Oaxaca Whirlwind: Mezcal, Worms, Ants, Mole — What Happened to Culture?

It may have started 10 years ago when the New York Times travel section started featuring destinations you could dip into for a long weekend. Oaxaca was one of them. Arrive mid-afternoon Friday, bar hop Friday night, dip your toes into archeology with a quick trip to Monte Alban, try street tacos for lunch and fine dining for dinner, do a bit of market shopping, travel out to the Sunday Tlacolula market followed by a fast in-and-out weaving demonstration along the Teotitlan highway and get out of town by 4 p.m. Sunday. If you have 12 hours more, have another great dinner at El Catedral, Origen, Casa Oaxaca, or Los Danzantes. 36 Hours in Oaxaca. Isn’t that enough?

My Austin, TX cousin Norm sent me a text last week asking if I’d seen Somebody Feed Phil, Episode 1, Season 5, Oaxaca. (Netflix link: https://www.netflix.com/watch/81486397?trackId=253448517)

Norm wanted to know if I’d been to any of the places featured in the 55-minute segment. Curious, I logged on to discover, Yes, I know Casa Oaxaca, Origen, their famous chefs, the Abastos Market, the street taco corner, how to taste and understand mezcal, and the tapestry weaving cooperative featured. I’ve even written about eating chicatanas, gusanos, chicharrones and chapulines for Mexico Today. I know some of the fixers (the people who set up the visits). I don’t know everything. I defer to the experts for that. I also try to research for accurate reporting. The Oaxaca episode of Somebody Feed Phil had information errors and understandably, offered a sensational, brief overview for the foodies and fun-lovers among us. It could have done more. If nothing else grabs your attention, it’s going to be eating insects.

So, watching the visually stunning episode solidified my long-time desire to sit down to write about a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while: When you invite people to discover a place, it takes more than dipping your toe in the water. We must go beyond many of the more famous places featured. You need time to get out into the villages, talk to people, understand the history and the culture, ask questions. You need to discover how people survived over the centuries, sustained themselves, cultivated corn that was first hybridized 10 miles from where I live in the Tlacolula Valley 10,000 years ago. You need to know how the crafts developed out of necessity to clothe themselves and prepare food. You need to understand the political complexities of syncretism — the mix of indigenous religious spirituality and Spanish Catholicism. You need to do more than eat worms, ants and grasshoppers, make yourself up in costume mimicking the film Coco on Day of the Dead. You need to do more than sample mezcal — you need to know why it was used in ceremonial rituals.

Oaxaca is known for her sensational food and beverage. To be a responsible tourist, you need to take a deeper dive into over 8,000 years of Zapotec, Mixtec, Mixe, Ikoots, Amusgos, Chinantla, and the nine other indigenous language groups that comprise Oaxaca today. You may want to read Origin: The Genetic History of the Americas, as I am.

Yes, Oaxaca needs tourism. Our economy here depends on it. There is no other industry and it is how the formal and informal (cash) economy functions. Oaxaca lures people into the idea of coming to sample all that is offered because of its diversity in people and plant life. Of course, the lure is magical — the color, the light, the indigenous dress and the amazing food and beverage. What’s not to love? A five-day dip into the culture is an introduction where we can observe, ask questions, be respectful and discover more. Ultimately, we want you to return again and again. We also want you to learn rather than to judge or impose your own standards on a society that has thrived much longer than those of us whose origins are from Western cultures. Community runs deep here. Individualism not so much.

So when you come for Guelaguetza or Dia de los Muertos or Semana Santa or Navidad, please come with an open heart and mind. Don’t paint your face for the street party and think that you are participating like a local. Locals don’t do that. It is a Hollywood interpretation. Find the makers who are extraordinary but who have not yet achieved the fame bestowed on them by Anthony Bourdain or Phil Rosenthal or Conde Nast Traveler.

Go deeper. Take your time. Discover. There is still much to be discovered.

Tempted to visit? Go deep with us and participate in our one-day to week-long immersion visits that introduce you to the art and artisans of Oaxaca and other parts of Mexico. We still have some spaces open for our Summer Textile Mountain Tour, Day of the Dead Cultural Tour in 2022 and in Chiapas and Michoacan for 2023. See the right column of this site and click on the program that interests you.

Endangered Monarch Butterflies in Mexico: On Your Bucket List?

Monarch butterflies winter in the Mexican states of Michoacan and Estado de Mexico. Environmentalists report that the butterfly population increased in 2021 by 35% for various reasons, including fewer forest fires and lower rates of logging. But there is still considerable concern because of the use of herbicides to eradicate milkweed in the USA and Canada. Milkweed is essential plant food and egg-laying environment for the Monarchs. And, according to the World Wildlife Fund, climate change with hotter, drier weather, is also affecting migration patterns, often shortening them and putting more stress on the survivability of these amazing insects.

You can read this Washington Post story, Monarch butterfly numbers increase 35%.

I was at the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the State of Michoacan in 2019, noted as a year that millions of butterflies wintered over from their long journey south, often covering thousands of miles. Along the way, they feed, lay eggs to hatch the next generation, and arrive in Mexico, staying from November to March. Four generations of butterflies live and die along the eight-month migratory path to ensure continuity.

The Purepecha peoples, indigenous to the region, believe that Monarch butterflies are the souls of deceased children who likely died from natural causes. Violent school massacres did not create this lore.

Bucket List Tour 2023: Monarch Butterflies and Michoacan

In the past, I wrote about our group experience seeing the butterflies in Michoacan. I never realized it SHOULD be on everyone’s bucket list until I got there. It was an amazing emotional, spiritual and mystical experience to see millions of butterflies hanging from the tree tops high in the mountains several hours beyond Mexico City. As the sun came out, the butterflies opened their wings and the dark black clusters turned to brilliant orange and the sky begins to flutter, juxtaposing orange against blue and dark green foliage. I experienced this as an affirmation of life, endurance, tenacity and ancient patterns of survival and continuity.

We have five spaces remaining for the 2023 tour. If you are interested, please do not hesitate to make a reservation deposit. This tour will fill.

Here are links to stories about our past experiences:

Fragile, Glorious Monarch Butterflies

Millions of Monarch Butterflies Michoacan Biosphere

In San Pedro Chenalho, Chiapas, Women Unite By Weaving

In March 2022, I had the good fortune to meet the weavers of the Maya cooperative Tsobol Antsetik (Women United) where they live and work in the township of Chixilton, Chenalho, Chiapas, on International Women’s Day. The group was formed over two decades ago and has 25 members. They use the back strap loom to weave for personal use and to sell, when they can. This is so important because without this work to sustain their life on ancestral lands, they would be forced to migrate to other parts of Mexico or the USA for employment. Besides weaving, they help husbands and sons to grow corn and beans and coffee.

I went through the auspices of Weaving for Justice, a Las Cruces, New Mexico not-for-profit founded by Christine Eber, Ph.D., an anthropologist who teaches at New Mexico State University. This is an organization that knows no boundaries. Members are from throughout the USA, Canada and worldwide. Flora Graham and Sheryl Williams, both members, who were participants on our Chiapas Textile Tour, arranged the visit.

To get there is easy … and not. Chenalho is a mountain town about an hour from the hustle bustle of San Cristobal del las Casas. We find the designated colectivo taxi garage on a commercial street beyond Santo Domingo Church, deep in the indigenous market that encompasses many city blocks. The streets are packed with tianguis, the temporary tents where informal vendors sell fruit, vegetables, housewares, brassieres, infant clothing, and occasional handcrafts. After paying the fare of 200 pesos for five of us, we make out way out of the valley and up the winding road.

Curves and switchbacks take us through terraced fields where spring corn has not yet been planted. on one side of the road, fern-filled rock walls send forth rivulets of water cascading down the hill. On the other side, a sheer drop off gives us views of lush green fields where giant round winter squash are ready for harvest. Sheep, goats and cows graze. Bromeliads cling to tree branches. A curl of smoke in the distance is either from a field being cleared (slash and burn agriculture) or a cooking fire. Humble wood dwellings dot the landscape. As we get closer to town, we begin to see women wearing their traje (indigenous garments) as they sweep porches or tend to children and livestock. A lonely painted wood road sign offers gasoline for sale at the neighborhood convenience store around the bend.

I’ve always admired the back-strap loomed striped cotton cloth of Chenalho, typically embroidered or woven using the supplementary weft technique on the bodice with symbols central to life on the highlands, central to dreams and mythologies: stars, a crescent moon, corn stalks, field furrows, strawberries, turtles, butterflies, hearts, spiders, grapes, dog paws, the heads of caterpillars and fish bones. A design called five spines is most emblematic of the village.

Years ago, during my first visit to Chiapas, I found this incredible weaving and embroidery in the artisan market in front of Santo Domingo Church. Today, there are few pieces to be found. It’s been a dream to go to the village, but I never managed it until March 2022. Here, I found a creative, dedicated and energetic group of women of all ages, dedicated to preserving their textile traditions.

Christine Eber writes, “Since the 1990’s, young women have been inventing new designs that include animals, insects, plants and fruits. They embroider these designs on their blouses and some put them on their skirts.” As time progressed, more shiny, synthetic threads were incorporated into the embroidery in addition to cotton. As these threads became more available, there was a move away from using wool which produced a bulky embroidery that wasn’t as fine.

We are adding a visit to Chenalho on our 2023 Chiapas Textile Tour. There are four spaces open. Come with us for a textile adventure of a lifetime!

Our tours are always off-the-beaten path, exploring the best textiles, meeting with makers.

Weaving for Justice provides support through Sophie’s Circle, the 501(C)3 that accepts tax-deductible donations and offers books and clothing for sale to support the women and their families.

Our tours are aligned with Weaving for Justice values: We ensure that producers receive fair prices and their values, goals and needs guide the fair trade process. We never bargain. It takes hours and months to make these garments. We support providing equal employment opportunities for all people, particularly the most disadvantaged. By bringing visitors to remote villages, we offer opportunities for creativity and individual recognition. We support providing healthy and safe working conditions within the local context. We respect cultural traditions, do not judge another way of life nor compare it to our own. We value reciprocity and respect. We have been bringing groups of textile lovers to Chiapas for many years and we are committed to building long-term relationships, to autonomy and human rights.

NEW! One-Day Indigo Dye Workshop

Indigo blue is one of those magical colors that so many of us covet. It comes from a leafy green plant that looks like pea shoots and is found in many countries around the equator including Africa, India, Japan AND Oaxaca, Mexico. Laboriously cultivated and processed in the humid conditions of Santiago Niltepec near the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexican indigo yields a deep, rich blue color when it is dipped in the fermented dye bath several times.

In fact, indigo is not technically a dye but a pigment, which coats but doesn’t penetrate the fibers. It can be used successfully on animal and plant fibers like wool, cotton, linen and silk it can also be used to color wood and concrete. It does not need a mordant, but it is tricky to work with! Our dye workshop shows you how.

We call it magic because it is precise chemistry, where oxidization occurs to release the color. When you dip the fiber into the dye bath then lift it out, you watch the material change magically from green to blue before your eyes. The amount of indigo, water temperature, and fructose added to the dye bath (an organic, non-toxic natural sugar) must be precise.

Indigo was used to distinguish royalty in many cultures around the world and the French used it to distinguish the color of their military garb.

One-Day Indigo Dye Workshop

From 10:00 am to 3:00 pm. You grind the indigo into powder and prepare the dye bath, learning at least two different recipes and the history of indigo in Oaxaca. You will experiment with a shibori technique and solid color dyeing on cotton. If you wish, you can bring a small amount of linen or silk to experiment with, too. You will have a choice of making napkins, a table runner or a scarf.

You set your own dates. Please send several dates you are available and we will advise as to our availability.

Private workshop fee is $235 for one person. $195 per person for two or more people.

How to Register and Pay: Send Norma Schafer an email to tell us your preferred dates. We will check available dates and let you know. Then, you tell us you are ready to register.

You can choose one of three ways to reserve with a non-refundable 25% deposit:

  1. Zelle bank transfer with no service fee
  2. PayPal with a 3% service fee (we send you a request for funds)
  3. Venmo with a 3% service fee (we send you a request for funds)

Please tell us which payment method you prefer when you tell us you want to register.

The balance is due in cash on the day of the workshop in either US dollars or MXN pesos (at the exchange rate of the day).

Once you register and make your deposit, we send you a confirmation along with the location of the dye studio, which is located in the historic district of Oaxaca city, about a 20 minute walk from the Zocalo.

  • Lunch is on your own. You can bring a lunch or go out in the neighborhood.
  • Please bring your own drinks and snacks.
  • We give directions to the workshop after you register and pay the registration fees.
  • Please, no children under the age of 15. 

About Your Instructor: The workshop instructors are knowledgeable experts in the natural dye process and materials. They provide dyed wool and cotton yarns and thread for many of Oaxaca’s famous weavers and textile designers, and work with textile designers worldwide to offer customized colors that are used in fashion and home goods.

Please let us know if you have any questions. Thank you.

Bucket List Tour: Monarch Butterflies + Michoacan

February 5 – 13, 2023 – 9 days, 8 nights

I never knew that visiting the Monarch butterflies in Mexico should have been on my bucket list until I got there. Tucked into the mountainous forests of Estado de Mexico is the terminus of the butterfly migration from North America where the noble Monarchs winter and reproduce. The experience is mystical, magical, life-affirming and memorable. I’ve always felt that being here is one of those moments that inspire and validate our existence on the planet, and gives us pause to appreciate the constant cycle of nature at its most magnificent.

But this is not all! After this first part of our tour, we travel to the magical craft and folk art towns of Michoacan, including Morelia, San Juan Capula, Patzcuaro and the indigenous Purepecha towns surrounding Lake Patzcuaro. We meet with famous artisans and those off-the-beaten path whose work is recognized as Grand Masters of Mexican Folk Art by Fundacion Banamex. We meet weavers, potters, embroiderers, mask-makers, coppersmiths. We explore in safety and security, led by a local guide whom I know very well. We NEVER take you into any locations that are dangerous or threatening.

This tour is limited to 12 travelers. We have five single rooms and 4 shared rooms available.

Here is our preliminary itinerary:

Day 1, Sunday, February 5: Fly to Mexico City and check in to our comfortable hotel located near the Zocalo, the historic Aztec archeological site Templo Mayor, and excellent restaurants. Day and evening on your own.

Day 2, Monday, February 6: After breakfast, welcome and orientation, join us for a walking tour of Mexico City that includes stops at Bellas Artes and Museo Franz Mayer. Afternoon on your own. Group Gala Welcome dinner. (Breakfast and dinner included. Lunch on your own.)

Day 3, Tuesday, February 7: After early breakfast, we load luggage onto the van and leave CDMX for the town of Angangueo. Here we visit San Felipe de los Alzati, and the archeological site of Zirahuato, When we arrive, we enjoy a walking tour in Angangueo and check in to our hotel. Overnight in Angangueo. (Breakfast and lunch included. Dinner on your own.)

Those orange things are butterflies, waking up to the sun

Day  4, Wednesday, February 8:  After breakfast, we pack up again and travel to El Rosario Monarch Reserve in the Sierra Chincua to observe the winter home of the majestic Monarchs. In late afternoon, we get back on the van to travel to the historic colonial city of Morelia, capital of Michoacan. Overnight in Morelia. (Breakfast and lunch included. Dinner on your own.)

Day 5, Thursday, February 9: Orientation walking tour in the Historical area of Morelia.  We have lunch together and then you have the rest of the afternoon and evening to explore at your leisure. (Breakfast and lunch included. Dinner on your own.) Overnight in Morelia.

Morelia at night

Day 6, Friday, February 10: We leave Morelia for Patzcuaro after breakfast, making a stop in San Juan Capula to visit the town where ceramic Catrina figures captivate collectors’ attention. We arrive in Patzcuaro, check in to our comfortable hotel and participate in an orientation walking tour of the historic town. Overnight in Patzcuaro. (Breakfast, lunch and dinner included.)

Painted lacquer gourds, a Michoacan specialty

Day 7, Saturday, February 11: After breakfast, we explore the artisan towns around Lake Patzcuaro, including Tupataro, Cuanajo, Santa Clara and Tzintzuntzan. Overnight in Patzcuaro. (Breakfast and lunch included. Dinner on your own.)

Day 8, Sunday, February 12: After breakfast, you have the day to yourself. Maybe you want to revisit sites around town or hire a private taxi to take you back to one of the artisan villages. We join together in early evening for a Grand Finale Dinner. (Breakfast and dinner included. Overnight in Patzcuaro.

Day 9: Monday, February 13: Transfer to the Mexico City airport. You may also choose to depart to Morelia airport or Guadalajara airport. Airport transportation is on your own. We will help you make arrangements. Breakfast included.

Cost:

Shared Room: $3,360 each person, two beds

Single Room: $3,985 one person, one bed

Non-Refundable Deposit to Reserve: $500.

About your Oaxaca Cultural Navigator Eric Chavez Santiago

Eric Chavez Santiago is an expert in Oaxaca and Mexican textiles and folk art with a special interest in artisan development and promotion. He is a weaver and natural dyer by training and a fourth generation member of the Fe y Lola textile group. He and his wife Elsa are founders of Taller Teñido a Mano dye studio where they produce naturally dyed yarn skeins and textiles for worldwide distribution. Eric is a business partner with Oaxaca Cultural Navigator, too. He is trilingual, speaking Zapotec, Spanish and English and is a native of Teotitlan del Valle. He is a graduate of Anahuac University, founder of the Museo Textil de Oaxaca education department, and former managing director of folk art gallery Andares del Arte Popular. He has intimate knowledge of local traditions, culture and community.

Norma Schafer, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC founder, will accompany this group.

What is Included:

  • 8  nights lodging
  • 8  breakfasts
  • 5  lunches
  • 3 dinners
  • Snacks
  • Expert bilingual guide services
  • Museums and archeological site admissions
  • Luxury van transportation
  • An educational experience of a lifetime

What is NOT Included:

  • Airplane tickets
  • Required international travel insurance
  • In-country COVID test
  • Required vaccines, PPE and hand-sanitizer
  • Any meals, snacks and taxis not specified in the itinerary
  • All alcoholic beverages, tips for guides and services, and personal purchases

Reservations and Cancellations.  A $500 non-refundable deposit is required to guarantee your spot. You can make your reservation deposit using one of the following (please tell us which payment method you prefer):

  1. Zelle bank transfer with no service fee
  2. PayPal request for funds with a 3% service fee
  3. Venmo request for funds with a 3% service fee

The balance is due in two equal payments. The second payment of 50% of the balance is due on or before September 15, 2022. The third payment is due on or before December 1, 2022. 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 December 1, 2022, there are no refunds. If you cancel on or before December 1, we will refund 50% of your deposit received to date less the $500 non-refundable deposit. After that, there are no refunds. If we cancel for whatever reason, you will receive a full refund. 

The tour and COVID-19: Many believe that the epidemic is waning, however, data say otherwise. The virus continues to mutate. You are required to be FULLY VACCINATED to participate. Fully vaccinated is defined as all vaccinations required by the CDC including boosters. You must send Proof of Vaccination (this includes all boosters) by email on or before December 1, 2022.  You can take a photo of the documentation and email it to us. All participants are required to wear N95 OR KN95 face masks when visiting artisans and it is strongly suggested that you use the mask when you are in crowds of people or indoors. We also use hand-sanitizer and practice social distancing while together. Please note: You MUST also provide proof of international travel insurance including $50,000 of emergency medical evacuation coverage. 

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 and how you want to make your deposit

Who Should Attend • Anyone who wants a bucket-list experience, who is interested in indigenous culture and creativity, who wants a deep immersion experience into textile 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 buy and find the stories to market what you sell.

To Register, Policies, Procedures & Cancellations–Please Read

All documentation for plane reservations, required travel insurance, and personal health issues must be received by December 1,  2022 or we reserve the right to cancel your registration without reimbursement.

Terrain, Walking and Group Courtesy: While we are primarily transported by van, there will be some walking/hiking in the butterfly sanctuary and as we walk in towns and villages. In addition, many streets and sidewalks are cobblestones, narrow and uneven. We will do a lot of walking. We recommend you bring a walking stick and wear sturdy shoes.

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. Adaptability, flexibility and respectfulness are essential. We encourage a no-whining attitude. There is adequate free time to go off on your own if you wish.