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One of the best off the beaten path adventures in Oaxaca exploring charming, rustic pueblos, of the Northern Sierra region with its stunning pine forests, tiny farms and mountain vistas with dramatic cliffs. Its easier for Spanish speakers, but I managed, to bus or get a shared taxi from the city to the Cuajimoloyas village tourist office. Much cheaper than the 2,700 Pesos day charge from pricey tour operators.

San Antonio Cuajimoloyas is most acessible, largest and highest above sea level (at 3,200 meters) of the seven stunning highland villages located in The Sierra Norte known as the Mancomunados to the northeast of Oaxaca. I admit – getting there is expensive if you take convenient means but a huge hassle if cheap (the return is iffy). It’s well worth it either way. The Sierra Norte’s richly diverse flora includes manzanita, cabeza de bruja, alders trees and unique wild agaves (maguey). The local herbal lore using many flowers, leaves and roots for medicines is simply fascinating.

The tranquil village is a great base for cabin stays and activities (hiking routes, biking or horseback riding) or 3 or more day long hiking routes that have for hundreds of years connected the other towns of Benito Juarez, La Neveria, Latuvi, Llano Grande, Yavesia, Lachatao and Amatlan of the Mancomunado community.

This organization was formed to promote tourism, publicize, educate about and protect the flora and fauna and local traditions. Run by a board of elders, it provides jobs to the locals, mainly youths, enabling them to stay who might otherwise be compelled to leave the villages for employment elsewhere. Tourists are attracted to the old growth pine and oak forests and the many trails which have linked the villages for centuries.

Take a day trip, as I did, or plan a 3-day or more cabin stay or hike with the Co-ordinacion de Ecotourismo de Cuajimoloyas office a few houses in as you enter the village. Entry fee is 60 Pesos, hire a local guide (English-speaking, though not fluent) for a two to three hour, only 175 Pesos. A hiking map cost 50 Pesos, and accomodations as you get to each town. The tourist office can help with bike rentals, booking cabins, camping sites and hiring guides.

Beware – it can get cold in winter – a freak storm hit with snow and record low temperatures with high winds to parts of Mexico on 9th March. It not only messed our planned hiking route, we were forced inland under the real and terrifying threat of falling pine trees. The sweetheart of an office manager at the tourist center lent me her down jacket for my hike. The weather got so risky, she turned down busloads of hikers – I was the last hiker to set out that awful morning. I still managed to see stunning mist-enshrouded forests and farms but most of the vistas were obscured by clouds. My guide tried to make up the lack of normally dramatic views by pointing out leaves and flowers for tea and medicines along the path – I began to imagine every green thing could cure cancer and was tempted to nibble on the forest. We passed only one other human being on the path that morning, a shy woamn wrapped in a woolen shawl. The oddest thing was hearingout-of-sight turkeys gobbling in the mist. We didn’t run into any wildlife which tends to be shy My guide saw a huge pale coyote on the trail three years ago while and a ragged farmhand told us mountain lions maul cows at the ranchero he worked at farther down the mountain.

Getting to Caujimoloyas – Shared taxis the twice-a day buses to Cuajimoloyas from the sprawling and chaotic Abastos market are cheap options, but both terminals are hard to locate. The market is 9 blocks (about 20 minutes’ walk) from the Zocalo. Walk south from the southwest corner of Zocalo until you hit Las Casas street, then head west, cross Preferico highway to get to the northeast corner of the market. Collectivo Taxi ARE maroon-and-white vehicles with signs in the front window for various out of town destinations. Often, rides to Caujimoloyas are not available (most only go as far as Tlacolula (33km east on Highway 190) for 250 Pesos then connect to Cuajimoloyas (28km north) for another 80 Pesos. Duration- 2 hours). I managed to negotiate a collectivo to go directly for 250 Pesos, duration – 1 1/2 hours as it meant meant buying out the five seats.

Bus – Cheap but you MUST buy ahead of time to ensure seats as this is a popular route! The 7am seats were sold out when I went to the station the morning of which resulted in my mad rush to get a collectivo instead. Warning – there are only two buses departing each day, at 7am and 2pm. If you’re at the intersection of Las Casas and Preferico at the northeast corner of Mercado Abastos, keep walking west, the street name changes to Juarez Maza. There are tons of stalls and NO signs for the station. Watch out for the the entrance marked by a small guard shack, on the northern side of the street about 8 minutes’ walk in. Head to the taquilla (ticket booth) near Gate 37. Cost – 30. And be on time – the bus leaves on the dot.

Or hire an Oaxaca city taxi for 120 Pesos per hour, they charge anywhere from 400 Pesos for a one-way to Cuajimoloyas.

You can book cabins through agents in Oaxaca, at the tourist office in Cuajimolouyas or online through Ecological Center Cuajimoloyas Cabins (http://www.booking.com/hotel/mx/cabaa-as-cuajimoloyas.es.html), a one kilometer hike from town on a dirt path 1 km from the center of town (it serves free breakfast and free access to the ecological park). The simple brick cottages have fireplace and private bathroom with shower and a small restaurant serving local cuisine from 7am to 9pm and arranges for cycling, hiking and zip line. Alcohol is available (including mescal which my guide said was amazing)

If you don’t like the uncertainty and real hassles of getting to and from Cuajimoloyas, there are two cool but pricey Group and Private tours from these two companies :-

Tierra Ventura Ecotourism – http://tierraventura.com
A highly-reputed but small operation with, was booked out in the first week of March when I was there. It organizes hikes from Latuvi village, along a pre-Hispanic trading along a river (cool fact – you could hike all the way to along Oaxaca valley to the Gulf of México!) Tierra Ventura’s hiking route passes through fields ploughed with yoked bulls, bordered by old stone walls. (Note – Tierra offers a range of tours including to the coast) Expediciones Sierra Norte, Pueblos Mancomunados (M. Bravo No. 210-A Plaza San Cristóbal, Col. Centro, Oaxaca, México. Phone:01 (951) 51 4 82 71; (951) 51 4 36 31 (From abroad: 52 01 (951) 51 4 82 71; 52 01 (951) 51 4 36 31)
Very pricey at 2,700 Pesos (not inclusive of transportation)! I couldn’t get consistent information at the office but they run reputed 3 to 7 hour walking tours, cycling or horseback riding trails to multi-day camping or village hikes with stays. The outfit is well connected in the Manucomunados, organizing programs with the village elders.
As an aside, they seem to have cool hikes to other areas – Cañón del Coyote (includes v “Ojito de Agua” cliff waterfalls, Coyote Canyon and caves, and where you will meet the amazing Coyote Caves and where you will enjoy the splendid mountain landscapes Serrano viewpoints) ; Piedra Resbalosa (includes the sacred site of Xi-Nudaa and pine and oak forests) and the Piedra Colorada (huge rock formation, oak and pine forest and ancient Zapotec terraces). Multi village tours include Needa-Yaa-Lagashxi (from Benito Juarez or from Cuajimoloyas) and Cuajimoloyas – Latuvi (includes trout hatchery Cara de Leon)

Plan a half day on Friday for Market Day in Ocotlan de Morelos

An charming town to visit for amazing empanada (the best thing I tasted in Oaxaca) cheap handicraft, pottery, local color and fresh highland veg and fruits. Cautions before you visit. Don’t bring a pricey camera and watch your wallet. I kept cash and IDs in a plastic baggie tucked it into my shorts. There’ve been a few unpleasant reports of female snatch thieves.

Ocotlan de Morelos, means “among the trees” in their native Nahuatl language. It lies 43 kilometers due south of Oaxaca and hosts one of the two largest day-markets (the other being Etla on Wednesdays) in the region. Small plot farmers and artisans make the trek to these towns to sell unique items. These markets have a charm and rusticity not evident in Oaxaca, many of the older women in beribboned long plaits and men in jaunty straw hats.

The colorful outdoor stalls were heaped with hillocks of fresh produce including the region’s favorite ingredients – avocado, chapulines (roasted grasshoppers) all types of chilli (including the most popular Chilli de Agua), herbs, fruits (mangoes, apples, strawberries) and more unusual gusano (worm salt), dried fish and shrimp from the southern coasts and white chunks of slaked line for making tortillas. Local handicrafts are also sold here – clay pots, comal (round clay cooking pans), carved mollinilo stirrers for making hot chocolate, woven hats and bags , tooled leather belts and even something I’d not seen since I was a kid – carved wooden hand-held catapults!

One of the biggest draws (literally) are the pizza-sized, but much slimmer, specialty empanadas made outdoors near the market’s entrance. The cooks first make the huge thin tortilla – having made regular ones myself, I’m stumped how they get them so large and thin – fresh on a massive cast iron press. The tortilla is roasted on a flat top grill, a ladleful of shredded chicken and quesilla in a creamy mole amarillo sauce dribbled on then it’s folded in half. Biting into a hot fresh empanada is sheer heaven – cooked at such high heat, the cheesy mole, studded with cilantro and hoja santo herbs, is smoky and perfectly complemented by the slight sweetness of the meat.
Wander through to the back of the market, where there is another huge outdoor section. Ask around for “Barbacoa Chivo” (pit-roasted goat) street. Here, a few stalls peddle the shredded meat, with sides of salsa, shredded cabbage and tortillas is you are interested in tasting another local favorite. I found it tasty but overly fatty.

It’s a charming experience. Wandering vendors balancing piles T-shirts or tamales on their heads like a circus act or peddling massive plater saints go by as you sit at the fonda’s rickety table and bench. Within the market, dozens of fondas cater to locals and tourists alike. There’a also a tortilla producer, roasting corn , grinding and then running through a mechanized press. Women, solemnly seated on the floor with huge bags of chapulines, sell the insects by the bowl. Farmers dragged disgruntled goats destined for barbacoa while housewives carried live turkeys slung off their arms like designer handbags.

While you’re here, visit the Santo Domingo de Ocotlan church. The charming, stocky building located next to the market has an ornate facade painted in white, pastel blue with yellow accents. The Dominican sect began the building in 1555. The lovely interior is painted with intricate detail, in a palette of deep blues, muted gold on a white background, to reflect the monochromatic habit of the Dominican frairs.

Getting there – Head out as early as possible to avoid the traffic snarl. The best cheap way to get to and fro are the airconditioned public minivans from the station at Calle Bustamante #601 Centro Oaxaca. Cost- 25 peso, Duration – 50 minutes, Dropoff at Ocotlan main plaza a few minutes’ walk from the market. The return ride to Oaxaca picks up from the opposite street. Alternatively take collectivo from taxi stand for 40 Pesos. Be ready to jam in with 5 passengers in a small made in Japan sedan; OR you could pay double to get a wider space. The cars are pretty beat up so don’t expect the seat belts to be in working order.


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