Out and About in Oaxaca, Mexico

Back in Oaxaca again. How do I know? Well, for one thing I had an 11,000+ step walking day, several days in a row.


There was a procession to honor Our Lady of Juquila in the neighborhood near the zocalo where I stay when I’m in the city.  Men carried her on a palanquin trailed by women, heads covered, each carrying a lit candle with both hands. There were resting stations around the neighborhood, each numbered, to stop for refreshment and to honor the Queen.

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At the corner of Guerrero and Xicotencatl streets, the locals set up a temporary shrine in a vacant lot with chairs set up for the prayerful. Fresh flowers adorned the altar and the Virgin of Guadalupe had her place of honor, too. I asked permission to come in to take a few photos and the two women sentries readily agreed.

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Then, it was off to Omar’s twenty-second birthday party at a local eatery in Colonia Reforma. After lunch, Janet and I stopped at La Pasion, maybe one of the best bakeries in the world, to buy the cake.


It was a lemon cream, whipped cream, sponge cake that didn’t look like much but tasted like heaven. We quickly devoured it at the after party and then settled in to watch a soppy Mexican romantic comedy.

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On the street again, I stopped a young woman with a bundle of flowers — maybe destined for a wedding shower or birthday party. I’m practicing asking random people on the street if I can take their photo. She smiled and agreed. And, then, this street vendor was cutting watermelon to put into snack cups. Oh, the color!

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I was reminded as I passed by Teatro Macedonio Alcala that Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore will be shown this Saturday at noon. And, the Oaxaca Film Festival starts, and the month is filled with chamber music performances, too. We have many cultural riches here!

OmarBDay_Streets-16 Then it was a meander by San Pablo Cultural Center where a new exhibition on growing organic vegetables demonstrates the commitment to local food and herbs, some used for medicine. I just love the life-size portraits of young women with vegetable crowns.

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Street life takes on many forms here, from people watching to the sculptural interest presented by a hand-truck loaded down with fruits and vegetables on their way to someone’s kitchen.

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On Tuesday my destination was La Biznaga for the weekly vegetarian comida corrida, the 110 peso lunch special that includes salad, entree and a mezcal. Before I settled into the restaurant  courtyard and looked up at this magnificent blooming ceiba tree, I rounded the corner along the Alcala side of the Botanical Gardens to see this creeping cactus exploding over the wall.

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Rebozos, Guitars and Masks in Michoacan, Mexico

I’ve been back in Oaxaca for almost two weeks, and my mind is still on Michoacan, the last leg of my September journey, and the rebozos woven there. When I came to Oaxaca years ago, I thought it would be the perfect place from which to explore other parts of Mexico, north and south. And so it is.


Sharing the Journey to Ahuiran, Paracho, Michoacan

Ahuiran is a small Purepecha village about an hour and a half from Patzcuaro in the Mexican state of Michoacan, high on the Maseta Purepecha (plateau) near Uruapan. It’s a beautiful drive through fertile farmland, green hills, pastures and tree-lined roads. And, it’s safe. For a complete discussion of Purepecha culture and history, click here.


Ahuiran rebozo concurso: And the winners are …

Ahuiran women are famous for their hand-woven rebozos made on the back strap loom. They wear what they weave. Not many in other parts of Mexico still adorn themselves in traditional traje. Rebozo-making and wearing is a dying art.


This winner has rayon fringe that looks like peacock feathers.

I joined a group of Patzcuaro women friends to go to a rebozo fair, which was really a concurso, or regional competition to select the best of the best. I could not pass up another chance to see great rebozos. I vowed not to buy another. Hah!

Travel with me to Tenancingo, Estado de Mexico, February 3-11, 2016, for the Mexico Textile and Folk Art Study Tour: Tenancingo Rebozos & More

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We discovered this competition was more than rebozos. It included wood carving and string instrument making, art forms that are translated to furniture, masks, violins, cellos and guitars.

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The judges came from Morelia and they took their time to make their selections. Patience is the keyword for being in Mexico.


We arrived around 1:00 p.m. and waited. Milled around. Fingered hand-embroidered blouses. Ogled the rebozos that were brought in by the weavers to display for the competition.


Watched the passing fashion parade of glittery pleated skirts and flashy fringe. I saw a mask I liked and negotiated a price and bought it long before the judging started. A lovely young man carved it and asked me if I needed a gardner.

I was assured by the lady who embroidered the animal on this blouse (below right) that it was not a dog but a personal spirit protector. Many women were wearing similar blouses that were finely embroidered. Just not my style.

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We looked for lunch. I had my eye on the fish sizzling in oil. (I knew it would be well-cooked.) I walked around the mask table a few more times and did the same to take a closer look at the Paracho instruments. Had an ice cream, and waited some more. In Mexico one learns the virtue of patience quickly.


The Ahuiran rebozos are different from the ikat technique found in Tenancingo de Degollado in the State of Mexico. Here, they are heavier cotton. The traditional rebozos are black with blue and white pin stripes. Now, the color palette is extensive and can include lots of shiny rayon.


The viewing stands filled up with villagers and I noticed a very regal, elegant woman with an extraordinary embroidered blue and yellow skirt. This turned out to be Cecilia Bautista, a Grand Master of Mexican Folk Art.

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Cecilia is proud that she was the first weaver to experiment with incorporating real feathers on the fringes. The idea came to her 22 years ago when she learned about feather work done in pre-Hispanic times by her people, the Purepecha (or Tarascans, as the Spanish called them).

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Cecilia’s family of musicians came to entertain the crowd by playing traditional songs on their string instruments, all hand-made. Women came forward to dance, including Cecilia. These are worthy of a major symphony orchestra performance.


At 4:00 p.m. the judges were ready to announce the rebozo winners. How did they choose? Density and intricacy of the textile weave. How it draped when they put it on. The soft, silkiness of the fabric. Whether it had a straight edge. The length and technical elaboration of the punta (fringe).  There was a special category for puntas that included feathers, too!

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And the mask I bought got the first place prize in the category!


There were six gringas who came from Patzcuaro for this event. Three of us left with a rebozo, priced between 1,500 and 3,000 pesos.

Best61_AhuiranMorelia-45Best61_AhuiranMorelia-48This was a festival day in Ahuiran. There were carnival rides, a special market, lots of vendors, cotton candy and barbecue. All the women came out in their best rebozos. The wives of the village leaders were totally decked out, complete with jumbo hair ribbons and the sparkliest skirts. The more confetti the merrier.

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We returned along the same route we arrived on, with volcano peaks on the horizon, men stooping over fields planted with potatoes, Purepecha villages with still a few of the original pre-Hispanic style wood homes called trojes (built without nails) still standing. It was a glorious day. Along the roadside, a spray of wildflowers, mostly cosmos, were coming into their color, necks stretching to the sun, heads waving in the breeze.

Here in Oaxaca, nights have turned chilly. Days are mild and sunny with a light breeze. We celebrate the Virgin of Rosario with bands, parades and dances. At this moment the firecrackers are booming. Soon, it will be time for loved ones to return during Dia de los Muertos. The cempazuchitl is in bloom. All is well in my world and I hope the same for yours.


Is Mexico Safe? My Experience

Is Mexico safe? I just got back to Oaxaca after traveling for three weeks in Mexico City, Estado de Mexico and Michoacan. In Michoacan there is a U.S. State Department Travel Advisory, (I include this link to safety vs. sensationalism.)

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I went to Morelia, Patzcuaro and rural villages. I traveled far out into the countryside in a car with two other women and walked gorgeous colonial towns. How safe was it? Was I scared?

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The day I returned, a must read tongue-in-cheek post came in about safety in the Distrito Federal (D.F.), the nation’s capitol, from Jim Johnston who writes Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler.  It triggered my wanting to tell you about my journey. Is Mexico safe?

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Me and Mary Anne (from the San Francisco Bay Area) teamed up to take this trip together. Yes, two women of some maturity and a modicum of wisdom traveling independently via bus, taxi, collectivo and sometimes, on foot!


We met up in Mexico City where we walked from our hotel to historic center destinations, often at night. Yes, it was dark. Did I feel threatened or at risk? No. I stayed on well-lit streets with good sidewalks and lots of pedestrians. Mexicans love to meander with their families at night, eating an ice cream cone or nibbling on a torta, pushing a stroller or walking arm-in-arm.

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We took a taxi, arranged by our hotel, to the regional bus station at Observatorio, and bought same day tickets on the Caminante bus line to Toluca. We were the only gringas on the bus. At the Toluca bus station, MA watched the bags and I bought a Taxi Seguro (secure taxi) ticket from the clearly marked stand inside the terminal to Tenancingo de Degollado. The worry was how we were going to get our five suitcases (three of them huge) into a small taxi rather than any safety issues.

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Most of our trips in Tenancingo were via group van. But, when we/I (either together or separately) wanted to go to town, we went out to the front of our hotel and hailed a private taxi or jumped into a collectivo, sharing a ride with strangers.

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When we left Tenancingo, our next destination was Morelia, capital of Michoacan. So, we returned to the Toluca bus station and bought tickets on another bus line — Autovias — that serves that part of Mexico. Again, we were the only gringas on the bus (of either gender). It’s almost a four-hour bus ride to Morelia, whose tarnished reputation for being a drug cartel area has had a negative impact on tourism, even though it is safe by strict U.S. State Department standards.

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I don’t know if this is true or not. It didn’t seem like it. I did ask MA, when we were planning this trip, is it safe? Just once. She researched it and reported that the only possible dangerous areas were rural far from where we would be.

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I’ve never been to a cleaner, more pristine city than Morelia. It has an incredible Zocalo, classical music, great restaurants, 16th century colonial architecture, outstanding gardens, churches, universities, libraries, a comprehensive Casa de las Artesanias folk art gallery and is gateway to some of Mexico’s most amazing folk art. No one hassled us. In fact, everyone was warm and welcoming. Did I feel unsafe or threatened? Not for a minute. Neither does Guns N’ Roses!

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Nacho (Ignacio), our pre-arranged taxi driver, picked us up in Morelia and drove us to Patzcuaro, with a stop along the way to Capula, one of the craft villages.  I have friends from the USA who now live full-time in Patzcuaro. We hung out together during the time we weren’t going out to explore the Purepecha villages around the lake, and met the small, but mighty Patzcuaro ex-pat community, including photographer Flo Leyret (link to her photos below).

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Map of Michoacan

We spent the day poking around Santa Clara del Cobre — the copper mining village about thirty minutes beyond Patzcuaro where Purepecha people have been working the material with hand-forging and hammering since the 13th century.


Then, I got invited to go along to a concurso (juried folk art competition) in the village of Ahuiran, an hour-and-a-half north of Patzcuaro, where talented women weave rebozos on back-strap looms. Six of us, all women, drove in two cars over Michoacan countryside, through small villages, across rich farmland planted with corn and potatoes. At the entrance and exit to some villages there were guard posts and community-designated sentries asking us where we were going. It seems the villagers are protecting their territory and this is typical for rural Mexico where there can be land disputes or disagreements. Nothing to be afraid of.

Michoacan Artisans, Photographs by Florence Leyret Jeune

Patzcuaro 188-79 PatzLakeArtisans-16  [Above left is Purepecha ceramic artist Nicolas Fabian Fermin, from Santa Fe de Laguna, who I met this summer at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, with his wife. Above right is Teofila Servin Barriga, another award-winning Purepecha artist whose embroidery has won many international awards. She will be at Lake Chapala, Guadalajara, for the annual folk art market. This rebozo she is wearing will sell for 15,000 pesos.]

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In Ahuiran, we were the only visitors and the best potential customers for these stunning hand-made shawls that started at 2,000 pesos. The elaborate feather fringed rebozos (photos are still in my camera) were commanding a 5,000 pesos price tag, more than most of the local women could afford. But, then, they could weave their own or buy from a relative!

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Why go to Michoacan? For the folk art, of course, and then, there’s the landscape, and the people, the history  ….

On my return to Oaxaca, I took a taxi from Morelia center to the regional bus terminal and bought my ticket the same day. It was a five-hour bus ride to Mexico City Norte terminal. I was the only foreigner on the bus. MA flew direct from Morelia to Oakland, CA on a non-stop Volaris flight. Lucky her. I, on the other hand, got into a secure taxi for the 30-minute ride to the airport to board the Interjet flight to Oaxaca ($116 USD round-trip).

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Okay, so that’s the story. Or at least skimming it. Mexico is a treasure trove of history, archeology, folk art, contemporary art, intellectual discourse and culture. Her cities are beautiful. Yes, some parts are not safe. Most parts are. Some have reputations for being unsafe that have never been true and/or might have been true two or three or four years ago, like Morelia. Morelia is safe now. It is gorgeous. I’d go back in a heartbeat.

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Oaxaca has always been safe.

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Join us February 3-11, 2016 for Mexico Textiles and Folk Art Study Tour: Tenancingo Rebozos and More. 4 Spaces Left!

Aye, My Aching Back! Keep the DSLR or Opt for Lighter Camera?

For the past three weeks I’ve been traveling in buses, airplanes, vans, taxis and collectivos in Mexico City, and the States of Mexico and Michoacan to discover more of Mexico. I’ve walked a fair piece over cobblestones and uneven pathways. I’ve climbed pre-Hispanic archeological pyramids with steps that are taller than me. All the while, hauling my wonderful Nikon D7000 (now getting a little beat up) and the big honker Nikkor 17-55mm photojournalist lens. I get great photos from this equipment, but I’m tired and can feel the weight in my back and shoulders. Is it time to give up this camera and lens?

I asked Italian photographer Alex (Alessio) Coghe, who lives in Mexico City, why he uses a lighter-weight mirrorless camera. Here is what he said. Perhaps this will interest you as you consider how much you want to schlepp around, too! All advice welcome.

My Choice by Alex Coghe

Many times people ask why I moved to mirrorless and compact cameras for my photography. As a commercial photographer, this has been my choice since 2010. In 2009, I spent two months in Mexico. It was my first visit and during it I never used my Nikon equipment, preferring to use an high-end compact camera: the Panasonic Lumix LX3.


When I returned to Italy with a plan to get back to Mexico, I decided to sell all my Nikon gear to buy an Olympus E-P1 with its 17mm pancake lens which is equivalent to a 34mm in full frame. I can remember many friends saying I was crazy.

Well, now I use one camera and one lens and became a converted professional photographer with no remorse. Today, I see many photographers who decide to switch from DSLRs to mirrorless. In particular, I have colleagues who are choosing Fujifilm X series cameras, mostly X100 and XPRO.

Now I need to clarify that I never particularly loved digital reflex. I come from analog photography and I always preferred point & shoot cameras. I never liked the design and the approach of a DSLR, hiding my face behind a black plastic piece simply doesn’t work for what I do in the street.

Moreover, I always preferred to see what my eyes are seeing and not a reflection of the mirror system through the lens. This is an important part of my choice: I prefer to frame through an optical viewfinder. I do not fear the parallax error: Is it not the way the masters have photographed for almost a century?

As of this moment, I work with a Leica X2, a Fujifilm X100S, a Fujifilm X30 and sometimes I still use film cameras.

I am a commercial photographer, mostly working with models.  I am into fashion and and street photography. Small compact cameras allow me to have visual contact with the subjects. This is very important for my kind of approach and way to work because the psychological aspect is very important.

As a street photographer, I need compact, light cameras that allow me to work all day in the street. I also need the discretion and the “invisibility” offered by a small camera. For this reason I think the new rangefinder cameras are perfect for my work. Most of the cameras like this have a fantastic pre-set focus system, so I usually use full manual and zone focus when it comes to street photography.

A camera should not be an obstacle but something that can be an extension of my arm, just to satisfy my approach and get close to my vision.  My choice with the cameras is perfect for me and my work.

Norma’s Note: Thanks so much, Alex for contributing to Oaxaca Cultural Navigator. Now, I have some direction about what I may choose next. So hard to give up what you are used to. But, that’s true in almost anything that requires change, verdad?

Check out Alex’s website for 2015 Day of the Dead photo workshop in Oaxaca!

 Faces & Festivals Photography Workshop in Chiapas, early January with Denver photographer Matt Nager. Discounts for 2 people. Budget options. 

Mexico Textiles and Folk Art Study Tour: Tenancingo Rebozos and More

I just returned to Oaxaca after exploring other parts of Mexico, including a week in Tenancingo de Degollado, Estado de Mexico (Edomex), where ikat rebozos or shawls are hand-woven on back-strap and flying shuttle looms by master artisans. This experience was so inspiring, that I want to share it with you. I invite you to return with me for a memorable, curated Mexican textile and folk art study tour.

February 3-11, 2016 – 8 nights, 9 days

Group size limited to 12 people. We have 5 spaces left!

You will arrive and leave from Mexico City

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  • Meet together in Mexico City on February 3 with an overnight there at a historic center hotel
  • Travel to and stay in Tenancingo from February 4 to 10 at a bed and breakfast oasis
  • Enjoy the company of our bi-lingual guide who migrated from the U.S. to Tenancingo to marry a local thirteen years ago
  • Meet the master weavers of Tenancingo de Degollado in their home workshops
  • Learn about ikat warp thread preparation, the complexity of this at-risk textile art and how to differentiate quality
  • Participate in hands-on natural dye and weaving demonstrations
  • Understand the intricacy of a fine hand-knotted punta/repacejo (or fringe) and how it adds to the beauty of the lienza (cloth)

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  • Visit three of Mexico’s Pueblo Magicos – magic villages where traditional life flourishes
  • Spend a day in Taxco de Alarcon,with the next generation of William Spratling Silversmiths. At famed Las Delicias, see jewelry making at its finest using Spratling’s original molds with his same excellent handcrafted quality
  • Travel to Metepec, a Pueblo Magico, and stay overnight on February 10 where you will meet outstanding ceramic artists who make Tree of Life sculptures and cazuelas cooking vessels
  • Travel to Mexico City on February 11 to depart for home OR stay on your own through President’s Weekend in Mexico City to enjoy museums and world-class restaurants

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Along the way, you will eat great food, climb ancient pyramids at important though remote archeological sites, visit three Pueblo Magicos – Malinalco, Taxco and Metepec — and immerse yourself in some of Mexico’s outstanding folk art.

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You will even have the option to schedule (at your own expense) an evening massage and/or facial given by aestheticians who will come to our B&B from the spa town of Ixtapan de la Sal.

But, primarily, we are here to learn about the art and craft of making a fine rebozo, meet the men who weave the cloth and the women who tie the elaborate fringe.

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Some of the weavers are innovators, like Jesus Zarate, who incorporates intricate floral, bird and animal motifs on the ikat cloth.

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Some, like Fito Garcia, use splashes of color that looks like confetti. Camila Ramos ikat designs employ ancient indigenous symbols and figures.

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The revered master, 82-year old Evaristo Borboa Casas, is a traditionalist. All have received top honors for their work worldwide.

Each technique requires mathematical and technical precision, extraordinary creativity and months of work to produce one rebozo.

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It can take weeks to prepare the ikat warp threads, dye them and dress the loom, with another month or two for the weaving. It can take two or three months to tie a punta, depending on length and elaboration.

After this study trip, I can guarantee that you will better appreciate this textile art form that is at risk of disappearing. Only three or four weavers in Tenancingo continue the back-strap weaving tradition. Sixty years ago there were over 200 weavers working on the back-strap loom.

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Itinerary Includes

  • 8 nights lodging
  • 8 Breakfasts
  • 2 Lunches
  • 3 Dinners
  • Transportation to/from Mexico City and Tenancingo
  • Transportation to all towns, villages and artisans noted in itinerary
  • Gratuities to artisans for demonstrations

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Wednesday, February 3: Arrive in Mexico City, overnight. Dinner on your own. We will stay at a historic luxury hotel on or near the Zocalo. As soon as you register, we will tell you where. You might also like to arrive a few days early to explore the city. It’s wonderful!

Thursday, February 4: Travel as group to Tenancingo, overnight (B, D) Light group supper at our B&B hotel in Tenancingo.

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Friday, February 5: Meet the Best of the Best, Tenancingo’s master rebozeros (rebozo weavers) Fermin Escobar, Evaristo Borboa Casas, Jesus Zarate, Fito Garcia Diaz. Take a ride on the flying shuttle peddle loom. Optional evening massage and/or facial. (B, L)

Saturday, February 6: Malinalco Pueblo Magico. Climb the ancient archeological site (if you wish), the only one in Mesoamerican carved out of the rock face. Visit the workshop of Camila Ramos Zamora and award-winning son Juan Rodrigo Mancio Ramos. See how they work the back strap loom and make natural dyes. Take your turn at the back strap loom. See how the ikat is prepared and dyed. Take time to visit the 16th century Augustinian church with the amazing Paradise Garden Murals. Optional evening massage and/or facial. (B)

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Sunday, February 7: Tenancingo Market Walk, including the weekly Sunday rebozo market where you can find good quality textiles at affordable prices. Late afternoon fiber arts weaving demonstration and mini-workshop. (B, D) Light group supper at our B&B hotel.

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 Monday, February 8: A day in Taxco de Alarcon, Pueblo Magico, with the next generation owner of the William Spratling silver jewelry workshop, with lunch at famed Las Delicias, Spratling’s home and a silversmith demonstration. The beautiful original Spratling necklace you see on the right, below, is for sale at $7,000 USD to raise restoration money for the ranch. Interested? (B, L)

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Tuesday, February 9: Meet one of Tenancingo’s greatest puntadoras, These are the women who make the elegant rebozo fringes. See if you can tie these intricate knots in a mini-workshop. Afternoon on your own to return to your favorite rebozero, do last minute market shopping or begin packing. (B)

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Wednesday, February 10: Travel to Metepec Pueblo Magico , where we will spend the night. Climb the Mesoamerican Teotenango pyramids (if you wish) or visit the museum. Meet master ceramic artists who create outstanding tree of life sculptures and make sturdy cooking cazuelas. Try your hand in a mini-workshop to make one of the clay figures that adorn Mexico’s famed Tree of Life sculptures. Overnight in Metepec with grand finale dinner. (B, D)

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Thursday, February 11: Leave Metepec in early morning for Mexico City airport to catch mid-afternoon flights home. If you decide to extend your stay in Mexico over President’s Day Weekend you can easily catch a secure taxi from the airport to downtown Mexico City or travel on to another great spot like Oaxaca! (B)

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Study Tour Cost as of October 1, 2015

  • Double Occupancy– Shared Room and Private Bath, $1,695 per person
  • Single Room with Private Bath, $1,995 per person

The study tour includes all transportation between Mexico City and Tenancingo de Degollado, lodging in Mexico City, Tenancingo and Metepec, meals as noted in the itinerary, travel to all artisans and destinations noted on the itinerary, cultural bi-lingual guide services, and grand finale Metepec dinner. Plus you receive a comprehensive packet of information about our location, shopping, restaurants, and itinerary sent by email before the study tour begins.

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The study tour does not include airfare, taxi from Mexico City airport to Mexico City hotel, some meals as noted in the itinerary, admission to museums and archeological sites, alcoholic beverages, tips, travel insurance, optional transportation and incidentals.

Question: Why aren’t all meals included?

The best answer I can give is that we all have different body rhythms and eating habits. Some of us like a bigger meal during the day, some prefer to eat lightly or not at all at night. Some love their steak and potatoes at 8 p.m. while others prefer a salad. Some like quieter time rather than a daily group experience. I try to make this trip individualized with room for enough personal preference and variation to meet everyone’s needs rather than one size fits all.

Reservations and Cancellations: A 50% deposit will reserve your space. The final payment for the balance due shall be made on or before December 1, 2015. We accept PayPal for payment only. We will send you an invoice for your deposit to reserve when you tell us by email that you are ready to register.

If cancellation is necessary, please notify us in writing by email. After December 1, 2015, no refunds are possible. However, we will make every effort to fill your reserved space or you may send a substitute. If you cancel before December 1, 2015, we will refund 50% of your deposit.


About Travel to Mexico City: The Mexico City Benito Juarez International Airport (MEX) is our gateway city and a Mexico City historic center hotel is our meeting point. You can fly to Mexico City from many United States locations on most major USA airlines. Mexico’s excellent new discount airlines Interjet and Volaris service some U.S. cities, as does Aeromexico.

International Travel Insurance Required. We require that you purchase trip cancellation, baggage loss and at least $50,000 of emergency evacuation and medical insurance before you begin your trip. We will ask for insurance documentation as well as a witnessed waiver of liability form that holds Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC harmless. We know unforeseen circumstances are possible.

To register, please email us at norma.schafer@icloud.com

We accept payment with PayPal only. Thank you.


Norma w/Tenancingo hosts Peter & Circe

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