Trip Report by Native Friend, Laura Friedland.
The greatest joy of traveling by bicycle is the possibility. The possibility for anything to happen at any given time that could completely derail the plan for the day or transform the mundane into the magnificent. When seeing the world by bike, the possibilities increase tenfold. Flat tires, weird clicking noises, a nice fruit stand, a rainstorm, intrigued locals—there are thousands of factors that might change the course of the day.
This is exactly what landed me on a solo bike tour in Teotitlan de Valle nestled in the foothills of Oaxaca City, Mexico, wondering what I would do for the next five days. Sure I had a mapped-out plan, but a big storm front had already disrupted that notion. I wanted to ride through the Pueblos Mancomunados (Commonwealth of Villages), eight remote villages protected by an ecotourism project sitting high up in the Sierra Norte mountains, at 10,000 feet. Surrounded by wilderness and more than 100km of wondrous hiking and biking trails, these villages are a lovely place to explore nature and mingle with the friendly locals. I knew at 10,000 feet the weather would be harsher so I started by visiting three villages in the foothills.
I set out later than planned on a Saturday morning after enjoying some late-night Mezcal the evening before. With the impending rain, I rode only a short distance to reach Teotitlan de Valle known around the world for its handmade textiles. I stopped into the cultural center and asked for a simple room as this is typically cheaper and more interesting than a hotel. This was one of the best decisions of my journey.
I was directed to the Via Nueva co-op, known internationally for its decades of work with the women artisans in Teotitlan de Valle. The women who answered my knock at the door warmly invited me in, provided me with a bed and a hot shower for a small price. They walked me through how each member of the co-op hand dyes the wool and weaves it into textiles on a giant loom. It was obvious why these special handmade rugs, blankets, and textiles are so sought after back home. That day I also hiked up to the tallest point in Teotitlan de Valle. By no surprise, I stumbled on a full mariachi band playing at a fiesta in the backyard of a home at the base of the hike.
I awoke to sirens at 5:00 am the next day which could only mean one thing—it’s Sunday and it’s time for church! With that wakeup call, I said my goodbyes and promised to return, sans bike the following week. I rode through a few more lower villages before catching a camioneta into the mountains, despite the rainy forecast. A camioneta is a pickup truck with a protective cover over the bed that carries locals up to the mountains for 30 pesos ($1.50). I wedged myself and my bike between three farmers for the 45-minute, 5,000-foot ride to the top and spent the evening tucked into one of the rooms available in the first eco-village, Cuajimoloyas. Rain poured down for most of the night.
The ride to Benito Juarez in the morning was nothing but hilly, misty dirt roads, or “pura carretera” as the locals called it. This was what I was waiting for and it did not disappoint.
At my next stop, Benito Juarez, the ranger in town, recommended a loop between there and two other eco-villages, La Neveria and Latuvi over the next two days, about 30km in total. I had downloaded a few maps (using a GPX file on Gaia GPS) indicating the roads between these towns so I felt prepared. Plus, my route was on a road, not a trail, so the likelihood of getting lost was low…until I arrived in La Neveria.
The village, which sat quietly nestled in an after-rain mist, was just beginning it’s morning chores for the day. I rode to the comedor and devoured huevos y frijoles (eggs and beans) with homemade tortillas while learning about the 80 people who lived in La Neveria. The woman working phoned the ranger and when he arrived he assured me I could make it to Latuvi on nothing but “pura carretera” once again, except for one factor. This road was not on the map. There were only two right turns I needed to make and the rest was “todo derecho” (all straight). I took off with a beaming sense of adventure, descending through a mix of pine trees and tropical palm trees, a strange but beautiful combination. Riding over pine-covered, untouched dirt roads, I could peer out over the surrounding ridge lines, reminiscent of the Appalachian Mountains I grew up in.
Just when I began to worry that I might be going in the wrong direction, an elderly woman carrying a sack of grass from a nearby farm-assured me “derecho derecho!”. Twenty minutes later I was in town and surrounded by an awesome 360-degree view of Latuvi. I visited the eco-tourism center that showed me to my cabana with an even better view looking out over the mountains. I was amazed by how gorgeous, clean and comfortable this space was for just 200 pesos ($10) for the night! It was clear this unmarked road had brought me somewhere special.
With plenty of daylight left, I decided to bite the bullet and descend another 1,500 feet to a special trucha (river fish) spot next to the river below town. I was regretting my decision the whole way down until I arrived at Nacho’s and Juana’s farm. I was greeted by five of the friendliest dogs in Mexico (no really) and Nacho who promptly scooped a fish out of his homegrown fish farm. He killed the fish and filled it with a special veggie mixture before laying it on top of the oven wrapped in tin foil.
Once the fish was on, Juana took over placing handmade tortillas on the oven and toasting them to perfection. Just as the fish was done cooking, the sky opened up with heavy rain. I opened up the foil and dug into the steaming hot fish that was filled with some delicious homemade flavors. Juana and I chatted the day away sharing about our families and home life. She brought me outside to watch Nacho plow the farm with two cows and asked if I’d like to get out there and help. She said it with a big grin on her face but I knew she wasn’t kidding. I was also invited to come back and spend some time on her farm for a few months. I could tell she missed having young energy at the farm with all of her kids grown up and gone now.
Juanas laugh was contagious and her spirit stuck with me as I climbed my way back to Latuvi in the rain. I couldn’t get over how kind they were! Unfortunately, when I asked for their phone number and email, Juana relented that she doesn’t have either. She gave me her son’s email who lives in Mexico City. If I want to get in touch, I will just have to go back.
I spent the rest of the evening writing and reflecting on the encounters I had made on my trip so far and fell asleep happy. The next morning I decided it’d be best to descend out of the mountains to get away from the freezing rain ahead. I dropped 5,000 feet, returning to the valley and visited a busier town, Mitla. After a full day of riding, I arrived just before the rain and flopped on my hotel bed. Mitla was hot and smoggy compared to the cool air of the mountains. I longed for the small villages that felt so far away now. While my ride back to Oaxaca City the next day was less scenic than any other day, I continued to ride the high of having explored such a unique piece of life in Oaxaca.
The five-day trip had morphed into something completely different than I had planned. It’s rare that we give ourselves these windows—windows of loose plans with a range of possibilities—in our day to day lives. We continue to orbit around a calendar and a host of predictable experiences…we are creatures of habit after all. There is so much richness when we leave the door open for possibility, though. We can let new people in, and let some of our fears escape. We leave space for our perceptions to be altered by experience, by doing. To travel by bike is to travel with an open mind. That is why I recommend everyone with a keenness for adventure try it once, be it for a night, a week or a year!