Day of the dead in Sierra Norte, Oaxaca
“Expediciones Sierra Norte ” is a community-based eco-tourism company, owned and operated by the population of the villages in the surroundings of Oaxaca. There are eight communities that form this micro-region and six of them are part of the tourism project that began in 1994: Benito Juárez, La Nevería, Latuvi, San Miguel Amatlán, Llano Grande and Cuajimoloyas. This innovative inter-community initiative promotes the preservation of the natural heritage of the Sierra Norte through a responsible tourism program (ecotourism and adventure), while allowing cultural exchange between visitors and local families.
The “people from the clouds“, as the inhabitants of the mountains are known, are communities of the Zapotec ethnic group located between 2400 and 3100 meters above sea level, in a territory of 24,932 hectares. They have organized among themselves to receive visitors and share with them the beauty of the forests that they are responsible for protecting. This initiative today receives about 25 thousand annual visitors; in 2016 it was awarded “Tourism for Tomorrow” award granted by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) in the category “Community” and “To do” award for a socially responsible tourism, awarded by The Institute for Tourism and Development (Studienkreis für Tourismus und Entwicklung) within the framework of ITB in Berlin.
The itineraries offered by Sierra Norte Expeditions include hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding through a network of trails that covers more than 100 kilometers, linking different villages. Although adventure activities are the core of these itineraries, there are many moments to share everyday life with the inhabitants of these mountains and learn about their culture and customs. The itinerary in which we participated was a very special one, combining the celebrations of Day of the Dead both in Sierra Norte and in the city of Oaxaca, giving visitors the opportunity to actively participate in preparations for this unique cultural event.
The tour began in Oaxaca, where we joined other participants to travel to Benito Juárez, a pioneer ecotourism community. Its highest point is the lookout at 3100 meters, with breath-taking views of the central valleys. Here you can find Benito Juárez’s distinctive attractions – the suspension bridge and, for those who enjoy extreme adventures, a circuit of thee zip lines, the longest being 300 meters long and 80 meters high.
Benito Juárez has become an icon of adventure tourism thanks to the two attractions mentioned above, but on our trip we discovered that the community has much more to offer than that; here families welcome you and are willing to share different activities of their daily lives with visitors. They are open, friendly and happy to introduce you their culture and heritage. Returning from the lookout, we had lunch at Mrs. Clara’s house, who in addition to a delicious typical meal, showed us her organic garden, her flower plantations and the crafts she makes.
In the afternoon we visited Stone house (La casa de piedra), a venture by Mrs. Lilia and her family, where we participated in a workshop to make the traditional “tamales de mole” and chocolate, foods that are placed as offerings at the altar of the dead. Visitors can actively collaborate in the whole process, from roasting the cocoa beans to grinding them with cinnamon and sugar, to later taste it with the delicious tamales they learn to prepare. After dinner, we return to our cozy cabin to rest by the heat of the fireplace.
The next day we visited the organic farm of Mr. Eli, who welcomed us with his adorable granddaughters and gave us a tour of his small farm where he sows flowers, fruit trees, corn, and also raises small animals such as chicken and sheep. Here we enjoy a typical breakfast and try the red “atole”, a corn-based drink with chocolate, cinnamon and achiote, a species that gives it its red colour.
From here we started a three-hour hike to the town of Latuvi (“the land of the rolled leaf” in Zapotec language) with spectacular views of the mountains and surrounding villages. Latuvi is located at 2400 meters above sea level and like all the communities participating in the project, it has its tourist office, where we were welcomed, registered and then taken to our accommodation. As in Benito Juárez, the cabins have lovely views and large terraces with hammocks to enjoy the peace of the place.
In Latuvi we had the opportunity to prepare the traditional “pan de muertos” (bread of the dead), another offering placed on the altars. This type of bread is one of the most typical foods that are prepared during this season and its presence is mandatory in all ceremonies in the pantheons, altars and in the homes of families. Yolanda shared the recipe with us and then we helped her to give bread its characteristic shape. The demand for bread is great these days and although there are five bakeries in Latuvi, they are all very busy attending large orders.
There are two varieties of bread that are prepared: “Criollo”, without egg, and the one with egg yolk, both delicious. The adobe oven is heated for a couple of hours with firewood; when it is hot it is swept with branches of typical plants of the region and then bread is introduced into the oven. About 60 loaves can be cooked at the same time. When they were ready, we tasted our creations with a rich cup of hot chocolate – in Oaxaca it is customary to always accompany hot chocolate with bread.
Unlike Benito Juárez, in Latuvi meals are served in family dining rooms, being three dining rooms in town that rotate every week. Here it is possible to meet and socialize with other small groups of travellers whose itineraries include a stop in Latuvi. At night, we gathered around a campfire to listen with curiosity about the legends of the Day of the dead shared by locals in a truly magical context.
As a finishing touch and grand finale to our itinerary, on October 31st we set off early on an hour-long walk, collecting flowers with Mr. Alejo to place on the altar that we later helped prepare. The typical flowers that are collected are white and violet, as well as the wild cempasúchil and the coves. We arrived at the house of Mrs. Esperanza and Mr. Rufino who were waiting for us to help in the construction of the altar in honor of the deceased members from their family.
Here we learned that on October 31st the altar is first prepared for children, who arrive after three o’clock in the afternoon, and on November the 1st the offering for adults is placed. Bread, chocolate, fruits, peanuts and nuts are always included and, in general, all the dishes that the deceased person enjoyed in life. Mezcal and other drinks are included for adults, while sweets and soft drinks are placed for children.
It is believed that during those days, loved ones return from the hereafter to meet their relatives and it is essential that the altar is prepared and the doors of the house open so that they are welcome after the long journey they undertake. Also during these days, friends and family come for a visit to share the celebration and as of November the 2nd, once the deceased are gone, the altar meal is shared by everyone.
This is a unique tradition in the world, where this date is a true celebration and a time to share and remember the dead. The preparation of the altar is a very emotional activity for a family and having the opportunity to share this moment with local families is a unique experience for visitors.
All activities during this and other tours in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca are provided by local families. Likewise, the local community shares daily meals and activities with visitors and they are true hosts that make everyone who participates in one of the itineraries feel welcome. With this concept, Sierra Norte Expeditions creates opportunities and significant economic income for the rural families of the six villages through tourism experiences. Thanks to these opportunities, the local community has the possibility to work in its surroundings and they do not need to leave their lands in search for a better future in urban areas.
Thus our trip through the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca sharing the traditions of the Day of the dead with families came to an end, but in the city of Oaxaca the popular celebrations awaited us thanks to Chimalli, the tour operator in charge of coordinating the itinerary in the city. Tour included the visit to the pantheons, the traditional parades where neighbours disguise themselves and go out to the streets to the rhythm of the music, the exhibitions of altars of all kinds, ornate houses and traditional make up for locals and visitors. The city of Oaxaca is a great melting pot in those days and it is undoubtedly one of the best places to live this ritual, but our experience in the hills, having closely shared the preparations with families, left us with even deeper knowledge and memories about this Mexican tradition.