Inside World Festivals: Guelaguetza Festival in Oaxaca

The Guelaguetza, also known as the Lunes del Cerro (Mondays on the Hill), is celebrated on the last two Mondays of July in the city of Oaxaca.

Photo © iStock/EvaLepiz

It is an annual coming together of the Oaxacan communities in celebration of their cultural traditions and diversity, the state of Oaxaca being home to sixteen different ethno-linguistic groups. Traditional folk dancers and musicians costumed in their region's traditional clothing perform song and dance, which many have been preparing for months in advance. At the end of their performances they toss traditional cultural items to the crowd.

Guelaguetza means "reciprocal exchanges of gifts and services" in the Zapotec language, and its cultural implications in the Oaxacan state extend beyond its literal meaning. Traditionally, when their was an occasion for celebration in a Oaxacan village, the people attending would bring something to contribute: food, alcohol, supplies, etc. Each individual's offering, or "guelaguetza," makes the celebration possible and leads to a reciprocal exchange that reinforces social and community bonds.

Today's Guelaguetza festival combines precolonial celebrations of the corn goddess, Centeotl, and the Catholic feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which takes place on July 16th. Every year a young woman from one of the communities of Oaxaca is chosen to represent Centeotl, the corn goddess. Part of this tradition is a contest is to see which young woman is most knowledgeable about her community's traditions.

Oaxaca is always crowded at this time because of the popularity of this fiesta. Most visitors are from Mexico's larger cities and from Europe, though it is becoming more and more popular with North Americans.


Since colonial times the Guelaguetza festival has been celebrated on Cerro del Fortin ("Fortin Hill") in Oaxaca. An amphitheater was specifically built for the celebration in the 1970s, though other events are held there throughout the year. It seats 11,000 people. The amphitheater was designed as to allow spectators a clear view of not only the stage, but the magnificent city sprawled out below.

Other Festivities

Many other events take place in Oaxaca during the two weeks of the Guelaguetza festival, including concerts, exhibits, conferences and a mezcal fair where visitors can sample different brands of this alcoholic drink. There are also independent celebrations of the Guelaguetza in several villages near Oaxaca, such as in Cuilapan

Getting There

The Oaxaca International Airport has connections to Houston, Texas, to Mexico City, Huatulco, and Puerto Escondido. Oaxaca is also accessible by coach bus from Mexico City.


Most who travel to Mexico encounter few, if any problems. However, as with many other destinations, crime does exist and it pays to be cautious. The following are few of the ways you can ensure that you have a safe and enjoyable experience at Guelaguetza and in Mexico during your stay.

  • Look into safety and security information before you leave. Check with a resource like the US State Department or the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office to find out if any recent travel advisories have been issued.
  • Think twice about taking valuables along. Do you need your $4000 digital SLR or can you get by with a point-and-shoot? The fewer valuables you have with you, the less likely you'll be a target for thieves.
  • Keep electronic duplicates of your passport and other important travel documents stored in your email or other online location. Should they be lost or stolen this precaution will help minimize hassles and expedite their recovery.
  • Keep money and passports secure in a money belt.
  • Leave a copy of your itinerary with someone at home.
  • Have a backup plan in the form of travelers cheques or a small amount of cash, in case your debit or credit cards get lost, stolen or eaten by the ATM machine.
  • Avoid using ATMs at night or in isolated locations when possible.
  • Exercise caution in crowds, markets and on public transportation. Pickpockets can be slick and often work in pairs.
  • Avoid hailing cabs in the street. Take official taxis (taxis autorizados) when you can.

Guelaguetza is the most famous event of its kind in Mexico. With vibrant pageantry, multicultural divesity, food, drink, dancing and more it is a truly an incredible travel experience. As always, taking a few precautions and keeping some considerations in mind will help ensure a safe trip. So pack your bags, charge your camera batteries and see you in Oaxaca in July!

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