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Mountain Biking in the Sierra Madre through the Pueblos Mancomunados

Written on: Tuesday April 29th, 2008

A journal entry from: North America in our Camper Van!


In the highlands of the thickly forested Sierra Norte Mountains, northeast of Oaxaca city, 8 rural Zapotec villages have created a unique form of cooperation and resource management. They call themselves ?Pueblos Mancomunados?, or the Commonwealth of Villages. For centuries, the resources found in the 290 sq km property, including forestry, water, and other enterprises are managed communally and sustainably and profits divided amongst the families. More recently the Pueblos Mancomunados have launched a tourism campaign, to attract outdoor minded travellers and nature lovers to come and explore their beautiful wilderness, and to help bring in more local income. Rob and I decided to find to check out what they had to offer. From Teotitlan del Valle (located in the valley) we followed a narrow dirt road towards the base of the Sierra Norte Mountains. As we drove on, the gradient increased and the road became more and more windy until we were soon driving in a snake-like fashion up switch backs. The views down into the valley were spectacular. After an hour of driving we had travelled 40 kms, gained over 1 km of elevation and arrived at Benito Juarez, a small Pueblos Mancomunados village of 550 people. We easily found the well-marked tourist information house and met the coordinator, who offered to allow us to camp beside the building. Rob and I were excited to get active, be outside and do some exercise. We looked over the map showing more than 100 kilometres of hiking, cycling and nature trails and when we decided for a short hike that afternoon and to rent mountain bikes for the next day. The coordinator suggested a 30 km bike loop starting and finishing at Benito Juarez. Perfect. He indicated that we wouldn?t need a guide to find our way as long as we stopped to ask the tail direction once we arrived in the next village.

The following day we picked up our bikes and eagerly headed off. This unique region is covered in pine trees, caves, crags and waterfalls and completely different from other parts of Mexico that we had seen. Also, instead of finding garbage, empty bottles and junk along the roadside, we found clean streets and trails and ?organico? & ?inorganico? waste buckets placed everywhere. We started off in the direction of the next village, La Neveria and climbed 100 meters and rode along the crest of a mountain before starting to descend. We both noticed fairly quickly the elevation effect on our lungs. At 2750 meters, we were nearly triple the elevation of our hometown Calgary and resulting in significantly less oxygen than we were used to. Ten kilometres later we arrived at the small tourist office in La Neveria, we were impressed with the variety of programs that this small village of 200 peasants had to offer. Cultural exchanges included learning about medicinal herbs and traditional medicine, Zapotec language lessons, cooking lessons and homestays. The tourist coordinator was very friendly and Rob and I agreed that if we had time when we headed north again we would love to come spend a week in this tiny village. The coordinator drew us a map and we headed off to the next village of Latuvi. Down we went along a single track bike lane through the thick forest. The ride was fantastic, fun and fast, as we but I do remember despairing that we would have to climb the same elevation that we had descended. At one point the trail lead us up to a derelict mud and wood shack. As we approached four dogs came wildly running and barking towards us. Before I had time to react, an elderly woman came running out of her house with a long stick and chased after the dogs driving them away from us. She then kindly gestured for us to continue on the path straight through her property, between the chicken pen and the mud shack. Everyone we came across was extremely friendly, ?Buenos Dias!? (goodmorning) or ?Que le vayan bien!? (may you be well) they would yell out as we drove by.

We were exhausted by the time we reached Latuvi, and decided to stop to have a break and some lunch. Latuvi is the largest of the Pueblos Mancomunados with 1150 villagers. Again we found a town full of friendly smiling adults and children and were directed to the town restaurant, greeted by the tourist coordinator and served a delicious meal. We pulled out the trail map that we had purchased and looked at the last section left to complete. It was as we had feared, the fun, fast, downhill ride that we had just finished was going to be followed by 10 kilometers of uphill. We had to gain 600 meters to make it back to where we had started.

The slogan that the Pueblos Mancomunados use is ?Sierra Norte, Nature that Conquers You?. We put together a small movie of our mountain biking trip, showing that we certainly experienced this slogan to its fullest.

That evening (after a nap of course) we walked across the street to the Comedor del Pueblo, or Town Eatery. Three wonderful women prepared a delicious cocao drink for us and served us diner. As we were eating the rains came turning the main street into a flowing river. When the downpour stopped we were impressed how the streets filled with young and old men with shovels, rakes and wheel barrels. They started cleaning the streets and removing mountains of mud and rocks that had appeared.

Rob and I left with great admiration for the Pueblos Mancomunados and for what they were accomplishing. The sense of community, co-operation efforts, genuine warmth and kindness, responsible management of their natural resources and preservation of the forests and bio-diversity makes them an outstanding example of community social organization in Mexico.