I was sitting around the palapa at my place a couple of weeks ago when my Canadian neighbors asked me how my Spanish was. "Decent," I said. "Do you want to go meet some friends of ours in Pluma Hidalgo?" they asked. "Sure!" Pluma Hidalgo is a small town in the mountains about an hour from Huatulco, which I had never yet been to. The town is famous for its organic, shade-grown coffee, planted amidst the forest on hillsides between 4000 and 5000 feet. It turns out my neighbors had befriended a Pluma couple two years before, but their friends spoke little English and they spoke little Spanish, so they wondered if I could help facilitate communication. Their friend Pablo had ambitious eco-tourism plans for Pluma, and had had great success selling his entire coffee crop a few years before to Ben and Jerry's for their coffee ice cream.
Since I was looking to expand my local hiking and adventure offerings for my fledgling tour business, they thought it would be great for us to meet each other. The real surprise was finding that the highway was open all the way to Pluma Hidalgo, a highway I had only discovered the existence of two months before and had assumed was closed. No one I had met yet had ever been on the road. My neighbors assured me that they always went that way to Pluma, and it had been open the last few years. When you get halfway to Pluma, to the town of Santa Maria Huatulco
, there are no signs indicating the road to Pluma exists or how to get to it. If you're not a local you have little chance of ever finding out about it.
With the wonder that is Google Earth, I easily figured out the route through Santa Maria to the bridge across the river to the highway. The bridge had been washed out a couple years before, but a new one was in place again.
Within five miles of leaving Santa Maria the world changed. In the winter dry season, the coast is brown and barren, but here everything was still green. The higher we climbed up into the mountains, the lusher everything got and the cooler the air became. It was like Santa Maria was our wardrobe and we were entering Narnia. By the time we reached Pluma Hidalgo, it was as different a world as could be. I couldn't believe this world was only an hour away. The town of Pluma Hidalgo is perched precariously on a ridge at 4400', with unbelievable views in every direction.
When it's clear, you can see the Pacific. When we got up into town we visited with Neva at her tienda and my friends asked her where Pablo was. "He's at the municipio. He's the president of the town now." This was a surprise. Not only was I going to meet someone with great hopes for creating a viable economy in the traditionally poor mountains, he was in a position to really do something about it. Pablo received us graciously at the municipio, and introduced us to his "cabinet" - the director of schools, public works, health, and every other division of municipal government. He showed me the town's plan for building five eco-cabins in different locations above town, along with all the other projects they hoped to launch. The road was finally going to be paved the last five kilometers to the Oaxaca highway, a new artisan market was going to be built, and they hoped to bring hikers and mountain bikers to the area.
He opined that traditionally the town lost its youth to other parts of Mexico and the US, because there was no opportunity for them. He hoped the new eco-tourism economy could change that. He also proved to be a fierce conservationist, which most shade-grown coffee producers are because their crops depend upon a healthy forest.
My friends were hoping to purchase twenty-three kilos of coffee from Pablo and Neva, but they didn't have any ready so we agreed to come back in three days time and visit with them again. On Saturday we rolled back up to Pluma and met with Neva at her tienda for breakfast. She prepared two dozen tortillas with salsa and melted cheese, downed with the local coffee. When we nearly full, she suddenly asked me if I liked goat, and if Robin and Sharon did too.
I told her yes, and she brought back a plate of goat drenched in an incredible red chile pepper sauce. It was as tender and tasty as any goat I've ever eaten. I've discovered these sort of dishes are more characteristic of the mountain towns, and are some of my favorite Mexican cuisine. You can't get them at restaurants down in Huatulco.
Guillermo, a gentle middle-aged man who is the director of schools, was supplied to us by Pablo as a hiking guide because Pablo had to go down to Pochutla for the day. My friends had wanted to go up to Pablo's plantation, which we did - and then some. We proceeded to hike all the way to the top of the ridge above town, which was breathtaking (lots of breathtaking!) High up on the hill we stopped in to see an old Zapotec woman and her small plantation (virtually all the mountain villages in this region are populated by Zapotecs, some assimilated more than others).
Though the woman's Spanish seemed okay, even Guillermo had trouble understanding her at times. He was asking her what the name of her ranch was, and this seemed to puzzle her because it didn't really have one. When Guillermo commented to her what a pretty place it was so high up, she shrugged off the praise with a laugh and indicated she wouldn't mind trading it for somewhere lower where the wind didn't wreak havoc with her life so much. As we passed along the high ridge trail, Guillermo pointed out places where the coffee plants had been stripped badly by the gale force winds which roar across the ridge at times.
The views into the neighboring valleys were incredible, and Guillermo rattled off the names of all the villages on distant ridges and down in valleys as we tried haplessly to remember them - Candelaria, Las Trancas, San Pedro de Alto, and many more.
At the very peak of the ridge, which was further than Robin and Sharon had expected to go, Sharon told me she wanted to ask Guillermo jokingly if there was a colectivo (communal pickup truck) to take us back. I translated this to Guillermo and he let out a belly laugh. Yes, he replied with a twinkle in his eye. Those two donkeys we passed on the trail early in the hike? That was the colectivo. We all got a good laugh out of that. It was a fairly short descent from the peak to a dirt road that would lead us back down hill to our car, which turned out to be the old road to Copalita village and the Oaxaca highway before the Pluma highway had been built. Back down near the car, we stopped at a community center for the little hamlet of Pasionaria that sat on this hill over town.
Pablo's first wife Silvia was there and we chatted with her, and watched some shy and smiling young Zapotec women weaving a shawl on a wooden frame and peg layout.
Back at Neva's tienda, she had a huge bag of roasted coffee beans ready for Robin and Sharon, and another smaller three kilo bag that I was buying. Once we loaded them into my car, it was the greatest air freshener you could ever want. It obliterated any other smell. On the way home we stopped as often as possible to look at vistas, partly to enjoy the view and partly so we could enjoy the full strength of the smell all over again once we stepped back into the car. At Santa Maria we went back through the wardrobe and into our warm and barren winter habitat that we were accustomed to.
It never seems any more real each time.