PERSONAL JOURNEYS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A Memorable Place

Hikes and hot chocolate in Mexico

By Nicole Leistikow

SPECIAL TO THE SUN

We arrived at Cuajimoloyas, Mexico, after an hour spent spiraling up a surprisingly well-paved mountain road in a small rental car.

As my partner and I parked near the one hotel whose bare cement office doubles as a tourist information center, the village loudspeaker blared an announcement.

Effectively positioned over the town's basketball court, in the center of the valley, this instrument of community unity announced Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and the arrival of pan dulce (sweet bun) sellers , and even played nightly mariachi music. Luckily, the loudspeaker seemed to quiet down on the weekends.

We had come to explore the trails connecting the Pueblos Mancomuna-dos -- eight villages in Oaxaca state's Sierra Norte. Cuajimoloyas, the largest village with around 1,000 residents, made a good base.

Our first lunch at a small restaurant ended with hot chocolate, a state specialty, boiled with cinnamon and served in a clay bowl. It revived us enough to tackle a hike to Mirador "Yaa-Cuetzi." This lookout, only half a mile from town but up a steep path (everything feels steep at 10,000 feet above sea level), is lined with Oyamel fir trees important to monarch butterflies and with wildflowers, ferns and magueys. The maguey plant is used to make the smoky-tasting mescal, which is sold at highway roadside stands.

Rather than stay at the hotel our first night, we chose hillside cabanas. Though still within the loudspeaker's reach, the setting was peaceful, and commanded a good view of the village below.

The next day, we met up with Elario after breakfast for a three-hour walk, circling the mountain on a narrow track that wound through boggy meadows and rock crevices.

In uneven Spanish, we chatted about the state of the fading Zapotec language, spoken only by old-timers but beginning to be taught at the primary school, and about the loss of residents, including Elario's eldest daughter, to jobs in Los Angeles.

We passed potato fields, dead trees that would soon be felled for timber, minnows darting across tiny brooks and prostrate burros lazily soaking up the sun.

More than three hours had passed before I asked if we were headed back to Cuaji, as the locals call it.

Elario didn't have a watch or an exact sense of how many miles we had covered. He had been busy showing us the local sights, like the tiny waterfall that creates a swimming hole and picnic spot when the September rains arrive, and the 12-inch golden, edible mushroom he picked, leaving part of the stalk in the ground so a new one would grow.

When we finally arrived back at our cabana, the added two hours of hiking were easy to forgive. A cup of hot chocolate later, and we were almost ready for another walk.

Nicole Leistikow lives in Baltimore.

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