EVA'S TRAVEL DIARY - Oaxaca and the Day of the Dead Festivities
I am in love with Oaxaca. I have spent over a month there in three separate visits over the past year -- so much so that a Mexican friend recently joked that I am more often in the state than the Governor! It has an intoxicating blend of old and new, of tradition and fashion -- the colonial elegance of its vibrantly coloured buildings housing some of Mexico's best food and most exciting art. Mexico has many wonderful places, but of them all, this is the one where, every time I leave, I feel I have more reasons to return.
The Magic of Oaxaca
Oaxaca City, the capital that bears the same name as the state, is nestled between lush green rolling hills, and at times wrapped into mountains of clouds. A powerful natural energy runs through the veins of this magical place. It is a town where artists retire, where artisans keep traditional craftsmanship alive, where the light seems to be different -- a warm, golden light that brings out the vibrancy of the natural palette. It is famous for its mole -- a complex and rich sauce with up to 30 ingredients that can include chocolate and takes days to cook -- and of course it is the home of Mezcal!
Oaxaca is also the spiritual centre of the 'Day of the Dead' festival. Every year at the beginning of November, Mexicans celebrate the people they have lost in a ritual that blends together their pre-Hispanic roots and deep Catholicism. The multi-day holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for, remember, and help support the spiritual journey of friends and family members who have died. Being Mexican, the best way to mark any event is to have a party -- so people paint their faces, decorate gravestones, and throw parties in the place that most cultures find morbid -- the cemetery. It has been popularised recently for an international audience by movies such as James Bond's Spectre and Coco, but this is the real deal, and I was lucky enough to be invited by Mexican friends to join the celebration this year.
El Día de los Muertos
Arriving in the city on November 1st -- which is the actual Day of the Dead -- I found people already dancing and singing on the streets, music and parades everywhere, face painters and make up artists on every corner, ready to transform people into "La Catrina," the famous skull-face that has come to symbolise not only El Día de los Muertos and the Mexican willingness to laugh at death itself, but also death as a neutralising force, reminding people that in the end, we are all equal.
These street parties are combined with visits to local graveyards to honour deceased beloved family members in order to keep their memories alive. Graves are beautifully decorated, full of fresh flowers, thousands of candles, and other decorative elements such as the dead person’s favourite food and drink. People spend the whole night in the cemetery, singing and drinking, to keep the memories alive -- because once you stop remembering and worshipping the dead, they will actually vanish from your memory, to be lost forever. This is the actual death from the in-between-world.
The following day, on November 2nd, I joined Mezcal brand Gem & Bolt for their annual flagship party Viva la Muerte, their version of celebrating Oaxaca, the home of Mezcal, and Día de los Muertos. The setting was a derelict ruin complex in the middle of nowhere in the mountains of rural Oaxaca, a perfect spot for such an immersive intimate gathering. Guests, who came all dressed in beautiful robes and traditional "La Catrina" make up, were taken on a musical journey from dusk till dawn by female DJ Carlita, followed by Satori who played a 5-hour live set aided by a live opera singer. It was a celebration for all senses.
Having recovered from the previous night, the full immersion continued. On Saturday, the 3rd of November, Mezcal Amores and our friends from MAXA Camp hosted a private candlelit dinner to conclude the celebrations of Día de los Muertos in Oaxaca. All profits of this evening went to Rebuild Oaxaca, a fundraising initiative that I created together with my husband last year as a consequence of the devastating earthquakes that devastated large parts of rural Oaxaca, and which supports the rebuilding of earthquake resistant houses.
This evening was beautifully curated from start to finish. It was an intimate gathering of family and friends. The setting was the ruins of a former therapeutic art-garden, which is said to be a portal that lies between the worlds of the living and the dead. Chef Rodolfo Castellanos of Origen Restaurant, known for his amazing contemporary Oaxacan fare, created a mindblowingly delicious 3-course family-style tasting menu with mezcal pairings. Again, the night continued with dancing until early morning with live music, the electronic DJ sounds of Aleph, and a lot of Amores Mezcal.
After the intense partying and fiesting to honour the dead, I was ready to immerse myself in the other area Oaxaca is so famous for -- its art.
I attended art fairs, visited the Textile Museum, which gives insight into the history of one of the crafts Oaxaca is most known for, and showcases some of the local tribes' stunning designs. I attended Andares del Arte Popular, a beautiful historic building that serves as a showroom, and which curates beautifully handcrafted products of local artisans for purchase. I visited the infamous CaSa San Augustin, which is a former convent that has been refurbished by famous Oaxacan artist, Francisco Toledo, to provide a space for artists to create, and visitors to experience, the creation of art. I met up with local artists, and attended local markets such as LAGO, by Caravana Americana. I also attended the stunning ethnobotanical garden. If you enjoy learning about the local fauna and geography, and enjoy getting lost in fields of cacti, this is your place.
Stay, Eat, and Drink in Oaxaca
This time, I stayed in a wonderful bed and breakfast hotel, Casa de la Tia Tere, tucked away from the busy streets of Oaxaca, which was an oasis of calm, a blessing during this busy period of partying and socialising. It features a jungle-like garden and a beautiful pool, just 5 minutes away from the main square around the majestic church of Santo Domingo. Other recommended places to stay include Hotel Azul Oaxaca and Hotel Los Amantes. The latter has a wonderful rooftop bar, which serves delicious Mezcal cocktails, and offers the best of Oaxacan sunsets.
My all time favourite and go-to-restaurant (this time I visited it four times) is Casa Oaxaca, famous for its traditional cuisine with a temporary twist. There are many other culinary delights and I would recommend to visit: Los Danzantes, for its beautifully designed space and high-end creative Mexican cuisine; Zandunga, which features dishes from a southern area in the state of Oaxaca; el Istmo -- don’t miss the Mexican Pizza (tlajuda), and try the corn tamales. And there is an endless list of colourful bars and restaurants, such as Sabina Sabe and La Popular, which offer delicious tacos, and Mezcal cocktails, too.
My closing advice: if you have the time, book yourself into a cooking course, in which you learn about the complexity and purity of the local cuisine, and of course, how to prepare a traditional mole. Buen provecho!
If you have any further questions, please get in touch with me!
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