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.
In addition to the beautiful scenery, great hiking and superb food, visitors come for the annual mushroom festival, La Feria Regional del hongos silvestres, in Cuajimoloyas, which takes place over a weekend either at the end of July or early August, depending on the rains and how the mushroom crop is doing. Of the 3,500 mushroom species in the world, 2,000 of them have been found in the forests around the village. On the Saturday of the festival local guides lead groups into the forest to identify each species, with an award for the group that finds the most; in 2012, 292 species were found. On the Sunday, the collected mushrooms are on display (groups can only pick one of each species to insure their long-term survival) and local experts give talks on fungi varieties. The festival ends with a display of traditional folk dances from Oaxaca’s most famous annual festival, Guelaguetza, which typically takes place in July. Other activities include having a temascal, a pre-Hispanic wood-fired steam bath, which can be a good option at the end of a long hike.
In a unique balance, the villages have found a way to both expose and protect their way of life, sharing profits equally while avoiding mass commercialisation. In giving travellers an opportunity to witness such a traditional way of life up close, the community is ensuring that this very special place will be around for generations, and tourists, to come.
Visitors can book a trip through the Expediciones Sierra Norte website or at their office in Oaxaca City and take a local bus to any of the villages. Expediciones Sierra Norte can also help organise tours of the old mine in Amatlan, including the abandoned processing plant, the living quarters of the workers and a small part of the original tunnels.