Tag Archives: archeology

Ancient Rocks and Rainbows: San Pablo Villa de Mitla

On Thursday this week, Lupita came to visit. She is age 10, soon to be eleven next month. We were looking through photographs on my computer and found one when she was a toddler playing in a pile of wool.

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She might want this photo for her quinceañera. That got us to talking about being young and Zapotec. As we scrolled through photos, I stopped on a photo of the San Pablo Villa de Mitla archeological site. What’s that? Lupita said. You haven’t been to Mitla? I asked. Do you want to go tomorrow?


I was actually struck by the fact that here we are just 10 miles and 20 minutes from one of the most amazing archeological sites in Mesoamerica and Lupita hasn’t been there. She hasn’t been to Monte Alban either. We have a lot of traveling to do. Next week, I’ll take her to Yagul. Maybe another young friend, Cristobal, will come, too


When we got to Mitla early Friday morning, the place was empty.  I explained how important this post-classical site is and how special it is to be Zapotec with a proud and ancient history. Here and at Monte Alban, the Zapotecs commanded a great nation. There are so many more ancient rocks yet to uncover.

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Lupita climbed up the temple steps and then down into the tombs. We talked about how the ancient burial ritual was to move the bones of the those buried before aside to make way for those who had just died. They would be buried in the same tomb. We compared how this ancient Zapotec practice is exactly the way it is today in her village of Teotitlan del Valle.


Next week we will go to the cemeteries to celebrate the dead and their return to visit loved ones. Dia de los Muertos is about the continuity of life and it occurs to me that there is no greater tribute than burial in the same resting place as a beloved ancestor.

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We talked about the history of the Spanish conquest, conversion, how the conquerors took the ancient rocks from the temples and used them to build church walls to attract the people to the new religion.

Codices etched in plaster, painted with cochineal

Codices etched in plaster, painted with cochineal

I showed Lupita the example of the wall integrated into the Mitla church structure and pointed to the carved patterns that most Teotitlan del Valle weavers have incorporated into their rug designs.


Biznaga cactus in bloom, an endangered species

There’s a lot of activity in Mitla now, fresh paint, new hotels and restaurants, since the town just became a Pueblo Magico.


We finished up our day together with lunch in Tlacolula at Comedor Mary. Then, I got Lupita to school in time for the start of her 1:30 p.m. classes.

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With the day only half-finished, I got into my creative side, making flower pins from wool I had felted last year. After “cooking” the finished flowers in hot water with a bit of vinegar, I took them up to the terrace to hang on the line to dry. Oops, why not take a photo? It was such a gorgeous day. When, I returned to the terrace with my camera, this is what I saw.

LupitaMitlaRainbowBest20-20 A magic end to a magical day.





Pueblo Magico Malinalco: Hand-loomed Rebozos and Pre-Aztec Pyramids

The magical town of Malinalco in the State of Mexico is a short thirty-minute ride from Tenancingo de Degollado. One of Mexico’s greatest rebozo weavers, Camila Ramos Zamora, and her family live and work here.

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Her father was a rebozo weaver from Tenancingo and he moved to Malinalco to marry Camila’s mother. They established a workshop that makes some very amazing ikat/jaspe rebozos on the back strap loom. Some use natural dyes. Most have intricate, lengthy fringes called puntas or rapacejos, that in my opinion represent fifty percent of the beauty of a rebozo.

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This week, Came’s son José Rodrigo Mancio Ramos, received the special award for a major piece using natural dyes in the National Rebozo Competition sponsored by FONART and held in Tlaxcala. He carries on the family tradition for creating and executing outstanding textile art.  The punta on his winning piece is made in the pointed style preferred by the Spanish aristocrats who came to Mexico in the 18th century.

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I visited Camila Ramos Zamora’s two shops in Malinalco as well as the amazing Augustinian church built in 1560. I’ve never seen such detailed, dramatic frescoes as these. The church is a sight to behold.

Here’s a note from Mexico expert Silva Nielands: The Paradise Garden murals in the monastery were not painted by the Augustinians who built it, but by the indigenous people who were taught the painting process.  The murals are a mix of European (saintly) themes full of local imagery.  The plants, animals, etc. are all important to the indigenous culture and are like a full encyclopedia of the herbal/medicinal, etc.  http://utpress.utexas.edu/index.php/books/peterson-paradise-garden

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Many towns in Mexico were settled by different Catholic orders: Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, Augustinians and Jesuits, missionaries competing for converts. The Augustinian church dominates the central zocalo and is the only Catholic church in Malinalco.

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I admired the black rebozo this woman on the left was wearing as she and two friends exited the church. One friend jumped in to help her put it around her shoulders so I could see the weaving and the very long fringes. I think they were delighted that I noticed and paid them special attention!

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My friend Mary Anne hiked up to the archeological site which she reports is an easy, shaded climb up about 400 shallow steps through amazing landscape.

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Our group from Los Amigos del Arte Popular de Mexico wandered Malinalco independently to explore and discover.  We all met up at Las Placeres for a great lunch on the shaded patio complete with tamarind mezcal Margaritas — mi favorita.

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This experience has been so wonderful, that I want to bring you here with me.

  • So, I’m scheduling a study tour from February 3-11, 2016  to learn about and meet the rebozo weavers of Tenancingo.
  • Meet in Mexico City on February 3 with overnight there.
  • Travel to and stay in Tenancingo  from February 4 to 10
  • Participate in hands-on workshops and demonstrations
  • Travel to Metepec and stay overnight in Metepec on February 10
  • 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 the museums and world-class restaurants

In addition, we will take a day trip to the silver capitol of Mexico, Taxco, a Pueblo Magico, explore the Pueblo Magico ceramics village of Metepec and the Pueblo Magico village of Malinalco.

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We will eat great food, climb ancient pyramids at important though remote archeological sites and immerse ourselves in Mexico’s folk art. We’ll even have the option of a respite with massage and facials.

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Send me an email if you are interested in this study tour!

More information coming soon.

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Why Visit Girona, Spain?

Girona_38-23Girona, Spain, is a half-hour north of Barcelona Sants station by AVE bullet train going at 200 km per hour. It catapulted us into the Middle Ages.


It has the best preserved medieval Jewish neighborhood in Europe dating from the 8th century with an outstanding museum atop an archeological dig that contains a mikvah. There is an investment by the Spanish government now in historical Jewish tourism. Spain is offering dual citizenship to Sefardim who want to reclaim their past.

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Until the pogroms of 1391, Girona was a center of Jewish intellectual life in Spain where Kabbalah Jewish spirituality fully developed from its roots in southern France.

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By 1492, with the Expulsion Decree and the start of the official Inquisition, Jews had either converted to Catholicism or left for France, Amsterdam, Turkey, North Africa, towns along the Adriatic Sea and the New World. No Jews remained in Spain.


According to our expert Barcelona guide Dominique of Urban Cultours, the Spanish Jewish community there was mostly decimated in 1391. Surviving in Girona are tombstone fragments from Montjuic cemetery and artifacts of Jewish ritual and daily life. In Barcelona, cemetery stones were used for foundation construction of 15th century church and government buildings.


Girona boasts an amazing gothic cathedral dating from 1038 A.D. with an impressive, wide nave, second only to Saint Peter’s in Rome.

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The stained glass windows spill colored light into an otherwise dark, stony and austere interior. It speaks of early European Catholicism where the so-called chair of Charlemagne commands attention.


From the top of the cathedral steps, you look down onto a lovely square, perfect for resting, sipping a glass of Estrella beer with tapas appetizers.

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During the Spanish civil war, 1936-1939, the figures of the twelve apostles that flanked the side entrance to the cathedral were destroyed. Their intricate crowns are still intact, and one can imagine …

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Girona’s old town flanks both sides of the beautiful Onyar River, connected by bridges. It is walkable, accessible, filled with narrow alleyways, hillside steps, ancient porticos, smart shops filled with designer clothes and accessories, excellent patio cafes and Catalunya flags flying everywhere.

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The sentiment for an independent Catalan state is strong. It feels and smells old world.


Two days here are not long enough!

Compared with Barcelona there is not the crush of tourists although there are plenty of European visitors. We heard French, Italian, Czech, German and Russian, plenty of Catalan and Spanish. Not much English!

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We had an amazing dinner at Massana, a one-star Michelin restaurant, our best in Spain. We saw the restaurant sign and rang the doorbell to what we discovered was a private dining room. Chef-owner Pere Massana emerged in his kitchen whites to personally guide us to the actual entrance.

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Our welcome was warm, service outstanding and engaging. Food spectacular. We opted out of the tasting menu — too much food late at night (most restaurants don’t open until 8:30 p.m.) and instead ordered an entree and dessert. Otherwise, we would have lingered until well beyond midnight!

The meal was preceded by three taste treats to whet our appetite: fresh goat cheese topped with rosemary, mussels marinated in orange vinaigrette and a fois gras yogurt topped with crunchy flashed dried ground corn. This sure beat the chocolate coated fois gras popsicle we had in Granada at overrated La Fabula that was part of an over-the-top tasting menu.

FullSizeRender This chocolate hazelnut extravaganza tasting plate was my dessert at Massana. So chocolate-y I couldn’t eat it all!

We were astounded that Chef Massana followed us out to the street to personally thank us for coming, asking how we enjoyed the meal! Memorable. Sincere.

After a good night’s rest at Hotel Nord 1901 we took the afternoon train to Figueres, rented a car and drove to a 15th century village where we stayed overnight in a converted farmhouse. Then, on to the Dali Museum where I will post about his surrealist jewelry designs next.

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Today, we are resting in the Mediterranean seacoast town of Cadaques, Spain. But, I can’t get magical Girona off my mind.





Tonina, Hidden Chiapas Archeology Gem: The Road Less Traveled


Few people make Tonina, the classic Maya archeological site just beyond Ocosingo, Chiapas, a travel destination. Instead, they choose to go between San Cristobal de Las Casas and Palenque directly, bypassing the most vertical site of the ancient Maya world. It’s another three hours by road to reach Palenque, which demands at least one overnight stay. (Do you see us at the top?)

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From San Cris, Tonina can be navigated in about a day-long round-trip, giving you several hours at the site.  We left at seven-thirty in the morning and planned to return to San Cris by seven in the evening, including a one-hour stopover in Oxchuc to stretch and see textiles.

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It’s a long and winding road. We traveled from seven thousand foot mountains studded with pines to lowlands bordering the Lancandon rain forest filled with tropical vegetation, banana palms and adobe huts with thatch roofs.  The mountains fall fast to almost sea-level over this almost three-hour journey, so the road curves sharply. Ginger is a great antidote.

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This is EZLN territory, and Zapatista politics for and by the people prevail here. It is not unusual to come across an occasional roadblock demonstration. This is a common method for anti-government protest in both Chiapas and Oaxaca. There are grievances here. Sometimes for a donation, vehicles may pass. Other times, it’s important to know alternate secondary routes and have a full tank of gas when passage on the main highway isn’t possible.

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At Tonina, we had an on-site Maya guide who participated in site excavations ten years ago. He played here as a child.  Our multi-lingual guide who traveled with us from San Cristobal, anthropologist Mayari (meaning Maya princess), fluidly translated between Spanish, English and Tzeltal, the regional Mayan dialect.


There were at most ten other people at Tonina. From the top of the Pyramid of the Sun there is a spectacular view of the Ocosingo valley. Mayari tells us that Frans and Trudy Blom would fly in a single engine Cessna to Palenque and the Lancandon rainforest in the early 1950’s.  She made that trip, too, with her archeology father as a child.

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After most of us climbed to the top (not me this time, because of my new knee), we enjoyed a picnic lunch back at the site entrance, where a small, excellent museum hold pieces excavated from the site.  When I was in Mexico City recently, a huge exhibition (now closed) on the Maya world at the Palacio Nacional prominently featured treasures from Tonina.

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Then we back-tracked to Oxchuk.

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Oxchuk weavers work on a back strap loom and then embroider the textiles by hand.  If you turn off the main highway and venture onto the town’s main streets, you will find family run shops supplying huipils to the women of the local community.  The quality is first-rate and the price is about half of the cost as in San Cristobal.  Definitely worth a deviation. We were a curiosity since I suspect not many tourists make a stop there.

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By now it was dusk and as we approached the intersection beyond Huixtan to turn onto the highway just about fifteen miles from San Cristobal, there was a roadblock demonstration. We turned around, bought two five liter jugs of gas at a roadside stand, asked a local man and his son to go with us (for a fee), and set off on an alternative back road through the mountains that would take us into San Cristobal.  They carried official local papers authorizing travel across mountain communities.


We arrived back at our hotel only an hour later than we had planned. For reassurance at the outset, I called our hotel to tell them our whereabouts and route while our very competent guide Mayari notified ATC Tours to track us on GPS.  Risk of danger? Little to none.


One of our participants said this was definitely an adventure story worth retelling! It was the last day of our two week Oaxaca and Chiapas art and archeology study tour. What a grand finale, wouldn’t you say?

A Visit to Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca: More Than Rug Shopping

So many visitors come to Teotitlan del Valle, brought by tour guides to go rug shopping, but never know the other treasures that the village has to offer. In and out of rug galleries on the main road, off they go to the next destination without ever coming into the center of town. I recommend you don’t make that mistake!

You really need a few hours here or more to explore this wonderful Zapotec pueblo.

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Church Built Atop Ancient Zapotec Temple

Did you know there is an ancient pre-Hispanic archeological site behind the Iglesia de Preciosa Sangre de Cristo (Church of the Precious Blood) in Teotitlan del Valle?  It’s not a high pyramid like those at Monte Alban or Mitla because the Spanish conquerors used the temple stones to build the church foundation and edifice. You need to walk around to the back side to see the remains and then go inside the church courtyard to see stone carvings recovered from the original structure that are embedded in the walls.  Look closely and you will see the rain god Tlaloc and the plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl.

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Community Museum: A Living History of Zapotec Life

The community museum, known as Balaa Xtee Guech Gulal or translated from Zapotec to mean In the Shadow of the Old People, is located across from the rug market.  Next to it is the village government building called the Municipio or Palacio.  The entire square was redesigned and rebuilt several years ago into a modern public gathering space and there is ample parking.

In the community museum you can purchase important documentary videos produced by Metamorfosis Documentation Project that explain the history and culture of the village through its very important of Dance of the Feather — Danza de la Pluma.  All sales of the video benefit the ongoing non-profit projects of the museum to preserve and explain traditions. Museum exhibits include old photographs, dioramas, textiles and archeological findings.

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Daily Market: Sustenance of Village Life

You can find market vendors as early as seven or seven-thirty in the morning setting up stalls.  There really isn’t an official time for the market, but it’s going full blast by eight-thirty in the morning and begins to slow down two hours later. By eleven in the morning, only a few fruit sellers are left.  It’s worth it to come into town the day before, spend the night at one of the lovely and basic posadas/hostals, and get up early to get to the market.  I often sit at the periphery just to watch the ladies with their woven market baskets made from bamboo (called canastas) crooked through their elbows, as vendors weigh out the produce and deposit the purchase into the basket.

Here you can get fresh squeezed organic juices. My favorite is beet, carrot, pineapple and orange juice.  Belly up to a comal for a breakfast quesadilla or pick out a savory tamale Teotiteco-style — bean, amarillo, chipil — from one of the women who sell out in the open air. Peel back the husk and use your fingers to eat, just like the locals.  Then, of course, there are the handmade aprons, the uniform of local Zapotec women, sold near the bread vendors.

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Smell the fragrant lilies. Take in the piles of roses. Pay attention to the grandmothers whose braids, interwoven with ribbon, hang down their backs. Catch a whiff of the copal incense coming from the church. Feel your feet on ancient cobblestones.  Immerse yourself and take your time.  The life here is rich and rewarding.

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A Walk to the Presa: The Reservoir Awaits

Egrets, heron, grazing cattle and sheep, herders on horseback or walking with staff in hand are part of everyday life here.  From the village market, walk along Avenida 2 de Abril toward the sacred mountain called Picacho.  When you come to the T, which is Avenida Revolucion, make a right turn and continue along the wide dirt road until you come to the reservoir and dam.  This is the water source for the village’s agricultural endeavors. It is also very scenic and a perfect place for an afternoon picnic.  Did you remember to buy cheese and bread the market?  If you do this, please don’t forget to pack out your refuse!

Gracias y adios!

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