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 EITHER #4 OR #5 OR #6. (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
7. An antique dealer on a hidden-away street in San Pablo Villa de Mitla with a treasure trove of vintage finds, with a stop at the famed Mitla archeological site
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.
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.
This is a book review, of sorts. Perhaps it’s my own journal of movement and re-discovery both internal and external. The Time Machine of air travel took me from Oaxaca to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Huntington Beach, California, now to land in Durham, North Carolina. I also call North Carolina home though I spend most of the year in Oaxaca. After three weeks on the road to visit friends and family, I am now taking time to chill and to read.
True Confession: I never read Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks, who fell in love with Oaxaca in 2001 when he went with the New York City fern society to venture into the desert and cloud forests in search of rare species. The book was published in 2002.
Ferns per se aren’t my thing. But Oaxaca is. So, my friend Jenny, who read it three times, brought her copy to me in Santa Fe and here I am, telling you about it.
This is a quick read. Entertaining and informative. After living in Oaxaca for almost 14 years, I am taken with a sense of new discovery of place and a reminder about how important it is to pay attention to the familiar — it’s so easy to take in the sweeping view instead of noticing the fine details. When we move too fast, we miss so much.
It’s like taking a close-up photo — you have to crouch down, bend your knees, get your eye focused on the particular, the micro, to appreciate its beauty. Oliver Sacks reminds me to slow down. Throughout the book, he talks about how he and his fellow travelers use a microscope to examine the underside of fern fronds to understand the biology of life. I take this as an instructive metaphor. In the process of looking for one particular thing it is possible to see others heretofore unknown.
Critics delight in this book, which they call the work of travel writing. Sacks died in 2015 at age 82, but he lives with us through his insights. He is a role model for inquisitiveness and curiosity, experimenting with the joys of life.
As I follow Oliver Sacks around Oaxaca to familiar places, I am struck by how it was in 2001 and how it is now in 2019, years later, and how things change and don’t. Read 1970’s accounts of rutted, dirt roads in Teotitlan del Valle, and you don’t recognize the place today.
Then and Now. Do’s and Don’ts.
Take the road to the Sierra Juarez where biodiversity yields cloud forest, mushrooms, ferns, bromeliads and steep hiking trails at 10,000+ feet
Compare the simplicity then and sophistication now of mezcal making and big business, bringing great wealth to the Oaxaca valley
Assume a naive perspective of culture, people and place with one or two visits, and the propensity to romanticize lifestyle so different from our own
See the grandeur and importance of Zapotec civilization in Mesoamerica by visiting Monte Alban, Yagul and Mitla to gain respect for indigenous people
Project your own desires, wishes and beliefs as you yearn for a simpler life
Sacks visits Teotitlan del Valle with his group to see the rug weaving and natural dyeing process. See page 115 in the book. In 2001, there were few families working in natural dyes and it is understandable that a guide would take them to visit the most famous weaver of the time, Isaac Vasquez Garcia, The Bug in the Rug. The New York Times mentions him in a 1988 print story, Wall Hangings From Oaxaca, now digitized. You will see how demand and time has changed the pricing.
When I arrived in Teotitlan in 2005, I was determined to find a weaver working in natural dyes who had not yet been discovered. Fame, I think, has a way of changing people, pricing, production and products. I didn’t go with a guide, so I set out to explore the village on my own by foot, to compare weaving quality and ascertain the visual difference between natural and commercial dyes. That is how I met the Chavez Santiago Family to start my Teotitlan del Valle adventure. They now run Galeria Fe y Lola.
It is easy, when one doesn’t speak Spanish, to misunderstand, misinterpret, what is said. Sacks reports that Isaac Vasquez and his family produced all the cochineal from their nopal cactus to dye the rugs. This is impossible. It takes thousands of bugs to make a dye vat. Dried cochineal is purchased, then and now. Peru and the Canary Islands are the largest producers. There is a Oaxaca cochineal farm now to supply local demand but there is not enough produced for export.
Sacks reports that weavers in the village had a deep knowledge of dyeing. At the time only a handful of weavers used natural dyes. Everyone knew how to use the one-step, easy process of making a chemical dye.
Now, perhaps a dozen families use natural dyes. I like to promote all of them. It’s a worthy endeavor. It is an expensive and chemically complex process. Yet, everyone knows how to give a cochineal dye demonstration that includes squeezing the bug on the palm of a hand, changing the color with lime juice or baking soda. Ask to see the dye pots before jumping to conclusions!
Sacks is expansive in his Oaxaca Journal. He talks about astronomy of the ancients, the cuisine of bugs and mole, cultural competency, the traditional and modern, hanging out on the Zocalo, Hierve el Agua and calcified waterfalls, the magic of tianguis street markets and more.
I don’t know why it took me so long to get to this. It’s been on my reading list for a decade. If you are returning to Oaxaca or making a first trip, I highly recommend this read. The page-turner took me two days! The impact reinforced the messages of living.
Wednesday, July 10, 2019–This group of new dancers start their three-year commitment to church, community and family this year. The most touching moment for me was to be in the home of the Moctezuma, the lead character in the Danza de la Pluma just before they set out to the church plaza to dance for three hours until sunset on July 9.
Here I witnessed loved ones bestow their blessings on him. It was like anointing their son and grandson with the benediction of all the generations who came before, offering God’s favor and protection. It was as if all the young men over decades who participated in this sacred dance were present, too. It is an honor and a commitment to perform this service. I am told it is life-changing.
The ritual is repeated year after year, but the first year is a special test for a new group of dancers for their faith, endurance, strength, passion, dedication, coordination and precision. It is also an important exercise in mutual support. Dancers are not individuals. They are part of a team, and it is their team effort that underlies the essence of how this Usos y Costumbres community self-governs.
The Dance of the Feather, which tells the story of the Spanish Conquest from the indigenous point-of-view, is meticulously choreographed. The village symphony orchestra/band knows exactly what to play as the story unfolds. As each step is taken down the cobbled streets to the church, there is a cadence that is repeated in the retelling.
In the altar room at the Moctezuma’s home, family members help each member of the group dress in their costume. This takes time since each element of the dress is an elaborate undertaking.
Behind the scenes, another type of choreography takes place. It is the work men, women and girls and boys who do the food preparation and service. Every bit is made by hand. The chickens are slaughtered, boiled and the meat is shredded for tamales.
The toro (bull) is slaughtered and prepared for barbacoa de res. The tejate is stone ground by hand, with home roasted cacao beans. Can I talk about the memelas? I’ve never tasted anything so good — comal toasted corn patties, slathered with bean paste, fresh salsa, shredded Oaxaca cheese, a drizzle of shredded lettuce.
We feed each other because we take care of each other. Our survival and continuity depends on it.
This is a hallmark for Teotitlan del Valle and other Usos y Costumbres communities in Mexico. They function so well because of this bond. Mutual support is about respect for heritage and relationships. You do it because it is a value to the self, the other and makes the whole stronger.
The dancers who participate in the Dance of the Feather embody these values, embrace them, practice them and model them for others.
The dancing will resume again in the church courtyard on Friday, July 12, at 5:00 PM. Check Oaxaca Events for schedule and other festivities around town.
As I said goodbye to family members of the dance group, they asked me to tell you how important their culture is to them, how they want to communicate the beauty and friendship of Mexico, and how strongly they are committed to preserving traditions, and extend an invitation to visit.
There are two clown figures included in the Dance of the Feather. They serve multiple functions. Primarily they are the dancers’ helpers, holding crowns when a scarf needs to be retied, bringing water and rehydration drinks, communicating with the officials when a bio-break is needed. They also are jesters that provide fun, frivolity and antics to the story — a diversion of sorts.
They will tease and cajole audience members, like me. Jajajajaja. In the original story, they are the Aztec spies who disguised themselves to get close to the Spanish conquistadores and bring information back to the Aztec generals. There were two battles with the Spanish. The Aztecs won the first.
Opening ceremonies for the Dance of the Feather in Teotitlan del Valle always begin with a 5:00 PM Monday convite starting in the plaza courtyard. Convite translates into banquet, invitation, feast. Here, it is a procession that by my definition is a Feast For the Eyes.
Today, Tuesday, July 9, Los Danzantes de la Pluma will begin their full presentation at 5:00 PM in the church courtyard. Tomorrow, on July 10, they will start at 12:00 PM noon and dance until about 8:00 PM.
When I’m here, this is a desfile that I do not want to miss. This year is special, too, because a new group of dancers begins their three-year commitment to church and community. They will dance at every community-wide celebration as part of their promise to participate.
We got back to Teotitlan from the city just in time for the festivities to begin. Young women and girls as young as three years old, dressed in traditional fiesta traje, gathered in the church plaza with their ornate decorated baskets to prepare for the parade through the streets.
We were waiting for the Danzantes to arrive. They had left the home of the Moctezuma, the head of the group, and walked behind the band for about a mile to the church. You could follow their path by the sound. In full dance regalia complete with corona (crown), rattles, amulets, and a costume that combines Spanish and pre-Hispanic symbols, they were a sight to behold.
I’ve written a lot here about the syncretism between indigenous spirituality and mysticism combined with Spanish Catholicism which comprises modern Mexico — Mestizo culture. Malinche is the slave given to Cortes who was his lover-translator. Remember, she was a slave and had no choice! Doña Marina is the same woman after being baptized in the church. The conversion is an important part of Mexican mixed identity.
My Note: The Dance of the Feather is a re-telling of the conquest story through dance. It is part of Oaxaca’s oral history. Zapotec, the native language, is not written. In traditional villages, it is part of the usos y costumbres laws and traditions. The dance has become commercialized and performed by professionals during the annual Guelaguetza in Oaxaca’s auditorium. Please don’t confuse the commercial folkloric dance, which requires expensive tickets, with its original purpose.
There were probably four hundred people assembled, including villagers who would follow the procession through the streets. Accompanying the procession were official representatives from each of Teotitlan’s five sections, each a sponsor for a group of young women, plus other patrons who provide the means to build and maintain their canasta baskets.
All along the procession path, locals assembled in front of houses and on corners to watch and to pay respects.
I thought it was important for the North Carolina State University Study Abroad students to spend an overnight in an indigenous Zapotec village while they were here in Oaxaca. So, I recommended to Professor Ricardo Hernandez that we include a stay in Teotitlan del Valle as as part of our itinerary.
The students were here in Oaxaca — the valley and the coast — to study sustainability. Through the experience they learned that the definition is wide-ranging and far-reaching. It has to do with the land and her people, traditions and beliefs, values and practices. It is economic and social and political. It is still small scale agriculture here where farmers use age-old practices rather than technology.
It is instructive to study cultures where people have been successful for generations by transmitting knowledge as a way of life.
Afterall, this is the region where corn (maize) was hybridized over 8,000 years ago up the road at Yagul. We talked about Monsanto and GMO, how to overcome hunger and develop crops abundant enough to feed people without sacrificing nutrition. We compared the industrialized agriculture of the USA and the disappearance of family farms, and noticed how things work — and don’t — in Mexico.
I arranged for them to sleep at two local bed and breakfast inns — Casa Elena and Las Granadas B&B — operated by three generations of women. They ate home-cooked and delicious meals prepared from locally sourced, organic meat and vegetables.
Teotitlan del Valle is one of the few villages that still operates a daily market. It is a sight to behold entrepreneurial farmers and vendors who sell native corn, squash, beans, squash blossoms, poultry and meat, and more, plus all the household necessities for a home to operate here.
After the market, we toured the church and noted the carved stones inlaid into its walls. When the Spanish arrived, they razed the Zapotec temple and used the stones to build the church walls. The stucco has been peeled away to reveal this part of the village history. We walked around the back side of the church to see the recently restored archeological site that was the temple foundation.
This is a rug weaving village. There are now about 10,000 people who live here and more than 2,000 looms. Only about a dozen families use natural dyes to color the wool they use. We visited one of them — the home workshop of Galeria Fe y Lola –to see the process and learn about this part of the culture.
It was wonderful to be in the village market and explore it on our own.
Meeting 26-year old Omar Chavez Santiago from Galeria Fe y Lola was a testimony to artisan life and pride of workmanship — he is dedicated to continuing his culture. This is refreshing to see.
The church offered me a glimpse into the blend of Zapotec and Catholic traditions.
There is a reverence for community here that we don’t see at home.
Families are close-knit, welcoming to outsiders.
Everyone was consistently kind.
It was important to see the different ways people earn an income: baking bread, sewing, selling food, services and repair work, doctors and teachers, musicians and weavers — it looks like a self-sustaining community.
Walking the back streets of the town gave me a perspective for how people live in rural Mexico.
At Gracias a Dios mezcal palenque in Santiago Matatlan at the far end of the Tlacolula Valley, Emmy Hernandez, the daughter of mezcalero Oscar Hernandez, showed us the artesanal process of making this distilled beverage. Agave is an important native plant and agricultural product in the region. It contributes to Oaxaca’s economy and reputation as a tourist destination. This is also a family business and Emmy is the next generation to sustain it.
How many different types of agaves are there? They say over 200 types of agaves exist and 30 are suitable for making mezcal. Espadin is cultivated and easily to reproduce, and therefore, the most sustainable. The wild, or silvestre agaves, have a long growth cycle and are rare. I love cuishe (also spelled cuixe) and tepextate and tobala. For everyone harvested, some growers like Gracias a Dios are planting three to replace them. The wild ones are earthy and take on the flavors of the soil they grow in.
We are accepting reservations for 2020 and 2021 university study abroad programs. It takes about a year to plan this program. Please contact us for a proposal. firstname.lastname@example.org
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