How One Indigenous Woman Is Showing Travelers the Real Oaxaca

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LUXURY, SOCIAL JUSTICE, Travel, TRAVEL & LEISURE

Liliana Palma Santos offers experiences that you won’t find anywhere else.

Lily Palma's Zapotec travel experiences in Oaxaca, Mexico

CREDIT: ALI VELASCO ZARATE

Liliana Palma Santos greets me over video conference with a wide smile. “I’ve been so busy,” she proclaims as she settles in for our interview. She’s seated on a patio in her hometown of Tlacolula de Matamoros in Oaxaca. Santos, known as Lily the Zapotec Traveler on Instagram, offers guests and travelers access to unique, intimate, off-the-beaten-path experiences featuring Indigenous Zapotec craftspeople, chefs, and tour guides. She owns and runs a tour company and an Airbnb, and is the co-founder of a small restaurant called Criollito in Oaxaca, Mexico, and as travel restrictions have lifted, her business has taken off.

“I’ve always wanted to move back to Oaxaca to do something good for my community,” Santos says, beaming, “and this has been my dream for a long time.”

Centering the Indigenous Zapotec Community

Lily Palma's Zapotec travel experiences in Oaxaca, Mexico

CREDIT: ALI VELASCO ZARATE

It wasn’t until the social justice and Black Lives Matter movements took hold in the U.S. in 2020 — and COVID-19 shutdowns hobbled the tourism industry — that Santos began to hone her ideas around offering tours centered on her Indigenous community in Oaxaca.

“I want to highlight and take a stance only to visit Indigenous-owned businesses. For me, it hasn’t been a loss in income, but it’s been more of changing the traveler’s perspective as to where they should go.”

She began slowly at first, opening her family home in Tlacolula just outside Oaxaca, as an Airbnb. She targeted travelers who wanted an authentic experience, and her first guests asked for a tour of the places they wouldn’t traditionally see on the regular routes. Santos obliged.

From there, word of mouth and her growing, vibrant social media presence brought more people to her doorstep. In March 2020, she and her family opened a small Zapotec restaurant, Cirollito, where she and her family keep Zapotec traditions alive and offer dishes that feature native corn and traditional cooking methods. As Santos’ tour business has grown, she’s developed a community of native Zapotec artisans, potters, and small business owners, all benefiting from her approach.

Lily Palma's Zapotec travel experiences in Oaxaca, Mexico

CREDIT: ALI VELASCO ZARATE

“I want to honor our Zapotec traditions,” Santos says. So, instead of taking a commission for visiting artisans, she relies on a system of barter and reciprocity, and she charges workshop fees to travelers when she takes them to visit a particular experience.

“For example, I tell everyone that I don’t charge a commission for their sales. We pay everyone we visit for the service they’re providing because most people aren’t paid for their work,” Santos explains. “Artists are opening up their homes in the hopes of making a sale, but I can’t always guarantee that a traveler is going to make a purchase.” In those cases, Santos charges travelers a fee that she then shares with the artisans. “These artisans have a lot of knowledge, and they’re sharing that with us.”

Santos offers everything from bar crawls that feature Oaxaqueño breweries and family-owned Mezcalerias, curated trips to the famous Sunday Market, visits to agave producers to learn about the state of Mezcal, and workshops with local potters creating Alebrijes, the small, brightly colored figurines the region is famous for. Tours are also customizable, and Santos points out that she works with certified guides to tour the more well-known ancient sites like Monte Álban and Mitla. Guests can book directly with Santos through Instagram.

Lily Palma's Zapotec travel experiences in Oaxaca, Mexico

CREDIT: ALI VELASCO ZARATE

“The artisans know that the people who go on my tours are aware that they’re supporting local businesses by choosing to travel with me,” Santos says. “Travelers know that everyone is being paid fairly, that everyone respects the prices they set for our visit.”

Giving Back to Her Community

In addition to her tour work, Santos is also helping other Indigenous small business owners and tour guides navigate both the online and offline world to grow. She counsels local small businesses on their social media strategy, and she’s working with other tour guides, especially women, to help lift under-represented voices.

“I want to highlight women of different Indigenous groups, age ranges, and elders,” she says. “It’s a lot of planning and a lot of really knowing the communities. It’s not just hashtag.”

“I want to show people my side of Oaxaca,” she continues. “Everything people see in Oaxaca City comes from an origin, and those origins are native people. At times that can be lost, or there’s an erasure or a commodification that happens, but I want people to get to the roots to understand more about our state or our country because that’s a crucial element of everything that they see coming out of Oaxaca.”

Lily Palma's Zapotec travel experiences in Oaxaca, Mexico

CREDIT: ALI VELASCO ZARATE

Upending an Institutional Paradigm

Santos, who goes by Lily, was born and raised in Santa Monica, California, by a pair of native immigrant Zapotec parents. Santa Monica has a robust and vibrant Zapotec culture and serves as a major center for Indigenous people from the Mexican state of Oaxaca to immigrate. While the current Census doesn’t specify the heritage of immigrants beyond “Hispanic” and “Latino,” according to a handful of academic papers, Los Angeles has become the city with one of the largest numbers of Indigenous Mexicans in the country. In LA alone, the Zapotec population is estimated to approach 200,000 people.

“Zapotecs are a little different in that we don’t set roots that much in the U.S. We are very binational,” Santos says. “All my summers were spent down here, and I never spent a summer at the beach in Santa Monica, although that’s what I wanted to do when I was young. So growing up, I was trying to grapple with these two cultures.”

In December of 2019, Santos quit her job at a community-building nonprofit where she taught English to immigrants because, she says she wanted to pursue her dream of getting back to her Indigenous roots and supporting the community that is often, as she put it, “tokenized,” by the tourist and travel industry in Oaxaca.

“As Indigenous people, we’re very disconnected from the city and tourism. For example, the government puts us on an image, but we don’t get to reap any benefits of that,” she says. “When I visited as a kid, we would go to different archeological sites, and certified guides would talk about us as if we were no longer here. The majority of the certified guides come from different areas of Mexico. They settle here in Oaxaca to do tours, but we don’t have native voices on our own native land.”

Lily Palma's Zapotec travel experiences in Oaxaca, Mexico

CREDIT: ALI VELASCO ZARATE

Santos is not a “certified guide,” but she’s upending the paradigm. In Mexico, certified guides go through both a university program and a government certification process. Santos says that it’s common for certified guides (and even taxi drivers) to charge local artisans a commission or fee if they bring tourists to their small businesses. She says that commission demands can climb as high as 50% of sales or more. If local artisans, restaurant owners, or small business owners refuse to pay the commission, the guide will not bring tourists in the future.

“Certified guides uplift certain voices. Obviously, they become wealthy, but what about the rest of the community,” Santos asks. “Sometimes artisans and business owners aren’t aware of the practice, though it’s common,” she says. “I want to make a distinction between the traditional tourism sector and a more sustainable, responsible approach.”

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Abigail Bassett is a full-time freelance journalist, content creator, and television, video, and podcast host whose work has appeared in publications like TechCrunch, Fast Company, Inc. Magazine, Forbes, Fortune, Motor Trend, Shondaland, Money Magazine, and on CNN. Her passion is telling unique stories that change the way we see, interact with, and relate to the world. She is also a Yoga Alliance Registered 500-hour yoga teacher.

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