Beyond Cancún

14 Apr

mani 5Every year, thousands of people vacation in Cancún and the beach resorts of the Riviera Maya without being aware of the natural and cultural treasures just a few hours away. Some take bus tours to the archeological ruins of Chichen Itza or Tulum, but even they may leave with the mistaken impression that the Mayan people and their world disappeared long ago.

It’s true that much was lost after the fall of the great Mayan cities and the depredations of Spanish conquerors. But the Mayan people are still the primary inhabitants of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Many speak Yucatecan Mayan, practice traditional agriculture and craft techniques, and have an intimate knowledge of the Yucatán’s natural world.

And that natural world, though endangered, is rich and wonderful. Although from the tour-bus window the landscape may appear monotonous, the area actually offers a variety of complex and diverse ecosystems. It is a world-class destination for birders and plant-lovers.

But isn’t it dangerous? No. Many Americans mistakenly believe that most of Mexico is dangerous to visit. They are wrong. Although travelers should exercise normal precautions anywhere, the Yucatán is safe to visit. Areas dangerous for tourists are thousands of miles away.

A number of ecotourism companies offer day trips and longer tours to those wishing to explore natural and historical sites beyond the big resorts. And it’s not difficult to travel by rental car or public bus, staying at small hotels where staff can offer information about local sights.

This year, we travelled to the Yucatán village of Ek Balam, two hours west of Cancún. We stayed at Genesis Eco-Oasis,IMG_0572 a small hotel founded by Canadian writer Lee Christie to enable visitors to learn about life in a Mayan town and villagers to earn some income.   The village is a few kilometers from a major archeological site also named Ek Balam, and just a half hour north of the colonial city of Valladolid. It is centrally located between the ruins of Chichen Itza, the flamingo sanctuary at Rio Lagartos, and several other interesting destinations. Lee runs Genesis with the help of Pedro, whom she first met when she taught him English as a young man. Today Pedro has a wife and children, and is assistant manager of Genesis.

Genesis is built around a shady one-acre garden with a natural swimming pool at its heart. A large thatch-roofed sitting area,which also serves as a dining room and library, adjoins the garden, as do all the guest rooms. It’s easy to spend hours just sitting by the garden, reading, dipping into the pool, and chatting with Lee and hotel guests.

IMG_0528The morning after our arrival, we drove from the village to see the ruins.   The ancient site of Ek Balam was at the height of its power between 600 and 900 AD. While not as impressive as Chichen Itza, it’s a lovely place to visit, especially before 10 AM or after 3 PM when few other tourists are around. Nearby woodlands spill into the area, creating a sun-dappled park. We clambered over the Oval Palace and ambled across the grounds to climb the largest pyramid, know as the Acropolis. Halfway up the Acropolis is a recently uncovered plaster façade, designed to look like a gaping mouth decorated with geometric and human figures. It resembles something from an Indiana Jones movie. Descending from the Acropolis, we wandered down wooded paths where we saw an iguana perched on a rock and tropical birds, including a long-tailed turquoise motmot and several blue-and-yellow trogons.

xcanche19 After seeing the ruins, we headed through the woods to the Xchanché cenote.  As defined by Wikipedia, a cenote is “a deep natural pit, or sinkhole, characteristic of Mexico, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath.” Some cenotes extend into large chains of caverns. The fresh water in cenotes is extremely important to local people because the peninsula lacks surface rivers. Cenotes also make enchanting swimming holes. Xcanché is being developed as a tourist destination by a local cooperative. Unfortunately, few tourists make the half-hour walk through the woods and cornfields to reach it. We were glad we did, though. Once we arrived, a caretaker guided us to the steep wooden stairway built into the side of the huge hole. The cenote was shaded by tall trees surrounding its rim. Birds skimmed the air overhead. Once at the bottom, we slipped into the cool azure water. Floating languidly, we gazed up and saw that the trees far above had stretched their roots from the rim down into the water. The rest of the world seemed far away. The small fee for entrance to this tranquil forest retreat helps support environmental conservation and local employment.

The next day we set out with Lee to meet local craftswomen. The village, composed mostly of small houses surrounded by dirt yards, is built on the site of an abandoned hacienda. People often sit in front of their homes surrounded by children, chickens, turkeys, and lots of dogs. The poverty is apparent. But there is much more to the Mayan village that meets the eye. And the houses and yards are themselves complex ecosystems that provide food and other necessities.

Our first stop was in front of a traditional oval Mayan house roofed with palm thatch. Lee explained that in the Yucatán’s suffocating summer heat, traditional houses admit more air and are cooler and less humid than modern cinder block houses. They also resist the Yucatán’s frequent hurricanes much better because the thatched roofs rise and fall with the wind. Even families who build modern houses often keep traditional houses nearby for use in the summer.

ekbalamtour153Our next stop was at the home of Doña Guadalupe, who showed us how to make corn tortillas and cook them over a wood fire. She patiently assisted our clumsy efforts, explaining that a large family can consume 200 tortillas at day. Life is easier now that a day’s supply of corn flour can be ground at the mill in the village center instead of on a stone metate. The mill has become a social gathering place for local women.

Next, we visited the home of Doña Tomasa, a hammock weaver. She follows traditional Yucatecan designs, but for outdoor hammocks she weaves with soft nylon fiber because it lasts longer than the traditional cotton. She also embroiders, practicing a craft which has brought income to village women for a long time. Though she uses a foot-powered sewing machine to create designs, her embroidery is still a highly-skilled craft, requiring an artistic eye and incredible hand-eye-machine coordination. We left with one of her colorful blouses and a blue-and-green hammock. Purchasing direct enables travelers to get better quality and be sure the entire proceeds go to the maker.

We were also fascinated to see the gardening methods used in the village. Growing food here is difficult, so methods have been developed over the centuries to deal with the challenges.IMG_0589 Because the Yucatán is a massive limestone shelf with limited topsoil and water,  women practice container gardening . They grow vegetables such as onions and herbs in raised wooden trays and culinary and medicinal herbs in pots. Varieties of fruit trees surrounding homes may include citrus, papaya, coconut, tamarind, guava, and banana. Ramon trees provide fodder for livestock, and gourd trees provide bowls. Villagers also raise turkeys (Mexico’s only native poultry), chickens, and pigs. Corn, beans, squash and other vegetables are grown outside the village in traditional “milpa” fields which are used for a few seasons and then abandoned to regain their fertility while new fields are cleared.

Lee explained that in Ek Balam, new gardening methods are being tried out, too. We visited Doña Felipe, who grows carrots, cabbage, onions, and herbs in rows of compost under shade cloth. A modern drip irrigation system delivers water exactly where it is needed. Gardeners learned the new methods from a government environmental agency which held training sessions in the village.

IMG_0675 One morning, knowing that I am a botany buff, Lee asked a young employee to show us wild native plants. Modesto, a remarkable 17-year-old, first learned about local plants from his father. He became so interested that he took a training course from a reforestation agency. Modesto showed us wild plants that Mayans have relied on for a myriad of purposes over the centuries. The magnificent ceiba or yaxche tree, regarded by Mayans as the “world tree,” yields large green fruits filled with kapok fiber. At the mouth of a cenote used by villagers to water livestock, Modesto pointed out hule trees. Rubber from the hule was used by ancient Mayans to make balls for sacred games. Modesto explained that oaxe trees, like ramon trees, provide livestock forage. He showed us the chaca, whose bark is used to treat fungal diseases, and the yellow-flowered chacabal, whose fruits are eaten with salt and chile. He explained that branches of the pich’i are used to trap the mole-like tusa, whose meat is very healthy because it feeds on medicinal roots. But perhaps the most important plant Modesto showed us was the tajonal, whose bright yellow flowers are a favorite food of the native Yucatecan melipona bees. These stingless bees, now endangered, provide a nutritious honey which is an important part of the Mayan diet and brings income to villagers. Before we left the area, Modesto showed us several tropical birds, including one lovely species that he called the “hut-hut.”

The plant walk with Modesto was a delightful demonstration of the natural knowledge many rural Mexicans grow up with. (We’ve also met people with terrific medicinal plant knowledge in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.) When Modesto turns 18, he’ll be eligible for certification as a nature guide. He wants to teach Yucatecan children to value the natural environment.

Modesto represents a source of hope. Many younger villagers are losing the knowledge that their ancestors acquired over millennia. Poverty and the lure of modern consumerism create a push-pull effect on local youth, and they often  devalue traditional knowledge. Many migrate to find work in the factories of the Mérida area, the resorts of Cancún and the Caribbean coast, and the U.S. So in many villages, it is primarily the elderly who know how to work with the natural environment. Their rich agricultural, environmental, culinary, craft, and spiritual traditions, as well as the Yucatecan Mayan language itself, are in danger.

Their environmental wisdom is needed more than ever. The Yucatán’s diverse ecosystems are in peril. Megaresorts threaten water supplies and coastal ecosystems, including precious mangroves and coral reefs. Cattle ranching, agrochemicals, and monocropping eliminate habitat for wild plants and animals, deplete aquifers, and drive traditional farmers out of business. Clearcutting decimates previously diverse forest areas. Shortening of the fallow periods needed to regenerate milpa corn fields depletes the soil. As everywhere, climate change looms as a huge threat.

ekbalam farm-tour  354In addition to running Genesis, Lee has embarked on a new project, an organic farm she calls Regenesis. Drawing on both new and traditional practices, she hopes to showcase sustainable permaculture techniques appropriate to the area. With the help of local workers, she is growing fruit trees, vegetables, and livestock. Farm buildings are constructed from local materials, such as limestone-based aggregate. Livestock, including zebu cattle, donkeys, and poultry, eat materials grown on the farm. A fishpond is being excavated from the pockmarked limestone.

The farm faces many problems, everything from leafcutter ants to ducks that won’t lay. But the biggest challenge appears to be water. Near Ek Balam, we were troubled to see commercial cattle farms practicing water-intensive overhead irrigation of pastures with water from the precious aquifer. By contrast, Lee is experimenting with water-saving methods. For example, she surrounds her fruit trees with circular drip irrigation systems made out of recycled soft drink bottles and plastic tubing. Burying old water-soaked phone books around the trees helps to preserve ground moisture. Vegetable crops take advantage of the shade cast by the trees. But drought is a constant enemy, and Lee struggles to keep her young trees alive. It takes determination to find the right methods. The farm is a fascinating experiment in mixing Mayan and modern techniques to farm sustainably.

orchidario 011 Ek Balam is within driving distance of several natural and historic sites. We sampled a few, including an orchid nursery in the small village of Solferino. One of the owners showed us delicate native orchids growing on slabs of wood in open-air lattice houses. She explained that to preserve native varieties, the family grows orchids with cuttings from “mother plants” rather than taking them from wild areas. With technical help from an environmental agency, they also use an en vitro technique to start seedlings in a simple, on-site laboratory. This project is one of the many efforts that preserve the Yucatán environment and provide income to local people.

lagartosflamingos258We also drove ninety minutes north of Ek Balam to the beautiful Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve. Home of Yucatán’s largest flamingo colony, the reserve can be toured by boat from the small coastal town of Rio Largartos. After a seafood lunch at the waterside “Restaurant Isla Contoy,” we went on a boat tour with a local guide. Juan took us miles up the mangrove-lined estuary. On the way, he showed us egrets, ibises, a pair of green and red parrots perched high in a dead tree, a wood stork, a tiger heron, great blue herons, black skimmers, and even a couple of crocodiles. We finally reached the flamingos feeding in shallow water. Profiled against the coastal salt flats, they were stunningly beautiful, with vivid coral and black plumage. With more time, we could have included swimming and a mud bath in our excursion.

The Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve covers 150,000 acres, including wetlands, mangroves, forests, coastal dunes, lagoons, and marshes. It is considered a globally unique area and furnishes important breeding grounds for many bird species. Visiting the reserve helps support the economy and enables local people to remain in their communities rather than moving to Cancún or the U.S.

Our stay also included a drive to the small city of Valladolid, where we had dinner beside the central plaza and visited the local crafts market. We also drove to Tizimin, where we ate traditional Mayan dishes at the family-owned Tres Reyes restaurant.

We hope to return to learn more about the cultural and natural heritage of the Mayan Yucatán. It’s a world apart from Cancún, but infinitely more complex and wonderful. It’s a safe area with friendly people, fantastic natural areas, nice hotels, and great food.

Destinations and logistics


ek balam motmot173There are several ways to explore the lesser-known areas of the Yucatán. Ecotourism agencies offer nature-oriented day trips to destinations such as Isla Contoy north of Cancún, the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve south of Tulum, and the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve.

Before you go, be sure to check out the reputation of your tour operator. Some are truly dedicated to protecting the Yucatán’s environment and sustaining local communities. Others have few local ties and are more party–oriented. Just because a company advertises ecotourism doesn’t mean its commitment is genuine.

If you can spend more than a day away from Cancún and the Riviera Maya, it’s relatively easy to travel by rental car and stay at a hotel. Most people go to the ruins Chichen Itza on a day trip, but you can see more if you stay overnight. Genesis Retreat and the community-run Najil Ek Balam Eco-Cabañas in Ek Balam, as well as the hotels of Valladolid, are less than an hour’s drive away. Lodging is also available very close to the ruins of Chichen Itza in the town of Piste. Staying overnight allows you to visit the ruins in the early morning, when it’s cool and the tour buses still haven’t arrived. The high-end but beautiful Hacienda Chichen, near the ruins, offers birding and other nature tours.

Further west, the colonial city of Mérida is a great destination, with its museums, dance, music, cafes, and craft stores. Best of all are the colorful street fairs every Sunday. Mérida is five hours west of Cancún and makes a great base for exploring the natural and archeological sites of the western Yucatán. If you don’t want to rent a car, you can take a first-class bus from Cancún and book local day trips in Merida.

labna5 Ninety minutes south of Mérida lies the Puuc region, home of the magnificent Uxmal archeological site as well as other fascinating places. There are nice hotels near the ruins, but we like the Flycatcher Inn in nearby Santa Elena, where owners Kristine and Santiago are wonderful hosts. Nearby at the U Yits Ka’an School of Ecological Agriculture , Mayan farmers learn about natural fertilizers, worm composting, natural pest management, medicinal plants, and cultural traditions. Though not generally open for tours, the school is an important effort to encourage sustainable farming and protect the Yucatán environment.

If you’re interested in all-inclusive tours from the U.S., consider participating in birding and nature tours sponsored by groups like the Audubon Society.

Other ideas? Google away! There’s plenty of information on interesting destinations. The website is a good place to start.

On your next trip, see some of the real Yucatán and meet the people who are working to preserve its culture and natural environment. You will discover a complex, wonderful area.


Growing Potatoes in Oaxaca

3 Sep


oaxaca 2010 07 03 J cuajimoloyas 063

It is late June in the village of Cuajimoloyas, high in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. Our friend Don Eustorjio Martínez leads us out to his potato field.  We follow him up a dirt road through cool oak-pine forests and pastures full of purple lupine, red salvia, blue forget-me-nots, and tiny yellow daisies. Eight-foot-tall maguey plants line our path in natural fencerows.

oaxaca 2010 07 03 J cuajimoloyas 044 As we walk, Don Eustorjio pauses frequently to show us local plants and explain their medicinal and other uses.  Cuajimoloyas (Cua-hee-mo-LOY-as) and other nearby villages protect the forests. which over the centuries have been damaged by over-cutting for timber and by clearing and burning to create agricultural fields. Today the villages harvest trees sparingly, milling the timber in a community-owned sawmill at the bottom of the mountains. The forests are protected now by local and federal laws.  Don Eustorjio tells us that selective culling is helping to control a disease outbreak in the forest.

Eventually we reach the potato field.  It lies near the crest of a ridge, surrounded by tall ocote pines. In the distance, valleys, pastures, and mountains stretch to the horizon. We are at nearly 10,000 feet, 5,000 feet above the city of Oaxaca which lies in the valley below.  Were there time, we could walk on mountain trails to other villages. The villages in this region, all semi-autonomous Zapotec communities, have banded together in an eco-tourist network to create trails and offer guide service and cabins to hikers.

The land here is primarily community-owned, and cannot be sold to outsiders. But local families have the right to use individual fields and pass them down through generations. In return, according to the traditional system of “usos y costumbres,” villagers are expected to fulfill responsibilities such as helping with road repair and filling rotating leadership positions at no pay. Villagers who migrate to Mexico City or the US can lose their community privileges unless they return to do their work or send funds to pay substitutes.

oaxaca 2010 07 03 J cuajimoloyas 064Don Eustorjio’s potato field is divided into two parts, and he alternates his crops between them annually. He tells us that this helps control an infestation of potato worms. When the infestation first occurred, outside “experts” advised the farmers to control it with a toxic chemical. The chemical did kill the worms, but farmers noticed that birds that ate the worms also died. Eventually, the farmers decided to disregard the experts and stop using the pesticide and all chemical inputs. Don Eustorjio explains that it is more important to protect the environment and the nascent eco-tourism project.  Now he saves the money he would have spent on agricultural chemicals.

He plants the non-potato half of the field in a mixture of oats and mustard, so today that area is covered in a yellow haze of mustard flowers. Hay from the field feeds village cows and short-haired sheep.  The oats  go to the chickens. I wonder if the mustard contains a natural substance that helps keep the potato worms in check.

Don Eustorjio’s potato plants are big, robust, and deep green, the healthiest I’ve ever seen. They were planted about six weeks previously, in April.  After plowing with oxen, Don Eustorjio fertilized with lime and a mixture of manure from local chickens, burros, cows, and sheep.  Then he planted the seed potatoes using two traditional Oaxacan farm tools. The “coa” consists of a shovel blade attached at a 90 degree angle to a wooden handle.  The “hacha coa” looks like the coa but with a narrower blade. Don Eustorjio shows us how he had planted the seed potatoes (whole if smaller than a fist, otherwise cut in pieces) about a stride apart in the furrows. He uses two local varieties of potato, but notes that one variety seems to be more resistant to the potato worms.

Don Eustorjio has spent his life in service to his community. In addition to other oaxaca 2010 07 03 J cuajimoloyas 060responsibilities under the “usos y costumbres” tradition, he has helped start the ecotourism  project, directed the village’s schools, and taught other farmers about the best methods to grow potatoes.

The system of local self-government based on voluntary service  is key to the cultural survival of indigenous communities throughout Oaxaca, where sixteen ethnic groups jointly comprise more than 40% of the state’s population. Community survival  depends on a complex balance of incomes sources, including agriculture, remittances from the US, and local enterprises such as handicrafts, wood products, ecotourism, and food processing. The village of Cuajimoloyas depends on leaders like Don Eustorjio to adapt to challenging conditions that have endangered traditional farming, marginalized indigenous people, and forced many to migrate.  Don Eustorjio tells us that his daughter is studying forestry management in Mexico City and hopes to return to help local environmental efforts. 

We finally walk down to the village through the cool mountain mist, and are greeted warmly by members of Don Eustorjio’s extended family, gathered in a big kitchen heated by a woodstove.  I tell him that I plan to send photos of his beautiful potato plants to my friend Paul, an organic farmer back home in New Hampshire, and that Paul would be envious.  Don Eustorgio flashes a wonderful smile.  He is a fine farmer, a teacher, and a generous friend. 

Language School Supports Indigenous Communities in Oaxaca

9 Aug

clip_image002July 3, 2010 – We have just arrived at a cabin on a steep hillside above the mountain village of Cuajimoloyas in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Wood smoke is rising from kitchens in the village, and we can hear music from radios and bleating of sheep below the cabin. Although the sun is setting, a rooster crows. There is a cool breeze. To reach Cuajimoloyas this morning in our friend Omar’s VW bug, we had to follow a twisting road up to five thousand feet above the city of Oaxaca, for a total of almost 10,000 feet above sea level. Above us rise majestic Ocote pines over pastures covered with bright wild flowers. I can’t remember ever seeing a more beautiful landscape.

Omar has started an educational project in Cuajimoloyas’ primary school. He has brought us here to see that even a small village high in the mountains of Oaxaca has close links with the United States and its labor markets.

When we arrived at the school, the students were practicing for their graduation ceremony, which would take place the following week. It was an important step for the sixth graders, who would move on to middle school in the fall.

clip_image004But when they saw Omar, their great friend, the children surrounded him with shouts of delight. Omar let them look through the lens of his video camera, which was a big hit . Omar himself looked totally happy to be with the children he’d been working with this past year. He uses much of the income from his language school in Oaxaca in order to fund his work in Cuajimoloyas and other Oaxacan villages.

There were two students, Jorge and Eric, ages 11 and 9, to whom Omar paid special attention. They were brothers, both slightly built and a little shy. Although they live now with their parents in Cuajimoloyas, both were born in Los Angeles. Last year, their parents had brought them back to this mountain village.

Omar had told us earlier that. like the boys’ parents, many Oaxacans had returned from the U.S. West Coast due to the lack of employment and of accessible medical care. In addition, Oaxacan parents were returning to Mexico for fear that otherwise they might be picked up by immigration authorities and torn from their children. For Jorge and Eric, it had been difficult to adjust to life in Cuajimoloyas. During the past year, Omar, who is completely bilingual, had been their friend, working to help them understand what had happened and how to get used to life in Cuajimoloyas. Now the boys were more at ease, although they were still getting used to the chilly mountain air and longed for their school friends and their cousins, aunts, and uncles who remained in Los Angeles.

The children eventually went back to practicing for their graduation ceremony, doing a traditional dance to music from a CD player. They were skilled and graceful. A teacher explained that dance plays a vital role in arts education at this school. Since our arrival in Oaxaca, the importance of the arts, modern and traditional, has been evident everywhere.

After the rehearsal, we went with Omar to the sixth grade classroom. He sat with the children in a big circle on the floor and began a gentle but animated discussion.

After a few minutes, the conversation took an unexpected turn.  Omar asked, “How many of you have family members in the United States?” Of the nineteen students, all but one raised their hands.

clip_image006Omar explained later that in this little village, like countless villages in Mexico, many parents, children, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins are missing. They have risked their lives to cross the border in search of work.

And this immense absence is a major element in the life Cuajimoloyas and all of Oaxaca. The village is working hard to create new economic projects. Cuajimoloyas, to encourage ecotourism, offers guided hikes across stunning mountain landscapes.  The village has an ecotourism office and rents comfortable cabins to visitors.  All this creates jobs. But it is not enough. The money that the emigrants send back to the village is still necessary for the survival of families here.

In the classroom, Omar asked the children about their relatives in the United States. “Where do they live?” “Los Angeles” … “Los Angeles” … “San Diego” … “Los Angeles” … “New York” … “Los Angeles” … “New York” … “Los Angeles” … “Los Angeles” … “Denver” … “New Mexico” … “Los Angeles” … “Los Angeles” … “Toronto” … “Chicago” … “Los Angeles” … “Los Angeles” … “Los Angeles.”

“And why did they go?”

“To work to earn money.”

“And why don’t they return?”

“Because they don’t have papers.”

A little clarification is needed here.  Relatives in the United States could, of course, return to their home village.  But having returned, the only way to go back to their jobs and lives in the United States would be to attempt the dangerous trip across the border one more time.  For most, this means several days walking, without sufficient water, through the southern Arizona desert.  About 500 Mexicans die in the desert every year attempting the journey. So U.S. immigration policy deeply damages Mexican families.  And family is extremely important in this culture.

This is the tragedy. That having crossed the border, the parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, and uncles cannot return to be with their families in Cuajimoloyas. Here, as in other Oaxacan communities, we have met families longing to see their loved ones.

Softly, Omar asked “Have you heard that the world is very small?” The children tried to guess what this meant. Omar guided them. “Have any of you been to Tlacolula [a market town at the foot of the mountain] and seen someone from Cuajimoloyas?” “Yes.” “So this is why we say the world is very small.”

Omar asked the children to write letters or draw pictures that he could take to Oaxacan families in the United States. Then he would bring replies back to Cuajimoloyas.

clip_image008At first, the children sat silently, just writing a few words. But slowly, with Omar’s encouragement, they began in earnest and after an hour, they had produced a collection of wonderful pictures and letters which they showed to Omar with pride.

Except for one child. His name was Jonathan, or Juanito. He appeared to be nine or ten years old. It had only been seven days since he had returned to Cuajimoloyas with this father, who had been born in Cuajimoloyas . But Jonathan was born in the United States and he had never been in Mexico before.  He sat motionless in a chair and appeared to be in another world. He didn’t speak or participate. Finally he did write a letter which he showed to Omar. The letter said that he thought his mother no longer loved him. She had stayed behind in the United States.

Later, outside the classroom, Omar put his hand affectionately on Jonathan’s shoulder. The boy wept softly. He appeared confused and devastated. Omar offered to be his friend. They talked a while longer. Finally, Omar asked Jorge, who was chatting with other classmates, to come close. Omar introduced the boys and told Jorge that he, too, should become Jonathan’s friend. Perhaps these new friendships would help him take a step towards his binational future.

We left Cuajimoloyas with memories of new friends and mountain paths through flowery meadows and tall forests.

Final noteclip_image010Omar Nuñez  Méndez, a native of Oaxaca who completed his graduate studies at the University of Illinois Champagne-Urbana, is founder/director of Ollin Tlahtoalli, a small, friendly language school in the city of Oaxaca. The school’s income is used to support Omar’s educational work with school children, many of whom have family on both sides of the US/Mexico border. The project focuses on strengthening the children’s self-esteem and sense of identity as indigenous Oaxacans and participants in a complex, binational socio-economic system. For visitors seeking Spanish-language instruction focused on the culture and realities of Oaxaca today, as well as an opportunity to volunteer with the children, Ollin Tlahtoalli is an excellent place to study. Omar and Ollin Tlahtoalli can be contacted at,, or 951.51.455.62.

Cactus in Oaxaca – More from the Ethnobotanical Garden

3 Aug


Peresquia lichindiflora

Arbol de Matrimonia

A thrill to see first hand, this tree is the ancestor of cactus. It still retains its leaves, in addition to the thorns characteristic of cactus. Its common Mexican name, marriage tree, refers to its spines. The cactus later evolved into a leafless plant, in order to conserve water in the desert.


Biznaga Cactus


This biznaga cactus is 9 or 10 feet tall. The plant is endemic to Mexico, meaning it grows only here. This particular plant is estimated to be about 1,000 years old, and was rescued from the route of the Oaxaca-Mexico highway. Each spine had to be individually cushioned with newspaper so that the workers wouldn’t be injured when transplanting the biznaga.. Biznagas are eaten by humans and other animals. The species is in danger of extinction.


Organ Cactus


Organ cactus is used as a living fence between houses in Mexican villages. It has spines when it’s little, but loses them later. The largest cactuses in this picture are around 15’ tall. Diego Rivera had organ cactus at his home in Mexico City.




Another beautiful cactus from the Ethnobotanical Garden. I didn’t get the name of this variety.


Elephant Foot

Pato de Elefante

I don’t have any info about this plant.  I think maybe it’s a cactus.  Anyway I love it.


3 Aug


The candelilla is a euphorbia of Oaxaca.  Like the poinsettia and the rubber tree. And like other euphorias, is has a toxic sap. But when the sap is dried, it makes a wax that is completely safe to use as candle was.   It is  also an ingredient of chewing gum, lipstick. It is also used as a coating for the produce sold in grocery stores.

In Tlaxiaco

28 Jul

It’s a bit lonely traveling where we don’t know people, and with limited opportunities for conversations with local folks. In language school we had a great time talking to Omar and the other teachers and the family we lived with about Oaxacan politics and culture, but now we’re tourists mainly interacting with waiters, hotel staff, and market vendors, some of whom have an inclination to share a few words, and some of whom clearly don’t.

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Still, we do want to explore some of Oaxaca’s diverse natural and ethnic regions. So on Friday we paid $6 each to catch the collectivo (van) that runs from Oaxaca City for Tlaxiaco, a market town in the Mixtec highlands two and a half hours northwest. Our van wound its way through the high rutted hills, rising out of the Central Valley. The Mixtec people have lived in this region since long before the Spanish conquest. With the passage of centuries, the land has been exhausted by farming and logging. While some of the hillsides and valleys are still used to raise corn, on others the thin soil is barely covered with sparse grass. We passed many areas where the land has eroded into deeply rutted bare red soil, cut into mazes of ravines and gullies. The exhaustion of the soil, together with lack of government support for small farmers and the import of cheap corn from the U.S., is one of the reasons that so many Mixtec people have left the region for the U.S. or other parts of Mexico such as Baja California. Still, much of the land is still producing corn, beans, squash, and avocados and now that the rains have come, this part of Oaxaca has turned green. Giant sabino trees with their massive trunks, and groves of carrizal, looking like a cross between bamboo and corn, line the edges of the muddy streams that flow through valley fields.

Eventually we reached Tlaxiaco and carried our packs through the crowded, clanging commercial district to the central square, where we checked in Los Portales hotel, walked through the hotel’s restaurant in the graceful old patio, and finally settled into our room .

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On Saturdays, Tlaxiaco hosts one of the largest tiangis (markets) in Oaxaca; it draws vendors from all over the Mixteca Alta (upland) region.  Standing on the hotel’s front steps Saturday morning, we saw dozens of vendors setting up their awnings on metal frames. Every stall had a specialty – traditional and modern clothing; CDs and DVDs, often pirated; tacos filled with fried meat, cilantro, and salsa; plastic cups with chunks of pineapple, papaya, and melon; hardware, everything from hammers to plumbing supplies to hand-made wooden saddles; fireworks; books and magazines; and lots and lots of produce. There were piles of tomatoes, greenish yellow mangoes, little mountain peaches and apples, squash blossoms and leaves to make into soup, lilies, all kinds of dried beans, gladioli, piles of sweet bananas, bags of limes, wild orange mushrooms, chrysanthemums, black-skinned avocados, bundles of sugar cane, and piles of dried plants labeled according to their medicinal qualities. We bought sweet pastries and coffee seasoned with sugar and cinnamon and chatted with the vendor who told us she’s trying to learn Mixtec so she can talk with more of her customers.

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Finally we walked forty minutes north from the noisy market to the town’s outskirts where we found green fields, wildflowers, and a little river running strong with the recent rains.

Nopal – Legend, Food, and Natural Dye

20 Jul


Nopal Cactus/Nopal

The nopal cactus grows widely in Mexico. The national flag shows an eagle entangled with a serpent, standing on a nopal. Legend says that when Mexica (Aztec) nomads saw this eagle at a lake in central Mexico, they know that they should settle at that spot. Their settlement grew into the great city of Tenochtitlán.

Nopal is an important part of the Mexican diet, rich in vitamins. When the spines are scraped off, the “leaves” can be cooked and used in a variety of dishes. The fruit, called “tunas,” have a sweet taste and can be bought in Mexican markets. Nopal “leaves” are actually enlarged stems. The real leaves evolved into the spines.



In colonial times, the greatest wealth in Oaxaca came not from gold or silver, but from the cochineal, a tiny insect that lives on nopal leaves. Indigenous Oaxacans knew how to extract a red dye from cochineal, more brilliant than any before seen in Europe. The dye created vast riches and was used to dye garments of the upper classes and royalty in Europe. The cochineal boom ended only when German chemists developed cheaper aniline dyes in the 1800s. Today, Zapotec weavers in Teotitlan del Valle raise cochineal to use as one of the natural dyes in their world famous hand-woven rugs.