Oaxaca is famous for its exuberant traditional festivals. The most important ones are Holy Week, the Guelaguetza in July, Días de los Muertos in November, and the Night of the Radishes and Christmas in December. Make hotel reservations at least 2 months in advance if you plan to visit during these times.
At festival time in Oaxaca, sidewalk stands near the cathedral sell buñuelos, a thin, crisp, sweet snack food. It is customary to serve buñuelos in cracked or otherwise flawed dishes; after you've finished eating, you smash the crockery on the sidewalk for good luck. Don't be timid! You can wash down the buñuelos with hot ponche (a steaming fruit punch) or atole.
Holy Week -- During Holy Week, figurines made of palm leaves are sold on the streets. On Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, there are colorful parades. On the following Thursday, Oaxaca residents follow the Procession of the Seven Churches. Hundreds of the pious walk from church to church, praying at each one. The next day, Good Friday, many of the barrios (neighborhoods) have encuentros: Groups depart separately from the church, carrying religious figures through the neighborhoods, then "encounter" each other back at the church. Throughout the week, each church sponsors concerts, fireworks, fairs, and other entertainment.
Fiesta Guelaguetza -- On the last two Mondays in July, Oaxaca holds the Fiesta Guelaguetza. In the villages of central Oaxaca, a guelaguetza ("a gift") is a celebration by a family in need of assistance to hold a wedding or some other event. Guests bring gifts, which the family repays when they attend other guelaguetzas. The Fiesta Guelaguetza, begun in 1974, brings dancers from all the state's various ethnic groups to Oaxaca. For many communities, participation has become a matter of intense civic pride, and an opportunity to show people in the state capital and from other ethnic groups the beauty of their traditional clothing and dance. Some 350 different huipiles (women's overblouses) and dresses can be seen during the performances. In the afternoon, there is an interpretive dance of the legend of Princess Donají.
The performances take place each Monday from 10am to 1pm in the stadium that crowns the Cerro del Fortín. Admission ranges from free (Section C) to 800 pesos (Section A). Reserve tickets in advance -- no later than May -- through the State Tourism Office (tel./fax 951/516-0123). A travel agency may be able to help you. I recommend sections 5 and 6 in Palco (gallery) A for the best seating. The ticket color matches the seat color. You sit in strong sunlight, so wear a hat and long sleeves.
Even if you don't attend the dances, you can enjoy the festival atmosphere that engulfs the city. There are fairs, exhibits, and a lot of gaiety. On the Sunday nights before the Guelaguetza, university students present an excellent program in the Plaza de la Danza at the Soledad church. The production, the Bani Stui Gulal, is an abbreviated history of the Oaxaca valley. The program begins at 9pm; arrive early, because the event is free and seating is limited.
Días De Los Muertos -- The Mexican Day of the Dead festival (Nov 1-2) has garnered worldwide attention. It's celebrated across Oaxaca with more passion than in the rest of Mexico, which says quite a lot. Markets brim with marigolds -- the flower of the underworld -- and every household fills an altar with them and the favorite dishes, drinks, and cigarettes of the deceased. People visit relatives and friends, and anyone who visits is offered food. This is also the time to pay one's respects at the graveyard. Try one of the nocturnal cemetery tours offered around this time; Hotel Casa Arnel (tel. 951/515-2856) offers one. Another common form of celebrating is for young men to dress up in macabre outfits and frolic in the streets Carnaval-style.
December Festivals -- The December festivals begin on the 12th with the Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe (Festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe) and continue on the 16th with a calenda, or procession, to many of the older churches in the barrios, all accompanied by dancing and costumes. Festivities continue on the 18th with the Fiesta de la Soledad, in honor of the Virgen de la Soledad, patroness of Oaxaca state. A large fireworks construction known as a castillo is erected in Plaza de la Soledad. When it is ignited, look out. December 23 is La Noche de Rábanos (the Night of the Radishes), when Oaxaqueños build sculptures out of enormous radishes, flowers, and corn husks. Displays on three sides of the zócalo are set up from 3pm on. By 6pm, when the show opens, lines to see the figures are 4 blocks long. It's well organized and overseen by a heavy police presence. On December 24, around 8:30pm, each Oaxacan church organizes a procession with music, floats, enormous papier-mâché dancing figures, and crowds bearing candles, all converging on the zócalo.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.