Monday, November 7, 2016

An Ultimate Guide: Visiting Oaxaca City for Dia de Muertos

If you want to experience an authentic Dia de Muertos in Mexico, Oaxaca is a great place to do it. It's just enough traditional small-town experience and just enough tourist goodies experience.

TRIP TIME: I suggest arriving at least one day before the real fiesta begins (aim for October 29th or sooner). This gives you at least a day to enjoy the city and pick up the items for your costume. It also helps to get a sense of the map in Oaxaca because once the nightlife starts (around dusk), there are parades and people everywhere. Then, you'll probably be ready to head home or on to your next destination by November 3rd. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of nice things to see but the must-do's can be done in that amount of time (or maybe one day less).

Ofrenda (altar) and grave site decorations

FOOD: You will love the food! Especially little hole in the wall places (if the sign for the restaurant is a list of menu items that includes 'tortillas a mano', that's a good call). Eat the street food: Hamburguesas...some of the best hamburgers I've had ever, Elotes...a little strange at first with the mayo but with picante salsa it's delicious, Sopas, Empanadas, Gorditas, it's all yummy. If you are the type of person that needs to know what you are eating, I suggest a little dictionary book for food names. Plus most Mexicans speak at least a little English if not more. Oaxaca sees a lot of tourists, especially at this time, so you'll find most people are patient with you and willing to find a way to communicate even if it's a struggle. All that said, if you like a more tourist friendly version, there are many high quality, clean, and comfortable restaurants available with English menus.

SHOPPING: Benito Juarez Mercado is the perfect market to buy an outfit, a few flowers for your hair or hat, candles to carry in the cemeteries, and gifts to bring back home. You can also buy many things at the street stalls. Generally, it is acceptable to negotiate on the price. However, I believe it's important to remember it is someone's time you're paying for too. The mercado stalls are less likely to negotiate on prices than the street stalls. Also, there are artisan craft stores available which have price tags and make it easy to buy locally made merchandise. Just walk around and you'll definitely see one. There are at least two on Andador Macedonio Alcalá (the pedestrian street right off the main square).

Religious parade in the streets of Oaxaca

DIA DE MUERTOS CELEBRATION: Halloween has infiltrated Mexico so October 31st is a great day to start celebrating. There are many people dressed up all day/night and parades and street performances everywhere. Just get in costume, stop for some Mezcal (the locally made liquor), and wander. The ofrendas (altars decorated for the dead) are generally put up for children on November 1st and adults on November 2nd. As with anything, it's up to that family when they have time and want to celebrate their loved ones so there's no set schedule for this type of trip. Sometimes you get lucky and run into someone at a cemetery who wants to share their experience with you and sometimes you are just a respectful spectator. On that note, please do not come here as a tourist and take shots near a grave. And especially, don't leave your little plastic shot glasses on the grave stone. Yes, I actually saw that. It's appalling. However, it is okay to drink and celebrate this holiday as you would any other! You'll see locals at the grave sites dancing and drinking together to give honor their loved ones. Tourists even walk among the dead with beer and snacks. Please note: there are no trash cans in the cemetery, so you'll need to carry it back out. There are two main cemeteries to visit: the General Cemetery which is just outside the city center (walkable) and Xoxocotlan which takes about 20 minutes by car. Both will likely have a fair type atmosphere on Oct. 31st with games and rides and food. Then, more personal celebrating on Nov.1/2 at the grave sites. No one can guarantee anything on days/times (which is why you'll find varied information on the internet) but I'd recommend dusk for Nov. 1/2 and maybe a bit later for the 31st. Also, ask around when you arrive and make note of when tours take place (even if you don't pay for one, which you don't need to). Definitely spend some time in Zocalo plaza and walking on Calle Alcala (pronounced ky-yay al-ka-la if you're asking for it) any time, that is where you'll find the parades and street performances every evening.

TRANSPORTATION: Oaxaca has an excellent local bus system. There are a few bus stations - the main one being at Bustamante and Zaragosa streets. You can read the destinations on the bus window or just ask the driver (they are used to this). The buses are usually just $5-15 pesos. Note that the buses stop running at 10 PM. If you're celebrating Dia, you won't be back by then. For late travel, you can take a colectivo. It's not quite a cab because they will squeeze 6 people into a 5 person car so if you are middle front - be prepared for them shifting literally under your thigh. Also you are at their discretion in terms of time. They will wait until they have a full car before leaving for the multiple destinations of you and your fellow passengers, as well as drop off and pick up more people along the way. However, most tourists stay in town. Those that do: it's going to be walking or quick regular taxi rides. Regular taxis are everywhere and inexpensive (unless you are doing a day trip out of the city). For day trips, I would recommend using a tour. It's not much cheaper to do it yourself and it's a lot of hassle.

Lastly, just wander here. Soak it in any enjoy this lovely city and truly spectacular holiday.

1. Bring face makeup from home if you plan to paint your own skeleton face. However, you can get a local to paint it for you for $50-100 pesos (depending on where you see them and what time of day). Their makeup stays on really well. It dries better than what we bought from a corner store (it took forever to find too). If you're planning to paint your face all three days...having it done could get pricey depending on your budget.
2. Book your hotel and airfare well in advance. This is the most popular time to visit this area. Luckily, we stayed with a Couchsurfer for free. I did find out a friend of mine booked a private room with a shared bathroom right in the city center for $300 pesos per night.
3. Do not bring anything to wear for the occasion. You will have an absolute ball going around picking out your perfect traditional Mexican outfit. For skirts/tops, I would say you can buy a complete outfit for about $200-$300 pesos. You can do it more basic for less or go all out for a lot more. They have just the most gorgeous things, hand-embroidered and all traditional textiles. It's like, the best ever. For men, a nice traditional shirt will cost you $150-250 pesos and any type of slacks or khaki type pant will do. If you want to really get into it, plan to buy a sombrero or working class Mexican hat (like those worn by Diego Rivera in the movie Frida). You can also add in accessories for more (flowered headbands, jewelry, leather goods).
4. As always in Mexico, bring and carry toilet paper. You are unlikely to find any in public bathrooms. They sell great packs of travel toilet paper at REI. They are compact to fit in your handbag and inexpensive.
5. As you are walking around cemeteries, keep a look out for sand art. A popular decoration in Mexico, they create amazing images with piled sand of different colors.
6. Do not miss the day trip to Hierve el Agua outside Mitla. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Happy travels my friends,