Guelaguetza is a spectacular festival of folkloric dance and music that takes place in Oaxaca over the course of two weeks. It’s called the máxima fiesta oaxaqueña (ultimate Oaxacan festival), but in fact it’s considered the largest folkloric festival of the Americas. With magnificent handmade costumes, regional dances, and live traditional music, it’s a sight to behold. Aside from the main event, there are many other festivities at this time of year in Oaxaca: a mezcal fest and a large-scale theater production among them.
Even if you choose not to go to the main festival—we’ll talk more about that in a moment—it’s still a great time to visit the city. There’s no lack of exciting things to see, do, and of course, eat.
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When is Guelaguetza?
Guelaguetza occurs on the two Mondays after the festival celebrating the Virgen del Carmen (Our Lady of Mount Carmel) whose feast day is on July 16. For 2024, that will be on July 22 and 29.
Like many indigenous celebrations in Mexico, the Guelaguetza is closely connected to a Catholic holiday like the Feast of the Virgin of Carmel because a certain syncretism occurred between pre-Hispanic Mexican and Spanish Catholic culture after the Conquest.
The Carmel feast is considered to be the beginning of the Guelaguetza season. Since Oaxaca has two churches dedicated to the Virgin of Carmel, there are many celebrations on July 16, including processions known as calendas with giant monos (paper maché dolls carried by participants), music, and folkloric dancing.
If you’re planning to stay for more than a week, you might want to come early to attend this event before Guelaguetza!
The history behind Guelaguetza
Guelaguetza is also called Los Lunes del Cerro because the events are held on the Cerro del Fortín, a historical hill that’s the highest point of an already elevated city.
Guelaguetza comes from the Zapotec word guendalezaa (spellings may vary), which means “to cooperate” or “to offer.”
The reason it’s important to understand this word is that it’s the conceptual basis of the entire Guelaguetza. The meaning behind guelaguetza, not only as a festival but also as a common noun, centers around cooperation, meaning “to pitch in” or “to help out.” This harks back to a time when sharing and mutual support were perhaps more prevalent.
The Guelaguetza originated in pre-Hispanic times when ancient Mexicans would honor the Corn Goddess called the Diosa Centéotl every year in the middle of the summer with a week-long celebration of rituals, dance, and feasting.
Much later, in the early part of the twentieth century, a few events related to indigeneity were held on the Cerro del Fortín. The first formal Guelaguetza took place in 1950.
Since 1932, the Guelaguetza has been held in the Auditorio Guelaguetza, the Guelaguetza Auditorium, and in 2009 the outdoor space received an elevated roof, protecting viewers and listeners from the elements.
Today, folkloric dance groups called delegaciones (delegations) from Oaxaca’s eight regions come together on this day to present their greatest dancers, best costumes, and most iconic traditions. Note that Oaxaca used to have seven regions, and that’s why you’ll still find references to Las Siete Regiones.
The eight regions of Oaxaca are:
- Valles Centrales (Central Valleys)
- Costa (Coast, the western coast of Oaxaca)
- Sierra Norte (Northern Mountains)
- Sierra Sur (Southern Mountains)
- Cañada (Mountain Gap, in the northern part of the state)
- Mixteca (Mixteca region, in the northwest)
- Istmo (Isthmus of Tehuantepec, eastern coast)
- Papaloapan (Papaloapan River Area)
Things to know before you go
Getting tickets to the Guelaguetza can be tricky. Tickets tend to sell out very quickly and may be limited to those with specific bank accounts.
That said, there are a few other options. Free seats do exist, but you need to go really early, perhaps at 3:00 a.m. You may also be able to get tickets by paying for a larger tour of Oaxaca at that time of year. If you’re not up to going to the official event, large local hotels in Oaxaca have Guelaguetza dinner shows. You can also watch the Guelaguetza on live television like many Oaxacans do. Lastly, in recent years there have been some free “popular Guelaguetzas” that emphasize the original community spirit of the festival rather than a commercial one.
There are so many other events and parades with dancers from the eight regions of Oaxaca at this time of year that you shouldn’t feel too bad if you didn’t get tickets.
Bear in mind that if you are physically challenged, you’ll need to take a taxi, which may be at a premium. Plan ahead by going early and expecting to pay more than usual.
The sun can be quite strong and warm, so be sure to use sunscreen, bring a good sun hat, and drink plenty of water. Expect rain in the late afternoons and evenings at this time of year.
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Popular Guelaguetza events
With more Guelaguetza related events than we can possibly mention, we’ve provided you with a few highlights.
On the Sunday before the Guelaguetza, a theatrical show called “Donaji, la Leyenda” (Donají, the Legend) is held at the Auditorio Guelaguetza at 8:00 p.m. Although free seats are available, you need to pay for a separate ticket for the best seats. Performed by the Folkloric Ballet of Oaxaca, this show of about 100 performers with fabulous costumes and dancing tells the mythological story of Donají, the daughter of the Zapotec king, Cosijoeza, and how in falling in love with an enemy warrior, her life was eventually sacrificed.
Parades and contests
- Diosa Centéotl (Corn Goddess of the Guelaguetza): An indigenous, Afro-Mexican, or mestiza woman is chosen to represent the corn goddess for the entire Guelaguetza season.
- Convites (Invitational Parades): These generally take place once a week during the month of July on Sundays, starting at the Cruz de Piedra then marching through the streets with regional dancers in their splendid costumes with music and giant puppet-like figures.
- Desfile de Delegaciones (Parade of Delegations): This parade of the Ocho Regiones starts at the Fuente de las Siete Regiones in the Reforma neighborhood and goes to the Alameda de León downtown. You’ll be able to see representatives in costumes of each of the regions, just one of the many free events during Guelaguetza season.
Special artisan markets are set up at this time of year. You can find them around the zócalo and on the Andador Turístico (Macedonio Alcalá) in front of the Santo Domingo Church. They set up in the morning and are there until 10:00 p.m. or so. Expect to find many crafts vendors all around the Auditorio Guelaguetza as well.
Guelaguetza food, drinks, and events
Food and drink festivals
There are several food and drink festivals during Guelaguetza time, and we’ve provided you with two of the most popular ones here.
- Feria de Tejate y Tamal: Tejate is known as the bebida de los dioses (drink of the gods), and it sure does taste divine. With cacao, cornmeal and the secret ingredient—ground mamey seed—try it along with a tamal or two.
- Feria de Mezcal: Oaxaca is one of the major producers of mezcal on a commercial and private level, and the old saying goes, “Para todo mal, mezcal” (For everything that ails you, mezcal). Aside from being able to taste and purchase a wide variety of mezcal, coffee, and artisanal beer, you can listen to everything from DJs to live orchestras.
- Mole: A thick sauce made with toasted chilis, chocolate, almonds, tomatoes, and spices, usually served over chicken with rice and/or tortillas.
- Segueza (also spelled seguesa): Not usually found in restaurants, this is a thick tomato-based soup made with different chilis and thickened with cornmeal.
- Estofado: A slightly sweet sauce served over chicken and made with tomatoes, tomatillos, plantains, and spices.
- Amarillo: One of Oaxaca’s famous moles! Though recipes vary considerably, this is generally made with chicken and vegetables in a sauce of chili peppers and spices that’s thickened with cornmeal.
- Chocolate: Oaxacan hot chocolate is made with chocolate, spices, and often almonds. This is prepared with a base of water or milk.
- Chocolate atole: Often confused with champurrado (atole made with chocolate), this recipe is much more elaborate and made with fermented balam, a bean similar to cacao, along with rice, wheat, cacao, and spices whipped into a froth before serving.
- Mezcal: A traditional alcohol made from the agave plant, mezcal comes in different varieties such as blanco (young) and añejo (aged more than 12 months).
- Tepache: A pre-Hispanic fermented drink made with pulque, pineapple, cinnamon, and panela, a type of brown sugar.
- Agua de horchata: A refreshing cool rice drink often served with diced melon and pecans.
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Guelaguetza celebrations in the United States
Many Mexican festivals also take place in the United States. Although we still think the Oaxacan version of Guelaguetza is best, there are a few Guelaguetza festivals in the United States, which we briefly cover here.
Los Angeles has so many Oaxacans (400,000-600,000) a part of it is called “Oaxacatown.” The Los Angeles Guelaguetza, sponsored by the Organización Regional de Oaxaca (Regional Organization of Oaxaca or ORO), has been happening for over 30 years. Follow them on social media for more information about the upcoming events in 2024.
The Santa Cruz Guelaguetza that’s held in California actually happens in April. Similar to the Oaxacan festival, it features “food, dance, music, crafts.” If you can’t make it to Oaxaca yet, this is a good substitute.
Kaysville has a Guelaguetza event that is held around the same time as the Oaxaca festival: in 2023, it occurred on July 22. Like the Oaxacan event, it has dance, costumes, and scrumptious food. Best of all: it’s free.
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Whether you celebrate the many holidays in Mexico at home or in Mexico, the Guelaguetza is one of the most impressive of them all. Who wouldn’t want to take in the one-of-a-kind parades, dancing, and incredible food?
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Written by Rowena Galavitz
Rowena Galavitz is a Spanish translator, bilingual copy editor, and language and literature instructor with three master’s degrees who loves Spanish and all things Mexico.