Words and photographs by Ehren Seeland
Local hands rise in greeting as our truck pulls to a stop outside of the lime green headquarters of the San Miguel del Valle ecotourism office. Miguel López Hernández, our tour guide for the day, pulls the sleeves down on his shirt and prepares to run through our agenda for the day. In total, we are 11 people and a dog, Rex, who is currently snuffling his way down the main street in order to familiarize himself with the pueblo in his own way.
Our group of Fundación En Vía staff and volunteers pass around sandwiches while raving about the previous night spent in the town cabañas ecoturística (eco-cabins). The cabins, a veritable deal at $400 pesos a night per cabaña, sleep four people and are housed with a set of bunk beds and one double bed. The shared kitchen space allows guests to cook their own healthy meals, and fresh air is in abundance. For those that wish to camp in the local park, the San Miguel ecotourism office rents everything from tents to sleeping bags and bikes at incredibly reasonable rates.
One more check of the itinerary and we all pile into the truck. In total, over the span of our five-hour hike, we make four stops. During the first foray, we soak in Jurassic Park-style vista views, which look out over the 16,000 hectares of land that lies within the San Miguel jurisdiction, 8,000 of which make up the local park. Nearly 200 years ago, people settled in the valleys below in order to keep the area protected, housed under thatched roofs of local plant life, however that has not been the case for some time now.
Moving from there, we climb a wooden structure in order to take advantage of panoramic views. Onwards we go past a series of tiny edifices of sticks and rocks, balanced and meant to look like houses. They sit at the base of a sacred structure, complete with urn and blue cross, where people make pilgrimages to drink poleo tea, experience spiritual cleansings and also pray for the acquisition of family homes, hence the tiny altars that surround us.
Our adventure continues through narrow passageways of towering rocks, into clearings featuring enormous caves, along with a locally made ladder that moves us into a stone corridor. As we move into the relative darkness, a bat glides past our heads, having recently been awakened from a peaceful slumber. Together, we stare up to the light that filters through the rocks – a subtle friendly greeting from our natural surroundings. During the Mexican revolution, these caves were used to hide various plunder, and when the last of the gatekeepers of these treasures passed on, the area was designated a sacred space and is only accessible to the public at specific times of the day, so it is only possible to visit during these designated times.
The grand finale leaves us lounging by a lake. It has been so long that I have daydreamed beside a body of water that the relaxation takes over me and I do not capture moment in photo format. I can attest, however, that this human-made lake is the perfect place for a picnic or even to camp for a few nights. Better yet, the lake is also hopping (literally) with fresh trout. Fishing is allowed, so those who have the time to stay and forage for a while will likely end with the freshest feast that they have had in some time.
This hike is also a part of the upcoming special Project Tour that is inspired by Fundación En Vía trips that serve to introduce travelers to the concepts, benefits and challenges that are involved in microfinance programs for development in Oaxaca. The Project Tour is an excellent chance for people to participate in a variety of other activities, including hiking in San Miguel del Valle, stove-building, cooking classes, a microfinance tour and inspiring interactions. This excursion runs the duration of five days and four nights, and includes meals, transportation and lodging (as outlined in the itinerary in the link below). The next available dates are October 7 – 11, 2015 and the cost is $995 USD per person, or $1850 USD for two people (must share a room). The program does have a required minimum of people to move ahead, so if the October event does not run, it will be rescheduled for December 2 – 6, 2015. Click here to review the full details.
Roughly an hour and a half of navigating the truck over some rough mountain roads and we are back in the pueblo of San Miguel del Valle. In all, the 5-hour day hike was a cost-efficient trip as the guide is $150 pesos for the day (split between 10 people – Rex didn’t pay), and entrance to the park is $40 pesos a person.
Pulling out from the ecotourism office, we wave from the truck window, our lungs full of country air and heads full of new information about the growing ecotourism industry in San Miguel del Valle. This is an excellent opportunity to get to know this lovely town and the impressive area that surrounds it, and as always, it’s a welcome break to get a little respite from city life.