San Felipe Usila: Capital of the Chinantla

Welcome to Usila: a dreamy jungle town nestled deep in the mountains of Northern Oaxaca, famous for its idyllic transparent rivers and ancient indigenous traditions, including embroidery styles and world-famous cuisine. The dish most commonly associated with the area is Caldo de Piedra, a delicious herbed fish soup served in a gourd and heated with stones. Dotted by rubber plantations, the swaying, feathery fronds of reed beds and sugar cane fields in bloom entrance any who pass through their lands. While Usila is far off the beaten path, the trip to the remote area is worth it.

San Felipe Usila takes its name from huitzila, a Náhuatl name meaning ‘where the hummingbirds are in abundance.’ It isn’t a misnomer. With so many tropical flowers to enjoy, hummingbirds and butterflies abound, along with many river fish, porcupine, armadillo, jaguar, a variety of deer species, gray fox, and hawk. Protected by grand Ceibas, oak, cedar and palm, the region is a natural wonderland.

We arrived in Usila with friends whose family is from the town. We spent our days by the river, swimming and relaxing. Spectacular scenery and an easy-going vibe made for perfect days, meeting friendly locals and eating delicious regional dishes. We felt wonderfully at home and in awe of the natural beauty.

While naturally spectacular, it offers even more culturally. Oaxaca is home to a diverse range of indigenous cultures, many speaking ancestral languages. The Papaloapan River Basin is a confluence of several, Chinanteco being one of the most prominent. Interestingly, Usila is located where the Papaloapan River begins (the principal waterway of the region) and it’s widely considered the capital of the Chinantla. Its Chinantec community, much like the Mixes, was not interrupted during the Spanish conquest. For this reason, there are almost no colonial buildings there.

Usila is based-in a matriarchal society, the tradition of Caldo de Piedra (soup from the rock) comes from a ceremony of men preparing this honorary broth as a gift for the women of the community. The pre-Hispanic dish is still prepared today, on special occasions, preserving their customs and diverse way of seeing the world. The river stones, in just 3 minutes, cook the fish, shrimp, vegetables, and other ingredients into a savory broth.

The original way to prepare the soup is in a hollow in a boulder, dropping small fire-heated stones to do the cooking. The Chinantec elders choose the circular stones that are heated to cook the soup. It is a communal task and the men divide the labor between fishing, collecting firewood, tending the fire and heating the stones. Fishing is done with an atarraya, or round net, and they catch prawns and small tilapia, which are set aside alive in buckets of water. The soup made in these giant stone receptacles may feed as many as 20 people, making the cooking, eating and time shared a communal experience. Legends tell of stone pots made of diamonds once found in the area.

Nowadays its more common to cook the soup in the large gourds its traditionally served in, with tomatoes, serrano peppers, onions and a special seasoning leaf called oacuyo. The fish is cleaned and seasoned and cold water is added. Afterward the hot rocks are taken from the fire and, one by one, dropped into the soup, where they cause it boil. The men rotate the rocks for several minutes, adding hot ones when necessary until the mixture is cooked to perfection. The soup is accompanied by handmade, large nixtamal tortillas.

Aside from Caldo de Piedra, many of the region’s other popular dishes are all prepared expertly in Usila – such as black, yellow and red mole, simple tlayudas or with mole, corn tortillas, corn quesadillas, tamales of different moles, roasted grasshoppers and tasajo (similar to beef jerky). Special regional plants lend exotic flavors to their dishes, like axiote (unique local seasoning) and vanilla which is believed to originate from the Chinantla. Popo, a famous Chinantec drink, is a layered concoction of sweet, sugary, cold chocolate foam and hot white corn atole (like porridge). The range of their gastronomy is incredible.

The artistic creation doesn’t end there either. The stitching styles famous to the region are intricate, unique, hand-woven and convey messages through the textiles. There are three different huipiles used by the women of the region, each one designated for a different occasion or level of formality. The paneled sheath dress incorporates different geometric designs, animals or flowers, and ribbons or lace. A woman’s hair is typically worn in a double braid, with ribbons woven throughout them and tied in bows at the end.

The Chinantecs of Usila, are surrounded by abundant water, flora and fauna, maintain rich traditions, and live well.

Getting there and getting away

The village of Usila can be considered the capital of Chinantla, and can be reached from Tuxtepec along the 80 km paved road leading to Ojitlan and Jalapa de Diaz, where one turns left and after 50 km of dirt road, arrives at the village. This last journey takes about two hours, in the midst of dazzling vegetation. It goes up and down repeatedly until it reaches the ravine where the town is located, after a descent through semi-vertical walls that form the road carved in the rocky mountain, sometimes practically under a stone roof.

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