Monthly Archives: February 2013

On the Road to Tenejapa, Chiapas, Mexico

Tenejapa is a Tzeltal-speaking Mayan village in the Chiapas highlands about 45 minutes by collectivo from San Cristobal de las Casas.  Though it is off-the-beaten-path and receives very few foreign visitors, Tenejapa is alluring because of its vibrant Thursday market and its fine textiles — among the finest in southern Mexico.   I heard that Maria Meza, one of the founders (along with Chip Morris) of the famed Sna Jolobil cooperative, now operates an independent women’s cooperative in Tenejapa.

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That was enough incentive to get me out of bed early on Thursday morning despite a bit of la gripa, walk past the San Cristobal de las Casas daily street market on Av. General Utrilla, up past the Santo Domingo Church and around the back of the giant local food market to search for the location of the collectivo to take us to the village.  

Along the way we were sidetracked by opportunities to shop and buy and oggle: lengths of skirt material from Zinacantan, sheared sheep from Chamula, medicinal herbs, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

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Fay was more than tempted by the Zinacantan assortment and succumbed to a rare impulse.

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And, at every corner along the way:  Donde esta el colectivo a Tenejapa?  There, tucked away on a side street was the taxi station.  Que milagro!

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Fay, my Canadian traveling companion and I were off on an adventure!  We eschewed the idea of hiring a private taxi for 600+ pesos and opted for the shared taxi ride to the pueblo that costs 25 pesos (about $2 USD) each way.  Amazing.  We climbed into the highlands along a curving mountain road with two other very friendly people plus the careful young driver and got to practice our Spanish along the way!

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The taxi deposited us just past the zocalo around 10:30 a.m.  The market street was bustling with vendors selling everything from tools, cooking and sewing supplies, yarns, back-strap loomed waist cinches to hold up the tube skirts, other traditional Tenejapa clothing plus imported jeans and t-shirts.  What I noticed is that the young people here are still adhering to traditional traje (dress), which is an indication that the culture is very strong.

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Tenejapa is noted for its integration of Chamula and Tenejapa groups.  The two co-exist, respect each other’s differences, and have their different religious practices in the same town — unusual in this part of the world.  Commerce on the market street was conducted by both Chamulans and Tenejapans.

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It is difficult to take photographs here in public places.  More than once I was reprimanded with some vigor and had to put my camera down.  When I asked Maria Meza if I could take her photograph after making a purchase, she quietly agreed but would not meet my eye.  Privately arranged photo sessions in the future will be on my list of what to prepare for when I return!

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The market place was patrolled by village officials doing their cargo (required public service) in full Tenejapa regalia — back-strap loomed sash embellished with red bordado, beribboned straw hat with dangling multi-colored blue, purple, red, orange wool ball tassles, white woven shirts and short white pants with cuffs ornately decorated with brocade weaving.  From their shoulders hung both ixtle and wool woven bags, practical and beautiful.

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I could not bring myself to even try to sereptitiously take photographs of the officials out of respect for local customs — and for fear of losing my camera! (I heard Internet tales about people being thrown in jail for taking photos!)  But, the vision is still imprinted in my mind.

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As we left town, a group of young women was entering one of the shops from the sidewalk.  They were dressed in extraordinary hand-woven huipiles.  We asked, Where are you from?  Cancuc, they replied.  I asked if I could take their photo.  They giggled and evaporated indoors.  Later that afternoon, a Cancuc huipil was on display at Na Bolom Gallery (see above).  The next best thing under the circumstances.  Fay saw a used one from Cancuc the following day in a textile shop on the walking street Real Guadalupe.  She bought it right up!  It was a beauty.

Now, I’m back in Oaxaca after the eleven-hour overnight bus trip, living in my little Teotitlan del Valle casita.  There’s no hot water yet, but one bathroom and the kitchen is functioning and the views are outstanding.  More about this next!




Chiapas Pottery Village Amatenango del Valle

Bela, of Bela’s B&B, our favorite San Cristobal de las Casas home away from home, invited us to go along with her to the pottery village of Amatenango del Valle on a quest to replace a ceramic chiminea.  The village is about an hour from the city by taxi in the pine forest highlands where sheep graze and Mayan farmers plant their milpas of corn, squash and beans.  

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Our first stop was at the home pottery of Esperanza Perez Gomez, one of the finer artisans in town.  She works with her sister and together they shape and paint fabulous jaguars, chickens, doves and serving dishes.

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Here the pots are made from local clay and fired in a kiln that is a platform of metal grating surrounded by stones, then covered with wood and cow or sheep dung.  It is all “cooked” above ground and probably doesn’t reach much higher than 800 or 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, considered low fire in the pottery world.  The pieces are decorative and not designed for cooking.

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The stalls that line the road entering into town are lined with clay kitsch and women vendors dressed in their hand-embroidered huipiles, which are every bit as interesting as the clay vessels their families produce.

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In addition to making pottery, Esperanza and her sister have a small notions shop where they also make and sell pleated polyester aprons and two styles of huipiles — one is a cotton-candy birthday cake extravanganza of ruffles and lace and the other is a more traditional geometry of squares and rectangles.  The younger women seem to gravitate to the frilly, but it also appears as if it is an individual preference.

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The older women absolutely resist having their photo taken.  Here, behind Fay, you can see Esperanza’s mother running for cover, her chal (shawl) pulled over her head in a quick exit.   Esperanza has more experience with foreign visitors so she agrees to pose.

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We were not successful finding the size chiminea that Bela needed to replace the one in her dining room.  However, while she was looking, Fay and I peeled off to inspect the corn stalls and the women wearing gloriously colored textiles.  In the process, I met a charming young woman selling fresh steamed corn.  I asked for it drizzled with lime juice, salt and a little chili.  A mayonnaise smear is also an option.

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This is traditional, REAL corn!  Huge meaty kernels, filling and delicious.  It’s no wonder that maize is mother earth of Mesoamerica!

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And, did I buy a huipil?  Of course, I did.  Who could resist either the design or this beautiful face?  As I tried them on, all the vendors gathered around me, a cacaphony of color.  As soon as Fay pulled out the camera, they evaporated.

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Since there were four of us traveling together, we were able to share the cost of a private driver, 600 pesos total for five hours!  There is also a collectivo — a shared taxi or combi — that you catch near the market above the Santo Domingo Church.

Tonina, Chiapas: Atop the Mayan World

The Mayan archeological site of Tonina is breathtaking.  The Moon Handbook on Chiapas says it is one of the best sites that no one seems to know about.  In fact, there were only about ten people there when we visited.  About midway between San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque, and a few miles off a side road from Ocosingo, Tonina is in the heart of Zapatista E.Z.L.N. country.

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Tonina boasts the highest pyramid in Mesoamerica.  May I boast that I managed to climb to the summit?  Ojala.  The Acropolis has more vertical gain than any other known Mayan structure.  It is really steep.

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Our taxista Ricardo drove me, Fay, Gayle and Dennis to Tonina from San Cristobal de las Casas on a two-and-a-half hour, winding ride on an S-curve mountain road lined with pine forests and valley vistas.  We went through Zapatista country and dropped down into the semi-tropical Ocosingo valley where ripe fruit hang from banana trees and cowboys ride the fence line that corral herds of cattle.  They say the best cheese comes from Ocosingo.

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By the time we arrived it was almost noon.  I could feel the altitude although we had dropped almost 2,000 feet from San Cristobal’s altitude of nearly 7,000 feet.  It was a dry, very hot day.  Bromeliads hung from the trees and wild begonias grew between the ancient stones where Mayan aqueducts once held water.

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Fortunately, we were wise enough to share in the cost of a wonderful local Spanish-speaking guide who lived in the nearby village of Nuevo Jersalen and participated in the archeological excavations.  He was both knowledgeable and patient as we carefully made our way higher and higher up the seven levels of the site.

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Between the four of us, we were able to help each other out with translations and got most of what he explained to us.  While he said the guided visit would be two hours long, in fact we were there with him for three hours.  Without his helping hand, it would have been impossible for me to climb to the top!

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I climbed the last, very steep part almost hand-over-hand, never looking down, going across the face of the stones from left to right.  Slowly.  Slowly.  And, then suddenly I was at the top where the vistas are extraordinary.

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Once, many years ago when I had first visited Chichen Itza and Uxmal, my dream was to go to all the major Mayan sites in Mesoamerica.  I’ve almost completed that dream and have added Tikal, Palenque, Bonampak and Yaxchilan to the list.  I never imagined that Tonina would be on par with those other more famous sites, but I was surprised to discover that it is a worthy equal.

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After getting down from the top we spent some time in the wonderful museum where the original stone carvings, glyphs, funerary masks, stelae, and clay vessels that had been excavated are on display.

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Tonina survived for 200 years after the fall of Palenque.  As the Mayan world was crumbling around them, the leaders focused more and more on death, sacrifice, and doom.  At the museum, I talked with students from Moscow University who speak fluent Spanish and are involved in translating the glyphs from Tonina as part of their thesis.

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More archeological digs are happening at Tonina.  As recently as four years ago, a new tomb was discovered.  This is a site you do not want to miss!

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On the way back, we made a stop at Oxchuc where cloth woven on back strap looms are embroidered and worn by indigenous women from the region.  It was a great day!

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The Church at San Juan Chamula, Chiapas

First, a word of warning:  Photographs are forbidden in the church at San Juan Chamula.  This is one of the most important things to know when visiting there.  If you are caught, your camera or your memory card will be confiscated .  This is not heresay, but fact.  Fay, my travel friend, and I saw a plainclothes church guard sitting with a tourist going through photos to guarantee none were taken inside the church.  I was asked to cover my camera several times during our visit and reassured them I had taken no photos.

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The church at San Juan Chamula is a shrouded, mystical place, filled with thousands of lit votive candles illuminating the space.  Built as a Catholic church during the conquest, the church is now community owned and is a worship space that blends Catholicism with pre-Hispanic Mayan rituals.

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The tile floor is obscured, covered by fresh pine needles.  Families sweep away the needles to make a space in front of one of the many altars to Catholic patron saints.  They sit together quietly on the floor, light candles and murmur prayers.  Copal incense fills the air.  Banners stream from the high ceiling.  Dozens of lilies cover the main altar competing with the aroma of copal.

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It is Sunday and we are lucky, there are very few foreign visitors and we can take our time to respectfully observe and appreciate this religious experience  practiced in this part of Mexico.  This is a very traditional region, protective of their culture and way of life.

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At an altar near the entrance to the church a young woman sits with her small son, her mother, and a curandera.  A live white chicken dances beside them and tries to fly, its legs tied together.  Five fresh eggs are lined up in front of the young woman along with a dead brown chicken.  The curandera takes three eggs in one hand and two in another, passes them in front of and behind the young woman speaking to her in tzotzil.  The young woman then makes a sign, is it a blessing, on the forehead of her boy, who is about four years old.

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As I stand leaning against the 16th century adobe wall of the church, a guard in traditional Chamulan dress approaches me and asks where I’m from.  Carolina del Norte, I reply.  He says he worked in Bellingham, Washington, a few years ago, and then goes on explains that this is a purification ritual to cleanse the young woman.  Perhaps she is despondent or depressed, having negative emotional feelings, and the exorcism will give her relief.  The chickens and the egg are the receptacles and the curandera is the instrument.

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After about an hour and a half in the church, Fay and I went out into the plaza, where Carmelo sold us a string of gorgeous amber for 700 pesos (after serious bargaining) that we agreed to split the cost and share.  I bought two woven ixtle bags from a farmer from San Andres Larrainzar.

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Then, before we took the collectivo back to San Cristobal de las Casas, we wandered the market street where there were extraordinary textiles at excellent prices.  As for the church, you will need to imagine it.  I took no interior photos.


What I do love are the women with furry black sheep wool skirts, the brightly colored punta de cruz (cross point needlework) blouses, and the children.  The collectivo costs 12 pesos each way.  You get it near the Jose Castillo mercado.  Very easy and safe.

Six Flight Mezcal Tasting with El Cortijo

The village of Santiago Matatlan bills itself at the mezcal capital of the world. The arch holding the banner welcoming you into town has a copper still on top of it.  I’m from North Carolina and in that part of the world the same type of still is used for moonshine.   There is no comparison.   Especially when going for a tasting with El Cortijo mezcales.

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After our Felted Fashion Workshop ended, Debbie, Leslie, Christine and I went off on an all-day excursion through the Tlacolula Valley.  After stopping at Yagul and Mitla, we headed to Matatlan where I had made an appointment in advance with Raul Mendez Zamora, fifth generation mezcal maker, to visit the family home.  No one lives there now.  It is used for labeling and packaging.  It is like visiting a 1950’s museum.   This is where Raul’s grandmother came up with the idea of a private label, the first in town.

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Raul showed us the original labels, including one with a photo of Brigitte Bardot.  Next to this was an antique garafon, or blown glass jar, used to store the mezcal after it went through the aging process.

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After a brief introduction into the family mezcal making history, we sat down at the dining room table.  Raul asked us if we had the wherewithal to taste five mezcals.  We said, aye, yayayaya, that’s a lot.  Three ought to do it, we replied! Ultimately, we ended up tasting six, including several of the new limited edition mezcals distilled from wild agave that tastes like herbs from the field.

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Raul instructed us.  First smell the aroma.  Take a bit of the liquor on your tongue for a second then toss it back until your mouth gets used to it. Since we had our trusty taxi driver Abraham, as we moved up the flights from joven to añejo  to reposado to the wild agave and finally to the king, pechuga de pollo.  The tastes were becoming muy suave.  The flights started at 38% alcohol and went up to 54% alcohol.  We were sipping slowly. 

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I can’t say we were borrachitas by the end of it all, but we sure did feel good when we got home to Teotitlan del Valle, only 10 miles away.


During the tasting, we heard the sound of little girl voices from the street.  In came a family of basket sellers.  We had a great time playing with the children as we prepared to leave, new baskets in hand.

It takes nine years to grow the maguey fruit before it can be harvested.  The aging process can be as much as three years in oak barrels — or longer.

The bad news is that El Cortijo is not exported to the United States.  Nor do they sell at the Matatlan casa.  The good news is that the brothers Raul and Juan Carlos who now operate the business have opened Mezcaleria El Cortijo in the historic center of downtown Oaxaca city.  There you can taste and buy!  (Two bottles per person allowed into the U.S.)

Mezcaleria El Cortijo, Avenida Cinco de Mayo, between Abasolo and Murguia, across the street from the Quinta Real Hotel (formerly El Camino Real).  Tel: 951-514-3939.  They are open 6-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday.