Our local friend Orlandini’s parting words to us were to tell us not, absolutely not, to go to the Sierras hiking as we had planned, because the weather conditions are horrible and with the clouds and rain we would not see anything around us. “You’ll be at six thousand feet and the cloud ceiling will be at 5,300,” or some specific prediction like that.
As William just told, we did it anyway. Orlandini was accurate about the clouds, but the sun blasted through on both days anyway, so we had our views too.
We started in Cuajimoloyas, which is in fact at 10,433 feet above sea level. William thought it reminded him of Switzerland, with its roofs sloped steeply in contrast to the flat ones of Oaxaca. It felt a little cold getting off the bus but I couldn’t admit it because I alone was wearing a short-sleeved (but new!) shirt and local people had a few layers. It was clear there with spectacular view. And the little store happened to sell impermeables, rain ponchos…
The guide, Israel, arrived precisely on time, and without delay strode up the road out of town.
We hiked for five hours that day, with a little teeny picnic and a bottle of water in our bags (plus camera and a little other gringo stuff). Each guide started his shift with the tiniest of bags containing: an impermeable. That’s it. None drank water on the whole sweaty romp*, nor carried a first-aid kit with an Ace bandage or litter for evacuation or extra gear for stupid gringo clients (guides did carry walkie-talkies), or even an extra apple. I’m not a baby hiker, but wouldn’t you feel a little more secure thinking the leader was dependable for that?
As for the “guides’” knowledge – I don’t know. When we enlisted and prepaid for the two-day trip, there were no cumbersome release forms with fine print to sign. The guides were ages mid-twenties to 40, did not speak any English (not their fault) and had sketchy knowledge, I think. For example, one pointed out ferns, “helechos,” but when I saw another type of fern and asked its name, he just said helecho again, and pressed, did not know a detailed name. Thus, even I could spot about 10 different kinds of ferns, though not name them, and I’m not sure these young guys would get excited about that.
My hope – fantasy? – is that this organization, Expediciones Sierra Norte, is, as advertised, doing what some will call “god’s work” in promoting preservation of nature, responsible land use, and sound local and indigenous economies. We passed through communally owned land that allowed small privately managed corn and potato fields on the steep slopes (as I understood the explanations), so different from giant monoculture tracts on flat fields in the US. We did not see tractors, but horses for transport. The three small Zapotec pueblos we visited did not have a lot going on to the eye; for example, Latuvi has internet access in two locations, one being the ecotourism office, but only in the afternoons, and no bank or ATM. The store was out of beer. The three guides we had all said they loved their communities, saying they were “tranquillo.” One said he went to Oaxaca about once a month, none had been outside the state of Oaxaca. So if guiding on these trails can provide a living and permit constancy in the pueblos, good.
The hiking was strenuous, on trails ranging from excellent – and historic, prehispanic even, if I can believe that – to abysmally in need of maintenance, and through the beautiful range of ecosystems with mosses and lichens and low shrubs to 60-foot pine trees. We followed an arroyo overtaking its banks after the hurricane conditions last week and baked in the open sun.
Taking a lot of pictures of all the plants would be ridiculous; great photographers have done that. I include two here, just to show a huge mushroom and a cactus, usually thought of as appearing in moist and sere places, and not together, here just three steps apart.
The fern thing: This sent me back to Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks, a satisfying little travel book that I recommend. He came here to see Oaxaca’s “seven hundred-odd species of ferns” — to the discerning helechophile, a great destination — and I hope to find the names of at least a few that I have seen. (I’ll keep that to myself, since I sense you’re nodding off now.) But look to that book for just wonderful intelligent and funny writing that will make you feel smart and want to go traveling.
The cloud bank, however, contributed our favorite aspect of this side trip. Fog is a cloud that has the base on the earth’s surface, and Tuesday night, up in Latuvi, at 7,943 feet, we watched the clouds slide around a mountain toward us, eventually concealing absolutely everything farther than 10 feet away; I am not making that up. I could see only to the edge of the patio of our little cabana. So Orlandini was right.
We were the only customers on our particular night. The little cabins were spotlessly clean with multiple beds, hot showers, flushing toilets and fireplaces. A guy came in to build and light a fire. Heaven. How much do you tip for that?
Morning brought only a slight thinning of the fog; we were to set out in the same white-out on day two.
* William screams angrily as I read this aloud to him: No one drinks water! They don’t sweat! They don’t pee! It’s 80 degrees and they’re wearing extra layers and a stupid hat! I’m drinking three bottles of water and Lisa’s juice and 10 minutes away from heat stroke!