The central highlands of Oaxaca has been a major draw for cultural tourism in Mexico for decades. There are several reasons for this. The first is that Oaxaca has the highest percentage of indigenous population, as well as communities which have preserved much of their traditional lifestyle. While the capital of Oaxaca is a relatively modern city, with modern creature comforts alongside colonial charm, the rest of the valley is dotted with small towns and villages with the sights, sounds and smells of the countryside. The second is very likely food. While every region in Mexico has wonderful dishes, the overall gastronomy of Oaxaca cannot be beaten. I certainly have never had a bad meal there.
A number of these small towns specialize in one or more handcrafts and are linked by a tourism route. The most well-known of these can be visited by car in a day or so, and include the rug weaving town of Teotitlan del Valle.
Teotitlan is a Zapotec community, where most residents still speak this language. Weaving here goes back a very long way. The area had to pay tribute to the Aztec Empire, which it did yearly in woven goods. Those weavings were done on backstrap looms. When the Spanish conquered Oaxaca and refounded Teotitlan in the Spanish style (including building a church with the broken stones of the old temple), they introduced two things that define the town’s work today: the pedal loom and wool.
While wool initially was used for clothing (the Spanish preferred it), eventually the town specialized in the making of rugs. The most traditional of these have indigenous Zapotec designs, but as the tourism industry drives most of the sales both in Oaxaca city and the town proper, modern designs, including imitations of figures from painters such as Picasso can be seen.
There are a couple of caveats to buying rugs here. While the town has made its reputation on the making of wool rugs colored with natural dyes, many rugs here are wool blends with synthetic dyes. 100% virgin wool, especially locally sourced, is expensive and sometimes not available. Dying with plant material and the famous red of the cochineal insect is time-consuming and becoming a lost art. The result is that true traditional rugs are much more expensive and do not have the eye-catching colors that synthetics can produce. Most of the roadside stands catering to tourists will only have these cheaper options. To find true traditional rugs, it is necessary to visit workshops which actually make them. Almost all of these are on the narrow streets of the town off the main square and beyond, and most lack signage to locate them. However, two artisans which do make and sell 100% wool rugs with natural dyes are the workshops of Porfirio Gutierrez and Arnulfo Mendoza.