Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Zacatlán Odyssey Part 4: A journey into the mountains

Rugged mountain slopes show signs of cultivation. Mary Carmen, our hostess and guide during out stay in Zacatlán, wanted to show us the rugged mountain country outside her small bustling city. In northern Puebla State, where Zacatlán is located, the mountains are nearly vertical, with sharp ridges that drop off into deep canyons. Throughout the mountains, tiny villages nestle in secluded valleys, and others perch along narrow ridges. The land is cultivated where ever it is possible, including some places I would have bet were impossible.

Zacatlán, in the distance. Behind us, as we wound around the hairpin turns of the rough, dirt roads, we could see Zacatlán in the distance. In the upper part of the photo above, the city stretches out along the lip of the deep Jilguero Gorge. The lower part of the photo, you can see the road we traveled as it snakes up the mountainside. The roads deteriorated in quality as soon as we left the main highway out of Zacatlán. We didn't see asphalt again for many hours.

Out for a stroll. In the mountains, only the lucky few have motor vehicles, or even horses. We passed many people trudging patiently along the roads, bound for some distant destination. This fellow came walking up the road while we were photographing what turned out to be his house. You can just make it out by following the line of the light colored land up to the right from the brim of his hat. We were astonished that the little cottage managed to cling to such a steep hillside, and even more astonished to almost immediately meet its owner. Our presence and appearance must have been pretty puzzling to him ("what are these crazy Gringos up to?") but he maintained a calm, unruffled demeanor. Asked how long it had taken him to cover all the distance from his cottage to here, he quietly replied "about 3 minutes." He must have had wings hidden under that shirt.

The cottage that defies gravity. Below the cottage, you an see a footpath leading toward the lower right corner of the photo. Paths like this can be found throughout these mountains. In many cases, they must predate our rough road by many hundreds, or even thousands of years. Most of the roads in the mountains were not built until after the Revolution of 1910-1921. The difficulty of transportation has inhibited economic development of the Sierra Puebla, but it has also helped insulate the indigenous cultures from the more corrosive influences of what we are pleased to call civilization.

A typical mountain farm. In the foreground, spiky maguey grows as a boundary to the field. Maguey has been used for thousands of years by indigenous people. The fibres from its leaves can be used to make cord, weave baskets, and is sometimes used to embroider leather in a technique called piteado. The juice of its heart can be fermented to produce pulque, a mildly alcoholic drink popular throughout rural Mexico. Pulque is very ancient in Mesoamerica. At one time its use was considered sacred, and was restricted to the elite. Behind the screen of maguey plants grow rows of newly planted corn, another plant with Mesoamerican roots going back at least 7000 years. In the distance, the campesino's cottage is shaded by what appear to be fruit trees. We saw no farm machinery, so the fields were probably plowed using horses. This farmer was lucky enough to possess a relatively level piece of property. Many cultivated patches extended up hills so steep that, even as a regular mountain hiker, I could barely imagine climbing them. Yet, I saw men and women with hoes cultivating them by hand.

Torch lily looks like it could easily live up to its name. The scientific name of this brilliantly lovely plant is Kniphofia uvaria. It is also called Red Hot Poker. Kniphofia originated in South Africa, but has spread to many other areas of the world. I was amazed to find it along this remote mountain road in northern Puebla State.

Black vultures suddenly appeared ahead of us on the road. They were huge animals, and seemed unimpressed by our approaching car as they strolled across the road on foot. Mary Carmen urged me to honk the horn to make them take off, and she got this nice shot when they did. The Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) has a very wide range, from southeastern US to Chile. It not only feeds on carrion, but will eat eggs and kill small animals. The Black Vulture appears in the ancient Maya Codices. Photo by Mary Carmen Olvera Trejo

Another small farm house nestles at the base of a mountain. The house appears to be of adobe, with a clay tile roof. This design, introduced from Spain in the 1600s was already ancient then. Adobe is the most widely used building material in the world, and one of the oldest. The indigenous people of Mesoamerica were using adobe thousands of years before the Spanish, but the Spanish introduced the concept of making it into bricks. The campesino farm owner is fortunate enough to also own a mare, with a new foal nuzzling for some milk. Scenes like this left me feeling like I was traveling through another century. In examining the photos for this posting, I was also struck by the tidiness of the farms and villages. There were no junked cars on blocks, piles of trash, or other litter around the property such as I have seen in all too many rural areas in the US. The people here may be poor, in purely economic terms, but there is no culture of poverty. There is pride, and a sense of culture and community thousands of years deep.

A mountain valley opens up into the distance. The serene vista reminded me of photos I have seen of Switzerland. I grew curious about the tiny white rectangle located almost in the center of the photo.

The wonders of telephoto lenses. My lens reached out and picked out this scene from the previous photograph. I was still a bit puzzled until I realized that I was looking at a community panteon, or cemetery.

Another small cottage lit up by the glow of the afternoon sun. Driving through these mountains, I was surprised at the number of people living in this remote area. They have managed to resist the magnetic--almost hypnotic--pull of city life with all its conveniences, resolutely keeping up their traditional culture and language. Mary Carmen has encouraged them to exhibit the ancient dances and rituals at the Ilhuitl Cuaxochitl (Festival of the Crown of Flowers) which she started in Zacatlán several years ago (see Part 2 of this series).

Otatlán lies at the bottom of a small valley surrounded by steep mountains. For a map showing Otatlán in relation to Zacatlán, click here. Official population figures show that almost 7400 people who live in or around Otatlán. Even in its deep valley, the little pueblo sits at 7709 feet.

The welcoming party. If there are 7400 people living here, we never saw them. Almost the only resident we encountered was this brown dog. He trotted out to challenge us as we drove up to a rather dilapidated cottage, which seemed to have been overwhelmed by the flowering plants around it. After a perfunctory bark or two, the pooch settled back down to its afternoon nap, its job completed.

The church at Otatlán, deserted as the rest of town. The steeple of this church is the same one which can be seen two photos back in the telephoto shot from above. The churchyard is as quiet and empty as the rest of the town. Perhaps the people are out working their fields, or enjoying an siesta like the canine one we interrupted when we arrived.

This completes Part 4 of my Zacatlán Odyssey series. During this mountain journey, we stopped at Cuacuila, a picturesque village built along a knife-edge ridge at the end of a precipitous mountain road. In my next post, I'll show you the village and some of its Nahuatl-speaking inhabitants, and tell you about its famous general from the Mexican Revolution. If you'd like to leave a comment, you can do so by using the Comments section below, or by emailing me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email so that I can answer.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Mr. Cook,
    I do enjoy reading about your travels. You have an excellent style of writing which keeps me interested in the journey. I also enjoy the adventures of Mr. Davis who informs on the same areas. You two should get together and write a book or something like that, with Mary Carmen of course ;)

  2. hello have been reading some posts on your blog......we too are from oregon but are not american....we are british residing in portland for the last 21 years.....visiting ajijic and staying at casa blanca from the 14th aug thru 24th to see possibilities of living at some point in the future.....i wondered about the best place to meet a bunch of expats would that be the chapala society any other suggestions?

    thanks janice.....cymrujg@comcast.net


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim