Outside the typical specialities of Oaxaca City lay rich collections of culture and biodiversity tucked away within surreal scenery – a magical playground that few have the chance to explore, yet has so much to offer. The state of Oaxaca is home to 16 active indigenous languages, 400+ species of mushrooms, cave systems, beaches, turquoise waterfalls, and intricate mountain ranges all within seven distinct regions where kindness and community are king. Fortunately, many of these unique towns, vistas, hiking, mountain biking, climbing and horseback riding trail systems, amongst other sacred destinations, are reachable within a day trip’s distance of Oaxaca City.
Apart from a traveller’s inevitably delicious culinary journey, many find it has become harder and harder to get off the beaten path within Oaxaca City. There, the city centre blurs the reality of how most people live in rural Mexico, including the Oaxacan sierra and valleys. Travelling from the city centre to these small communities shares a bigger picture of Oaxaca where class stratification is potent and cultural richness and diversity is deeply celebrated. Find ease in how accessible these hidden paradises and experiences are no matter how little time you may have in Oaxaca.
Check out these 10 outdoor adventures where you can find your own slice of heaven, an unexpected exchange with a local, or a much-needed moment of silence and perspective. Get out there!
1. Los Pueblos Mancomunados in the Sierra Norte
Don’t let the windy road dissuade you from heading up into the Sierra Norte mountains north of Oaxaca City. Just on the other side lays a network of towns that collaborate to offer visitors exceptional integrated trekking and mountain biking experiences in the beautiful forest. There, the communities of Amatlán, Benito Juárez, Latuvi, Cuajimoloyas, La Nevería, Llano Grande, Yavesía, and in part Lachatao, form Los Pueblos Mancomunados. Their ecotourism industry is a community effort and seen as a priority for not only economic stability but ecological preservation.
Local guides will shepherd you around and between towns sharing knowledge of the communal land, stunning biodiversity of plants and mushrooms, and human history of the area. Take your pick of hiking, mountain biking, or horseback riding through remote trails or past agave fields and animal pastures. While it’s practical to travel between two towns on a day trip, each community offers options to spend the night. String together a few days hopping between villages and you’ll find yourself in a non-tourist destination wishing your could forever stay off the map.
When you visit Lachatao you will feel the peace and serenity of the village. Although Lachatao is formally separated from the Pueblos Mancomunados network, their community maintains an incredible offering of hiking and biking trails. The most incredible place is ‘El Cerro del Jaguar’ a sacred Zapotec site with a 360 degree view of the Sierra, however there are more highlights including a circuit to the old gold and silver mines and caves that served as storage spaces to preserve harvested crops – a local guide can even lead you inside! In order to maintain a connection with their indigenous identity, the Lachatao community established their own educational system to preserve their language and honor the traditional communal and solidarity-based customs.
One idea is to start in Latuvi and ride or walk to Lachatao (14 km). Called ‘Camino Real’, this trail is a very old route that follows the river and was used for trade between the mountains and the central valleys. Upon arrival in Lachatao, go to the local temazcal (steam bath) and have a traditional cleanse . Keep an eye out for local fauna including white-tailed deer, and “tigrillo,” a small spotted leopard lurking in the trees.
3. Spiritual Stopover in San Jose del Pacifico
Break up your trip to or from the coast with a taste of the Sierra Sur region in San Jose del Pacífico. With a well-established hiking trail system, a thriving ecosystem and an economy based in mushrooms, this is a place with plenty of things to do. Here you can de-stress, re-centre, and cleanse.
With cooler temperatures and a high altitude, the community welcomes you with a slower pace of life and an opportunity to have a cosmic experience through medicinal psychedelic mushrooms. You can find a comfortable home base in one of the backpacking hostels or your choice of private cabins, the perfect place to overlook the morning mist.
You’ll also find numerous opportunities to complement your mushroom exploration through a purifying temazcal experience, a walk to nearby waterfalls or a hike to San Sebastián Río Hondo, a beautiful small village with adobe houses.
4. Find it all at La Cumbre Ixtepeji
Located 45 minutes north west of Oaxaca City is La Cumbre Ixtepeji where a series of professionally made mountain bike trails are at your full disposal. Meanwhile, the non-bikers of the group can take full advantage of meandering hiking trails that also offer wonderful opportunities for birdwatching. Meet back up with your crew at the end of the day for a night of camping or stay overnight in the local cabañas which you’ll find right as you exit the main road.
This is a paradise for mountain bikers. The best trails of the country for endurance, cross country and downhill are waiting for you with lots of flow, adrenaline, jumps, obstacles and surrounded by the magical nature of the forest.
5. Walk it out in Santiago Apoala
Just three hours from Oaxaca City lies a condensed cliffside paradise. There are only two comedores in town to cook you up delicious Oaxacan food such as mole with chicken or enfrijoladas, so pack your snacks and a couple of meals. There’s plenty to see here so reserve a cabaña with two bunk beds($500 MXN per night) or head out camping and set up your tent beside the river. There’s also one hotel in town.
Have a local guide lead you into the surrounding canyon, caves, and surreal lagoons. Bring your rock climbing gear or mountain bike and gain a different perspective of the box canyon from up above. Expect to make friends with the sweet local dogs and watch the world soften as the light changes in the afternoon. Grab a cold beer from the corner bodega and watch out for donkeys running loose as you listen to the river water trickle into the surrounding farm beds.
6. Hierve el Agua… Plus!
Despite “Hierve el Agua” being in nearly every tour agency’s repertoire, you can certainly still get off the beaten path. Remember, life is always a bit softer and sweeter during the beginning and final hours of the day, so get there early and camp out at night. At the higher altitude, the sun will be warm enough to take a dip into the natural infinity pool first thing in the morning before anyone else arrives. The dripping minerals are good for the mind and body and set the tone to dig deeper into the area and drop down to a unique and hidden waterfall, another natural grotto, a two and a half hour hike down below the petrified waterfalls.
The area also provides panoramic trails and moderate mountain biking opportunities to work up a sweat before soaking in the cool pools afterward. Fresh fruit, micheladas, and typical Oaxacan food await you at the top of the pools as you watch the rest of the tourists filter out before having the place to yourself again at sundown.
7. Escape to Etla
Tucked up against the hills thirty minutes north east of Oaxaca City is San Agustín Etla. Bring mountain bikes and pedal onto a mix of open and forested flowing trails. You’re sure to bring noise to the forest as you coast through the soft soil. No worries if you’d rather stay on your feet – the area offers sublime hiking trails as well.
If you’re looking for a family-friendly environment, Cieneguilla Ecotourismo offers cabañas, a waterfall, a zipline over the lake and a delicious comedor. Camping is also welcomed – just be sure to bring the snacks and drinks your crew needs for overnight.
Explore by hiking the area around the Centro de los Artes de San Agustín. At the end there are delicious options and hidden gems to eat.
8. Teotitlan Del Valle
When in search of the perfect mix of indigenous culture, scenery, local craft and small community, Teotitlan is a sure and easy option. After starting off the day with breakfast in the morning market, walk towards the west side of town and the looming “Picacho” mountain. Climbing the modest peak will take 2.5 – 3 hrs total and you’ll finish up at a beautiful dam at the top of the town for a cool-down swim and plenty of bird watching.
Spend the afternoon wandering around the town of around 6,000 habitants listening to the vibrant Zapotec language and looking at at the famed tapestries made by some of the most talented weavers in the world. You might see some mountain bikers cruising into town after a 1500 metre downhill coast from Benito Juarez or maybe pick up a conversation with locals leading their donkeys back to town loaded up with firewood.
Stick around for sunset or an early morning trail run and you won’t be disappointed. You can have your pick of accommodation from a few bed and breakfasts, hotels, and an increasing number of Airbnbs including farm stays and camping options.
9. San Pablo Cuatro Venados
A non-tourist destination you probably haven’t heard of before, San Pablo Cuatro Venados is, nonetheless, a secret worth sharing. Spend the afternoon wandering around the town and take a short hike to the nearby cascading waterfalls for a picnic and plunge in the pools. Or ditch the car in town and get further up into the hills on mountain bike. Bring along a good friend or guide to drive the car back while you coast back downhill to Oaxaca on your bike in just 2.5 hours! You’ll probably just have to buy the beers that night.
Otherwise, soak up this unique part of the sierra in the southwest of Oaxaca and treat yourself to a simple night in the town’s cabañas and a locally farmed trout dinner.
10. Biking, Birding, Bouldering and Beyond…and on a Budget around Oaxaca City
If you want to avoid the hassle of lugging bikes into the Sierra or navigating public transport, or are simply travelling on a budget, head out with running shoes or two-wheels directly from Oaxaca City centre.
Heading north from the city centre towards the Guadalupe Victoria neighbourhood, you’ll find the Carnivoras Road trail system. There you can indulge in trail running or mountain biking on a single-track or stay on the dirt road while enjoying views of the city below.
Road bike Oaxaca City Centre to El Tule
Rent bikes in the morning and set out on an easy hour-long 10km joy ride towards Santa María del Tule. No need to worry about the chaotic traffic as you’ll get to enjoy a protected bike lane the entire way. Once in Tule, you can visit the town’s famed ‘widest tree in the world’ and treat yourself to a delicious meal in the market just beside the tree. Plan your trip for a Sunday and visit the market on its most lively day for a taste of borrego (sheep) BBQ.
Monte Alban and Atzompa Hiking/Biking Trails
Although the city tourist bus can easily take you to the top of Monte Alban, why not get your blood pumping on the way up! You can choose to wind your way up on a road bike or first coast over to Atzompa and take your pick of smooth single-track mountain bike and running trails to approach the ruins. No matter which trail you choose, you’ll always have the view of Oaxaca to your left and don’t have to worry about getting lost.
If you’re sticking to simple accomodation and would like to spend a few nights sleeping outside, each small town’s tourism office will direct you to appropriate camping areas. Even taking public transport 20-40 minutes outside of Oaxaca City can land you in simple zone to pitch your tent. For definite options, head up to Etla or La Cumbre Ixtepeji.
Not surprisingly, Oaxaca is home to some hidden gems for birdwatching. As the city is nestled in a valley surrounded by 1,500 metres of elevation change, the nearby mountains are essentially floating islands in the sky. Head out before sunrise to the reservoirs in Huayápam, or Teotitlán del Valle where a conglomeration of wonderful species come together to enjoy the still and moist morning in an otherwise dry and noisy reality down the valley.
As climbing culture grows within Oaxaca, you can now find at least two climbing gyms within the city where you can rent gear and buy a guide book. They’ll also point you in the direction of numerous outdoor options including nearby Piedras de San Sebastian Tutla, just on the city’s southeastern border, and Yagul, an ancient Zapotec archaeological site. While in the area, check out the bouldering rock just two minutes beyond the main gas station in Tlacolula or head back towards Oaxaca and find yourself in the midst of professional climbers at La Meca, just to the south of Tule and Tlalixtac.
Wondering where to start?
With so many wonderful options at your disposal, it can be useful to talk it out with a local Oaxaqueño who can help you prioritise your exploration here in Oaxaca. Adventure specialist Coyote Aventuras is great resource to utilise and can help to plan out destinations, transportation and gear rental options if needed. No matter if you want to add an outdoor sports tour to your itinerary or explore independently, you’re sure to find plenty more reasons to love Oaxaca.
* This post was sponsored by Coyote Aventuras *
These same “off the beaten track” options regurgitated again. San Jose is suffering from tourism, drug seekers, no it is not spiritual. And can we cease the pictures of people’s backs wearing big round hats? 😅
Thanks Shayne, glad you enjoyed it and I hope it inspires your Oaxacan adventures!
This was the first quality guide to Oaxaca outdoor activities I’ve seen yet.