The first time I trekked through the Sierra Norte of Mexico, I was shocked. I had imagined trekking in Mexico as an arid, hot and possibly uncomfortable experience as I tried to avoid varieties of prickly cacti and poisonous reptiles. Nothing could have been further from reality. Instead, I walked under a canopy of shade from tall pine trees, along rivers and surrounded by a variety of deciduous trees draped in fantastical epiphytes. The air was not dry, due to the pervasive afternoon showers that give Oaxaca a continual moist spring feel. Also, it was cold at night – really cold! Most of the trekking in this section of the Sierra Norte is at elevations of around 10,000 feet, which means those cold nights make for some stunning stargazing.
The forest floors were blanketed in flowers and mushrooms, and our local Zapotec guides knew every single plant, explaining the medical and culinary uses of each one we passed. Trekking guides are mandatory here, and you will be glad they are because there are miles and miles of trails winding through the mountains and along streams linking the villages – you really need a guide to show you around. Our local guides, who are extremely knowledgeable and super friendly, are part of a community-based tourism project started, operated and benefitting the local people.
When you arrive at one of the many clean, beautiful and safe villages, your guide escorts you to a cabin tucked away in the woods or on a hillside with great views. Cabins have hot showers, fireplaces, nice beds and outdoor hammocks. Visitors are welcomed in these communities and are treated like guests. Meals are eaten in locally-run comedors where the women take turns cooking delicious local specialties. In fact, all aspects of this tourism program are run by villagers, who take turns at different jobs. Everyone participates and everyone benefits from the revenue.
I was floored and delighted by the beauty of the place. The forests and trails are well maintained, with only minimal regulated logging that keeps the impact small. All community members may harvest plants and mushrooms from the forests and sell them if they like, as well as their local water which they sell down below in Oaxaca City, as they have plenty. They also have fish farms on the rivers, which trekkers can see along the many routes. Visitors are not restricted to just trekking; there are routes for horseback riding and mountain biking as well. The community also has a number of farm-to-table opportunities and is open to sharing traditional celebrations with visitors, such as Day of the Dead.
There are so many reasons to trek in the Sierra Norte, and not the least among them is the sheer surprise of it all.
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