Micro Vuelta de la Sierra Norte, Mexico
70 Mi.(113 KM)
% Rideable (time)
While Out Riding
This route guide is for future planning. Be sure to check in on Mexico’s COVID-19 Epidemiological Traffic Light Map before embarking on this tour. Some of this area is currently closed.
In some ways, Oaxaca feels like Mexico’s counterpoint to France’s Provence, in that food can play as important a role as cycling when appreciating the region. Not only do dirt roads extend in every which direction from the city, but even the smallest village can likely rustle up a delicious tlayuda. These large and crispy corn tortillas are baked on a clay skillet, then coated with a black bean puree and laced with Oaxacan quesillo, fresh vegetables, chorizo, or huitlacoche – a corn fungus. And whilst wine may not be on the menu in this part of Mexico, there’s no better way to wash down with a glass of fresh hibiscus juice instead.
The Micro Vuelta leaves town with a testing climb through the trail network west of San Felipe del Agua (feel free to stay on the traffic-free Libramento Norte for a more mellow debut) before a rolling dirt road traverse to San Agustín Etla, home to the impressive Centro de las Artes de San Agustín, housed in a former textile factory.
Then, it’s a long and protracted forest road climb into the high country, an ascent that winds its way from 1500m to a lofty 3000m and beyond. One of the highlights? The shift in plantlife with every metre accrued, first prickly pear, then bromeliads, and finally mighty pines. Then, a small and lesser travelled two-track – passing glades of mossy, old-growth forest that drip with lichen – connects to La Cumbre, culminating in a cobbled climb to Corral de Piedra, the highest point of the route at 3250m.
Work done, it’s down, down, down, via a dirt road that whirligigs dramatically into the fringes of the city from high above. But what’s the rush? Why not dally a bit, tapping into a network of trails that are a magnet for local mountain bikers every weekend – and the home of the Transierra Norte Enduro event. Many are blue and black in Trailforks language, so it makes sense to drop off your gear and take a ‘day off’ to really enjoy them. Black trails include exposed technical rock features. Stick to ‘blue’ trails and expect a mix of loam, roots, and jumps. Here’s a loop to keep you busy for half a day, which includes riding up to the Mirador for spectacular views at sunrise or sunset (see Trail Notes for more details). If that’s not enough, the route includes a detour for a final flourish into Huayapan, via the fast and sometimes challenging La Marimba trail, part flowy singletrack, part steep and rutted, white-knuckled descent (stay on the road if you want to avoid it!).
Short on distance but big on climbing, this vueltita is so named because it’s one of the smallest loops you can make into the highest of Oaxaca’s high county. Local cross country riders even trim back the exploratory nature of the beginning and end and tackle it in a momentous day. But why torture yourself like that? Trust me. It’s way better to pack light and enjoy the cool forest air for a couple of nights, especially for anyone who really wants to make the very most of this area’s remarkable biodiversity. And when you do extricate yourself from these magical highlands, enjoy the Oaxacan feast!
See notes on the map for adjusting the route to suit your skills/bike, in terms of the trails you choose to ride en route. And check out Trail Notes for a one-day route extension, as well as several day ride options. Planning to spend some time in Oaxaca? Check out the six-day San José del Pacífico Grand Dirt Tour too!
With thanks to outdoor educator and artist Emma Bucke for sharing her beautiful botanical illustration, used in the Micro Vuelta de la Sierra Norte route badge.
Route developed with Emma Buckle, who also researched and catalogued all the plants scene along the way, which can be referenced in this post. Thanks to Messcalex and Oaxaca MTB for local Oaxaca trail intel too, and for sharing the singletrack loop in La Cumbre.
- Rolling out of Oaxaca after a coffee, almost straight onto dirt and trails.
- Great food along the way, plus fantastic cuisine in the city.
- Mix and matching trails to suit your interests, be it dirt roads or trails (see map for options).
- Incredible biodiversity in both this loop and the region as a whole, thanks to elevations that flit between 1500 and 3250m.
- Best bike: A rigid ‘plus’ mountain bike or hardtail with a 2.2″ to 2.5″ tyre is the ideal choice for this route, due to the mixed terrain, long climbs, and often steep grades. If you ride a gravel bike, be sure you’re running comparable gearing. I’d recommend a 45mm+ tyre at the minimum and adjust the route to suit. Love tech? You’ll have a lot of fun with a hardtail and 130mm of travel over in La Cumbre, where a dropper post won’t go amiss, either.
- Best time of year: Oaxaca is a great destination throughout the year. Beware the dry season (October to April), as temperatures become sizzling hot, roads can be very dusty, and streams run dry. In contrast, the rainy season (May to October) brings lush countryside but heavy nightly downpours and the risk of mud.
- Pack light! If you’re planning on incorporating trails along the way, a light rig will make a big difference to how you can ride. For example, for anyone incorporating the initial trails out of San Felipe del Agua, load up on food and water in Viguera (restaurant and shops are marked on the map) or San Agustin Etla.
- On a bikepacking rig, the route is best ridden in a clockwise direction, as the dirt road between San Andrés Huayapam and La Cumbre is extremely steep and would make an unforgiving way to begin a trip!
- The mountains of Oaxaca are generally a safe place to travel through, but it’s always worth getting up-to-date information.
- Oaxaca is a six-hour bus ride away from Mexico City. ADO is a recommended bus company, generally with room for a bike or two. There’s an airport on the edge of the city too. See Aeromexico and Volaris for budget deals.
- Time your trip with Oaxaca’s especially famous Dia de Muertos ceremony (early November), but book accommodation in advance as things get busy.
- A short ride from the centre of the city, San Felipe Del Agua is rife with fun cross-country singletrack – this route passes right by the network. See Trailforks for details; La Hojasaraca/High Flyer Ridge is especially recommended and is worth going back for.
- The route also crosses the trail network at La Cumbre, where you can stop to spend a day riding. Again, see Trailforks for details and blue/black graded trails. Most are best ridden without gear due to their challenging nature.
- MTB Oaxaca is an excellent resource that lists bike shops, trails, and day rides in and around Oaxaca. In terms of bike shops and repair, recommended options include Bicicletas Pedro Martizez (bike hire too) and Bicimundo and Zona Bici for a good stock of high-end bike parts. La Cleta y El Cafe offers bike repairs and guiding services too.
- Oaxaca Journal by Dr Oliver Sachs, is a recommended read for those interested in learning more about Oaxaca, from both a botanical and cultural standpoint.
- A visit to the Botanical Gardens, where the route begins, is also highly recommended.
- Dig into the carousel at the bottom of this post on another overnighter into the Sierra Norte for an insight into many of the plants you’ll likely see in this area, and their names.
- There are two main eco-touristic centres along this route, where accommodation can be sought – see map for their locations. Parque Ecoturístico La Cumbre Ixtepeji has the largest number of trails, some of which are very technical which are best enjoyed on a hardtail, without gear.
- Discreet, wild camping can also be found in the Sierra Norte, but it can be tricky to divine flat spots! Be respectful to local communities and leave no trace.
- There’s a wide variety of accommodation available in Oaxaca, from budget hostels to fancier digs. If you plan on setting up a base camp to explore the area in more detail, Airbnb can be a good option. It’s hard to go wrong anywhere near the centre of the city but the area around Xochimilco is especially appealing. It’s the oldest part of Oaxaca and is artistic, colourful, and full of coffee shops.
- There are several spots to refill water bottles along the way, whether this is in restaurants and streams. Bring a filter so you don’t need to buy bottled water. In the dry season, it’s a good idea to have capacity for 3+ litres of water on your bike.
- Food is usually available almost halfway around the loop (see map) but there are no other options to resupply, so bring everything else with you.
- To find out more about the culinary fare for which the city is known, it’s worth checking out the Netflix series Street Food Latin America. It focuses on local legend Doña Vale and the region’s famous recipes.
- A post ride recommendation? Check out La Popular for a beer or two, and some local food.
- Or pop into one of the many mezcal specialists and try the local tipple, distilled from agave plants.
- Visit any market for a dizzying variety of fruit and fruit shakes, a great start to the day. ‘Verde’, laced with celery, grapefruit, and parsley is a favourite! The main market behind the zócalo – Mercado Benito
Juárez – is always a hive of activity and a great place to explore on foot.
- Eat meat? Or rather, insects? Get yourself a bag of chapolies – grasshoppers seasoned with lime, salt and garlic – and sprinkle them on your food!
- Oaxaca is well known for its chocolate, often melted into a hot drink, and its delicious mole, which is on every restaurant menu.
- Calle de General Portfilio Diaz is becoming quite the street for locally run, ‘new wave’ Oaxacan fare. At the top end, check out Macha Pacha, which sells artisanal chocolate in compostable packaging. A few doors down, vegetarians will love hole-in-the-wall Casuelas and Pan Con Madre, next door, is excellent for bakery products. On the same road but further into the centre of town, Boulenc has fantastic sandwiches and amazing bakery products too. The restaurant is particularly good!
- Coffee? Oaxaca has you covered! Coffee is grown in the state and roasted locally. There are too many coffee shops to recommend, but try out Café El Volador, close to Templo Santo Domingo to get you started. The square where it’s located is great spot to hang out after a ride, too.
- Rupestre, en route, also has great coffee and excellent breakfasts – the large courtyard can accommodate bikes. Try the molletes or panque to platano frances! See map for location.
- Next door, Ancestral is an excellent restaurant serving beautifully presented, traditional food.
- Want to treat yourself? Casa Oaxaca is considered one of the best restaurants in town.
- Aguas frescas are the drink of choice in Oaxaca and way better than Coca-Cola! Choose from jamaica, horchata, and tamarindo, along with whatever fruit is in season – mango, papaya, or guava. Where possible, buy soft drink in glasses bottles as these are recycled more times than plastics.
- Paletas! Mexico’s classic ice cream on a stick tastes especially good after (or during) a long day in the saddle.
See POI notes on the RWGPS map to adjust this route to suit your skills, inclinations, and the kind of bike you’re riding. In this way, you can ride it as a pure dirt road tour, or a dirt and singletrack mix.
Shed your gear at the Centro Ecoturistico El Cumbre and spend a few hours riding trails. This loop is graded ‘blue’ in Trailforks speak. It’s mainly loamy and rooty, with a few rock chutes and optional jumps. It can all be ridden on a rigid plus mountain bike or hardtail, though the ability to drop your seat – manually or with a dropper – is advised.
Want to extend the Micro Vuelta de la Sierra Norte by a day?
Use this track as a means to traverse across from La Cumbre to Benito Juarez, descending into Teotitlan and returning via the Teotillan and the Zapotec ruins of Dainzú, a Zapotec archaeological site located in the eastern side of the Valles Centrales de Oaxaca – see below for details.
Spending longer in Oaxaca?
Check out the six-day San José del Pacífico Grand Dirt Tour, a loop out of Oaxaca. Or catch a bus over to Cuicatlán, and ride the three-four day Ojos de Cuitalan tour, in the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve.
Looking for day rides to further explore the area?
The Monte Albán and Cuilapan Rural Ramble is a challenging rough stuff day ride that passes by the Zapotec ruins of Monte Albán en route to the Ex-Monastery of Cuilapan, set in Oaxaca’s Valle Grande and Ejutla area. You can trim it down a smaller loop. But I recommend the full figure of eight route, as the extension provides a wonderful showcase for Oaxaca’s traditional farming practises and inter-cropping – a combination of corn, squash, and beans to help fortify the soil and keep pests away.
If you’re interested in bringing back a textile from your trip and would like to buy it directly from the makers, the 75km Teotitlán, via Huilapam, Dainzú, and Tule is sure to add great memories to your purchase. It links up mellow trails, rural roads, and desert two-track. Find out more about traditional Oaxaca textiles and how they’re made here.
With thanks to Larry at www.oaxacamtb.com sharing his vast knowledge of the area and its dirt roads.
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