Oaxaca is in a valley ringed by stupendous mountains. Oaxaca itself is pretty high, being at a little over a mile elevation, higher than Denver. The surrounding mountains tower another three quarters of a mile above that. While Oaxaca City has a tropical feel, with banana and coconut trees, mangoes and avocados and nopales, you don't have to head uphill very far before you find yourself in a pine forest. There are a mix of trees, but the main species (in this area) is Ocote, an amazing tree which has so much flammable sap that it's timber can be lit to blazing with an ordinary kitchen match. The dry, open woodlands remind me very much of those of Eastern Washington, near my home. The fauna is reminiscent of home as well, with deer, puma, raccoons, and grey squirrels.
These hills are well inhabited, with small villages appearing wherever there is a broad, flat area to build on. Most are of considerable antiquity. On our route, we passed the hamlet of San Pablo Guelatao, birthplace of Benito Juarez , the great Mexican president of the 19th century. He was the first indigenous Latin American head of state, and one of the few extant to this day (Hi, Evo Morales!). He is associated with the famous quote "Respeto por el derecho ajeno es la paz," which means something like "Peace is respect for the other guy's rights."Benito Juarez is sort of like the Abraham Lincoln of Mexico. Of course, he was a contemporary of Lincoln's, but also, like Lincoln, he is associated with the emancipation of an oppressed minority. Except that, in Mexico's case it was an oppressed majority.
Guelatao is a cute little town, with a small alpine lake to walk around. There is a community museum dedicated to Benito Juarez but we didn't get to visit it as it was closed for restoration. Just a couple of miles up the road is the town of Ixtlan. Ixtlan is a little bit bigger, but that's still pretty small. The main attraction here is the amazing eighteenth century church. I don't know which demonination this church belongs to - it is not on the Dominican trail - but it is one of the loveliest medium sized churches I have visited, and has the most complete and well-preserved collection of retablos I have seen. The statuary is first rate, and the paintings are clean and bright. I assume they must have been restored, but I don't know.
|main altar of Ixtlan church|
|View of Ixtlan. Church is at middle right.|
The population of Ixtlan has created a collective ecotourism business. A few miles outside of the village, higher up in the mountains, they have built a resort, with lovely rustic cabins, a restaurant, and various "extreme" activities. You can rent a mountain bike and bike over hundreds of kilometers of trails, or don a harness and try to navigate their ariel obstacle course. There is a cave to visit - although guides are NOT available - and there are trout raised in the cool mountain stream to eat. There is also a zipline. It runs about 300 meters through the forest canopy, and as soon as I saw it, I knew I wanted to try it.
I don't tend to post many photos of myself here, so y'all might not be aware of this fact, but I am fat. Without getting into too many specifics, I am perfectly mobile and can hike a trail, but I am fat enough that activities like horseback riding or -ahem- ziplines give me pause and make me do some mental calculations in my head. I really wanted to ride the zipline, but I knew I had to make sure that there wasn't a weight limit that excluded me (a few years ago when I looked into skydiving I learned that there is, and it does). That was an embarrassing enquiry, because all the people who run this place are slim teenage boys. It isn't any fun, I tell you, trying to stuff your fat ass into a zipline harness in front of a half a dozen teenage boys.
Even so. My fat ass fit. Then I and my husband (whose slim ass presented no problem), climbed a hill and a rickety six-floor tower to a platform some 200 feet above the ground. For my old Bainbridge Island friends, it reminded me of climbing the Fort Ward tower. Homero went first, to provide me with courage. As he sailed away from me at an incredible rate of speed, I had a moment when I thought I just wouldn't be able to do it. "Will you please check my straps?" I asked the slim teenage boy next to me. "Are you absolutely certain that people fatter than me have done this before?"
"No pasa nada," he said, and shoved me off the platform.
When I wriggled out of the harness on the other side, I was trembling like a child. It was thrilling, and I'm so glad I did it. If I had gone back down the mountain without throwing myself (okay, being pushed) off that platform, I would have regretted it for a long time.
I highly reccomend "Eco-turIxtlan," as they call it. The prices are very reasonable and the setting can't be beat. There are eco-tourism retreats all through these hills, and I'm sure there are many others worth a visit. It would be easy to spend, say, a week traveling from Oaxaca to Veracruz along this highway, stopping at dozens of attractions along the way. I hope I get the chance to do just that someday.