Say goodbye to the touristy but beautiful city of Oaxaca and head off the beaten track to experience real Mexican village life. CONAL HANNA reports.
When you have to hike an hour to catch the ‘local’ bus, you know you’re off the beaten track. Which is precisely where we’d wanted to be. It was nothing against Oaxaca, the World Heritage-listed city we’d abandoned a few days earlier. Capital of the Mexican state of the same name, Oaxaca (pronounced ‘wahaca’) is unquestionably beautiful. The city is built around a square that’s massive, even by Latin American standards, and the wondrous 16th century Spanish architecture has made it a popular stop for travellers. This is great news for the local economy. It’s just that, well, popularity does tend to hamper authenticity. All of a sudden, all the restaurants have an English menu, hawkers interrupt every meal and hostels and language schools seem to be the only local industry. Put simply, we could have been in any tourist city in the world.
Thankfully, the local tourism authority can help you get out of the big smoke to experience real Mexican village life. Their Yu’u programme assists small towns around the state in building simple cabins to woo tourists, who come for the magnificent mountain scenery but stay for the genuine local lifestyle. The programme is unique to Oaxaca – Yu’u means house in Zapotec, the local indigenous people’s language.
A town of just 800, Benito Juarez was not even a dot on most tourists’ maps before the start of the Yu’u programme. A local bus runs out there, but it only leaves Oaxaca every second day, and the winding, shuddering journey almost made me rethink the decision to go. But as soon as I stepped out into the fresh mountain air and took in the genial village around us, I was immediately glad we came.
In terms of businesses, Benito Juarez consisted of two family-run restaurants, a shop and a room in which the various guides were based. The guides were unprofessional, but I mean that in the most complimentary sense. You see, one of the admirable traits of the Yu’u programme is that it doesn’t overrun local industry, compromising people’s livelihoods. Ernesto, the middle-aged gentleman who led us on a hike, was a farmer by trade – he only guided walks when the harvest allowed. And having grown up in the village and worked the land most of his life, he knew every bump of the local hills.
Unlike in more tourist-savvy towns, there was no pressure to hire a guide. But, if Ernesto was anything to go by, I can definitely recommend them – not only for their guidance but the chance to practise your Spanish on someone who seems genuinely interested in telling you about his town, and hearing about yours.
Setting out on our hike, I snapped incessantly with my camera, astounded by the unspoiled mountain views. Soon, though, I realised there was no urgency required – if there’s one thing Benito Juarez has plenty of it’s buena vistas. This remote life was the perfect antidote to the party coastal strip of Playa del Carmen, which we’d surrendered to margarita-drinking, cigar-smoking American students days earlier. Here, the smell of pine trees was the only thing impeding the supply of fresh air into our grateful lungs.
Many of the Yu’us are set up so that you can hike between them, staying in a different village each night. We were keen for a more sedate visit, but our day hike with Ernesto still took us to a neighbouring village where we had a hearty lunch in the back of his friend’s shop.
Returning home, our modest cabin had everything we needed – plenty of blankets, hot water, even a fireplace. With the cool mountain air outside, it made the perfect way to put the feet up after a hard day’s walking.
Perhaps the most at home we felt was at the rough wooden benches of our favoured restaurant. Run by an elderly Mexican lady, it had no menu, and two choices at each meal. The only constant was the mouth-watering hot chocolates and friendly smiles that accompanied them. It was exquisite peasant food, exuding rustic charm, much like Benito Juarez itself. And what’s more it was cheap – you could eat here for a week for the price of a meal at one of the popular tourist restaurants in Oaxaca.
Perhaps fittingly, the bus wasn’t coming to town on the day we had to leave. Our directions consisted of follow that road, until you reach the highway”. So with one last hot chocolate warming our insides, we hiked off into the cool mountain air. It had seemed an inconvenience when the alarm woke us that morning, but after our walk, as we sat beside the road on backpacks and looked out over the awe-inspiring view, we realised it was all part of the experience. •
• Once in Oaxaca, seek out the Secretaria de Desarrollo Turístico, or SEDETUR. While their website was down at the time of writing, the office can provide all the details on where Yu’us are run, and how to go about staying in one.
• The city of Oaxaca has housed several violent protests since the Mexican presidential election in July. Travellers are advised to check updates at www.fco.gov.uk before planning travel to the region.”