Villa Talea de Castro, in Oaxaca''s Villa Alta District
Another spring, another trip to Oaxaca, Mexico to collect ferns with Michael Sundue (University of Vermont), Alejandra Vasco (then at UNAM, now at BRIT), and Rafael Torres (UNAM). This year, we went focused on a series of old collecting localities along the border of the Villa Alta and Ixtlan districts in Oaxaca's Sierra Norte. Our principal goal was to collect near Capulalpam de Mendez, a large town about 1.5 hours northwest of Oaxaca City where several important 19th and 20th century collectors had worked. Of course, things don't always go according to plan, especially when in comes to field work, and more especially in Oaxaca. Carrying out fieldwork in Oaxaca has become complicated in recent years due to a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the prevailing municipal governmental system in the Sierra Norte, in which men carry out annual terms at varied posts in the town-accountant, police chief, mayor- all seemingly unlinked from state and federal systems. From the perspective of a supporter of indigenous peoples' autonomy in Mexico and elsewhere, this system gives me hope. From the perspective of a field biologist, the system is difficult to navigate and at times, painful.
This was one of those times. After arriving in Capulalpam, we spent most of the afternoon trying to establish contact with the town's newly appointed comisariado. This is usually a pretty straightforward affair: we arrive, ask someone for directions to the comisariado's office, and that's that. For whatever reason, things went differently in Capulalpam, and it took us a day and a half to get an audience with the comisariado. After a short introduction and meeting, it became clear that we wouldn't be getting permission to work in the town's forests anytime soon, so we moved on.
After a few more hours on the road, we made it to the small, remote town of San Miguel Yotao. The town is only 10 km northeast of Capulalpam, but it is difficult to reach (only one bus a week travels between here and Oaxaca City, which is rather shocking given the importance of bus transit in remote parts of Mexico generally) and little explored. This time we had good luck finding the comisariado, but the result was the same. We got back in the truck and continued eastward, hoping to find somewhere to stay before sunset.
Our travel slowed by an inordinate number of speedbumps, it was late in the afternoon when we arrived in Villa Talea de Castro, by far the the largest town we had encountered since Capulalpam. A few hours and some exceptional sopa de pollo later, we had what we needed: permission to collect ferns and a guide to accompany us. We settled in for the night, with the plan to head into the forest above the town in the morning.
In the morning's light, we realized the source of Villa Talea's relative wealth: extensive coffee plantations hugged the town's limits and continued downslope out of sight. This area is somewhat warmer and drier than other regions of the Sierra Norte, making it excellent coffee-growing terrain. Unfortunately, productive coffee territory and top-notch ferning rarely go hand-in-hand. As we climbed the mountain above Villa Talea, we encountered relatively few ferns, and the forest got drier and more disturbed as we climbed. After six hours and a modest haul of ferns, we decided we should head back to the truck, process our plants, and then move east towards Oaxaca's highest peak, Cerro Zempoaltepetl. Our plans were soon interrupted when our truck got hopelessly wedged in a ditch on the logging road above the town - it would be another 18 hours before it was dug out.
Without time to go to Cerro Zempoaltepetl, we headed back to Oaxaca City just in time to catch a lucha libre downtown.
Not the most productive collecting trip I've been on, but there were some highlights: I made only the third collection of Asplenium insolitum, we made lots of valuable collections of the Elaphoglossum sartorii complex, and I got to see my first lucha!