In the isolated pine- and oak-filled mountains about 60km northwest of Oaxaca City are eight small villages, collectively called Los Pueblos Mancomunados. Most of the inhabitants are Zapotecan and the villages operate under a unique self-ruling co-operative system, where rural life has remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of years.
The land surrounding the villages is also rich in every sense of the word. The forests are abundant with medicinal plants and mushrooms, and the fields produce maize, squash, tomatoes, beans, watercress and potatoes, as well as a large range of fruit. Most crops in the region are sown and harvested by hand, including the small plots that dot the gravity-challenging mountain sides, and farm machinery is a rare sight, with villagers using donkeys, oxen and bulls to plough the crops. Close to the village of Amatlan, a large reserve of gold and silver still sits in a now unused mine. Ghost-like mounds of powder-like gold can be seen, forever waiting for transportation to the northern Mexican city of San Luis Potosi for refinement.
Unlike many other small villages in Mexico, Los Pueblos Mancomunados is run by a committee that, in 1998, set up an ecotourism program called Expediciones Sierra Norte to showcase and protect six of the villages’ beautiful scenery and nearly forgotten way of life. Today, visitors can independently explore the forested trails that connect the villages of Latuvi, La Neveria, Benito Juarez, Cuajimoloyas, Llano Grande and Amatlan (by foot, bike or horse) – but it is a richer experience to travel with an Expediciones Sierra Norte guide. Each member of the community must do a year of service in the programme, acting as a guide or helping to maintain the traditionally-built adobe cabins where visitors stay. All profits are equally split among the village families, which helps alleviate forced emigration in search of work.
One of the main trails, El Camino – part of a longer trail that went from the Gulf of Mexico through to the Pacific Ocean – dates back to pre-Hispanic times, when the villagers had to walk for at least a day to reach the market in Oaxaca City. Once there, they bartered their maize, vegetables, crafts and fruit for produce not available at home. Locals still make that trip today for the same reasons – but today they travel by bus or truck
Guided treks can start at any of the six villages and vary from a single day excursion to four days or more depending on fitness level and time available. On the longer treks between villages – the forests filled with seasonal displays of colourful bromeliad flowers and Spanish moss – nights are spent in the adobe cabins, with hot water, a roaring log fire and an authentic Oaxacan meal upon arrival. Dishes might include sopa de calabaza, a clear broth with chunks of squash and fresh garlic; or tortillas con amarillo de hongos, corn tortillas filled with mushrooms in a red sauce made from maize, tomatoes and fresh chillies.
Camping is another option, albeit a chilly one with many of the villages above 2,700m, but the payoff is stunning sunrises and a chance to see mountain ranges span for kilometres, including the Orizaba volcano peak in the neighbouring state of Veracruz – Mexico’s tallest mountain at 5,636m.
The villagers’ traditional cuisine is incredible, thanks in no small part to their local source of organic food. If a crop or plant is having a bad season and needs pesticide, the community will stop growing it and go without. This strict approach leads to an abundance of carefully-grown ingredients that combine to produce epicurean highlights such as atole, a traditional hot drink made from maize and sugar cane, with a rojo (red) version made for weddings and festivals by adding cinnamon and cacao; amarillo con hongos, mushrooms served with a red sauce made from maize, tomatoes and fresh chillis; and truchas (trout), which are native to the mountain rivers. The villagers have established a system of breeding trout via natural water pools, fed by the rivers and streams.