I’m not sure where the line is, but somewhere between a one week vacation trip and the three months we have been in the Puerto Vallarta area we start to identify with a place. A particular grocery store becomes “my tienda”. We like the ribs and view at La Cruz Inn but the tacos at Tacos on the Street. The waiter at Madera’s greets our puppy with a huge “ZOË”. We know when the fish taco special at Ballena Blanca is. But also the faces become known. The woman behind the counter at the grocery store helps with my pronunciation and vocabulary in Spanish – always with a smile. The lavenderia (laundry) woman knows our boat name. And everyone knows Jon wants a Pacifico.
And this organic process of adopting a place that you happen to be in is part of the natural human urge for connection. But without deep language skills or a functioning place in the community, this connection is admittedly not very deep. We are still visitors and will be moving along soon. We have no idea of the stories behind the curtains.
When some of my family visited last week we took the opportunity to book a cultural tourism tour with Human Connections, based in nearby Bucerias. The idea behind cultural tourism is to part the curtain a bit and give visitors an idea of the stories behind the art and industry we see around us. It helps to turn the artist or business person into a real person with a life and history. I’ll tell you how our tour went.
The tour is $65 per person and includes transportation to the three sites in a comfortable air-conditioned bus and a full, delicious lunch. Each tour has a different selection of local talent – ours included an indigenous Huichol beaded-item maker, a Chiappas family that raises sheep and makes wool products including toys, and a local Bucerias chef. Other days the entrepreneurs might include different artisans, beekeepers, potters, or farmers. They also have other types of tours including full-day hands-on workshops.
Huichol Bead Artist
The Huichol (wee-choll) originate from the mountains a couple of hundred miles northeast from Puerto Vallarta. The Huichol speak a Uto-Aztecan language and make complex thread or bead works. Leonarda is in her early 30s and is married with a couple of children. Her story began when she was very young and lost her parents, forcing her and her siblings to join an aunt’s family. At 11 she was persuaded by her 15 year old brother to walk to Puerta Vallarta for the opportunity to make more money than they could in their mountain town. They left at midnight and arrived the next day. He did find work for them at a restaurant where she wiped tables and he washed dishes. He spoke a little Spanish as he had been allowed some years in school, but she spoke none. In two weeks they had made some money, but he decided it wasn’t enough. He persuaded her to stay and continue working while he returned home. It’s not clear why, perhaps one can guess, but on his return he was quickly married off and prevented from leaving again to get his sister, now abandoned in Puerto Vallarta.
Three years later, at 14, she became pregnant, only finding out her boyfriend was already married with children once her own child was born. She eventually started making the beaded items that her home town specialized in. She is now married to another bead master, one that was a family friend when she was very young. They have since had a child together. They and their 7 year old son make beaded items and her oldest daughter she has managed to get through high school – even public school isn’t entirely free here but she was determined to get her daughter educated. She graduates this year!
The beaded items are packed with traditional symbols – particularly corn, sun, jaguars, peyote, and scorpions. The colors are bright and vibrant.
Tzotzil Shepherds / Toy Makers
The Tzotzil are an indigenous tribe of Mayan descent from the Chiapas area. The Lopez Lopez family lives and raises sheep in the Chiapas highlands. Part of the family comes to Puerto Vallarta for six months a year to sell the products they make at home. This year two daughters represented the family here and they sell almost every day of the week at the farmer’s and artisan’s markets in the local area from PV to Sayulita and everywhere in between. They also bring limited materials from home so that they can make the occasional custom item while here. Although traditionally they made heavy wool clothing for everyday use they mostly make toys for sale to others.
Their story was of sheep. They love their sheep and appear to be as fond of them as we are of our dogs. They told us how they carry the youngest lambs to the summer pastures each spring and spend the summer with the sheep there. They then explained each step of the wool process – starting with shearing up to three sheep a day with kitchen scissors. Next is cleaning and dying the wool with the black earth in Chiappas (some wool is left white so they traditionally have white, grey and black products). Then comes picking, carding, spinning and weaving – they demonstrated each step. After weaving the wool is washed again – apparently so it forms a kind of felted product that doesn’t unravel when cut. They then showed how they cut the toy shapes freehand (“it comes from the heart, not the head”) and sew them together and stuff them, then decorate with eyes, ears, and elaborate embroidery. The animals are joyful, silly, and thoroughly happy creations. And the two girls were as delightful and happy as their products.
Chef and Restaurateur
We were then bused to the home of a chef. He and his wife work in her mother’s restaurant in Bucerias called Tuc. Their home has a huge welcoming patio under the trees, complete with a caged parrot, seven cats, and a passel of dogs. There is a large mostly outdoor kitchen as well as a couple of grills for food preparation. They brought out roasted peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic in traditional molcajetes which we then ground into salsa and guacamole.
The lunch was fabulous with tacos dorado (both potato and meat) , rice, beans, and all that homemade salsa and guacamole. We also had some agua fresca made with melon that was delightful on that hot day.
All of us had a wonderful time and were moved by the stories we heard that day. The pride with which they viewed their traditional work made it important to us as well. We could see the traditions and symbols stretching back into their histories. Their lives had meaning and delight and accomplishment that were a joy and inspiration to see. Plus, did I say, it was FUN! A very enjoyable day for all of us.
Human Connections pays their partners a fair wage for their time and seeks out significant partners that represent a growing cross-section of Mexican culture. I hope you’ll consider booking a tour from them if you are in this area.
PS: I am not being paid for this endorsement, in fact they don’t know I’m writing it, it’s just my opinion and that of my family that accompanied me.