Tag Archives: caves

Happy New Year: Feliz Año Nuevo From Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

My family is here for the New Year. This past week we celebrated with a mezcal tour led by Alvin Starkman, a pottery tour to Santa Maria Atzompa with Innovando y Tradicion and a family trip to Hierve el Agua and San Juan del Rio.

We ended 2015 with a grand New Year’s Eve fiesta and finished off with a January 1 ritual pilgrimage to Las Cuevitas to welcome the New Year with wishes. Here, everyone is encouraged to have dreams.

This year the sunset at Las Cuevitas was less than dramatic but the festivities carried on in grand style befitting Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca.  Like, close to the entire village was here. The band plays on and fireworks continue throughout the day and night.


We could call it a family picnic on the hillside but it’s much more than that. This celebration to welcome in the New Year is ancient. These grottos where three altars stand hold magical and healing properties. Make a wish at the altar. Then toss a coin into the small brook. If the coin lands on the plate and not in the water your wish will come true.

A wish for good health and prosperity, with candles, flowers and pesos

A wish for good health and prosperity, with candles, flowers and pesos

Mostly, people wish for good health. They might dream of a new house or a baby or a yard filled with farm animals, a good corn crop, the absence of drought. Abundance is a dream we all wish for, worldwide. We sent a prayer to our mom who just died. Lit a candle. Made our tribute.

The fire log toss, Teotitlan del Valle style at Las Cuevitas

The fire log toss, Teotitlan del Valle style at Las Cuevitas

Here young men play with fire. They soak a special log in kerosene and take turns throwing it off to the next one in the circle. A pre-Hispanic ritual, someone explains to me.

Families gather around campfires. Some have pitched tents and spend the night there New Year’s Eve. There are cooking stoves and the smell of grilled meat fills the air.


Each year on January 1, I always like to arrive by 4 p.m. to get there in time for sunset. This gives me a chance to gather rocks and join the locals to build a miniature structure that will symbolize plenty in the year to come.


Small plastic barnyard animals are for sale at the entrance to the caves. You can add these to the front yard of your house or build a roof with leafy branches gathered from the countryside. 

As sun sets, the sparklers twinkle and we get into the rhythm of the evening. It is festive and makes us pause to reflect on the past year and the one to come.

This year I had my son, sister, brother-in-law and goddaughter with me, along with friends, so being at Las Cuevitas was a special time. We made wishes, gave thanks, remembered parents and grandparents, and looked out onto the Tlacolula Valley from the mountain top.

More than a few of us played with fire. As sunset became night, the hillside filled with a display of light that could be seen from the Pan-American highway.


Wishing you all a 2016 filled with love, all that you wish for including blessings, peace, health, contentment and satisfaction. Thank you for being with me on this remarkable journey.

Un abrazo, Norma.

P.S. If you want to come and spend the night, make your reservations early! There is a limited supply of rooms in Teotitlan del Valle and I know some people were disappointed they couldn’t be here.

Portraits of Las Cuevitas: Caves of Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

After an incredible meal of sopa de verduras (vegetable soup) seasoned with hierba santa (a green leaf with a faint scent of licorice), mole negro (black spicy chocolate sauce) with chicken, traditional tamales stuffed with chicken and mole amarillo (red-orange spicy sauce made with chiles, corn paste [masa], and chicken stock), we piled into two cars for the trip to the caves.   We followed the tuk-tuks and pick-up trucks filled with villagers and arrived just in time for the 4:30 p.m. mass.


As the mass ended, people in line turned to each other, shook hands and welcomed in the new year with the blessing of “paz” — peace.  The band began to play and we formed a procession down to the grotto where each of us made an offering of a few pesos at each of the three altars set into the sacred rock hillside.  Children waited patiently at their parents feet or in their arms.

Boy waiting at Las Cuevitas

After making a prayer in the chapel, we picked our way up the hillside, over the rock escarpment and stone debris, past the playing band, to a spot where we  build our symbolic homes, construct our dreams, make our wishes for the coming year.  To do this conjures up truth and certainty.  It will happen.  We pile loose stones one atop of the other to form casita walls, then gather dried grasses and lay them atop rusty coat hangers bent to hold the roof.   A flat rock becomes a ramp for an abuela.  The sun begins to set.

The shadows of people are cut-out dolls against the pure blue sky.  Children play and dance under feet.  The firecrackers sizzle, explode, shoot skyward like rockets.  Prospero ano nuevo.


As dusk approaches, the chill of night descends.  Families sit by their miniature houses and dream of the future.  Women unwrap snacks and sandwiches for a picnic.  Young people hold hands. School will begin in a few days.  A curl of smoke rises from the valley below.

Men and boys haul in bundles of twigs and small branches for bonfires.  Many will camp here overnight in this sacred space.  The story goes that a virgin appeared here and then returned again.  A story overlaid upon an ancient Zapotec tradition, perhaps.

Now, Sr. Secundino Bazan Mendoza holds his handmade drum, stands by his compadres in the band.  This weaver-musician has served his church for over 53 years.  His granddaughter Estercita sits by the campfire above.

In silhouette, families sit cross-legged on the side of the hill facing south, watching, waiting, feeling the soft glow of the sun sink into the western sky. Warmth turns to chill.  I put on my wool rebozo.

Now, it is almost dark.  More people are streaming in from the village to make their wishes as we leave.  The vendors line the dusty path between the parked cars and the steep steps to the chapel, selling sticky, hot fresh sugar buns, cookie wafers, sandwiches, pizza and beer.  Children fall asleep in their mother’s arms or on their father’s shoulders.  Teens help their aging grandparents down the steep, slippery, rocky slope.  Cuidado, they call out.  Careful.  The rocks are loose underfoot.  Now, there is hope that this year’s  prayers will be answered:  a son without papers in the U.S. will return home to be embraced after a 15 year absence, a house under construction for four years will be completed, a debt will be repaid, there will be enough food for the winter, enough visitors to improve the economy, a turn for the better.

Feliz y prospero ano neuvo.  Good dreams and wishes for the year to come.