03 Aug San Felipe Jalapa de Diaz: Mazateco Land & Heritage
Jalapa de Diaz is famous worldwide for the iconic style of embroidery by the same name. Home of the Mazatec people, the majority of its inhabitants maintain long-standing cultural traditions, including speaking Mazateco. The steamy rain forest surrounding Jalapa de Diaz is lush and vibrant, including a spectacular waterfall, named Uluapan. Their cuisine is rich as well, offering the well-known magic of Oaxacan gastronomy with a Mazatec twist.
Mexico boasts the second largest number of languages spoken in a single country, and Oaxaca is the state where we see the largest number of thriving indigenous cultures. In the Papaloapan River Basin, found in Northern Oaxaca, Jalapa de Diaz is tucked away, perhaps hidden in the jungle foliage. The full name of the town, San Felipe Jalapa de Díaz, pulls from 3 traditions: San Felipe comes from Catholocism, named after the first Mexican saint San Felipe de Jesús who was martyred in Japan; Jalapa stems from the Nahuatl word “Xallapan,” meaning “in sand or sandy water”; and de Diaz celebrates the former Mexican president Porfirio Diaz.
In Mazateco, the name is Ntáxjo̲ (ntá, “water” and xjo̲, “sand”; literally “sand water”); even Mazateco is translated as “language of Jalapa” as the town is an important hub in the Mazatec community. In earlier times, before roads existed in the area, Mazatec people navigated the Santo Domingo river to travel from the upper to lower Mazatec, and identified Jalapa de Diaz by its sandy banks. Another key feature of the topography is Cerro Rabon, a massive plateau that is part of the Sierra Madre mountain range. You can see its outline from far away, it’s majestic form rising up from the rainforest.
The road to Jalapa de Diaz is a mixture of farmland and jungle. Large cane fields full of swaying flowers, swaths of forest, copious waterways, and surrounding mountains, combined with bright blue skies and soaring temperatures, provide an intoxicating view (or is that just the heat?). The region is still home to the mighty jaguar and tapir, as well as many other species, like jungle variety of deer, fox, hawks, and porcupine. Enormous ceiba trees dot the verdant landscape, along with many varieties of fruit trees, mahogany, oak, and cedar.
One of our favorite features is the impressive Uluapan waterfall, located just beyond the town. Crystal clear bathing pools, levels of cascading turquoise water over rocks, make for fun hiking, exploration, swimming and relaxing. I actually spent my birthday there (for the record, I don’t recommend drinking while climbing … that’s how I ended up with a painful, though not long-lasting reminder of my special day). Needless to say, wear comfortable clothes and good shoes. At the top, the river flows from a cave, enveloped in a forest of fruit trees and flowers.
Below the waterfall there is a restaurant called “la cascada” where you can fuel up for 40 mxn per person (about 2$ USD) and get connected with a local community guide. Working with a local guide is important! If you’re like me, you may be tempted to skip this and explore on your own. But remember, these communities depend of tourism to take care of the land. Currently, eco-tourism is only a seed, but if we water it, give these communities what they deserve to protect nature and care for themselves, they will continue to invest more in caring for the environment. Visitors are a key ingredient in the mix! So, hire a local guide and tip them well.
Jalapa de Diaz is famous for it’s embroidery technique which is used for huipiles (a formal indigenous dress), as well as blouses and other modern types of clothing. The style is inspired in nature and expressed through the iconography of village life – mainly birds and leaves in a variety of vibrant colors. Stitched completely by hand, the technique requires about a month to produce a single piece. The design received international attention; while its popularity soared, mainstream fashion plagiarized it. Backlash from indigenous allies has helped to inspire legislation that protects indigenous designs. And sadly, within Mexico, haggling reduces the value placed on these unique pieces of art.
In these photos, I was visiting with Doña Vicky. During our playful conversations, her daughter translated into Spanish, and she taught me words in Mazateco. While discussing the tradition of huipiles, she took hers out to show me and asked me to try them on. We laughed about how tall I am (and why so skinny? She asked) and she told Sean to take photos so we would remember. It was one of those warm, fuzzy moments. I was honored to get to know her.
While visiting, be sure to dig into their exquisite local cuisine. From different Moles like black and red, hand-pounded fresh corn tortillas and quesadillas with fresh corn, to large moist Oaxacan tamales, and different stews made with beef, mutton, and local greens, there is so much savory deliciousness to try.
Getting there and getting away
57 km from the city of Tuxtepec to Jalapa de Díaz and 15 km to the Uluapan river (1:45 hrs and 72 km in total). As a reference there is a bridge on a bend and some (foreign) taxis parked, since you cannot see with the naked eye where the waterfall is.
We love Jalapa de Diaz! Have you been? Would you like to? Share in the comments below!