Excursiones en Etla, Mexico
45 Mi.(72 KM)
% Rideable (time)
While Out Riding
22.03.22 update: Unfortunately crime seems to be on the increase in Oaxaca, both in the city centre at night, and on some of the local trails during the day. Take a taxi home if you’re out late at night and if you’re planning to ride in the area, be it bikepacking trips or day rides, be especially mindful and keep an eye out in Cerro del Fortín, the Torre de Microondas, and the very top of the Libramento Norte (before the road drops down in Viguera), all areas that are popular with local riders, runners, and hikers.
Excursiones en Etla is a rural ramble into the Etla Valley, by way of all manner of cultural, culinary, and historical interests. Sure, the route can be easily edited down and ridden as a day ride. But breaking it up in two and spending the night in lush and fertile San Agustín Etla creates the opportunity to really appreciate the exhibitions at the fabulous Centro de las Artes de San Agustín, gives time to investigate the abandoned and overgrown La Planta, or just sets the tone for a lingering lunch at Aguamiel, an open-air restaurant specializing in all kinds of ferments, mezcals, and Oaxacan cuisine. What’s more, with bike rental available in Oaxaca and accommodation in San Agustín, it’s a good option for any cyclist who finds themselves in the city without their trusty steed, and is hankering to get out for the night.
The route uses the city’s abandonned Limbramento Norte to exit town, connected with the Etla valley’s hypnotic countryside terracerías and the San Pablo Etla trail system as a means of reaching San Agustín via the road less travelled. Along the way, it also includes a climb up to La Mesita, which is well worth the time and effort – not only are the views far-reaching, but there’s also an eco centre with extra trails, an outdoor art gallery, a lookout, and a butterfly sanctuary too.
In San Agustín Etla itself, you can expect to find an excellent campsite to rest your head for the night, along with a small brewery with craft beer that’s almost next door. In the morning, roll over to the fabulous San Agustín Etla Art Centre. It’s housed in a former textile factory that dates back to 1883. Reopened in 2006, it’s been immaculately renovated and is now home to a breathtaking gallery space, complete with world-class temporary exhibitions, many of which have a photographic persuasion. When we were there, this included an incredible exhibition titled Aframericanos, with photography and stories from around Latin America, including Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, Haiti, Brazil, and French Guyana. Be sure to explore the grounds too, dotted as they are with textile paraphernalia and machinery, and head out onto the terrace for glorious views into the Sierra Juarez range that overlooks the town. By way of contrast, further up the road is its antithesis: the derelict La Planta is an old hydroelectric plant that’s now overrun by forest vegetation and is intriguing in its own right. There’s even a trail to be enjoyed up there too.
The return leg of the route traces the old railway line that once ran between the cities of Puebla and Oaxaca. If you’re riding it the weekend, consider stopping for a meal, or at least a drink, at Aguamiel. This wonderful open-air restaurant delights in serving traditional Oaxaca food with a modern flair and is well worth the splurge. The menu is seasonal a selection of fermented food and drinks – like aguamiel, pulque, tepache, and tejuino, mezcal, and an excellent, seasonal menu. The coffee is excellent and the deserts are especially delicious! Once you’ve dragged yourself away from this little culinary oasis, further down the road lies 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.
From El Mogote, the old railway line becomes more potholed and bumpy in places. Keep an eye out for the excellent drink stand that serves tepache – a fermented pineapple drink – and coco de crema before you close in on Oaxaca. But before that, there’s just one detour to enjoy for the full Etla ramble experience. The settlement of Santa María Atzompa is known for its ornate pottery made in wood-fired pottery kilns, and the route passes by a number of workshops before rejoining the train tracks. You’re almost there once you get the old railway station and museum, so take the time to poke around its engines and painted carriages.
While this route can be covered in a day, the time taken to various visit sites along the way – such as the excellent San Agustín Etla Art Centre – makes it well worth splitting into two. As a suggested itinerary, consider visiting the Ethnobotanical Garden or the Textile Museum in town before setting out, then enjoying an afternoon ride into the Etla Valley. Or if it’s the height of the dry season, leave early and spend some extra time in the cooler climes of La Mesita, riding the local trail above San Pablo Etla.
See the Must Know tab for more details on the bonus La Planta side trip, as you may need to register in town first to access the road. Also, the nearby Cieneguilla Ecotorismo Para Todos is currently closed. When it’s open again, consider climbing up via a dirt road and dropping down on trails to San Agustín Etla as an extra bonus loop. See Trailforks for details.
Difficulty: Although this is a straightforward route with plenty of resupply options, there’s enough climbing, especially in the heat, to challenge many riders. We’ve included a number of mountain bike trails, too. Some of tehse may require dismounting and pushing, depending on the season and the state of the trail – or you can follow mellower dirt roads, as marked on the map. There are also a few options to extend the trip and try some of Oaxaca’s challenging singletrack trails.
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- Enjoying largely traffic-free rural roads, as well as a network of local mountain bike trails.
- Traditional cuisine, be it roadside dining, or at the excellent Aguamiel, considered to be amongst the best restaurants in Oaxaca.
- A visit the the fantastic Centro de las Artes de San Agustín, housed in a former textile factory from 1883.
- Climbing up to the Reserva Ecológica “La Mesita” for glorious views across the Etla Valley, as well as an outdoor art installation from local artists and butterfly sanctuary.
- Visiting San José Mogote, a Zapotec archaeological site
- For the full Need to Know details on Oaxaca, be sure to visit the San José del Pacífico Grand Dirt Tour.
- Best bike: You can ride this weekend tour on any mountain bike, be it rigid or with front suspension. However, take note of the more technical trail leading down towards La Viguera (easily avoided by staying on the Libramento Norte). The route is almost completely rideable, bar the odd dismount and push, though consider staying on dirt roads rather than taking trails if you’re on a gravel bike. See the map for details.
- Best time of year: Oaxaca is a great destination throughout the year. But bear in mind that during the dry season (November to April/May), dirt roads become increasingly dusty and temperatures soar – especially as you descend in elevation. The landscape also becomes increasingly dull and brown. In contrast, the rainy season (May to October) brings lush countryside and more bearable midday riding temperatures, but expect heavy later afternoon or nightly downpours. Thankfully, rain in the mountains of Oaxaca is rarely an all-day affair, unless there’s a storm system lingering on the Pacific coast or the Gulf of Mexico, in which case it can be rainy and overcast for a few days. Mid-October through December are probably the best times to ride here, as the landscape is still green, the heaviest rains have passed, and the temperatures aren’t yet oppressive – within these months, November is perhaps ideal. Early in the year is good too, though I’m personally a fan of the rainy season and the drama of its skies.
- Bike shops: Bicimundo and Zona Bici are well stocked and both have shops in Reforma, which are recommended over their branches in the city centre. Expect to find sealant, modern drivetrain components, and a reasonable selection of mountain bike tyres, right up to 29 x 2.5/2.6″ sizes.
- Bike rentals: Aside from the full-suspension bikes provided by tour companies for their enduro tours, Bicicletas Pedro Martinez is probably the best place to rent a bike suitable for dirt road riding here. A decent Orbea hardtail costs 500 pesos ($24 USD) for 24 hours. Otherwise, pop by Bicibella Oaxaca, below Coyote tours. They may be able to set you up with something too.
- La Mesita: It’s well worth climbing up to La Mesita, a small eco centre run buy the San Pablo community. There, you can refill your water, enjoy a far-reaching view across the Etla Valley, and wander around the outdoor art installations from local artists. It’s 40 pesos to enter, which allows access to the trail system too, both hiking and riding, and it’s a further 40 pesos to visit the butterfly sanctuary. La Mesita is open every day and is a popular destination for local cyclists.
- San Agustín Etla Art Centre: Housed in a former textile factory from 1883, this art centre is a reason to visit San Agustín Etla. There are three main areas with exhibits, along with the structure itself, which has been beautifully restored, a fine balance of leaving original machinery exposed – there’s even cotton and wool still on the original spools – along with views from the terraces. Bikes can be left safely outside. It’s free to enter, though you can make a donation. The art centre opens at 11am every day and closes at 5pm.
- La Planta: An optional out and back from town (with a connecting trail too), La Planta is an abandoned hydroelectric plant that is now reclaimed by nature. It’s curated by the Alfredo Harp Helú Foundation, there’s a connecting trail, and the aqueduct continues to bring from the mountains into continues into town. Check first to make sure it’s open – you may need to register at the municipal office to be allowed entry.
- Aguamiel: Although this remarkable outdoor restaurant isn’t open every day, it’s worth planning your trip for the weekend just to spend a couple of hours and drinking eating here. It’s that good! Find more details in the Food and Water tab.
- The archaeological site of El Mogote, a Zapotec centre, can be visited any day as there’s no entrance fee. Walk up the steps and see the enormous organ pipe cactus growing at the top.
- Santa María Atzompa: One a satellite settlement to Monte Alban, this town is well known for its pottery made in wood-fired pottery kilns. There are both unglazed pieces and various natural and multicoloured glazes, just note that the traditional green finish uses a lead monoxide glaze, so shouldn’t be used for cooking. We’ve marked a few workshops that caught our eye, but there are plenty more to visit. Note that opening hours may be limited on a Sunday, if you’re planning to coincide the ride with Sunday lunch at Aguamiel.
- There are many other sites to see in the city that pair well with this ride, including the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca and the Museo Textil de Oaxaca – the latter is run by the Alfredo Harp Helú Foundation, like La Planta.
- Flights: Volaris, AeroMexico, and a number of other airlines fly to Oaxaca via Mexico City or Guadalajara. Airlines invariably have different bike policies – cost/size/weight – so always check ahead. I like to travel with a compact bicycle bag – like the Tardis from Ground Effect – as it fits into smaller taxis and is easier to store in a hotel or hostel.
- Airport taxis: Depending on the size of your bike boxes, it’s likely to cost between 350 and 500 pesos ($16 to $24 USD) for a taxi from the airport into town – for 2 to 3 people with bikes. You can buy tickets for the official airport taxis when you arrive (just by the exit) and it’s all regulated. If you have a small bike bag, you can likely fit it into the colectivo. For your return, download the Didi App on your phone (pay the driver directly), or arrange a shuttle through your hotel.
- Covid-19 tests: Tests suitable for air travel to the US are available at Farmacias Ahorro , a national chain of pharmacies. You’ll need to book in advance (sometimes at least a day) but results are almost immediate. The cost is approximately 500 pesos ($24 USD). Find the closest to where you are staying, book online (laptops work better than phones), and don’t forget to bring your ID. There are other more immediate (but expensive) clinics in town too, that may well be better suited to larger groups. Your accommodation will also be able to advise.
- Mask wearing: Be sure to wear your mask both indoors and outdoors in Oaxaca city, as per the state mandate. Expect to have your temperature checked and to be required to clean your hands with sanitiser when entering certain establishments and markets. Be especially sensitive to Covid-19 restrictions and requirements in smaller communities. Be sure to check in on Mexico’s Covid-19 Epidemiological Traffic Light Map before embarking on this tour.
- There’s a great spot to camp in San Agustín Elta called El Rincón de San Agustín. It’s 150 pesos ($7 USD) to camp per person, which includes internet and a hot shower. The bathrooms/shower/sinks are spotlessly clean. Being on the edge of town, expect barking dogs and an early morning rooster, so earplugs and perhaps a face mask for light sleepers are advised.
- The same spot has clean, basic double rooms for around $30, if you prefer to travel extra light. There are other options in town.
- Camping is also available on the grounds of La Mesita for 100 pesos ($4.80 USD) per person. There’s a bathroom and water.
- Water is available from the spigot in La Mesita. Although it’s mountain water, it might be worth purifying it to be on the safe side.
- Elsewhere, expect to find plenty of food and water along the route, thanks to a number of small restaurants in La Viguera, San Agustín Etla, and many small settlements in between. Some are marked on the map.
- Cervecería La Cura is a brewery in San Agustin Etla serving a number of craft beers – the one infused with mezcal comes recommended – and good pizza too.
- If you time your trip with the weekend, the amazing Aguamiel offers drinks of all kinds, including mezcal, local aguas, and fermented beverages of various kinds on Saturdays. They also serve an excellent lunch using seasonal ingredients from 11 a.m. onwards on Sunday, though this needs to be booked in advance. Contact them through Instagram. If you’re looking to treat yourself in Oaxaca, this is the place! Being outside, the restaurant is closed in the rainy season.
- Before returning to Oaxaca, be sure to stop off for a tepache or an agua de coco at the stand along the railway tracks – see map for location.
While this route can be covered in a day, distance-wise, the time taken to various visit sites along the way – such as the excellent San Agustín Etla Art Centre – makes it well worth splitting into two. As a suggested itinerary, consider visiting the Ethnobotanical Garden or the Textile Museum in town before setting out, then enjoying an afternoon ride into the Etla Valley. Or if it’s the height of the dry season, leave early and spend some extra time in the cooler climes of La Mesita, riding the local trail above San Pablo Etla.
Note that the Cieneguilla Ecotorismo Para Todos is currently closed; when it’s open again, consider climbing up via a dirt road and dropping down on trails to San Agustín Etla as an extra bonus loop. See Trailforks for details.
- Resources: MTB Oaxaca is an excellent website that lists bike shops, trails, and day rides in and around Oaxaca. Thank you Larry for the company and sharing your knowledge of the area!
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