The Road Home

Ecotourism in Mexico’s Sierra Norte gives Zapotec teens a reason to stay put.

By Linda Heuman

Ernesto Hernández Cruz missed his son. Like most of the teenager’s classmates, he left his traditional Zapotec village of Benito Juárez, Mexico for the migrant fields of California as soon as he finished high school. Facing a dearth of jobs in their rural home town, young people often sought agriculture, restaurant, or factory work in the United States.

“Every family in my town could tell you the same story,” Hernández Cruz says.

In leaving his Sierra Norte home, Hernández Cruz’s son forfeited community and traditions rooted in pre-Hispanic legacy. He also abandoned ancestral homelands considered by the World Wildlife Fund to be one of the richest regions of biodiversity in the world. Dry lowlands rise to spectacular mountain heights, cut through with deep river valleys. The complex geography offers a multitude of microclimates and ecological zones, home to more than 400 species of birds and 350 varieties of butterflies.

But the residents of Benito Juárez found a way to preserve the ecosystem and provide jobs for young adults, stemming the flow of its teenagers to the north and enticing others, like Hernández Cruz’s son, to return. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the community’s unusual ecotourism project.

Since 1961, the town has participated in a cooperative of eight Zapotec villages—called “Pueblos Mancomunados” (or “United Towns”)—to share government and to jointly manage natural resources like agriculture, forestry, and mining. In 1997, Benito Juárez residents decided to bolster their rural economy through tourism: They converted a school building into a dormitory, constructed a few rental cabins, and opened their private lands to visitors. The other towns followed suit, creating a burgeoning ecotourism destination that offers everything from locally grown food to scenic bike rides.

A network of more than 100 kilometers of signed trails connects the towns. Visitors trek, bike, or ride from village to village, or they can base out of a single town—making excursions to nearby scenic overlooks, birding areas, caves, or abandoned mines.

“[In Benito Juarez] there are two restaurants with four or five employees, five guides, and five chambermaids,” says Mario Hernández Cruz, Benito Juarez’s tourism coordinator and Ernesto’s brother. “And there is also the sale of bread, tortillas, flowers, and potatoes. People don’t have to leave. This helps preserve our culture.”

Many of the visitors are interested in learning about the culture of the Zapotec, who traditionally maintain a close relationship with their land. Tour guides point out medicinal plants along the trails and teach visitors the names of native birds. They identify features of the landscape and share knowledge of local history.

But it’s not just tourists that learn about the local culture. In the process of training the tour guides, the Zapotec community educates itself as well—the village elders pass along ancestral knowledge to the younger generation.

To ensure that Benito Juárez maintains its draw as an ecotourism destination, residents have taken steps to conserve the habitat. Villagers collect recyclables and truck them to Oaxaca. Restaurants use fuel-efficient wood stoves. To avoid overdevelopment, the villages set a cap on the number of tourist accommodations that they would build, even though all lodging is full on many nights. In addition, tourism brings in enough money for the towns to maintain the pristine forest, instead of selling its trees to the timber industry.

These green practices help preserve nature, which is fundamental to the Zapotecs, says Mario Hernández Cruz. “From nature we get sustenance,” he says.

For centuries, members of the Pueblos Mancomunados villages have been subsistence farmers. The tortillas that are the basis of any meal come from corn grown in their own fields, dried on rooftops, and ground on site. Eggs come from their own chickens, apples and peaches from local orchards, trout from community hatcheries.

Given the tradition of eating locally, Ernesto Hernández Cruz found one of the habits his son picked up in California especially baffling: eating canned food.

After spending a few days looking at the world through Zapotec eyes and eating meals fresh off the land, it is easy to agree.

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