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Last of the Oaxaca

Ultramarine, coral, cadmium, lime…the house colors captivate me. They are an essential effervescent palette of Oaxaca, Mexico. To me they are also a significant message. They lead my eye to other juxtapositions: the clusters of maroon and purple bougainvillea trailing everywhere partner well with the ubiquitous jade of the cactus fences. Native succulents are used in all sorts of clever ways here — for sustenance, for enclosures, for remedies. In fact the sixteen indigenous tribes of this region see value in every portion of their environment. Interdependence is their credo. 

I learn about this, slowly. First, there is the proper collection of grasshoppers and agave worms for meals. Then, the lessons on how beans, squash, and corn flourish when grown with each other. I become familiar with the peculiar scent of copal. Next, the importance of symbols: zig-zag ladders for lightning, geometric spirals for life cycle, stylized figures for maguey. 

Finally, follow the Pre-Aztec myths about pumas, wild rivers, and bat-gods. To me the stories are fascinating. For Oaxacans their legends are an integral means of transferring generations of knowledge about their traditions, how to live in accordance with nature, what to cherish. It is also a way to keep the music of their language alive. Language and land, I discover, are crucial to Oaxaca. They bear witness to one another. Together, they maintain the area’s unique diversity, both cultural and biological.      

Of course the same problems plaguing every society — greed, jealousy, abuse of power — fester in Oaxaca too. The narrow valleys are considered impoverished by consumerist standards. The stewardship of the variant ecosystems by local communities is judged inadequate since there is no political or corporate oversight. The native reliance on territorial subsistence and well-being is viewed as anathema to modernization, progress, and globalization.

Despite the cultural instruction, my prejudices feed into these narratives as well. I pass by tin shacks and assume misery; I see plates of chapulines and presume scarcity; I encounter pantheistic artwork and infer orthodoxy. It’s not until I visit the ethnobotanical gardens that I realize how inextricably cultural heterogeneity is linked to ecological diversity. The connections are nuanced, but undeniable. The garden forces me to examine the multifaceted links between wild plants and humans. It reveals the successful development of ancient civilizations through their interaction with flora in aesthetic portrayals.

Oaxacans are adamant that if these relationships are not valued, if they are not protected, loss of belief and loss of identity will occur. Solutions to prevent a heritage deficit and the demise of harmony, however, cannot come from the outer world. They must be ministered by the community; specifically appropriate to Oaxaca; in balance with the terrain and those belonging to it; fused with both artistry and wisdom. 

It’s been a privilege to observe Oaxacans taking responsibility for their particular plots, tending and preserving case-by-case, forging ever stronger bonds with the part of themselves which hearkens to the call of the earth. 


Among the thousand other endemic botanical specimens, the cacti of Oaxaca are as meaningful to the indigenous as corn. It is best to treat the living plants with respect, to avoid painful situations.

Colorful houses are a mainstay of warmer climates. Let me know a memorable destination where you’ve seen some creatively colored facades in the comments below!


128 replies »

  1. I love the way you avoid the pitfalls of tourism. You see picturesque shacks and do not assume misery, my migrant students thought themselves rich in family and friends. They marveled at how American families are divided up instead of living together and doing together. I’d venture you see more than the average tourist.

    • Thank you for that perspective. It makes me sad that there should be any “pitfalls” in tourism. It would be a shame to miss out on experiencing our varicolored world in all its shades, for those of us who are privileged to travel.

  2. I love your Mexican travels, there is something so mystical about the country. The weight of its history is often documented but the more natural elements are often forgotten. Our house is mint green (I am colour blind but have it on good authority), a colourful house always helps keep one’s nature as sunny as the weather.

    • There’s so much more to Mexico than the beach resorts and the Aztecs, and I was happy to delve into the history of other cultures while there as well as be introduced to the rich, varied flora and fauna. How refreshing to live in a mint-green house! Are most houses in your area colorful?

      • There is lots of different architecture as well as colours (lots of powder blues and bright yellows as well as the classic white), it’s always interesting to see a mixture of Spanish colonial and native houses, and the Nipa huts as well.

        I loved exploring Mexico through books back in the day but it was the fantastic cartoon The Mysterious Cities of Gold that held me in thrall as a child.

  3. Oaxaca is the part of Mexico that I’d most like to visit. It has always seemed so vibrant and traditional, and your account only reinforces this. Their spirit, and connection to the natural world, is inspiring.

  4. The richness of the colors of Oaxaca match the richness of your prose. You render justice well to Oaxaca appeal and history. We do not know Mexico except for the time we attended a Bamboo conference in Puebla and we absolutely loved it. Now that I read this, for sure Oaxaca will be at the top of the list of a future trip to Mexico. LOVE the one before last photograph – the two rows of red houses against the sky. Phenomenal “painting”!! Thank you for a substantive and well researched post.


    • Thank you Ben! I’m excited I was able to transport you to the vividness I discovered in Oaxaca. I think you and Peta would greatly enjoy the artistic, laid-back lifestyle of the region and its dedication to living in harmony with the land.

  5. Gorgeous photos! The multi-colored houses remind me of the island of Burano in Venice. And those tall, straight cacti almost look like a fence, and indeed act like one with their prickliness. I love cacti (but not too close as the needles seem to jump off the plant right into your finger). I particularly like the saguaro when in rows along hillsides, like a squad marching.

    • Thank you Karen. I too have fallen in love with cacti since my time in California and Mexico. They have their own type of beauty, don’t they. The organ pipe cacti (tall ones) are a new favorite of mine I discovered while in Oaxaca. They are incredibly aesthetic for use as natural fences.

  6. *gasp!* Your photos! They’re so beautiful!

    The colours make this area seem like an otherworldly place. You’ve inspired me to add this to my Bucket List.

    Also, you always help me see the world a little differently. Thank you for that.

  7. “Among the thousand other endemic botanical specimens, the cacti of Oaxaca are as meaningful to the indigenous as corn. It is best to treat the living plants with respect, to avoid painful situations.”

    What did you do? Those cacti in your photo are pretty epic. They look like an art installation.

  8. Lots of oohs and aahs here aboard Amandla this morning. The rich colorful houses showcased alongside natures splendor were a delight for the eyes this morning. And then there is that magnificent church at sunset. Wow. Just wow. I will spend the rest of my day pondering your thoughtful words , especially about assumptions born of predjudice and links between man and nature

    • Oaxaca is only one of the beautiful parts of Mexico, to me. I too have continued to reflect upon our link with nature, about the difference between interconnected and interdependence and how better to incorporate both of these concepts into my life. Wishing you continued safe journey aboard Amandla!

  9. I’m new to wordpress and just came across your page, I was drawn in by the pictures and wanted to stop and see your page. I am a student at the ohio media school and a delivery driver in the mid west, I am inspired by your page, I had an idea to post pictures of the different cities I travel to but have not got into the site a lot since i created it. This is the first time i actually explored the site and i am glad i did, i followed so that i can come back and see more. Your pictures are amazing!!

  10. Amazing photos! Some of them look like paintings. I love the colored facades in Oaxaca and many other Mexican towns, like San Miguel de Allende, for example. Another town that comes to mind right now is Antigua in Guatemala, or Grenada in Nicaragua. I never thought about the relationship between colorful architecture and warmer weather. Did you try the fried grasshoppers? We did when we drove through the area in our truck camper in 2006 and even had Mark’s elderly parents give it a try. 🙂

  11. I too love all those brightly colored buildings and hope to one day visit there. I did not know about their connection to plants / mother earth, but it makes sense. We would all be wise to take a lesson from them.

  12. Sixteen indigenous tribes in one region…that’s amazing! I understand why traditions as well as living in harmony with nature is critical here. Happy travels and discoveries!

  13. As always, thought provoking and a feast for the eyes! When I was about 18 I had a particular outfit which made me feel resplendent, energised and the picture of Summer……a hot pink blouse, a bright green skirt synched at the wait by a vibrant sky blue scarf as a belt. When I look at the colours in your photos of the stunning Oaxaca houses, I am transported back to the sunshine I felt when I wore those colours way back in the 80s….💖💚💙🌞

  14. Your gorgeous photos make me want to pack my suitcase right now and head for Oaxaca! I’ve always loved the voluptuous color schemes of the Caribbean. Recently, I discovered that Charleston, South Carolina, also has beautiful – and colorful – facades.

    • I concur — a number of Caribbean islands also have colorful houses, though I haven’t often found them in steady rows like Oaxaca. I wonder if some one from Charleston visited one of these islands and wanted to recreate a part of that brightness in South Carolina?

  15. Very well written with wonderful photos. The colors are mesmerizing. I hear from many travelers that Oaxaca is Mexico’s gem and I’m dying to go. Your post encourages me even more!

    • It’s a treasured part of Mexico for me because it is so different from the resort-filled areas. It’s much easier to interact with locals in Oaxaca than in more popular vacation spots of Mexico and get a peep into their complex, colorful lives. Hope you’ll get to experience it for yourself soon!

  16. You capture the beauty of Oaxaca like none other I’ve seen, made in part even more beautiful by the underlying politics and struggle the community faces. Your photos show the diversity of this amazing place and hope it does not change too much as it moves forward.

    • Thank you so much Randall for your kind words. Oaxaca was such a jewel to explore, a place proud of its beauty and closeness with nature but unafraid to talk about its obstacles. I’m very happy I was able to show some of that complexity through my post.

  17. Beautiful pictures and I love the burst of colour in your shots. 🙂 Change, like evolution, is the essence of every society and culture. It’s a predicament of sorts because it’s equally important to stagnate (sometimes) — to preserve a cultural heritage. Every culture needs a heady mix of the old and the new. The balance is crucial. It’s heartening to see few places doing just that. 🙂

    • You are so right! It’s intriguing when a destination is able to find its own balance. I used to think that eventually all societies would trajectory towards the same result, but find that’s not true. Each one has to take its particular path.

  18. Posts like this make me wonder why, despite all the places I’ve been, Mexico’s never been one of them. Maybe it’s just preconceptions that don’t include places like Oaxaca, with its glorious colors and well-kept squares. Your photos show this place in an excellent light.

    • Hopefully it’s on your list, Dave! There’s so much more to the country than resort-filled coasts where foreigners lose their inhibitions and indulge in destructive behavior. My time in Oaxaca and in the CDMX has been an eye-opening time with locals who have very much changed my ways of thinking about life, death, and everything in between.

      • Guess I need to add it to my list. Of course the reality is, as a scuba diver way overdue for a warm water trip, Cozemel may get the nod, with an attempt at something inland for excursions. More than one trip, maybe?

  19. Mexico is wondrous, and a place I’ve visited many times. It’s inexpensive for Canadians to go there, though I’ve not been to where you blog about. Love the pictures and all the amazing colours. 😉

  20. PS I didn’t think of this till I’d posted my first comment, but I also think that we are missing the ideal of ‘interconnection’. There is a subtle difference between that and interdependence. What do you think?

    • I definitely agree that the two are different. Both are equally important to keep in mind, though I think it vital that we as a species admit we depend on the ecosystem. For a large portion of the planet, that doesn’t seem valid anymore. Thanks so much for bringing this up; I’d like to think about the relationship between the two a lot more.

  21. I think that interdependence is what we have most crucially forgotten in Western (capitalist/materialist/consumer) societies. Lovely photos and your thoughts are very on-point x

    • I hope so-called developed countries are learning that lesson, but it feels as if financial “success” and a continuous course of consumption still paves the way. On a happier note, Oaxaca has been a very colorful revelation.

    • Ah, thank you Jane. I appreciate the compliment from your photographer’s perspective. Have you ever been somewhere that was so vivid and full of potential shots that it overwhelmed you? I spent a long time not taking any photos in Oaxaca, because I just couldn’t figure out how best to portray its personality.

      • I love what you said, Atreyee. I think it’s so important to settle in and look without your camera to really see and get a sense of a place. Then shoot. You accomplished portraying it very well.

  22. Several years ago we spent a year traveling through Mexico and regret not getting to Oaxaca, so it stays on my travel list. I love the colors, textures, and the history of the indigenous. I love your description of the relationship between flora and the human species. Great post and gorgeous photos.

  23. I absolutely adore how you can visit such a picturesque location that others may only appreciate on face-value and yet you dig beneath the surface in search of understanding and value.

    I’m curious, on your travels have you found similar mentalities amongst smaller communities or are they all different?

    (On a side note – absolutely stunning photographs.)

    • Thanks, Kylie, so happy you enjoyed the photos! In answer to your intriguing question, the similarities tend to be among long-term close-knit cultural communities (such as indigenous or religious groups): their deep-rooted sense of place and tradition, their suspicion of outside influence, their concern for one another’s welfare, their indifference to what is “acceptable” to the larger society, and a steady departure of their youth from the collective bond.

  24. Loving the colors on this post! Brilliant. Oaxaca reminds me so much of Granada in Nicaragua. The colors, the buildings, the streets….the overall feel of the place feels like a cute little town in Central America. Fabulous post 🙂


    • Thank you. I’ve never been to Nicaragua, although I hope to some day. Oaxaca is very much a “cute little town.” I liked most of all that it’s people are welcoming but not tourism minded. They have such a strong sense of who they are and what they value, which I very much admired.

  25. Stunning photos! I was struck by your sentence: Oaxacans are adamant that if these relationships are not valued, if they are not protected, loss of belief and loss of identity will occur. I’ve been reading about Canada’s indigenous people where this vital connection with plants/nature—often in peril—is paramount to their identity.

    • Thanks so much! These living cultures around the world have so much to teach us, but we mostly don’t bother to listen. Extinction of plants, birds, animals means extinction of these societies as well and the planet becomes a less colorful place for all of us.

  26. Interesting connections … are these overtly discussed, absorbed via observation, read about, all of the above? Not that it matters! Just curious about your instruction in these links between plant and human life because they make perfect sense and yet feel esoteric on many levels (to an outsider, at least). On a lighter note, the photos are gorgeous!

    • No, I’m so happy you asked! Though, you might not be. 😬 So, the house colors are hard to ignore once you’re in Oaxaca. After I got over gawking at them I was obsessed with how so many of the households use living plants as an accompaniment to their color scheme (purple bougainvillea with green facade, jade cactus with red facade, etc.). This led me to the cactus varieties, which are vital to the culture outside of their decorative purposes. I went around investigating about cacti and its uses locally, from some of the chefs. Which led me to other dishes made out of domesticated plants: corn, squash, grasshoppers, etc. Most of the chefs partner with surrounding farms to carefully manage and collect according to seasonal availability and changes in weather, guided by community standards and ancestral knowledge. One of them invited me to one of the farms where I chatted with the owners about how there has been a long tradition of companion growing in the area of corn, beans, and squash because of their mutually beneficial properties. He recommended my visiting the ethnobotanic garden so I could better understand the science behind it. The garden is where the whole concept of bio and cultural diversity is studied, preserved, and maintained. So most of what I learned about the interdependence of species comes from my tour there. I could have written an entire thesis on this, but who wants to read that on a blog, right? 🙄

      • Totally fascinating, and good for you for following that trail of knowledge! You must have had some time there – what a luxury. We are eager to see Oaxaca. We’ve been to so many cities and regions in Mexico and for some reason, Oaxaca has never been one of them. I know this is a more commercial angle, but one of our old hometown Chicago chefs, Rick Bayless, is obsessed with Oaxacan cuisine and has spent months at a time studying their ways, not just the actual recipes but the background, as you have done. Now I need to find where I put that cookbook in our move here!

      • I’ve never tasted any of Bayless’ recipes, but I’ll have to make a note to search out his restaurant on a Chicago trip. Good luck routing out his cookbook! On that topic, as you know, Mexico’s rich and varied cuisine is so much more than the ubiquitous taco, burrito, and beans found around the world. Each region has a specialty of local ingredients they proudly feature in many different dishes. For Oaxaca, that is tlayudas, moles, and mezcal. I do try to spend awhile in each of the destinations I travel to, because otherwise it’s impossible for me to get any sense of the place or people with whom I interact. I’m extremely fortunate that I’m able to do so! What parts of Mexico have you explored so far and which would you recommend as your favorites?

  27. Amazing colours and images and you’ve given me an insight into the Oaxaca community that makes me feel that this is a society in touch with the way it should be, recognising and respecting all those connections.

    • Many would complain that the Oaxacans are insular, anti-progress, but there is much to admire about their determination to remain true to their land, to honor the bond they have both with their past and with their nature.

  28. You’ve done a great job capturing the complexities of Oaxaca! It’s such a beautiful and unique place. It’s such an interesting mix of history and politics, like no other place I’ve ever experienced.

  29. I’m not the best at growing things. Nor do I know how copal smells. But it looks like a place I could learn. I was thrilled to grow and eat zucchini this year, but then I discovered that it had been an exceptional year for them. Beginners luck! 🙂 🙂 I always think that Irish houses look wonderful, with their gleeful colours. And Tobermory, in Scotland. Neither one a warm clime but something to lift the spirits.

  30. Wonderful photos. I love especially those colorful photos, because I love colors and strong especially. It was me a great joy to see a bit of Mexico thru Your photos. Thank You sharing them with us.

    Have a good day!

  31. Too often we see things from the perspective of those with power, usually conceived in a way so that it appeals to a larger audience but in the end it’s the former who reap the most benefits. Many traditions, often spanning hundreds of years, survive to this day for a reason: they sustain the people and the nature which together form a healthy ecosystem and community which are unique from one place to another. It’s time for us to learn more from places like Oaxaca, and in doing do we have to make the effort to switch our default perception of things.

    • Your comment is the perfect conclusion to my post. Thank you. “Too often we see things from the perspective of those with power.” And so often, we don’t even realize that that is the perspective we’re holding onto. I discovered in Oaxaca, that despite all these years of travel I still have a lot of switching to do.

  32. A great reflection on Oaxaca… wonderful perception and understanding of a place so central to ancient civilisations. There really is a lot more colour now than when I was there in the 70s … that is good to see. Pride in the community is visible … thank you for explaining the connectivity with nature, the environment. Their heritage depends on it … your words have taken me back to those evenings in the Central Park, those mornings in the market drinking the fabulous bowls of hot chocolate while listening to the wandering mariachis

  33. What an amazing, insightful, and illuminating posting. I learned much of value from reading this. When I saw the word Oaxaca, I only thought silver jewelry. It’s so much more.

    • Thank you! Indeed, Oaxaca is so much more. It is one of the most culturally diverse and biodiverse regions in Mexico. 50% of the country’s native species reside there as do 53% of Mexico’s indigenous language speaking population!

  34. Thank you, I am so refreshed by the beautiful narrative & stunning photos of Oaxaca. “Kalachuchi” is how we named the yellowish white flowers that has sweet fragrance in Cebu.

  35. It is best to treat the living plants with respect, to avoid painful situations.
    Especially the cactus and their equally prickly wards (beware what you’re taking pictures of when you’re attached to your camera)

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