Just under two hours from Oaxaca City exists a network of Zapotec villages sprinkled throughout 100 kilometers of hiking trails in the Sierra Norte. This eco-tourism project brackets almost 300 kilometers of land and houses a series of micro-climates ranging from deep pine forest to almost desert-like conditions where giant agave grow larger than most humans.
The six villages that comprise the Pueblos Mancomunados (Benito Juarez, La Neveria, Latuvi, Amatlan, Llano Grande and Cuajimoloyos) have been linked economically and socially for almost 500 years, sharing natural resources and trade routes. During the mid-90s, in response to the threat of looming luxury hotels and devastating deforestation, these villages created their own community project that included an eco-tourism angle, among other things, in order to protect their land, their rights, and offer economic opportunities.
There is no set hiking route in the Sierra. Hiking village to village will take one week to complete if you’re on the move each day; however, shorter trips are also worthwhile options. There are 42 distinct trails inside the project, so depending on your timeframe, physical condition and desired balance of cultural activity vs. trekking, the ways to customize your trip are virtually endless. Plan to spend at least one night in the Sierra; day trips are not recommended.
Each village has a staffed office to receive travelers and comfortable, clean cabañas with fireplaces, showers with hot water and biodegradable soap, not to mention hammocks to swing in as you take in the staggering views (most of the cabañas are perched on cliffs that make for spectacular sunsets). Women of the villages offer meals in the town comedor or occasionally in their homes. In addition to the hearty hiking trails that range in elevation between 2,200 meters and 3,200 meters, the villages boast different ways to connect to the Zapotec culture, including a traditional temescal bath given by a local curandera (healer) and a demonstration in making the regional alcoholic beverage pulque. Horseback riding and even zip-lining are offered in some of the villages as well.
Hiking guides are part of the package. While that may not be appealing to the independent traveler, they certainly add a layer of stability with their first-aid kits and walkie-talkies. They also have a wealth of information about the history, botany and culture of the Sierra, and they are eager to share it.
Though it is possible to hike the trails solo by signing a waiver, it is strongly recommended to not do so. The reason is twofold: The trails are not well marked, and travelers who go it alone often end up lost, uncertain if help is actually coming (it is). Perhaps the better reason is because the strength of this project is the economic stability it offers its young men in particular, who serve as the guides. Rural communities in Mexico are especially vulnerable to the threat of migration, and sustainable projects such as this are a viable solution that should be fully supported.
English in the Sierra extremely limited. Though the guides and community members are very friendly and helpful, travelers with little to no Spanish have commented this region can be intimidating for this reason. Pre-arranging the trip will also allow time to procure one of the few guides in the Sierra who can guide in English if you so choose.
Again, pre-planning is highly recommended. Showing up unannounced is not ideal for the traveler or for the communities, as nothing can be guaranteed at a moment’s notice in the Sierra. Public transportation is available to the region, however it is very limited and often at capacity.
Crooked Trails is a North American tour operator that specializes in community-based travel and has a close partnership with the Pueblos Mancomunados. In addition to customizing trips to the Sierra, they can also help plan community-based day trips around Oaxaca City, plus extensions to the coast. There is also a local office in Oaxaca City that will help you plan your trip to the Pueblos Mancomunados. Both organizations will pre-arrange transportation to and from the mountains, routes, meals and accommodations.
Founded in 1998, Crooked Trails is a non-profit travel organization working to transform tourism into a positive force in the world. We create custom-designed interactive journeys and support community development projects in partnership with local communities, NGOs and operators.
Our goal at Crooked Trails is to create positive connections that inspire travelers to get involved in the places they visit and to empower locals to take charge of tourism in their communities.