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
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
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
“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
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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