The Sierra Norte: Walking in the land of the Zapotec

Capulalpám de Mendez is a pueblo mágico perched high in the Sierra Norte, reached by a curving, ascending two-hour drive from Oaxaca City. In these mountains, live people whose original language is Zapotec, not Spanish, who fight to preserve their traditions, and who live with a profound understanding of nature.

View toward the villages

Capulalpám and a group of the other villages in the Sierra Norte have created a network of ecotourism centers—lodges with small cabins and dining from which you can hike,or bike, or try ziplining, or partake in traditional medicine treatments. We visited Calpulalpám to hike through the forest that surrounds the town and to learn what I could, in my short time there, of the wisdom of the Zapotec traditions.

The office at the eco-lodge


The hikes in Capulalpám head out from the cabañas, “not too steep”, said Sabino, our guide from Expediciones Sierra Norte,  but the altitude (7000 feet and rising) and the climb into the mountain forest soon had us shedding our masks and stopping to rest. One day, we were also accompanied by a local man, Jairo, who delighted in teaching us about the forest. Jairo is 64, lived for many years in Mexico City, but at that later stage in life had decided to “regresar a mi tierra” (return to my land), and soon found a new calling as a guide.

Jairo pointing out the array of epiphytes on this tree

To walk through these forests and mountains with someone like Jairo is to be invited into a sacred place. We walked past the Center for Traditional Medicine [unfortunately closed due to covid for now, but where, when it reopens you can partake of a temascal, a kind of sweat lodge, herbal cleansings and massages] to a park at the edge of the forest.There we found a fountain with a statue dedicated to mothers and a long pergola. Behind the pergola is a stream that feeds the fountain. The waters are believed to have healing powers, especially for children who have a hard time learning to talk. Others come here to be with the trees and be cleansed by them.

“There are many women, but only one mother”

Jairo invited us to choose a tree and wrap our arms around it. While our husbands stayed back, hesitating, and looking skeptical, my sister and I found two trees in the park and went over and hugged them. I had never done that before and , to my surprise, found a deep well of emotion rising up in me, almost bringing me to tears. I looked over at my sister. She was feeling the same thing.

To Jairo, these woods of encinos (holly oaks), pines and cypress are not just a mass of vegetation, but a tapestry of healing.People come to these woods to expel malevolent spirits. I can sense that, being someone who, late in life, moved to a house surrounded by trees and mountains. The forest and the mountains do call your spirit to slow down and to find more openness.

We hiked to a waterfall- pipes run through the forest as the mountains are the main source of water

And the healing does not just come from just from being in the presence of trees, but from the plants that abound. Jairo often stopped to show us the specific plants with healing properties that grow in the Sierra Norte. Most are made into infusions: red salvia for stress, cola de caballo (horsetail) for kidney function, rosa del monte for high cholesterol, the anise-scented pericón for digestive and nervous system problems, the bark of the aguilar tree as an analgesic. The sap from one species of pine is used to set broken bones without a cast.

Horsetail (among other things)

Our two hikes through the forest of the Sierra Norte were at times challenging, with a few steep ascents and descents over rocks and narrow passages.

a steep descent

But they were at times almost luxurious, over paths of soft pine needles across rolling hills. At one point, we walked through a grove of old growth pines, all rising over 100 feet to the sky. In this section was little underbrush, so the magnificent and stately pines seemed to have the forest to themselves, like ancient elders in a temple.

Actually, the trees are never alone. Everywhere the pines and oaks are covered with the effusive spiking leaves of bromeliads, their red and orange flowers spraying up or down ike forest chandeliers. The bromeliads thrive from the moist winds that blow across the Sierra Norte from two directions- from the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Gulf of Mexico to the east, creating a rain forest effect.

Logging is very carefully managed to maintain biodiversity

The bromeliads are not the only epiphytes that make homes on the trees of the Sierra Norte forest. Jairo pointed out many ferns and moss and orchids that also cling to trees, finding crevices in the bark to settle in and put down roots. Only the ever-present madrona tree has bark that is so hard it resists the invasion of epiphyte plants. This presence of plants living on plants, layers and layers of living things in an ecological equilibrium was magical to me.

Bromeliads growing on the trees
wild orchids

Both days, we ended our hikes at the restaurant at El Molino, a community gathering place for Capulalpám. There, under a large wooden pavilion next to a stream, local families gather for comida (the large afternoon meal) or special occasions. A plate of steamed fresh trout with a heaping of local vegetables, fresh tortillas and some Mexican beer was like nectar of the gods after a long hike.

fresh-caught trout at El Molino

When we left Capulalpám to return to Oaxaca City, I and my companions were struck by the sense of having been deeply welcomed. And yet, as we passed another pueblo nearby, we saw signs angry about tourism and limiting access to people not members of the community. I can only begin to imagine the struggles of indigenous communities like the Zapotec of the Sierra Norte to both find a way toward economic independence through tourism such as I was able to experience and yet control the nature of it so as to protect a way of life. It felt that this version of eco-tourism strikes the right balance—you are welcome in our community, as long as you respect the profound gifts that Mother Earth has given us.

“What you do to the environment, you are doing to yourself”

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