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Independent Travel

Mexico’s Towns in the Clouds

Visit the “Hidden Mexico” in the High Sierras

For the hidden Mexico that few travelers ever see go to the high Sierras of Oaxaca. The State of Oaxaca’s Department of Alternative Tourism arranges for travelers to participate in mountain sports and at the same time meet mountain people and learn about their culture. Reputable operators will arrange ethno-tours—an extended visit to a village of weavers, carvers, farmers, or potters—where you can not only learn about their crafts but their way of life.

To arrange a state-run environmentally-friendly program go to the Sedetur office at No. 607 Independencia on the corner of Garcia Vigil, just across from Oaxaca’s main cathedral. Gabriela Meixueiro of the ecotourism department will help you arrange for transportation and overnight accommodations in the mountains and in other locations where Sedetur manages their cabins.

“We are a community-based ecotourism organization working with eight villages in the Sierra Norte Mountains,” explains Director Adrian Guzman. “We have developed a trail network that goes from town to town, combining high-energy adventure, natural history, and cultural interaction.”

Expediciones Sierra Norte maintains 100 kilometers of footpaths and country roads suitable for hikers and mountain bikers of all abilities. In six of the villages they offer overnight accommodations. Independent travelers can book a cabin for $12 per night. Transportation from Oaxaca costs $2 and meals are available from $2 to $3. A local guide costs $10 per day.

The city of Oaxaca, a 16th century colonial settlement just a 1-hour jet flight south from Mexico City, sits so tightly rimmed by mountains in a mile-high valley that just an hour’s walk from the historic district the traveler can stroll along a jungle stream amidst orchids, bromeliads, and waterfalls in Parque Comunal San Felipe del Agua.

To explore this area on mountain bike get the newest equipment—including helmet, map, and tools—for $10 per day at Roger Mill’s Bicicletas Bravo on Garcia Vigil.

If you prefer a guided mountain bike tour with the local riders, call Pedro Martinez, a former member of the Mexican National Cycling team, and join one of his group rides. He offers around-town beginner tours with a local bike club for $20, a grueling 4-day trip to the Pacific Coast for $350, or anything in between. A 2-day, 100-mile expert tour in the high mountain villages of Benito Juarez and Cuajmolayus, for example, costs $60, which includes one night’s lodging.

The descendants of the Zapotecs, the culture that built the many ancient cities whose ruins you see in the valley, are an exceedingly generous people who still live and work in the Oaxacan mountains and valleys, often in trades that their ancestors worked 2,000 years ago. Travelers can immerse themselves in ancient Zapotec rituals such as “The Day of the Dead” festival in late October and the more modern and exuberant Calendas and Night of the Radishes in December, or they can study the regional style of cooking with one of the local chefs. Stop in to the El Naranjo Restaurant in Oaxaca and see Chef Iliana de la Vega Arnaud. She doesn’t stop at just teaching you how to cook the cuisine of Oaxaca—she even shows you how to shop for the ingredients in the colorful local markets.

Through the Community Museum of Oaxaca you can enjoy an extended visit and share a meal with a weaving family in the village of Teotitlan del Valle. The museums also offer many other tours to artisan and farming villages. Their mission is to foster cultural interchange and connection with their private or small-group tours and tours for seniors. C

Travelers who want to study the ancient herb-based medicines can travel to the high northern mountains with a tour operator, by public bus, or by mountain bike. There they can visit a traditional medicine clinic in the village of Capulalpan and enjoy a Temazcal, a steam bath and herb treatment which leaves you renewed but so limp that they recommend you stay overnight. For a 2-day ($70) tour of the traditional herbal clinic and a Temazcal treatment, call Claudia Schurr or Yves Chavan at Tierraventura. They offer tours with no more than six people for an intimate cultural connection that is sensitive to nature while giving the participants a unique look at people and places seldom seen by most tourists.

After an extended stay in a mountain village or just a weekend workout in the hills, you can return to the colorful and walkable city of Oaxaca. The Renaissance architecture and perfect climate of Oaxaca attracts world travelers who come to study at its language schools, photography centers, and graphic and fine arts institutes. At the Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca the study of language includes lessons in cooking, ceramics, weaving, music, and dance for $400 per month (see sidebar). The school also arranges housing and meals with a local family to give the student an experience of total cultural immersion.

Alternative Travel Info

Sedetur: For reservations, call 011-52-9-514-1778; sedetur5@oaxaca.job.mx.

Expedicion Sierra Norte: 011-52-9-514-8271 or 011-52-9-516-7745; sierra_norte@infosel.net.mx or SierraNorte@oaxaca.com

Barroco Tours: 011-52-9-514-2524 or 011-52-9-513-3219; barrocotours@yahoo.com.mx.

Roger Mill’s Bicicletas: Bravo on Garcia Vigil; 011-52-9-516-1953; Roger@spersoaxaca.com.mx.

Oaxaca Mountain Bike Tours: Contact Pedro Martinez at 011-52-9-514-3144; oaxmb@prodigy.net.mx.

El Naranjo Restaurant: 011-52-9-514-1878; Elnaranjo@spersoaxaca.com.mx.

An excellent source of information on Oaxaca is via Ron Mader at Planeta.com: www.planeta.com/oaxaca.html

Teirraventura: 011-52-9-514-3843; tierraventura@yahoo.com, www.tierraventura.com.

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