Just got back to the hostel in Oaxaca after my trek through the Pueblos Mancommunados and their vast reaches of high-altitude forest. With dense groves of pine, oak, aile (eagle-wood?) and madroño almost seeming to froth over the nebulous hills, it’s about as far from a sterotypical Mexican landscape of pronged cacti and scrub as you might get. In fact, as I camped out at a remote little pine-fringed clearing on my first night, it felt like being back by the American Pacific – perhaps in some little misty wood cabin town of fisherman and pick-up trucks. For the afternoon, I had the company of a couple of local trout-farmers who busied around a wooden shack and a few fenced-off ponds as I dozed. Jesus brought me a barbecued fish, enchipotlada, with lime and tomatoes as an early dinner. A delicious meal out there in the crisp air – though he then tried to charge me 80 pesos for said fish! As a gringo going about my crazy walking around the hills for the fun of it, and as part of a pretty steady stream of visitors to the area through the Expediciones de Sierra Norte ecotourism project, I was definitely fair game for a con or two. Jesus giggled, then slung his bag over his shoulder and set off for the village, leaving me alone with a scraggly dog with a bleeding neck and the last of the afternoon’s sun, there in that woodcutter’s idyll. Soon enough a total dark came on, and imaginary pumas lurking on the edges of the field. Good old Lonely Planet had informed me that all seven of Mexico’s recognised wildcats called the Sierra Norte home. Great! I managed to get a fire going after a bit of effort, by heaping huge amounts of pine needles onto some half-dry twigs.

Walking from the town of Cuajimoloyas via Benito Juarez and La Neveria to the lower, northerly villages of Latuvi and Amatlan I was able to see the enormous harvest of the area.  Everywhere there were maize fields cut out of the woodlands, in the valley depths and sliding around the hills in squares and triangles. Most were just flocks of brown stalks, drooping like burnt paper, the husks having recently been picked to make tortillas, tamales, elote. At least for the first day, the trail was framed by maguey plants, whose spiky fins are used in the making of tequila and its sister, mezcal. The strange sillhouettes of quiote trees with their curved branches and bright-red bulbs of fruit waited next to the more familiar shapes of pine. At La Neveria, there were large beds of watercress (berro) sitting in flooded paddies; that night I had some for dinner in my tortitas.  At the lower and warmer reaches, more fruit. Huge watermelon-like spheres called chilacoyota hung from tree branches. Oranges, apples, peaches and avocados were growing around Latuvi and Amatlan. Beans, too, I established – talking to my succession of local guides. Black beans certainly featured heavily at  the village comedores where I got some meals.

I was required to have a guide for each stage of the walk, something carefully enforced by the office in Oxaca and each of the prim-looking tourism offices in the villages. Their faux-log facades and newly tiled terraces certainly stood out from most of the other buildings of breeze block and corrigated iron – as did the tourist cabañas. Ferried from one enclave to the next with a succession of different people and their walkie-talkies, I did come to feel a strange sensation of being a kind of  prisoner to ecotourism. That, or jealously-guarded gringo gold. My second guide, Giovanni, said he was twenty years old, which I doubted.  He skipped up and down the trail occasionaly taking a sip of Coke from a bottle in his backpack, telling me about the Benito Juarez basketball team. Basket and bandas, I made out, were the hobbies of the Sierra Norte mountain youth.

Other guides recited little bits about the trees, the birds or the stone walls we passed. Alfredo was the oldest and my favourite. He was a mine of information about all the forest flowers and the tangle of shrubbery. He pointed out the madroño with it’s shedding, deep-red bark like the outer layer of a peanut. He showed me some of the distinctive features of these pine-oak forests, like the bromelias hanging in the trees and the musgo, a kind of lichen which dangled and swayed all over the place, like angel hair on christmas trees, ghostly curtains reaching almost to the ground which spoke of some tropical passage.

Alvino huffed and puffed, he’d certainly had his fair share of tortillas. He told me about other mountains – seeing the snow-capped Rockies in ’92, when he was working in a Chinese restaurant in Montana. Getting into the USA used to be much easier, twenty years ago. Now you have to pay a coyote thousands of dollars just to arrange a very tricky hike across the desert. More money to cross at a more populous point. Why would anyone want to leave these peaceful, plentiful hills, I thought.

The town of Santa Martha Latuvi was perched high above a lush river valley where buzzards sailed noiselessly, turning left and right with little flicks, showing the black and white diagonals on their bellys. Small, hand-painted boards stood at the edges of the gravel tracks, informing things in scrawled imperatives. Plan a family. A smaller family works better. Recycle- divide your rubbish into organic and non-organic. Make sure you’re up to date with your vaccinations . go to a health centre. Don’t tolerate violence against women.

I had a great breakfast at a little comedor in Cuajimoloyas on my first morning – servings of black beans, a soft local cheese in tomato sauce, chopped green beans with egg, and some meaty paste called picadillo. Served with a big, warm maize tortilla and a helping of bread – an offering for the tourists, I think. Washed down with bowls of watery, sugary coffee which was just great after a night in a cold tent. Walking around town, I saw numerous rounds of that local cheese strung up in the tiendas (shops, but really more like houses with a Pepsi poster on an outside wall). I asked Alvino, “what is the name of this cheese?”. “Cheese” he replied, with a blank look.



^ about to set off for Latuvi with Alfredo


^ street in the village of  Latuvi


^ hilltop cemetary, Latuvi


^ view south from near the Yaa Cuetzi lookout, Cuajimoloyas