From the rocky cliffs above the town of Benito Juarez in the mountains of Mexico's Oaxaca state, I watched as the sun slipped behind the clouds, then disappeared behind the distant ridges. The night air quickly grew chilly as I hiked the half-mile back to town for dinner: fresh rainbow trout from a local trout farm, cooked with garlic, onion and cilantro, served with homemade tortillas and followed by a steaming bowl of traditional Oaxacan hot chocolate.
On returning to my turist yuu, or tourist house, I found my hosts had a roaring fire going, so I staked out a spot and settled down with my book. As the fire died down, I made my way to my bunk and quickly fell asleep, despite the chorus of snores from the mountain bikers in the next room.
Hop a bus in Oaxaca and head 40 miles to the United Villages, seven Mexican villages that are linked by hiking trails.
This is a side of Oaxaca that relatively few visitors see, despite the fact that it's only about 40 miles northeast of tourist-swamped Oaxaca City in southeastern Mexico, known for its colonial architecture, extensive crafts markets and delicious regional food. It's the sort of place where you're more likely to hear the braying of a burro than the honk of a horn, where everyone is quick with a "buenos dias" or "buenas tardes" and where fancy sidewalk cafes are replaced by wood picnic benches in dirt-floored kitchens.
Benito Juarez (population 580) is one of seven villages in Oaxaca's northern mountain range known as the Pueblos Mancomunados (United Villages), which have jointly developed an eco-tourism project. A network of 75 miles of trails connects the villages; for a small fee, guides will take you from one town to the next or on day trips to such natural attractions as towering rock crags, waterfalls and canyons. At 10,000 feet above sea level, the hikes can leave you short of breath, but the trails are well maintained and the hiking is generally easygoing.
I'd come for three days to explore the towns, do some hiking and escape the chaos of my home in Mexico City. In each town I had a guide who'd take me to the next town over, then turn around and head home. A typical day included a leisurely breakfast, a ramble to the next village and a few hours exploring the area and chatting with locals.
You're not going to find four-star hotels or glitzy restaurants here, but accommodations throughout the region are simple, clean and comfortable; visitors can choose between private cabanas that sleep up to four people ($36 per cabin) or a bunk bed in a tourist lodge ($12 per person). Meals are served in small restaurants or a local's kitchen, and vary from beef stew to such Mexican staples as quesadillas.
Still, the area is relatively unknown to tourists, though its popularity is growing. Mario Hernandez, coordinator of the eco-tourism project in Benito Juarez, said that when the town opened its cabins in 1997, it received a couple of visitors a month; last year, as many as 300 people a month came.
The venture is a bright spot in an area that has seen traditional sources of income, such as logging and mining, disappear in recent years. Hernandez said the town hopes it will provide young people with an alternative to migrating to the big cities or the United States to find work. My guide from Benito Juarez, Elenio Hernandez, 24, said that of his school class of 20, only three were still living in the town; the rest had gone elsewhere to look for work.
"If I weren't working as a guide, I'm sure I would have left, too," he said.
The project organizers are also seeking to protect the pine and oak forests -- classified by the World Wildlife Fund as some of the richest and most varied on Earth -- by promoting them as a tourist attraction for hikers and nature lovers. "We thought, if we keep cutting down our forests, what are we going to leave our children?" said Mario Hernandez. "Now we've figured out how to make use of our forests without destroying them."