Sunday, May 5, 2013

Oaxaca's Sierra Norte and the Pueblos Mancomunados

Cosy forest campsite....
From just east of Oaxaca, a steep winding gravel road took me away from the heat of the valley and into the cool of forested mountains. Tucked away in the highlands behind Oaxaca are a series of small, friendly and very tidy villages, perched on ridges or mountainsides in among the forest. These indigenous Zapotec villagers have a system of sharing the resources of the region among the various pueblos (OMG - they must be socialists!!), resources which now include a small numbers of tourists. A coordinated network of accommodations, hiking and biking trails, together with very friendly locals, make this a fun place to spend a bit of time. 

...with an impressive backdrop for an evening cervesa!
My first night was spent in a clearing in the forest just out of one of the many pueblos in Mexico called Benito Juarez (after the indigenous Zapotec Prime Minister of Mexico in the mid to late 1800’s). My campsite was 50 m from a spectacular lookout, perfectly located for enjoying sunset and beer as storm clouds broiled over the adjoining ridges. 

Next morning, while exploring the  the forest roads, I encountered an elderly woman who was walking the 11 kms from her village to the next. I gave her a lift and she told me that she did this “cada dia” (every day) both ways. I couldn’t quite figure out why, but it had something to do with the local school. By the time we reached her destination, I had picked up another three people headed in the same direction so I had a car full of happy chattering locals.  

Morning view from my bedroom window.
That evening was spent on another ridge-top, this time overlooking the village of San Miguel Amatlan. I was here courtesy of the extremely friendly and helpful "manager of tourists" who suggested that this site, out of town, with spectacular views over the surrounding valleys, with villages glued to the slopes, was better than the eco-retreat in town. Obviously I took his advice and had the mountain to myself, with the exception of a chat with some passing locals, and some flickering light from the resident glow worms - Magic!

The next day,more very slow driving through the forests, with frequent stops to explore on foot, led me to an enticing little unused forest trail which, after a few hundred meters opened into a beautiful glade. Here I set up camp and spent what remained of the day wandering through the forests in search of birds and whatever else cared to show itself - in this instance, with the exception of a squirrel, only the birds obliged.

From the mountains to the sea

Awoke to a crisp clear, still morning. A quick coffee and then off wandering through the forest once more - a perfect morning for birding - every wing flutter, every cheep or twitter, and every movement detectable in the otherwise perfectly still and silent morning. The only other noise, the clatter of debris, as squirells or woodcreepers dislodged bark and pine cones as they breakfasted. Across the valleys I could occasionally glimpse villages nestled on the slopes, the smoke from morning  cooking fires hanging languidly on the still air. Whilst not the Himalaya, it evoked memories of hillside villages in Sikkim. The need for more coffee eventually lured me back to camp, followed by leisurely drive back into Oaxaca. 

An interesting consequence of good roads with wide verges in this part of the country (rare up till now) is that everyone drives with their right wheels on the verge, ensuring that there is room for faster vehicles to pass, even tho the middle line is unbroken and there is traffic coming the other way. Effectively this turns a two lane road into three, the only problem being that traffic from both directions think they are entitled to the middle overtaking “lane” (ie one wheel on either side of the centre line). This results in regular attempts to fit four vehicles across two lanes. Generally it seems to work, although the frequent shrines on the side of the road (not to mention the occasional completely trashed car) suggests that it isn’t always successful. 

I had meant to get off to an early start from Oaxaca but instead, spent the morning chatting to a Dutch couple who were doing the Panamerican from south to north. They had lots of handy tips, and very generously donated their maps from central america.

Eventually got going just before midday for what was probably a 300km drive. However given that my chosen route was via winding third-class roads through two tall mountain ranges that stood between me and the pacific coast, it was always going to be a stretch. But I was happy to be off the freeways and in charge of my own destiny again -  if you can describe not having a plan and making it up as I go as being “in charge”.  

The rains don’t come here till June, so it is all quite parched, but scenic nonetheless, with the backdrop of craggy mountain ranges. Initially I meandered across the broad Oaxaca valley as the day heated up. The first hour or so was spent bumping over hundreds of topes (these are usually un-signposted, and often very severe, speed bumps). These are usually located at the entrances and exits of the numerous small villages - but seemingly also at every roadside comedor (restaurant) - presumably set up by the owners hoping that, having slowed you down, you will come in to eat (or having broken your suspension you have no choice!). The next several hours were then spent grinding uphill into the mountains. Scrubby agricultural land started to give way to pine forests but still they were dry and parched, with the greener, deciduous trees confined to the slightly damper gullies. The approach to the top of the second range passed many small pueblos tacked onto the mountain slopes.  The people here are mostly “indigenas” and they look questioningly at me as I pass in my strange vehicle - I suspect that not many extrangeros come this way. 

Roadside comedor seemed like a good place to spend the night...
At the top of the ridge I disappeared briefly into clouds - presumably the result of cool moist air coming in off the ocean to the south and rising over the range, only to emerge on the other side on a different planet - obviously I had crossed the line of a rain-shadow and suddenly I was descending towards the coast through luxuriant rain forest. Having found this new world I didn’t want to pass it by so, in a small ridge-top village, I stopped at a roadside cafe and asked if I could stay the night.

...with a rainforest backdrop...

..and a very friendly chef for tonight's dinner!
My Spanish is obviously reasonably functional, as they understood what I wanted and directed me to a spot with spectacular views over the forest. I then managed to order dinner (only one thing on the menu - chicken broth with tortillas) and hold a conversation about fishing in the local streams, about the parrots that they had caught in the forest and had in a cage, and about my travels. Interestingly, my spanish is better when I’m on my own than when I have an audience of other extrangeros. So, all in all a delightful day and I have to say, estoy muy contento!

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