20 Jul San Isidro Naranjal: Waterfalls of San José Chiltepec
San Isidro Naranjal, called Naranjal (the “orange grove”), is a paradise of crystal clear water, jungle vegetation, rushing waterfalls and naturally-occurring turquoise swimming pools. Winding through the primeval rain forest, you’ll find this hidden refuge peaceful and quiet, visited mainly by the families that live in the indigenous community. Located in the Papaloapan River Basin in Northern Oaxaca, Naranjal is on the outskirts of Chiltepec. A beautiful ride from Tuxtepec, its closest city, dense tropical vegetation envelops surrounding hills, Zebu bulls graze on open spaces, flowering cane fields sway in the breeze, rivulets trickle down from the mountains making tiny cascades and little creeks, and during the rainy season, clear streams run across the road.
From the main road which connects Tuxtepec to Oaxaca City, you arrive in Chiltepec and turn off onto a dirt road which takes you another half-hour into the valley between the cane fields and, farther away, the forested mountains. Visually stunning, the region has much more to offer. Life is tranquil, people are humble, hard-working and kind, the food is delectable, and their culture is rich with traditions. People farm as their primary livelihood, cultivating sugarcane, corn, and fruit.
Naranjal is known locally for its emerald colored waterfalls, which are only popular in the rainy season (between July and January). It’s interesting to us because our favorite time is the dry season where we are often the only ones there! There are several different waterfalls in Naranjal and you can hike and climb from one to the next. Isla waterfall and the Arcoíris waterfall are the most popular, but we often congregate in smaller ones, of which there are many. The water ranges from aquamarine to vibrant green. Palapas along the waterfall path offer regional dishes, like tlayudas (giant crunchy loaded quesadillas), and drinks, like agua de horchata (sweet rice water) or jamaica (hibiscus flower).
San José Chiltepec is a Chinantec municipality, and the land is communally owned and managed. To govern their land, they make decisions in democratic assemblies independent of the government. Almost 98% of the people in Naranjal are indigenous; 83% speak Chinantec and about 18% don’t speak Spanish. Many of its inhabitants are said to have come from a sister village in the 60s, the Cañada de San Juan Bautista Tlacoatzintepec. Common to the Chinantla, thriving language, customs, and cuisine, the culture is rich, but due to economic difficulties, it needs increased awareness and social programs.
An entrance fee of 10 pesos (50 cents) is charged for taking care of the streams and waterfalls. Upon entry, you see a crystal clear stream winding down through the jungle mountains, large trees on either side. A main path climbs the hill, passing palapas that smell of grilling meat and tortillas, toward the first waterfalls, perfectly transparent swimming holes forming beneath them. Relaxing, swimming, listening to the quiet babble of the water moving downstream, the sun glinting between the thick foliage, it’s an incredible way to spend the day.
Getting there and getting away
San Isidro Naranjal is 7.9 kilometers to the northeast of San José Chiltepec, about 30 minutes by car. Trucks are available, leaving from the main access to Chiltepec on the Tuxtepec-Oaxaca road, labeled “Camino a las cascadas de San Isidro Naranjal” (Road to the Waterfalls of San Isidro Naranjal).