Bela, of Bela’s B&B, our favorite San Cristobal de las Casas home away from home, invited us to go along with her to the pottery village of Amatenango del Valle on a quest to replace a ceramic chiminea. The village is about an hour from the city by taxi in the pine forest highlands where sheep graze and Mayan farmers plant their milpas of corn, squash and beans.
Our first stop was at the home pottery of Esperanza Perez Gomez, one of the finer artisans in town. She works with her sister and together they shape and paint fabulous jaguars, chickens, doves and serving dishes.
Here the pots are made from local clay and fired in a kiln that is a platform of metal grating surrounded by stones, then covered with wood and cow or sheep dung. It is all “cooked” above ground and probably doesn’t reach much higher than 800 or 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, considered low fire in the pottery world. The pieces are decorative and not designed for cooking.
The stalls that line the road entering into town are lined with clay kitsch and women vendors dressed in their hand-embroidered huipiles, which are every bit as interesting as the clay vessels their families produce.
In addition to making pottery, Esperanza and her sister have a small notions shop where they also make and sell pleated polyester aprons and two styles of huipiles — one is a cotton-candy birthday cake extravanganza of ruffles and lace and the other is a more traditional geometry of squares and rectangles. The younger women seem to gravitate to the frilly, but it also appears as if it is an individual preference.
The older women absolutely resist having their photo taken. Here, behind Fay, you can see Esperanza’s mother running for cover, her chal (shawl) pulled over her head in a quick exit. Esperanza has more experience with foreign visitors so she agrees to pose.
We were not successful finding the size chiminea that Bela needed to replace the one in her dining room. However, while she was looking, Fay and I peeled off to inspect the corn stalls and the women wearing gloriously colored textiles. In the process, I met a charming young woman selling fresh steamed corn. I asked for it drizzled with lime juice, salt and a little chili. A mayonnaise smear is also an option.
This is traditional, REAL corn! Huge meaty kernels, filling and delicious. It’s no wonder that maize is mother earth of Mesoamerica!
And, did I buy a huipil? Of course, I did. Who could resist either the design or this beautiful face? As I tried them on, all the vendors gathered around me, a cacaphony of color. As soon as Fay pulled out the camera, they evaporated.
Since there were four of us traveling together, we were able to share the cost of a private driver, 600 pesos total for five hours! There is also a collectivo — a shared taxi or combi — that you catch near the market above the Santo Domingo Church.