Some 170km north of Puerto Vallarta, the first place of any size is TEPIC, capital of the state of Nayarit and home to over 300,000 people. Founded by Hernán Cortés’ brother, Francisco, in 1544, it’s appealing enough in a quietly provincial way, but for most travellers it’s no more than a convenient stopover along the route to Mazatlán, or a place to switch buses for San Blas and the coast.
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Plenty of shops sell Huichol artesanías in Tepic, including vibrant yarn paintings and bead statues. Alternatively, you can buy them directly from Huichol artists in the Plaza Principal, Tepic’s lush central square of fountains and gardens, overlooked by the Palacio Municipal and twin neo-Gothic towers of the Catedral de la Asunción, completed in the 1890s.
The Huichol, or Wixárika, are the most intensely mystical of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. Dwelling in isolated mountain settlements around the borders of Nayarit, Jalisco, Zacatecas and Durango, they practise an extant form of pre-Columbian shamanism, having accepted only token elements of Spanish Catholicism.
For the Huichol, religion and ritual are central elements of daily life. The cultivation of maize, particularly, is bound up with sacred rites and esoteric meaning. Animism – the belief that all objects are alive and imbued with spirit – is key to their enigmatic world view: rocks, trees, rivers and sky all have souls and there are as many gods as there are things in the world.
Peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus, is the most important and powerful god in their vast pantheon. Gathering and ingesting this plant is a major part of the ceremonial calendar, which includes an annual cross-country pilgrimage to the sacred desert around Real de Catorce to acquire supplies (see "Peyote: food for the Huichol soul"). Grandfather Peyote is the teacher and guardian of the Huichol. He delivers sacred visions, heals the sick and guides the community.
Huichol artesanías are particularly striking and include vivid “yarn paintings” that are created by pressing lengths of yarn into wax. They represent peyote visions and are filled with vibrantly rendered snakes, birds, deer and other sacred animals, as well as gourd bowls and other ritually significant objects. Circular motifs usually symbolize peyote itself, or its flower. You can buy these paintings in Tepic and elsewhere.