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Somewhere around 1500 B.C. the native cultures of what is now modern Oaxaca state began to cultivate plants to supplement their customary diet of meat, fish, wild berries and fruits.

The most important of these was corn. But tomatoes, chilis, squash and beans were quickly added to the local diet and slowly worked their way into mainstream culinary flavor of the locals.

Down through the years the colorful residents of Oaxaca perfected the art of working with native foods, quickly gaining a reputation as a center for culinary delight and delicacy. A major food festival was born, the Guelaguetza, a time when the people would gather and celebrate their art and tribute the Gods of corn and water who had smiled upon the mountains and valleys of Oaxaca with plentiful resources.

While the Spanish conquest changed many things in pre-Hispanic Mexico, it could not take away the underlying sense of appreciation rooted into the heart of every Zapotec and Mixtec Indian for an abundant harvest. While great efforts were made to destroy local indigenous culture, strong traditions in Mexico didn't go away, they evolved, often incorporating elements of the Christian church year into local ceremony.

In Oaxaca each year, the annual "Food of the Gods" Festival is a prime example of an old tradition evolving into a new. And while some of the new meanings behind the event are strictly post-conquest, most of the locals use the time to mark time-honored traditions that date back thousands of years, making this fall festival unique and truly a joy to attend.

If you're making plans on an October visit, you should be aware that the "Day of the Dead" celebration is also running concurrent with the Food Fest, which is a wonderful benefit to traveling to Oaxaca in the fall. But hotel rooms are hard to secure during this peak travel season and you should book far in advance to insure you can even get a reservation. The same holds true if you're flying. Book early!

This 2006 Food of the Gods Festival (Oct. 7-14) provides the perfect opportunity to participate in and visit other events and sites, like taking a cultural walking tour, participating in the traditional chocolate making demonstration (a highlight of the food fest), exotic fruit and ice cream tasting, guided market tours, a tour of nearby Monte Alban, a visit to Teotitlan del Valle, a weaving village, and more.

Festival cooking classes, always a big draw, feature classes with Ihana de la Vega, Reyna Mendoza, and Alejandro Ruiz - all local favorite chefs and restaurant owners.

Your festival registration includes a "dine around" Oaxaca package that includes five free meals, a breakfast, lectures, and multiple tastings and local tours.

Oaxaca is rich in both indigenous history and the its diverse heritage acquired as a result of the Spanish conquest. In pre-Hispanic days there were 16 indigenous groups found within the seven distinct regions that make up what is known as Oaxaca state.  As you travel across Oaxaca you quickly come to realize that the people are different in one village to the next. The dialects are different, many still speaking only their native indigenous tongues, though most speak Spanish as well.

In Oaxaca live the descendants of the Zapotec, the Mixtec, Mazatecs, Chinantecas, Triquis, Chontales, Chatinos, Mixes, Amuzgos, Huaves, Zoques, Chontales, Chatinos, Ixtaltecas, Chonchos, Popolacas, Cuicatecas and Nahuas. In some cases it remains difficult for cross communication between the villages. And while this may seem strange to an outsider, it has existed this way for thousands of years. There is a sort of universal sign language used by all of the various villages, sometimes the only way that trade and commerce can be carried out between them. Things are changing more rapidly now and barriers caused by language dialects, for example, are beginning to fall - but slowly.

Take some extra time if traveling through Oaxaca. In addition to the weaving village of Teotitlan, the coastal resort communities of Puerto Escondido and Huatulco are must-visit destinations. While Huatulco is Oaxaca's newest beach resort offering plenty of modern amenities, Puerto Escondido remains the perfect undiscovered resort hideaway. The surfing couldn't be any better and the rates are still reasonable - so stay a few extra days and enjoy the Pacific coast.



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