Ojos de Cuicatlan (TCBR, Sur)
118 Mi.(190 KM)
% Rideable (time)
While Out Riding
The Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve is a vast area that straddles both the southeastern portion of the state of Puebla and the northeast portion of the Oaxaca – hence our two distinctive loops. The reserve covers 490,186 hectares, including protected core zones and more general buffer rings.
This is rugged mountain country, bound by the Sierra Zongolica in the north, the Mazatec Sierra in the middle, and the Sierra de Juarez in the south – where this route is set. Cut by deep canyons and set across a range of elevations, the area is laced with dirt roads that vary between 500m and 2,500m in altitude. Expect tropical deciduous forests, pine forest, cloud forest, pine-oak, and remote desert, making this swathe of land remarkably biodiverse. Be sure to read the North Loop for more background on the reserve and its cultural heritage.
Given its fluctuations in altitude, the South Loop, is especially biodiverse. It shares much of the desert flora that can be seen in the North Loop – including the reserve’s ionic columnar cacti – albeit in a less dense setting. It also promises shady oak forests, their crooked branches heavy with bromeliads, providing perfect respite from the dry season sun. Bougainvilleas and bignonias add splashes of colour along the way.
Initially, a lofty ridge ride offers sweeping, often hazy views in the distant valleys below; climbing is mellow in grade and the temperatures up at 2000m feel very agreeable temperatures, even in the summer. Then, a long descent sees riders drop substantially in altitude, spiralling down into the searing heat of the valley floor, a land of abundant limes, mangos, and particularly delicious chicozapotas. The latter is a sweet and malty fruit that looks like a small potato! The route traces a now disused railway line places, using it as an unconventional shortcut into the busy settlement of San Juan Bautista Cuicatlán. There, food is plentiful – ask for a jara (pitcher) of juice to help temper the heat.
A connector, closed to vehicular traffic much of the time, showcases classic Sierra de Juarez topography; especially impressive, multi-armed organ pipe cacti (their flowers open at night to be pollinated by bats and moths), paddle-like nopales, plump pata de elefantes, and spiky-trunked silk cotton trees line the dirt road that traces the old railway line above the Rio Grande. These are set to a backdrop of layered ridges above swathes of unexpectedly verdant forest, where cantankerous green macaws gather during the daytime. If you time your visit right, you can visit the Sanctuario de las Guacamayas Verdes, where hundreds of these impressive birds – close to a metre in length – can be seen leaving their limestone rookeries come dawn, or returning in the evening. Even if you can’t, you’ll likely see a few dozen on your return to Santa María Ixcatlán.
As the route climbs back from whence it began, the endemic viejitos, tall and skinny Torch Caci (a type of Cephalocereus Hoppenstedtii) that sport white and fluffy tops, sprout from the earth once more. The views become ever more impressive with every metre of altitude gained, revealing rock walls that are green-tinged from volcanic ash, the same distinctive stone that can be seen so prominently in nearby Oaxaca city. Climb further still and arid desert flora gives way once more to crooked oak trees, their branches heavy with flowering bromeliads. The final stint into Santa Maria Ixtaclan is especially enjoyable. Steeper, rockier switchbacks soften to mellower grades, with a final sweeping descent past the church into the village.
Thanks to Nicolas Legoretta for the initial inspiration to visit this region, which we recced together, based on local information and on-the-ground route exploration. We’d love to promote more local initiatives in the area, so if you have information to share, do get in touch.
Unfortunately, a project to financially integrate local communities into the maintenance of the reserve – info panels can be seen throughout the area, under the acronym PSA, or Pago Por Servicios Ambientes – has met with mixed success. The reserve’s nuclei zones are fenced off and very well kept. But elsewhere, trash can sometimes blight the roadside. The first half the South Loop is well-tended, the obvious blight being on the climb back to Santa María Ixcatlán.
As a route, the southern loop offers a relatively challenging introduction to bikepacking for those living in Mexico City, Puebla, or Oaxaca, or of course visitors to Mexico from abroad. We’d love to see bikepackers help to fuel positive change in the biosphere Tehuacán-Cuicatlán, so as ever, be sure to leave no trace and abide by local restrictions.
Difficulty 7: Compared to the northern loop, this route has more climbing and temperatures are significantly higher in places. Surfaces are rougher in places, too. Resupply options are still good, even if they’re not quite as prevalent as in the South Loop. A stout climb on the return leg, perhaps best split in two depending on the heat of the day, provides the main challenge.
- Ridge riding at a refreshing 2000m in elevation, whilst peering down into hot and hazy canyons in the valley floor below.
- Catching sight of a flock of Guacamayas Verdes and hearing their squawks resonate across their limestone rookeries.
- The sheer biodiversity of this part of the reserve; from oak-covered bromeliads to towering, multi-armed cacti.
- Sweet mango and chicozapota heaven, sticky respite on a hot day.
- Best Bike: Much of this route is rideable on a 40-45mm gravel bike. But there are a number of rougher sections, so a mountain bike (eg rigid plus or 29×2.4) is a more suitable and comfortable choice.
- Beware April and May in the dry season, as the lower elevations become searingly hot. A midday siesta is recommended, as temperatures can easily reach more than 38 Celsius/100 Fahrenheit. Locals say the dirt roads remain passable in the wet season.
- Even in the dry season, a basic tarp is useful. On the nights we didn’t use ours, we awoke to soaked sleeping bags. At lower elevations there are mosquitos and sand flies, so an inner tent can be useful. We managed without one.
- Santiago Apoala is the main touristy hub on the route, with bike rental and a variety of local tours, including trips to waterfalls and caves. See the tourist office on the map for more info.
- San Juan Bautista Cuicatlán is the largest town on the route and has cell service, as well as a number of stores and restaurants.
- A visit to the Guacamayas Verdes sanctuary in the Cañon Alas Verdes can either be set up in Santa Maria Tecomavaca, just off route, or more efficiently, in advance at the sanctuary’s Facebook page. The birds are best seen at dawn, when they leave their rookeries, or at sunset when they return. The trip involves a hike to the best viewing spot.
- Cash: there are no ATMs on the route. Carry cash, small bills if possible.
- Cell service: Note that aside from in San Juan Bautista Cuicatlán, there’s very little cell service in the area, even in Santa María Ixcatlán. You may occasionally find a signal in the mountains, but don’t rely on it. If you need to access the web or make a call, buy an hour’s internet access (5-10 pesos/hour) from convenience stores and use What’s App instead. This service can be found in every larger village along the route.
- Access: If you’re driving here, you can access the loop from Santa María Ixcatlán, as we did. The last hour is on an unpaved road and can be slow going in a car. If arriving by public transportation, take a bus to Asunción Nochixtlán on the main toll highway, then hop in a local combi to Santiago Apuala or Santa Maria Apazco, which intersect the route. The former has a place to stay and stores, so makes a good base.
- We’ve marked the location of a simple hotel in Santa María Ixcatlán. Otherwise, there are options in the more touristy settlement of Santiago Apoala, if you start from there.
- Wild camping is permissible outside the nuclei zones of the reserve; leave no trace and ask local ejidos for permission when you can.
- We’ve included an option to break the climb back to Santa María Ixcatlán in two, which you may want to do, depending on the season.
- A simple tarp is useful or you’ll likely wake up to a soaked sleeping bag.
- Bear in mind the area has a number of critters, including poisonous spiders and scorpions, so check your shoes!
- A lightweight, summer-rated sleeping bag is ideal, as it can be cooler at night at elevation
- We carried between 3 and 5 litres of water, depending on the elevation/temperatures of the route. Offer some pesos to fill your water bottles when you stop and eat in restaurants; it won’t always be accepted but the gesture is appreciated, as water can be scarce.
- Small settlements are spread throughout the ride, so picking up supplies/eating out is never an issue and can be done on a daily basis – no need to carry much. The final climb back to Santa María Ixcatlán is the only extended stretch without resupply options.