is this the best way to adventure in Mexico?

The air in Oaxaca’s Huatulco National Park is as thick as soup, and the abundance of living things is so rich that my senses feel satiated. Zapotec guide Perfecto Careno Ramirez portrays the bounty through memories of his youth on this land. There is the grado tree used to connect with ancestors during ceremonies; the roots of the cat nail vines that save his friend by delaying a scorpion’s fatal sting; and the ‘ear tree’ with its sturdy seed pods that his mother used to exfoliate when she took a bath.

Huatulco in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.  (Elesban Landero Berriozábal | Unsplash)

Huatulco in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. (Elesban Landero Berriozábal | Unsplash)

Numerous hotels in the area offer tours of the jungle, opalescent beaches and coral reefs, but I booked through Huatulco Salvaje. Most members of this 12-member Zapotec cooperative lived here before being relocated in 1998 when the government declared Huatulco a national park. On the brightly colored veranda of the co-op’s office, founder Sigifredo Castro tells me that despite their unique relationship with the land, they struggle to compete with tours offered by major hotels. “The all-inclusive model is broken,” he says, shaking his head. “Tourists don’t come out to meet the people, and the money they bring is largely taken from Mexico.”

I started dreaming this trip in Tulum while eating £20 aguachile and doing my best to avoid the various Instagram shoots around me. I knew I wanted to connect with Mexicans interested in preserving their country and culture, but among the shiny beach bars and clubs pumping out EDM, opportunities seemed few and far between. A Google search for community tourism projects led nowhere. Facebook pages with vintage images suggested the owners were more interested in running their projects than promoting them, and with my limited Spanish, phone calls were more awkward than enlightening.

Back in Oaxaca, I roll down the car window and watch hills covered in green jungle pass by. My friend Eytan Elterman, founder of Lokal Travel – a booking platform that supports small, community-run projects across Latin America – has intervened. We’re on an exploration mission from Oaxaca’s epic coastline to the mountaintop capital, looking for new additions to add to the platform.

Imogen Lepere investigates ecotourism in Mexico (Imogen Lepere)Imogen Lepere investigates ecotourism in Mexico (Imogen Lepere)

Imogen Lepere investigates ecotourism in Mexico (Imogen Lepere)

“In Mexico, remote communities with limited access to business opportunities often resort to logging or mining to survive. Or they emigrate to the United States, of course,” says Eytan, pausing to watch a cow lumber across the road. “Community tourism empowers people to become stewards of their own lands – not to mention it gives travelers the opportunity to have cross-cultural exchanges that mean something.”

A few hours later we stand in a blackened kitchen in the hamlet of San José Manialtepec. Angela Carmona and Jacinto Garcia, who have lived in this house for 50 years, are about to reveal the recipe for their signature cheese. It’s sweltering and definitely uncomfortable. Although the cheese-making workshop can be booked through Ecoturismo Manialtepec, the way Angela quietly twirls her skirt suggests that few travelers take up this offer. Eytan shudders as his forearms disappear into a bucket of whey, and everyone laughs. Angela rushes over and shows him how to put it in the press that once belonged to her grandmother, her hands tapping with the dexterity of a master potter.

Parque Nacional Lagunas de Chacahua (Imogen Lepere)Parque Nacional Lagunas de Chacahua (Imogen Lepere)

Parque Nacional Lagunas de Chacahua (Imogen Lepere)

Later, Señora Gonzalez, who owns Ecoturismo Manialtepec with her husband Ismael, gives us mole to a soundtrack of bolero music drifting from the neighboring garden. Although our faces are red from our quest for cooking over fire, we started ladling up the deep, dark sauce with gusto. She tells us it took years of trial and error to perfect a recipe that includes cocoa, five types of chili peppers roasted overnight, bread and a whole host of wild herbs.

As Eytan and I steam in the air-conditioned car, he reflects: ‘There is a beautiful humility in what they offer here. She just spent two days cooking the best mole I’ve ever tasted, but she doesn’t make much of it. That level of care is just part of her culture.”

At this point I am ready to pledge my allegiance to community tourism forever. However, my romanticized bubble bursts in Ventanilla, where two cooperatives from the same community fight to offer crocodile watching tours in the lagoon where the Pacific Ocean swallows the Tonameca River. Before we’ve even left our car, two men – one from Lagarto Real Ventanilla, the other team from La Ventanilla – attack and start explaining the superiority of their tours.

I’m about to pledge my allegiance to community tourism when my romanticized bubble bursts as two cooperatives fight to offer crocodile watching tours in the lagoon where the Pacific Ocean swallows the Tonameca River.

Imogen Lepere

Both groups emerged in the aftermath of hurricanes with a vision of restoring the mangrove forest – essential work because it protects against flooding and acts as a carbon store – and both offer locals an alternative form of income to crocodile hunting. However, with more than 600 visitors per day, it is a less intimate experience altogether.

Community Tourism in Oaxaca (Imogen Lepere)Community Tourism in Oaxaca (Imogen Lepere)

Community Tourism in Oaxaca (Imogen Lepere)

“I’ve seen this in communities all over Latin America,” Eytan says as we walk along a beach littered with wood bleached like dinosaur bones, a calling card from Hurricane Agatha. “If tourism revenues are not fairly distributed, factions start fighting over resources.”

It’s a very different story in Teotitlán del Valle, a small pueblo of mud-brick buildings with tiled roofs 20 miles from Oaxaca city. Like many Zapotec cities, Teotitlán specializes in a particular craft: carpet weaving. We visit the workshop of Vida Nueva, the first all-female weaving cooperative in Mexico, which fluctuates between 12 and 20 members. The economic pressures that lead to alcoholism and domestic violence mean that many of these women are divorced and would otherwise struggle to find work due to the resulting stigma.

Silvia at Vida Nueva in Oaxaca (Imogen Lepere)Silvia at Vida Nueva in Oaxaca (Imogen Lepere)

Silvia at Vida Nueva in Oaxaca (Imogen Lepere)

In the shaded workshop, the twenty-year-old daughter of founder Pastora Asunción Gutierrez Reyes, Silvia, shows us the plants and minerals the women use to make dyes according to formulas inherited from her great-great-grandmother. There is cochineal, the insect that bleeds dragon’s blood red; marigold blooms before mustard yellow and Brazilian wood pink. As she holds up each bowl, I see the outline of an airplane tattooed on her wrist. “Most women my age in the village are married and have several children,” she says. “I’m saving to travel.” As Silvia grows up with a keen understanding of the power of cooperatives, we hope she can share the benefits of connecting with local communities during our travels with everyone involved.

Craftsman in Oaxaca, Mexico (Imogen Lepere)Craftsman in Oaxaca, Mexico (Imogen Lepere)

Craftsman in Oaxaca, Mexico (Imogen Lepere)

Leave a Comment