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

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