Tag Archives: culture

Tonina, Hidden Chiapas Archeology Gem: The Road Less Traveled

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

Chiapas Textile Museum: Maya Art on Cloth

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The contemporary Maya world spans political boundaries and crosses southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and El Salvador. Here in Chiapas there is a rich textile tradition that endures as cultural identity and pride. The Centro de Textiles del Mundo Maya, The Textile Center of the Maya World, is the place to begin to see the finest examples of woven and embroidered cloth coming from throughout the Maya world.

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No one comes to San Cristobal de Las Casas without buying at least one piece of handwoven cloth! We advise you come here first before you shop. That way, you will be able compare quality and price after seeing the hundreds of fine textiles on display in the museum, and then making a stop at the adjoining Sna Jolobil gallery where deep pockets help.

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We were told that eighty percent of the items for sale in the Santo Domingo Church market are made by machine or imported from China. The market fills the entry area to the textile museum so the temptation is strong to forage first.

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Yesterday, as I wandered this market, I did find a beautiful back strap loomed and embroidered huipil from Cancuc for about $70USD and two incredible Chenalho short blusas, also hand loomed and embroidered, for $18USD each. So, there are still bargains to be found of authentic garments if you know what you are looking for.

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At the textile museum, the group from Penland School of Crafts had a private tour of the collection in English complete with an introductory video in English, too.  We began to identify the designs of the cloth and embroidery with the villages where they are made.  We saw the evolution of garment design with the introduction of Spanish lace and off-the-shoulder style. Many of those on exhibit are Guatemalan pieces since the cultural border is porous.

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The detail work on the cloth is precise. The embroidery is exact. We sat down to a work table to create an embroidery sampler in the style of San Andres Larrainzar to better understand the textile making process.  Needless to say, none of us was good enough to go into business.

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One of us tried his hand at the back strap loom, and he managed to use the sheep bone pick with some ability to push back each weft thread to make a clean straight line.  Then, with some heft and force, he used the shuttle to add to the tight piece of cloth.  It takes three months, working five hours a day, to make a twenty-four inch wide traditional ceremonial sash, which was on the loom today.

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Around the world, machinery and technology is replacing hand work. Mechanization creates precision and lower cost.  What we lose is the beauty and variegation that is transmitted by the soul of the maker. This visit gave us a greater appreciation for indigenous culture, the beauty they create.

We organize small group workshop study tours for up to 10 people. If you and a group of friends or your organization wants a customized learning experience, please contact me.

 

Zinacantan Textile Flowers, San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas

They speak Tzotzil here in the Maya highlands of Chiapas, Mexico.  San Lorenzo Zinacantan is a village nestled in a beautiful valley about thirty minutes from San San Cristobal de Las Casas.  It is a popular Sunday tourist destination combined with a visit to the mystical church at San Juan Chamula (which I will write about in another post), just ten minutes apart.

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Zinacantan people yielded to the Spanish during the conquest.  They enjoyed more favors and received fertile land in exchange for their loyalty. Today, the Zinacantan hillside is dotted with greenhouses where flowers grow in abundance to decorate church and home altars, and are a key part of festivals.

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The village replicates these flowers in their embroidery that embellish cloth created on back strap looms.  Over the years we have seen the patterns change from simple red and white striped cloth to sparkly textiles that incorporate synthetic glitzy threads of gold and silver.  Much of the embroidery is now machine stitched, though the designs are guided by expert hands.

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I’ve been coming to San Cristobal de Las Casas for years searching for a chal embroidered by hand to no avail. This time, Patrick, our guide took us to the home of Antonia, one of Zinacantan’s most accomplished weavers and embroiderers.  Among the hundred chals (shawl or tzute) available for purchase, I found a blue one all hand embroidered. Technology is winning out over the made by hand ethos.

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Identity is defined externally by the indigenous garment.  Some say the Spanish imposed this upon local people in order to know where they came from and to keep them in their place. Others say the design of the garment endures because of cultural pride.  The young woman above is from the village of Chenalho.  I can tell because of the design of her beautiful huipil.

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She is the tortilla maker at Antonia’s home, who keeps the fire going, makes us a fresh quesadilla of local cheese, cured chorizo, avocado and homemade salsa to remember the visit. Food is memory, too.

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Nothing is wasted, not even the smoke. It curls up from the comal to cure the meats that hang above it. The corn is criollo, locally grown and ground by hand, pure and wholesome. Here in the shadowy adobe kitchen there is magic.

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It is impossible to take photographs inside the church at Zinacantan. It is forbidden and cameras can be confiscated if you are found to violate this. Can you imagine a church altar spilling over with flowers from ceiling to floor, fresh, with an aroma of lilies, roses, gardenias and lilacs. The swirl of scent is like an infusion of incense, designed perhaps to bring one closer to god.

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I organized this art and archeology study tour for Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina.  If you have a small group interested in coming to Oaxaca or Chiapas, please contact me.  I have over 35 years experience organizing award-winning educational programs for some of America’s most respected universities.

The Journey Begins: San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Most of our Penland School of Crafts travelers continued on with me from Oaxaca to explore Chiapas. Our journey began at the ADO bus station where we boarded an overnight luxury bus called the Platino with twenty-five reclining seats, leaving at 8:30 p.m. and arriving in San Cristobal de Las Casas at 7:30 a.m. the next day.   ChiapasBest45-16

Our destination, La Joya Hotel, is our base for exploring the art and archeology of the region. It’s a long and winding road! I recommend taking ginger drops in water, eating some crystallized ginger and taking a sleep aid! Hosts Ann Conway and John Do prepare a spectacular first night Thai welcome dinner after we visit Sergio Castro and his museum. Next, bed!

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Chiapas vies for the title of Mexico’s poorest state along with Oaxaca.  It is a sorry competition.  Both states are filled with isolated mountain communities that have little access to health care, education, nutrition and employment. Rural life is tied to the land where people cultivate corn, squash and beans and weave on backstrap looms. The result is the creation of magnificent textiles, a tourist draw. Isolation has preserved tradition at a huge cost and the politics are complex.

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Chiapas is rich in Maya culture filled with pre-Hispanic, indigenous folk practices blended with Spanish-introduced Catholic beliefs.  Known as syncretism, we can see this in every corner of life ranging from food to textiles to religious celebrations today.  The Mayan world spans southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras and her political borders are artificial and seamless.

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Our expert first day guide is Patrick, fluent in English, who studied archeology and history at University of California at Berkeley, son of a Mexican mother and Irish father. His uncle was the famed Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia, who mediated the peace treaty with the Zapatistas and the PRI.

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We learned much from Patrick about Spanish colonialism, the cultural and political history and the life of indigenous people. One cannot visit Chiapas without putting the textiles into the context of the people who make them.

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That’s why we include a visit to the Sergio Castro Museum as an introduction to Chiapas life on the first day, after a walking tour of the great pedestrian avenues of San Cristobal de Las Casas with Patrick.  Much has been written about Sergio.

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Sergio Castro is a hero, folk legend and medicine man who treats indigenous people who have suffered burn injuries at no cost.  Donations from visitors like us help fund medicines and supplies. He has won many humanitarian awards.

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We see everyday and ritual clothing. We see the skull rattle and string instrument made from gourds. We learn about the Maya language variations and the Lancandon tribe in the forest who escaped Spanish colonization.

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The photos on this post include our walking tour around San Cristobal de Las Casas, and our visit with Sergio Castro to see his textile collection of the region and understand his work.

We are not guides but educators. Norma Hawthorne Shafer has spent over 35 years at major universities organizing and delivering award winning educational programs for adults. When you travel with us you can rely on getting an in-depth experience from local experts who are most knowledgeable in their fields. We can include hands-on workshops to enrich the learning experience. Our forte is developing customized programs for arts and cultural organizations like we did for Penland School of Crafts. 

 

 

 

 

Penland School Cooks in Oaxaca

We will be going back in time this week. A few days ago our participants from Penland School of Crafts gathered at Casa de los Sabores, the cooking school operated by chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo.

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Our menu focused on mezcal including a flaming skewered pineapple and shrimp dish that went up in flames before we ate it. The pineapple chunks were soaked in mezcal so the natural sugars ignited instantly. They were accompanied by a salad featuring tiny tomatillos that we ate raw.

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Pilar has been preparing great food for a long time.  Her La Olla Restaurant is well known in the city for using organic ingredients that are artfully prepared. Because our study tour focuses on Oaxaca arts and artisanry, food is an important ingredient in the Oaxaca mix.

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Pilar is also very knowledgeable about the artesenal process of cultivating and distilling mezcal, too.  Before we sat down to the meal we participated in preparing, we enjoyed a four-flight mezcal tasting that began with young espadin.  She explained the different varietals, aging process and the rising cost of the smokey beverage based on escalating international interest.

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First, it’s important to smell.  Then, take a first sip and let it go down your throat slowly.  At the end of your drink, suck on an orange slice dipped in worm salt (sal de gusano) for a perfect finish.

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After the memelitas with squash blossoms and queso fresco, and after the chicken with mole amarillo, we ended with an incredible flan.

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With a beautiful table and an array of complex tastes, we were more than satisfied.  Oh, and I forgot to mention a shopping trip to the Mercado de la Merced before the class started to pick up essential ingredients.

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I work with local experts and guides to put together an unusual and intimate view of Oaxaca, her art, food and culture. I am not a tour guide but an expert at award-winning university program development. If you organization has interest in a program such as this one, please contact me.