Tag Archives: photography

Oaxaca Road Trip to Hierve el Agua: Perhaps the World’s First Infinity Pool

Final Hierve A-3Hierve el Agua is an ancient pre-Hispanic Zapotec ceremonial site located about an hour beyond San Pablo Villa de Mitla, one of Oaxaca’s archeological wonders. Hierve el Agua, meaning bubbling water, is a wonder in its own right, nestled on the edge of a mountain ridge in Oaxaca’s Sierra de Juarez.

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A cluster of small pools are carved out of the rock, formed by bubbling underground springs that are no longer hot but lukewarm. The stunning calcified waterfall is one of only two in the world.

Final Hierve A-7Look out at the pool’s edge and there appears to be a shear drop-off into the steep canyon below.  The calcium formations on the surface create interesting patterns and are like stalactites found in caves. Touch them. They feel like a coral reef, sharp and hard. We wore water sandals to protect our feet and to keep from slipping over the edge!

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Rivulets of water bubble up from holes and run in small streams toward the hollowed out pool.

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This is a perfect place for swimming and sun-bathing. Be sure to bring a towel, bathing suit, hat and sunscreen.  I even saw some swimmers wearing goggles.

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Since I didn’t plan too far ahead, I went dipping in my sun dress and undies. A very refreshing interlude to a hot day in November in the Oaxaca mountains not far from the village where I live.

Final Hierve A-10How to get there? You can travel in your own car like we did and follow the Carretera Nacional (Pan American Highway) MEX 190 from Oaxaca to Mitla, then connect on MEX 179 and follow the signs. It’s pretty easy. Click here for a road map.

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Getting there takes the same route as the trip to San Juan del Rio, one of my favorite mezcal making villages. So you might think about combining this as a day trip.

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Another option is to take a tour van from Oaxaca city. This is limiting, since you only get about an hour at the site and the tour may combine this trip with a stop at Mitla and Teotitlan del Valle.  In my opinion, this route deserves an entire day if you have the time. It’s a perfect place to enjoy and relax.

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I also saw that people came out on collectivos connecting from Mitla. So, there are independent travel options if you are so inclined!

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Portrait Photography Workshop coming up the end of January, 2015. There is space for you!

 

Day of the Dead, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca: Gate to Heaven Closed on Sunday

In Teotitlan del Valle, loved ones who come back to visit their families from the great beyond on Day of the Dead, usually arrive on November 1 and depart on November 2.  This year it’s different. They get an extra day on earth and leave on Monday, November 3.

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Why? Because the gate to heaven is always closed on Sunday, explains a local as we sit next to him in the small cemetery chapel with his compadres.  They are waiting to receive thanks and blessings from community leaders who approach them and the altar with offerings of refreshment and a hand raised in salute.

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The local man is one of the volunteer group that guards the cemetery, walking among the tombs to be certain that no souls, either living or dead, are in distress.

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Again, I arrive early, ahead of the crowds, while there is still at least an hour of daylight remaining. The cemetery is brimming with lilies, marigolds, cocks comb, gladiolas.  The scent of copal mingles with wild marigold. Graves are cleaned, topped with fresh earth, quartered oranges, pecans, walnuts, apples.  There is an occasional bottle of unopened beer or mezcal atop each mound.

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As the day fades, families arrive and light candles. Some unpack a picnic supper. Some sit quietly alone. Some are mother and son. Some are multi-generational. We meet young men on vacation from work in the United States to pay respects to their grandparents.  This is my village, one says in English. I was born here. 

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At least two bands are playing. The atonal sound of the younger group is endearing and seems to complement the duality of both this solemn and joyous occasion.

Portrait Photography Workshop coming up at the end of January 2015!

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Lots of people greet us, welcome us, invite us to join them in a sip of mezcal, offer us fresh oranges and beer. When I ask if I can take their photo, yes, is usually the answer. Where are you from? they ask. Carolina del Norte, I say. Welcome to Teotitlan del Valle, they say. I feel lucky to be among them.

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This year, it seems as if the village cemetery is especially vibrant with color.  I hear that Teotitlan del Valle wants to become a Pueblo Magico.  The paths are paved in the cemetery now, making it easier to move among the graves. The space is well-lit and tidy. It seems there are more flowers than ever before.

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Here, it is not like the Xoxocotlan extravaganza, and if you come expecting that, you will be sorely disappointed. Being here is a soothing, quiet, reflective and traditional experience.

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Why are there multiple crosses at the head of grave sites? Families have specific plots and every ten years a tomb can be reused for someone who has just passed. The bones of the antecedents are removed, cleaned and returned to the tomb alongside the next one to be buried there. It is not unusual to see three or four crosses planted one in front of the other representing the tomb’s occupants.

2014DOTDTeoti-23 And, of course, not only the dead get hungry! Vendors sit at the entrance with tasty snack foods. And, the band plays on.

2014DOTDTeoti-26My son is visiting from California. As we move together through the cemetery, we compare traditions here and in the United States, how we want our remains to be handled after death, periods of mourning, celebrations of life and the practice of laying markers. In Teotitlan a marker is placed on the tomb nine months after burial.

2014DOTDTeoti-25 2014DOTDTeoti-18Day of the Dead is an opportune time to talk about what is considered taboo and sad in our western culture. The celebration in Mexico is a religious syncretism of pre-Hispanic mystical tradition and Spanish Catholicism. It is unique and there is much to learn by participating.

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Xoxocotlan, Oaxaca: Day of the Dead Cemetery Before Dark

Before the crowds descend on the cemetery, before the tour buses and vans arrive, before the photographers with strobe flash and tripods begin their crawl among the gravesites at dusk, I arrive in Xoxocotlan.  Marta and Citlalli are with me today.

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It is the perfect time, the magic hour between day and night, when there is a glow that illuminates the world.

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Xoxocotlan on Halloween, the night before All Saint’s Day, has become a major party venue for Oaxaca visitors. By seven in the evening, the new cemetery will be packed with revelers who come dressed in costume, as well as families who sit reverently by the grave sites of their loved ones.

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I focus my visit on the old cemetery, Panteon San Sebastian, which continues to draw me back year after year. The space is small. An adobe chapel built in 1684 is now remnants, destroyed by earthquake. It’s ancient walls that still stand are cordoned off by plastic tape warning of peligroso, danger, caution. The tape is new this year. Who knows when the next earthquake will strike?

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Don’t step on the graves, Citlalli says. My grandmother told us if you do, the dead will grab your feet and drag you to the underworld at night.  We step carefully out of respect.  Some of the grave sites are ancient, unmarked, crumbling.

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Many tombs are marked with a date of death in the 1970’s. Citlali says there was a cholera epidemic then and many in Oaxaca died.

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I ask Luis Conseco if I can take his photo. His face is interesting, weathered. He stands upright, squares his shoulders. He says he wants to go the the United States to work to make more money. It is a dream of many. He is sixty-eight years old.

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He tells us that the shape and form of the tombstones signify the wealth or poverty of the person buried beneath. There were many simple tombs made of flat brick. This is all people can afford, he says.

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Things are changing in Xoxocotlan. The old cemetery is getting a facelift. There are men working on a new, paved entry way. The paths between the grave sites have been raked, leveled and cleared making passage easier, more visitor friendly. The outside walls are painted bright green.

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Locals, now used to having their photographs taken, look up in greeting. I still ask permission each time, though. And, it is fun to engage in conversation. Do you like visitors pointing cameras in your face? I ask. And, everyone laughs and beckon me closer!

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We even get an invitation to come into the ancient, crumbling walls of the old chapel where a man is decorating the grave of his grandfather. He takes us to the tomb of a Spanish priest resting behind a gated sanctuary.

Xoxocotlan2014  As we leave the cemetery, the groups begin to come in. I hire a moto-taxi tuk tuk to lead us out of town. The roads are starting to get clogged with in-coming visitors. It’s about six o’clock at night. Just in time to get back to Oaxaca for a dinner of enchiladas de jamaica (hibiscus flowers) at Restaurante San Pablo.

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But not before getting some last minute street shots before we leave. I decided to skip Atzompa. So many people, so little time! Welcome to Muertos.

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Portrait Photography Workshop coming up the end of January. There’s a space for YOU!

 

 

 

Textile Fashion Show: Journey to Remote San Felipe Usila, Oaxaca

For the past six days I have been on a textile journey through the Cuenca del Papaloapan Region where the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca mountain range meets the coastal plain of Veracruz. This has been off-the-beaten-path travel into remote villages where textile traditions, back strap loom weaving and intricate embroidery techniques, manage to survive in a dominant culture invaded by polyester, machined fabrics and low-wage, Chinese-made clothing.

FashionShowUsilaSoyaltepec-8Travel took us overland starting from Veracruz, the oldest port in Mexico, south along the Gulf of Mexico to Tuxtepec, a jungle wonderland and gateway into Oaxaca state from the east.  Today, I’m featuring the indigenous dress of San Felipe Usila, the most isolated village of our tour.

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From Tuxtepec, it takes us three hours to get to Usila on a winding mountain road, half of which is unpaved. But, the gift of meeting some extraordinary weavers who are incredibly hospitable make the trip worthwhile.

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We are greeted with the opportunity to purchase some very beautiful pieces followed by a lunch of chicken and mole amarillo, and handmade tortillas fresh from the comal. Dinner is a delicious, home-cooked traditional stone soup that is a pre-Hispanic recipe originating from Usila. Overnight lodging in Usila is basic and clean. A hotel is located on the outskirts of town down a dirt road that turns to mud in the rain. It’s a rainforest here, so the climate is tropical, damp and lush.

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Many of the plants and animals of the region are reflected in the weaving designs including flowers, squirrels, corn, butterflies and the tree of life.  Every woman has her own interpretation of the mythic and actual world that is translated to cloth, so each weaver creates a different and very distinct design.

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We learn that the two headed eagle represents the duality of life, the good and the bad. We see quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, and the eye of god that offers protection. We are told about the four cardinal directions, how they are incorporated into the woven story and their pre-Hispanic significance.

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We hear that traditional women want to be buried in their wedding huipil so that their husbands will recognize them in the afterlife. We see that only the grandmothers continue to wear the huipil as a daily garment.

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For holidays, festivals and special occasions there is more elaborate dressing with the media-gala and gala huipiles, adorned with flowers, ribbons, lace and intricate detailing that is unparalleled.

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Many of the ancient techniques of back strap loom weaving to create traditional clothing has been lost by some villages. There is a dedicated effort to teach young women the techniques to keep the tradition alive. But, it’s a challenge. People everywhere want an education and higher paying jobs.

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Today, the major markets for these garments are textile lovers and collectors who purchase them in many fine Oaxaca galleries. Few dare to venture into the hinterlands to find these treasures on their own.

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Oaxaca Cultural Navigator offers in-depth, educational workshops usually based in one location to establish a sense of place. We are not a tour or guide service. I decided to travel with Tia Stephanie Tours to discover the source of this beautiful, ancient, woman-centered tradition. We moved from village to village across a wide swath of territory at a racer’s pace to get an excellent overview.

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If you are more inclined to get there as an independent traveler, take a bus or collectivo from town to town, or rent a car and drive from Oaxaca city on Mexico 175. Get a Guia Roji Mapa 20 for the Estado de Oaxaca.

You may want to stop and spend the night in Pueblo Magico Capulalpam de Mendez or continue on until you reach Valle NacionalThere are several lovely hotels in Capulalpam and a few small hostals in Valle Nacional. From there, you can get to the pueblos in the Papaloapan Region that we visited: Valle Nacional, Rancho Grande, San Miguel Soyaltepec and San Lucas Ojitlan, bypassing the entry through Veracruz. This route will take six to eight hours of driving from Oaxaca to Valle Nacional over winding mountain roads! You might also consider establishing a base in one of the villages if you don’t mind sleeping in a hammock or a basic, no frills room with only cold running water.

Peace and Quiet in Teotitlan del Valle, Except for an Earthquake

The Guelaguetza crowds were staggering. Oaxaca city was clogged with foot and street traffic. There was excitement, band music, the sizzle of street food, parades of elegantly dress women from the villages, and more shopping overload than any accomplished shopaholic could need or want.

Day & Night Shopping: Expoventa on the Andador

Day & Night Shopping: Expoventa on the Andador

With enough stimulation to last me weeks, I decided to leave the city early on Sunday and return to the casita I call home in Teotitlan del Valle. On Monday, doing laundry was my meditation.

Tamarind, Lime, Hibiscus Mezcalinis at La Olla-Yummy

Tamarind, Lime, Hibiscus Mezcalinis at La Olla Restaurant – Yummy

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Maya celebrates her 18th birthday

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sipping Nuevo Mundo  coffee from my rooftop terrace, I heard birds sing and the hammer of a carpenter building. In the distance, I saw farmers tending to their fields just as they do each day here.  It is a refuge here. Some never need to go elsewhere.

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Strumming on an ass jawbone, traditional music

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Oaxaca is earthquake country.  In the early morning hours today, when REM sleep is deep, I feel the shake and roll of my bed, and the rattle of the kitchen pans suspended from the ceiling rack. It went on for what seemed an eternity or perhaps thirty seconds.  I decided not to panic, rolled over and tried to fall back asleep.

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Now, it is overcast and we are waiting for rain. The farmers need the rain for their milpa — the fields planted with corn, squash and beans, local sustenance for millenia.

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Thank you, Teotitlan del Valle, for sheltering me in peace, quiet and tranquility. It is enough. Even with an earthquake once in a while.