Both Feet on the Ground:
Walking from town to town in rural Mexico
Walking is not something people usually do in Mexico when they want to go from place to place. They take a bus or a plane instead, or they just stay at the beach and don’t go anywhere.
My walking trip in Mexico covered 117 kilometers over 6 days from Zacatlan to Cuetzalan in the mountainous state of Puebla, some 180 kilometers east of Mexico City. Puebla is an extremely interesting and varied state.
Much of the state is mountainous, the highest peak reaching 5,747 meters. The population is largely indigenous, made up of Nahuas, Totonacs, Mixtecs, Popolocas and Otomi people, and in the towns and villages I passed through nearly all the women wore traditional clothing and nearly everyone spoke Spanish only as a second language.
This area of Puebla has all the things that make walking trips ideal: small towns usually about 20 kilometers apart, a variety of terrain and scenery, small roads, and no large towns for people to pass through in a hurry on their way somewhere else.
Google Earth reveals countless smaller unmarked roads and little pathways tangling their way across the hills, testimony to decades of local walkers marching on trails across their local world.
Walking the Walk
I flew into Mexico City and took a 4 hour bus trip from Terminal Norte to Zacatlan, an interesting and pretty town right on the top edge of a large canyon stretching off into the Sierra Norte del Puebla mountain range. I stayed at the Hotel Posada Don Ramon. Alejandro checked me in to a tidy room and told me I was the only one staying in that wing of the large hotel. The remainder of the day was spent buying supplies: a small knife, a straw hat, tortillas, fruit, biscuits, jam, peanuts, and water.
Day one was a long, hot walk from Zacatlan down a gravel road to the bottom of a valley and on to the small village of Ahuacatlan, a little provincial town with a small square, a church, a few municipal buildings and a clutch of grocery stores.
Las palabras de Dios
On my way to Ahuacatan that day I’d met a family of itinerant missionaries who travelled regularly from Zacatlan to the outlying villages to preach the word of God – “las palabras de Dios”. Father Rosendo, mother Nelida and three young boys, walking with small bags of clothing and books.
We walked together for 3 hours, and they invited me to stop with them at a few houses along the way where they talked and prayed with indigenous villagers.
At the end of the 10 minute sermon we all stood in a circle inside the cabin and joined arms to say a prayer, something in Spanish and then something the old couple could understand in Nahuatl. They looked unsure, but polite and willing. When I left they taught me to say a greeting, which I used a lot on the road over the next days.
Fire in the sky
Day two was a shorter 22km walk to Tepango de Rodriguez, a small village spread unevenly across two hills. There was a surprisingly large church on the top of one of the hills, and houses all over the other.
An hour after the storm started the electricity in the town went out, and it started to rain big drops of warm, dusty rain. I stood there on the roof, with the lightening slowly limping away in the distance while little lanterns and flashlights appeared all over the streets of the village.
Dogs barked, and soft voices made louder by the quiet of the night carried from street to street. Before bed the owner took me downstairs and out into the back yard to a small wooden room where I found a bucket of hot water, a bucket of cold water and a scoop made out of a piece of plastic bucket. I propped my flashlight up against part of the wall and had my shower.
Getting lost and found
The next day I got lost. It all started about 2 km out of town where I took a fairly wide, well defined dirt path into the forest, moving east. My goal for the day was Zapotitlan, east of Tepango. I thought the trail would be a short cut and would join again later with the main road but I was wrong, and ended up walking for 90 minutes only to have to turn around and invest another 90 minutes returning to the road.
It was worth the trouble though, because the dead-end of the trail was also the start of a massive drop-off down into the valley below, and presented a glorious view out across the valley to the peaks on the other side of the canyon. It was so quiet and remote; I listened carefully but I couldn’t hear anything at all.