Vive Mexico! I recently had the privilege of visiting Mexico to attend the Adventure Travel World Summit as part of a tweet up (as the Prudent Mamas on facebook and twitter followed along). I have always been a passionate lover of Mexico, having traveled there many times in many different ways throughout my life – from driving over the border down to Puerto Nuevo for spiny lobster feasts, to beaching it up with girlfriends in Puerto Vallarta, to art walks through the rich cultural mecca that is Mexico City. But in all my trips to Mexico, I’ve never had an experience like this one. I had heard people say that Chiapas is the most beautiful state in Mexico, and after my time in San Cristobal de las Casas and the surrounding highlands, I understand why. I could do a travel write up exalting over the delicious regional foods we ate, the pyramids we climbed, and the sights we saw, but I feel like there is something very special about this area that the Prudent Mamas will enjoy much more: the crafts and textiles of Chiapas. I think we shall found a new kind of travel: Crafty Tourism. Behold…
Chiapas is home to about 4 million people, approximately one million of whom are part of indigenous communities. While there is so much to know and learn about the different cultures, languages, and traditions of these Mayan descendants, in my short time there I was (of course) particularly taken with the textiles and the women that make them. Let me show you what I mean…
After flying into the capital of Tuxtla Gutierrez and transferring by car over the corn-filled mountains to your hotel in the city, you will feel like you are in another world entirely. While wandering the streets of San Cristo you will find Moorish and Baroque architecture melding together to create a colonial charm. It reminded me more of Antigua, Guatemala than any part of Mexico I had seen before, with the low architectural profiles, rich yet muted colors, and green mountains looming overhead.
There are markets, shops, and street vendors selling every manner of trinket and craft, but none moved my heart like our visit to this shop, Sna Jolobil. Sna Jolobil means “The Weaver’s House” in tzotzil (a predominate Mayan language). It is an organization made up of 800 weavers from tzotzil- and tzeltal-speaking indigenous communities from the highlands surrounding San Cristo.
The women of these communities came together to form this business with the main objective of preserving and revitalizing Mayan art through the study and recreation of ancient textiles, natural dying methods, and ancestral weaving techniques. The profits from the business go directly back into the communities of Chiapas, making it a meaningful tourism experience on both sides – the women in the shop were just so inspiring to meet.
This item is a decorative brocade that unrolls and hangs like a scroll (which of course I purchased and hung in Scarlet’s pink-and-yellow bedroom). It is made on a backstrap loom, a technique that is unique in that the designs are woven into the cloth itself (rather than embroidered on top). Each design has a historical meaning related to the saints, gods, and animals who protect the growth of corn and fertility of the earth, but my Tzotzil is non-existent, and my Spanish not good enough to get a full understanding of the particular designs I purchased. But their beauty is enough, isn’t it?
Here is another view of the shop. The floor tiles alone had my mouth gaping!
Around Sna Jolobil, the textiles are organized by the communities from which they come. Each community has it’s own methods, styles, and symbolism which are reflected in the products. Some communities are in the colder highlands so you’ll find their clothing is heavier, while some are in warm valleys with clothing suited to coffee farming on humid days.
I purchased this top from Aquacatenango for Scarlet, I should have picked up one of the stunning dresses in my size.
The variety of colors is stunning…
I also purchased this dress from Aquacatenango for Scarlet, and it is her most favorite gift from the trip. Last week she came into my room in the middle of the night, post-nightmare, fully clad in all her ribbon glory. An interesting fact about this dress – traditional Aquacatenango clothing featured the brightly colored feathers of birds from the area (quetzal feathers being the most prized), but since it is no longer environmentally responsible or feasible, the feathers have been replaced by these bright ribbons.
These items are from San Andreas, you can see how the traditional design painted on the sign is reflected on the shirt to the left.
The pillowcases from Pantelho would make you weep.
This lovely woman is from Tenejapa, if I remember correctly, but I believe her top is from Bachajon. The pink brocade piece is from Tenejapa as well.
This top/dress I picked up for Scarlet is from Charmula. The detail is so precise, I just keep running my fingers over it in admiration. Everything is handsewn, and even the cotton fabric itself was hand loomed.
This item is also from Charmula, it’s a little purse, just the right size for an iPhone. I’m sure that is its traditional intended purpose. The colors are just so beautiful.
I snapped this pic with my iphone, so it doesn’t do these pillowcases justice. I wanted to purchase some very badly, but their precise detail, all hand sewn, had them running about $100 each, so I declined. In retrospect I was such a fool! You can find pillowcases like this for upwards of $800 in design showrooms. I guess I will have to head back to Chiapas again to stock up.
Later in the trip we visited an indoor-outdoor craft market. We enjoyed hot wine with fruits, spicy chile hot chocolate, and amid hundreds of stalls, I snagged some of these charming sweaters. I’d seen them at a child’s boutique in LA once, but couldn’t fathom shelling out the $80. So, of course, I bought three when they were only $13. The purple one we sent off to cousin Jojo was probably my favorite. Each one is totally unique, but all had the clouds and raindrops somewhere on them…
Leather goods abound in Mexico. I have a similar one from my husbands grandmother that I adore, but would like to preserve, so I was thrilled to pick up a hand stamped and sewn leather bag at a high end store in San Cristo that specializes in crafts of Chiapas ($24). I wish I had bought more for friends, I adore this bag and have been carrying it everywhere.
I also picked up this top for myself. You can buy these from Mayan women on the streets just about anywhere, ranging from $10-$20 depending on the complexity of the embroidery. The lightweight cotton is perfect for warm weather, and even the fabric itself is handmade by someone from the seller’s community, if not she herself.
With friendship bracelets coming back into vogue here in the states, I was excited to pick up a few cuff-size samples from a street vendor to bring back to my lady friends ($2 each).
And I bought a few belt-length samples as well, I love these color combos ($4)!
While I won’t get into a history lesson here (because I just am not educated enough to do it justice), I do want to tell a short history of this doll, as it is very fascinating and moving to me. A main figure in the Zapatista uprising of 1994 was Comandante Marcos. He led an army of Mayan people in Eastern Chiapas (right outside of San Cristo) in a rebellion against the government’s treatment of indigenous peoples, which, by all accounts, was abhorrent. He is a polarizing figure amongst Mexicans, but all can agree that life for the indigenous people has changed for the better since the uprising. His identity is the topic of some mystery, as no one has seen his face, because he wore a balaclava (the black face covering depicted on the dolls below). Because of this, some say there is no Comandante Marcos, but the reason for the balaclava that I was told was simply that he didn’t want the movement to be about him as a figure, but about all the people of Mayan mexico.
The Mexico Department of Tourism gave us these keychains as a gift. I take a picture of it for you, because I happened to get a figure with a bundle on its back. This bundle represents a baby, so this is Comandanta Ramona, an officer of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation that served as a symbol of equality and dignity for indigenous women, who had borne the biggest share of suffering.
On a lighter note, I also stocked up on charming embroidered felt animals. They ranged in price from $1-$4, so I bought so many to give as gifts that I had to carry them in a separate bag on the plane.
Look at the antlers! Amazing!
This is my favorite item of all. Don’t know why, except that it is awesome. These handmade wool toys feature sweet embroidery, this one is about a foot tall. Not pictured are my two other faves that I’ve already given away, a zebra and a jaguar. Jaguars live in the jungles of Chiapas and we heard many a tale of close encounters from the guides on our trip.
Before I leave you to ooh and ahh over these stunning handicrafts, I do want to note that I am loathe to reduce the entire history and culture of so many communities into what amounts to a shopping trip. Obviously, there is more to Chiapas, Mayans, and Mexico than the deals you can get on fanciful fabric items. But because we share a love for textiles and creativity, I thought you might enjoy this little slice of Mexico as much as I did, and perhaps it would inspire you to visit this lovely, lovely state. And while I’m at it, I just want to add that I feel completely comfortable traveling to Mexico alone or with my family. No one, not even the Mexico Department of Tourism, is advocating that you travel to Ciudad Juarez or any other unstable area. But Mexico is HUGE. The distance from Tijuana to San Cristo is equal to the distance from Barcelona to Moscow. My love for this country is so great, I just wanted to mention this in hopes that fear doesn’t keep anyone from visiting our warm, welcoming neighbors to the south.
For those who are curious, to get to Chiapas you’ll stop over in Mexico City or Guadalajara and fly into the state capital, Tuxtla Guitierrez. It’s about a two hour drive to San Cristobal de las Casas, and your hotel will provide the transfer. There are many, many charming hotels in town. I recommend Tierra Y Cielo (even if you don’t stay there, you MUST try the restaurant) or the Holiday Inn (which is charming beyond belief). Make sure to schedule a walking tour of the town with a local guide – the churches alone number in the hundreds and the history is fascinating. Also consider taking a day trip to the Mayan ruins at Tonina, the largest pyramid in the world, which you simply must climb to the top of and see the view. And then eat, eat, eat. Food from Chiapas is delicious, with chocolate playing a big role in savory dishes. And drink coffee – the area is one of the largest suppliers of coffee to Starbucks and fresh beans from local farms are fantastic! Now, any suggestions on where to take Crafty Tourism next?