The Pueblos Mancomunados (Commonwealth of Villages) is made up of eight remote villages in the Sierra Norte mountains northeast of Oaxaca city. These villages, where rural indigenous life is much the same as it was hundreds of years ago, operate under a self-governing cooperative system.
In the last two decades they have focused on ecotourism to sustain the communities, even closing their gold and silver mines in the pursuit of a sustainability and ecotourism focused future.
In 1998, the communities formed Expediciones Sierra Norte, a cooperative non-profit that provides accommodations, transportation and guides to explore the area, with 90% of the funds paid by tourists distributed to families within the pueblos. Every member of the community must do a year of community service for the cooperative. We were intrigued by this cooperative government and ecotourism system, as well as the opportunity to explore one of the most biodiverse areas of Mexico. And so we left the heat of Oaxaca city for a hiking adventure in the Pueblos Mancomunados!
Day 1: We were feeling cocky as we arrived at the second class bus station at 6:20 a.m. When the phone number our Air Bnb host gave us for the cab company didn’t work, we grabbed our bags and headed out into the pitch black morning knowing which street would yield a cab quickly. When a traffic jam blocked access to the bus station, we told the cab driver to drop us a few blocks away and walked the last short distance. Even though we couldn’t actually see the station from where we got out, we knew where to go because I had scoped the location the day before. During my reconnaissance mission, I had been directed by the helpful police officer to a “joven” (young man) who informed me that, indeed, we could buy our tickets from the unmarked ticket counter to our destination of Llano Grande, but only 30 minutes before the 7am departure.
In short, we felt like seasoned travelers, making it work with our limited (but increasingly better) Spanish.
Then things went awry.
In the past, we’ve always won the game of “Do We Get Off the Bus?” But today was a different story. I dozed off and on en route to Llano Grande, awaking in time for the bathroom stop at Cuajimoloyas, which I knew was near our destination. As we passed through the next town, I commented to Alex that some of the buildings looked like the cabañas I had seen online where I thought we’d be staying. But the van didn’t stop, so I figured I was mistaken and apparently dozed off again.
When I awoke, I knew we were way past our intended destination. So I headed up to the front of the van (no easy feat on the winding mountain roads) and told the driver “quissimos Llano Grande” (“we wanted Llano Grande”), which was followed by an audible gasp from the woman in the passenger seat. Apparently the van driver failed to check his list of stops and had overshot the town by an hour. After some back and forth (all in Spanish) in which he tried to blame us for not knowing where to get off and I shot back, “Yo no conozco Llano Grande” (“I don’t know Llano Grande”), he let us off in the tiny mountain town of San Pedro, promising that another driver would return in a while to take us back to our intended stop. Luckily the views were beautiful from the bus stop.
We were skeptical, but after about 45 minutes the van returned, full of passengers headed to Oaxaca, picked us up in San Pedro and dropped us off in Llano Grande, two and a half hours after we were supposed to arrive. Unfortunately, this meant that the birding guide we had hired for the day had already left and would not return. Frustrated, we huffed it up the hill (at 9,000 feet elevation, you definitely huff and puff a lot the first day) to our amazingly cozy and comfortable $20/night cabaña to catch up on our sleep.
Our first day was a bit of a bust, but fortunately, it was not a portent of the next four days.
Day 2: Luckily we had already planned to spend a second day in Llano Grande to do some day hiking and acclimatization before setting out into the back country. We woke early to the namesake call of the Mexican Whip-poor-will outside our cabin. In the crisp morning air, we ambled around the tiny village (population: 150) and its surrounding pine forest looking for red warblers, endemic towhees and other interesting high elevation species, while also scoping trails for later forays.
At a reasonable breakfast time, we walked to the closest comedor and knocked on the door. No answer, but smoke from the chimney told us someone was inside cooking, so I knocked again. This time a woman came to the door. “Esta abierto por desayuno?” (“Are you open for breakfast?”), I asked. “Si, pasale” (“yes, come in”), she replied. (This door knocking and asking about food would be repeated over the next few days.)
“Comedor,” as the restaurants are called in the pueblos, means dining room in Spanish. Thus, when you eat in the comedores, you are often eating in the dining room of someone’s house, at times passing through the kitchen on your way to take a seat. We enjoyed our cafe (coffee), te con poleo (tea with an herb harvested from the surrounding forest), entomotadas (tortillas bathed in a tomato-based sauce) and enfrijoladas (tortillas bathed in black bean sauce) con huevos (eggs) while the cook’s daughter played with her toys under the adjacent table.
After breakfast, we set out for a hike on the Llano de Berro trail. As we walked through pine woodlands spotted with giant agave, some with flower stalks 20 feet high, and beautiful wildflowers, we saw many of the bird species I had hoped for, including red warblers, hermit warblers, mountain trogons, scott’s orioles, and a male olive warbler feeding his begging progeny.
On our way back to the cabin, a friendly pup followed us from the center of town and spent the next couple of hours happily lounging on our cabana patio while I read in the hammock.
After a couple hours rest, we headed back out for another hike, this time up the mountain behind our cabana. Despite the fact that we were over 3,000 miles from home, the forest here felt familiar.
Madrones, salal, indian paintbrush, lupine, and sword ferns, which all grow in or near Portland, were flourishing at elevations above 9,000 feet in the highlands of Mexico. With pine species that reminded us of Ponderosa and Sugar pines and a smattering of Oyamel fir and large live oak trees, it was not unlike hiking in the Klamath Siskiyou bioregion of Southern Oregon and Northern California.
We walked the trail, marveling at how intact the forest was so close to the village and enjoyed a spectacular mirador with 180 degree views of unbroken forest up and down the Rio Yavesia valley before turning back towards town and dinner. After a meal of salsa con queso (pan seared fresh cheese hunks smothered in a mildly spicy red sauce with a side of perfectly seasoned black beans), we turned in early in order to get a good sleep before our 22km (~13 mile) backpack the next day.
Up Next: Parte Dos
All your activities sound a lot more Madden/Brown-y and less touristy. I love it. You’re livin’ la vida local! 😉 I want to explore all these places you’re seeing! I was excited to see you wearing long sleeves and it got my hopes up that not all of Mexico is so crazy hot. Dave says it’s because of the bugs. We need a weather-based trip report, please!
Long sleeves were a necessity at 10,000 feet elevation. Although there have been lots of mosquitoes in San Pancho and Oaxaca, there were very few bugs in the mountains. But it was chilly in the mornings and at night. During the day we were comfortable hiking in short sleeves an shorts.
Very nice to ear from you again and to read about your enjoing travelling in an interesting and beautifull country place
Hello Annie and Daniel! It’s so nice to hear from you too. Our time with you in Southern Bolivia was one of the best adventures we have ever had. We think about it often and fondly!