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October 24 – November 6 2018
Did a loud bang wake you up again last night? Was it gunfire? No, it was fireworks, again, and Mexicans love fireworks! We had to remember this was a few days before the official start of festivities for Las Dias de los Muertos, AKA the Day of the Dead. The loud noises were warning the spirits of the Mexican families’ ancestors to get on their best duds and get ready to visit their relatives, at least in spirit.
After watching the movie, Coco, which won the Academy award for best full length animated film last spring, Suzanne Andrews and I decided that Oaxaca was the town to visit during the annual festivities for Las Dias de los Muertos. Eight of us, David and Suzanne Andrews, Pat and Bruce Marshall, Cathy Pawley, Bonnie Garven, and Ray and I, friends since our Bishop’s University days long ago, agreed to spend the week together in Oaxaca from October 27 until November 3.
Ray and I flew to Mexico City on October 24 to spend a few days in the historic Center before joining our friends in Oaxaca. On the recommendation of our friend, Jackie MacDonald, a friend in Ottawa, we spent most of one day visiting the University of Mexico (UNAM) campus. Jackie suggested we see the UNAM stadium where she competed in Shot Put for Canada in the 1955 Pan American Games as well as the UNAM Central library, just across the street from the stadium. UNAM has an enrollment of 300,000 students and is so large that a free bus system shuttles students and visitors around the campus. After getting lost a few times we were led to the library by a friendly student. The library, officially opened in 1956, is certainly impressive. The facade of the tall, windowless tower of the library, which houses 1.5 million volumes, is covered with natural coloured stone murals, designed by architect and artist, Juan O’Gorman, to depict the history of Mexico. We were not permitted to enter the stadium itself, home to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, but the guard directed us to the best vantage point to admire the large Diego Rivera mural under the Olympic flame.
Click Mexico City to see a Google photo album of our visit
Ray and I flew to Oaxaca from Mexico City on October 26, where we met the Marshalls. We had time to explore some of the town, which already sported decorations honouring Las Dias de los Muertos, which has its origins in Aztec traditions, blended with Catholicism introduced by the Spaniards. There were altars built in public squares, Catrinas, skeletons dressed in period costumes hanging from balconies and perched on window ledges, candy and chocolate skulls for sale in the markets along with decorations to make you home altar the envy of the neighbourhood. The arrival of the rest of our group the next day brought even more treats. Parades with brass bands and Oaxacans in full face paint and costume seemed to spontaneously appear at any time in the day and everyone was in a happy, party mood. Of course the biggest parade any of us had ever seen, lasting more than an hour and including thousands of participants, signalled the official start of festivities at 6 PM on October 30.
Click Parades in Oaxaca to see a Google photo album
Click Oaxaca Decorations to see a Google photo album of Decorations and favourite restaurants in Oaxaca:
A visit to one of the local cemeteries getting ready for Las Dias de los Muertos is a must see experience. We chose to visit Pantheon Xoxo the evening of October 31, to see how the Oaxacans decorate their family graves. The families come to spend the evening on October 31, and sometimes stay overnight, decorating and anticipating reconnecting with long dead relatives over the next two days. November 1 is the day to remember children who have died and November 2 is the day to remember adults. The graves are beautifully decorated with flowers, favourite foods, candies, drinks and the graves are ringed with lighted candles to welcome the spirits of the dead. Some graves even had musicians to play the favourite songs of the deceased. Yes it was crowded, with families and local and foreign visitors, but the mood was welcoming and the families were proud to have us admire their efforts.
A friend in Ottawa recommended that we build our own altar for Las Dias de los Muertos. Each of us brought photos of deceased family members still important to our lives. Pat Marshall brought foam picture frames for our photos and we set up our altar in an inner courtyard at our hotel, Posada Catarina. We bought decorations and candles in the local markets and made sure to have several of the fruits and drinks favoured by the deceased ready for the spirits of our families to enjoy. It was a great success. Several of the other hotel guests said they wished they had thought to make an altar as well.
Click Altars and Pantheon Xoxo to see a Google photo album
Oaxaca City is surrounded by the Valley of Oaxacan, full of artisan towns, archaeological ruins and natural beauty. A good way to enjoy the area is to take a day tour. Our group took one of the most popular tours. We visited the very large archaeological site Monte Alban and visited Cuilapan with its 16th C convent with an open air chapel. Arrazola is full of workshop where they make the gaily painted wooden figures, called Alebrijes that played a big part in the film, Coco. The tour concluded in Coyotepec with a stop at a workshop specializing in black ceramics, famous in the area.
Click Monte Alban tour to see a Google photo album
Six of us, who elected to stay extra days in Oaxaca, had a great day enjoying the scenery and crafts of the area. We arranged a tour to El Tule, a gigantic 1,000 year old Mexican cypress tree and a visit to the ruins of Mitla, a smaller version of Monte Alban. We continued on to Teotitlan, where families have created woolen carpets for generations. We had an excellent introduction to the steps required to create the naturally coloured carpets featuring traditional and modern themes. We were so impressed that two of our group brought carpets to decorate their homes. Our day ended with the mineral waters of Hierve del Agua. Springs, heavy with minerals, feed a waterfall cascading over sheer cliffs, creating frozen white meringues of minerals. The waters are channelled down to fill swimming pools where families picnic and enjoy the almost body temperature waters.
Click Valley of Oaxaca Tour to see a Google photo album
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