“Seat numbers 19 and 20, departure time 8:30,” the friendly clerk at the Flecha de Zempoaltepetl bus company tells us. A number of people are already lingering in the waiting area. Old women with long pleats clutch huge bunches of flowers, their orange blossoms wrapped in newspapers. A shaky octogenarian with a crumpled hat changes in and out of different jackets and sweaters several times while continuously rearranging the contents of his plastic bags. At 8:20, a rickety bus arrives, and everyone crowds around it. “We have numbered seats: there is no need to rush,” we think but bustle forward anyway, just in case. A worn tyre is being rolled out of the bus and away into the terminal. The driver gets off the bus with a small wrench in his hand and sets to work on one of the front wheels. This seems to take longer, and the passengers sit down again. After a while, the driver gets back on the bus and starts test-driving it back and forth. Once more, a hopeful crowd forms at the gate. Apparently the repair failed: the bus drives off. Finally, at 9:10, another bus arrives and we and our fellow passengers quickly take our appointed seats and fill the luggage rails.
In Cuajimoloyas, a village over 3200 m high in the mountains, we are immediately ushered into the “information module” where Evencio, our guide, already awaits us. He is 45, somewhat stout, and wears a baseball cap. “The villages around here have traditionally formed a community to use their resources together,” he explains. “The forests, for example, are all village property.” Eight years ago, the tourist office of Oaxaca, the nearest city, initiated an eco-community project designed to let tourists experience the diverse nature of the Sierra Norte, populated mainly by the indigenous Zapotecs. The trained local guides explain the numerous plants of the cloud forest, and visitors can stay in purpose-built huts or use designated camp sites in each of the five participating villages. There are small restaurants in each locality. The fees for accommodation and use of the services are used for the whole community, Evencio tells us. “The villagers are quite happy with the project.”
Soon we pass enormous agaves, some of them with inflorescences up to 6 or 7 m high. They flower only once in 20 or 25 years, we learn – “but this is not the right variety to make pulque, the traditional alcoholic drink.” Those are smaller, and we see them later in the day. The deeper we get into the forest, the stranger it becomes. Weird-looking trees tangle around us, most of them covered with hairy moss that is hanging down in strands from the branches. Some trunks are dotted with bromelias: sturdy red flowers that sink their roots directly in the bark and look rather like a demanding variety of potted plants.
After a few hours hiking in the deep forest, we emerge onto the rim of a deep valley. A brief vista over very green mountains and valleys stretching to the horizon before we steeply descend about 1000 m into the canyon. With 15 kg of camping gear in the backpack, there is not much time for looking at the local flora. When we finally arrive in Latuvi, we are happy to pitch our tent, explore the one and only shop, and cook a dinner of rice, potatoes and beans with cheese. That would have been the vegetarian option in the restaurant, too, we are told later.
The next day, light rain starts as soon as we set off, and it doesn’t stop for the next 28 hours. It becomes clear how the cloud forest got its name and how flowers can grow high up on a tree trunk without being parasites. On the old stone steps of a prehispanic trade route, we saunter along a small river, while the canyon closes in on us. Suddenly, Natascha stops: “What is this? A piece of black rubber?” But then the small fire salamander slowly moves. It looks like a toy, with a skin like chocolate pudding and orange cream and very cute feet. “Don’t touch it!” Ricardo, today’s guide, rushes back: “It is very poisonous! If it bites you, you will die within three or four hours.”
In the early afternoon we arrive in the small hamlet of Lachatao. It has 400 inhabitants, claims Elena, the restaurant owner, but the perceived population is 20 at its best. We are told to pitch our tent on the lawn in front of the large 17th century church of Santa Catarina. In the evening, just after dusk, the door of the church is open, and a faint light flickers out of the interior. Curiously, Isa takes a closer look. The cramped interior is lighted by numerous candles, and in the front row three old women are eerily praying and singing.
The next morning it is still raining. We stuff our wet tent in a plastic bag and climb on the back of the camioneta, a pick-up functioning as a local bus. The only other passenger is Michaela, a 55 year old woman in a grey woollen sweater who is going to the market “because in Ixtlan food is fresher and cheaper than in the village shop.” Michaela seems to be less enthusiastic about the eco-tourism project. “How much did you pay Elena for dinner? And how much did it cost to camp in front of the church?” she enquires suspiciously. It seems that she is neither familiar with the aims of the programme, nor feels that she profits from it.
In Ixtlan, we only have to wait for five minutes until a crammed bus arrives that will take us back over the mountains, to Oaxaca, the big city. Our fellow passengers are land folk with woollen jackets and large bags, going to the market. It is still raining, and on the mountain passes the fog is so thick we can barely see the trees along the road. The adolescent driver chats merrily with his similarly youthful conductor and sings along with the schmaltzy songs his tape recorder roars through the bus. When we arrive in the valley of Oaxaca, the sky clears up, and the passengers take off their jumpers and head for the market.