San Pablo Villa de Mitla, a Pueblo Magico, has one of the most important archeological sites in the Zapotec world. It is a tourist destination along the Tlacolula Valley. Many visitors combine a visit to Mitla with the Sunday Tlacolula Market and a mezcal tasting in nearby Santiago Matatlan.
It is also home to my friend Arturo Hernandez Quero, an outstanding weaver who works in natural dyes on the flying shuttle pedal loom. He is also a traditional backstrap loom weaver, making gorgeous wool ponchos just as they were made centuries ago by men who took it up after the Spanish conquest.
Here is what Arturo reports about the virus, and how he and his family are doing:
Monday, March 30: Hello, Normita. I’m glad that you wrote to me. Life has changed. We are living in sadness and concern. We are afraid to get sick. There is a case in El Tule and a case here in Mitla. We are not going out to Oaxaca. I don’t know if we will return to normal like it was before, but for so many people they are living like it is normal now.
Thursday, March 22: Good afternoon, Norma. Thanks for your concern for us. As of today, everything is fine with the family. The city of Oaxaca is deserted. There are no sales or tourism. The archeological zones are closed, just as the schools are closed. Many people do not leave their homes. Prices are increasing like tortillas, eggs, bread and many other things. We don’t have a food shortage. It’s just that merchants are taking advantage of the situation.
We also have a water shortage. I think this is going to have negative consequences in the future.
For now, I have employment for the weavers who are working with me. We are doing some new innovations that maybe when this is over, we can sell. Our wholesale clients are not buying anything at the moment. The Textile Museum [where Arturo sells his work in the gallery shop] is closed.
We just want to be healthy for now. We don’t think there are any cases of corona virus in Mitla. We are washing our hands with detergent often.
It’s very, very hot here.
Take care of yourself, Normita. We love you very much.
October 28 to November 3, 2020 – 6 nights and 7 days, starting at $2,495
Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico is meaningful and magical. Celebrations in the villages go deep into Zapotec culture, community, tradition and pre-Hispanic practice. Some say it is the most important annual celebration in Mexico and here in Oaxaca, we know this is true.
Beyond the city, in the Tlacolula Valley, the smaller villages are still able to retain their traditional practices. Here they build altars at home, light copal incense, make offerings of homemade chocolate, bread and atole, prepare a special meal of tamales, and visit the homes of relatives to greet deceased ancestors who have returned for this 24-hour period. Then, at the designated hour, the living go to the cemeteries to be with their loved ones — either to welcome them back into the world or put them to rest after their visit here – the practice depending on each village.
You will learn about this and more as you come with us to meet artisans in four different villages who welcome us into their homes and their lives during this sacred festival.
Study Tour Highlights:
Visit homes, altars and cemeteries in four
Zapotec villages: Teotitlan del Valle, San Pablo Villa de Mitla, San Marcos
Tlapazola and San Miguel del Valle
Participate in presenting altar offerings at
each home we visit
Build a group traditional altar to remember and
honor your own loved ones
Learn to make homemade chocolate with the
Mexican cacao bean
See a tamale-making demonstration and taste what
Shop for altar décor at the largest Teotitlan
del Valle market of the year
Learn how mezcal is an integral part of festival
culture and tradition
We created this study tour to take you out of the city, beyond the hubbub of party revelry and glitz of a Halloween-like experience that has morphed into a Hollywood-style extravaganza. We will compare how city celebrations differ from those in villages by participating in city events first. Our desire is to give you a full immersion experience that evokes what Day of the Dead may have been like twenty or fifty years ago–mystical, magical, transcendent and spiritual.
Even so, cultural tourism has found its way into the back roads
of Oaxaca. We do our best to be
respectful by limiting the size of our group to 10-12 participants, to give you
an orientation about to what to expect and do during our visits, and to offer
you an intimate, personal experience.
You have the guidance of local experts Eric Chavez Santiago and his wife, Elsa Sanchez Diaz.
Eric Chavez Santiago is an expert in Oaxaca and Mexican folk art with a special interest in artisan economic development. He is a weaver and natural dyer by training, a fourth generation member of the Fe y Lola rug weaving family, who was born and raised in Teotitlan del Valle. He has intimate knowledge of local traditions and customs, speaks the indigenous Zapotec language, and serves as your cultural navigator.
Elsa Sanchez Diaz is a master of natural dyes and works with us to teach one- to three-day natural dye workshops at her dye studio in Oaxaca city. She leads our one-day study tours to discover artisans in the Tlacolula Valley and down the Ocotlan Highway. Elsa was born and raised in Oaxaca city, and she will share her family traditions and insights with you as your cultural navigator for this tour with her husband Eric.
Both are graduates of the Anahuac University and speak
English and Spanish. Both can translate language, culture and traditions, can
tell you about practices in their own extended family and how they have
experienced the changes over time.
Moreover, both are deeply connected and will introduce you to some of the finest artisans in the region, where you will meet weavers, ceramic artists, apron makers and traditional cooks. You will have an opportunity to see artisan craft demonstrations and to shop for your own collection or for gifts, as you wish.
You will spend the first two nights in Oaxaca City, then you will move to a comfortable Bed and Breakfast Inn based in Teotitlan del Valle for the remainder of our time together.
October 28: Arrive in Oaxaca City and check in to our centrally-located
October 29: After breakfast, explore the city and the Benito
Juarez market to see preparations for Dia de los Muertos, and gallery/shop
decorations. We will also catch a comparsa – the traditional Muertos parade –
along the pedestrian street as our schedule permits. Overnight in Oaxaca. (Breakfast
and welcome dinner)
October 30: Travel to Teotitlan del Valle and check in to our comfortable B&B, take a chocolate making workshop with a traditional cook that includes a visit to the local molino (mill) to grind the cacao bean mixture. See how traditional mole Amarillo tamales are prepared and have a tasting. We will talk about family altars, their significance and what goes into making one. You will then enjoy comida (late lunch) in the home of a local family. (B, L)
October 31: After breakfast, walk to the Teotitlan del Valle market to shop for altar decorations to later build a group altar. Bring photos of those you want to remember! Then, we will venture out into the countryside to visit the Zapotec villages of San Marcos Tlapazola and San Miguel del Valle to meet artisans and discuss their family Dia de los Muertos traditions. You will see demonstrations of red clay pottery and embroidered apron making and have a chance to buy if you wish. We will come prepared with altar gifts of chocolate and bread to present to the difuntos. On the road, we will stop at a traditional comedor for lunch (at your own expense). (B, D)
November 1: After breakfast, travel to San Pablo Villa de
Mitla to meet weaver artisans who will take us to their family gravesite at the
village cemetery and talk about this village and their history and traditions. Visit
homes where traditional altars tell the story of ancient Zapotec culture. You
will bring your offering of chocolate and bread to put on their altars to honor
the deceased of our hosts. We will
take lunch at a local comedor along the way (at your own expense). Then, make a
stop on the way home for a mezcal tasting – Para
todo mal, mezcal. Para todo bien, tambien. (B, D)
November 2: After breakfast, you will visit the homes of selected weavers in Teotitlan del Valle to experience each family’s variation on altar preparation, and see a weaving and natural dyeing demonstration. You’ll then join a local family for lunch and accompany them to the cemetery to sit with their loved ones as they return to the underworld. After the cemetery, you will have a cena (late repast) of bread and hot chocolate, discuss how participating in Day of the Dead had an impact on you. Compare and contrast this experience with USA and Canadian experiences with death and dying. (B, L, D)
November 3: After breakfast, we say our goodbyes. We will help you arrange a taxi (at your own expense) to the airport, or you may choose to stay on in Oaxaca or visit another part of Mexico. (B) Hasta la proxima!
Itinerary subject to change based on scheduling and availability.
What Is Included
6 breakfasts, 2 lunches, 4 dinners
2 nights lodging at an excellent boutique hotel in Oaxaca City
4 nights lodging at a charming B&B hotel in Teotitlan del Valle
museum and church entry fees
luxury van transportation
outstanding and complete guide services
What is NOT Included
The workshop does NOT include airfare, taxes, tips, travel insurance, liquor or alcoholic beverages, some meals, and local transportation as specified in the itinerary. We reserve the right to substitute instructors and alter the program as needed.
Cost • $2,495 double room with private bath (sleeps 2) • $3,245 single room with private bath (sleeps 1)
Reservations and Cancellations. A 40% deposit is required to guarantee your spot. The balance is due in two equal payments. The second payment of 30% of the total is due on or before June 1, 2020. The third 30% payment is due on or before September 1, 2020. We accept payment using online e-commerce only. We will send you an itemized invoice when you tell us you are ready to register. After September 1, 2020, there are no refunds. If you cancel on or before September 1, 2020, we will refund 50% of your deposit received to date. After that, there are no refunds.
Tell us if you want a shared/double room or a private/single room. We will send you an e-commerce invoice by email that is due on receipt.
Who Should Attend • Anyone interested in indigenous culture and creativity, who wants a deep immersion experience into Day of the Dead practices and traditions, and who appreciates artisan craft — weaving, embroidery, pottery. If you are a collector, come with us to go deep and find the best artisans. If you are a photographer or artist, come with us for inspiration. If you are an online retailer, come with us to find the stories to market what you sell.
Reservations and Cancellations. We accept online e-commerce payments only. We will send you an itemized invoice when you tell us you are ready to register. After December 15, 2019, there are no refunds. If we receive a cancelation on or before September 1, 2020, 50% of your deposit will be refunded. After that, there are no refunds.
All documentation for plane reservations, required travel insurance, and personal health issues must be received 45 days before the program start or we reserve the right to cancel your registration without reimbursement.
Terrain, Walking and Group Courtesy: Oaxaca and surrounding villages are colonial and pre-Hispanic. The altitude is close to 6,000 feet. Many streets and sidewalks are cobblestones, narrow and uneven. We will do a lot of walking. We walk a lot — up to 10,000 steps per day. We recommend you bring a walking stick.
If you have mobility issues or health/breathing impediments, please consider that this may not be the study tour for you.
Traveling with a small group has its advantages and also means that independent travelers will need to make accommodations to group needs and schedule. We include free time to go off on your own if you wish.
Many visitors make a stop in Mitla as a side trip, along with a whirlwind shopping extravaganza to the Sunday tianguis Tlacolula Market, or a bypass on the way to Santiago Matatlan, the mezcal capital of the world, to imbibe in a tasting.
Culture juxtaposition, Zapotec and Catholic in perspective
For my friend Martha’s BIG birthday celebration, a dozen of us started out with early pre-fiesta festivities on Friday before the big Saturday party. Our destination was an archeological immersion into Mitla, once called Mictlanin Nahuatl, which means place of the dead.
Inside a chamber of the original monastery, a reconstruction
We were led by Eric Ramirez Ramos from Zapotrek. Eric is a very knowledgeable guide who is from Tlacolula and tells all the stories about mysteries and myths in the region that he heard from his grandfathers.
Eric tells us about Zapotec culture at Mitla
The Aztecs named Tlacolula, which means Land of the Twisted Branches, because of the ancient trees here. The Zapotec name for Tlacolula is Guish Baac, that means Old Town. Today, locals from nearby villages still say they are going to Baac, when they travel here, according to Eric.
Tree with a twisted branch at Mitla archeological site
Not yet restored, fallen lintel
As we travel along the Pan American Highway, that goes from our starting point in Teotitlan del Valle (also an Aztec word), we see pre-Hispanic glyphs at Yagul, the small but important archeological site of Lambiteyco, and hills that look like mounds. Eric points out that when there is a hill covered in cactus, that is usually a sign that a ruin lies underneath. Everywhere there is a cross installed by the Spanish conquerors is a designation that this was an ancient Zapotec ritual site.
Deep inside the tomb, second patio
Along the highway, just before coming to Mitla, lies the village of Union Zapata. In adjacent caves, fossilized corn was found, proving that maize was domesticated here 7,000 years ago. Squash seeds were dated to 10,000 years ago. I live among ancient agricultural peoples who continue to thrive.
One arm of the “cross” in the tomb — one of the 4 directions
Detail, end of tomb chamber
At Mitla, we see Zapotec and Mixtec walls of a ceremonial burial site for the priestly class. They are carved with intricate designs, named grecas by archeologist Guillermo de Pie, who thought they looked like the Greek keys.
This tomb carving could be “lightening”
The tombs are open in the patio of the second structure and I decide to climb down the steep steps, then duck under two narrow passageways to get inside. I’m short but it still wasn’t easy!
Carvings on the outside of the Mitla temple, traces of cochineal-painted plaster
The tomb is laid out in the shape of the cross, which has a pre-Hispanic meaning for the Four Directions and the Four Elements, meaning the cycle of life and unity. When the Spanish came, this symbol made it easier for evangelization of indigenous people. In Maya territory, the cross is the symbol for the God of Wind, so it was easier there, too.
Columns atop stairs of first plaza, perhaps roof support
Some of the other symbols carved on the walls of the temples and inside the tombs represent fire, lightening, the serpent god Quetzalcoatl, and water. We learn from Eric, too, that the pre-Hispanic dog Xoloitzcuintle was revered as a sacred animal, god of the underworld. The Xolo’s were put in the tombs to guide the spirits of the dead, the important first step on the journey to the Nine Levels of the heavens.
Steep stairs: bow your head in supplication
We ended the day with a tasting of pulque and then mezcal in Matatlan, and then with a fine meal prepared by Traditional Cook (cocinera tradicional) and teacher, Reyna Mendoza. A great way to celebrate your birthday, Martha. Thank you!
We gathered in Teotitlan del Valle on October 30 for the Women’s Creative Writing Retreat to find meaning, reflect on life and death through the written word. Some of us were mourning recent losses: husbands, mothers, fathers, and yes, even self. There are those other kinds of losses as we age, lose memory, become infirm, face our own mortality.
Being here during Day of the Dead offers perspective on the Zapotec and Mexican way, gives us a point of comparison to our own culture. Mexican poet Octavio Paz says, A culture that celebrates death knows how to celebrate life. We find spiritual meaning here in the notion that life is a continuum. Our references are the deeply incised stone images at the Mitla archeological site, stones embedded in the walls of the Teotitlan church built by the conquerors with remains from the Zapotec temple, depicting infinity, regeneration.
On October 31, we go to the market to buy bread, candles, chocolate, fruit, tamales, beverages and flowers. We build an altar with these and place photos of our loved ones there. In the doing is the remembering. One of us buys sugar cane branches that will serve as the door from which the ancestors will enter and exit earth from the spirit world, a Zapotec tradition. They will visit us, too, for the 24-hour period called Dia de los Muertos.
Our journey into remembering continues with a visit to the cemetery in San Pablo Villa de Mitla with Arturo Hernandez. He takes us to his mother’s tomb. Day of the Dead is practiced in this village differently than the one I live in where our workshop is held.
On November 1 in the morning, Mitla villagers lovingly tidy up the grave sites, removing spent flowers and adding new. They entice the dead to return to earth by burning aromatic copal incense, scattering fresh marigold flowers, placing sliced oranges and apples or an open bottle of Coke on the tomb. Aromas awaken the dead. At eleven in the morning, the cemetery is packed with people.
At twelve o’clock noon, the church bells toll and the cohetes (firecrackers) explode. This gives the dead an extra jolt to get up from their slumber to visit. One of us reports seeing a youngster leaning over a tomb and speaking softly. I explain that the tradition here in Oaxaca is to ask the dead for their advice, to commune with them, to respect their wisdom. There is a spiritual loveliness to this that evokes generational connection, I think.
In our science-based western culture, we often eschew that which we know is impossible. The literal practice of talking to dead parents or grandparents is seen as abnormal, primitive, uneducated. But there is much to learn from other traditions, and that is why we are here. The experience opens us up to write about memory, family, loss.
By noon, the people of Mitla are exiting the cemetery, carrying bundles of marigold flowers so large that you can hardly see their bodies. Girls carry baskets filled with marigold petals, dropping them in a path of petals from the grave along the streets to their home altar. Men and women scurry, carrying ceramic incense burners, leaving a smoky aromatic trail. The idea is for the aroma to guide the difuntos home for this annual re-visit. Families walk together, grandparents, mothers, fathers, children. Some have returned to the village from far away places to honor and participate in this sacred tradition.
We move to the home of Epifanio Perez whose elaborate altar draws visitors to enjoy the atmosphere and his daughter Reyna’s house made hot chocolate, bread and chicken barbecue. We sit and marvel at the piles of bread on the altar, the candle — an eternal flame, the fragrant wild flowers of the campo, the spectacle of yellow marigold blossoms, the memories it conjures up for us.
We return to Teotitlan to our base, to write, to read what we have written to each other, to understand our own feelings around celebration and honoring those we have lost. We experience grief, yet we can share this approach to death with equanimity as the Zapotecs do, with acceptance that without death there is no life.
Ultimately, this leads me to looking at and accepting my own mortality without fear. I’m working on it.
We will hold the 2020 Women’s Creative Writing Retreat from December 15 to December 21 in Teotitlan del Valle. Holding the retreat close to over the winter holidays, just before Christmas, will give us an opportunity to reflect on celebrations here and our own family holiday observances — what they evoke, how they are remembered, the stories of holiday expectations and disappointments, the pressures for a perfect home and table, gift giving and symbolism. We will participate in the village Posadas, too. You might want to invite your family to join you after the retreat and stay on for Christmas in Oaxaca. It is magical.
We are your portal to Oaxaca! This one-day customized study tour takes you beyond Oaxaca City and into the villages along the Tlacolula highway to San Pablo Villa de Mitla. We schedule this excursion based on your travel plans and our availability. It is a menu-based, mixed-media approach to discovering the best artisans that the region has to offer. We visit where artisans live and work. You choose your own tour destinations.
We want to give you flexibility and choice. We also want to give you a guided cultural experience, personalized and deep. We have spent years developing relationships with the artisans we visit. This is NOT a “punch my ticket” tour.
You can select to visit four (4) of the following options from this menu of experiences:
A flying shuttle loom weaver who creates beautiful cotton home goods and clothing — El Tule or Mitla
A fine wool rug weaver who works only in natural dyes on the fixed frame pedal loom — Teotitlan del Valle
A beeswax candle maker who is an artist craftswoman — Teotitlan del Valle
CHOOSE FROM ONE OF THE FOLLOWING, EITHER #4 OR #5 OR #6 OR #7. (Each of these villages are about 30-minutes from the main road!)
4. A pottery cooperative in San Marcos Tlapazola OR
5. A family of apron makers and embroiderers in San Miguel del Valle OR
6. A mezcal tasting at a palenque in Santiago Matalan OR
7. An antique dealer on a hidden-away street in San Pablo Villa de Mitla with a treasure trove of vintage finds
We give you a full day, picking you up in the city at 9 a.m. and returning you by 6 p.m. If you want to add destinations, the cost is $100 USD more for each.
We don’t go on Sundays, the frenzied day of the Tlacolula Market, when there is a crush of people and visitors, and it’s too difficult to savor the experience. We also select the artisans to visit based on our knowledge and experience about outstanding craftsmanship.
What is included?
Transportation to/from Oaxaca City Historic Center
Lunch at an excellent restaurant or comedor
Expert explanations of art and craft
Curated visits to meet some of the best artisans we know
$300 per day for one or two people. $135 per person additional. If you want more than 4 destinations, the cost is $100 USD for each added stop.
Schedule your dates directly with Norma Schafer. You reserve for the dates you prefer. Please send us a couple of date options. You are welcome to organize your own small group. We match your travel schedule with our availability.
This is for a full day, starting at 9 a.m. when we pick you up and ending at around 6 p.m. when we return you to your Oaxaca lodging. Please provide us with hotel/lodging address and phone number.
Reservations and Cancellations
We require a non-refundable 50% deposit via an e-commerce payment service. We will send you an invoice when you tell us you are ready to register and we confirm dates. The 50% balance is due on the day of the tour in cash, either USD or MXN pesos (at the current exchange rate). When we receive funds, we will send you confirmation and details. Be sure to send us the name and address for where you are staying.
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
Norma Contributes Two Chapters!
Click image to order yours!
Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC has offered programs in Mexico since 2006. We have over 30 years of university program development experience. See my resume.
Study Tours + Study Abroad are personally curated and introduce you to Mexico's greatest artisans. They are off-the-beaten path, internationally recognized. We give you access to where people live and work. Yes, it is safe and secure to travel. Groups are limited in size for the most personal experience.
Programs can be scheduled to meet your travel plans. Send us your available dates.
Designers, retailers, wholesalers, universities and other organizations come to us to develop customized itineraries, study abroad programs, meetings and conferences. It's our pleasure to make arrangements.
Our Clients Include
*Penland School of Crafts
*North Carolina State University
*WARP Weave a Real Peace
We send printable map via email PDF usually within 48-hours after order received. Where to see natural dyed rugs in Teotitlan del Valle and layout of the Sunday Tlacolula Market, with favorite eating, shopping, ATMs. Click Here to Buy Map
Dye Master Dolores Santiago Arrellanas with son Omar Chavez Santiago, weaver and dyer, Fey y Lola Rugs, Teotitlan del Valle