This article is from the March 2004 The Mexico File newsletter.
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A Day in Santa Catarina Juquila

by Carol Alice and Geri Anderson   

Carol Alice has lived for eight years in Oaxaca City from December to May. Geri Anderson is a frequent contributor to Mexico File and lives in Oaxaca City. 

If you aren’t hell bent to get to the beach from Oaxaca city, you may want to explore a remote mountain village along the way. Originally called Xiuhquililla, which means “place of beautiful vegetables,” the small mountain village of Santa Catarina Juquila dates back to 1272. One of the most important pueblos in the Chatina region of northwest Oaxaca, the tiny town overflows with visitors every day of the year, the big draw being the legendary wooden statue of La Virgen de Juquila. Although she’s not much more than a foot high, the stories of miracles attributed to her delicately carved features are so widespread and grandiose that believers trek over the mountainous terrain from all corners of Mexico.  

Chances are whether you go by bus or drive your own car, you’ll pass hundreds of pilgrims on foot and bicycle, some camping out for days, even months. You’ll wend among truckloads of the faithful packed under tarp-covered pickups, forming a kind of modern-day wagon train. While caravans converge on the town all year long, the roads become particularly jammed around December 8, the Virgin’s special day of veneration. 

Some days, such as weekends, are busier than others, but always the pilgrims come to make una promesa, a promise that they’ll visit her time and again over the next few years if she will just cure a family member, repair a crippled limb, restore sight. Many requests are for gifts, the most popular being homes and cars, but also farm animals and bountiful harvests. 

The stories of the origins of the Virgin of Juquila are a bit convoluted, mysteriously clouded with the haze of time and myth. However, most accounts tell of a Dominican priest, Frey Juan Jordan, who brought the small figure with him from the Philippines. The exact date of their arrival is uncertain, but when he left in 1558 for another parish, he gave the figure to his young man servant who lived in the nearby town of Amialtepec. Word of her miracles spread and in 1630, a small shrine was built for her, affording all villagers a view. Three years later, the entire town of Amialtepec burned to the ground. From inside the inferno, they say, could be heard the wee voice of the tiny Virgin calling for help. While all around her fires blazed, destroying the entire town, the carved wooden figure survived, scorched a deep brown, the color of the Chatina people. 

Perhaps this small brown statue reminded them of their prehispanic goddess, responsible for their beautiful vegetables. When the Spanish conquerors came, they brought their own idols with pale skin tones, blond hair and European features. The Virgin of Juquila, like the Virgin of Guadalupe, looks like one of their own. In 1776, seeing how the tiny figure was adored by the people, the Bishop ordered a temple built worthy of her in the larger town of Santa Catarina. 

Even this move is surrounded by myth, some claiming that she “escaped” back to her original location several times. However, today you’ll find her standing high above the altar in Santa Catarina de Juquila, only her little face and hands sticking out. She’s securely protected behind glass lighted by a halo of blue neon. Topped with an ancient-looking crown, her mane of long black hair flows the length of her ornate gown. Standing on a pedestal cloistered in vegetable-like leaves, a perch befitting the goddess of “beautiful vegetables,” she watches as pilgrims enter the church and make their way to the altar on their knees. 

In a small room to the side of the altar a replica of the much-loved Juquila is almost buried beneath objects representing hopes and wishes of the pilgrims. At her feet are stacks of photographs, money, long braids of hair which have been cut off as offerings. Small piles of corn mingle with faded wedding bouquets and letters addressed to the Virgencita, asking for all manner of things and thanking her for the ones she has provided. This room is hot with the flames of dozens of candles. A young boy is on duty all day to scrape the wax from the floor and benches. 

In nearby Amialtepec, you’ll find La Capilla del Pedimento, a shrine high on a hill near the original site. If you arrive by bus, you can hire a taxi for about $5 to take you to El Pedimento Our cab driver was a woman (not common in Mexico) and with her was her five year old son. He squeezed between his mother and the driver’s side door, hanging out the window singing Mexican love songs at the top of his lungs. With rythmic rolling of his “R’s” he belted out the words “Mi corazon, you are my life. Te amo. My love. I live my life for you.” He sang many verses, which we suspect he made up, as we zipped along.  

The ground around El Pedimento is dense clay, like much of this mountainous region. There are rustic wooden tables and spring water available for people to make clay objects to present to the large ceramic figure of the Virgin de Juquila posed inside the shrine. Most people build little houses and cars, or body parts in need of healing. They also rub their faces with the clay and sometimes eat it. 

If you’re not skilled working with clay, there are little stalls near El Pedimento which sell small replicas of houses, cars, babies, animals and play money. Just purchase the symbol of your desire to lay at the Virgin’s feet. So popular is this shrine that each day a caretaker hauls all of the offerings and gifts out back, forming an enormous dump, which extends as far as you can see into the trees and down the hill. Thousands of crosses, heaped on top of each other in this holy dump pile attest to the offerings. Many express thanks for miracles she has performed. Throughout Mexico, you’ll see trucks with “Regalo de Juquila” painted on them. In Oaxaca city, there’s at least one store named “Juquilita.” 

In spite of its remote and hilly location, Santa Catarina Juquila is not the place to go if you want a quiet mountain getaway. As in many small towns, most people do not have telephones. That means that much news, including phone call messages, blare from a loud speaker in the town square, audible in every corner of the village. Important announcements, such as bus arrivals and departures, are punctuated by loud music, until well after midnight.  

We stayed in Hotel Plaza Juquila with views from our balconies of the pale yellow church with brown trim. Streamers decorated the main plaza in front of the church, the only level ground in the entire town. 

At 4 a.m., the roosters woke the burros and the burros woke the street dogs. At 5 a.m. a large group of pilgrims began singing in front of the locked church doors, announcing the conclusion of their no doubt long trip. We stole naps during the pauses between the seemingly endless early morning repertoire, not an unpleasant sound were it not for the early hour. 

At 6 a.m., the church bells rang in the new day, sounding a precise patter, like the bell ringers do in England, a wonderful sound. At 7 a.m. the construction workers continued their work on a huge three-level building that will house the government offices on the top floor, market stalls on the ground floor and a parking garage in the basement. This complex will no doubt lure even more pilgrims and already it’s interrupting the spacious courtyard in front of the church, the largest flat spot in this hilly town. 

A warren of small stalls wind along the street at the side of the church, selling all manner of stuff featuring the image of not only the Virgin of Juquila, but also the Virgin of Guadelupe, the Virgin Mary and Jesus. They decorate clocks, key rings, toys, purses, hats, sunglasses, tee shirts, jewelry, beer can openers, posters, pens, candles and candies. 

 The fruits and vegetables in the nearby farmer’s market have that just-picked smell and the broccoli heads are beautiful enough to be bridal bouquets. The women who work in the stalls come out into the walkway and in sing-songy tones invite you into their booth and reciting their menus of tacos, tlcayudas, rice and beans. The market people sell pottery, weavings and handmade clothing. Some of the designs are unique to the area and a bit different than Oaxaca city handicrafts. Baskets of all shapes and sizes abound. 

The town’s several hotels have restaurants, most open to the street. None gourmet level, but featuring local items such as frijoles con patitas de puerco, tamales de mati, memelita de elote and flor de cauchepil con huevo. Much life is lived outdoors here, including the restaurants which are patio-style or with a wall or two open to the street. 

Nearby jaunts include a 165-foot waterfall, Cascada Chorro Conejos. Taxis will take you there. The area has hiking paths and there was a group of European hikers going by foot from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido. If you ask around, you’ll no doubt find a hiking guide.  

Getting there: On a map, if you trace the path of the Rio Atoyac as it meanders from the city of Oaxaca to the Pacific coast, you’ll come upon this little village. By car or bus, take Highway 131 south of the City of Oaxaca for about 100 miles then following the signs west for 20 miles. The junction is well-marked. We took the Estrella Roja bus from the second class bus station near Abastos market in Oaxaca. It was designated a “first class” bus and only one or two a day make the trip to Juquila. The first class bus schedules apparently are driven by demand, so you cannot buy your ticket more than a day ahead and you may end up taking a second class bus for your return trip. From Juquila you can continue on by bus to Puerto Escondido.  

Where to stay: We found it difficult to make reservations from Oaxaca city, but finally discovered a home where we paid for one night’s lodging in the Hotel Juquila Plaza (Tel. 951-524-0066), because Hotel del Carmen had no vacancy. Another choice is Posada del Angel, at the plaza’s southeast corner. Most visitors drive their “rooms” with them or camp out. December is the most popular month for pilgrimages to Juquila, definitely not a good month to go without a tent or room reservations.