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.
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).
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.
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.