Red Mexicana de Ecoturismo


Ixtlan de Juárez: Oaxaca's Northern Sierra
by Norma Angelica Montes R. and Gustavo Ramrez Santiago

August 1997

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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 cash crops.

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 dialects.


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 C. The summits (3,000 m asl) have a cold climate with an average temperature of 8-10 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 SEDETUR offices.


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 Sierra.


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 pictures.


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.


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).


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.


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.



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