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Sunday December 17 2017
Ecotourism in Oaxaca

Alvin Starkman

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Only an hour’s drive from the City of Oaxaca, Arroyo Guacamaya is one of the most easily accessible ecotourism sites available to vacationers. La Guacamaya boasts most of the features and attractions of the more popular back-to-nature getaways in the Ixtlán District of Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte, including mountain biking, nature trails for hiking and climbing, streams and waterfalls, lodging, children’s facilities, temazcal, a quaint mountainside village, and a gem of a restaurant featuring fresh fish from the local trout farm – all within a community-managed forest promoting sustainable logging operations.

Even the ride up to Arroyo Guacamaya is exhilarating. After leaving behind the populated area in the Valley of Oaxaca, as well as the paved roads, the traversing of easily navigable switchbacks begins. Change in vegetation is apparent, from agave, cactus and mixed brush, to scrub oak and coniferous forest of predominantly pine. Brilliant yellow and occasional red bromeliads cannot be missed. One begins to hear the faint sound of fast-running streams; then they appear, occasionally crossing the roadway; ear-popping is inevitable, as is of course the much cooler temperature. And finally, the arrival at La Guacamaya, at an elevation of about 9,000 feet above sea level.

Ecotourism and Other Economic Activities at Arroyo Guacamaya
Adán is a conscientious bilingual guide and resource person, extremely knowledgeable about ecotourism throughout the entire district. The resident expert is anxious to provide advice and interesting information including details of his concerns regarding impediments to growth and obstacles to continued sustainability of ecotourism in Oaxaca. Consider spending at least one afternoon with him, perhaps even practicing your Spanish on him – all the while participating in the various activities.

The pursuits one can enjoy as a family, couple, or individual, include:

• Climbing through forests to the mountain peaks of Siempreviva and La Portillo, from which exquisite panoramic vistas of the valleys and numerous hamlets flecking the mountainsides can be appreciated.
• Walking or mountain biking through the woods.
• Chatting with and learning even more from the townspeople upon arriving at the nearby village of La Guacamaya.
• Visiting the trout farm, its pools fed by fast-flowing waters from an alpine spring.
• Hiking to nearby streams and waterfalls, over a thick padding of dried pine needles.
• Noting and photographing indigenous mountain plants such as sedum and echeveria, and with luck, local fauna near dawn and dusk.
• Participating in the ancient curative ritual of temazcal – sweat facilitated through the use of steam combined with medicinal herbs, cleaning the body and soul (completion of the temazcal complex is scheduled for 2010).

Aside from the area’s ecotourism and sustainable logging activities, the villagers of La Guacamaya are dedicated to predominantly agricultural enterprises. For about half the year, the main products harvested and taken to market (i.e. the nearby Wednesday Etla marketplace) are fava beans and potatoes, and for the remainder of the year fresh flowers (in particular azucenas which have strong cultural significance to natives of the region), berros (akin to watercress) and ocote (wood used as kindling).

Lodging and Dining Facilities

The Arroyo Guacamaya ecotourism building site proper consists of the soon-to-be-completed temazcal, housing for tourists and residents of Oaxaca alike, and the town's restaurant.

Accommodations: There are five spacious, brick and adobe cabins, each with lighting, a working fireplace, washroom with hot water, and beds – double and bunk beds. Four of the cabins house up to four people, and one up to a family of six. Electricity is provided by solar panels.

Dining: While heaping praise upon a quaint restaurant in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca perhaps makes for unnecessary reading for those who have already been on a Oaxacan ecotourism expedition, not so for first-time travelers to the area. And even return visitors to the district deserve to learn about the eatery at this particular ecotourism site.

Simply known as El Comedor, the restaurant is a large non-descript dining hall. It’s run by Modesta and Rosa, though Adán and others are always in close proximity to assist. Since the restaurant can accommodate up to about 50 diners, additional staff is in fact sometimes required and called upon, providing for unusual efficiency - at least by Oaxacan standards.

The lunchtime menu is short, simple, and unprinted (breakfast and dinner are also served). Tables are set with bowls of salsa and refried beans and large baked tostadas arrive swiftly. Appetizers include memelitas and quesadillas. The soup is a spicy, herb and tomato based caldo containing a piece of fresh trout, obviously fished from the nearby ponds. Noteworthy is the broth’s complete absence of a fishy smell or taste.

Whole trout seasoned with the highly flavorful hierba santa, tomato, onion and chile chipotle, with butter, are wrapped in aluminum foil, and then grilled over charcoal. Upon opening the foil at the table, the aroma of the released steam excites. For the unbelievers, fried trout are also available. Sides are fresh salad and overcooked mushroom-vegetable spaghetti.

Those who do not eat fish can order a grilled meat platter instead, with typical Oaxacan fare such as cecina, tasajo and chorizo. Vegetarians are also accommodated upon request. Beverages consist of soft drinks, water, beer, and a particularly smooth mezcal blanco.

Getting to Arroyo Guacamaya for a Day, or Two or Three

Getting to La Guacamaya is extremely easy. For visitors to Oaxaca with their own or a rented vehicle, drive north from Oaxaca towards Mexico City along Federal Highway 190, continuing along the “libre” or free highway until reaching Villa Etla. On the right is a Pemex station. About a minute’s drive further along there’s a clearly marked blue sign with arrow pointing to the right, reading “Arroyo Guacamaya Ecoturismo, 13 kilometros.” From leaving the main highway until arriving at La Guacamaya, one does not make any additional turns, although in due course pavement ends and switchbacks begin with the ascent.

For those recognizing the challenges to driving in Oaxaca, other options are readily available:

• Hire a tour guide, driver or taxi, although this option is best for just a day trip since one might end up paying for the driver’s down time if an overnight is preferred.
• Seek out a Oaxaca ecotourism company, perhaps an extremely attractive option for those without at least a moderate facility with the Spanish language.
• From downtown Oaxaca near the Abastos Market, take the bus known as the Autobus Comunitario de Teococuilco de Marcos Pérez, located at Calle Heriberto, Jara, #118, Col. Libertad.

Arroyo Guacamaya Compared to Other Oaxacan Ecotourism Sites

While a relatively new ecotourism site in the Ixtlán district of Oaxaca, Arroyo Guacamaya easily stands up to the better-known Cuajimoloyas, La Nevería, Benito Juárez, Llano Grande, Ixtlán de Juárez, and other similar yet longer-established village sites. While still developing and therefore perhaps deficient in a couple of activities, the relative lack of tourist numbers in and of itself constitutes a significant allure.

And of course there’s the proximity to Oaxaca, a bonus for most. In fact, the city is so close, that before returning you should consider ordering a few fresh trout to bring back with you. Simply have them bagged and then wrapped in newspaper. But buy a few extra, since the chef at the restaurant back at your hotel or bed & breakfast will no doubt appreciate a little gift in exchange for preparing the catch for the next day’s lunch or dinner.

Alvin Starkman, originally from Canada, is a resident of Oaxaca, Mexico, and together with wife Arlene operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast. Mr. Starkman received his Masters degree in Social Anthropology from York University in Toronto in 1978. In his spare time he takes small groups to tour the craft villages, towns, ruins and other sites. He also writes restaurant reviews and articles about life and the rich multiplicity of cultural traditions in Oaxaca. He can be reached at:


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