Missteps and mountains in the Sierra Norte

Latuvi, a town of about 650 people in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca.

I forgot how much your calves hurt after hiking 23 miles. Especially when half that distance is climbing hills in the mountains.

I didn’t realize I’d signed Spencer and myself up for such an intense trek when I planned to spend four days this week traveling through the Pueblos Mancomunados (“associated towns”, more or less) in the Sierra Norte mountains north of Oaxaca City.

Spending time in the Pueblos is a unique ecotourism experience that’s been created from the ground up by the towns themselves. The eight communities in the association have anywhere from 80-900 residents and are located in a cloud forest dominated by various species of pine trees about 9,000 feet above sea level.

Map of the Pueblos Mancomunados

The towns are historically Zapotec and run their own tourism agency, Expediciones Sierra Norte, which does bike, horse and hiking treks through the forest and also offers ziplines and other attractions in the towns. They decided to venture into ecotourism about 20 years ago, and began constructing cabins for visitors to stay in and mapping trails through the forest.

Revenues from tourists work a little differently in each town, but end up staying local. In some places, the administrators and guides aren’t paid and revenues go into a communal fund that’s used for infrastructure projects, school funding and other things to benefit the community as a whole. In others, those positions do receive a wage and a percentage of revenue is held to pay for cabin maintenance and other projects.

We signed up for a hiking trek through four towns, starting in Cuajimoloyas before progressing to Latuvi (16km), La Nevería (13km), Benito Juarez (8km) and back to Cuajimoloyas (8km). All the hikes were guided – some guides as young as we were, others nearly old enough to be my grandmother – but all lifelong residents of their various pueblos. Most had an encyclopedic knowledge of the culinary and medicinal uses of local plants, which they imparted strategically on difficult bits of the hikes to give us tired gringos a chance to catch our breaths while still saving face.

The trek was at times an odd clash of cultures and expectations. Some guides were happy to share their knowledge of the forest umprompted, but one preferred to keep ahead of us and check his cell phone at the top of every hill we (barely) managed to climb. Breakfasts were four courses of rich food, after which we were expected to hit the trail for a brisk 10 mile hike that tended towards being straight up or straight down a mountain, with very little in between.

Our itinerary had us set out hiking around 9 each morning for an early afternoon arrival in our next town, where we’d eat and sleep before setting off on the trail again. Supposedly, a dizzying array of authentic cultural experiences were available to us upon arrival – my packet listed everything from “learn the traditional art of making bread in an adobe oven” to “speak with an elderly resident of the community, who will be delighed to tell you traditional stories and legends.” We also had the option of a warm bath and massage (for an additional cost).

tourism sign la neveria
Sign advertising tourist activities in Latuvi

My skepticism was quickly vindicated when we arrived in Latuvi for our first night. I inquired about the bath and was told we had to reserve that in advance. The guy in the office shrugged when I asked about other activities. “You can walk around town,” he suggested.

We headed over to the basketball court and sat on a bench near some other men, figuring we might get some idea of how residents spend their time after tending to their fields. An older man gave us a confused look. “Are you waiting to see the town authority?” he asked. Apparently we’d cut the line. We retreated to the safety of our cabin and decided to read our books instead.

The following night, we got to La Nevería, by far our smallest town (80-90 people). When we arrived at the tourism office, our guide started chatting with the local administrator, a friendly man named Hugo. Hugo was quite upset because someone had sent the town’s tourism brochure to the printer without proofreading it thouroughly. Rather than advertising their “great hospitality,” the leaflet spoke only of the community’s “great hostility.”  And the waterfall on the second panel wasn’t even theirs, Hugo said – it was the one by Latuvi. “At least it’s not from another country,” I offered, drawing a hearty laugh.

La Neveria
La Neveria as seen from the trail

We’d signed up for a homestay in La Nevería, figuring it might give us more opportunity to interact with locals. Hugo took us to the house, which happened to belong to his parents, and the octegenarian couple showed us to our room, an improbably large stand-alone concrete structure up a hill from the main house where they slept. Inside were four beds, a single fluorescent lightbulb hanging bare from the ceiling, and no other furniture.

After settling in, I descended to the main house, braving a torrential downpour in my determination to learn something about the town and its inhabitants. I pulled out my paper itinerary, which hung limply in my hand, and asked Hugo’s father, Guillermo, if he knew where we might be able to do a bread-making workshop or learn more about agriculture. If nothing else, I hoped he might be able to tell me some stories from his long life in the small town.

“What? I can’t understand what she’s saying,” he muttered to his wife. Hugo practically ran into the room, looking concerned, and asked what I needed. When I showed him our list of promised activities, he frowned. “It’s a bit late in the day for that,” he explained, though we had arrived two hours earlier than the itinerary suggested. He allowed that it might be possible for us to help the locals shuck corn (at least, I think that’s what he said, but my Spanish may have failed me at this point). But that would be an extra cost.

Another afternoon of reading it was.

So, it wasn’t quite the cultural immersion we were promised. But we did learn a decent bit about local plants, enjoyed some beautiful views and got to do the one kilometer zipline that runs high above Cuajimoloyas.

I even got Guillermo to talk over dinner, drawing on my journalist’s instincts. After some abortive attempts to ask simple questions were met with monosyllabic answers, I asked, “Could you tell me a bit about how the town has changed since you were a kid?” For an hour, we talked of population flight out of rural areas, how kids of farmers don’t want to be farmers anymore (every bit as much a problem in rural Oaxaca as it is in Garfield County), the decline of Zapotec as a native language, our families (his six children live in La Neveria, Mexico City, Puebla and San Diego) and the ecotourism program.

On that last topic, Guillermo was quite animated. “We want more of you to come because you give us money!” he said, displaying a frankness that I think is truly universal in men of a certain age. “We might make some mistakes here, but we try, and we want to have more of you,” he said. So I promised I’d tell my friends to pay them a visit.


Mezcal, the traditional Oaxacan spirit

mezcal agave
Agave plants growing in central Oaxaca for later use in mezcal production.

There’s a lot to love about Oaxaca – amazing food, friendly people, gorgeous natural scenery – but Spencer and I were both drawn here in part by mezcal.

Mezcal is a distilled spirit made from the agave plant that’s similar to tequila, but often has a smokier, earthier flavor. Technically, tequila is a specific type of mezcal, since the general term refers to any spirit made from agave. Tequila must contain at least 51 percent sugars from agave (specifically, blue agave), but most mezcal producers use 100 percent agave sugar.

We were both introduced to mezcal by our favorite bartender, Jim German, who runs an eponymous bar in Waitsburg, Washington. The majority of the mezcal in the world is made in Oaxaca, so we spent a day touring with Alvin Starkman, a Canadian ex-pat who’s become a local expert on the stuff and leads tours to artisan producers. My information on the history and distillation process for mezcal comes from his tour, which we did on May 22.

Indigenous Oaxacans have been drinking pulque, a fermented agave beverage, for centuries. Mezcal was created sometime after the Spanish conquest as Spaniards brought distillation techniques with them. Many Oaxacans have been producing mezcal for generations and the drink has traditionally been a regional specialty, though the rest of the world is gradually disocvering it. That’s led to skyrocketing agave prices over the past few years, and dramatically increased agave cultivation. An agave plant takes 6-8 years to mature, so if demand doesn’t keep growing as predicted, there may be an agave glut sometime around 2020.

I was snapping pictures all day during the tour, so I’m going to walk through the process as best I can here.

pina unloading
A mezcal producer unloads harvested agave piñas from his burro.

The process starts with piñas, the base of the agave plant (all leaves grow out from there). Piñas are quite large and can weigh several hundred pounds. Some mezcal producers grow their own agave, but it’s more common (I think) to buy piñas from farmers in the area. Piñas are harvested once the agave plant flowers, which only happens once in its life.

Once you have piñas, they’re roasted in a large pit for several days. This converts the starch in the plant into sugars that can ferment.

roasting pit
A piña roasting pit.

At the bottom of the pit, you put burning logs. Then, rocks go on top. When they warm up, a wet fiber scooped from the top of agave mash (from a previous fermentation) goes on top. Then the agave is placed around and on top of the rocks and fiber, and the whole thing is covered with plastic or a mat, then dirt.

When the agave emerges from the pit, it’s ready to be crushed.

agave wheel
A stone wheel like this can be pulled by horse to crush agave before fermentation.

This can be done via a stone wheel pulled by horse, or by hand with a pestle. The government has also distributed machines that can crush agave to some small producers.

alving crushing agave
Alvin demonstrates crushing agave by hand.

Crushing increases the agave’s surface area. It’s now ready for fermentation.

agave fermenting
Agave ferments in a large wooden vat.

Agave can ferment almost anywhere, but many producers use wooden vats like this. Fermentation time varies depending on the season and ambient temperature – it can be several days, or more than a week.

After fermenting, the mezcal tastes very acidic – not something you’d want to drink. Next, producers distill it in either copper stills or clay pots.

felix still
Felix Ángeles Arellanes, a mezcal producer in Santa Catarina Minas, tends his still.

The basic setup involves a wood-burning fire under the pot or still. The still is filled with the fermented agave mash and heated, which causes the alcohol to evaporate. The mezcal then travels to a condenser kept cool by water, where it turns back into a liquid and drips out the side.

The first producer we visited, Felix, had a small setup with three stills using clay pots. Each pot had a metal cone containing cold water on top, so mezcal condensed inside, then ran down a white tube to a waiting jug.

still fireplace
The fireplace at the bottom of a small still.

Once the mezcal condenses, it’s usually distilled a second and sometimes third time before it’s ready to drink.

Mezcal flavor varies widely depending on the species of agave used, the soil conditions, the weather over the plant’s multi-year life and a number of other factors, so the same type of agave used by the same producer may have widely different tastes across different batches.

Felix pouring mezcal
Felix pours a sample.

We were lucky enough to be able to sample about a dozen local mezcals on our tour and picked up a few bottles to bring home. It’s awesome to be a bit more educated about one of my favorite drinks – hopefully we can cook up some good cocktail recipes!

Small loans help Zapotec weavers in Oaxaca

Many of the Zapotec weavers in Teotitlán buy their wool thread from other vendors, but Crispina likes to make it by hand. When we visited her house this afternoon, she showed us how to card the raw wool until it was soft. Then, her practiced hands held the fiber in one hand while gently turning a crank that spooled a thin strand on to a waiting spindle.

We gave it a try, but quickly found ourselves less than adept.

“Gently! Gently!” she admonished another visitor in our group with a wide smile on her face. “Turn it!”

Crispina spinning wool
Crispina instructs Spencer on proper wool spinning.

Crispina is one of about 330 women in small towns surrounding Oaxaca City who have benefitted from a microloan from Fundacion En Via, a unique organization that provides zero-interest loans funded almost entirely with revenues from their responsible tourism project.

The group was started by Oaxacans about six years ago, and began giving small loans to women entrepreneurs in 2010. Their work has been featured in a number of U.S. newspapers, including the Seattle Times.

Many of En Via’s clients are indigenous Zapotec women who work in a variety of trades, including traditional weaving, cosmetic sales, agriculture and the restaurant business.

woven rugs
Rugs woven by Crispina (photo by Spencer)

I’ve been interested in microfinance for years, ever since I learned about Grameen Bank, one of the first microfinance institutions (MFIs) in the world, founded in Bangladesh in 1983. The founder, Muhammad Yunus, realized many women were living in abject poverty because they lacked a few dollars to buy the raw ingredients they used to make stools.

Giving them a small loan was a simple solution to the problem, but no bank wanted to take on the risk of lending to people with no capital or credit history, or spend the time administering loans worth only a few dollars. So microfinance institutions (MFIs) were born, to provide low-interest loans to the working poor across the world. (This is, of course, a vastly oversimplified history that’s coming from my memory, so you should check out other sources if you want to learn more.)

Over the past decade or so, microfinance has become a trendy thing, and the growing number of MFIs worldwide has led to some skepticism about the business. Some lenders charge fairly high interest rates – I’ve seen 20-25% in many places – leading to questions about the supposed affordability of financing. Kiva, a website that’s turned into a major source of funding for larger MFIs (and where I’ve worked as a translator for about two years) had a mini-scandal a few years ago when people discovered that the individuals loans donors were ostensibly funding via their website were often disbursed to borrowers well in advance (they’ve since updated language on their site to more clearly reflect this).

En Via is a very small player in the MFI game, with just five staff members and a handful of volunteers running the program, which works in seven communities around Oaxaca. Having spent time working for Kiva and around others interested in microfinance, I was curious to see how their program worked.

Women join the program in groups of three. Usually, one woman hears about it through word of mouth and recruits two friends or neighbors to join her. The three of them receive an interest-free loan of 1500 pesos, about $100, and decide on a repayment term together (no more than 30 weeks). They also get a six week business class which discusses financial planning and goal-setting.

If one member can’t make her weekly payment on the loan, she and her groupmates all earn a fine. Three fines, and the loan amount they’re allowed to take out decreases.

Once a group has paid back their first loan, they’re required to host an En Via tour group before they can borrow again. En Via leads twice-weekly tours where tourists like us can visit several entrepreneurs in their homes and hear more about their businesses. The $55 tour cost goes entirely to cover loans, and tourist revenue covers about 86 percent of En Via’s funding (the rest comes from donations).

Money is lent out three times, then goes back to En Via to pay staff salaries and administration costs. Groups are eligible to take out larger loans as they’ve been in the program longer, with a current maximum of around 3,500 pesos (about $230).

On our tour, we met Crispina and her daughter Silvia, both weavers, and Rufina, another Zapotec weaver in the town of 5,700.

Photo of Silvia
Silvia at her loom


We also stopped in the town of Tlacochahuaya to meet three women who had just finished paying off their first loan. Acelia, the group leader, sells garlic in the local market on Sundays and used her loan to buy more inventory. She told me she’s considered financing before, but could never afford it because Mexican interest rates are so high – about 70 percent on average, according to En Via staff.

Carmen, another group member, sells cosmetics through a catalog and said having access to credit has helped her expand her business. Her customers order items from her and she has to go pick them up and pay out of pocket, assuming her customers are good for the items later.


Before her first En Via loan, she often had to cap sales because she was short on money or didn’t want to take on that personal risk. But with access to a loan, she’s been able to cover more inventory costs upfront and worry less about customers defaulting, allowing her to make more sales.


The women we spoke to were enthusiastic about their work and profusely thankful (in a way that seemed entirely genuine) to us and the En Via staff.

Silvia showed us how she weaves – she’s working on a wool blanket with a design called the Tree of Life. She joked with Kim, our tour guide, about how weaving was such good exercise she’d never have to go to the gym and smiled as she explained the origin of her three looms – one a wedding present from her father, one originally her great-grandfather’s.

“I love this work. I’m happy weaving,” she said, beaming as she wrapped white strands of wool on the loom.

A listicle of our 24 hours in transit to Oaxaca

After nearly 24 hours of straight travel, Spencer and I made it to Oaxaca City around 5 p.m. this evening. Later, I’ll regale you with some of the things I’m excited about and the sights and sounds we’re seeing, but since I’m exhausted right now, I’m going to cheat and do a listicle thing.

So, here’s 10 Things You Learn As a Budget Traveler in Mexico That Might Surprise You (now with photos because the internet started working at a normal speed again):

1) Two hour layovers at LAX seem generous, until you realize your connecting flight is in a terminal that requires you to sprint across 4 lanes of LA traffic and re-clear security before you can get to your gate. Flying separate airlines = cheap as hell ticket, but man was I sweaty when I got on the plane.

2) Watching The Imitation Game and Finding Nemo can, in rare instances, substitute for a full night of sleep.

3) If you and your significant other are planning to take separate flights to a foreign country, you should definitely not assume your cell phones will be able to send or receive texts when you land, even if your phone company explicitly promised you otherwise. (I had to sweet talk some federal police to even be allowed on the shuttle to Spencer’s terminal since I didn’t have a boarding pass: “Tengo que recoger mi novio. El no habla espanol.”)

4) Also, you should designate a more specific meeting place than “arrivals,” especially at a large international airport you’ve never been to.

5) That said, there are few things more exciting than seeing your significant other’s dorky backpacking clothes across the room from you and running over yelling “SPENCER!!!! SPENCER!!!!” after you’ve been searching for 15 minutes and had started to give up hope.

Most of our 7 hour bus trip was pretty rural, though the vegetation changed from this to desert.
Most of our 7 hour bus trip was pretty rural, though the vegetation changed from this to desert.

6) You get what you pay for with a second class bus ticket. In our specific case, that meant unexpectedly pulling over about two hours into our seven hour trip and waiting for half an hour before learning our bus had a radiator issue and would not be going anywhere. Another bus from the same company came to pick us up, though, and we ended up with more leg room and a working bathroom on board, so I’d call that a win.

All the repairs!
All the repairs!

7) Double-check your final destination. We got off the bus in what we thought was Oaxaca City (we’d been sleeping and weren’t super attentive), only to discover from a cab driver that we were actually in Nochixtlan, about an hour away. Fortunately, the bus hadn’t left yet, so we were able to get back on after giving the driver a sheepish grin.

8) Nine times out of ten, if your cab driver says, “Eh, I think I know where that is,” you’re actually going to be fine. So just chill. But maybe also bring a map with you.

9) Even if you’re starving because literally all you’ve had to eat all day is an energy bar and some almonds, it’s still worth wandering around the plaza and downtown for a few minutes before settling on a place to eat.

10) Beware of retreating to the roof terrace of your hostel to write after a long day of travel. The view is gorgeous, but you will be eaten alive by mosquitos.

See what I mean about the view?
See what I mean about the view?

Pre-adventure planning

I’m pretty sure this isn’t news to anyone who knows us well, but Spencer and I are one week away from a three-month around the world travel extravaganza!

Rachel and Spencer
The intrepid adventurers on a previous trip to Smith Rocks State Park near Bend.

I was fortunate enough to get a sabbatical from my new(ish) job at the Spokesman-Review, and Spencer is starting grad school in the fall in Gonzaga’s mental health counseling program, so we’re taking this chance to see the world a bit before we settle down.

We’re both hoping to update our respective blogs regularly from the road, though time and internet availability may vary from place to place. But for those of you who want to follow along, here’s a quick overview of what we’re doing.

Stop 1: Mexico

May 19-June 6

This was my pick – I’ve spoken Spanish for a while and spent a lot of time on the Arizona-Sonora border, but have seen little else of Mexico. We’re flying in and out of Mexico City and spending about three days there visiting the National Museum of Anthropology, checking out architecture and visiting a few friends.

I’ll finally get to meet Reed Brundage, the man behind Mexico Voices, where I’ve worked as a translator for about two years now. It’s an awesome blog that takes news and commentary written by Mexican journalists, mostly about politics and the drug war, and translates it into English.

The bulk of our trip will be spent in Oaxaca, a state in southeastern Mexico with a large indigenous population (and not the site of any recent violence or unrest related to the murdered Ayotzinapa student teachers, drug cartels or anything else, for those of you who like to worry). We’re taking a bus shortly after arriving and returning to Mexico City for the last few days of the trip.

map of Oaxaca
Oaxaca relative to Mexico City.

Oaxaca is known for its crafts, mezcal (a spirit distilled from the agave plant that’s similar to tequila, but often has a smokier taste) and delicious cuisine. We’re planning to sample mezcal, tour women-owned businesses through Fundacion En Via, a microfinance group, and go on a four-day hiking tour of rural communities in the mountains.

Stop 2: Return to the States

June 6-June 15

Following Mexico, we’ll fly back to Seattle and spend a few days visiting our respective families in Seattle and Portland. My cousin Zoe is graduating from Issaquah High School on June 12, and my cousin Hannah is graduating from Western Washington University on the 13th, so naturally we had to come home for the festivities!

Stop 3: Italy

June 15-June 27

This trip was my mom’s graduation present to Hannah, so Spencer and I are tagging along to spend some time with them. We’ll be visiting Venice, Florence and Rome and seeing a lot of artwork. I’ve been using Duolingo to learn some Italian, so I’m hoping I might have a vague idea of what’s going on once we arrive.

Stop 4: India

June 27-July 28
trip backpack
I’ve already planned the entire backpack out. (Not all the books are coming.)

This is perhaps the most exciting, daunting and as-yet unplanned portion of our trip. We’ve got a full month to explore the vast Indian subcontinent – no small task, given its massive size.

I think a lot of maps are bad at conveying relative size and distance. While planning a route around the country, I often found myself looking at two Indian cities and thinking, “Those look like they’re pretty close together…” before asking Google Maps to give me a route between them. Whoops – turns out they’re 15 hours apart.

We’re flying in and out of Mumbai and have had a somewhat shifting itinerary. Originally, we planned to spend most of our time in the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, figuring it’s impossible to see all of India in one trip, so we’d leave Delhi, the Taj Mahal and the sites up north for another time. But in the past week or so, we’ve realized that our original plans to visit some forested areas may not work since we’re going in the height of monsoon season, so we’re now reconsidering a leg up north. Stay tuned for more on that.

I’ll expand more on this later, but for folks with a knowledge of India, our rough planning currently includes a few days in Mumbai, then traveling by train to the caves at Ellora and on to a tiger reserve near Nagpur. From there, we may fly to Delhi and see the Taj Mahal and possibly Varanasi, a Hindu holy city on the Ganges River. From there (or from Nagpur), we’ll fly to Bangalore, then take trains to Mysore, Kochi, Alleppey and Madurai before flying back to Mumbai.

Whatever we end up doing, I’m sure it will be exciting and beautiful, with a touch of traveler’s diarrhea and abject fear about train schedules thrown in. I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

r & s
We’re both excited, even if we’re still not 100% positive this will all work out.