Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

Honeymoon: Ecotourism in the Oaxacan countryside

November 23, 2013
pueblos mancomunados sierra norte expediciones

Start from the beginning of our Mexico trip.

The state of Oaxaca is one of the poorest in Mexico, and until the last few decades, it was one of the most isolated — 700 miles from the U.S. border, not crisscrossed by drug-trafficking routes and difficult to traverse. The growth of international tourism to Oaxaca — much of it driven by interest in Oaxaca's culinary traditions — has brought a lot of money into the state, though it's obvious that some have benefitted more than others. In an effort to capture some of that wealth, several villages in the Sierra Norte, called the Pueblos Mancomunados, banded together to form an ecotourism collective designed to welcome tourists to the rural indigenous villages. The collective offers hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding expeditions.

We booked our expedición with them at the Sierra Norte office in Oaxaca city. They're offered a la carte, with different trails and towns that can be strung together any-which-way. We booked two days, the first all hiking, the second a mix of hiking and horseback riding.

Hiking Day 1 (Mexico Day 10)

We woke at 5 a.m. and took a taxi to the second class bus station, to catch the 7 a.m. van to Cuajimoloyas to start our "ecotourism" trek.

(The city of Oaxaca has two bus stations, called first and second class. First class is clean and bright, with comfortable buses going in and out — like the one we took from Mexico City — and baggage handlers who verified each bag's ticket before handing it over. The second-class station's parking lot is an unpaved mud lot full of potholes, with missing or broken windows and doors, and very little light.)

Cuajimoloyas oaxaca pueblos mancomunados

The van wound high up steep mountain roads. (Of course, none of the vehicles in these parts had seat belts.) Steph slept on my shoulder, but I stayed awake, afraid I'd miss the sign for Cuajimoloyas and go too far. We were supposed to meet at the ecotourism office, but when we arrived, it was closed and no one was there yet. We were high up in the mountains and it was very cold, and we hadn't brought gear for such cold weather. Fortunately, there was a restaurant/knickknacks store open next door, so we went in there and got big cups of Oaxacan coffee and sweet bread to warm up.

Our first guide was named Ivan and our destination was a village called Latuvi, a 16-kilometer hike (10 miles). Like most people in the area, he was a corn farmer. By some distribution process that I didn't understand, every family had a plot of land to cultivate, and most grew corn. (One family that we met later in the day was situated on the river and had a trout farm instead.) He wasn't much of a guide, per se; he mostly just walked ahead of us. It wasn't so cold anymore, but it rained on and off for much of the morning.

Halfway to Latuvi, at a lookout point on the top of a hill, we met the other guide for the second half of the hike, and stopped for our scheduled "picknick" (as it was written on the itinerary). This guide was named Carlos, and he was much more engaging, showing us various types of plants and their medicinal properties. He showed us a parasite that was destroying many of the trees in the forest, and described the groups that the villages organized to chop down the damaged trees for lumber and protect the healthy ones. We stopped at one point at an abandoned adobe hut and learned about the construction techniques used, how a few people could build a hut like this in a few days. We learned that Latuvi meant "rolled leaf" in Zapotec. The older folks in the villages spoke both Zapotec and Spanish, but the kids only knew a few words of Zapotec, and the language has no written form, so it's disappearing.

Our different approaches toward the hiking was interesting. I was wearing my big hiking backpack, we had our non-cotton hiking clothes, rain gear, multiple extra layers, several liters each of water, sunscreen, bug repellant, hiking boots. I was wearing the straw hat I had bought, a.k.a. mi sombrero ridiculo. But for our guides, this was just a walk in their extended backyard: They carried tiny backpacks or none at all, mostly didn't drink water, wore the same boots as any other day in the fields, and jeans. Like almost everyone in Oaxaca, they didn't wear sunglasses, and certainly didn't need sunscreen.

golden retriever mix
One of the dogs at the trout farm
The trout farmer carving us a walking stick with his machete, while his son watches
wood bridge river
Bridge over a narrow bend in the river
We arrived in Latuvi at 3 p.m. and stopped at the ecotourism office, next to the cabin where we'd be staying. There were a confusing few minutes where Carlos and the manager read our itinerary — we had a printed copy with us, they didn't have a copy — and puzzled over what we were supposed to do. They read it, looked confused, asked us to confirm each item. There was nothing unusual about it and they didn't change anything, so the disorganization was amusing.

latuvi sierra norte expeditions
The cabins in Latuvi
Our cabin was very nice, with a comfortable bed and warm shower, situated at the top of the village. Outside there were hammocks that we relaxed in and enjoyed the beautiful scenery. We had a second lunch at the village comedor, basically the dining room of a house occupied by at least three generations of a family, and had yet another meal of tortillas and red sauce on grizzly meat.

Wrapped up in the hammock
Next on our planned itinerary was a temascal. This was billed as a kind of steam sauna followed by a massage and sounded very relaxing. We assumed it would be in some kind of sauna building. It turned out to be one of the most bizarre experiences of the trip. First there was a bonfire lit a few feet from the cabin which puzzled us, but which became clear when an older woman, the village's temascal lady, put hot rocks from the fire in a metal bucket and brought them into our room. She was carrying some kind of herbs and brushed them all over us while she chanted Catholic/Zapotec prayers. We stood around the bucket, and she draped a blanket, tent-like, over us. Then she poured water onto the rocks and clouds of hot steam drenched us.

This might have been pleasant, except we were standing up, hunched over this bucket, trying to keep the blanket as closed as possible, and after a 16-kilometer hike, when all we wanted to do was lie down and relax, this became unpleasant pretty quickly. The temascal lady acted like we were having such a wonderful time, and kept going to get more rocks and water, but after 20 minutes, we told her we had enough steam, thank you very much. Then came the massages, which were fine, but insufficient to undo the muscle aches that the previous 20 minutes had caused. By the end, our room was completely steamed in, with the floor covered in pine needles, looking like the week after Christmas. Altogether, not worth the money (around US$50) we had paid to add this to our itinerary.

After dinner, which was smaller than lunch, they lit a fire in our fireplace, and we fell fast asleep. (We wondered if the fireplace actually heated up the room at all, or simply generated heat that went right up the chimney, and reading about it later, it seems like the physics of fireplaces are such that it's unlikely to have increased the room's temperature by much. Regardless, we slept very well.)

sunrise mountains oaxaca
Sunrise in Latuvi

sunrise latuvi sierra norte

Hiking Day 2

Thanks to a child's alarm clock (shaped like a shoe) that the guides has rustled up for us the previous evening, we woke up at 6:30 a.m. and ate breakfast at 7. (Meat and potatoes with red sauce, coffee, and of course, quesadillas! It reminded me of the Jim Gaffigan routine about Mexican food: it's really all the same, like a joke they're playing on gringos to sell more food products.) The roosters and donkeys woke up the rest of the village, and we enjoyed watching the sunrise.

Our main activity today was horseback riding. The plan was to ride halfway to the village of Amatlan, hike the second half, then take some kind of transport back to Oaxaca. We could have ridden the horses all the way to Amatlan, but when the ecotourism sales lady described it, she said we had to be advanced riders on account of the narrow trails and steep cliffs, so Steph got spooked and we opted for the half-ride. Steph had ridden a horse as a child, but I never did. I had read about the basics in the prior days and it didn't sound that difficult...

horseback riding oaxaca
Grillo and Colorado

We mounted the horses and set off immediately, without any "Horseback Riding 101". The trail wasn't as scary or dangerous as we were led to believe (the horses, after all, don't want to fall off the cliff either), but steering the horses was hard! Their names were Grillo and Colorado. They didn't have bits in their mouths like American horses, just a rope wrapped around their heads which served as reins. I had read that you make a horse go by kicking it with your heels, but they weren't trained to respond to that, only to being whipped. My horse kept stopping to eat grass (which I read later, I was supposed to stop him from doing, but the guide neglected to tell me this). Any time the horse had a choice of going under tree branches or walking next to them, he walked under, which meant I went through them. (The guide instructed me to only try to steer when the horse went it the wrong way, but this was most of the time.) Several times, he started spinning around in circles, going the opposite direction that I pulled him in, like he was quite sick of this foreigner on his back and his silly ecotourism.

donkey field flowers

Our horse guide walked on foot, with a stick in hand that he used to whip the horses to move whenever they stopped. Adding to the amusement of the situation, he was dyslexic and mixed up right and left. So we'd get to a fork, he'd say "go right!", we'd steer the horses right, and he'd be surprised and confused and have to whip the horses back the other way. We learned to ignore the direction he spoke and instead follow his gestures. Otherwise, he didn't say much.

I really liked this white stuff that grew all over the trees

After the riding and more hiking, all with good weather, we arrived in Amatlan. Lunch started with a delicious squash soup and was much better than the food in Latuvi.

The fruits in this area were strange: In the picnic bags they gave us for the hiking, we had an orange that looked like an lemon, and an apple that looked like an orange. We asked what they were and got some very funny looks.

Finally, we had to get transport back to Oaxaca. We were given very little information about how to do this. First was a ride with the village taxi (a pickup truck) to the town of Ixtlan. There was an Ixtlan-Oaxaca van every few hours and we didn't want to miss it. When it arrived, it was fully loaded with sweaty farmers. There was one seat left which Steph took. I got wedged in back between two guys, one of them sitting next to a pile of suitcases, the other next to the window. There wasn't enough space to sit back in the chair so I was hunched forward and extremely uncomfortable. I finally decided to move up and sit on top of my backpack by the door — not a real seat, and despite the earlier objection of another passenger the first time had I tried to do that — but that finally made the 2+ hour ride bearable.

We were very happy to get back to the hotel.

The ecotourism people were very eager for us to enjoy the time. At each village they asked us to fill out a questionnaire about our experience. But they missed a lot of basics, like coordinating our stops in advance, having proper transport, or having tour guides who could educate rather than just walk. It occurred to us that for all that foreign "eco"-tourism helps their economy, they probably don't have much experience being tourists themselves.

All in all, we were glad we went on this ecotourism adventure, even if they still have a few kinks to work out. We had wanted to go horseback-riding for a while, and were happy we did, even if my horse was was a little loco. It was also nice to see how Oaxacans outside of the city live. And of course, the scenery was beautiful.

- Ben

Keep reading: Learning to cook mole

Honeymoon: Oaxaca

November 13, 2013

Start from the beginning of our Mexico trip.

After a week in Mexico City, we packed up for Oaxaca, six hours southeast from Mexico City by bus. We had chosen Oaxaca for its mountainous landscape, colonial architecture, indigenous traditions and its reputation for some of the best food in the country.

plaza santo domingo oaxaca mexico

Oaxaca's valleys have long served as an important center for indigenous tribes, including the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, who remain the two main ethnic groups in Oaxaca today. Each of the three central valleys offers its own distinctive mix of archaeological sites and villages, many of which specialize in a particular handicraft. They're popular day trips from Oaxaca, especially on market days, when thousands of people converge to buy, sell and socialize at open-air markets called tianguis that date to pre-Hispanic times. Our first day in town we headed to the tianguis in the village of Tlacolula.

tianguis sunday market tlacolula oaxaca
skulls mexico market mezcaleria mezcal mexico

Arriving at the market was a typically Latin American adventure. We walked to the second-class bus station, where we hailed a taxi, who tried to charge us double what it should have cost. We haggled it down and got in, at which point we discovered this was less of a true taxi service and more of a colectivo, where the driver tried to pick up more passengers by yelling and honking at everyone he saw. Only once he had a full car with three people squished front and back did he start driving with any speed toward Tlacolula. We didn't understand the economics behind the driver's pricing because he made at most 100 pesos from the trip and spent a lot of time trying to find additional riders. Yet to drive us directly to Tlacolula, he wanted 160 pesos. The ride was a bit harrowing with no seat belts and all of the drivers treating a one-lane road as two lanes, but we made it.

We wandered around the market, which sold everything from live chickens to tchotchkes (I had no idea how to spell that word) before hopping in two more taxis to reach the weaving town of Teotitlán del Valle. The weaving tradition there dates back to pre-Hispanic times when Teotitlán had to pay tributes of cloth to the Aztecs. Today roughly 150 families in the village specialize in weaving and some still use traditional dyes made from indigo, cochineal and moss. Several of the weavers demonstrated their technique on hand looms and we came home with a new bathroom set. [1]

Thanks to the generally inefficient local transport, we ended up walking four kilometers back to the main highway. We didn't mind the walk though, because we got some beautiful views.

teotitlan del valle oaxaca mexico
teotitlan del valle oaxaca mexico
The next day we explored the ruins at Monte Alban. To learn more about Oaxaca's most famous culinary creation, we took a cooking class where we learned to cook mole. We followed that up with two days of hiking in the Sierra Norte, before two final days in Oaxaca.

Photos: Oaxaca at night

The Spanish founded the city of Oaxaca in 1529, deriving its name from the existing Aztec settlement of Huaxyácac (meaning "In the Nose of the Squash"). Laid out on a grid, it is a classic example of sixteenth-century colonial urban planning, with the central square as the economic, religious and social heart of the city. Plagued by earthquakes, the city developed its own unique style of colonial architecture, characterized by thick walls and low buildings. [2]

colonial architecture oaxaca mexico

The region is also the birthplace of two of Mexico's most famous figures: hero Benito Juarez, a reformer who served five terms as president in the 1800s; and villain Porfirio Diaz, the dictator overthrown in the Mexican Revolution.

Most evenings, we enjoyed typical Oaxacan food for dinner and then wandered around the town. The zocalo was teeming with people until about 11 p.m. each night, with several musical acts playing at the same time, including roving mariachi bands. To escape the rain one night, we bought a cup of tea and listened to a good Spanish guitar duo.

music band oaxaca mexico
By this time, we had been traveling for nearly two weeks, so we took it slow as we explored the city. We bought a hammock and some of Oaxaca's famous chocolate (meant for mole or hot chocolate, not for eating). We browsed the large food markets and purchased avocado leaves (an ingredient in mole, in case we ever decide to make it ourselves) and saffron (much cheaper in Mexico than in the U.S.).

Oaxaca hosts an annual film festival, which happened to be going on while we were there. We saw The Red Robin, a psychological thriller made in the U.S. (all films in the festival had to offer English or Spanish subtitles), which we both hated, though it won awards in screenwriting and cinematography.

volkswagon bug buggy beetle mexico

bell tower oaxaca mexico
Oaxaca's bell towers are squat with wide bases to protect against the frequent earthquakes.
The last day we spent at the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, which is supposed to be a great museum, but at this point we had seen enough of pre-Hispanic artifacts, and instead had a lot of fun playing around with my camera, a la this trip to the MALBA in Buenos Aires.

View of botanical gardens as a storm moves in. We kept dry inside the museum.

We splurged more on food in Oaxaca than we had in Mexico City. The modern Los Danzantes stuck out for its interior decor — it's an open-air space with half of the floor space taken up by a pool, which catches the rain during a storm. It's a very peaceful effect at night. Our last night, we ate at Casa Oaxaca, with the most comically overbearing waiters. Not only did they pull your chair out for you and put your napkin in your lap (including when you returned from the bathroom), but they materialized every few minutes trying to whisk away your dishes or pour you more water. Eventually we tried to tell them to leave us alone for 10 minutes between dinner and dessert so we could finish our sangria and talk without interruption — this was a hopeless strategy because we simply got interrupted by more people, each of whom we had to tell to leave us alone.

My feelings about restaurant service definitely reflect our time in Argentina, where waiters pay much less attention to you. They take your order, but they don't reappear to ask if you are enjoying your meal and they don't fill your wine and water glasses for you. Of course, sometimes it can be difficult to find them when you need them, but for the most part, we liked that it led to relaxing meals where we didn't feel rushed (they will never bring the check until you ask for it). In contrast, it often bothers me how often American waiters interrupt your meal. In fancy Mexican restaurants, this trend was even worse, with waiters hovering like vultures. It may work for some people, but for us it was a distraction from eating dinner together.

streets cobbestone oaxaca mexico
And finally, what's more important than a nice place to sleep, which we were happy to find at Hotel Las Golondrinas. The best part was the tropical garden that filled the entire outdoor space — Ben said it was like coming home to a jungle.

- Steph

Oaxaca was a photographer's dream and I took way too many photos. See more of our favorites here. To see the captions, you must view it full-screen and choose "show info".

[1] Lonely Planet Teotitlán del Valle
[2] UNESCO Historic Centre of Oaxaca and Archaeological Site of Monte Albán

Keep reading: Ecotourism in the Oaxacan countryside