The drive and some highlights
Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.
Ecotourism as we know it in the Ixtlán district of the Sierra Norte, may never reach the Mixe because of its distance from the city of Oaxaca amongst other factors. However the Mixe still has many of the trappings which attract travelers who want to get away from urban life and see different and more natural sights. In terms of material culture, the district may in fact be superior. Certainly the drive, best handled as a two-day excursion, has much to offer beginning just as you start your ascent out of Oaxaca’s central valleys.
What’s in store should you venture off with your own or a rental vehicle for this 280 kilometer trek (round trip), are cave paintings; cascading springs; meals so fresh that the roadside eateries have no need for refrigeration; markets; by-products of the agave plant such pulque and mezcal; pottery in a style and color not often encountered in the state capital; and on a daily basis women wearing unique, regional dress.
The drive itself, without stops or side trips, takes upwards of 3 hours, beginning in Oaxaca and ending at the recommended final destination of Santa María Tlahuitoltepec. But it’s the journey which holds much of the allure.
Driving from Oaxaca to San Lorenzo Albarradas, situated on the cusp of the Mixe, takes about an hour, and is accessible by continuing along Highway 190 beyond Mitla. The first sight of interest is Xaagá, a small village whose main industry is loom-made cotton scarves, shawls and rebosos, as well as shirts and blouses, all wholesaled to middlemen or to merchants with stalls in Mitla, Tlacolula, el Tule or Oaxaca. Xaagá is also known for its 3,000 – 10,000 year old cave paintings. For between 50 and 100 pesos you can hire a local to guide you right up to them. The last several yards of the excursion are a difficult climb, so wear hiking boots or running shoes. Even if you don’t do the final leg, the drawings will be quite close to you and easy to photograph. You can continue up the dirt road from Xaagá to the bubbling springs and “waterfalls” of mineral deposits at Hierve el Agua. Great for swimming, in one of two poolings reaching just over 6’. Unless you start out quite early, it’s recommended that you stop at only one of these two sights, perhaps saving the other for the drive back, depending on time available. If it’s Hierve el Agua, it’s best to take the alternate route by returning to Highway 190, especially during rainy season, and in light of the ongoing dispute (an inconvenience only) between two villages each claiming the right to exact an entrance fee from tourists.
Back on Highway 190, after about 10 minutes you’ll pass San José del Paso on the left, another marginal community whose residents eke out a modest existence producing cotton textiles. A few minutes later you’ll encounter two quaint mezcal “factories,” directly across the highway from one another, much more rustic and traditional than the larger more commercial facilities catering to tourists, which one encounters en route to Mitla. On balance, one of the two small facilities will be in full production, with the ability to witness a couple of the steps in the process, be they the agave baking in an in-ground oven, a mule crushing the cooked by-product, fermentation in pine vats, or the firewood-fueled still with the purest of mezcal dripping into a plastic or copper recipient.
If you miss the process, about 10 minutes further along the highway, just before the San Lorenzo Albarradas cut-off, on the left you’ll come across another fábrica de mezcal, this one with a combined restaurant entitled Comedor El Tigre. No electricity and no refrigeration. Not needed. A very friendly family owns the place. Don’t expect a menu, but rather the mother or her daughter-in-law rhyming off what’s available for breakfast or lunch: memelitas, quesadillas, huevos al comal, huevos con chorizo, chorizo asado, tasajo, cecina, or a daily stew. All safe. Served with beans, and of course salsa made fresh before your eyes and served in its molcajete. Perhaps best of all is being able to pick up a tortilla straight from the comal over open flame.
About a kilometer up the road you´ll find a sign directing you to the right to Hierve el Agua (by the alternate route). The last 15 minutes of travel to Hierve el Agua is on dirt road, but a new paved road is being cut through the mountain range.
Until this point in time in the trip the vegetation, since the approach to Mitla, has been mixed scrub, cactus, and some crops under cultivation, with agave predominating.
Back on the main highway, the next hour is spent gradually climbing to Ayutla, the first town of any significance in the Mixe. Vegetation quickly changes from agave to pine and other conifers, and building construction from brick to wood. Large bags of pine charcoal for sale pepper the roadsides. On the approach to Ayutla, on your left you’ll discover the first of two or three pottery outlets. Stop by, make some purchases, or simply keep a mental note of prices since you’ll stop by another further along and can always return to this one on the return trip.
You’ll also begin to see trout farms, with large man-made tanks fed with a continuous flow of fresh water from the springs higher up. These aren’t for fishing, but rather for buying fresh fish to take home, or eat in an adjoining restaurant. On this trip we spent the night at Hotel Restaurante “Tek,” located on the left, just beyond Restaurante el Epazote. “Tek” served the best trout my wife has ever eaten, baked in a large aromatic leaf and sealed with foil, with a stuffing of melted quesillo, tomato, chile and other spices, and topped with chipotle mayonnaise. The hotel, purportedly the best the town has to offer, was basic to the extreme, with shared bath. Take your own sheets and pillow cases. For 200 pesos a night for a couple, though, it was hard to complain. Dinner for two with a couple of shots of mezcal, a beer and bottled water came in at 126 pesos.
On this particular Saturday, there were bare-back horse races on the outskirts of town, in a valley flecked with pools of fresh water suitable for family swimming. Our hotel hosts were kind enough to take us to the races. Unfortunately, the main sight in town, the cascading springs which are apparently in quite a picturesque setting, were inaccessible as a result of a dispute over water rights between this population and that of the village up the road, Tamazulapan del Espíritu Santo. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Tamazulapan is about a 15 minute drive from Ayutla. On the approach to the village, on the left you’ll see another terra cotta pottery outlet. The owner and her children are very congenial, and in fact offered to take us to a nearby village where the pottery is formed and fired. She also escorted us to the marketplace, showed us around, and asked that we make sure to not miss the pulque festival scheduled for later that Sunday.
Here you’re finally in the heart of Mixe country and will see women dressed in typical garb consisting of a dark reboso over the head, white blouse in one of a variety of styles and embroidered with tell-tale stitching, and either a long dark or white with embroidery skirt with palm leaf wrap-around belt over which a red, colorfully embroidered second belt of cotton is tied.
Until recently there was no market day in Tamazulapan, the townspeople attending Ayutla for its Sunday market. But now, as a result of the dispute, Tamazulapan has its own Sunday market. While traditional blouses can be purchased in the village at a reasonable price if bought from the women’s cooperative, there’s a better selection up the road in Santa María Tlahuitoltepec.
Tlahuitoltepec is about a 35 – 40 minute drive from Tamazulapan, the last 15 or so minutes on a dirt road, winding and dipping into the valley. Its market day is Saturday. The native clothing referenced above is manufactured at ranches fairly close to town. If interested in seeing the production process, ask a resident and you’ll be pointed in the right direction. Here, as in the other market towns, you’ll encounter a fermented sugar cane drink and fresh pulque. Curiously, mezcal is not made nearby, at least not that we could ascertain, yet pulque which comes from a different variety of agave, the pulquero, is a common beverage sold along the street and in marketplaces. The reason is likely that the pulquero tolerates a colder climate than the espadín variety of agave from which most mezcal is produced.
In any of the foregoing three towns and villages you can hike in the countryside, meet the local residents, and be warmly welcomed. They’re not as accustomed to encountering foreigners as are those of the other districts of the Sierra Norte, and many struggle with Spanish. You’ll find that the further you venture into the Mixe, the more soft-spoken the people become, strikingly more so than those encountered in the central valleys of Oaxaca.
The order of sights outlined above is simply a function of starting in Oaxaca and arbitrarily listing stops in the order that each village or town is initially encountered. By all means design your own itinerary, consider market days, when you want to stop at which restaurant and for bedding down, and most importantly based upon your particular interests, be they for craft purchases, hiking, or simply meeting and perhaps photographing the local folk. Without a doubt we’ll be back in the Mixe, stopping in different locales, wandering off the highway to the tiniest of hamlets, and assuredly reaching deeper into the district, ultimately arriving at Santiago Zacatepec.
Alvin Starkman together with wife Arlene operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ). Alvin received his masters in anthropology in 1978, and his law degree in 1984. He was a litigator in Toronto until taking early retirement. He and his family were frequent visitors to Oaxaca between 1991 and became residents in 2004. Alvin writes about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca, tours couples and families to the villages, and is an occasional consultant to documentary filmmakers.