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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!

129 replies »

  1. 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. 🙂

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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….💖💚💙🌞

  5. 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?

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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. 😉

  11. 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.

  12. 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

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