November 1 (known as el Dia de los Fieles Difuntos, or “the day of the departed faithful”) was our final and biggest celebration of the week. After a late breakfast, our group started queuing up outside a spare room on the second floor of the hotel. Our guide Juan Carlos had arranged a face painter to get us ready for the big parade in the village of San Pablo Etla.

Our face painter knew his stuff. He arrived with a box of paints and a cellphone full of samples, and he managed to make everyone look amazing for 200 pesos, or about $12.50 apiece.

Face Painting

So many people wanted in that our artist called for backup. An assistant came and they painted for an hour or two, starting with the tourists and ending with the hotel staff.

Face Painting

Late in the afternoon we piled into a van and headed for Etla, a village northwest of the city. There were plenty of people already there and the band was just starting to play. Girls in colorful dresses twirled and danced with a man in a rubber mask and safari clothes. I asked Juan Carlos and he said, “That is El Chapo”. I didn’t see it.

Etla Parade

The parade left the square and proceeded down the main street of town. We shuffled along slowly, leaving the band behind, then picking it up again. As we passed people’s houses, they came outside and joined in.

We stopped regularly to take shots of mezcal from the bottles we’d brought, and when we ran out, friendly people appeared with more. A man I didn’t know handed me a can of beer, and later a girl arrived with a disposable plastic water bottle with the label soaked off, filled to the brim with homemade mezcal. She poured me a shot and I drank it down. It was strong and rough, but very good. I had another one, and then another one… or maybe two.

Painted Faces

Dia de Muertos Costumes

Painted Faces

We made a loop around town, dancing and partying. I’m not much of a dancer normally, but the mezcal helped. About half the parade had painted faces, or were in costume. We saw some pretty clever costumes, and some grotesque ones, including a demented leprechaun and an undead Mickey Mouse. It got dark, rained, and stopped again, but nothing dampened our spirits. The parade continued well after dark, and was still going strong when we got into the van to leave.

Our third morning in Oaxaca, we piled into a van for the short drive to Monte Albán. The “white mountain” was a major settlement and ritual center of the Zapotec culture and one of the biggest archaeological sites in Mexico. I was especially interested to see it, since Monte Albán was responsible in a roundabout way for my marriage.

My last year of college, I took archaeology as an elective. The professor, Dr. William Middleton, gave us lots of interesting exercises and readings from his fieldwork at Monte Albán. A few years later I was done with school, with plenty of money and time to travel but no one to go with. I remembered like archaeology class, so I signed up for a field school in Kampsville, Illinois. Shortly after arriving I met my unit partner for the week, my future wife, Michelle. We spent a week working eight-hour shifts in a one-meter by two-meter hole, and the rest is history!

Main Plaza, Monte Albán

Main Plaza, Monte Albán

Monte Albán is big! The main plaza and the dozens of temples around it are as big as some of the other Precolumbian sites I’ve been to, and they are only a small part of the whole. From the top of the hill, our guide showed us several other, still forest-covered hilltops that are also part of the greater Monte Albán complex and are still waiting to be excavated by future archaeologists.

Platform, Monte Albán

Platform, Monte Albán

It was a clear, beautiful morning when we visited Monte Albán, with the sky incredibly blue and full of big fluffy clouds. The guides explained that the lower tiers of the hill were residential and the central plaza at the top was for temples and rituals. This platform straddles the edge between the two levels.

The G Adventures Group at Monte Albán

The G Adventures Group at Monte Albán

We travelled around Mexico with a group from G Adventures, a Canadian company that I’ve used a couple of times in the past. They were fantastic, organized and committed to making sure we got lots out of the trip, and we made some great new friends!

Later that night, we dressed up and headed for the cemeteries around Oaxaca to take part in the central ritual of Dia de los Muertos: the graveside vigil. On the nights leading up to November 1, the people of Mexico return to the graveyards where their family members are buried. They sit around the graves (or in some cases, on the graves) and remember the dead.

I wasn’t sure how to feel and how to behave around people at the cemeteries. We were told that it Dia de los Muertos wasn’t a sad day, but I observed all kinds of reactions. Some people were sad or upset; others stoic. Some looked bored, and others looked like they were having a great time.

Every cemetery was crawling with celebrants and tourists, threading their way between the graves, stopping to take pictures, carrying plates of food. There was invariably a row of food trucks just outside the cemetery walls and bands and mariachis played on stages or roamed the graveyards, singing and playing their instruments.

Decorated Grave, Xoxocotlan Cemetery

Decorated Grave, Xoxocotlan Cemetery

Many of the graves were decorated beautifully. Flowers, especially lilies and marigolds, were common, and all bore candles. Some were decorated with sand art, small figurines, and plastic flags. Pictures of the deceased were common, but they might have been there all year round.

Dia de Muertos, Atzompa Cemetery

Dia de Muertos, Atzompa Cemetery

It was easy to spot the ones who were grieving: they stared silently at the graves, or off into space. Maybe their loss was recent; maybe they were mourning a beloved spouse or parent. When I asked if I could take a picture, they lowered their eyes or mumbled “no”. I felt the most for the people who were sitting graveside alone.

Family Reminiscing, Xoxocotlan Cemetery

Family Reminiscing, Xoxocotlan Cemetery

Other people were clearly having fun: the atmosphere around some graves was more like a family reunion. People laughed and joke and ate and told stories; we saw one family with a TV on a little table, hooked to a generator and showing a New York Mets game.

Family Time

Family Time

And then there were the teenagers, for whom this was a boring yearly obligation. They sat sullenly, playing on their cellphones and waiting until they were excused to get some food and play carnival games.

Seeing people celebrating Dia de los Muertos was something I’m glad I did, but eventually I started to feel awkward about what I was doing. Most of the people I talked to were gracious and happy to chat and have me snap a picture or two, but I got the sense they would be happier when I moved on. I felt like the annoying gringo who came to crash everyone’s party.

The next night was much better as we marched in a Dia de Muertos parade and shared dances and drinks with a village full of happy people.

I’m nearly finished processing the mountain of photos from Oaxaca! Most of them are up on Flickr now, here are a few more favorites from the second and third days of our trip, exploring Oaxaca’s markets, churches and craftspeople.

Hotel Casantica

Hotel Casantica, Oaxaca

Hotel Casantica, just north of Oaxaca’s main square (zócalo), was our home base for the trip. It was pretty and clean and had decent amenities, and it was hopping the entire week we were there. I took this picture on the balcony overlooking the main courtyard.

Chocolate Maker

Chocolate Maker

Aside from mole and indigenous culture and handicrafts and a dozen other things, Oaxaca is known for chocolate. Oaxacan chocolate is rustic and unrefined, high in sugar and pretty delicious as a cold drink. We visited this chocolate factory with our group one day and went back the next day to buy a few blocks of chocolate for home.

Inside Santo Domingo Monastery

Inside the Santo Domingo Monastery

We visited three churches in Oaxaca, including the cathedral, but my favorite was the Templo de Santo Domingo. A former Dominican monastery set in am imposing plaza, the Santo Domingo church looked equal parts house of worship and fortress. The sprawling monastery had been turned into a museum, centered on this arcaded courtyard.

Dia de Muertos Parade

Dia de Muertos Parade, Santo Domingo Church, Oaxaca

All around Oaxaca, Dia de Muertos parades continued all week. The Santo Domingo church was a place of special focus and we watched several parades set off, led by marching bands.

Passing Out Candy


I mentioned before that Oaxaca has managed to resist the American Halloween to a certain extent. In Mexico (or at least Oaxaca), children marching in parades don’t ask for candy, they hand out candy to bystanders, even adult tourists frantically snapping pictures. After posing for a picture, this little boy reached into his pail and handed me something like Mexican smarties.

In the next installment we’ll visit prehispanic ruins and head to the villages around Oaxaca to observe and take part in the central part of Dia de los Muertos, the graveside vigil.

…and catching up on photos!

Here are a few from our most recent trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, for the Day of the Dead festival.

Oaxaca was a vibrant city full of good food, wonderful authentic people, and unique and deeply-held customs. We spent the week leading up to All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days there, and every day something incredible happened.

School Parade, Dia de Muertos 2015

Some customs seem to be put on just for the tourists, but Dia de los Muertos isn’t one of them. We ran into countless parades put on by churches, schools, and community groups. They were clearly proud and happy to be celebrating – a few times we were even offered candy by small children in the crowd!


Oaxaca has managed to resist the American Halloween. The traditional costume for women and girls is the Calavera Catrina, a face-painting resembling a delicate and colorful skull. The male equivalent is the Catrín.

The Virgin

The festival has a large religious component, with a mix of Catholicism and lightly syncretized prehispanic ritual that seems completely natural.

On our second day we went to a “dog costume contest and parade” in the neighborhood of Jalatlaco. I enjoyed seeing the dogs and their owners, although some of the dogs looked slightly to absolutely miserable to be dressed up in public.

Dog Lover, Jalatlaco

Jalatlaco Dog Parade

Tide Pools, La Jolla Shores

Summer’s almost over, what better time to catch up on photos I took in January? This photo was a result of being in the wrong place at the right time. I was actually looking for these tide pools, down the coast a little way. I misunderstood some directions and ended up at a place called La Jolla Shores, a very pretty public beach with some rocks way off in the distance.

And I mean way off. I probably hiked almost half a mile out, across some very slippery, seaweed-encrusted rocks, but it was worth it. I got some unique pictures, saw some wildlife up close, and managed to get back to high ground before the tide came back in.

On our fourth morning in San Diego, we drove north to the seaside town of La Jolla. The coastline there is beautiful, rugged, and lined with beaches and coves. We spent most of the day there and ended the day with an amazing winter sunset on the beach.

Happy Seal, Children\'s Pool Beach

Happy Seal, Children’s Pool Beach ⤴

Our first stop after breakfast was Children’s Pool Beach. Built in the 1930s as a protected area for the children of San Diego to swim, Children’s Pool has since been taken over by a colony of harbor seals. They laze on the beach, playing and sunning themselves. Some residents of the city would rather see the seals moved elsewhere, but I don’t think San Diegans have any shortage of places to swim.

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Here are a few more pictures from the San Diego Zoo. It was such a big park — we spent an entire day there and I took almost 500 pictures — so there will be a part 3 later.


Jaguar ⤴

I snapped these in a hurry and honestly didn’t expect anything to turn out. The light wasn’t great, but I really liked how the jaguar was partially hidden by the log. It looks almost like it’s stalking its prey.

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One of my favorite places in San Diego was Ocean Beach. In the 60s, the city built a giant pier out over the ocean so people would have a place to fish. They were still fishing when we got there, all men, some of whom appeared to be homeless and fishing to eat, and others just having a good time. We watched two men reel in a dazzlingly blue frilled fish called a “rock cod”. Seagulls were drawn to the pier as well, probably waiting to snatch some fish guts.

Ocean Beach from the Pier

Ocean Beach from the Pier

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San Diego Zoo is big. Maybe not the largest zoo we’ve been to in terms of physical size, but definitely in “animals-per-hectare” (my new metric for this sort of thing). I flagged 111 photos to process, and it was taking me so long I decided to take a break and move on to other sets. Here are a few photos from the first ~1/3 of the day.

Koalas, San Diego Zoo

Koalas ⤴

San Diego Zoo has a huge, repeat, huge colony of koalas. I was unprepared for just how many they were. This was our first stop of the morning and the light was beautiful. The sun gave them some wonderful edge lighting. I think the koalas have recently given birth, so as of April the exhibit is probably crawling with babies.

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Sunset Cliffs

Back in January, Michelle and I spent a week in San Diego with my good friend Pat and his wife, Amanda. We had a great time enjoying the warm weather in January, taking in the sights, and eating lots of amazing food. These photos are from Sunset Cliffs, a city park on the Pacific ocean. We watched the surfers at sunset, and even saw what I’m told were whales spouting!

Surfer in Silhouette

Surfer at Sunset Cliffs

I’m working through my many photos from the trip, so there should be more updates soon, starting with the world-famous San Diego Zoo.