Tag Archives: Oaxaca

Tlacolula Market Meander in B&W Plus TinType

I’m at Zicatela Beach Puerto Escondido after taking the little plane that could, aka AeroTucan, at 7 a.m. this morning. Our coast of Oaxaca textile tour will start on Saturday. Meanwhile, my long-time Ohio pals Sam and Tom are staying at my casita and caring for my dogs Tia Margarita and Butch.

Yesterday, their first full day in Oaxaca, Sam, Tom and I went to Tlacolula to get cash (there are no ATMs yet in Teotitlan del Valle), and spent a fair amount of time meandering. Sam and Tom are professional photographers. I’ve always aspired to be like them. What I’ve learned is that the beauty is often in the detail. And, often in the grainy detail that using a darkroom can get. Except with digital trickery.

They like using the iPhone App TinType, and so do I. Here’s a sampling of the Not-on-Sunday market in black and white. Slower paced. Almost spare. Time to notice details. And, I like the artsy, old-timey results.

I’m no longer hauling around my big, heavy very professional Nikon equipment. In fact, I’d like to sell it. I also bought an Olympus mirrorless camera a couple of years ago, and find that it’s too weighty for me now, too.

Oaxaca Day of the Dead Study Tour 2020: Magical, Mystical Muertos in the Villages

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.

Day of the Dead Altar

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 is prepared
  • 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.

Angel in Pan de Muertos (Day of the Dead bread)

Preliminary Itinerary

October 28: Arrive in Oaxaca City and check in to our centrally-located boutique hotel

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)

Teotitlan del Valle tamales with mole amarillo, made by Ernestina

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)

Natural dyes have strong color, beautiful and more complex than synthetic dyes

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.

Registration Form

Complete the form and Send an email to Norma Schafer.

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.

Red clay pottery, San Marcos Tlapazola

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.

To Register, Policies, Procedures & Cancellations–Please Read

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.

Sitting vigil in the village cemetery, Dia de los Muertos


Inside the Tomb: San Pablo Villa de Mitla Archeological Site

Some of our fiesta group: Feliz Cumpleaños, Martha

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 Mictlan in 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!

Native landscape, San Pablo Villa de Mitla
Self-portrait at the pulque bar
Traditional Zapotec cook Reyna Mendoza Ruiz, Teotitlan del Valle
Mezcal accompaniment, orange slices and worm salt
REAL tostadas, hot off the comal, crunchy and fresh

Wedding Fiesta: Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Mucha Fiesta! I knew it would be BIG when two giant tents went up three days ago beyond the tall concrete walls that separate my neighbors from me. I steeled myself for a really BIG party. I even thought I should high tail it to the city for the night to escape the sound of music.

I knew it would be LOUD. I wasn’t sure how loud. And, since I had been up since 5 a.m. to say goodbye to my sister and brother, I thought earplugs would block out the sound by the time I went to bed, early. WRONG.

There are no photos of this wedding fiesta. Only the SOUND OF MUSIC. Here, in this video, just mere feet from my bedroom window. This is what its like living in the village of endless fiestas. Sooner or later, they come to your back door.

Now, a word about weddings. They go on for three days. This is the tradition. There’s the party. Then, the after-party (that’s today, Sunday, and the music started at 11:30 a.m.). And, the clean-up crew party hearty on the third day. Usually there is barbecue beef or pork, plenty of tortillas, beer and of course, mezcal. And, always leftovers.

The music for this one started around 2 p.m. and went until 2 a.m. or so …. It probably wasn’t interrupted by the earthquake that shook my bed at around 11 p.m. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t sleeping, and the quake wasn’t as strong the music.

Another word about weddings. There is the civil wedding, the legal wedding performed by a justice of the peace, and recognized by the state. Then, there is a church wedding. Church weddings can cost $50,000 USD or more, and that’s why many young couples wait for the church wedding until they can afford it. Some never have one.

The one next door was a church wedding. They have been married for years and have children, but the church wedding is icing on the cake. To have children at the wedding altar in church is a common practice here. If children are young, they are sometimes baptized during the wedding ceremony, too. Since the priest comes from another village, there can be several weddings in one day, as was the case yesterday.

I could hear the Jarabe del Valle and firecrackers echoing throughout the village from more than one fiesta site.

In the morning at around 10:30 a.m. a village band led the procession of bride and groom from home to church. We could tell when the ceremony ended because the cohetes (firecrackers) shot up in a trail of smoke from the church courtyard about a mile away.

Rosca de Reyes topped with candied fruits, stuffed with plastic Baby Jesus

Tomorrow is Day of the Three Kings. I’m certain all the markets are filled with Rosca de Reyes today. The fiestas continue. We roll from one to the next, with weddings, baptisms, funerals, birthdays and anniversaries in between. Fiestas are part of the culture and tradition of Oaxaca life. Let’s celebrate!

Happy New Year 2020 from Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca: Las Cuevitas

In the hills beyond the Oaxaca village of Teotitlan del Valle, there is a sacred Zapotec site. It is said a virgin appeared and whomever comes to the ancient Zapotec grottos to offer tribute and make wishes will be blessed for the coming year.

Las Cuevitas means little caves.

Beginning on December 31, people of the village gather on the hillside, set up a campsite, welcome the new year, light bonfires, shoot off fireworks and celebrate. Some build small rock structures that represent wishes for additions to houses, a new second story, a corral for livestock, a car or truck, a new roof. Wishes are concrete and often basic.

Standing in line to make a wish at the grottos
Sacred prayer site at Las Cuevitas

Wishes are also for good health, longevity, improved family relationships, abundance.

A prayer in the small chapel with the Virgin of Guadalupe

At the three grottos and in the small chapel, after waiting in a queue with locals, my sister, brother and I said our prayers, gave our donation, and felt the luster of the warm late afternoon.

Looking out over the Tlacolula Valley at sunset

In ancient times, Zapotecs hurled burning coals to make the night sky glow. Today, there are sparklers and shooting stars.

People from other villages comes, too. We can tell by the aprons the women wear. Most prominent are the fancy, flouncy aprons from San Miguel del Valle.

This year the celebration is more in the Guelaguetza style with professional costumed dancers and a band to accompany them. Formal festivities started at 4 p.m. and continued until well after dark. It seemed like there were more people than ever, but most of them were riveted to the dancers rather than constructing rock wishes on the hillside.

Campers, picnickers, and hillside revelers — dining al fresco

I was told that there is a new village committee every year to organize the Las Cuevitas celebration.

Fire hurlers at Las Cuevitas

We did not have the village band with the ancient Zapotec flute player (both the flute and player are ancient) this year. It was more polished, and I missed the old traditions. Everyone, however, seemed to revel in the opportunity to see something new and different.

There was a big outdoor food court to buy snacks and tacos and pastries. There were stands with local people selling votive altar candles and fireworks, chili-spiced potato chips and chicharron, a favorite.

Such pleasure in a colorful windmill
Fathers adore their babies here, hold them close

We climbed the rocky slopes to watch the sun set over the Tlacolula Valley, ate our tacos al pastor and quesadillas, and went home with sweet dreams.

Las Cuevitas at sunset is spectacular

If you are in Oaxaca during New Year in the future, I encourage to join in this experience. It is magical, renewing and heartfelt. A great way to start fresh and welcome the new year.

Tacos al pastor at a puesto from Diaz Ordaz village

The next celebration is Day of the Three Kings, January 6. This is the traditional time of gift giving for children. We cycle through the year going from one celebration to the next!

A big, beautiful Oaxaca sky. It was 76 degrees F. today