A hike is a hike is a hike. Right? Of course not. Anyone reading this blog will know there are as many types of hikes as there are models of hiking boots. There are day hikes and overnight hikes and long distance hikes. There are mountain hikes and valley hikes, inter-tidal hikes and smell-the-roses hikes. There are pilgrimages, rambles, tramps, treks, strolls; and the occasional slog.
I like just about any hike, but my favourite is usually the one that I am currently hiking. And so it was in mid-February, when my partner Alex and I set out for a seven-day, village-to-village “caminata” among the indigenous Zapatecas in the Sierra Norte mountains in southern Mexico.
Hiking in the Sierra Norte Mountains of Mexico, you say?
Yup, you heard right. We hiked in Mexico and we weren’t robbed by bandits, stung by scorpions or kidnapped by drug lords. Just the opposite.
Starting at over 3,100 metres (about 11,000 feet) in the village of Llano Plano, the route eventually took us down to about 2,000 metres in San Miguel de Amatlán. Along the way, we spent nights in Cuajimoloyas, Benito Juarez, La Neveria and Latuvi.
The general direction may have been downhill, but don’t be fooled. The route was up and down, providing us with spectacular vistas of layered green mountains, strolls alongside working farms; and walks near clear streams where the dappled sun illuminated the rainbow hue of the resident trout.
At times, the scent of pine resin made us wonder if we were back in Canada.
In all, we covered 73.7 km—for an average of 10.5 km per day. No distance by Bruce Trail standards, but the Sierra Norte isn’t the Niagara Escarpment.
In total, we climbed 4,215 m and descended 5,175 m.
Put it this way, when we arrived at our destination each afternoon, we were ready to unlace our boots and shed our packs.
At night, clean, well-appointed cabins with crisp white sheets and a hot shower awaited, as did hearty Mexican meals made with local produce. The cooks joked as they turned out a seemingly endless supply of steaming homemade corn tortillas and large pitchers of fresh natural juice—my favourite was cucumber and guava.
In La Neveria, Josephina concocted a watercress frittata that would have passed muster at the best Canadian restaurant. At higher altitudes, the cabins had wood-burning fireplaces that removed the chill as we tucked thick wool blankets under our chins.
All good, but as anyone who has hiked above a certain altitude knows, a slope that would normally go unnoticed can make one’s heart race.
For the first three days, we remained at about 3,000 m and I felt as though the fat circus lady’s legs had been transplanted onto my hips. We were lucky to cover 3 km in an hour.
Then we dropped down to nearer 2,000 m. Suddenly, I was bursting with energy. Those fat legs had been replaced by Secretariat’s.
I savoured the combined effects of increased oxygen and being hike-ready. Much as I’d loved the thin, crisp mountain air, I reveled in the mounting humidity as the temperature climbed above 20 degrees.
The stones that had weighed down my pack turned to feathers, and we congratulated ourselves for electing to carry our gear rather than have it transported (an option on offer).
The pine, spruce and oak forest gave way to foreign-looking hardwoods. Bromeliads, cacti and orchids clung to their hosts forming complete branch-top gardens. Each day we had a new guide who told us about the flora and fauna.
We began to better understand their Spanish, a relief since we hadn’t taken advantage of the offer of a translator.
If a plant didn’t have a medicinal use, it had a clever name. All the birds seemed to be brilliantly coloured—but what would one expect in an area with more than 400 species of birds, 350 different butterflies and more than 2,000 types of plants.
So rich is the population of mushrooms that they hold a mushroom festival each year in August.
Our favourite guide was Memo. He happily shared his stories and was delighted to teach us a few Zapateca words as we walked the 12.6-km route between La Neveria and Latuvi.
Upon arriving in Latuvi, Memo joined us for a meal and then walked all the way back home—a good day’s exercise for anyone, but Memo was 74 and this was his third round trip in as many days.
Our guides, cooks, waiters and housekeepers were all volunteers. In the Zapateca way, they must complete three, one-year terms of voluntary community service. In return, they receive land and standing in the community.
This unpaid labour made the eco-tourism project, of which our hike was part, highly economical. Each of the villages shared the eco-project’s revenue and the benefits were obvious: clean streets, new schools, tidy medical clinics and covered basketball courts.
For us, this adventure was a perfect blend of wilderness and rural. One morning, Alex had to pinch himself because the lane where we walked might have been in England where he was born—until that is, he spied Mexico’s “flag” bird: the red, white and green trogon.
We walked for 5 km through a mystical forest of oak trees draped in Spanish moss that flowed in the breeze. Near metre-long, snake-like cacti populated a rock face, and delicate peach blossoms heralded the arrival of spring. We dropped into incised river valleys where the sun peeked through trees too tall by half and we seemed centuries apart from what was happening out there.
Then we’d come upon a small farm where a question about sheep or the difficulties of ploughing with bulls would transform a stern Zapateco farmer into our best friend.
We had nature. We had culture. And the morning we soared with vultures on a kilometre-long zip-line, we had adventure too—thereby demonstrating that a hike is not just a hike when it’s a “caminata” in Mexico’s Sierra Norte.