For Fearless Drivers: A Journey into the Sierra Juárez mountains

Just north of the city of Oaxaca is the Sierra Juárez mountain range. It is the land of the Sierra Zapotecs, one of the first indigenous peoples of Mexico, whose ancestry stretches back to at least 1000 BC. The mountain range is known for its incredibly rich natural diversity, with over 2000 different plant species, tropical evergreen forests, and a cloud forest that forms a band 1,000 – 2250 meters high. In Zapotec, Schiaa Ruavia means the “hill where the cloud is born”.

We rented a car and asked our friend Lynda Wilde, a fabulous photographer from Kingston, Ontario, if she would drive us into the cloud mountains. Heading out of Oaxaca on a cool morning, she also drove us backwards in time.

Teotitlán, 37 kilometers outside of Oaxaca, is the gateway to the mountain road. The town sits under the shadow of el Picacho, the mountain where, legend has it, the Zapotecs were born.

el Picacho
el Picacho

The town has been Zapotec for 2500 years and Zapotec is still the primary language. Teotitlán is famous for weaving. Rugs and tapestries are made on hand looms, mostly with locally sourced wool and dyed with natural, traditional dyes. Even though tourists flock there for the authentic craft, it is small and retains ancient customs and ways.

Out of Teotitlán, the road begins a serious sequence of switchbacks. Checking directions in a guide book, we notice for the first time the cautionary sentence, “for fearless drivers”.

Switchback roads in the Sierra Juárez mountains
Switchback roads in the Sierra Juárez mountains

Linda has done this journey before in her four-wheel drive. Our little economy rental seems wildly inappropriate. It would be a suicidal drive in the rainy season.

Looking back on Teotitlán in the distance
Looking back on Teotitlán in the distance

But after travelling through seemingly endless, narrow, remote roads, we arrive at the bustling town of Benito Juárez (population about 1,000), fifty-eight kilometers north of Oaxaca city.

The town, originally called San Pablo Guelatao, was the birthplace of Benito Juárez, Mexico’s first indigenous president and Mexico’s most beloved native son. We are now 2900 metres (7200 feet) above sea level, sitting amongst the clouds. It’s cold, so we stop for hot chocolate and pan dolce beside the tourist information centre.

Benito Juárez tourist information centre
Benito Juárez tourist information centre

The mountains are home to endangered species of jaguar, ocelot and deer. One of the largest areas for butterflies and birds, there is a strong ecotourism movement to try to conserve the forest and protect it from the stresses of logging, agriculture and potential hydroelectric dams.

the Sierra Juárez cloud forest
the Sierra Juárez cloud forest

Los Pueblos Mancomunados is a group of eight small towns that have developed trails for hiking, mountain biking and camping in the mountains. The town of Benito Juárez is one of the starting points. We meet a Polish couple, who ask if we can tell them where the trail begins. We encourage them to go to the information centre, but they speak no Spanish. Intrepid, they head out into the woods. We hope they have a map.

In the centre of town we come across school children performing what looks exactly like “Speech & Drama”. A small girl declaims in the central square, her voice commanding the space as examiners make notes and parents look on.

Speech & Drama exams in Benito Juárez
Speech & Drama exams in Benito Juárez

Beside the square is a recreation of Benito Juárez’s birth home with adobe walls, tile roof and dirt floor.

Reproduction of the kitchen of the home of Benito Juárez
Reproduction of the kitchen of the home of Benito Juárez

Juárez was born in 1806 in the town of San Pablo Guelatao. His parents died when he was 3. He was raised by an uncle and became a shepherd. When he was 12, speaking only Zapotec, he walked to the city of Oaxaca where he was taken in by his sister. Here, his “thirst for learning” was recognized, and he received schooling at the city’s seminary. He became a lawyer, entered politics, and in 1857 became Mexico’s first indigenous president.

The statue of Benito Juárez in the town of Benito Juárez
The statue of Benito Juárez in the town of Benito Juárez

Throughout the country there are statues and monuments in his honour. March 21st, his birthday, is a national day of celebration. The town of San Pablo Guelatao changed its name in his honour.

Clearly this is a town of impressive orators.

Lynda takes us out of the town on a search for “Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan”, a trout farm in the mountains. A trout farm in the mountains? We weave through the tiny streets of Ixtlan de Juárez, searching for handwritten signs that say “Truchas”. It’s like a scavenger hunt. After many false turns, and several dead ends, we find a dirt path that leads to a small parking lot. We’ve arrived.

We shiver as we settle at outside tables. But we are greeted immediately by Noel, the owner, carrying glasses of mezcal.

Laurie and Lynda warm up with mezcal
Laurie and Lynda warm up with mezcal

Noel grew up Zapotec and left to live in Los Angles before returning home to begin a family business. His English is flawless, so we are able to understand the story of the trout farm.

There is a stream running down the mountain, which Noel’s family has tapped into. They have set up a series of holding tanks and, working with water from the stream, have built up their fish nursery. The baby trout are furthest up the mountain. Our lunch trout are in a tank right outside the kitchen door.

Trout tanks at Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan
Trout tanks at Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan

Noel brings us cups of sweet Mexican coffee to augment our mezcal, and hot toastados to nibble on while he cooks our fish. My filet arrives sealed in aluminum foil. It’s been steamed over the wood stove. I open the foil and the warm smells of tomato, garlic, lime, epizote, onion, chili verde and quesillo (a thin cheese sauce) waft out.

The drive may be for the fearless, but it is certainly one well worth conquering your fears.

The view from Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan
The view from Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan

Cooking and Eating in Oaxaca

Nora Andrea Valencia learned the techniques of traditional Oaxacan cooking from her late grandmother, Ofelia. Together they earned a reputation for the delicous breakfasts they prepared every morning at La Casa de Mis Recuerdos, the family’s B &B. My mother stayed at La Casa de Mis Recuerdos for a number of years, and has become a friend of the family.

With interest in Oaxacan cooking at an all time high, Nora has become internationally recognized for her knowledge of Oaxacan cuisine. She conducts cooking classes from her home, (http://almademitierra.net/) and we joined up with a small group for a day of cooking and eating.

The history of Mexico can be learned through food. Nora comes from a Zapotec tradition and many of the cooking methods that she has learned are based on knowledge stretching back for thousands of years. But since the Spanish invasion, Mexico has been a blend of cultures. The Spanish brought African slaves with them, and the mixture of indigenous, Spanish and African was perhaps the world’s first true fusion cooking.

Our first stop is the Merced Market to buy the ingredients for our comida.

Nora outside of the market, with a large cactus pad
Nora outside of the market, with a large cactus pad

There are many markets in Oaxaca, and this one is in Nora’s home barrio. Before we enter the market proper we meet some of the women sitting outside. Their hands are busy cleaning nopales (cactus pads) of various sizes.

Cleaning the spikes from the cactus (nopales) pads
A woman cleaning the spikes from young nopales. Hierba santa is on the ground beside her.

Nopales are very good for cholesterol levels, and the Mexicans put them in many different dishes. Nora picks a few choice pads and a big bunch of hierba santa, or sacred leaf. This green is used extensively in southern Mexican cooking. It has a unique lemony, licorice taste and it’s believed to cure just about everything including rheumatism, asthma, bronchitis, digestive disorders and skin conditions. Of course, it is impossible to grow or find in Canada. Nora recommends fennel as a flavor substitute, but there is nothing that can substitute its health benefits.

We proceed into the market where Nora explains properties of different chilies, dried and fresh.

So many chilies
So many chilies

So many chilies, so many flavours. The capsaicin in chilies is a stimulant and analgesic. It awakens endorphins, which means that “eating chilies gives your body pleasure. It also means you can get addicted to them.” But even Nora admits you can never really know how hot a pepper is. “It’s like a lottery,” she says cheerfully. You just have to keep tasting as you go. If it gets too hot, she tells us to add a bit of something acid, like cider vinegar or tomato, to bring down the spice. She introduces us to the pastillo oaxacaño, a special pepper grown only in the high Mixtec region and smoked in adobe ovens. A ready-made paste from this smokey pepper is a kitchen staple – she keeps it by the stove to add a little zing when necessary.

From the chili stand we move to the squashes. Every part of the squash plant is used, and Nora shows us how to pull the fibres from the stems so that they will be softer when added to a soup.

Nora peels the squash stems
Nora peels the squash stems

Bags of ingredients are sold cut and ready to cook a perfect Zapotec soup – squash stems, squash blossoms, pieces of squash, pieces of corn. Nora selects some perfect blossoms for our soup. “We only use the male blossoms. They are very showy, but not good for anything else,” she laughs.

At the tortilla stand, Nora shows us the soft masa dough that makes Oaxaca’s unique tortillas. Northern Mexico uses wheat for tortillas. In the south, they are corn based. Preparing the dough is an incredibly labour intensive process, involving lime and soaking and grinding corn. The result is a velvety soft corn dough that makes light tortillas totally unlike the hard corn tortillas I buy at home.

Next, Nora takes us to the cheese stand. I am addicted to Oaxacan cheese. There are two kinds – soft and stringy. The soft cheese is sold in wooden boxes to keep it moist. Like a cross between a ricotta and feta, it is crumbled over salads, enchiladas, and most dishes that have sauce on them. The harder cheese, Oaxacan string cheese, is boiled, kneaded and stretched into strands. It is melted in quesadillas, separated into strings for raw eating, wound into tight small balls to include in soup. It is salty and chewy and tastes like nothing else I’ve ever had.

The cheese stall
The cheese stall

Our final stop is to look over the mangos and avocados. She rails against people squeezing avocados in the store. “You can tell if they are ripe by looking at the stem. If there is a little dent, it is ripe. If it isn’t ripe put it in a paper bag and leave it in the trunk of your car. It will ripen!”

Nora and the mangos
Nora and the mangos

Mangos come in different sizes, colours and varieties. The small ones are super sweet and perfect for just eating a bit of fresh mango. The larger ones are better for adding to other ingredients – they absorb other flavours well.

We head to Nora’s home to turn these fresh ingredients into our comida.

Nora's courtyard
Nora’s courtyard

Mole. Originally from a Zapotec word, mole (pronounced Moh-LAY) reflects a whole concept in cooking – blending ingredients together to make a paste for a cooking sauce. Guide books talk about the 7 moles of Oaxaca. “But it’s impossible to have just seven,” laughs Nora. Mole is a concept, more than a specific thing. It is ubiquitous. “Aguaca” is Zapotec for avocado. Thus we get guaca-mole or guacamole – ground up avocado.

Nora gets us chopping and peeling. Our Comida today consists of “Consome de Hierba Santa”, a light chicken soup with tons of garlic and hierba santa, served over squash blossoms and balls of Oaxacan cheese; “Ceviche de Mango”, a marinated red snapper salad served on tostados; “Pipian de Camarones”, a pumpkin seed mole with shrimp and nopales; “Salsa Borracha”, literally drunken salsa – a hot sauce made from our dried peppers; and “Gelatina de Kahlua”, a light dessert jelly of coffee and chocolate.

Comida menu
Comida menu

We are assigned tasks. We do a lot of dry toasting on a comal, a flat dry pan traditionally made of pottery. We dry toast chili de arbol, chili de onza, and chili mora for our salsa borracha. We dry toast and boil huajillo chilies for our mole. We dry toast and grind pumpkin seeds, the thickening agent for the mole. We peel our fresh shrimp and make a shrimp stock with the shells. We cut and cook nopales; chop onions, mangos, cilantro and avocado for the ceviche. We lightly cook chunks of red snapper.

Nora shows us how to toast the chillies
Nora shows us how to toast chillies on the comal

Everything in Nora’s kitchen happens at a measured and even pace as she laughs her infectious laugh and sprinkles our cooking with historic and gastronomic information.

Nora shows us how to lay out squash blossoms and cheese balls in our soup bowls
Nora shows us how to lay out squash blossoms and cheese balls in our soup bowls

William comes in with glasses of mezcal, slices of orange and little piles of dried chilies. “Mezcal is a digestive. We have it before a meal. We have it during a meal. We have it at the end of a meal.”

We sip, dip orange slices in the chilies, taste and sip again. We are ready to eat our comida. It is as wonderful as you can imagine.

Our class is over, comida is finished. A good day with Nora Valencia
Our class is over, comida is finished. We’ve had a good day with Nora Valencia!

Oaxacan Diary 2: Travels with my mother at the top of the world

The main plaza at Monte Albán
The main plaza at Monte Albán

For more than a millennium, successive generations of Olmec, Zapotec and Mixtec peoples ruled the life of the Oaxacan valley from the city state of Monte Albán. Carved into a mountaintop 6400 feet above sea level, vast areas  were levelled in 300 BC for terraces and plazas. Temples and residences that allowed for seismic movement were built using layers of quarried stone and adobe. By 800 AD, 50,000 people lived in the city of Monte Albán. It was so large that suburban satellite neighbourhoods were built on surrounding mountaintops.

Monte Albán was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987.

When you are in Monte Albán, you feel as though you at the top of the world. There is nothing between you and the sky. The scale of the city is overwhelming. The central plaza is exactly oriented on the cardinal points (I checked with a compass), and so large that it dwarfs people as they cross. Stone staircases seem built for giants. It was built to impress.

Looking north to the observatory of Monte Albán
Looking north to the observatory of Monte Albán

My mother and I have been to Monte Albán before, and wanted to go again, but we wanted to start with a visit to Atzompa, one of Monte Albán’s satellite neighbourhoods.

Looking north from Monte Albán to Atzompa on the mountain beyond
Looking north from Monte Albán to Atzompa on the mountain beyond

The Atzompa archeological site has only been open to the public since the fall of 2012, and there is little information about visiting. New roads are being built to access it, but as yet there are few who travel there and it remains undiscovered by most tourists. So we hired a car and driver to take us to the top of the world.

We left early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day. Our driver Vincent took us out of Oaxaca, edging upwards through villages with dusty, winding streets. The “modern” village of Atzompa is known for its distinctive green pottery. About 90% of the villagers are involved in making pottery. It’s a traditional village and there is terrible poverty, but people are scraping by somehow.

The contemporary village of Atzompa
The contemporary village of Atzompa

There’s a small artisan’s market for intrepid tourists, but we passed by, and headed up the mountain. We passed a man with a burro, laden with something that looked like coal or maybe just rocks. We passed workers building the new road. Up and up Vincent drove, weaving past barriers, until he could drive no further. Mom and I set out on a newly created gravel stairs, leaving Vincent to wait in a newly built but vacant parking lot.

There is an entrance to the Atzompa archeological site, where we signed in. From the sheet I could see that there were 4 visitors yesterday, 18 the day before. Today, we have the place to ourselves.

The name Atzompa is Nahuatl meaning “at the headwaters”. It was built by Zapotecs from Monte Albán about 1200 years ago. After about 600 years of Zapotecs, it was inhabited by Mixtecs for over 600 years. The pottery making inhabitants of the contemporary village of Atzompa are descended from those Mixtecs.

Atzompa was built in a similar style to Monte Albán, although scaled down. There are small plazas, a temple, a tomb with funerary chambers, an artisan’s area, a stone quarry, and a large ball court.

From “Plaza C” you can see across to the city of Monte Albán, as well as to other, as yet uncovered, satellite neighbourhoods.

Looking from Atzompa across the valley to Monte Albán
Looking from Atzompa across the valley to Monte Albán

The plaza makes us understand the level of wealth and privilege in Atzompa. Residents looked down on the peasants, workers and farmers in the valley. They looked across to the seat of power, both political and religious. But it was also practical. Looking down, they could easily see movement or threats from other people travelling in and out of the valley. These were wealthy and powerful people, who lived in luxury.

Looking from the main square of Atzompa to the valley below
Looking from the main square of Atzompa to the valley below

The main square is 50 x 50 metres, bordered by a temple, with a central burial mound.

Main square and temple, Atzompa
Main square and temple, Atzompa

One of the two residences, the House of Altars, has a sunken patio surrounded by a sidewalk, and 18 rooms accessed by four different staircases. Servant’s quarters were attached by walkways. A desirable house, in prime location.

House of Altars, Atzompa
House of Altars, Atzompa

The ball court, one of the largest in Meso America, is 5 x 22 metres in an “I” shape, with a north/south orientation and long benches for spectators on either side. Ball games had both religious and political ramifications, and were “practiced to influence the movement of the stars in the sky, the continuation of the existence of the cosmos, and thereby, the continuation of life” (so the signage at Atzompa tells us). It is easy to imagine, as we stand so close to the sky, the power and influence of the games.

Ball court, Atzompa
Ball court, Atzompa

There’s a kiln and ceramic studio here. The original building hasn’t been excavated, as it sits 2.5 metres under the surface, but a re-creation gives weight to the importance of the studio, which specialized in large cooking pots. As today, each artisanal home is responsible for one type of pottery whether it be pitchers, griddles, casseroles or toys. I think back to the potters we passed on our way here. Tradition goes a long way back in this part of the world.

Kiln, Atzompa
Kiln, Atzompa

A burial chamber was unearthed in July, 2012. Not open to the public, it’s been dated to be 1100 years old, apparently in amazing condition, and unique in its design of three layers of tombs above ground and brightly painted murals on the walls. A wooden structure sits incongruously on the top, replacing the original stucco temple. The restoration is clearly still in progress, but the only work we see being done today is by men slowly raking stones on the plaza.

Funerary Chamber, Atzompa
Funerary Chamber, Atzompa

The mid morning sun is beginning to bake us. We gingerly make our way down the gravel paths, to find Vincent waiting patiently. We reluctantly leave the peace of Atzompa. Monte Albán, filled with tourists and school groups, beckons to us across the valley. Aztompa has become our shared secret, our own private discovery. Monte Albán is, as it should be, filled with the trappings of civilization.  We head there for desayuno (breakfast) in a lovely outdoor café …

Desayuno at Monte Albán
Desayuno at Monte Albán