Route Report: La Magia de Ixtepeji
It had been a long time coming: After relocating to Oaxaca, Mexico, Cass Gilbert shares a favorite local route with visiting friends, savoring the time-honored tradition of revealing treasured trails to visitors… and sharing the best tlayudas and tortas in town. Find his route report and a vibrant selection of photos here…
Twenty-five kilometres to the northeast of the city – at least as an Oaxacan sparrow flies – lies the small community of Santa Catarina Ixtepeji. It’s set high above the valley’s foothills and deep in the Sierra Juárez, the mountain range named after Mexico’s only Indigenous president, Benito Juaréz, who was born nearby.
I’ll admit it’s not a community in which I’ve been able to spend any time, given the constraints of Covid-19. But it is one whose lands I’ve become increasingly familiar with over the past year and ever more grateful to access with each visit.
Because not only is this swathe of dense, wet, and lichen-flecked forest an important capillary of Oaxaca’s lungs, but it also harbours a network of dirt roads and trails that are as rich as the area’s noted biodiversity. And one that’s set the stage for many of my recent bikepacking escapes.
In fact, earlier this year I shared a short route, Hebras de Ixtepeji, that aspired to celebrate this very forest and the Ixtepejanos who protect it, as well as to acknowledge the incredible artisans – be they textile makers, potters, or woodworkers – who have long dwelled in the Mitla valley below, home to the Zapotecs for the past two and half millennia. Nowadays, a perfectly sealed road provides the most time-efficient access to the natural wonders of the high mountains. But this old forest also hides a thick tangle of woodland tracks for those who are willing to challenge themselves to the road less travelled and earn themselves a more complete Sierra de Juárez experience.
Not that the distance, when quantified in kilometres alone, is especially grand. Nor am I claiming that it couldn’t be tackled in a long day with an early start and a strong set of legs, even if the sheer number of metres gained over its modest distance shouldn’t be underestimated. Rather, it’s the astonishing manner in which the surroundings morph from one plant to the next – from arid scrub and cacti in the valley floor to wizened oaks, ferns, and bromeliads in the foothills, to old-growth forest, madrones, and fungi at 3,000 metres and higher. And it’s for this reason, more than anything, that I’m convinced that a couple of days is the minimum you’ll want to dedicate to Ixtepeji. Because truly, there’s magia in this here land.
Fortunately, I was recently visited by two friends, who as strong as they are as cyclists, also saw the value of lingering and appreciating and not forever pushing and racing. As I learn to enjoy time around camp as much as I savour hours in the saddle, I realise that Ixtepeji is the perfect setting for both.
Plus, I’d waited so long for friends from my last home in New Mexico to make the journey south. Not just because I looked forward to sharing a place that had accepted me with open arms, but because I was excited to point out its less obvious qualities, too. This could be my favourite streetside restaurants where bean and corn memelas are still freshly made by hand and cooked over a clay comal, their presentation a sight to behold. Or, the many murals painted by local artists that inspire me every day I cycle past them. And, the urban trails that are no less delightful for the everyday cyclist to ride to as the primo singletrack I knew we’d soon be enjoying. After over a year of living in Oaxaca, and absorbing as much about this city as I could, I wanted my friends to experience it all! And I wanted to enjoy their reactions as they did.
Besides, I’m fortunate enough to have compañeros whose very company enriches me on so many levels, beyond even our shared passion for bicycles. Because Yeshe and Cjell aren’t just hardened riders, they’re makers and artists in multi-faceted and creative ways. A talented illustrator and animator, we’ve featured Yeshe and his El Continente in the past. The bike he brought on this trip, however, was one he’d built himself – under the mentorship of Cjell – and endowed with his own style and artistry.
And Cjell? The founder of Moné Bikes needs little introduction. He’s already contributed a number of posts to the site – including this especially insightful one on overseas manufacture – and we’ll be following up on this story with a Rider and Rig. So yes, all your questions will soon be answered with regards to those remarkable bikes of his!
But back to Ixtepeji. Every weekend, enduro riders from Oaxaca, Puebla, Mexico City, and even overseas, shuttle up to Ixtepeji Cumbre in polished pickup trucks, taking the well-sealed pavement that now runs all the way over the Continental Divide to Veracruz. Many of the black diamond-rated enduro trails that draw them to the Sierra Juárez are, admittedly, a little beyond my skill set. Even if they weren’t, though, I still prefer to earn my keep by using the network of traffic-free forest tracks to reach its highest point, El Cumbre. It was this experience I wanted to share, embedded as it is with the essence of Oaxaca, often hidden in plain sight.
First, however, we needed to tackle a long and exposed climb to La Mesita, where an eco-centre showcases outdoor sculptures by local artists, sustainable building practices, and ecological preservation. It also marks the end of the road for most. An old chain bars everyone but the local community of San Pablo Etla from access to the protected forest above to control tree felling, aside from cyclists, who pay a small fee and are welcomed through. Keep climbing onwards and upwards – past groves of giant blue agave that stand as tall as Yeshe – and the trees encroach in earnest as the canopy of pine-oaks and madrones thickens with epiphytes, including orchids. In all likelihood, many of these forgotten roads and trails once served as Zapotec trading routes between these mountain communities and the coast, transporting the likes of coffee and cacao, with even obsidian, conch shells, and quetzal feathers changing hands.
Keen to eke out our time in such a biodiverse environment, we paused to spend our first night in a clearing I’ve camped in before. Sadly, it was here that Yeshe regretfully announced a need to return to the city come morning due to stomach complaints, allowing time to recover before the bigger trip south that we had planned next. Was it the chicharrón we’d eaten en route? The water we’d collected from a spring on the way up? Still, our merry band of riders included Colin, a bike mechanic from Utah who’d also recently relocated to Oaxaca – as much to ride these trails as to experience the unfamiliar – so three we still were.
Onwards we climbed, in and out of sunlight, cloud forest, and montane, all the way to Corral de Piedras. It’s the highest point of the ride and the junction from where La Cumbre Ixtepeji’s trail system begins – Martinez, Corralito, Cabeza de Vaca, to name a few local favourites. Stashing our gear under a camouflaging umbrella of ferns – Oaxaca counts over seven hundred species to its name – we whirligigged up and down loamy, rooty, rocky singletrack, hugging our bodies around oaks as we chased one another down. I may have known the trails better than Cjell, but it didn’t matter because he had soon disappeared, throwing shapes through narrow corridors of mossy trees like he’d ridden there all his life.
Eventually, a short but testing hike-a-bike led to the route’s tour de force, camping real estate – Pelado Chiquito, a lookout that offers a sweeping view across the Sierra de Juárez and marks the border between Ixtepeji and the neighbouring district, Nuevo Zoochiapan. I’ve pitched my tent at this lookout on a number of occasions and each time the vista has had its own flavour, depending greatly on the season. Appropriately, we toasted our arrival with a round of Oaxacan mezcal de agave silvestre, a smoky mezcal distilled from wild agave. Sure, it’s a real workout to get to the lookout, and yes, there’s a sense of stoicism in the few who choose to ride all the way here, especially on loaded bikes. But given the meditative forest backdrop, it’s less about enduring hardships and more about freeing the mind, a process that’s easier to achieve on the saddle of a bike than in the seat of a pickup truck!
With the impending rainy season at this time of year, we were only just hunkered down in our tents before a storm swept in and battered the ridgetop where we were camped with drama and gusto. Thunder clapped in our ears and night turned into day for seconds at a time, a show that likely pumped blood into our systems as much as it invigorated the land. By morning, its misty dregs lingered on in the form of a cloud that sat like a Teotitlán rug across the land, until the sunrise pushed through, turning faces and treetops golden in the clear, high-elevation light.
Thankfully, this moss and rain-drenched forest drains remarkably well, so we were still able to ride the descending series of trails that led us towards the valley like rungs on a ladder, all the way back down to the community of San Pablo Etla. Given the grade of our climb, it was no surprise that we dropped a whole 1,500 metres from whence we came on trails that rarely let up for more than a moment; ducking under tree branches, brushing ferns, or stopping to gawk at bromeliads both minuscule and gigantic.
Each time I ride in the Sierra Juárez, I try and discover something new. On this occasion, we made time to unearth a missing connector that had always eluded me. In turn, this introduced us to an especially magnificent madrone that branched across the trail, as seen at the top of the post. And I spotted a small offering to the forest spirits, likely left by the Be’ena’ Za – the Cloud People – as the Sierra Zapotec call themselves. The bond with the natural environment is a strong one here, and the Zapotec deity Guizi is said to live in the Sierra Norte, looking after its people.
All that remained was the return to the big city through the Etla Valley, following the old railway line that once serviced Mexico City and Oaxaca. Its glinting remains half-covered in dirt and concrete and littered with historic debris – as well as tlayuda stands – the ubiquitous toasted tortilla – where families enjoyed ladles of tepache, the punchy, fermented pineapple drink.
So, it seemed appropriate that my last local beta took the form of sustenance because it is food for which Oaxaca is especially known throughout Mexico. I’m not talking fancy eats, though. First, it was homemade ice creams at a paletería that’s perfectly placed to temper the balmy valley heat. Then, we filled our empty water bottles with cold and sweet ague de crema de coco at the most popular coconut stand in town, as evidenced by the carpet of fibrous husks that always surround it. And finally, we rounded off the route with Oaxaca’s best torta, enjoyed as a picnic in my very favourite square. Alright… maybe that last toasted, sourdough ciabatta sandwich, drenched as it was in quesillo – Oaxacan string cheese – mushrooms, and kimchi, was more gourmet in vibe.
As far as rides go, I won’t deny that Hebras de Ixtepeji is compact in distance. But still, if you find yourself in Oaxaca, I implore you to resist the challenge of riding it in a day. Because aside from the time you’ll need to appreciate this mountain’s plethora of trails, a night or two in its ancient forests is about as magical as it gets.
Aside from Hebras de Ixtepeji, other bikepacking trips in the area include...
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