National Post

Saturday, November 9, 2002
People of the Clouds      
In Oaxaca's mountain villages, the locals hunt for mushrooms -- and tourists

Judy Waytiuk
National Post


Judy Waytiuk Photo, National Post
In the mountain villages of Oaxaca, villagers are betting on ecotourism to stem the flow of young people to the city, and to maintain their traditional way of life. Mexico's government seems to agree with this strategy.


Judy Waytiuk Photo, National Post
Most tourists head for Mexico's seaside resorts or colonial cities. Those who do venture off the beaten path can experience a traditional way of life where carts, not cars, are the main form of transportation.

Joel Contreras, flat on his belly on the wet forest floor, slid the blade of his extra-large Swiss Army knife delicately through the mushroom's fat stalk, leaving enough root for the fungus to regenerate. It was as big as a human head and would have fetched Mr.Contreras about 15 pesos a kilogram in the city of Oaxaca, 60 kilometres southwest.
But this one was lunch, he announced in Spanish, tucking the monster into his cloth collecting sack. Mushroom hunter Mr. Contreras is also the ecotourism go-to guy in Cuajimoloyas, a village of about 700 Zapotec Indians and one of eight villages dotted around 29,430 hectares of mountain forests in the Sierra Norte's cooperative community of Pueblos Mancomunados.
They call themselves "the people of the clouds." The name fits. They live at three thousand metres above sea level, in pine and oak forests that rank among the world's oldest and most richly varied ecosystems.
On the night we arrived, herded by Livingston Monteverde, a Oaxaca-based guide, we sat on the porch of our tourist yu'u (cabin) atop a slope overlooking the village and watched cloud banks above and below us drift across Cuajimoloyas, blurring the village's few visible lights.
There is electricity here, but little else. Cuajimoloyas is the only village of the bunch that can be reached by paved road. Atop a ridge behind the village, the three yu'us contain bunk beds, stone fireplaces and simple bathrooms. One family minds the sole, communal village telephone. When it rings, a car alarm sounds, followed by a loudspeaker-amplified voice announcing who should come to the phone. Callers phone once to tell the family whom to summon and again five minutes later so the recipient can get there.
In the village's only restaurant, diners sit on bench seats at wooden trestle tables. The stove, a slab of smooth concrete, is heated by firewood logs fed through a hole in the outside wall, into a cavity beneath the concrete.
The Zapotec people of the Pueblos Mancomunados have always lived off these forests, in recent decades by harvesting wood through a communal company that contributes almost two-thirds of the region's income. But older wood is being harvested out of the forest and these people know they need other ways to make money and discourage youngsters from seeking jobs in Oaxaca City.
Mushroom hunting is one alternative; ecotourism is another.
In 1993, the Mexican government began building tourist cabins in villages around Oaxaca, mostly in the valley. But one was built in a Pueblos mountain village. It got the locals thinking. They hatched the ecotourism idea.
In 1999, with a $15,000 grant from the Canadian Embassy in Mexico City and US$50,000 from the North American Commission of Environmental Cooperation, they put together another community-owned company called Expediciones Sierra Norte. The Saskatchewan Wetland Conservation Corporation helped pay for the project's nature-trail maps.
It was a bold, perhaps naive move.
After Mexico City and Cozumel, Oaxaca is the most popular Mexican destination for North American tourists, but most head for the colonial architecture of capital city Oaxaca, or blossoming seaside resorts around Huatulco and Puerto Escondido. Few tourists see Oaxaca's craft-making villages, their restored cathedrals, odd bits of pyramidal ruins that pop up even along highway roadsides -- or the stretches of mountainous forests that almost encircle the state's central valley. Most tourists never notice the 16 distinct native ethnic groups and 11 discrete languages with 52 dialects spoken in Oaxaca. Outside the city, Spanish is a seldom-spoken second language, English an utter puzzle.
And there has been little publicity for this small project. The Pueblos Mancomunados -- the villages of Cuajimoloyas, Benito Juarez, La Neveria, Latuvi, Llano Grande, Yavesia, Lachatao and Amatlan --saw fewer than 800 tourists in 2001, the project's third year. Those few wanted to birdwatch, hike or mountain bike along more than 100 kilometres of unspoiled mountain footpaths these people have used for centuries to move back and forth among their villages.
This is back-to-basics stuff -- and that is where the charm of these villages lies.
A grandmotherly shopkeeper set a simple evening arrival meal for us on a rough-cut wooden table in her tiny, tin-roofed home. She brought pastries and hot chocolate, the cocoa ground from beans and brewed the local way with water and sugar syrup, and chatted with Mr. Monteverde in a peculiar mix of Spanish laced with bits of the local native dialect, smiling and nodding at her uncomprehending tourist guests. Wooden shelves stocked with tins of cooking oil, small sacks of maize, rice and beans, big blocky cakes of yellow soap and boxes of matches lined the plank walls of the home's front room. Dust-covered soft drink bottles crowded a corner of the unfinished wood floor.
Next morning, no one was hungry. It was the altitude, explained Mr. Monteverde, but we ate warm tortillas and drank coffee in the restaurant anyway, fuelling ourselves for hiking and bicycling through the mountains. Another Oaxaca-based guide had brought two women -- one from Chicago, the other from Los Angeles -- up from the city early that morning to birdwatch. Friends who wanted something different, they were wide-eyed, thrilled with their adventurous vacation choice, envious that we had slept there overnight.
Mr. Monteverde and my travel companion, Kim, went bicycling. I chose hiking -- a long ramble down a dirt road, then up through the forest, where my guide, José, used Spanish to point out wildflowers and local herbs used for medicine and cooking. We skirted tiny mountain streams, miniature waterfalls and locals leading pack horses or burros from one village to the next. At the trail's end, Mr. Contreras, the mushroom hunter, and a couple of young trainee guides combining mushroom- hunting with tourist-tending, picked us up in a battered van.
Unlike the coastline mega-resort projects, this form of tourism leaves the environment unscathed. And it satisfies a local financial need. Guides here make US$12 in a few hours. The average daily wage in Oaxaca is US$6.
Mexico may be beginning to believe such small-scale projects have potential.
The government and a 70- member ecotourism promotion group called AMTAVE (Asociación Mexicana de Turismo de Aventura y Ecoturismo) have hosted the annual adventure and ecotourism exposition in Mexico City for four years now.
AMTAVE's position is that, properly designed and promoted, adventure and ecotourism could earn more than US$1.5-billion annually. With 2002 being the United Nations' International Year of Ecotourism, Leticia Navarro, Mexico's Secretary of Tourism, used the exposition to announce US$25-million in funding for development of adventure and ecotourism facilities.
Some private operators at the exposition remained skeptical about the government's sincerity. But Mr. Contreras, slicing his giant mushroom on the concrete counter of Cuajimoloyas' restaurant a few days later, had another concern. He wanted only for the pan to be hot enough to cook the mushroom slices, which he sprinkled with coarse salt and coated with beaten egg whites.
With red beans, rice and fresh, warm tortillas, they were remarkable. The mushroom easily served six, with enough for leftovers.
In these mountains, a little goes a very long way.

IF YOU GO:

- Tourist yu'us can be reserved through SEDETUR in Oaxaca City. Phone 011-52-951-516-0123.
- For trips to Pueblos Mancomunados, contact Empresa Ecoturistica Comunitaria in Oaxaca City. Phone 011-52-951-48271; e-mail SierraNorte@oaxaca.com or visit www.sierranorte.org.mx
- For more information on travelling to Mexico, go to www.visitmexico.com