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by Irene Butler
(For Travel Writers’ Tales)

[1. Zocalo Square]

It’s a week before Christmas and Oaxaca’s Zocalo Square is ablaze with activity. Villagers from near and far have come in droves to sell their handmade crafts. My eyes feast on embroidered blouses, clay ornaments, beadwork jewelry and more. Helium balloon sellers grip such humungous bunches, it’s a wonder they’re not lifted off the ground. Street performers draw crowds. Sidewalk cafes overflow with folks in holiday spirit. As we sip iced cappuccinos the melody of a pan flute floats through the air adding to the magic of this joyous atmosphere.

[2 A Very Merry Tree]

A gigantic decorated tree and life-sized nativity scene front Oaxaca Cathedral. This massive cathedral is just one of many structures fashioned from green volcanic stone in this colonial city with a population of 4 million.

[3. Santo Domingo Church]

Most stunning is the Church of Santo Domingo. Construction began in the late 1500’s, taking over 200 years to complete. It’s highly decorative interior is said to have more than 60,000 sheets of gold leaf. The botanical garden grounds display natural plants of the Oaxaca state. Night of the Radishes (La Noche de Rabanos) is an event that cannot be seen anywhere else in the world! Annually on December 23rd a tradition unfolds, as it has for over 100 years. A day or so prior artisans furiously carve sculptures out of radishes – but not your ordinary radishes. These are fertilized to be mega-sized (some weigh 3kg and are 50cm long) and are not meant to be eaten. During the day of the 23rd their carvings are set-up in raised display units on three sides of Zocalo Square.

[4. Radish Turkey]

The event opens to the public in late afternoon, wherein we join the lengthy line-up to gaze at these amazing works of art: radish people, animals, buildings, fantasy creatures and more! The creators wield water bottles to spray their works to prevent wilting as thousands of viewers pass by until midnight – and this fleeting event is over for another year.

“What? You have not tried grasshoppers yet – our Christmas candy!” our hotel staffers tease. We take this as a challenge and seek out one of the many street vendors selling grasshoppers (chapulines in Spanish).

[5. Dried Grasshopper Snacks]

These dried critters come in various sizes and colours. I choose a large tan one, and munch away – crunchy and nut-like tasty! Rick picks up a reddish one. His eyes water from the fiery blast of mucho spices, bringing on much laughter. We pay 10 pesos for the sampling and leave with this local treat (literally) under our belts. When the holiday rush is over we head out by taxi to the famed archeological ruins of Monte Alban, located a mere 10km from Oaxaca.

[6. Monte Alban Ruins]

This ancient metropolis was founded by the Zapotec civilization, once rulers of these central valleys. It looms 400m (1300ft) above Oaxaca Valley, atop a sheared off mountain - a mindboggling feat in itself without modern rock-cutting and earth-moving machinery! Functioning as their capital for more than 13 centuries between 500BC and 850AD, it holds the remains of their temples, palaces, tombs, stepped platforms, observatory, and ball courts. Sometime during the 9th century for unknown reasons the Zapotec abandoned the site.

About 200 years later the Mixtec peoples took over Monte Alban to bury their dead here, a practice they continued until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century.

[7. Monte Alban Grand Plaza]

The Grand Plaza measures approximately 300m x 200m and is regally flanked by ceremonial platforms reached by broad flights of steps. It is thought to have been the religious and administrative centre of the city, which may have covered 25sq-mi and had a population of 30,000 citizens in its heyday. The neighborhoods extended into the surrounding hills, wherein the residents grew crops of corn, beans, and squash.

We come to the ball court and although the rules of their ancient game remain unknown, I envision the stone bleachers filled with raucous fans cheering on athletes who may have used hips, shoulders, knees and elbows to hit a wooden ball.

[8. Carved Stone Figures]

Carved stone monuments of human figures still stand throughout the plaza. We enter a small museum at one side of the ruins where a number of the better preserved ones are on display, adding to the intrigue of this fascinating site. Our Yule Tide experiences whirl through our minds, and how no matter where our daily activities take us, we feel encased in a strong sense of community. Rick and I share pangs of not wanting to say good-bye to Oaxaca, but appeased ourselves with a resolve to return someday!

[9. A Toast to Oaxaca!]


PHOTOS: By Rick Butler

1. Zocalo Square
2. A very merry tree!
3. Santo Domingo Church
4. Radish Turkey 76cm high
5. Dried Grasshopper Snacks
6. Monte Alban Ruins
7. Monte Alban Grand Plaza
8. Carved stone figures
9. A toast to Oaxaca!

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