North of the Oaxaca valleys lies the Pueblos Mancomunados (literally “joint villages”) of the Sierra Norte, a pristine world of pine forests, mist-cloaked mountains and rustic Zapotec villages. The hills are laced with more than a hundred kilometres of signposted rural footpaths and country roads, suitable for hikers and mountain-bikers of all abilities, and almost every community offers simple accommodation, local guides and a roster of activities. The paths have been used for centuries by local people accustomed to sharing resources with surrounding communities and the villages are an impressive example of social organization, with eight small towns perched on common land. The landscape is spectacular – some sections of the pine forest have been classified by the World Wildlife Foundation as being the richest and most varied on earth. The biodiversity is also phenomenal, with birdlife, butterflies and mammals, including ocelot, puma and jaguar. It’s a rewarding place to spend a few days, enjoying nature and getting firsthand experience of rural Oaxacan life.
Don’t expect one afternoon to be enough time to really see this area; a visit requires forward planning and at least a couple of days to be worthwhile. The most efficient way to go is through one of the tour operators in Oaxaca. Tierraventura and Expediciones Sierra Norte organize trips with guides, transport, accommodation and meals for around M$1500 for two days.
The Village of Benito Juárez
The Village of Benito Juárez
Perched on a ridge overlooking the Oaxaca valleys (18km north of Teotitlán) and surrounded by pine trees, the little village of Benito Juárez is known for its spectacular sunsets – in clear weather you can see all the way to Mexico’s highest mountain, Pico de Orizaba (5636m), from the mirador. The village makes a good base for exploration of the Pueblos Mancomunados, and there’s a river where you can fish for trout. One of the most enchanting hikes is along the 15km high-altitude footpath between the isolated villages of Latuvi and San Miguel Amatlán, which passes though mystical cloud forest and is believed to be part of a larger pre-Columbian route that connected the Zapotec cities in the Valles Centrales with the Gulf of Mexico – you can still see the remains of an old road along the trail (tours usually take two days to hike this route).
If you prefer to travel independently, the small but extremely helpful tourist information office (t 951/545-9994) in Benito Juárez, next to the town square, has excellent maps which show the varying demands of each trek, and rents out reliable mountain bikes (M$100/3hr), but only with a Spanish-speaking guide (M$120/day, plus M$50 access fee). Next door, the simple and friendly restaurant serves cheap breakfasts, comidas and hot drinks, and sells sandwiches and water.
Despite the poor judgement he exhibited in his later years, Benito Juárez ranks among Mexico’s greatest national heroes. He was the towering figure of nineteenth-century Mexican politics, and his maxim – “El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz” (“Respect for the rights of others is peace”) – has long been a rallying cry for liberals. A Zapotec, he strove against nineteenth-century social prejudices and, through four terms as president, successfully reformed many of the worst remnants of Spanish colonialism, earning a reputation for honesty and fair dealing.
Juárez was born in San Pablo Guelatao in 1806. His parents died when he was 3, and he grew up speaking only Zapotec; at the age of 12 he was adopted by priests and moved to Oaxaca, where he began to study for the priesthood, which included learning Spanish. Turning his talents to law, he provided his legal services to impoverished villagers free of charge, and by 1831 had earned a seat on Oaxaca’s municipal council, lending his voice to a disenfranchised people. Juárez rose through the ranks of the city council to become state governor from 1847 to 1852, on a liberal ticket geared towards improving education and releasing the country from the economic and social stranglehold of the Church and the aristocracy. In 1853, the election of a conservative government under Santa Anna forced him into eighteen months of exile in the US.
Liberal victory in 1855 enabled Juárez to return to Mexico as minister of justice and give his name to a law abolishing special courts for the military and clergy. His support was instrumental in passing the Ley Lerdo, which effectively nationalized the Church’s huge holdings, and bills legalizing civil marriage and guaranteeing religious freedom. In 1858, President Ignacio Comonfort was ousted by conservatives enraged by these reforms, and Juárez, as the head of the Supreme Court, had a legal claim to the presidency. However, he lacked the military might to hold Mexico City and retired to Veracruz, returning three years later, victorious in the War of Reform, as constitutionally elected president on the basis of his attempts to reduce the power of the Church. Stymied by an intractable Congress and empty coffers, Juárez suspended all national debt repayments for two years from July 1861. To protect their investments, the British, Spanish and French sent their armies in, but when it became apparent that Napoleon III had designs on the control of Mexico, the others pulled out, leaving France to install Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian as puppet emperor. Juárez fled again, this time to Ciudad Juárez (originally called Paso del Norte) on the US border, but by 1867 Napoleon III had buckled under Mexican resistance and US pressure, and Juárez was able to return to the capital and his army to round up and execute the hapless Maximilian.
Juárez was returned as president in the 1867 elections but alienated much of his support through attempts to use Congress to amend the constitution. Nevertheless, he secured another term in the 1870 elections, spending two more years trying unsuccessfully to maintain peace before dying of a heart attack in 1872.