When most people think of Mexico they think of dazzling turquoise waters, white sands, tropical weather, delicious food and ruins hidden in the jungle. That is how I pictured Mexico before I visited. It turned out to be all of those things but also so much more.
Looking through my Lonely Planet at the various excursions you can take while in the beautiful City of Oaxaca, I came across a short passage about hiking in the Sierra Norte mountains between remote Zapotec villages called the Pueblos Mancomunados. I hadn’t associated Mexico with alpine hiking and the idea intrigued me. We decided it would be a worthwhile experience to learn about the Zapotec culture and to change our preconceived notions about Mexico.
The Pueblos Mancomunados (Commonwealth of Villages) are unique in their community spirit, as for centuries they have pooled their natural resources and shared the profits from economic pursuits such as forestry. To help with economic difficulties and a decline in population, 6 of the 8 villages created a fantastic eco-tourism initiative which allows visitors to hike between the participating villages, staying in local accommodation and using local guides.
It is possible to book a tour in Oaxaca but we decided we wanted and do it independently, through the excellent community run Eco-Tourism office, Expediciones Sierra Norte, who help you plan your trip. We decided to do a 3 day/2 night excursion, hiking between 4 of the villages. After picking the trip we wanted to do out of a folder of possible itineraries (in both Spanish and English) we paid the office the total amount that included our meals, accommodation and local guides.
It worked out at approximately $40 USD per day, significantly less than the tour companies departing from Oaxaca, and we knew that the villages would be receiving all of the revenue.
Although We still needed to pay for our own way on local buses into and out of the mountains, the office gave us extensive information about which buses to take, the schedule and costs.
Armed with our small day packs, we caught a local bus early the next morning that took us high into the Sierra Norte mountains on a winding, narrow road. After a bumpy two-and-a-half hours we arrived at the turn-off to the village where we would be beginning our trek; Benito Juarez.
We had a one hour walk along a deserted road surrounded by pine trees and aloe plants to reach Benito Juarez, only passing one villager herding cows and a bunch of wild turkeys along the way.
On arriving in the Village we quickly found the Eco-tourism office where we handed over our itinerary/receipt to the guy working there. Only knowing basic Spanish made it difficult to communicate with him but our itinerary pretty much spoke for itself and we didn’t have to wait long for our Guide for the day to show up.
We left Benito Juarez via a dirt path, following our local Guide who was leading us to the next village, La Neveria, which was a predominantly uphill 8km slog. It was a hot day and I was really struggling with the heat and the altitude. The highest point of the Sierra Norte mountain range is a whopping 3,300 metres above sea level. It is the highest altitude I had ever been to (at that stage) and the thin air made it hard to catch my breath.
Crossing through farmland then pine forest, the landscape was lush and green. Farmers were tending to their livestock and our Guide stopped to chat and laugh with locals along the path. Everyone we met had a permanent smile on their faces and were very open and friendly. Beautifully patterned butterflies hovered over us while we were walking and we heard a chorus of birdsong. Fragile, colourful flowers were tucked into the vegetation on either side of the path.
There are more than 400 species of bird and 350 species of butterfly in the Sierra Norte mountains and it is estimated that there are over 2000 plant species. The Sierra Norte constitutes Mexico’s largest natural corridor of well-preserved forests and jungles, considered the most diverse in the world. We only saw a fraction of the flora and fauna over the three days we were there, but what we did see was unique and beautiful.
Exhausted, we arrived at La Neveria and our Guide handed us over to the staff at the Eco-tourism office before hiking back to his village. He shook our hands and bid us farewell with probably his only word of English ‘Hello’, unfortunately used in the wrong context. We also bid him farewell with a ‘hello’ so as not to confuse him.
After resting for a while in the sun, we were taken to the Comedor, a small local Restaurant where we would be eating our lunch and dinner as well as breakfast the next day. There is no menu, the waitress just brings you the meal they have cooked for that day. We were served a hearty lunch of vegetable soup, omelette with vegetables, rice and beans, homemade lemonade and yoghurt with a local honey (the dead bee in the jar of honey tipped me off to its local-ness).
After lunch we were shown to our room which was in fact a gorgeous stand-alone log cabin, a few steps from the Comedor. It started getting chilly in the afternoon so we spent the hours before dinner sitting by our cosy fireplace, reading. The night was cold but we were given lots of warm blankets and sleep was blissful.
From what we saw of La Neveria, it is a sleepy little place. We didn’t see a soul the whole time we were there except for the Tourism Office and Comedor staff. Other than the Comedor, there were no other shops or restaurants and only a handful of houses.
It was so peaceful.
The next morning we went to breakfast and were surprised to find the whole restaurant was filled up with adolescents. In fact there weren’t even any free tables so we sat with the three teachers that were accompanying the pre-adolescent masses.
One of the teachers had lived in London so we chatted to him about life in the UK and life in general. He said that they take the kids into the mountains once a year and that it is the first time he had seen any tourists. What a shame. People are missing out by not coming to this beautiful place.
The teachers invited us to attend their campfire that evening to roast marshmallows and tell Ghost stories but unfortunately we were moving on to our next village after breakfast.
Our new Guide that was taking us from sleepy La Neveria to Latuvi arrived on schedule to pick us up. At 13km, it was a longer hike than our first day but overall I found it a lot easier as it was reasonably flat. Also, as we were mainly hiking through dense forest, the path was shaded from the harshness of the high altitude sun.
We meandered past waterfalls, fields of white and yellow daisies as tall as me, wild purple violets and giant white lilies. There were crimson ferns growing high off the ground out of the trunks of massive trees. Giant green beetles inched slowly across the path.
Our Guide was telling us about jaguar in the area – at least we thought he was. I was pleased not to see any. I did see one of my favourite birds, a hummingbird, zipping around in an eternal hurry.
We arrived into Latuvi in the early afternoon. It is larger than La Neveria with a few Comedors and a local school. Situated on a ridge between two valleys; the view was panoramic fantastic. There were also more people around than deserted La Neveria.
School children were happily playing soccer outside in the midday sun. A young girl was leading a donkey up from the valley, loaded with firewood. A shy kid hid under a table when we said hello.
Everyone greeted us as we wandered around town and there was a smile etched on every friendly face.
Our Guide showed us the Comedor where we would be eating our meals while in Latuvi, then took us the 10 minutes walk to the other side of town to where we would be staying. It was a beautiful log cabin, similar to our first nights accommodation, but larger, with two sets of bunks and a double bed. There was a fireplace but we couldn’t find firewood so after having lunch back at the Comedor, we layered ourselves with all of the blankets we could find and spent the rest of the afternoon reading and studying Spanish in bed.
It was dark when we walked into town for dinner. With no street lights and only a small torch, it was quite an adventure. Because there was no light pollution, the stars were incredibly bright and numerous. We could even see the swirly soup of the milky way.
Our new Guide met us after breakfast in the morning. Walking through town we saw cute goats with bows tied around their necks and a hawk hovering above the land, scanning for prey. As well as pine forest, there were a lot of cacti around Latuvi including an unusual droopy armed variety and multi armed cacti heavy with ripe, red fruit. It was unusual to see cacti and pine trees together, a mismatch that aptly represents the unique climatic zones of the Sierra Norte.
Day three was our longest; 15km to Amatlan where we would be catching transport back to Oaxaca.
We followed a river through a canyon for the first few hours. Silvery moss hung from trees like giant spiderwebs. Small cacti, the kind of which you would keep in tiny pots on your windowsill, dotted the steep hillside beside the path.
Because of the long distance, we had a different Guide for the second half of the hike. Unfortunately they didn’t time it quite right and we had to wait for over an hour at the changeover point and were then rushing to get to Amatlan on time.
We passed through the beautiful village of Lachatao, which has its own separate Eco-tourism initiative. Beautiful views over a lush green valley, a historic church and crumbling stone walls encasing tidy stone houses constituted this magical place. It was a shame we didn’t have time to explore more thoroughly.
Amatlan is only a couple of kilometres past Lachatao and it was the largest town yet, but very quiet. We hurried down the steep cobbled streets, brightly coloured prayer flags fluttering in the wind above us.
Our Guide dropped us at the Tourism office in Amatlan before bidding us farewell. We were whisked away on the back of a ute, bound for a nearby town where the bus departs back to Oaxaca. It was a dusty but scenic ride, hurtling along the windy mountain roads, hanging on for dear life.
The bus for Oaxaca arrived within 20 minutes of being dropped off and we gladly rested our weary bodies on padded seats, while we slowly journeyed back to the hustle and bustle of the city.
Overall, our sojourn into Mexico’s pristine wilderness was an uplifting experience and so much easier than we thought it would be thanks to Expediciones Sierra Norte. The food was simple but bountiful and tasty, everything ran to schedule almost all of the time, the accommodation was comfortable and fit in with the natural environment and the landscape was stunning and so diverse.
What really made this trip so incredible though were the people. They just seemed so genuinely happy and content with their simple yet rewarding lives, high in the mountains. Their constant smiles and laughter made me feel warm and fuzzy inside.
As the Guides are knowledgeable about the local flora and fauna, it would have been beneficial to speak more than our rudimentary Spanish, but the most important thing is to smile back at these amazing people and just go with the flow.
Oh, and as long as you remember to say ‘Hola’ and ‘Descansar’, you will be just fine.