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.
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."
Locals watch for illegal loggers, who have devastated forests in many parts of Mexico. Evanecio Marcos, one of the guides, told me that if someone is caught logging without permission, they're asked to plant 10,000 seedlings or help trim back small trees so others may grow tall.
In the villages there is a strong sense of community, and in each town I visited, it was evident how residents had come together to advance the project. In Cuajimoloyas, my guide explained that he wasn't paid for his work, but that it was his community service for the town -- something required of all the men. He said he would work for a year and then go back to raising corn and beans, and another resident would take his place.
My guide in Latuvi explained that in order to build the cabins, each family donated a small amount of money, and if they couldn't afford that, they helped with the construction. In addition, each family made adobe bricks -- something everyone could afford. Finally, the town council decided to use the tequio -- an Aztec word meaning "communal effort," in which men get together on a weekend day to work on a project for the good of the community -- to help construct the cabins.
My trip started in Cuajimoloyas, from where my guide led me on a two-hour hike through peaceful pine forests and grassy meadows dotted with giant, prehistoric-looking cactuses, to Benito Juarez. On the way, he pointed out medicinal plants that have been used for centuries by the Zapotec Indians who inhabit the region, as well some of the many species of brightly colored birds -- including chickadees, hummingbirds and warblers -- that flitted along the path.
From Benito Juarez, I hiked north for three hours along narrow forest trails carpeted with pine needles to Latuvi, officially a town of 800 people (although locals say it's less due to migration) made up of simple wood and adobe houses. Yolanda Hernandez, 33, runs a restaurant out of her kitchen -- a small room into which sunlight streams in between the wooden slats, cutting through the smoke that wafts from the wood-burning stove.
What Hernandez lacks in facilities she makes up for with a big smile and good food. For less than $2, she fixed scrambled eggs with onions and peppers, homemade tortillas, beans and cheese, a plate of papaya and banana, and a bowl of hot chocolate.
She recalled how people reacted when several local residents first suggested building tourist cabins in 1998. "People thought they were crazy," she said. "Why would someone from Europe or the United States want to come here?" But the idea gained popularity as visitors started showing up. "Now people are excited," she said. Latuvi just inaugurated its first official tourist facilities -- a two-room cabin built into the hillside, with a spacious porch offering an amazing view of the surrounding sierras.
On my last day I hiked about four hours north to the town of Lachatao, through trees draped with thick, gray moss. I traveled along a footpath believed to have been part of a longer pre-Hispanic route that connected the Zapotec cities in the central part of Oaxaca with a network of trails near the Gulf of Mexico. Lachatao, the oldest of the United Villages, boasts a cobblestone plaza with a 17th-century church.
While the hiking is great and the scenery is wonderful, it's the time spent in the communities that make this area special. I've lived in Mexico for three years and have traveled quite a bit -- and I don't think I've ever felt as welcome in towns where it would be so easy to feel out of place. Lachatao was no exception.
I'd been told I would have to pay someone to drive me from town to the main highway so I could catch a bus back to Oaxaca. But within minutes of arriving, I met a woman who told me that it would be expensive and that I should just hike to the next town over and take a local bus.
"Come with me," she said, "I'll show you the way."
Bart Beeson is a researcher in The Washington Post's Mexico City bureau.