Excursions in Etla With Sage
Bikepackers are often drawn to the challenge of riding from Oaxaca’s rugged sierras to the pounding surf of the Pacific coast. But staying within its more mild-mannered valleys can be just as appealing, especially for family rides. Cass and his son Sage head out into the Valle de Elta, where dirt roads, experiential learning, and culinary delights await…
Last year, I posted an overnight route to the site titled Excursiones en Etla, which I hoped would make an interesting introduction to the valley of the same name – one of the three that form Oaxaca’s Valles Centrales. Like many rides in Oaxaca, it’s underpinned by a historical and cultural setting, simply because wherever you venture in this state, landscape and tradition feel inextricably intertwined.
Invariably, such outings often take on a gentle, rambling, and exploratory character. The distances are modest. Outside of the dry season, the valley heat is forgiving enough for cycling, but strong enough to encourage lingering breaks in the wispy shade of eucalyptases, organ cacti, and mesquites. Along the way, and almost as frequent as milestones, there are memelas to be enjoyed, mezcal to be sampled, and nieves to savour.
Before you even realise it, Oaxaca’s beguiling campo vibes may well have worked their way under your skin, and nothing will feel better than bouncing along meandering dirt roads, taking note of the height and colour of corn as the seasons change, appraising well-tended milpas and their complementary flor de calabazas, and waving to anyone who looks up from their maguey fields. You’ll find joy in diving down alleyways hemmed by impregnable carrizo, or hopping off your bike to push up rutted, foothill terracerías that see little more than the occasional pickup truck, moto, or horse and cart (see vocab primer towards the middle of this post!).
I’ve always earmarked these convivial, well-mannered rides as perfect counterpoints to the intense physicality of bikepacking in Oaxaca’s rugged sierras, and, consequently, prime material for family rides. Especially, perhaps, because this region offers so many opportunities for experiential learning – be it a visit to a Zapotec archaeological site or the opportunity to visit one of the many tallers – workshops – that can be found throughout the Valles Centrales, reflecting Oaxaca’s rich tradition of making – be it textiles, pottery, carving, or painting.
My son Sage’s most recent visit to Oaxaca offered the perfect opportunity to put the Etla Valley’s family friendliness to the test. Despite leaving late in the day and feeling the sun beat down hard on our helmets as we hurdled the Libramento Norte out of the city – an abandoned bypass that’s now reclaimed by nature and largely car-free – we were soon trucking along nicely through the foothills, at a pace that allowed us to chat as we rode. I’d brought along our Tow Whee – aka the Magic Bungee – to attach to his bike and help him up some of the longer and steeper climbs, but Sage was determined to ride every little scrap of dirt, no matter how loose or roughly hewn. And when it came to the descents, I just had to breathe my way calmly through any fatherly fear as he tore down the other side at breakneck speed, and instead enjoy the way that he yipped and hollered with glee.
In fact, we timed our arrival in San Agustín Etla perfectly, ridge riding to the aureate hues of the late afternoon light, treated to gloriously clear glimpses of the Sierra Norte, its peaks revealing themselves with the ebb and flow of indigo cloudcapes at this time of year.
Once there, we camped in the gardens of El Rincón de San Agustín, between a flowering bugambilia and a fruiting banana tree, in time for me to cook up mac ‘n’ cheese on the stove (Sage gave it the Camping Chef Double Thumbs Up) and for us to forrage for twigs and make a fire to roast marvelous malvaviscos (almost as fun to say as marshmallow). Then, to the sound of firecrackers going off in town, we turned in for the night and watched one of our favourite films, The Willoughbys, from the comfort of our sleeping bags.
Sage’s marvelous malvavisco roasting technique
- Roast the outer layer of the marshmallow, taking care not to let it become engulfed in flames
- Once golden brown, enjoy consuming this crispy layer of skin
- Roast the next outer layer, as before
- Nibble on delicious skin once more
- Repeat again (and again if possible)
According to Sage, this means you get up to four times the enjoyment per marshmallow!
A father will do anything for their son, right? When it came to our sleeping arrangement, I sacrificed my coveted, longboard-length inflatable mattress so Sage could sleep in the lap of luxury, hoping I could prove my youth by finding comfort on a minimalist foam pad instead. It seems those days are over so luckily for me, Sage insisted we swap mats on our second night, bless his (dusty) cotton socks.
The next day, we made our plans over a bowl of granola. Goal-orientated cyclists will no doubt find it had to resist covering this loop in a day. But still, it’s likely to be a squeeze if you want to savour the cultural and culinary sights that are sprinkled throughout. An overnighter is best, though you can easily spending a full, endulgent day riding around San Agustín Etla if you want to linger, enjoy good food, see inspiring and thought-provoking art, and generally soak up the lush, jungly vibes of this artistic, well-watered little town.
We decided on the third, most leisurely option, affording us plenty of time to drink mango smoothies (Sage) and coffee (me), before heading off on our bikes to the somewhat grand and stately textile factory. Founded in 1883, it eventually fell into disrepair in the 1980s, only to be reopened in 2006 as a beautifully renovated, free to enter gallery space – the Centro de las Artes de San Agustín – intended as a space for creation and innovation for local and visiting artists. The building itself, complete with tranquil water mirrors and the former factory cauldron, is stunning. I wasn’t so sure what Sage would make of the exhibition on the Mexican political activist, printmaker, and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Leopoldo Méndez, but he seemed genuinely interested by the works on display, quizzing me on historical topics that included 1930s Spanish fascism as he studied them (hang on Sage, let me google that).
Then, we visited the nearby paper mill – el Fábrica de Papel Vista Hermosa – housed in a former hydroelectric plant with high ceilings and scorpion tiles on its floors. There, we were given a fascinating demonstration on how paper is made, using vast ladels, great presses, old fashioned sunshine, and locally sourced plants and minerals – including maguey, carrizo, and corn husks. Inspired by the flecks of marigold in the notebook we bought as a keepsake – a flower synonymous with the ofrendas that are put up in households during Día de Muertos – we even collected our own wildflowers on our ride back to the tent and pressed them in too.
Factor in memela feasting – cooked on a comal over a fire and some of the finest we’ve enjoyed to date – and some necessary homework, and it was somehow already time for another twig fire and yet more malvaviscos. Our rations: five per night, each. That’s reasonable, isn’t it?
Oaxacan Bikepacker Vocab Primer
Milpa: A pre-hispanic, crop-growing system used throughout Mesoamerica.
Maize was selectively bred by Mesoamericans for milpa agriculture, to have strong stems to support climbing beans, allowing them access to light. These beans improve soil health by fixing nitrogen, an essential plant nutrient. The large sprawling leaves of the squash shade the soil, reducing moisture loss and preventing weed growth. Together, the milpa’s harvest provides all the food groups and vitamins needed for a healthy human diet and is a nutritional lifeline for local and Indigenous communities. Source.
Flor de calabaza: Squash blossom.
Terracería: Rural dirt road.
Maguey: The commonly used word for the agave plant, from which mezcal is made.
Carrizo: A bamboo-like river reed, woven into baskets or segmented into shot glasses for mezcal.
Nieve: A type of ice cream usually made with water and fruit juice, such as lemon, mamey, coconut, and mango.
Memela: Classic Oaxacan ‘fast food’ that’s made from corn on a comal, is thicker than a tortilla, and is generally lavished with frijoles, cheese, and meats.
Comal: A piece of circular metal over an open fire upon which memelas and quesadillas are cooked.
Barbacoa: A slow-roasted meat, typically goat, that’s slow-roasted in a pit under maguey leaves and is popular at the weekend.
The next day, we tacked west towards San Juan de Dios and crossed the highway to loop back on the other side of the Etla Valley, mountain ranges to either side. Instead of running alongside the foothills, as we’d done on the way out, we retraced the old Oaxaca-Puebla railway line back into the city, diverting onto dirt roads when pavement threatened to usurp the remaining tracks – and stopping for a round of fresh agua de coco and sweet crema de coco served from roadside stands to temper the afternoon heat.
Now that the rains have mostly come to a close, the wildflowers were popping – and this rails-to-trails style corridor is the best place I know to catch them in their full splendour. We also routed past the Zapotec archeological site of San José el Mogote. Founded more than 3,500 years ago, it’s the oldest permanent agricultural village in the whole of the Oaxaca Valley and is presided over by an ancient organ pipe cacti pecked with birds’ nests and covered in tiny, tentacle-like bromeliads, somehow quenching their thirst in the dry air.
As we connected a final patchwork of dirt roads towards the outskirts of the city, I treated Sage to one of my famous and unintended bushwacks. Initially, he looked dubiously at the thicket of carrizo that lay between us and a dirt road beyond, guarded as it was by an unruly pack of dogs. But a lady in a pink sunhat tending goats (bound for Sunday barbacoa, by all accounts) confirmed that, “Sí, hay paso,” so we dragged our bikes through and forged on. Oaxaqueños are rarely less than friendly, and the unexpected sight of a father and son taking this unconventional route into town on their fat-tyred bikes encouraged especially enthusiastic waves from passersby.
Back on pavement, Sage practised his hops, jumps and launches along the topes that mine roads throughout Mexico, some of which are so pronounced, angular, and sharp that it’s a wonder that cars still have any suspension. As a cyclist, it’s best to keep your eyes peeled for them at all times; if caught unaware, they’ll send you flying over your handlebars.
And then, following one last trail that crisscrossed the train tracks to the platform of the old railway station, we were back in town, triumphant. It’s hard to match such a feeling of accomplishment, of following a plan through to the end and overcoming any challenges that present themselves along the way, be they in mind or body.
We stopped for a finisher’s photo, striking similar poses almost by accident. Sage is about to turn 10. Could this be him in 38 years’ time, I wondered? Either way, I hope we can continue to enjoy such beautiful experiences together… at least for some time to come.
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