Divine Daytripper Freelance Travel Writer


Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico


High atop a hill I watch as the village of Teotitlán del Valle prepares for the Fiesta of the Precious Blood of Christ.  A brass band plays before sunrise.  The smell of burning wood and roasting chili fills my lungs. Church bells chime, firecrackers explode and a cacophony of birds, roosters and donkeys unite to serenade this high sierra village of 6,000 an early morning song.

I am in the ancient Zapotec Indian village of Teotitlán, located sixteen miles east of the art-rich Mexican city of Oaxaca, on a week-long writers’ retreat with Zapotec Temple Catholic Churchpoet and writer Donna Hanelin.  We are staying at Casa Sagrada, a 12-room hilltophacienda, centered on five acres that offers a spectacular valley panorama.

To get a clear vision of the Zapotec way of life, I chose to view the world through ancient, old-world lenses.  In this agrarian society I saw men plowing the field with oxen, women washing clothes in the river, and young boys tending goat and sheep flocks through the high desert chaparral.  The air here is clean and pure along the Valley of Oaxaca’s lush northeastern foothills.

Teotitlán’s complex culture of fiesta and tradition is fueled by Catholicism, pre-Columbian idol worship and deep connection to community.  The heart of the village resides in the colonial 17th century Catholic church in the city’s plaza.  The church is built over a Zapotec temple, and I could still see the old stone walls, creating a visible struggle between the ancient world and the new world.  Still, the venerable church and courtyard felt resonate in its hallow and reverence.  Village women cradle in their arms large bouquets of red and orange gladiolas and make the sign of the cross as they pass by.  Older men remove their Fedora style hats and bend a knee in a gesture of respect to the dwelling place of spirits.

If the heart of the village is their devotion to spirit, then the brains of the operation is their world-renown rug weavings—their economic stability.  Over 95 percent of the working population of Teotitlán is self-employed.  I visited a rug weaver’s home-grown operation while strolling through the village of Teotitlán.

I entered the weaver’s adobe compound from a cherry red corrugated metal front door Arnulfo Mendoza Master Rug Weaverinto an open-air inner courtyard with fruit trees, pink bougainvillea, red roses, and a vegetable garden where peppers, squash and tomatoes grow.  An outdoor television sits on two bricks screening the World Cup of soccer while two young children watch.  A large wooden pedal loom sits beside it.

A sweet-tempered, congenial grandmother cards and spins sheep’s wool. Señora Bautista, the weaver’s wife, shows me the insect from the maguey plant that produces the cochineal scarlet red dye prized by weavers.  I am thrilled to learn that this is the same insect that the English used to dye their “red coats.” Soon her industrious husband begins to demonstrate his rug weaving skills.  They have a showroom in their compound and I buy a hand-woven purse in the color purple with a diamond-shape Zapotec design.  I promise to return with more customers for her.  Upon leaving I stop and smell a red rose.  Its scent is fragrant and strong.  Out of nowhere, the benevolent grandmother appears with clippers, trims the rose, and with a shy smile offers it to me.  I accept her gift.

On my return to our hilltop hacienda, Arnulfo Mendoza, the owner of Casa Mescal From Mitlan RegionSagrada, pours me some mescal, an alcohol elixir made from the agave plant.  The traditional Teotitlán way of drinking mescal is to select a lime, dip it into a mixture of salt, chili and a fire roasted agave worm, suck on the lime, then take a shot of mescal.   We toast por todo mal mescal, por todo bien tambien “for everything bad, mescal, for everything good as well.”  The mescal we drink comes from the Mitla region, famous for its alcohol concoction.  It is a twice distilled process aged in an oak barrel for a year that has a smoky taste and an orange finish.  I feel an immediate rush of well-being, as the fiery sensation hits my brain.  Arnulfo offers me another shot and without reservations I say yes.  What the heck, I’m on vacation.

Our last night at the writer’s retreat was held in the chapel at Casa Sagrada.  The chapel is a sweet place for prayer, or where one might ask their beloved for a hand in marriage, or maybe even the location to view a body before they Altar in Chapal at Casa Sagradadepart for the next world.  On that night, our teacher asked us to read aloud to the group of twelve women seated in hard backed wooden chairs, our favorite piece we had written that week.  When my turn came to stand in front of the group, I read an angst-filled existential piece on where I would be when the epiphany occurs.  Epiphanies are little mysteries solved, a time when the skies part and the sun shines to illuminate the answer.  Where will I be when the epiphany occurs?  You’ll be in an ancient utopian village overlooking the mountains of Teotitlán, a place where time languishes like a luxurious Sunday morning.