They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway.
That’s true in Oaxaca, Mexico too, perhaps no more so than in July when the annual Guelaguetza Festival kicks into high gear.
An explosion of color, culture, dance and excitement lights up this magical city in an indescribable way. The streets are full, the vendors to the streets of one the most magical cities in Mexico, Oaxaca. The Guelaguetza, a celebration of the traditions of this southern Mexican state, brings visitors from around the world together for a festival that lasts only ten days.
For many, the Guelaguetza is only about the official presentation held on the last two Mondays every July and if that includes you, you are missing out. Every year when I am in Oaxaca, I see many visitors whose itinerary includes tickets to the main event, often at significant cost, and a few side trips to some of the archaeological sites like Monte Alban and Mitla.
Sadly, while those visitors will have a great few days and enjoy themselves, they will never experience the true spirit of the Guelaguetza or even Oaxaca. You’ll have a great time, there’s no doubt about that, but trust me on this, you are going to miss out.
So, what should you do? Resolve that you want to get to really know Oaxaca, her people and her culture. That’s step one. Next, make a plan.
Start early, because while this is not hard, preparation is a must. First off, know that many of the outlying communities have their own Guelaguetza performances. What’s the biggest difference? The price. Some of these communities with names like Zaachila and San Antonino are free. Others, like the one in Mitla, may charge a little, perhaps 100 pesos [$10.00US].
Now some people will tell you that the quality of these “off Broadway” events is lacking. Don’t believe them. In most cases the very same dancers who will be performing in the street parades and the official performances in Oaxaca City perform in the outlying locales. What you can be sure of is that you will be wowed by people truly appreciative of the fact that you came to see them in their towns and villages.
You’ll also rub shoulders with, and have access to people in a way just not possible in the main stadium. These are people for whom the very performance you are going to see means everything. I’ve spent time talking to some of the performers over the years and for many, to be part of the Guelaguetza is the culmination of a lifelong dream. This shines through even more when they are performing in front of the home crowd.
One young man I spoke to told me that he works all year practicing in the hope that he will be chosen to be part of the official delegation for his village. Since there is no salary for participating, the work each and every performer puts in really is a labor of love. If you walk through some of the colonias even now in Oaxaca, you will see people, young and old, practicing for their chance to be part of this annual celebration.
You can get details on any of these performances from one of the many tourist booths all around the city center, of the main tourist office on Ave. Juarez. And don’t worry of you don’t speak Spanish as most of the booths have someone that can speak at least passable English.
Guelaguetza is an incredible tradition in Oaxaca. It is something not to be missed. But if you truly want to experience the essence of that tradition, skip what some some call the “big show” and go local!
For me, My Mexico means getting off the typical tourist track, heading out of town to some of the villages and experiencing Guelaguetza first hand. Try it! I guarantee you’ll be glad you did… and you’ll probably get a few free shots of mezcal too.