Bathed in an oft-remarked-upon exquisite quality of light, Mexico‘s Oaxaca (wa-HAH-ka) is a melting pot of colorful cultures, known for their brightly hued textiles and rugs, clothing, and dance. The scene is a swirl of fine art and traditional artesanias, where some 17 languages, including Spanish, are spoken in the lively marketplaces and city plazas.
Though celebrations of Oaxaca’s remarkable cultural diversity take place throughout the year, the most important is in July, the “Guelaguetza,” a Zapotec word very loosely translated by the Spanish as “Mondays on the Hill.”
The word “guelaguetza” (variations of which are used in many MesoAmerican tongues) is actually closer to “offering,” and generally refers to the tradition of reciprocal gift giving that predates the market economy by millennia. Today, it mostly manifests at parties, weddings, and other gatherings, when guests bring food, alcohol, decorations, and of course presents, to make the event something special without anyone spending too much.
In Oaxaca, however, the Guelaguetza Festival—capitalized—is an enormous gathering atop Fortin Hill, overlooking Oaxaca City. Dancers and other representatives from state’s seven regions arrive in all their traditional finery: The sophisticated Central Valleys; the chilly mountains of the Sierra Juarez and La Cañada; the richly rainforested Tuxtepec; the arid Mixteca; and the Pacific Coast, split between La Costa and the Istmo of Tehuantepec, the last famed for its beautifully embroidered trajes, or costumes. They arrive on the last two Mondays of July to the Guelaguetza Stadium, built specifically for this event was built in the 1970s. Spectators from all over Mexico and the world then settle into the partially covered stadium to enjoy the show.
Each of the seven groups performs the music and dance most typical of their region, such as the Tuxtepec’s “Dance of the Pineapple Flower” and the Central Valley’s famed “Dance of the Feather,” with an iconic traje that is subject of many paintings and sculptures found around the valleys. Small gifts are given and everyone enjoys the show.
There’s some criticism that this once very private, indigenous gathering has turned into a tourist spectacle, which isn’t entirely untrue. Thus, competing “Popular Guelaguetzas” have sprung up in recent years, though you’ll probably need some Spanish and social skills to find and attend them. Or, you could check out smaller Guelaguetza Festivals held throughout July in smaller surrounding towns, including Santa María Atzompa, Zaachila, Cuilapam, Etla, and San Antonino Castillo Velasco.
Oaxaca’s main Guelaguetza usually falls on the last two Mondays of July, unless one of those Mondays falls on July 18, birthday of hometown hero and Mexico’s first indigenous president Benito Juarez, in which case the Guelaguetza takes place on the following two Mondays.
There are generally two shows per Monday, one in the morning and the other in the evening. Purchase tickets well in advance from Mexican Ticketmaster. Visitors to Oaxaca in late July should also make hotel reservations as early as possible, and expect the city’s most popular restaurants and tours to be packed. Have fun!