Sunday, 4 September 2016

Walking the Pueblos Mancomunados in Oaxaca

The Pueblos Mancomunados are a group of 9 villages set high up in the beautiful Sierra Norte Mountains to the North East of Oaxaca. The villages are situated between 2000m to 3200m above sea level.

These are pretty insular little communities. Examples being that many locals still only speak the indigenous pre-Hispanic language of Zapotec. No problem. We have spent nearly four years struggling with different languages so at least here with our newly acquired broken Spanish, some English, mime and laughter we get by ok; They also choose to not recognize the silly notion of summer changes in time so their clocks are set to a constant ‘mountain time’ which meant they were an hour behind all the surrounding country.

Lachatao from the trail
These villages are set in stunning surrounds. So, in an effort to bring money into the communities they have mapped out some treks, built some cabins and put an information office in each village to encourage eco-tourism. The cabins are great and the treks are varied and lovely. However, there is a weird lackadaisical attitude towards signage. Consequently the treks (the whole point of the exercise) are hampered and made far more difficult to follow due to lack of signs at places where you need it.. A fact we discovered when one day we walked 32 kilometres instead of 16.

Anyway we leave home and jump on a bus that after 30 minutes brings us back past our AirB&B in the wrong direction. Start again. Walk to bus park and spend further 30 minutes looking for a collectivo (private hop on-hop off van) find one and get in. 15 minutes later still no other passengers (we need 6 to make the journey worthwhile for the driver) so get out. Start again. Find a taxi prepared to drive us for 200 pesos. It's a ninety minute drive and things are going well until we are stopped by the police and have to wait on the side of the road until a suitable bribe is haggled over by the driver.  And so. About 4 hours after leaving home we arrive at the starting point of our trek.

Entrance to our cabana
The cabin is amazing. Its set on the outskirts of a tiny village up a dirt path about 200 metres in pine woods. Its large, has chunky furniture, is clean and has a huge hearth with piles of wood. We start walking tomorrow so for now we saunter and find food in a restaurant of sorts (a cross between a house, shop, restaurant and private living room) where we drink a beer and eat whatever was cooking – probably some variation of tacos, beef, onions, frijoles and rice. Soon the clouds came in, we lit the fire and spent a pleasant evening and night holed up in our cozy den.

Typical restaurant cum someones kitchen
The following day the sun is shining. We pack our bags and set off towards Benito Juarez via Cuajimoloyas. Two 8km treks with lunch in the middle. We are told we probably won’t need a guide so are optimistic that all will be well. It wasn’t. After an hour we drop off a trail as it joins a quiet road, expecting to see a sign where to pick up the route leading back into the woods. We find none and decide to follow a dirt road which runs encouragingly downhill, until we see a route marker which eggs us on cross country – eventually we come to a proper sign which effectively said “You have walked 4km downhill following the wrong route in the opposite direction. Return to go, do not collect £200….Dicks!” It was pretty though. Both times!!!

We trek the 4km back to the cross roads but then had no option but to carry on along a road (still virtually deserted) until a logging lorry came by and gave us a lift.

OK . Have lunch and set off for part two. Down a really steep collection of rocky paths to a river. Then follow the only path for 4km during which torrential rain sets in and we are plagued by hundreds of blackfly. About here we start to think we haven’t seen any signs even though this is definitely the only route. Check on phone and Google Maps shows us a plain background with a blue triangle pointing the wrong way. We walk about in circles a bit. 100m one way, then the other just to make sure we are worried. then decide that, as time is dragging on, we cannot risk going further into the unknown and turn around and follow the only route back finding no obvious alternatives. It's a hard struggle back up the rocky paths and as we approach the tourist office again (thinking we would just get a room there for the night) a colectivo comes by and says he is going to Benito Juarez. We jump on but when after 25 minutes we have not arrived I tap the driver on the shoulder. He turns, looks surprised, mutters under his breath after a swift U turn, drives at break neck speed back up the valley and more or less throws us out on a dirt road that leads to Benito Juarez – 4kms away. Arrrghhh!

We start our slow and tired walk until a pick up comes by and understands the meaning of a man on his knees begging in the road and runs us the last 2 km.

And that's it as far as drama goes. The walk for the following two days is perfect. No mistakes or false trails. Just peaceful trekking through beautiful country side. Sometimes the views are either side of us as we walk along crests, other times we look way down deep wooded valleys. We scramble the occasional trails over rocks but mostly the way is sandy paths. Each night we stop in a cabin with a fire blazing and after stretching, showering and eating are able to relax in comfort as the clouds lower or late afternoon rains wash everything around us. All in all we covered 70km going on past La Neveria – a town of 200 people where the biggest thing in the village was the enormous sign over the dirt road at its entrance. 

To Latuvi where the cabins were on the edge of a steep drop giving views of the valleys below and finally to Lachatao. A quaint village where they loved trumpet practice and squabbling in the small square outside our window until 11pm….Grrrrr! There were several highlights over the three days. We saw skunks, a snake, a profusion of wild flowers. We passed only one other couple the whole time we walked (oh and a diminutive backwoods woman with no teeth and two donkeys). So it was very peaceful. We ate in people’s living rooms, The weather was perfect. The vistas sublime and we both felt a sense of achievement having completed what we set out to do. 

Our return journey went super smoothly with the collective stopping outside our cabin dropping us in the middle of nowhere where another one picked us up in minutes and took us all the way back to Oaxaca. A real experience seeing the small villages in operation and how these private transports form part of the overall communities wellbeing by not only servicing people with transport but even taking shopping orders to buy stuff for the locals whilst driving around.

Our route starting bottom right at Llano Grande

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