.

We ended up returning home around 3am, and so the next day we intended to take it easy, but starting around dusk the most raucous parades with the most elaborate costumes began tromping through the streets. We were aroused from our sleepiness and again stayed up late watching the processions.

As I write this, we are in Puebla, a beautiful city that is luckily fiesta free. Our plan for the day – to do nothing. That is what 5 days of fiesta did to us. Mexicans really know how to party.

Week 4 Photo of the Day – click for larger view


What is the best festival you have seen? 

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28 Comments on “Mexico Travel Journal Week 4: Pyramids, Mariachi, Fiesta and Love at 2nd Sight

  1. Seenyor Hefe,
    You are making me homesick for Mexico. I may have been Mexican in a previous life, I love it there. Maybe you saw my spirit during the day of the dead? I read that using manual (ahem, the way we used to do it before auto & digital stuff) was the best way, and that there was a certain way to shoot in manual, but I never finished the article. And my camera has no guide, so I can’t figure out how to shoot in manual.

    I would have to say my greatest festival was Khumbh Mela in Haridwar near Rishikesh a few years ago (2013)…hundreds of thousands of worshipers cleansing in the Ganga River. Very few foreigners. Gods galore.

    • I can imagine that the Khumbh Mela would be a ridiculous festival. We saw Navratri in India in a mostly muslim town, so it wasn’t that big, and yet it was still enormous! Mexico is a great country, isn’t it? It is quickly becoming one of my favorites.

  2. What a week! I love taking a photography workshop when I am on vacation. Continuously learning new things keeps my images fresh. I shoot in manual almost exclusively. The exception being shutter priority for catching movement.

    It’s hard to imagine vendors and bands in a cemetery. Such a contradiction to how Americans view death. Glad you are having such a great time. You are going to need a vacation after all your travels in Mexico!

    • It is a totally different way to look at death, especially the bands and carnivals, but I think it is probably healthy. There was a true celebration going on in the cemetery, a celebration of life.

      We are going to need a vacation. I seriously thought about blowing up our plans and heading down to the beach after Oaxaca for a few days.

  3. wow I want to pack a bag and head down to Mexico. I visited once and loved it. I remember how wonderful the people were. Everyone I met was so friendly. I left Mexico with my face sore from so much smiling.

  4. I do hope you love Puebla. I spent a month there studying in the 90’s. We were housed in Hotel Colonial just blocks from the Zocalo. We walked every day with native speakers/teachers guiding us to wonderful churches. One place I will never forget was a church where a silent order of nuns had hidden in plain sight so to speak. We also went to a fabrica of talavera. The man did the old fashioned way, spinning his wheel with his foot. I am absolutely crazy for talavera and would have filled my suitcases with it if it hadn’t been so heavy! Puebla is also known for their chilis en nogada. Oh how I wish I was a little mouse traveling in your pocket! Have fun!

    • Mechelle, We really enjoyed Puebla. It isn’t the kind of city that is loaded with top attractions like other places in Mexico, but through word of mouth, I’ve only heard great things about it. Everyone who has visited loves it, including you. We didn’t do a whole lot there – we were worn out form Day of the Dead! – but had a great time nonetheless. The historic center, as you know, is loaded with beautiful buildings and there is fun vibe in town. All the bars and cafes near the zocalo were packed with people and it was a very safe place to visit. We are in Cuetzalan right now – did you ever make it over here?

  5. Hola! Thank you for the lovely recap. I have always been interested in the Day of the Dead. The Philippines celebrates Nov 1st and 2nd as All Saints and All Souls’ Day respectively. It’s a time when we go visit our dead relatives in the cemetery and bring food and flowers, kinda like a family reunion. Some stay overnight and put up tents and bring music and play card games. Almost like the Day of the Dead but without the costumes and fiesta parades.

    • That is interesting. The Philippines and Mexico have a lot in common, I think, with the Spain and American occupations. It is interesting how different cultures celebrate death. Thanks for sharing.

      • You are most welcome! I am learning a lot just by reading (stalking) your blog. 🙂 Since we can only travel in spurts, reading about them is the next best thing. You should check out the Philippines. Most of it is off the beaten path for foreign backpacker travelers that is. Though I’ve seen a slow surge of younger ones on holiday as well. I will be glad to help you out.

      • The Philippines is very high on the list. We can travel during Oct-Dec and that is hurricane season there. Someday we will go there though.

      • And I agree on the Spain and American occupations part. We have a lot of Spanish words that have been incorporated as part of the Filipino language and local dialects as well. Our food and culture also have Spanish roots. Although modern Filipino society is evolving into a more Westernized/Americanized trend.

      • I have had a few co-workers from the Philippines and most of them have excellent English and are very friendly. They are also hard-workers and just really great people.

  6. Jeff I shall need a nap just from reading about all of the action. I love that you do a photography lesson in the midst of your trip. Did you have it planned? If so be sure to tell Badfish. If you read his latest post we are high lighted for being the travel planners.
    Anyway I am so intrigued with the Day of the Dead celebrations. Fabulous photos.

    • I was thinking about the photo workshop if it worked out. I chuckled at Badfish’s reference. I do tons of pre-trip reading, but I’m usually pretty flexible once we start. Having said that, this first month went almost exactly as I’d expected.

      If you ever get the chance, be here for Day of the Dead. It is awesome.

  7. I don’t know how I’d do using full manual for street photography – I’m not quick enough at focusing. I love manual for many reasons, and always use it if the subject is stationary, but those darn people in the streets keep moving! By the time I’d get them in focus they’d be gone.
    The Day of the Dead in Oaxaca sounds as magical and riotous and rich as our experience at the Guelaguetza festival there – there’s something about the way Oazacans celebrate that’s fabulously extravagant and over the top!
    I can’t say which is the best festival I’ve seen – I think there are 3 equal first – Candelaria in Puno, Peru, the Camel fair in Pushkar, India, and Guelaguetza in Oaxaca.
    Alison

    • With manual focus, he uses a zone focus and a small aperture, around f8 to f11. When the subject gets within a predetermined range, you can shoot away and they are in focus – no need to focus. If they are outside that range, you can then use automatic.

      The camel fair and guelaguetza are both on my list to do, but I’ll have to look at the Candelaria – never heard of that one. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Jeff, my pleasure to give you the workshop. It was a funny day and I am happy to read my tips were useful. I have seen you have enjoyed Mexico and you did Oaxaca. It’s a shame we are not able to meet us there, but I hope there will be another opportunity in future. Hugs from Mexico!

    • Thanks Alex. The workshop has really helped me with my photos and I am really happy I took it. Oaxaca was incredible, but I am sure you were crazy busy. Every time returned around, there was another parade or something going on. I can see why you would like to live there.

  9. Great photos of the cemetery Jeff. We’ve only read about the DOD festivals, and seen the art. It’s great to actually see what goes on. When you went from Mexico City to Oaxaca, did you take the bus? We did, and my memory at the time was that is was one of the most scenic bus rides we’d had anywhere in the world. Of course, I was really torn, because the bus had a looping video of Goofy Dos running in the background. 🙂 ~James

    • You are right, that bus ride is stunning. I so desperately wanted the bus to break down so we could walk among those towering cactuses out there. The buses have improved since I was in Mexico 12 years ago. On most of the buses, there is a headphone jack so the whole bus isn’t assaulted with the noise of the movie. I can’t remember what they played, but it was bad so I listened to podcasts and music.

      You’d love DoD. You should try to make it someday!

  10. Pingback: Learning From the Masters at the APF Photography Workshop | Planet Bell

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