With our upcoming plans of trekking the Himalaya’s in Nepal, we needed to get a trek or two under our belts. There were plenty of hikes online with pricey tour companies, but we didn’t want to have to pay someone hundreds of dollars to walk with us, we were quite capable of that, thanks! After digging around some more we found there was a company in town that helped coordinate treks through the Sierra Juarez mountains and the Pueblos Mancomunados (united villages) for a fair price. The best part was the money went directly to the guides who lived in each of the villages so your money was actually making it to the villages. What made these villages united was that they pooled resources to help each other out, and 6 of the 8 communities came together and created the ecotourism programs that helps sustain the villages today.
And so, on the first day of the new year, I awoke at 6am after not really sleeping at all (thanks anxiety!), caught a cab to the second class bus station and hopped in a collectivo van headed for the village of Cuajimaloyas, resting at a mighty 3100 meters above sea level.
Day 1: Oaxaca to Cuajimoloyas and the Coyote Canyon
The drive up was beautiful and dizzying, and while I wish I had kept my eyes open for more of it, I was both desperate for some rest and not feeling so great – looking out the windows on the curvy mountains roads wasn’t helping. When we arrived we settled up our fees and our guide met us at the ecotourism office to take us for a beautiful three hour hike into the forest surrounding the village. We climbed a small canyon called Coyote Cañon, which was really more of a deep crevasse between the mountain side, but it was still rather exciting climbing through such a narrow pass, pulling ourselves up with our hands and feet.
Our guide was wonderful, he spoke very slowly for me and threw in the occasional English word to help us understand. He pointed out so many things along our hike – mushrooms, trees, flowers, etc. He would stop, pick something and have us smell it and then tell us about how it was used traditionally and still today in the mountains. I was surprised at how much I understood – it’s incredible what a difference it makes when a person speaks nice and slow! I was so happy to be able to understand and translate for Travis so we could learn so much about the area. Our guide even saw how enamoured I was with the donkeys we passed and brought me to one to pet! Highlight of my day! Maybe even the whole trek!
I just love donkeys so much! We have decided we will be having one at the Herriot homestead some day! Probably named George. Or Puzzle!
We were treated to stunning views of the area and tested our strength and ability hiking over 7km at 3100meters. We felt great! Which was a surprise considering I hadn’t really slept. It was of course challenging at times when we were going steeply uphill, but all in all it wasn’t too bad. After our hike we walked around the tiny town as we still had a couple of hours to kill. My lack of sleep decided to hit me then, after our strenuous hike ended and the adrenaline subsided. I put on every piece of clothing I brought with me, as it was rather cool up here at 3100 meters without the sun shining, and on an incredibly steep and very quiet road, I laid down. Just to rest a little. Okay, I won’t lie, I fell asleep on a road in the middle of town. Slightly embarrassing, but hey, when you need rest, you need rest!
The weather here was your classic unpredictable mountain weather – in the misty clouds one minute, shivering; sweating and stripping off layers in the powerful sun the next. Travis was kind enough to wrap me in his backpack rain cover when it began to mist on us!
We stopped in at a small comedor to burn off a little more time and grab a tea to warm up. The place was full of a large group having lunch – which included what looked like hot steaming soup, so we ordered a bowl to further help warm us up. It was a basic broth full of delicious garden vegetables. You know how you can instantly tell the difference between those bulk store bought vegetables and those wonderfully fresh and sweet garden vegetables? They probably grew the ingredients right in their back yard. We squeezed limes into the soup and broke up tostadas to soak in the hot broth. I didn’t quite understand the tea options she listed to me, so she brought the loose leaf tea right out for me to smell. One smelled like spearmint, and was likely yerbabuena, which our guide had pointed out on our hike to us this very morning in the mountains, growing wild. The tea was delicious and helped bring a bit of life back into me along with the wholesome soup, which was just a lunch teaser for us (or second breakfast as we call it! Don’t you know about second breakfast?). After another walk, we made our way to another comedor and had an amazing traditional Mexican lunch of tortillas, radish slices, nopales (prickly pear – every time I say this, I start singing the Bear Necessities… anyone else?!), rice, frijoles, papas, and chilies rellenos.
We at last were able to get the key to our room, which I was dreadfully thankful for. After a night of no sleep, and hiking at this altitude, I was dying for a rest more substantial than a road nap. It was another 20 minute walk uphill from the town to our cute little cabin in the woods, but worth the extra trek. We lucked out and got an end cabin perched on a hill with spectacular views of the little town Cuajimoloyas below. It was perfect, far better than we could have imagined! I immediately crawled into bed and conked out for a solid two hour nap, joined most willingly by Travis. We decided to skip dinner because my stomach was acting up and it was a 20 minute walk into the town in the pitch black, and we some how had to find the place in the maze of the town. Luckily we had some serious snacks on hand and were just fine. The hosts came by at 7pm as prearranged and brought a barrow full of wood and lit us a blazing, glorious fire in the fire place. We felt so pampered!
we laid in bed all evening with the fire roaring to help warm us, watching Black Mirror on the iPad, snacking on snickers and apples and trail mix and fruit snacks. Sadly my stomach continued to ail me all night and I hardly slept again! I was so scared I was going to get violently ill again like I was in Oaxaca city, and the hike would be ruined! But I made it through the night and got about 2-3 hours sleep. My stomach finally felt better by morning, but I felt absolutely wretched otherwise. Two days of no sleep at 3100 meters… yuck! I skipped breakfast as I was scared it would upset my stomach again and got a half hour more sleep instead, which I desperately needed.
Day 2: Cuajimoloyas to Latuvi
We went down to the ecotourism office at 9am and waited a half hour for our tour guide to show up. I was dreading the day due to the extreme lack of sleep and high altitude, but tried to push the dread away and instead be excited. It’s incredible what the human mind and body is capable of with just a change of mindset. I could dwell on the fact that I had not slept, had a stomach bug, and felt like crap – or I could focus instead on the fact that I was in a beautiful village in the mountains and about to trek miles through nature and enjoy myself. So that’s just what I did! I wasn’t feeling too miserable yet – I was only imagining how horrible I would feel once we really started to get into it. Why dread what may not even come?
Our guide was a young guy, who looked no older than 20. I asked his name – Gabriel. And that was the entire extent of our conversation for the whole trek! Although he did at one time point out a squirrel, so there’s that I guess! He sped off at a brisk pace, constantly looking back to ensure we were keeping up with him. Much of the trail was up and down, but never too much up at one time thankfully. I took the ups very slowly and I felt quite dizzy at times, but otherwise greatly enjoyed the stunning scenery and unparalleled freshness of the mountain air all around us. Nature sure is good medicine!
Walking through these quiet mountain forests is like stepping into another world. Ten different species of pine towered all around us. Tawny 12 inch pine needles covered the ground entirely like a thick (and slippery!) carpet. Pale green moss hung like hair from the boughs of trees, fluttering in the mountains breeze. Agave plants, those surreal giants of the highland forest, stood ten feet high and splayed out even wider. They stood like stars, prickly arms spread wide, guardians of the forest. Purple thistle blossoms the size of oranges swayed to and fro on their eight foot stems. Delicate purple flowers lay like splattered paint across the green and brown canvas of forest floor. A heady smell of pine and anise filled the air, so heavy it was intoxicating. This place is magic. You can feel it. The only sound is the wind groaning through thousands of towering pines and your own foot steps as they crunch along the leaves and needles. Pine cones the size of overripe grapefruits lay scattered everywhere. The colours, the smells and the silence – it’s all so glorious to be in the gentle hand of nature, lulled by her orchestra.
Oh, how I love being away from the cities. I feel like we’ve just been living in cities here in Mexico, and that’s just not me! I need nature. It’s so magical to be walking old Zapotec trails between villages in the mountains, just me, Travis, and our silent guide; we didn’t encounter another human being! Just how I like my nature: devoid of humans!
At the halfway mark we stopped at the very top of the mountain ridge, wind howling and clouds misting us. We were freezing, now that we had stopped and our sweat continued to cool us, even thought we didn’t want it to anymore. We had a half hour wait here for our next guide to arrive. I guess the guide from Cuajimoloyas walks you halfway, and then a guide comes in from Latuvi half way and takes you onwards. And they just have this beautiful meeting spot in the middle of the forest on top of a mountain ridge! We put all of our extra layers on from our bags, and huddled behind a rock from the biting wind. We said goodbye to our silent guide and hello to our new guide, Jorge, who was just wonderful. He spoke much more and pointed all kinds of things out to us. This part of the trek was now all downhill. Which, trust me, sounds better than it is. That’s right, 6km down over 1000 meters. And we’re not talking a gentle slope, we’re talking steep downhill. It was gruelling. After a while my knees just wanted to give out. But on the bright side it warmed significantly and the deep chill I felt at the top of the mountain left me quickly. We left the cool dampness of the first half of the day behind us and settled into the much warmer, dryer lowlands. Finally we made it to the valley floor, which felt like it would never come!
We stopped at Cara de Leon – a trout farm for lunch. Chickens ran around under the tables snatching up your scraps and children chased them. They had diverted the river water to flow into man made pools for their trout where they were raised. Music blared, the children danced and people hollered down by the river as they caught their own trout for lunch. The sweet lady who ran the place had a head of glorious long salt and pepper hair, yet a bright young face with a beautiful infectious smile. She took three fresh caught trout to the side where some more running river water had been diverted to a cleaning station. She quickly and expertly descaled, gutted and cleaned them, all while laughing and telling stories. She then whisked them away to prepare and cook. They came out 15 minutes later wrapped in tin foil. We opened them up and the steam and mouth watering smell wafted into our faces. The inside of the fish was stuffed with vegetables (I couldn’t figure out what kinds) and some kind of mayo-esque tangy orange sauce that the fish was marinated and cooked in – it was perfect! The skin peeled away so easily, and while I think everyone else ate it and it was likely very good for you, I decided to peel mine off. The flesh flaked off moist and delicious and tender. The flavours were excellent, improved even more by the addition of limes and hot sauce and tostadas to scoop it all up and into your mouth with.
After lunch we had our final stretch of the day – an hour straight up hill – on a full stomach – which we welcomed nonetheless after those gruelling hours downhill! Near the top we stopped. I couldn’t quite understand what Jorge was saying, but he mentioned a mirador and pointed down a different path, so we went along. Only moments later we arrived at a woman’s house! A little girl came out from behind a door, tv blaring behind her. She peered curiously at Travis and he said ‘hola’ to her while she continued to stare interestedly at him. Finally she turned on her heel and slammed the door behind her singing loudly along with the TV. An older woman invited us to sit down and got out some cups. I realized this must be the prehispanic drink pulque. I asked if it contained alcohol and they sort of shrugged it off and said the Spanish word for fermented. So I assumed it was a bit like kombucha. I think we actually ended up drinking Aguelmiel – honeywater- what pulque is before it turns to alcohol. Travis had a big cup (a large coconut shell) and I had a small one. I figured my stomach could probably use the probiotics. She laughed and poured Travis another cup when he finished his so quickly. As we drank, Travis and I started laughing at the situation – how we had been on a hike, thought we were taking a shortcut to a look out point and found ourselves in a sweet woman’s house drinking some funky ‘jungle juice’ as Travis called it. We asked how much we owed when we were done but she insisted no charge, only a tip if we wished. So we left some change and thanked her kindly and left to finish our last push to the top – to the mirador. It was a wooden look out tower with many narrow stairs with stunning panoramic views.
A few minutes more and we had arrived in the small town of Latuvi. It was so good to get into our cabin – much the same as the last one – after a long 16 km day and 2 nights of no sleep for me. The staff said they would come by at 8pm to light us a fire and we looked around the room baffled – fire? But where? There was no fire place here! And then I saw it, a tiny little hole in the wall no more than two feet by two feet! It was the most comical and adorable fire place I’d ever seen! We settled in for a nap, getting cosy beneath the blankets, but first I took the three minutes of hot water we had and rinsed my sore, dirty body. I felt like a new woman! I even put on a fresh pair of clothes; it was so wonderful! And then to crawl into bed and fall asleep cuddled next to Travis’s body heat… pure bliss!
We awoke after two hours and then went to dinner at 8pm which was meagre at best – a dry cheese quesadilla, but I was still full from lunch so I didn’t mind. Then back to our room where our fire was blazing! er… if that word can be applied to such a cute little fire! We crawled back into bed and cuddled up with Netflix’s pre downloaded shows and fell asleep around midnight. And what a glorious sleep I finally had!!! I would indeed be well rested for tomorrows adventures!
Day 3: Latuvi to San Miguel de Amitlan
Our itinerary said breakfast at 7am and leave at 8am, but the ecotourism office in Latuvi said, “No, no, breakfast at 8 and leave at 9”, so we gladly slept in until 745, which was much needed for me. We had a yummy breakfast of enfrijoladas for me and huevos and chorizo for Travis. We were packed and out the door to meet Jorge at the office just before 9, but we didn’t end up leaving until 930, which deeply concerned me as I didn’t think we could make it to our destination by 1pm to catch the only collectivo out of the town. However, today was only supposed to be 11km, almost all down hill or straight, no big deal right? Wrong. They lied. Todays’ trek was actually SEVENTEEN kilometres! The longest day of all! And the last 5km were all uphill!
We set out, and after we easily put on 7km slightly downhill, I thought for sure we would make it in time. Until we looked on our map and saw we had quite the ways to go. When noon rolled around, I knew it was hopeless and gave up the idea of making it there in time, and just hoped we would be able to find a place to stay in the town one night until the next daily collectivo came. This was alright though, as I was able to relax more and take my time and enjoy the sights. The climate sure was different from our first day! It was hot and dry and sunny, and we started working up a sweat in the mid day heat when we put those last 5 km on all uphill. My feet and back were feeling it, from lugging my day pack, but the scenery helped me forget it. We stopped for lunch down at the river, which we had been following more or less since we left Latuvi. It was picturesque, the shallow river tumbling over the rocks, the tall birch trees towering over us, and the carpet of rusty leaves all around. We could have spent the entire day playing by the river, listening to her gurgle and tell stories, watching trout swim past in the crystal clear waters. Our packed lunches were nothing special, but we scarfed them down nonetheless, and I realized how much energy we were burning on this hike. We reluctantly said goodbye to this perfect little spot and pressed onwards.
We came in time to a remarkable area in the forest as we climbed and carved around the mountain. The trees were festooned with long, endless weaves of moss. They swayed, ever so gently in the wind, and I felt like I had stepped into some surreal fairy tale world. It was hard to walk because I couldn’t tear my eyes from the trees, but the ground begged my attention – I was atop a mountain after all, on a narrow path with steep drop offs all around me! Onwards we went eventually coming out of the fairyland until we descended a bit and met up with the river again and had another short break – we were surely no longer in a rush, why not stop and enjoy the pretty places? We dunked our heads in the river, cooling us significantly, splashed our faces, and looked for pretty rocks beneath the river flow. It was a much welcomed break and so entirely relaxing!
And then it was up again, up we climbed higher and higher yet, eventually coming to a dirt road which took us at last to the town. It seemed so close as we could see it just over the valley and yet we still had so far to go. We cut through pathways and at long last came to the ecotourism centre around 230 in the afternoon. We chatted with the workers there, and told hem our dilemma. Another couple had just finished their day hike and had arranged private transport back to Oaxaca for 3pm. We chipped in on their cost and were able to luckily hitch a ride, horrah! We even had time for a quick lunch included in our package.
We squished in the truck when it arrived (including two guides in the truckbed) and began our drive back down to Oaxaca. I was exhausted and thrilled. It had been an incredible three days in the mountains. Trekking with just the two of us, and never seeing any other people was exactly the kind of trekking I loved most! Lots of time for contemplation of life and nature. It clears your mind, and cleanses your soul.
As John Muir said, “in every walk with nature, one receives far more than one seeks”.