I dream that I can see myself walking among a ghost forest of thousand-year-old oak trees, with hanging strands of moss swaying slightly in the soft, chilly wind, floating spectres of the past that watch me pass by. I follow the narrow path upstream. It leads to a beautiful enchanted emerald waterfall, the cool mist enveloping my face and arms as the water crashes down. Walking again, the river’s course leads me upstream, along canals that surround parcels of tall crops made of pure gold, dancing in the wind, dancing to the beat of the water that surrounds them, clear as crystal. I reach the far end, up where the river parts the land and twin stone titans rise above to keep watch of its most precious treasure. I descend deep inside a cave where I encounter this treasure: a water source, a spring, which gives life to all that rests in this iridescent Garden of Eden. It is just like the spring mentioned in the local legends, giving life to the two trees that, in turn, created a civilisation. Apoala, where the Mixtec Gods created the Mixtec man.
The village of Santiago Apoala lays at the bottom of a steep system of canyons in the middle of the mountains of the Mixteca Region in northern Oaxaca. Although it does not seem far, it is nearly a three-hour drive by car or van from Oaxaca Centro. After driving into the town of Nochixtlán, we took the journey north along narrow dirt roads across ghostly oak forests and dry, barren landscapes that make you wonder how local farmers manage to grow anything. After passing through a couple of villages, the road led us to the edge of a canyon. I looked out into the abyss and felt a deep hole in my stomach – not from the vertigo caused by looking down – but because at the very bottom I could see what I had seen in my dream: it was the small patch of green surrounded by the stone titans. It was as if the garden knew I was coming.
From here the only way to reach the village was by descending a zig-zagging trail that circles the edge of the mountain basin, leading directly to Apoala’s entrance. First, contact was made at the community tourism offices where we were greeted by the ecotourism committee. We paid our entry fees and were shown to our lodging in the wood cabins at the far end of the town. We decided to freshen up at the cabins before coming back to the tour office for lunch, and later we would take a stroll downstream to the main waterfall, Cola de Serpiente (Snake’s Tail).
The hike down is pretty safe; most of the trail has man-made steps, with a few patches of rock and mud to deal with. The scenery, though, is spectacular! With every step you encounter thick mountain forest with a mix of subtropical species – a true miracle of nature, considering the dry land up above. Step by step, we were beckoned by the comforting sound of water falling, getting louder and louder with each level we came down. Along the way, we stopped and admired the sparkling green stones from which the water crashes down, the snake god’s colourful and coarse scales slithering down to the underworld. We finally reached the magnificent site of the snake’s thunderous meeting with the bottom of the river, forming a large pool, deep enough to allow for an Olympic dive to cool down from all the hiking.
During the walk back to the cabins, we had to cross the whole town. Apoala is mainly a farming village, so it was no surprise to encounter parcel after parcel of corn or wheat growing, as well as small houses made of a unique combination of stone, adobe, and wood, along with sections made from both red and concrete bricks. Farm animals such as oxen, horses, cows, and chickens stared at us as we strolled by. Not a soul on the streets; it was getting close to sunset and people were preparing for nightfall. I began to observe that surrounding each parcel or home were several canals through which water flowed, enclosing rectangle-shaped blocks of land, and connecting back to each other to keep the course of the river flowing downstream. As we reached the edge of the village, where the cabins are located, it hit me: the villagers had divided the river into a system of canals which can be opened and closed to direct water to a specific parcel. This system allows them to take advantage of the precious resource without compromising the river’s natural flow down the canyon. It was astonishing to witness how Apoala’s people live in such harmony with nature. As night came, I kept thinking that all I had seen that day was somehow present in the dream.
The following morning, after breakfast, we followed the main river into the canyon it dissected. The trail led us on one side of the gorge, a much more difficult path than the hike down to the waterfall. The diversity of plants growing on the side walls was astonishing. A wide variety of cacti and agave clenched for dear life between the rocks, and at the very top, different types of palm trees and plants looked down on us as we tried to advance as much as we could. After a while, the complicated rocky trail proved we needed better gear and more experience, so we decided to turn back towards the village.
As we exited the canyon, our guide pointed out another marvel to see: La Gruta, the cavern. We decided it was worth taking a look and began to climb down its muddy slopes. This cave digs deep into the mountain and hides a natural water source, which feeds into the existing river. The source was too deep to reach but could be heard very clearly. It was then I realised this was the spot the Mixtec legend was referring to: the spring from which life was created. It was a magnificent feeling.
We finished the trip with a lovely dinner in the town’s main hall at the tour office. Once again, our succulent meal was prepared by local cooks; a gracious black bean soup with such a flavour that you could taste the soil it was grown in; warm, hearty tortillas of heirloom corn; and a chunk of queso fresco to marry them both, melting like a sweet and sour cream in our mouths. We exchanged personal notes on our adventures in the land of the Mixtecos, laughing and feasting into the night. The trip to Apoala was truly a source of inspiration and introspection. The surrounding natural beauty of the place, coupled with the ingenuity and warmth of its people, makes for an unforgettable experience. I am eager to go back and visit, and with luck (and a low tide!) I hope to witness in person that source within the cave that gives life to this Garden of Eden and to an entire civilisation.