Both Feet on the Ground: Walking from town to town in rural Mexico
By Andrew Wilson
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.
But walking as a means of transportation offers a unique way of seeing places that would otherwise be very difficult to reach. It presents the traveler an interesting perspective on the rhythm and pattern of out-of-the-way Mexico and brings you close to the people who live there.
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.
Its capital city of the same name is the fourth largest in Mexico; industrial and gritty, but with a beautiful colonial core.
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 into 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.
It was a hot 30 km walk on a dirt and gravel road, but the scenery was rugged and the air clean and bright. The only vehicles I saw were rough pick-up trucks going in the opposite direction.
I spent the evening sitting outside in the cool air of the tiny zocalo with my feet propped up on a concrete bench drinking two bottles of Negra Modelo beer and eating peanuts.
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 one house – a rough wooden cabin really, balancing on the side of a hill. Rosendo first read a passage of the bible in Spanish, then translated it into Nahuatl for the old couple who looked as though they’d lived there forever and hadn’t ever wandered more than a few hours away.
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 22 km 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.
I found the only hotel in town, and it had no shower, no sink, and no sheets on the bed. It did, however, have a flat roof where I spent an hour later that night sitting in a warm wind watching a magical lightning storm walk itself slowly from west to east across the mountains.
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 a 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.
No one was here, or anywhere near here. I saw hawks and vultures flying up on thermals so close to me that I could see the individual feathers on their backs.
From where I was sitting using my binoculars I could see small settlements on the other side of the valley, and shadowy figures moving up the hillside.
Where were they? I barely knew how I managed to find the energy I don’t know, but I walked that day all the way to Zapotitlan, nearly 50 hot kilometers in total. But it was worth it. The town was down at the bottom of the valley, and the last hour and a half or so were spent following the road as it wound like a corkscrew down into the valley and across an old bridge into the town.
All day long the plants and the air kept changing. I must have been straddling an altitude that separates deciduous, temperate forest from the semi-tropical forest, because the road at the bottom of the valley leading into town went along a frothy river with banana palms and coffee plants, with thicker trees and more exotic birds and sounds.
It was hotter, and humid, and I could look back up along the road to where I’d come from and still see hawks and vultures circling.
The only hotel in town was actually some sort of government hostel, but they were happy to rent me a room. I ate chicken soup and tortillas in a small fonda on the main street, and later rested my feet and drank beer and ate peanuts in the town square.
I’m nothing if not habitual. Curious locals passed by me every 5 minutes or so (some more than once), sneaking looks, never saying anything. I’d always say “buenas noches”, and they’d smile, and say “buenas”, but never approach.
Snakes, Bugs, and Bananas
The next day, the hardest and longest walk started early. Mist and insects covered the fields at the side of the road as I started walking, and the sun-soaked through thick canopy alongside the river.
Very soon I took a turn south-east, up along the side of the steep ravine I could see from my hotel window the night before.
There were many small settlements on this part of the walk, farm huts, tiny industrial compounds, field shacks, and houses. The climate again turned back to temperate as I left the bananas and coffee plants back down in town.
A long walk brought me to the top of a high plateau that looked down east across a vast valley and up the side of the next ubiquitous series of hills. There was a police checkpoint here, but I was waved through along with all the other walkers.
A trek down the hillside brought me into the town of Huitzilan, where I rested in the pretty church courtyard and drank my water and ate a few tortillas I’d bought the day before at a small restaurant.
People here were bright and cheerful, a few older men stopped to say hello. I could tell they were curious, so I told them I was a traveler from Canada, passing through their town. They seemed happy enough with that and wished me luck.
The paved road ended quickly at the end of the town and turned to heavy gravel, moving into scenery only the walkers get to see: deep gorges with running water at their feet, high cliffs, and rough roads cut out of the pine trees and scrub.
I saw coral snakes sneak across the road and saw the haze of the day’s heat lift itself up from the gravel. The road went up and down and wound around corners and over crude bridges. It was hot and dry, and extremely remote. I passed villagers now and then going somewhere.
Hospitality and Barking Dogs
My feet ached. Hour after hour of uneven, large stone gravel takes a toll on the walker’s feet, and my dogs were barking. Finally, I reached Huahuaxtla, at the top of another hill.
All day, gaining and then losing altitude. There were no hotels here I was told by a woman in a small shop. One of the men I asked, Salvador, told me I could stay with him in his house. I accepted gratefully.
In addition to Salvador, there was his wife, a clutch of children, and a few older people. I was given a sofa to sleep on, and it was comfortable and welcoming after the hot dinner of chicken, rice, peppers and tortillas they served me.
I told them as best I could in Spanish about Canada, my trip, and what I thought of their country. In the morning I checked my shoes for scorpions, then quietly left a small bundle of pesos on the table as I left. “Algo para la casa,” I said. “Something for the household,”
Unwinding your journey
Two days later after more walking and more villages and towns, I walked into the Cuetzalan and saw its cobbled streets, old cathedral and flower sellers in the main square.
I love walking into large towns. You can actually feel the change as you move from the countryside, to the outskirts, to suburbs, and finally to the town.
When you arrive at a place in a bus or car you’re just there, suddenly in a place different from where you started. When you walk to get there you always touch the same ground, unwinding the journey, slowly, like letting fishing line out into the water from your boat.
You see the town in the context of the entire country, and you see how it fits in with everything around it. You know where it is because, in a sense, you were already there when you started.
Andrew Wilson lives and works in Vancouver but travels frequently to Mexico. Long-distance walking started on a trip to Northern Thailand when he was stranded waiting for a bus to come along and decided to walk instead. Other walking trips include stints in Japan, India, Turkey, and Uganda. Andrew is currently working on the next great Canadian travel book about an adventure through East Africa.