In the mountains of Oaxaca state, remote Zapotec Indian villages welcome hikers to a web of trails.
LLANO GRANDE, Mexico While much of Mexico sweltered in summer heat, hiking guide Arturo Morales donned a sweater and jacket and took visitors into the cool, misty mountains of the Sierra Norte range.
This web of trails and tiny villages at 10,000 feet in southern Mexico’s Oaxaca state is part of Morales’ home turf. Despite the high altitude, it’s a gentle, subtropical enclave of thick forest and easygoing paths for hiking and mountain biking.
Morales and two Mexico-based European guides led me and a dozen others on a day hike in the Sierra Norte, where clouds sweeping across the Gulf of Mexico collide with the mountains, often enveloping the villages in mist and leading the Zapotec Indian communities to call themselves “cloud people.”
This isolated highland is a wildly diverse ecosytem. Century plants giant agaves with fleshy leaves and 30-foot stalks grow next to pine and oak trees. Ferns and mushrooms carpet the forest floor. It’s a haven for birds, with hundreds of species found here, and butterflies. And deep in the woods, it’s said, the elusive jaguars still roam.
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The Sierra Norte is a very long way, physically and in spirit, from most of Mexico’s tourist destinations.
The Mexican government has fostered the development of big, luxury beach resorts such as Cancún, Los Cabos and Ixtapa. The Sierra Norte is something completely different small-scale ecotourism that’s locally controlled by the Pueblos Mancomunados, eight remote Zapotec Indian mountain villages that have banded together to promote outdoor adventures, as well as low-impact, small-scale logging on their 73,000 acres of communally held forestland.
Tourism still is a tiny business, with roughly a thousand visitors a year. But it has a big impact on the lives of the villagers in the Sierra Norte (also sometimes called the Sierra Juarez), about 40 miles northeast of the city of Oaxaca.
In Llano Grande, one of the smallest villages of the Pueblos Mancomunados, Senora Elia, as everyone calls her, has become a tourism entrepreneur.
Although the steep, winding road to her village of 200 people recently was paved, Llano Grande still looks like a place lost in time. Simple wood huts huddle on a ridge; laundry flaps on clotheslines strung past chicken coops; stacks of firewood line hand-hewn fences. There is electricity, but no indoor plumbing.
Senora Elia and her family run an informal restaurant at their home, cooking chicken and tortillas for tourists at a crackling wood stove. She runs what serves as the village store, too, a few shelves of tomatoes, garlic and canned food. While she bustled around the kitchen, a wizened grandmother, bent by age and wrapped in shawls against the mountain chill, stared at the influx of chattering American hikers.
The hiking is relatively easy on the 75 miles of Pueblo Mancomunados trails, a web of centuries-old footpaths that connected the villages before roads penetrated the mountains. It’s a rounded, forested range, not the craggy, dramatic peaks of the Cascades or Rockies. However, the 10,000-foot altitude of some of the villages can take flatlanders’ breath away ( the Sierra Norte’s highest elevation is 11,500 feet).
The climate is much gentler, too, than most North American mountain ranges. Still, it can freeze on winter nights one of the villages, La Neveria, used to specialize in making and hauling blocks of ice in pre-refrigeration days to the city of Oaxaca, 5,000 feet below in the valley.
Our five-hour walk near Llano Grande began on a broad and gentle trail that has served generations of wood cutters. We could walk four abreast on much of it, although we branched off onto narrower trails and clambered up a ridge for views of forest-draped valleys and mountains.
Morales led the way, occasionally pausing to pick porcini mushrooms with fellow guide Yves Chavan, a Swiss man who’s settled in the city of Oaxaca.
“In Europe you could spend a whole day looking for these,” said the 36-year-old Chavan, checking a 5-inch, reddish-tan mushroom for ripeness, then digging it out carefully so there was enough root left for it to regenerate next year.
Chavan and his German wife, Claudia Schurr, came to the city of Oaxaca as tourists six years ago. He, an architect, and she, a sociologist, liked it so much they stayed, learning Spanish and earning a living by starting an ecotourism company, Tierraventura. They lead trips in the Sierra Norte for a day or longer overnight treks, always taking a local guide such as Morales, who comes from a lower-elevation Zapotec Indian village, with them.
For the 5,000 Zapotecs of the Pueblos Mancomunados, where Spanish is a second language to their native tongue, tourism is bringing money into what has been an extremely poor area.
The villages oversee tourism through a community-owned tourism organization, Expediciones Sierra Norte. It works with companies such as Tierraventura, helping to organize trips, guides and accommodations in villages for those taking longer hikes, bike trips or bird-watching and botany expeditions.
The villages are trying to develop other businesses, too, including sustainable, small-scale logging (over-cutting remains a problem in parts of the Sierra Norte ) and a spring-water bottling plant. Along the way, they’ve garnered praise, economic-development grants and advice from organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation.
There are cultural efforts, too, with a bilingual Spanish-Zapotec school having opened as Zapotecs try to rebuild their culture, which dates back more than 2,000 years in the Oaxaca area but was devastated under the Spanish conquest.
Those travelers who want to see more of the Sierra Norte than a day hike allows can camp along trails or stay overnight in some villages in Yu’u, dormitory-style cabins where a bunk costs less than $10 a night.
Llano Grande opened its Yu’u last December, a simple, wood cabin on the edge of a field. On a late afternoon, its front porch was filled with a cheery group of French hikers, sipping wine and hanging out their socks to dry. They waved as we paused in our van on the way down the mountain; we would have liked to join them for an apéritif, and go deeper into the hills the next day.
Kristin Jackson: 206-464-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org