The Zocalo is filled with light, people from throughout Mexico and around the world, balloons, itinerant vendors, strolling musicians. The atmosphere is festive, celebratory, one of relief, for this is a different year than last and people are thankful. Tourists are returning, the Zocalo is alive, a 30 foot Christmas tree is studded with white lights, there are noche buena (poinsettias) everywhere, and ringing the Zocalo is the display that attracts crowds who stand in line for 5 and 6 blocks ringing the area to see ancient tradition of carving radishes. They are sliced, shredded, carved in stars and circles as if a chef were preparing a totally radish dinner.
They are stuck together with toothpicks and wire to create nativity scenes, farmers plowing fields atop oxen driven carts or mechanical plows, dancers at the Guelaguetza, musicians plucking guitars and blowing horns and beating drums. The radish carvers, mostly from the campo (the country) near Ocotlan, stand sentry making sure that no one disturbs their creations, frequently spraying water from pump bottles to keep wilting leaves and red radish skin fresh and shiny. The winner of the best carved scene will win $10,000 USD, a princely sum. We are sitting up above the crowd on the second floor in the white table clothed El Asador Vasco, twelve of us, Zapotecs and gringos, when the winner is announced. An immediate shower of white firecrackers cascade like a waterfall from the top floor of the government building to herald our attention that there is a winner; it is a solid wall of twinkling light that goes on for about 5 full minutes, or so it seems. Everyone runs to the edge of the wrought iron railing to take photos, to ooh and ahhh, and to experience the glorious celebration. Then, near the Castillo (which is what everyone calls the Cathedral) another round of firecrackers goes off into the sky. It is about 10:30 p.m. and there is still a long cue waiting to circle the display of radishes that surround the Zocolo. The line won’t diminish until about 2 or 3 a.m. My sister says she was there at 11 a.m. and again at 3 p.m. when the crowds were few, there was no wait, and she could see the people doing the carving and setting up. By 7 p.m. the line began the snake and the wait was at least 2-3 hours. One trick is go into the Zocalo from behind the display to avoid the wait, which is what I did. I didn’t get to see the full view, but could get a good sense of the carvings and some of the detail. Along one end of the U-shaped promenade is where people fashion corn husks into flowers, dioramas of the nativity, and a multitude of fanciful decorations that one can buy to take home. It’s much easier to see and buy from the “back” than from the promenade side of the display.
The food and ambience at El Asador Vasco, which is above El Jardin, is great and reasonably price. We had a seafood soup from the Isthmus, house wine, entrees, dessert and beverages for 12 people and the total bill including tip was a tad over $200 USD. The meal was leisurely over almost three hours, and we were entertained by a group of strolling Mexican minstrels with guitaron, mandolin, twelve-string guitar, six-string guitar, tamborine, and pandero (a percussion instrument). Their voices were clear, strong and beautiful. The group leader knew Federico from when Fede was on the school committee in Teotitlan and the leader taught school there.It was after midnight when we got back to the pueblo and we didn’t wake up until 10 a.m. on December 24. Tonight, we are celebrating with a big dinner for 12 at home hosted by Dolores and Federico. The table is decorated with succulents from Benito Juarez that we got at the village market this morning, corn husk flowers that I bought at La Noche de los Rabanos last night, and small votives. Our meal will include green corn sweet tamales fresh made in the village, a potato salad mixed with pineapple chunks, onions, green and red peppers and mushrooms, ponche (punch made with guava, raisins, manzanitas–little apples, sugar cane, canela-cinnamon, panela–sweet Oaxaca chocolate, and pastel de chocolate with mocha, champagne y vino y cerveza Noche Buena and Modelo Negro y Claro. The guests are arriving.
One Day in Capulalpam de Mendez: Oaxaca’s Pueblo Magico
High in Oaxaca’s Sierra Juarez, the mountain range to the east of Oaxaca city that borders the state of Veracruz, nestles Capulalpam de Mendez, one of Mexico’s Pueblo Magicos. The village is terraced into the mountainside and the views are breathtaking. Indeed, the altitude can take your breath away at almost 8,000 feet (2,350 meters, 7,710 feet to be exact).
We are on a two-day adventure, me, Hollie and Carol. We call it an adventure because none of us had been up this road before. Little did we know what would be in store for us further along. Before long, we will be called Las Tres Mosqueteras — female version of the Three Musketeers.
We leave Oaxaca early Sunday morning in my faithful La Tuga (10-year-old Honda Element) to take the switch-back federal highway MEX 175, first to Ixtlan de Juarez, where Mexico’s reformist hero Benito Juarez was baptized close to his birthplace of Guelatao. We climb nearly 2,000 feet in the distance of 62 kilometers or about 38 miles. The precipices are harrowing and the jam-packed shared taxis pay no attention to the solid yellow line that goes the distance to separate the two-lanes. It takes the better part of two hours to make the trip.
Soon we are in a bio-diverse ecosystem of pine, cedar and oak dripping with ferns, bromeliads and moss. It is a rainforest up here with water run-off, gurgling streams filled with trout and lots of roadside restaurants to eat them fresh.
I took one seat out of La Tuga so I can haul an easy-chair and ottoman to an ESL teacher friend, the only gringa at University of Sierra Juarez in Ixtlan. On the return, I carry back a locally crafted pine dresser made from sustainable wood.
After sleeping overnight at the very comfortable Ecoturixtlan ecotourism lodge (try the zip line), I propose we go further up the mountain a few miles more to Capulalpam. I had heard about it but had never been there and everyone is up for what’s next.
Once we get there, we are lucky to find a comedor open for breakfast at the central market. The eggs are perfect and the climate even more so. We meet farmers and innkeepers who tell us that there are only a few Zapotec speakers left in the village. We decide this a perfect spot for a writing retreat or just to chill-out for a few days. Next time.
Since the historic church doesn’t open until noon and it is only 10:30 a.m. local time (an hour later in Oaxaca City, go figure), we decide to scout out the road to the highest point in the village. There’s an overlook up there and we ask directions.
Go to the end of the pavement. Take the dirt road up, says a local woman. So we do. I turn left, climb higher, shifting between first and second. With each curve there is a vista more spectacular than the one before. Then, we face it.
A seventy-degree hill (okay maybe I’m exaggerating just a bit) rutted from rain run-off with a base of gravel and rock. I stop the car. Carol says, Well, we could get out and walk. I say, Well, I think we can make it. Let’s see what La Tuga can do. I press the clutch, push the stick into first and up we go. Except we make it only about half way until the clutch starts to burn and the car begins to swivel sideways dancing toward the edge.
I brake. Oops, I say. Roll down the window and honk, then yell, Necessito un ayudante. I need a helper. Ayudame. Help me. Un hombre. Un hombre. A man. A man. Hilarious, you might think, despite the fact that we are independent women trying to make our way in the world solita. Alone. Hah. Hombre, I yell again. Two children materialize at the top of the hill and look down at us. I imagine they are thinking, Gringas Locas.
Then, David appears. He runs to the passenger side of the car as Hollie is attempting an exit, tells her to get back in. Carol is unusually quiet. David guides me, tells me how to exactly turn the wheel so I can back down slow, straight and sure. Thank goodness my Spanish is good enough!
At the base of the road, I turn the car around around. David invites us all into his house to meet his wife Martha and drink fresh guava juice. His view hanging over the mountain side was pretty darn good.
But, we still want to find the Mirador, the very top of the mountain. David offers to guids us up there and climbs in the back seat. Amazing views.
We joke about our adventure all afternoon. Later, we invite David and Martha to join us for a trout dinner, exchange phone numbers, and I get contact information for his two adult children, a son and a daughter, who live in Los Angeles and who he hasn’t seen in seven years.
If I hadn’t made that turn, I wonder what this story would be like.
P.S. Find the whole wheat bread baked in the wood fired clay oven. Stay overnight at Hotel Chorromonte, 01 (951) 53 92052, with WiFi, beautiful, clean, from 200 pesos a night. Eat breakfast at Comedor Mau-Mau in the village market operated by Betzabeth Cosmes Perez.
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Mexican Immigration, Photography, Travel & Tourism
Tagged Benito Juarez, Capulalpam de Mendez, Ixtlan de Juarez, Magic Pueblo, Mexico, Oaxaca, Pueblo Magico, tourism, travel, Women