Oaxaca City is surrounded by mountains. Down each colourful avenue is a range of distant, blue peaks. They have always been tempting, but especially now, almost a year exactly since Covid arrived and travel was restricted. The most enticing mountain route is the one to the Oaxaca coast. Not far as the crow flies, but around seven hours door-to-door if you drive. The road is not to be underestimated, winding its way through the mountains and pine forest, up above the cloud line.
One of the highest points on this journey is the town of San José del Pacífico, famous for its beautiful views, hikes and of course, magic mushrooms.
In my experience, the most common way to make this trip is by catching one of the colectivos run by Líneas Unidas. These take about fifteen people at a squeeze and go every half hour from Calle Bustamente 601. They stop in the centre of San José and Pochutla as you head on down to the coast. The drivers know the route well and make rapid time through the mountains. Unfortunately, these buses have gained a reputation for travel sickness, so be wary if you choose this option.
After quarantining for months, taking a small packed bus hasn’t had great appeal. Other options are to rent a car or hire a private driver. Rideshares that can be found via forums online have also become more popular. However, for my most recent ride to San Jose del Pacifico, I hitched in the back of a friend’s big, red truck. Although not for the faint of heart and more than a little chilly, this was probably my best experience of the mountain road.
There is not a lot of information online about staying in San José del Pacífico, but there are some key spots that are becoming firm favourites with travellers looking for the peace and escapism that this town offers. Two places I have personally enjoyed staying are Cabañas La Cumbre and Refugio Terraza de la Tierra.
Terraza de la Tierra is a wonderful place to go to and be refreshed. We went walking each day while staying there, as there are routes down through their cascading vegetable gardens to waterfalls and magical glades. It has beautiful big rustic rooms, and while we were out during the afternoon, they would light a log fire for us. As there is no wifi, we used these fire-lit evenings to read and completely relax.
Other activities include yoga — , although many of these classes have been suspended for covid reasons —, and the temazcal, which they have on-site. Temazcal is a popular activity in Oaxaca that incorporates wellness and spirituality. The name is thought to originate from the Nahuatl word temazcalli meaning, “house of heat.” You can take the two-hour ceremony privately or in small groups. A healer will use chanting and burn herbs to detoxify you. It can be overwhelming but is definitely something to experience while in San José.
If you are staying at Terraza de la Tierra, they have some delicious vegan food on their menu, and most of the produce comes from right there. However, if you want to explore other options and get into the town a little more, I would definitely suggest Taberna de Los Duendes. Here you can get the best steak I’ve ever had in Oaxaca. Paired with a pasta dish and a bottle of house red, this is the perfect place to get cosy after a day of hiking in the mountains (booking required since Covid).
On a bit more of a budget, La Cumbre offers shared dorms and small private rooms. It’s above the town so has some of the best views around — the sunset is epic! While we were staying, there was a fun traveller vibe, and they have great information about transport and guides who can show you around or help you find activities.
In reception, I also spotted one of the many signs offering Magic Mushrooms. Magic Mushrooms are what put San José on the map, with tourists arriving in earnest around the early 1960s. You are welcomed by roadside tiendas selling all kinds of mushroom related souvenirs and paraphernalia. Images of the spiritual healer Maria Sabina are emblazoned on t-shirts, while signs invite you to try this local speciality. Maria Sabina was born in 1894 and spent much of her life exploring the effects of mushrooms through ritual and spiritual practices. In 1953 Robert Wasson wrote about her life and work in Life Magazine, inspiring many to visit Oaxaca and San José. Recent studies into mushrooms and mental health proved that they help with depression, leading to a new wave of interest in these magical fungi.
Mushroom season is from July to October. That is the time to go, and you will have the highest chances of finding good quality mushrooms. They are often served as a tea which is considered the best way to absorb their properties.
Take care during Covid
Many towns around Oaxaca have been closed due to Covid. As San José is a thoroughfare on the coastal route, I was curious if there would be much of a change since quarantine. When trying to plan my recent trip, I reached out to Mafer Breton, founder of Relato Nativo, who produces aromatic products or “mountain medicine” at her beautiful mountainside ranch.
“People in the village have been sceptical for a long time. It took many months for them to start believing in the virus. We are so far from possible positive cases that almost nobody knew anyone sick. Nowadays, they are starting to believe.”
All businesses are required to have gel and signs for face masks. However, compared to Oaxaca City, things seem calmer on the Covid front. For better or worse, tourists still seem welcome. According to Breton, during the pandemic, San José has received more visitors than ever before. “I see many tourists not using masks; they seek to have a relief here, I guess.” However, it is everyone’s personal responsibility to prevent the spread of the virus. Even if there is an overall feeling that things aren’t so strict in the mountains, anyone visiting or passing through should still respect the local community by being as careful as possible and following all guidelines.
During these difficult times, it is important to heal mind, body and soul in the best ways you can, and San José del Pacífico offers the perfect place to find some wilderness away from the city.
This article was originally published in volume 9 of our magazine in April 2021.
Photos: Anna Bruce