Skip the Mexican Beach and Hike the Mountains

We stopped to listen to our guide tell us about the route we were hiking on, the Camino Real to Oaxaca, Mexico.

Then he said: “We’ll move on now but let’s stay quiet for the next 20 minutes and enjoy nature.”

That was the most magical part of my day and my week. We walked along with the sounds of a rushing river below us, and the rustle of the trees full of Spanish moss around us.  No one spoke for a half-hour.

The rustle of the trees full of Spanish moss around us. Photo courtesy of Marlene Etherington

When a Northerner talks about a visit to Mexico in March, most assume the destination will be one of the beach resorts. Instead, our plan was to explore the lovely town of Oaxaca and the surrounding valley and to hike in the mountains of the nearby Sierra Norte. What followed was a week of great hikes through mountain forests with beautiful views, delicious healthy food, simple but comfortable cabins and cultural experiences far away from the noise and demands of daily life.

After a few days enjoying the food, architecture and culture of Oaxaca City, we joined a group from southern Ontario and Costa Rica to hike 65 kilometres over seven days between six small villages in an area owned by indigenous Zapotec.  They have formed a communal partnership (Pueblos Mancommunados) to offer eco-friendly cultural, hiking and biking tours with Expediciones Sierra Norte.

Oaxaca Mexico

The communal partnership (Pueblos Mancommunados) Photo courtesy of Marlene Etherington

Our first afternoon and night were spent in the village of Llano Grande, home to eighty-five people, typical Oaxacans. After a tasty barbecue lunch of corn, onions, sausage, chicken, fresh tortillas and a variety of spicy condiments we did some bird watching with a local guide until sunset. We tucked in for a wonderful sleep in our comfortably furnished and simply decorated cabin, with a fire in the fireplace to take the chill off the night air.

Oaxaca Mexico

Oaxaca Mexico Photo courtesy of Marlene Etherington

Early the next morning we straggled out into the cool day to see the sunrise from a special viewpoint, drink hot chocolate and munch on tasty Mexican style biscotti.

There is nothing like sitting on top of a mountain watching the new day begin to get energized.

As I followed one of our guides back to the vehicle, I was strongly reminded by his sturdy gait over the rocky terrain and the strength of his hands of my farmer father and grandfather.

Our hikes started at an altitude of 3100 metres and eventually descended to 2100 metres with temperatures as high as 32C during the day and much cooler at night. The landscape was lush with huge pine trees, agave, bromeliads, adding oaks, orchids and Spanish mosses as we descended from the higher villages.  At one point I noted that the hills and valleys reminded me of northern New York and Algonquin Park, but with cacti.

“We’ll move on now but let’s stay quiet for the next 20 minutes and enjoy nature.” Photo courtesy of Marlene Etherington

We fell into a daily routine of breakfast, a six to ten-kilometre hike to the next village, a late lunch of simple fresh local cuisine, and a visit with a local artisan, an herbal specialist’s garden, at a pulque tasting or a cooking lesson before showers and dinner.  Sunsets were always glorious here among the “people of the mist” and seemed to go on forever.

One of my favourite post-hike activities was an evening at a local Oaxacan family’s home. We watched and helped prepare our dinner.  Some made fresh small bread loaves, baked in a simple wood-heated oven. Others made a simple soup, using locally grown potatoes, oyster mushrooms, greens and onions.  La Abuela or Grandmother showed us how to make chocolate, roasting dried cacao nuts on a simple wood-fired stovetop, then reducing the nuts in a homemade grinder to a coarse paste while adding sugar and spices. We helped her make small chocolate ‘pucks”, each good for one cup of chocolate. She is apparently experimenting with different chocolate treats, including chocolate-covered mushrooms. Through all of this, the grandchildren did their homework, played, and submitted to my teasing. El Abuelo, the Grandfather silently watched us the whole time, without a word or gesture towards us, only to make the most gracious speech to us at the end of the evening. We passed muster!

La Abuela offering warm cups of hot chocolate. Photo courtesy of Marlene Etherington

On our last day of hiking, I happily took part in a traditional medicine ritual in Amatlan, the sixth village that I wish I could have at home. I first enjoyed a very welcome massage that began with a dry cleansing with branches of a local herb. I and some of the group then had a purification session in a Temazcal,  a type of sweat lodge which originated with pre-Hispanic Indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica. The heat, humidity and the vapour made from herbal teas felt truly cleansing and refreshing.  What a great night’s sleep I had!

Spending time in the beautiful forests of the Sierra Norte and the villages of Pueblos Mancommunados with its gracious and warm community members was a marvellous way to enjoy local culture and a beautiful outdoor experience away from snow and ice. I lost an inch or so, was refreshed and energized and even had a bit of a tan. Would I return? In a minute!

Marlene Etherington is a hiker at heart, an explorer of ‘off the beaten track’ journeys, an avid cross-country skier, foodie, film fan and painter. When not in her artist’s studio in Toronto, she can be found enjoying the unexplored paths of the world.

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