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, 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 3,000 metres in elevation. 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 characterfully bearded columni cacti. The route continues it northwards roll, before connecting with the Mitla Valley for the final, relatively flat stint home to Oaxaca and its enticingly edible rewards. Initially, these come by way of Tule and its refreshing nieves, from where a convenient bike path beelines straight into the city. Just be sure to pause to inspect a particularly impressive Montezuma Cypress specimen that has resided there for over two thousand years – 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 of María Sabina, you’ll likely know about the area’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. 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!
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 allowing yourself several days in town and visiting 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 two recommended day rides to bookend your trip – see Trail Notes for links and details – that will introduce you to the ruins of Monte Albán, one of the most important cities in Mesoamerica, and another that leads out on quiet terracerías to the acclaimed Centro de las Artes de San Agustín. A third overlaps the route briefly. It’s a 75km day ride out to Teotitlán del Valle – famed for its textiles, many of which use plant and insect pigments as natural dyes – via the trails to Huilapam and the ruins of Dainzú. A perfect chance to pick up a souvenir before heading home.
Otherwise, consider pairing this route with a loop into the nearby Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve, a 2.5-hour bus ride away, or a ride down to Puerto Escondido, on the Pacific coast. We will be updating this route soon. If you’re planning on riding south afterwards, check out the Trans Mexico (Sur).
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 tradition.
- Best bike: A rigid mountain bike or hardtail with a 2.2″ to 2.5″ tyre is the ideal choice for this route, because of the mixed terrain, long climbs, and sometimes steep grades. If you’re aboard a gravel bike, be sure you’re running comparable gearing. I’d recommend a 45mm+ tyre, to cover the mixed surfaces, but would personally prefer more. You may want to avoid the initial climb out of El Rosario and follow the bikepath to Tule instead.
- Best time of year: Oaxaca is a great destination throughout the year. Beware the dry season (October to April), as temperatures become sizzling hot and roads can be dusty. In contrast, the rainy season (May to October) brings lush countryside but heavy nightly downpours and the risk of mud.
- The mountains of Oaxaca are generally a safe place to travel through, but it’s always worth getting up-to-date information.
- Be aware that many of these dirt roads see few visitors. A wave and a friendly greeting go a long way, or even a polite “Prestame paso, por favor!“
- There are no ATMs en route; bring cash and small bills, ideally.
- Oaxaca is a six-hour bus ride away from Mexico City. ADO is a recommended bus company, with plenty of room for a bike or two.
- Volaris and a number of other airlines fly to Oaxaca via Mexico City or Guadalajara.
- Time your trip with Oaxaca’s famous Dia de Muertos ceremony (early November), but book accommodation in advance as things to get busy.
- Be sure to visit the renowned Jardín Etnobotánico
de Oaxaca for a plant primer before you set off.
- A short ride from the centre of the city, the trail network west of San Felipe Del Agua is rife with fun cross-country singletrack. See Trailforks for details; High Flyer Ridge is especially recommended.
- There is an abundance of techy enduro trails in the area. Again, see Trailforks for details.
- MTB Oaxaca is an excellent resource that lists bike shops, trails, and day rides in and around Oaxaca.
- Oaxaca Journal by Dr Oliver Sachs, is a recommended read for those interested in learning more about the area, from both a botanical and cultural standpoint.
- This article, on the many uses of Opuntia (pricky pear) in Mexico throughout history, is especially fascinating.
- Oaxaca is the perfect destination to bring out your inner phytophile. Download iNaturalist on your phone and go plant (and insect) crazy.
- There’s plenty of lodging to be found in San José del Pacifico to suit all budgets, halfway around the route. Note that less touristy options can be found further up the hill, and nearby San Mateo Río Hondo promises more off-the-beaten-track alternatives.
- Wild camping is possible in the forest, as long as you can find a flat spot!
- We’ve marked some other camping options along the route, though it’s always best to ask for permission from the local ranch or ejido if in doubt.
- The beauty of Oaxaca is that every settlement will have tlayudas, memelas, quesadillas, or tacos. You won’t go hungry on this tour!
- To find out more about the food for which the city is known, it’s worth checking out the Netflix series Street Food Latin America, that focus on Doña Vale and her famous recipes.
- Visit any market for a dizzying variety of fruit and fruit shakes.
- You’ll want to carry at least a few bottles of water with you. I’d recommend 2-3L, depending on the season.
- Oaxaca is well known for both its chocolate and its delicious mole. Mamapacha sells artisanal chocolate in compostable packaging.
- 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!
- Aguas frescas are the drink of choice in Oaxaca and way better than Coke! Choose from jamaica, horchata, and tamarindo, along with whatever fruit is in season – mango, papaya, or guava.
- Paletas! Mexico’s classic ice cream on a stick tastes especially good after (or during) a long day in the saddle.
In addition to the various bikepacking routes to be found in Oaxaca (linked above), bookend your trip with these 4-5 hour 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.
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.
Or, if you’re interested in bringing back a textile from your trip and would like to buy it directly from the makers, then 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.
With thanks to Larry at www.oaxacamtb.com sharing his vast knowledge of the area!