San Jose del Pacifico Grand Dirt Tour, Oaxaca
244 Mi.(393 KM)
% Rideable (time)
While Out Riding
Be sure to check in on Mexico’s Covid-19 Epidemiological Traffic Light Map before embarking on this tour.
The San José del Pacífico Grand Dirt Tour is a six-day loop that showcases Oaxaca and its geographical, botanical, and cultural variety. Setting off from Templo de Santa Domingo de Guzmán, it exits Oaxaca de Juaréz – the state’s capital city and its cultural and artistic hub – in a somewhat unorthodox way, up and over a ridge line on a bumpy two-track, setting the tone for this distinctly backcountry route.
The outward leg consists primarily of rural terracerías that connect small communities, wending their way from one corn crop to the next. In all likelihood, you’ll be sharing these typical dirt roads with dilapidated pickup trucks, parked donkeys, fellow cyclists (often on singlespeeds), and horse and carts. Paralleling it and crossing it on occasion, this route almost completely avoids the paved highway to the coast and is a gentle insight into traditional Oaxacan farming life.
The return loop is a more wild and unblemished affair. After coursing through the lush forests that surround the popular, highway-side settlement of San José del Pacífico, the route hurdles a remote mountain high pass that’s close to 2,900 metres in elevation, tracing an old mtb race, the Reto Totohua, that was last held in 2013. The descent down the other side is a long and thrilling one, eventually breaking out across a hot, dusty plain that’s home to vast patches of agave plantations. Those who enjoy an evening tipple will be especially pleased to know that Oaxaca is famed for its mezcal, best served from a small, travel-friendly (and reassuringly lightweight) jícara, a cup fashioned from the gourd of the calabash tree.
Dropping down to a balmy 900 metres in altitude, sweaty brows are to be expected, as is the sight of banana and papaya trees, which grow in abundance at this elevation. Tracing the shores of the languid Río Quiechapa, the San José del Pacífico GDT climbs back into the cooler climbs of the mountains once more, striking deep into a land of giant groves of prickly pear and bearded columni cacti. The route continues its northwards roll, before connecting with the Mitla Valley for the final, relatively flat stint home to Oaxaca and its enticingly edible rewards.
Connecting a number of small villages, each known for a particular craft – be it basket making or red earthen pottery – it cuts up past the low key Zapotec ruins of Dainzú, which date back some two millennia. And from there, it continues its cultural tour via Teotitlan del Valle, famed throughout Mexico for its textiles, many of which use plant and insect pigments as natural dyes. Keep a spare Voilé strap handy in case you want to invest in a rug! Onwards, it’s just a short ride to Santa María del Tule and its refreshing nieves, from where a convenient bike path beelines straight into the city. Take the time to pause to inspect a particularly impressive Montezuma Cypress specimen that has resided there for over two thousand years, after which the settlement is named. You’ll be in good company too, as the revered Prussian botanist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt did exactly the same in 1802. At 14 metres wide and 42 metres in circumference, it’s claimed the tree is the stoutest tree in the world.
Tule aside, we’ve barely even touched on the state’s remarkable biodiversity, which draws biologists from the world over. There’s no better way to prime yourself for a visit than by reading the entertaining Oaxaca Journal by Dr Oliver Sacks – the acclaimed neurologist, writer, and fern enthusiast. In fact, a local fern is even named after him. Keen-eyed bikepackers may well spot a wide variety of plants throughout the route, many of which are endemic to this area. We’ve included a few examples below and captioned names within the photoset should you wish to partake in this Oaxacan botanical treasure hunt. How’s that for experiential learning!
In order of presentation: Red Dahlia, Purple Bush-Bean, Bromeliad (Tillandsia Oaxacana), Orchid (Govenia utriculata), Bonnet (Mycena).
The southern Pacific states of Oaxaca and Chiapas are also known for their mushrooms, which can be appreciated in a number of ways. If you’ve come across the name María Sabina, you’ll likely know about Oaxaca’s popularity amongst overseas travellers, drawing famous creatives from around the world. Sabina’s sacred healing ceremonies were based around the use of psilocybin mushrooms, and somewhat controversially, were brought to fame in a Life article in the late ’50s. Come rainy season, foragers will love this area too, because the fungi that grow all around 2440m San José del Pacífico also taste delicious within the fold of a tlayuda. These handmade dishes, typical to Oaxaca, are a foodie bikepacker’s dream. Cooked on a comal, they consist of a large, crunchy, partially toasted, homemade tortilla covered with a spread of refried beans, cabbage, avocado, meat, Oaxacan cheese, and fresh salsa. Quite delicious!
Alternates and extensions
For those coming from afar, Oaxaca deserves as much time as you can make for it, and if you live in Mexico, it’s a destination worth getting to know over a series of visits. For this reason, we’ve included a number of alternatives to riding in and out of the city, as well as a half-day, dirt road route to San Mateo del Hondo to extend the route at its midpoint, too.
Additionally, we’ve included day rides into nearby valleys to bookend your trip, as well as the option of working in one or two weekend loops into the gorgeous Sierra Juárez, the lush green range that overlooks the city to the north – be it on dirt roads or trail. This way, your time in Oaxaca can be tailor-made to suit different timelines, riding preferences, and bike setups. Check out the Trail Notes tab below for more details – and investigate the various points on the RWGPS map for places to mix and match the route.
If you have more time still, consider enjoying the nearby Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve (a 2.5-hour bus ride away), or embarking on a mountain crossing to the Pacific coast (from where you can bus back to Oaxaca) – Puerto Escondido on dirt roads. Or, use the San Jose del Pacifico Grand Dirt Tour as a warm up/shakedown ride to a bigger journey south, following the Trans Mexico (Sur).
As you can tell, this loop is about more than just bikepacking. For those coming from afar, the city of Oaxaca de Juaréz makes a great base to learn about Zapotec culture and traditions. It’s well worth allotting yourself time in town to visit a number of excellent museums, the botanical gardens, and various nearby ruins. Indeed, the three main valleys that prod like fingers out of the city offer much more than just riding… though cycling is definitely the best way of discovering them. With this in mind, we’ve included four recommended day rides to bookend your trip – see Trail Notes for links and details. One will introduce you to the archaeological site of Monte Albán, one of the most important cities in Mesoamerica, and another leads out on quiet terracerías to the acclaimed Centro de las Artes de San Agustín. In case you didn’t stop in Teotitlán del Valle on your way back, a third overlaps the route briefly, using the foothills trails out to Huayapam. The fourth is one of my favourite half-day rides in the area – heading out to San Felipe Tejalapam on ridgetop dirt roads, offering a fresh perspective of the area.
Factor in delicious local coffee and what’s widely considered to be finest fare in the country – Oaxaca’s markets are legendary – and you’ll begin to see why this Mexican state is such a bikepacker’s delight!
With thanks to outdoor educator and artist Emma Bucke for sharing her beautiful botanical illustration, as used in the San José del Pacífico Grand Dirt Tour route badge. And for her knowledge of (and enthusiasm for) the natural world, which helped to shape this trip.
- Experiencing Oaxaca’s sheer biodiversity; rub shoulders with bromeliads, orchids, ferns, agave (ouch!) and much more…
- A visit to San José del Pacifico and its intriguing mushroom culture.
- Roller coaster climbs and monster descents through the steep and crumpled folds of the Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte and Sierra Sur.
- Quiet, traffic-free, backcountry riding for almost the entire route.
- A chance to spend time in Oaxaca de Juaréz itself, an enclave of creativity, fine food, and Zapotec culture.
- Working in a number of complimentary day rides, or weekend bikepacking loops, to make the most of your time in the region.
- Best bike: A rigid mountain bike or hardtail with a 2.3″ to 2.6″ tyre is the best choice for this route, due to the mixed terrain, the extended climbs, and often steep grades. But as there’s nothing ‘technical’ along the way in terms of terrain, a traditional tourer works very well too. If you’re aboard a gravel bike, run comparable gearing and the widest tyres that you can. Pack light, as there’s a lot of climbing to contend with.
- Best time of year: Oaxaca is a great destination throughout the year. But bear in mind that during the dry season (November to April), roads become increasingly dusty and temperatures can be very hot – especially as you drop down in elevation – and the landscape becomes increasingly dull and brown. In contrast, the rainy season (May to October) brings incredibly 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 lingering storm system on the Pacific coast or the Gulf of Mexico. Although it’s hard to put a finger on a ‘best’ time of year, October and November are probably my favourite months to ride here.
- Speaking of the rainy season, it can be worth bringing a light piece of tarp to protect your bike’s chain from rusting at night. There’s a waypoint on the map for one potential muddy trouble spot but on the whole, the area drains well. Storm system aside, they mostly come in the late afternoon or at night, so don’t tend to get in the way of enjoying your days.
- Mushrooms are most plentiful from best July to September. Check out Oaxacan mushroom guru Osvaldo Sandoval’s instagram for ideas and inspiration.
- Looking for a packlist? Check out this post. There are various additional notes on the area, too, so it’s worth a read.
- We’ve routed the loop in an anti-clockwise direction, to finish up with a mellow cruise through the Mitla Valley and a chance to detour to Teotitlan del Valle and purchase one of its naturally dyed, handmade rugs. However, the route is a lot of fun in reverse! It really changes the feel of the ride, throwing riders straight into the adventurous portion at the end of the first day, with a more gentle roll through the countryside to round it all off. Riding it clockwise also avoids the steep climb into San Jose del Pacífico. Note one-way roads through towns if you ride it that way. Both work really well, I think. But if you want to ease yourself in and finish off with some shopping in the Mitla valley, stick to anti-clockwise.
- Generally speaking, the mountains of Oaxaca are a safe place to travel through, but it’s always worth seeking up-to-date information.
- Depending on the season, there are black flies and occasionally poison ivy too, so have some Benadryl handy if you’re sensitive to these. We’ve spotted brown recluse spiders too, so an enclosed tent is recommended.
- Be aware that many of these dirt roads see few visitors. A wave and a friendly greeting go a long way within these small Zapotec communities.
- Similarly, some Spanish language skills are highly recommended, as much of this route sees few foreign visitors.
- There are NO ATMs en route except on the first day; bring cash and small bills. Try and break 500 peso notes in a bank beforehand, as small stores and restaurants will have trouble changing them.
- Want to get into the botanical groove? Visit the renowned Jardín Etnobotánico
de Oaxaca for a plant primer before you set off.
- Oaxaca Journal by Dr Oliver Sachs, is a highly recommended read for those interested in learning more about the area, from both a botanical and cultural standpoint.
- Oaxaca is the perfect destination to bring out your inner phytophile. Download iNaturalist on your phone and go plant (and insect) crazy.
- This article, on the many uses of Opuntia (pricky pear) in Mexico throughout history, is especially fascinating.
- Read this associated post for a pictorial overview of some of the plants you can expect to find.
- A short ride from the centre of Oaxaca, the trail network west of San Felipe Del Agua is rife with fun cross-country singletrack. See Trailforks for details; if you’ve brought a mountain bike, a loop around High Flyer Ridge/Escalones is especially recommended.
- There is an abundance of techy enduro trails in the area, especially up in the Ixtepeji area. Again, see Trailforks for details or check out our Hebras to Ixtepeji route, which makes a great compliment to this ride with an appropriate bicycle.
- MTB Oaxaca is an excellent resource that lists bike shops, trails, and day rides in and around Oaxaca.
- Need repairs? My favourite shops are Bicimundo and Zona Bici. Both are well stocked and both have branches in Reforma, which are recommended over those in the city centre. Expect to generally find sealant and a reasonable selection of mountain bike tyres, right up to 29 x 2.5/2.6.
- Consider timing your trip with Oaxaca’s famous Dia de Muertos ceremony (early November), but book accommodation in advance as things get busy at that time of year.
- Oaxaca is a six-hour bus ride away from Mexico City. ADO is a recommended bus company and generally has room for a bike or two.
- Volaris, AeroMexci and a number of other airlines fly to Oaxaca via Mexico City or Guadalajara. Depending on the size of your bike boxes, it’s likely to cost between 350 and 500 pesos for a taxi into town – for 2 to 3 people with bikes. You can buy tickets for the official airport taxis when you arrive and it’s all regulated. Download the Didi App on your phone for the return journey, or perhaps arrange something through your hotel.
- Dispersed camping is possible along this route. Bear in mind that they are unofficial, so be discreet, respectful, and be sure to leave no trace. I’ve marked a selection on the map, but with a keen eye, there are plenty more – especially in the more forested parts of the ride. If in doubt, it’s always best to ask for permission from the local ranch or ejido.
- I use denatured alcohol and have marked a spot where it can be bought in bulk (56 pesos for 1.5L) at a hardware store on Calle de Frey Bartolomé de las Casas (marked on the map) – it’s just south of the Zocalo, next to a paletería, by good fortune! Ask for ‘alcohol metilico’. Elsewhere on the route, ask for alcohol puro or alcohol de quemar, but it can be hard to track down. You can buy compressed camping gas bottles too – the shop is called La Gran Montaña and it’s on Miguel Hidalgo. It’s close to Marito and Mogli Cafe, a hip little coffee shop.
- There’s plenty of lodging to be found in San José del Pacifico to suit all budgets. It lies a little before the halfway point of the route and is a great place to spend an extra half day or night. Note that less touristy options can be found further up the hill, and nearby San Mateo Río Hondo promises off-the-beaten-track alternatives too.
- Looking for something a little ‘alternative’? The beautiful Refugio Terraza de la Tierra offers rustic cabins, a yoga hall, vegan fare, and some idyllic signed walks through the cloud forest. Those on a budget can camp in the organic vegetable gardens for 100 pesos per tent. It’s a short but steep descent to get down there… which means a sharp climb to get out. The grounds include a gorgeous trail to Arbol de la Luna. Highly recommended.
- There’s a wide variety of accommodation available within Oaxaca City, from budget hostels to fancy digs. If you plan on setting up a base camp to explore the area in more detail, Airbnb can be a good option. Location-wise, 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 crammed with coffee shops.
- One of the aspects of touring in Oaxaca that I love most is that every settlement likely has tlayudas, memelas, quesadillas, or tacos. In short, you won’t go hungry on this tour. If you don’t want to bring your stove, bring a re-usable container for take-outs, like a Stasher bag or some stout zip locks.
- You’ll want to carry at least a few bottles of water with you. I’d recommend having the capacity to run around 3-4L, as campsites will invariably be dry. When you stop in restaurants, ask to fill your bottles and offer a few extra pesos, to save buying plastic ones. Otherwise, you can refill everything at the start of the day from the 20L, re-usable water jugs found in many local stores – especially if you’re 2 or more riders. Although they’re larger than you’ll need, at 20 pesos each, they’re both an economical and eco-friendly way of filling up. It can be worth carry a filter for mountain streams.
- To find out more about the culinary fare for which Oaxaca City is known, check out the Netflix series Street Food Latin America. It focuses on local legend Doña Vale and the region’s famous recipes.
- Pop into one of the many mezcal specialists or stop along the roadside and try the local tipple, distilled from agave (maguey) plants. There are many subtleties to mezcal, depending on the agave, where it’s grown, and how it’s distilled. My favourite is agave silvestre, which grows wild. If you want to dive deep into the mezcal-tasting experience, Mezcaloteca, in Oaxaca city, comes highly recommended, as does El Destilado.
- Visit any market for a wide variety of fruit and fruit shakes, a great start to the day. ‘Verde’, laced with celery, grapefruit, and parsley is a personal favourite. The main Oaxaca market, behind the zócalo – Mercado Benito
Juárez – is always a hive of activity and a great place to explore on foot.
- A post-ride recommendation in Oaxaca? Check out La Popular for a beer or two, and good local food. The wild mushroom (setas) and garlic dish is especially good.
- Eat meat? Or rather, insects? Grab yourself a bag of chapolies – grasshoppers seasoned with lime, salt and garlic – and sprinkle them on your food or just enjoy them for afternoon nibbles.
- In Oaxaca City, Calle de General Porfirio Díaz is becoming quite the street for locally run, ‘new wave’ Oaxacan fare. From the end closest to the centre, the Boulenc ’empire’ includes an incredible bakery, a fantastic restaurant and coffee shop, and a grocery store with all kinds of bottled, homemade delights. Further up the street, Hierba Dulce is an excellent vegan restaurant with a broad menu of traditional dishes – I firmly believe that their avocado and chocolate ‘cremosa’ is one of the best desserts in town! Further up the street still, vegetarians will love the small, hole-in-the-wall ‘Casuelas’ whilst Pan Con Madre, next door, is another excellent spot for bakery products. A few steps beyond lies Macha Pacha, which sells artisanal chocolate in compostable packaging. The owner is a keen mountain biker.
- Coffee? Oaxaca has you covered! Coffee is grown in the state and roasted locally. There are far too many coffee shops to recommend, but try out Café El Volador, at the beautiful Plaza de la Cruz de Piedra, to get you started. The square is a great spot to hang out after a day ride, too.
- Over the highway in Xochimilco, Rupestre is a great spot with a lovely courtyard and especially strong americanos – there’s room for bikes too – or there’s the roof terrace at AM Siempre (great gluten-free chocolate cake!) next door. Nearby Chepiche is one of my favourite spots in town- it’s super spacious, there’s outdoor seating, it’s great for a breakfast, and again, plenty of room for bikes. I recommend trying La Huerta! Look this place up on Googlemaps, as it’s not signposted from the road.
- If you’re after something a little more high end, Ancestral, in Xochimilco, is an excellent restaurant serving beautifully presented, traditional Oaxacan fare. Want to really treat yourself? Casa Oaxaca is considered one of the best restaurants in town.
- Cacao plays an important role in Oaxacan food and the state Oaxaca is well known for its chocolate. Its either melted with cinnamon and sugar into Oaxacan hot chocolate – traditionally served without milk – or made into a delicious mole, which can be found on every restaurant’s menu.
- Agua frescas are the drink of choice in Mexico 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 drinks in glass 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. A few of our favourites are marked on the map.
Day Rides and Route Alternates
In addition to the various bikepacking routes to be found in Oaxaca (linked above), bookend your trip with dirt, gravel, and singletrack loops, rewarding ways of gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation of the area.
The Monte Albán and Cuilapan Rural Ramble is a challenging, roughstuff day ride that passes by the Zapotec ruins of Monte Albán en route to the Ex-Monastry of Cuilapan – a complex set in Oaxaca’s Valle Grande and Ejutla area. You can trim it down to the single loop, but I recommend the full figure of eight as it’s 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.
For a shorter version with some short sections of trail, there’s also Monte Alban and Atzompa Rough ‘n Ruts. Either way, I highly recommend checking out Monte Alban. It’s an incredible Zapotec site and a highlight of Oaxaca City.
Venture into the Etla Valley and visit the acclaimed Centro de las Artes de San Agustín, housed in a former textile factory, by following San Agustín Etla: foothills out, railroad back day ride. It connects rolling dirt roads to San Agustín with a former railway line on the way back, making for a nice variety of surfaces. There are singletrack options too if you want to spice things up.
If you rode the route clockwise and didn’t get a chance to check out Teotitlan del Valle – and its beautiful textiles that can be purchased direct from the makers – then the 75km Teotitlán, via Hualapam, Dainzú, and Tule is sure to add great memories to your purchase. It links up mellow trails, rural roads, and remote two-track, via the archeological site of Dainzu.
And for a fresh perspective of the area, this short loop is one of my very favourites, connecting dirt roads out to San Felipe Tejalapam. There are several ways of doing this – here’s my favourite.
Lastly… the full route includes a very interesting way out of Oaxaca. But if you need to save time, here is a shorter version that avoids the worst of the highway, but is more direct. It does mean riding the highway for a stint, however.
With thanks to Larry at www.oaxacamtb.com sharing his vast wealth of route near Oaxaca City, via which much of my own knowledge is based.
Half day ride in San José del Pacífico
Tempted to spend more time in the cloud forest? Here’s a pleasant little <a href=”https://ridewithgps.com/routes/34803830″ rel=”noopener noreferrer” target=”_blank”>half day loop </a>to the nearby village of San Mateo del Hondo, an excuse to spend an extra night in San José del Pacífico.
Have a few more days to hand?
With the right bike, this route pairs especially well with the Hebras de Ixtepeji singletrack route, which is a 2-2.5 day exploration into the Sierra Norte mountain range. Not so keen on trail riding? Here’s a dirt road alternative into the Sierra Norte that hits up some of the same spots.
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