On leaving Mexico City, and drawing closer to the awesome volcanoes, evidence of crop cultivation increased as urban sprawl decreased. Despite the very arid looking environment, on the banks of the volcano there was a lot of corn growing activity. I can only imagine that the volcanic soil must be very fertile as water was definitely a scarce commodity.
Past the volcanoes and deeper into Puebla and Oaxaca states arable land was all around us. We rode down the Tehuacan Valley, where it is thought that Mexico’s earliest agriculture developed. By 7,000-5,000BC people were harvesting avocados, chilies, corn and cotton. The museum in the town of Tehuacan has tiny preserved corn cobs, thought to be among the first ever cultivated. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to check these out. However, we can vouch for the fact that Tehuacan remains a hub of food production today – the Saturday morning market was pure, glorious chaos. It took us 20mins to traverse the traffic – humans and motors all blended together.
The ancient crops are still grown in abundance here. Also, sugarcane. There is a factory for processing the stuff in the middle of the remote valley that employs most of the inhabitants of the village it occupies.
Apart from farming, the only other real sign of industry was eco-tourism. However, despite the numerous signs pointing to various rural refuges for tourists there was little sign of these being used.
In addition to the large scale cultivation there are also tonnes of milpas – garden patches tended by one or several families to provide sustenance. In rural Oaxaca I think that many people need to supplement their diets with homegrown produce. It’s a long drive, or bus ride to market. Everyone is growing something. And along the banks of the river that we followed for our first full day in Oaxaca, water is definitely not a problem allowing all sorts of tropical fruits and vegetables to grow. At the end of a long, hot day a kind lady gave us some chica sapotes from her garden – a strange, hairy fruit whose taste reminded me of a cross between a fig and an apricot. Sticky and delicious.
Grist has an interesting take on milpas, and how they fit into the modern food chain. The article is a bit old, but interesting nonetheless.