North of the Oaxaca valleys the wild ranges of the Sierra Norte stretch for over 100km, a pristine world of pine forests, mist-cloaked mountains and rustic Zapotec villages. The Pueblos Mancomunados (literally “joint villages”) occupy the southern edge of the Sierra. The landscape here is spectacular and the biodiversity phenomenal, with birdlife, butterflies and mammals, including ocelot, puma and jaguar – some sections of the pine forest have been classified by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) as among the richest and most varied on earth. It’s a rewarding place to spend a few days, enjoying nature and getting first-hand experience of rural Oaxacan life.
The hills are laced with more than 100km 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. 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).
Perched on a ridge overlooking the Oaxaca valleys (18km north of Teotitlán) and surrounded by pine trees, the little village of BENITO JUÁREZ is the gateway to the Pueblos Mancomunados. Known for its spectacular sunsets – in clear weather you can see all the way to Mexico’s highest mountain, Pico de Orizaba – Benito Juárez makes a good base for exploration. There’s a river where you can fish for trout and plenty of walking and other activities on offer.
Ixtlán de Juárez
Ixtlán de Juárez, a pretty Zapotec village near San Pablo Guelatao (the birthplace of Benito Juárez), 61km north of Oaxaca, is in an area of great natural beauty, and its cloud forests and pine and oak woodlands are claimed to be home to five hundred bird varieties and six thousand species of plants.