Mexico // Oaxaca //

The Isthmus of Tehuantepec

The Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where the Pacific and the Atlantic are just 210km apart and the land never rises to more than 250m above sea level, is the narrowest strip of land in Mexico. It’s a hot and steamy region, with a fascinating and unique cultural identity. The people are descendants of various indigenous groups, principally Zapotec. Historically, the Zapotec indígenas, especially those in the south, have been a matriarchal society. Though you’ll still find women dominating trade in the markets (they are renowned for their tenacious, even aggressive, sales skills) while the men work in the fields, this is a tradition that is dying faster than most others in macho Mexico. Nevertheless, some elements remain: the women exude pride, many dressed in ornate hand-woven dresses and draped with gold jewellery; it’s still the mother who gives away her child at a wedding (and occasionally still the eldest daughter who inherits land); and on feast days the women prove their dominance by climbing to the rooftops and throwing fruit down on the men in the Tirada de Frutas.

The best reason to stop in this region is if there’s a fiesta going on, as they’re among the most exciting in the country. Otherwise, you can go straight across – from Oaxaca to Tuxtla Gutiérrez or San Cristóbal in Chiapas – in a single, very long, day. Most first-class buses bypass the grimy port town of Salina Cruz, dominated by a giant oil refinery; better places to stop are Tehuantepec itself, around 250km from Oaxaca City, or nearby Juchitán.

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