Ixtlan de Juárez: Oaxaca's Northern Sierra
by Norma Angelica Montes R. and Gustavo RamÕrez Santiago
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Mexico is one of the four most important countries in the whole world in terms of
biological diversity. Oaxaca is one of the 31 Mexican states, located in
the southern part of Mexico. This is also one of the richest states in terms of
cultural and biological diversity. The Northern Sierra of Oaxaca (Sierra Norte de
Oaxaca) is in the northern part of the state. A relatively small region, it is
endowed with extraordinary diversity of natural environments and cultures. In the
course of a day, you can walk from the cold climate of a mountain's summit
through conifer (pine) forest that evoke the boreal forests to a sultry tropical
rain forest. But there are also cultural atracctions to complete the natural
ones, so that an outdoor adventure can be topped off with a visit to a small
indian village and enjoy the local music, archaeological places or taste the
Indian cuisine, plenty of native plants.
The Northern Sierra is the perfect destination for nature lovers, since it is
home for an array of plants and animals, including five hundred species of birds
and six species of wild cats, most of them endangered. Some relictual ecosystems
still remains here, they are really Lost Worlds more than 40 millions years old.
Local people's ancestors have been lived here for centuries.
Pre-Columbian Northern Sierra was a region of freedom, trade and cultural
exchange between the Central Valleys of Oaxaca (where Monte Albán is located) and
the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Plain. The western part was inhabited by Mazatec
people, while the central part has been inhabited by Chinantec and Zapotec
people. The South-West by Cuicatec people and finally the eastern part has been
occupied by Mixe people.
The Mazatec, Chinantec and Cuicatec Indians were subjugated by the conquers, but
the Spanish had little luck with the Zapotecs and Mixe, and the region never
developed the kind of slave society that predominated in Latin America. Almost
every century since 1521, the Indians fighted against Spanish until 1821, when
Mexico gained independence from Spain.
The traditional Indian's system of government is a particular one, because the
decisions are taken by the General Assembly. The General Assembly is integrated
by all the members of the community, but mainly the heads of family go to the
meeting. Every community has its own General Assembly, its own territory and its
own laws. In this case, the Ecoturism Project we offer you is Community-Owned, so
the profits are going to be payed for social and environmental benefits.
The entire region has long been a highly diversified agricultural place, but
forestry has played an increasingly important economic role in past years, mainly
induced by the state and federal governments.
Milpa (corn, beans, squash and edible weeds) is traditionally the most important
agroecosystem for self-comsuption, but the most important cash crop is coffee.
Native people also produces some fruits (banana, oranges, pinneaples, sugar cane,
cacao, papaya, avocados, peaches, pears and apples) for self-comsuption or as
One important point is that the agroecosystems are not polluted by agrochemicals,
because local people do not use them. All the crops are labor intensive. Other
interesting point is that the local agroecosystems supports high levels of
biodiversity themselves thanks to the cultural heritage of the indians that
permits a very diversified land use.
There are also plant genetic resources of a special value. Wild relatives of
cultivated plants still remains, as for example avocados, mamey, chicozapote.
Local people grow native races of corn, beans, squash, chile and berries.
The local indians are famous for being friendly and helpful. There are more than
80,000 indians living there. Most of them are peasants, but now there are some
technicians trained in the national universities.The traditional environmental
knowledge of the local people is truly impressive, and they give name to more
than 1,000 plant species which they use.
The official language in Mexico is Spanish, but most of the local people speak
native languages. There are five differerent languages and more than twenty
The climate in this tropical region is determinated by two main factors: altitude
and wind pattern. The altitude is simple enough - the higher one is in the
mountains, the cooler it tends to be, which means that at the same moment people
are roasting on the lowlands you might need a sweater to explore a mountain
summit. The altitude range changes from 100 meters to 3,400 meters. The highest
peak (Zempoaltepetl) is the sacred mountain of the Mixe. Most of the towns lies
between 2,000 and 2,500 meters.
In this way, the lowlands (200 meters above sea level - m asl-) have the warm
climate all year round, with an average temperature of 24 ÅC. The summits (3,000
m asl) have a cold climate with an average temperature of 8-10Å Celcius. The region
basically has two main seasons: rainy and dry. The rainy season run mid-May until
December, with the wettest months being July and September. The dry season from
Decembre to May, is consistently cooler and less humid. In the driest parts, the
annual average rainfall is less than 700 mm, but in the wettest zones the annual
average rainfall reaches 6,000 mm.
At the moment, there is not a specialized information center for the region. In
fact, the region is poorly known in Oaxaca City. You can contact this project at
There are many zapotec ruins around the towns and some hidden cities are buried
under the forests. A small museum is open in San Juan Yagila, in the heart of the
There are many colonial churches in the main towns. The most spectacular church
is in Ixtlan de Juárez, from 1734. It is covered by Gold sheets and ancient
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Water in major towns is of good quality. There are not many infectous diseases
and if you get sick, medical assistance is available in the main towns.
There is no problem with petty theft, because the local indian people have high
standars of honesty.
All the territory is communal, so please respect the internal community rules.
In this way, if you want to get into the forests, firstly you need to contact the
Comisariado de Bienes Comunales (The agrarian authorithies who give the
permissions). Remember that the local forests are not public.
MAIL AND TELEPHONES
There is local and international telephone service available 24 hours. The main
post office is located in the heart of Ixtlan de Juárez, a zapotec village
located 60 km north of Oaxaca City (You have to spend one hour by bus).
ARTS AND CRAFTS
Local people make a lot of beautiful and useful handcrafts. You can get them
easily and they are very cheap. They are made of local materials including plants
from the tropical rain forests, so if you buy them, you are supporting
conservation of local biodiversity.
There are many festivities along the year. You can consult the local Indian Radio
Station for more information. The Radio Station is located in Guelatao de Juárez,
a small town that is close to Ixtlan de Juárez.
BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY: FROM DRY
TROPICAL DECIDUOUS FORESTS TO MISTY MOUNTAIN FORESTS
The Northern Sierra of Oaxaca offers visitors a wealth of natural attractions.
From the tropical deciduous forests with cacti and high endemism (one third of
the plant species lives only in a small area), you can go up through pine and
oak forest (they have mentioned as the most diverse pine oak forests in the
world) to the top of the mountain, where you can find subalpine prairies (similar
to Swiss prairies). When you go down to the Atlantic Zone, the forests begin to
change. Clouds tend to gather around the mountains every day, mountain forests
receive more rain, and spend more time in the clouds. Now you are in the cloud
forests. Cloud forests are the ultimate in lushness, with plants growing on
plants. The trunk and branches of trees are usually completely covered with
epiphytes, such as mosses, orchids, ferns and vines. The cloud forests located in
the Northern Sierra de Oaxaca are the largest pristine masses north of the Andes
in the American Continent. More than 150,000 hectares remains protected by the Indian
communities. Among these forests there are some relictual ones, actually the more
ancient forests Worldwide: Oreomunnea mexicana forests are very similar to
forests that existed 22 million years ago during the Miocene and now they only
survive in the wettest zones of the Sierra, you can also visit the Quercus -
Lauraceas forests that have existed here for more than 40 millions years. They
are really Lost Worlds!. The national plant species richness record is in the
local cloud forests.
Downwards, the lowlands are covered by tropical rain forests, where massive
trees propped up by buttress roots tower over the jungle floor. Jaguars, tapirs
and spider monkeys still survive here.
As you see, it is truly an impressive place. It only takes one and a half hour to
go from Oaxaca City to Ixtlan de Juárez, where this marvelous region begins.
Please remember that this Ecoturism project is Community-Owned and the profits
are going to be payed to the local people for social and environmental benefits.
The authors are biologists based in Mexico.
Eco Travels in Mexico
Mexico Ecotourism Network