A young girl in Oaxaca cooks tortillas over the fire // © 2014 Naeyshae Ahrnberg
Though plenty of travelers are drawn to Mexico’s upscale all-inclusive resorts, notable chef-driven restaurants and modern capital city, some arrive with intentions to see something other than the contemporary offerings.
One way to gain a better understanding of Mexico is to learn about its cultures and traditions first-hand. This is possible if a traveler is willing to step away from the country’s more developed regions.
Following are four communities that welcome respectful visitors who will leave a very small footprint.
According to Kassandra Miller of Adventure Life, a tour operator out of Michigan that specializes in ecotourism, southern Mexico is the best region for experiencing a different side of Mexico, and that includes Oaxaca. Here, subsistence farmers still grow their own food to eat and trade with other farmers, and the vast majority of residents continue to follow the traditional processes of turning corn into food without the help of machines.
“In Oaxaca, you’re going to see something you won’t see in many other areas,” said Miller. “The people grow all of their corn, then they dry it by hand, grind it into masa by hand, pat out the tortillas by hand, then cook them over a comal, an implement to cook over fire. Women do this for hours every day in this area. That’s quite different than, say, a lady in Mexico City who’s likely buying tortillas from the store — and they might even be made of flour, which is not a traditional component of Mexican cuisine.”
As might be expected, travelers are not advised to simply show up solo expecting to experience the local lifestyle. Miller advises going with a tour operator that has already built trusted relationships with the community.
“I don’t think showing up on your own always goes that well,” Miller said. “Some villages want to share their traditions with outsiders, so they have local tourism programs in place. We use local guides who know the culture.”
Adventure Life offers travel agents 10 percent commission on bookings. The Oaxaca Traditions tour takes clients to multiple Zapotec villages in the area. Guests often have the chance to overnight in a local’s home, helping grind corn into masa or using local produce to put together a complete, traditional meal.
Chiapas, sandwiched between Oaxaca and the Guatemala border, is also home to traditional communities. The area hosts more visitors than Oaxaca because of the Palenque Ruins, the site of a Maya city-state in the 7th century. The well-preserved structures include fine examples of historic Mexican architecture and hieroglyphics.
Marlene Erhenberg has been leading ecotours in Mexico for 35 years, and founded the country’s first eco-adventure tourism organization. She appreciates Chiapas for the variety of groups that call the area home.
“This area is very rich in tradition, and people are very proud of their ways of life,” Erhenberg said. “In the lower part there’s jungle, and the locals grow cacao. But up in the San Cristobal Mountains, at about 6,000 feet in elevation, women dress in woolen skirts and the men wear woolen panchos, and they make traditional ceramics and textiles.”
In San Juan Chamula, travelers will find a large Tzotzil community, an indigenous Mayan group. Marlene Erhenberg Tours often visits this area as part of custom-designed trips. Agents are paid 10 percent commission. Adventure Life offers the seven-day Chiapas Maya Heartland tour, which includes visits to several Mayan villages and ruins.
Another group with Maya roots are the Raramuri people, a group originally from Chihuahua that migrated to the magnificent and vast Copper Canyon in the 16th century. Due to the nature of the geography here, getting to know Raramuri culture isn’t as easy as simply as showing up to a particular village.
“The Raramuri are classically insulated,” said Miller, of Adventure Life. “Most of them don’t live in villages, but in rocky outcroppings in the canyon. Trekking trips are the best way to get a feel for how they live. You take the railroad in, then hike deeper into the canyon for four or five days. With the help of a local guide, you will come into contact with the Raramuri.”
If hiking into the canyon is too ambitious, Miller and Erhenberg both recommend a visit to the town of Creel, where westernized Mexican culture and Raramuri culture coexist. Erhenberg often uses Creel as a pit stop before taking guests into smaller communities she’s familiar with, including Norogachi, where guests can partake in the springtime ceremonies of the Raramuri.
Much of the state of Quintana Roo is well developed, but some Maya descendants remain in the area, their lifestyle bearing the obvious influence of Western and Caribbean cultures.
“Maya descendants here have had Western development for so long that many indigenous people are now working in the service industry, so of course that changes their culture over time,” Miller said. “There is some Caribbean influence, or garifuna, as they call it, and that’s easily seen in the food. In the highlands you’ll eat corn and tortillas and vegetables, but here you’ll have more seafood, tropical fruits, coconut. If you go inland, you’ll get more of the Mayan influence.”
Once in the area, Erhenberg recommends visiting the important archaeological sites nearby, such as the Tulum ruins. She also advises that travelers spend time in the cenotes, subterranean bodies of water around which Mayans once lived, farming and making folk art.