Tag Archives: Oaxaca

Extraordinary: Yanhuitlan, Oaxaca and Ceramic Artist Manuel Reyes

Off the beaten path and definitely a must-see, Santo Domingo Yanhuitlan is a small Mixtec pueblo located about an hour-and-a-half north of Oaxaca city, off the Carretera Nacional toll road to Mexico City.

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It is the home of an extraordinary Dominican Church whose massive stone architecture is reminiscent of the finest European churches, complete with flying buttresses and elegant arched ceilings. Six thousand indigenous people constructed it beginning in the mid-16th century.

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Ceramic artist, sculptor and painter Manuel Reyes lives here, too, with his wife Marisela, also an accomplished artist, and their two children. They are what draw us to this place since their work is not sold in Oaxaca city. They have been exhibited in galleries throughout the United States and recognized in numerous contemporary art journals and books.

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Manuel understudied with potters from throughout Oaxaca state and has been working with clay for fifteen years.  He uses a gas kiln and fires his work at 900-1,200 degree Fahrenheit temperatures, unusual for the region where most clay work is low fire, cooked in a shallow wood-fire kiln.  Manuel gets his red clay from pits in San Jeronimo Silacayoapilla, not far from his home in Tlaxiaco.  He says the clay from here is the strongest, the best.

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Yanhuitlan is Marisela’s home.  This is where they have created their life and work together.  The children are also collaborating, making small clay figures and painting on canvas.

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The clay is painted with natural mineral pigments that Manuel gets from the local region.  Some of his work is primitive.  Other pieces are highly polished polychrome with three or four colors.

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Pre-Hispanic designs on clay come from pottery shards that Manuel finds in the region.

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Marisela and Manuel invite us to join them for lunch.  It is a homemade red mole with rice, black beans, fresh tortillas, and another type of tortilla, rougher, denser, made with wheat flour by Marisela’s mother.  I pass on the mezcal because I’m driving!  The head sculpture is a napkin holder.  Magnifico.

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The church is one of the most important colonial sites in Mexico. Why was it constructed in this tiny town that seems to  have little or no importance today?  Yanhuitlan was on a major pre-Hispanic trade route and the Mixtec temple there was a very important indigenous religious site.

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The Spanish imported the European silk worm and Yanhuitlan became the center of silk cultivation for export.  Silk, along with cochineal, made Yanhuitlan an important economic center.  Hence, this imposing church — extraordinary and definitely worth the visit in its own right.  Note the Mixtec carving embedded into the church wall.  A practice for attracting and converting locals.

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Couple the stop with a visit to the home studio of ceramic artist and sculptors Manuel and Marisela Reyes and you have a very satisfying day-long excursion to explore the art and creativity that is Oaxaca.

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How to get there:  Go north from Oaxaca on the Cuota–toll-road–to Mexico City.  Exit at Nochixtlan.  Turn left and go over the toll road bridge.  Continue northwest. Follow the road signs to Yanhuitlan.  The church can be seen from several miles away.  To find Marisela and Manuel Reyes, go to Aldama Street which faces the side entrance of the church.  Drive until the end.  Their house is across from the Calvario church (metal dome), which is part of the original convent.  coloresdeoaxaca@yahoo.com.mx or call 951-562-7008 for an appointment.

Special thanks to Francine, Jo Ann and Tom for guiding me there!

Uriel and Rosalia’s Zapotec Wedding, Oaxaca, Mexico

The church wedding is an important part of Zapotec community life. Often, a couple will have a civil marriage ceremony and begin their family as Rosalia and Uriel did three years ago.  Their dream will be to save enough to hold a religious service that recognizes their marriage in the eyes of God.  Their young children are baptized as part of the celebratory mass.  This is common practice.

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As a by-product of the Mexican Revolution and its sweeping reforms, the state eradicated church political power and confiscated lands, so it is the civil ceremony that takes legal precedents.  Yet, the traditional church wedding holds strong emotional appeal for many couples, their parents and extended family.

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Uriel and Rosalia’s wedding began with a twelve o’clock noon mass at the Teotitlan del Valle church and included the baptism of their two young sons, Emilio and Cristian.

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There were about two hundred people attending, a fraction of the six hundred who would later join the fiesta and meal at the home of Uriel’s uncle and aunt, who hosted the event.

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In Zapotec tradition, it is the groom’s family who hosts and pays for everything:  the two large bulls slaughtered to become barbacoa (barbecue) to serve the multitude, the beer and mezcal, the band, the tortillas, fresh flowers, decorations, gifts for guests, ample takeaway containers, and an elaborate, multi-level wedding cake filled with strawberry cream.

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There is not usually a cash outlay for these expenses.  It is part of the elaborate mutual support, bartering, give-and-take system called guelaguetza in Oaxaca’s usos y costumbres pueblos.  Extended family comes together to do what it takes to host.  For example, I give you a pig one year for a baptism.  In six years, when my son gets married, I ask you to return the pig to me.  Maybe it weighs a little more than the one I gave to you.  That’s how it works and the cycle continues.

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Wedding preparations began weeks before.  The women of the family gathered to plan the food and make decorations.  They ordered large yellow corn tortillas handmade in a neighboring village.  

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Men conferred to determine how many tables and chairs, cases of beer, and bottles of mezcal would be required.  Together, they all determined the collective resources needed to mount this significant event.  Then, on the wedding day, they served the hearty festival dish offering greeting of buen provecho to each guest.

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On the wedding day, Uriel’s extended family pitched in to cook and serve:  aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews.  As guests arrived, more tables and chairs unfolded.  Their arms held extended in greeting, offering gifts, adding their tribute to honor the couple and their families, an ancient practice modernized.

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In addition to bottles of mezcal and cases of beer, guests brought cookware sets, utensils, toys for the boys, dinnerware, drinking glasses. and other household items.  There was even a new washing machine and bedroom closet on display outside the altar room.  Inside was barely passable. The line to greet the newlyweds and family snaked through the courtyard and out onto the sidewalk.  We all waited patiently to offer personal congratulations.

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In the back of the family compound an army of 60 women were on hand to measure out the meat and broth so that everyone would have their portion.  They had been tending the stew pot for days.  Platters of fresh tortillas, lime wedges, shredded cabbage, diced onions, and cilantro were set on each table to add as condiments to the  spicy meat.

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After the meal, the plates were cleared, the tables folded and stacked in a corner, and the chairs arranged in a circle.  Let the dancing begin.  First, the band from Yalalag played as the couple came out, she adorned in traditional dress from her native Zapotec village.

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Then, Teotitecos welcomed their band to play the traditional Jarabe del Valle.  Paco served as master of ceremonies, inviting family members to dance with the couple in honor of their emotional, financial and in-kind support.  Celebrants carry fragrant herbs gathered from nearby mountains.  On the bride’s arm is a basket filled with flowers, bread and chocolate — essential for sustaining life.

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The party continued through the next several days, and I could hear the band and firecrackers each morning and evening.  These celebrations are rooted deeply in a pre-Hispanic past, embedded in memory.  It is a wonderful experience to share.

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Day of the Dead Photography, Oaxaca, Workshop Tour 2014 with Frank Hunter

Oaxaca, Mexico, is famous for its Day of the Dead celebrations.  You experience it and capture it for a lifetime of memories!  This is cultural immersion travel photography at its best!  Arrive Monday, October 27, depart Tuesday, November 4— 9 days, 8 nights, $2,295 base price.

  • Limited to 8 participants. Small Group. Personal Attention.
  • Beginners and more experienced photographers welcome.
  • Trailing spouse and cooking class options.
  • Registration is now open!

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This is our Fifth Day of the Dead Expedition in Oaxaca, Mexico.  More than a tour, this is a hands-on photography workshop for learning and improving technique while you experience Oaxaca’s famed Day of the Dead rituals.  By the end of the week, you will better use your digital SLR camera for visual storytelling and cultural discovery.

Your workshop leader is Frank Hunter, whose photographs are published in the New York Times, and are part of museum collections worldwide. For over ten years, Frank taught at the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies in Durham, North Carolina.  He now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is represented by Thomas Deans Fine Arts gallery in Atlanta, Georgia.

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This cultural immersion workshop tour offers you a deeper appreciation for the food, religious symbols, rituals, family celebrations both in the city and in the rural Zapotec village of Teotitlan del Valle.  We take you into cemeteries, local homes, markets and cultural sites.

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During our week together, we will review each other’s work, give feedback, and offer supportive critiques.  The workshop includes a mix of class instruction and being out on the streets to capture the action.   We offer structured group discussion and opportunities for daily coaching sessions with Frank.

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Technical topics covered include using Lightroom photo editing software, natural light, exposure, manual camera settings, and night photography. Frank says he uses just enough technique to help you express a visual idea. 

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We emphasize documentary-style photography, an organic, spontaneous form of understanding the culture and people you are photographing.

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About Frank Hunter

Frank grew up in the American southwest and spent his early years photographing people and landscapes of Mexico.  He has taught at the university level for more than 20 years.  Frank is a virtuoso photographer, as adept at digital photography as he is with creating 19th century style platinum/palladium prints.  

Don’t be intimated! Frank also taught fundamentals of photography at Duke University. You can read more about him here:

And, if you want more, just Google Frank Hunter.  You will get pages of citations!

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Preliminary Itinerary (subject to change) and Optional Add-Ons

Day of the Dead Workshop Expedition 2014

Day 1, Monday, October 27:  Arrive and check-in to our colonial-style hotel near the Zocalo and main walking street of Macedonio Alcala.  Dinner on your own.  Overnight Oaxaca.

Day 2: Tuesday, October 28:  After breakfast, welcome and learning session on camera settings and exposure, we will go on a city orientation walk, visit markets, gilded in gold Santo Domingo Church, and enjoy a welcome lunch at one of Oaxaca’s slow-food restaurants.   After  a gala welcome lunch we will meet for a Lightroom tutorial to review the workflow that will get your images edited and moved to Dropbox.  Overnight Oaxaca.  (B, L) Dinner on your own.

Day 3, Wednesday, October 29: After breakfast and workshop session, we will tour Monte Alban archeological site and the pottery village of Santa Maria Atzompa. After lunch, you will have the afternoon to roam and capture Oaxaca street parades, and market vendors selling wild marigold, special breads, candies, and other Day of the Dead ritual necessities. We’ll meet in early evening to review our best of day work. Overnight Oaxaca.  (B, L).   Dinner on your own.

Day 4, Thursday, October 30:  After breakfast and learning, session you will have the day on your own.   Today the streets are abuzz with Day of the Dead revelers.  Shops and galleries have extraordinary altars on display.  The sand paintings in the Zocalo and Plaza de la Danza are not to be missed.  Optional afternoon technical coaching session with Frank. We meet again in early evening before dinner to review best of day work. (B) Lunch and dinner on your own.

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Day 5, Friday, October 31:  After breakfast and a learning session on night photography, you will have the rest of the morning and early afternoon on your own.  At 2:30 p.m. we depart for the famed Xoxocotlan cemetery for an extraordinary Day of the Dead extravaganza, with a stop first to visit an extraordinary, off-the-beaten-path Arrazola wood carver. Frank is with us every step of the way for coaching and technical support. This could be a late night, so be prepared!  We will stay until at least 10 p.m., maybe later! Overnight Oaxaca. (B) Lunch and dinner on your own.)

Day 6, Saturday, November 1:  After a late breakfast and a debriefing session to review your experiences at Xoxo, you will have the afternoon on your own.  We depart later for the Zapotec weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle.  Overnight Teotitlan del Valle.  Includes breakfast, dinner.  (B, D)

Day 6, Sunday, November 2:  After breakfast and learning session you will share your best photos from the Xoxo cemeteries.  Then, we will pair you with another workshop participant to share a traditional meal with a local host family and go with them to the village cemetery.   This is an amazing cultural immersion experience to learn more about indigenous customs and traditions.  We’ll see you back at our B&B after nightfall.  Overnight Teotitlan del Valle.  Includes breakfast, lunch and dinner. (B, L, D)

Day 7, Monday,  November 3:  After breakfast we will share experiences and photos of the day before in our last learning session. You’ll have the rest of the day on your own to meander and prepare your Best of Week photo presentation.  We get together with a celebratory fiesta with invitations to our host families to join us.  Overnight Teotitlan del Valle.   Includes breakfast and dinner. (B,D)

Day 8, Tuesday, November 4:  After breakfast, depart for your home countries. (B)

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What You Should Bring

  1.  Digital SLR camera with lens(es) — wide angle, zoom, and/or fixed focal point 50mm
  2. Tripod for night photography
  3.  Laptop computer
  4.  Lightroom software installed for organizing and presenting images (Note: If you are an experienced Photoshop user, you are welcome to use this software for photo editing)
  5. External hard drive
  6. External card reader
  7. Batteries (2) and battery charger
  8. Memory cards (at least 2) and data sticks
  9. Pen and notepad
  10. Sturdy, comfortable walking shoes, sun protection, sun hat

(Before the workshop starts, we will send you a complete packet and information guide with suggested packing list, and other useful information.)

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Cost:  The base cost for the Expedition is $2,295. USD. This includes:

  • All instruction and coaching
  • 8 nights lodging, shared room with shared bath
  • 8 breakfasts
  • 3 lunches as specified in the itinerary
  • 3 dinners as specified in the itinerary
  • Transportation to villages and archeological sites included in the itinerary
  • Entry fees to museums and sites specified in itinerary
  • Gift to local Teotitlan del Valle host family
  • Comprehensive pre-trip planning packet (via email)

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Not Included:

The expedition does NOT include airfare, taxes, tips/gratuities, travel insurance, liquor/alcoholic beverages, breakfasts and other meals not specified in the itinerary, and optional transportation.

Please indicate your preference.

[  ]  Option 1–Base Cost: Double room with shared bath; $2,295. Deposit to reserve: $1,150.

[  ] Option 2: Shared room with private bath; $2,495. Deposit to reserve: $1,250.

[  ] Option 3:  Single Supplement, private room with private bath;  $2,695.  Deposit to reserve: $1,350.

[  ] Option 4:  Trailing partner/spouse.  Bring them along. Even when they don’t participate in the workshop, they can enjoy all the group activities we have planned.  $1,795

[  ] Option 4:  Add-on Tuesday, November 4 Traditional Zapotec Cooking Class.  Learn how to prepare Oaxaca’s famed mole sauce.  $125, includes one night lodging on November 4, breakfast, lunch, dinner, all recipes.

[  ] Option 5:  Add-on nights in Oaxaca, City at $145 per night per person.

[  ]  Option 6:  Add-on nights in Teotitlan del Valle at $55 per night per person.

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About Our Accommodations

In Oaxaca City, we will stay in a lovely, highly rated intimate colonial-style hotel close to the Zocalo and all the major activities of the season.  In Teotitlan del Valle, we stay in a family owned and operated guest house/posada where the meals are home-cooked and delicious.

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Reservations and Cancellations

A 50% deposit will reserve your space.   The final payment for the balance due (including any supplemental costs) shall be made on or before August 1, 2014.  We accept PayPal for payment only.  We will send you an invoice for your deposit to reserve when you tell us you are ready to register with your lodging and option preferences.

Please understand that we make lodging and transportation arrangements months in advance of the program.  Deposits or payments in full are often required by our hosts.  If cancellation is necessary, please notify us in writing by email.   After August 1, no refunds are possible; however, we will make every effort to fill your reserved space or you may send a substitute.  If you cancel on or before August 1, we will refund 50% of your deposit.  We strongly recommend that you take out trip cancellation, baggage, emergency evacuation and medical insurance before you begin your trip, since unforeseen circumstances are possible.

To register, email us at oaxacaculture@me.com or  normahawthorne@mac.com.  We accept payment with PayPal only. Thank you.

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This workshop is produced by Norma Hawthorne, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC.  We reserve the right to alter the itinerary and substitute instructors without notice.

Don’t let this workshop pass you by!

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Special thanks to 2013 workshop participants Barbara Szombatfalvy, Donna Howard, Steve Dank, Luvia Lazo, Starr Sariego, Ron Thompson, Kate Kingston, and instructor Frank Hunter for contributing photographs posted here.

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International Priests Visit Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

The firecrackers call in early afternoon to announce that something spectacular was about to happen in the village later that day. It’s filled with surprises here.  My neighbor Ernestina comes over in the morning to offer me 20 fresh, creamy chicken and mole amarillo tamales for 100 pesos.

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Then, later tamales are served for lunch at the guest house where the felt fashion workshop participants assemble.  It is not yet Dia de la Candelaria, when everyone eats tamales. What is going on? I wonder.

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At six-thirty, the young men atop the bell tower ring the church bells. Rosario and Josefina say goodbye.  Where are you going? A la iglesia. To the church, they say.  There’s a fiesta  to welcome 30 visiting priests from Columbia, China, Nueva York (New York), California and India.  I follow the sound of the bells to the church courtyard.

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Nearly the entire village gathers.  I arrive just in time to be offered a fresh, steaming hot tamale, to see the children dressed in Dance of the Feather plumage dancing the re-enactment of the conquest, to hear the band play, and to see banquet tables filled with men who sip hot chocolate and eat tamales, served by traditionally dressed village women.

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I hear that more than a thousand tamales are made that day by the women chosen to the traditional, pre-Hispance Jarabe del Valle dance.  They are part of the church committee that supports the village festivals.

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A master’s of ceremonies talks about cultural exchange, the many Zapotecs from this village who live and work and practice their traditions in towns throughout southern California, and how these priests help people to adapt, acclimate and stay connected to their roots.  The Spanish is sprinkled with a little English to make the visitors more welcome.

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Then, the women, holding branches of fragrant herbs welcome the guests to join them for the Jarabe del Valle.  The men, towering above them, move their feet to the rhythm of the dance and catch on quickly.

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The band played on.

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Handwoven Basket Fair: San Juan Guelavia, Oaxaca

Today was the first of two Sundays when the Zapotec village of San Juan Guelavia holds its annual basket fair.  Next Sunday, February 2, is the last day.  They open in the compact zocalo at 9 a.m.  By the time we got there, close to noon, there wasn’t much left.  Before I could say basket, two that caught my eye were snatched up from under my outstretched arm.

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The bamboo used to make the baskets is picked young and green, much easier to manipulate.  Then, it is washed and stripped.  After the basket is complete, the sturdy handles are wrapped with palm leaves. Most of the Zapotec women in the central valleys of Oaxaca prefer these baskets for daily shopping use.  The handle fits easily over the crook of the elbow, is smooth and comfortable.  

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Both men and women are basket weavers.  They are also makers of corn husk flowers, lamp shades, bird cages, decorative woven bottle coverings, and traditional storage baskets for maize.

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Some of the workmanship is so fine, one wonders how fingers can weave the course strips of bamboo, let alone strip the cane and prepare it for the weaving process.  The basket I bought is above, left, held by the weaver who made it.  He was happy and so was I.

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Basketmaking in San Juan Guelavia, Oaxaca is a craft in decline and I have included this link to an academic paper that references San Juan Guelavia and their struggle to keep this craft tradition alive.

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I hope you get to the Feria (fair) next Sunday.  I paid 140 pesos for a beautiful handmade basket, quite large.  That’s about $11 USD.  A day’s wage here in Oaxaca.  Who knows how long it took to make!  Looks like more than a day to me.  A basket this size for sale at the Tlacolula market would cost double the price, maybe more, and still a bargain at that!

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Boys at play while parents shop

In addition to the baskets, there is lots of home-style cooked food like quesadillas, tamales, and hot steamed corn-on-the-cob.  Come and linger.

Where to Find San Juan Guelavia:  From Oaxaca City, take any bus or colectivo taxi heading to Tlacolula or Mitla.  Get off at the San Juan Guelavia crossroads (which is about 1/2 mile before you get to Teotitlan del Valle, and maybe five miles beyond El Tule).  There are village taxis and tuk-tuks that will take you along the beautiful curving road that leads to the village, set about three miles off the Panamerican Highway 190, nestled in the rolling foothills of the Sierra Madre del Sur.