The city of Oaxaca is a destination for food. (What these folks can do with chocolate, chili, tamarind, and a handful of secret ingredients will blow your taste buds.) It’s also known for its strong indigenous culture, which, in turn, means lots of traditional dress, dance, and artesanal goods. Colorful shops and markets of all shapes and sizes are scattered throughout the city with collectively such a dazzling array of hecho a mano goods that shopping for, say, a hat or a poncho requires a level of fortitude beyond that of normal shopping in most other places in the world.
And everywhere, behind every stall and in every corner of the markets, people are making more stuff.
But my first week in the area wasn’t spent in Oaxaca. I was in the Sierra Norte mountains outside the city where the pine and oak trees scent the air. Unlike the city, which nestles in the confluence of three valleys, at 10,000 feet in the mountains, the air can get downright nippy.
I went to the mountains to experience a truly remarkable, innovative, and successful project of the best sort–a kind of sustainable tourism that draws people from all over the world, the kind that requires an incredible level of commitment and collaboration among a handful of very small villages (with populations of from 90 to 700), and which has a positive impact on the villages without intruding on or altering their traditional way of life.
If there were a blue ribbon for an all-around-win, this project takes it.
It’s called the Pueblos Mancomunados, and it’s a collaborative effort among eight villages in the beautiful and hugely biodiverse Sierra Norte mountains. The project, now in its 20th year, was conceived as an effort to create sustainable ecotourism, so the villages could benefit economically while protecting the natural environment in which they live. The idea was to link the villages with a network of trails (many of which were there already) and to invite people to experience life in these remote villages while they are also hiking, biking, or riding horses through some pretty fabulous countryside.
Sounds simple, but the project requires a tremendous amount of commitment and cooperation.
My first stop when my bus pulled into the city of Oaxaca was to Expediciones Sierra Norte, which is the official office in Oaxaca of the Pueblos Mancomunados, and it is staffed and maintained by the villages. It isn’t a third-party agency; it’s purpose is to help visitors plan an experience in the mountains tailored to their expectations and desires. Want an adrenaline-laced ziplining, mountain biking, camping experience? The Pueblos Mancomunados can comply–within limits. You won’t be racing environment-wrecking 4-wheelers all over their mountains. But they do have a zipline in one of the villages, and you can rent bikes or horses.
In my case, I wanted mostly downhill hikes. On a previous hike in the mountains, I’d experienced a surprising breathlessness at 10,000 feet (the result, I imagine, of a life spent at sea level). I wanted a challenge, but I didn’t want to kill myself. I worked out an itinerary with a staffer that would take me through five of the villages in about as many days. I don’t remember what I paid, but it wasn’t much, and it included everything–meals, guides, lodging. (You have to have a guide, and believe me, you’ll want one. It’s super easy to get lost in the mountains.
The Pueblos Mancomunados project began in the largest pueblo of Benito Juarez when the village began wooing tourists with mountain biking and a zipline. But as the idea spread, several communities began working together in one of the first ecotourism projects in the world conceived, developed, and managed by the local indigenous community.
So, on the next Monday morning, I left my big backpack at the Sierra Expediciones‘ office and took a taxi to the bus station. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I wasn’t even quite sure where to get off the bus. At a village with the unpronounceable name of Cuajimoloyas. Or so I was told.
Every village has an office where visitors sign in and are taken in hand. In this case, I was dispatched to a nearby restaurant and fed handsomely. Then I was taken to a beautiful cabin overlooking the village. Yes, I wanted to hike that day, so Isabel appeared and we did an invigorating (to me) 3-hour hike in the afternoon. She was patient, attentive, and informative–a very sweet presence to spend an afternoon with.
I was shown where the comedor was located, just down the hill, and I went there for dinner. Some guys came in the evening and lit a fire in the fireplace, since nights are chilly in the mountains.
In the morning, I ate another simple meal (this comedor is run by a young mom. The village is building a bigger structure nearby) and went to the office where my guide to the next village was waiting.
This is pretty much how every day went. Sometimes the hikes were longer and more challenging; sometimes they were a pleasant couple of hours. Each village was unique; each cabin was different, but they were always beautifully constructed. In every village, the cabins were much nicer than the houses most villagers live in. And the people in each village build their own cabins. Each village also builds a comedor–the kitchens where the visitors are fed. Some are simple; others are more elaborate. The food was always good and sometimes it was fantastic.
I was amazed at the level of organization among these tiny communities, the seamless way they function, the effort on the part of every village to contribute to the success of the project and the comfort of the visitors, and the enthusiasm and genuine interest among the people I met. It may be safe to say that a similar level of investment and cooperation would be improbable in most Western countries. And I don’t for a moment suppose that it’s easy here, either. Behind the seamless face, one worker admitted that cooperation was often difficult.
Each village supplies guides, whether the trip is on horseback, on foot, or on a bike. The guides make an effort to describe their traditions and to identify various plants, and to explain their uses. I can tell you, I had some interesting conversations with the guides, despite my limited Spanish.
They were usually young men who took their job seriously. They would point out the most unprepossessing plant, and the darned thing would be good for curing a stomachache or headache or for general good health. On one hike, it became a game to see how many plants I could remember (less than four). But the guide couldn’t remember the name of the lupine that I identified. So there.
From another guide, I learned about the curanderas, who are like the village midwives/nurses/medicine women. His grandmother, mother, and aunt were curanderas. (They delivered his three children.) It’s a special role in the village, and sometimes, the curanderas serve more than one village. His mother always had herbs and medicines in the house made from the same plants he was pointing out to me.
In Cuajimoloyas I had been offered a mezcal temazcal–a kind of traditional steam bath using madrone branches instead of birch and a local alcoholic drink (mezcal) in the steam. I declined because I wasn’t sure I’d brought enough money, plus I felt kind of shy about doing it. Turns out his mother would have done the temazcal. THAT was a missed opportunity. I’ve seen similar temazcal experiences offered by tourist-oriented entities, like hostels or tour groups, but to me, these seem slightly forced. I missed an authentic experience.
But here’s the real kicker: Every single one of the delightful people I met–the cooks, the guides, the guys in the office–are all volunteers. They’ve been asked by their communities to volunteer for up to a year for these tasks. Repeatedly, I was told that their work was “for the community.” (“I was elected in service of the pueblo for one year,” is how one woman put it.) And repeatedly the people said that the project had indeed helped the villages. I could see that in the overall health and well-being of these places. The guides and sometimes the cooks are tipped, and I know I tipped well because I was served well. But these aren’t feel-good jobs. They are seriously consuming, and no one was getting rich from occasional tips..
The people clearly felt a responsibility to share their traditions and the natural environment they know so well with visitors who come from all over the world to experience it. In Benito Juarez, we were taken to the house of one of the cooks to see how the corn was ground into masa for tortillas. Then we saw the crowning of the Reina de primavera–the spring queen. She was about five years old, and sort of wandered in and out of the circle of kids while the Spring portion of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons blasted through the loudspeaker. Then we had poleo tea (delicious) and fresh watercress in our salads that was picked from a nearby stream.
I can’t recommend this experience highly enough. The only caveats might be that no one speaks English, so even a little Spanish goes a long way. And the activities are physical and outdoors, but they don’t have to be super strenuous. There are so many reasons to go to Oaxaca, that this one is often overlooked.
It shouldn’t be.