Oaxaca Travel Guide

Festivals and traditions


The Guelaguetza, also known as the Fiestas de los Lunes del Cerro (Festivals of Mondays at the Hill) is the major cultural event in the city with origins in pre-Hispanic times. The "Hill" is the Cerro del Fortín, which was the scene of the annual rites to the goddess Centeótl, or goddess of the corn. The hill had a teocalli, or sacred plaza, built by the Aztecs. The ritual would end with the sacrifice of a young maiden chosen to represent the goddess.

This rite was prohibited by the Spanish after the Conquest, who also destroyed the teocalli. In its place, they constructed the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmen, now known as Carmen Alto. The recently baptized Mixtecs and Zapotecs then replaced ceremonies to Centeótl with those to this manifestation of the Virgin Mary, at the same place, the Cerro del Fortín.

This revised festival grew over time to be the largest and most anticipated for the town. In 1932, the city of Oaxaca realized its 400th anniversary and decided to combine these festivities with those of the Cerro del Fortín, adding traditional dances, music, regional cuisine and Margarita Santaella as the first Miss Oaxaca, in addition to the religious rites. The word "guelaguetza" is from Zapotec and means offering, sympathy, caring and cooperation. This first Guelaguetza was such a hit that organizers decided to repeat it every year at the Cerro del Fortin, on all the Mondays of July starting in 1953, becoming an amalgam of Oaxacan festivals from many parts of the state.

Originally, the festival took place at the foot of the Cerro del Fortín, where the curve of the land makes for a natural theatre. Since 1974, many of the events, which have grown in number, have been moved to a number of different venues, included the then-inaugurated Guelaguetza Auditorium. This is a Greek-style venue with seats 11,400 people.

One venue is the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, where regional band come to play, dressed in colorful costumes as part of the opening ceremonies. They march from here to the Oaxaca Cathedral, where they are joined by folk dance groups such as the China Oaxaqueñas, the Chilenas de Pinotepa Nacional and the Jarabes Serranos. Another major event, which takes place at the Jardin Socrates, is a beauty pageant for indigenous women from different regions of Oaxaca state. The winner represents the goddess Centeótl and presides over the festivities along with public officials. The Bamo-Stui-Gulal takes place at the Plaza de la Danza and represents the history of Oaxaca and the Guelaguetza itself. The Plaza is divided into four quadrants, each representing a different period in Oaxaca's history. One other event, hosted in the Auditorium is a reenactment of the Legend of Donají, which takes place at the time of the Conquest. On the streets of Oaxaca city, there are parades with children and giant paper mache puppets.

Noche de Rábanos

The "Noche de Rábano" or Night of the Radishes is a traditional Oaxaca city tradition. Artisans show off designs done on large radishes, often decorated with other plant materials. The event only lasts a few hours but draws most of the city's population to the main square to look at the creations. It occurs each year on 23 December.

The event developed from a Dominican Christmas tradition, when they would have a large dinner on the night of 23 December. To decorate the tables, indigenous servants of the monks would carve radishes and adorn them with flowers and other plants. This led 23 December to the known as the Night of the Radishes. This led to a special market on this day selling the radishes along with two other popular Christmas plant materials, the Flor Inmortal (immortal flower) and corn husks. This market has grown into a major cultural event and now is sponsored by the city, which packs the main square on that day. The day also includes a competition where radish creations are judged by originality, technical skill and beauty.


The story of Donají is that of a princess from pre-Hispanic Mitla. When she was born, a seer predicted that she would die for her country. When she grew up, her people, the Zapotecs, were involved in one of their many wars with the Mixtecs. One day, Zapotec warriors brought a prisoner, a Mixtec prince named Nucano, to Mitla. Taking pity on him, she took care of his wounds. When he healed, he asked her to let him go, which she did. The war continued with the Zapotec king and Donaji forced to abandon their capital of Zaachila. Peace negotiations were attempted but the Mixtecs did not trust the Zapotec king, taking Donají captive as insurance. This occurred during the Conquest, when the evangelization of the country had begun. Donají asked for baptism and was renamed Doña Juana de Cortés.

As feared, the Zapotecs broke the peace treaty, attacking Monte Albán as the Mixtecs slept. Donají was found in the Atoyac River, decapitated. Time passed. One day a Shepherd came to the place that Donaji was buried by the river. There was a fragrant lily flower growing. Fifteen days later, he returned to find the same flower, still fresh and fragrant in the same place as if a mysterious force was preserving it. Her decapitated head serves as part of the coat of arms of the city of Oaxaca and her story is reenacted every year at the Guelaguetza festival.


Every year in November, Oaxaca hosts the Oaxaca Film Fest.

source: Wikipedia

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