Vuelta A Los Pueblos Mancomunados, Oaxaca
116 Mi.(187 KM)
% Rideable (time)
Technical Difficulty: 4•
Physical Demand: 8•
While Out Riding
Note that areas within the Sierra Norte remain closed. As it is, this ride makes a wonderful three-day introduction to the area. When the remaining Pueblo Mancomunados open their doors to tourism again, the loop can be extended by a further two days, and will be adjusted accordingly.
If you’ve considered tackling other Oaxacan routes we’ve posted – specifically, those that run through the broad Mitla Valley, like the leisurely and indirect Meandros en Mitla, or the more committing San José del Pacífico Grand Dirt Tour – you’ll have noticed there’s a variety of interesting ways to leave town.
This vuelta keeps life simple and direct by initially exiting the city via the bike path to Santa María del Tule, known for the gargantuan Arbol del Tule, before connecting with Tlacachuhuaya and Tlacolula on rural dirt roads – with a recommended short detour to the serene archeological site of Dainzu en route.
However, instead of continuing onwards to Mitla and Hierve el Agua or striking out towards San Marcos Tlapazola and its red pottery workshops – as per the aforementioned routes on this site – it then merges for the briefest of moments with Highway 190, before swinging north to Yagul. This impressive Zapotec archeological site is sprawling and especially well situated, surrounded as it is by agave fields and an amphitheater of rock structures, pocked with ancient caves where petroglyphs adorn the walls, and overlooked by a rocky bluff where evidence of a Zapotec fortress can be found. Few tourists visit Yagul and chances are you’ll have it completely to yourself, wandering around in abstract awe.
What’s more, Yagul is encircled by a protected zone that’s particularly appealing for cyclists, given the number of signposted trails and dirt roads to explore – which the route uses to its advantage as it continues towards Villa Díaz Ordaz. Then, it’s a short spin to the small community of San Miguel del Valle, noted for its traditional ways and Indigenous dress.
The dirt road climb that follows is one of the more challenging ascents into the higher climes of the Sierra Norte, not least because treeline isn’t reached until close to 2,700 metres – which means it’s exposed and especially unforgiving in the dry season. Still, this particular juice is definitely worth the squeeze, not least because it’s almost completely bereft of traffic. And, once over the pass, an even lesser travelled road peels off to connect one high elevation pasture to the next, under magnificent canopies of bromeliads or through corridors of giant agave. It’s a wonderful area to slow down and soak in, with a number of possible detours to caves and rock structures along the way, many of which are signposted.
El Carrizal is the first of the Pueblos Mancomunados on the tour. Idyllically located, it’s known throughout the valley for the wheat it grows, along with its apple, pear, and plum orchards. This blink-and-you-miss-it, impeccably clean settlement also boasts unusually far-reaching views for this rugged mountain range, and an impressive Centro Ecoturístico with comfortable cabañas and a community store nearby.
Continuing onwards, the climb eventually turns to broken pavement, at which point it’s a quick and easy detour to enjoy the views at Piedra Grande should you so wish, before doubling back through Llano Grande to San Antonio Cuajimoloyas. The latter is one of the jewels in the Pueblo Mancomunado crown, complete with a hotchpotch of colourful houses, lush gardens, assorted succulents for sale, and old vehicles rusting in the humid air. The community here requires a small day access fee to enjoy its protected trails, which is covered within the cost of camping, or a night in a comfortable cabaña. Depending on the time of year, it’s well worth lingering in this village and hiring the services of a local guide, be it to learn about flora on one of the half-dozen hikes, or to go mushroom foraging – the area is known for both Porcinis – aka King Boletes – and Amanita caesareas. Somewhat bizarrely, there’s even a kilometre-long zip-line. Crane your head back to see the odd ant-size person buzzing high, high in the clouds!
Strung across the length of a ridgetop – at almost 3,200 metres in elevation – the weather in Cuajimoloyas is often unsettled and moody, a welcome respite from the usual sweltering heat of the Mitla Valley, in the dry season especially. At the time of writing, the neighbouring Pueblo Mancomunado settlement of Benito Juárez remains closed, which means letting off the brakes and taking the paved descent back down to the valley floor and connecting with Teotitlán del Valle on a dirt road. Once Benito Juárez is open again, riders can drop down on dirt directly into Teotitlán del Valle below (see POI on the map), a hub for woolen textiles, many of which are dyed using local plants.
Finally, the route skirts unconventionally around a series of agave plantations, again all but devoid of traffic, bar ravenous goats, burros, and the occasional clapped-out pickup truck. From here, there’s the possibility of linking back up with the bike path between Tule and Oaxaca. But as the traffic in the city can be hectic in the afternoon, I prefer to take a quieter and more dirt-infused way back. If you have the inclination, curiosity, and the thirst, riders can take one last swing out to San Andrés Huayapam, and enjoy a painted gourd of tejate, the pre-Columbian energy drink that will keep your spirits buoyant on the last few kilometers home.
This is a relatively straightforward route with plenty of access to food and water. Whilst the terrain is mixed – from dusty valley roads, to farm tracks, to rugged mountain passes – it is rarely rough enough to be considered technical, at least with an appropriate bike. From a physical perspective, however, the climb to El Carrizal is not to be underestimated, especially during the heat of the dry season when temperatures soar and shade is limited. In the rainy season, keep an eye out for storm activity and be prepared for mixed weather in the Sierra Norte at all times of the year. If you’re coming from sea level, bear in mind that the route reaches almost 3,200 metres in elevation, so allow some time in Oaxaca to catch your breath.
With thanks to Emma Bucke for her beautiful Boletus edulis illustration used in our route badge.
- Riding beautiful and traffic-free forest roads in the Sierra Norte, surrounded by pines, oaks, bromeliads, rare flowers, and orchids.
- The monster climb from the valley floor to El Carrizal – it’s sure to test the mettle of any bikepacker and wrapped by far reaching vistas at every turn.
- Balancing rugged mountain beauty with historical and cultural interest – there are two Zapotec archeological sites and a a prehistoric cave with petroglyphs.
- Enjoying a grassroots, well organised tourist network that supports the local economy and helps keep regional traditions alive.
- Classic Oaxacan fare, always a highlight of cycling in this state.
- Stopping by Teotitlán del Valle on the way home, and perhaps investing in one of the naturally dyed textiles for which the town is known.
- Best bike: A rigid mountain bike or hardtail with 2.2″ to 2.6″ tyres is the best steed for this route, due to the mixed terrain, the extended climbs, and the often steep grades. Still, because there’s nothing ‘technical’ along the way in terms of terrain, a traditional tourer works well too. If you’re aboard a gravel or drop-handlebar bike, be sure that your gearing is as low as that of a mountain bike, fit the widest tyres that you can, and expect to be jostled around at times. Whatever bike you choose, pack light, as there’s a lot of climbing to contend with.
- Best time of year: Oaxaca is a popular destination throughout the year, with November to February being the high season. Bear in mind that during the dry season (November to April/May), dirt roads become increasingly dusty and temperatures soar as the months go by – especially as you descend in elevation. By April, 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 impacting the Pacific coast or the Gulf of Mexico, in which case it can be rainy and overcast for a few days. Mid-October through January 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 this time, November is perhaps the very best time and will give you the chance to experience the Día de Muertos ceremonies at the beginning of the month, too.
- Rainy season: It can be worth bringing a light tarp to throw over your bike and keep the drivetrain and bags dry at night. Storm systems aside, rains mostly come in the late afternoon or at night, so don’t tend to get in the way of enjoying your days in the saddle. The rainy season has its own charms, including epic skies, storm-racing, and the chance to forage for mushrooms. Check the Dark Sky app for storm activity during hurricane season, which starts in June.
- Itinerary; This ride is best split into three or four days. See Trail Notes for possible options.
- Direction I prefer to ride this route counterclockwise, as per the map. Although the pavement between the valley and Cuajimaloyas isn’t especially busy, it’s more enjoyable as a descent.
- Foraging: Typically, the mushroom season begins in mid-to-late June, depending on the onset of the rainy season. Guides can be hired at the Centro Turistico in San Antonio Cuajimoloyas. A typical forage takes around five hours – it’s 300 pesos for a Spanish-speaking guide and 420 pesos for an English-speaking one.
- Dry season: As the dry season progresses, the exposed climb to El Carrizal will become increasingly challenging, so bring extra water as there’s nothing along the way. The valley floor will be dusty but the high mountains tend to stay cool – in fact, it can vary by as much as 30°C (equivalent to a 54°F change) on the descent from Cuajimoloyas to the valley floor!
- The Pueblos Mancomunados; although an independent visit to the area doesn’t require a trip to the headquarters of the Pueblos Mancomunados in Oaxaca beforehand, it’s worth popping in to check roads and villages are open and making any bookings, if you intend to stay in a cabaña. See Expediciones Sierra Norte for details – the office is in the centre of town. When you’re in Cuajimoloyas, the office to pay for lodging and access to the area is on the main road – see POI.
- The communities in the Sierra Norte are very close-knit. If anyone asks you where you area headed – there are sometimes checkpoints in San Miguel del Valle, for instance – let them know them know you’re riding to El Carrizal. Sometimes there is a small fee to pay at the centro ecoturistico in San Miguel del Valle, but generally this is covered within the cost of camping. Be respecful of the fact that you are being granted access to their forest and keep to the suggested roads.
- Spanish language skills are very useful, as parts of this route see few foreign visitors.
- ATMs: The only place to find an ATM along the route is in Tlacolula, so best to bring all the cash you need with you. Try to break 500 peso notes beforehand at one of the banks in town, as locals will struggle to find change otherwise.
- 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.
- Bike shops: Bicimundo and Zona Bici 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″ sizes.
- Local trails;/strong> a short ride from the centre of Oaxaca, the area west of San Felipe Del Agua has a number of trails. See Trailforks for details; if you’ve brought a mountain bike, a 2-3 hour loop around High Flyer Ridge/Escalones is especially recommended. Be aware that there are some ongoing land disputes in this area.
- There is also an abundance of techy enduro trails in the Sierra Norte, especially up in the Ixtepeji area. Again, see Trailforks for details or check out our Hebras to Ixtepeji route, which makes a great complement to this ride, with an appropriate mountain bike.
- MTB Oaxaca is an excellent resource – it lists bike shops, trails, and day rides in and around Oaxaca.
- 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. I like to take the night bus, but the service during the day is a great opportunity to see fine views across the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve. Bikes can be unboxed and there’s no fee to pay.
- Flying in; Volaris, AeroMexico, and a number of other airline serve Oaxaca, either directly or via Mexico City or Guadalajara. Choosing a direct flight is less likely to result in your bike missing a connection, especially if it’s a tight one.
- Airport taxis; 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 (the drive is paid in cash), or arrange a ride through your hotel.
- Safety: The Sierra Norte itself is a safe place to ride. However, crime appears to be on the increase in Oaxaca de Juárez, both in the city centre at night and on a few of the local trails during the day. If you’re out late, take a taxi home. In terms of riding, hiking, and running in areas close to the city, be especially mindful in Cerro del Fortín, the cross at Torre de Microondas (also known as Cerro el Crestón), and the very top of the Libramento Norte (before the road drops down into neighbouring Viguera.
- El Carrizal, Cuajimoloyas, and Benito Juárez (when it’s open) all offer camping and cabañas at their respective eco centres (see map for locations). Camping is typically 100 pesos person and cabañas are around 300 pesos per person (minimum 2 people).
- Camping spots don’t have to be arranged in advance but you’re best off booking your cabana, especially at the weekend. You can pop by the Pueblo Mancomunados offices – Expediciones Sierra Norte – in the centre of Oaxaca to do this.
- Additonally, in El Carrizal, you can either camp up at the Centro Ecoturístico by the basketball court in the village (talk to Jaime there, 951 312 6200, as he can take you to the local sights by bike or on foot), or at the trout farm/restaurant, which is also owned by the community and run by Caesar (see Food and Water for more details). Both are marked on the map and cost 100 pesos per person. I prefer to camp at the trout farm, as it’s set away from the village. TIf you’re headed to Carrizal during the week, it’s worth ringing to make sure someone is around.
- Cuajimoloyas offers two camping zones and we’ve marked them on the map, as you can make fun loop between them. The camping zone immediately below the cabañas has access to picnic benches, a tap, and outlets to charge devices, but it likely to be busier/noisier at weekends. The lower campspot is larger and flatter. There’s a compost toilet and access to clean water. Both have small comedors operating at weekends, which tend to close up in the afternoon, so don’t rely on them for food.
- If you want to eek out your trip, check out Mongolian Yurt Adventure, where there’s room for one tent at a time. It’s close to Tlacachuhuaya and is a great spot to stay. The premises is off-grid and powered by solar panels. There’s a discounted cyclist’s rate of 100 pesos per tent – send a Facebook or WhatsApp message (9511309722) before turning up.
- If you don’t have access to camping gear, this is a route that can be completed using cabanas in the Sierra Norte and hotels in the valley floor.
- There are plenty of options for hotels in Teotitlán del Valle and Tlacolula, if you need them – see Booking.com. In Teotitlán, B&B Teocalli is a good budget choice with room for bikes, and Las Granadas has also been recommended.
- Within the Mitla Valley, food and water are readily available.
- Every small restaurant is likely to be able to rustle up delicious memelas and tlayudas. Wash these down with a jarra de agua fresca, depending on what’s in season.
- Water; the climb up to El Carrizal is bereft of water, but once up in the Sierra Norte, there are plenty of springs and creeks. Bring a filter.
- El Carrizal has a trout farm with a great restaurant where you can camp too (see map). It’s run by Caesar, who speaks some English and is incredibly kind. It’s at the bottom of the village – see POI – and if the gates are closed, chances are you can track him down in town. To be sure, ring first – 951 249 0193. There’s also comedor at the Centro Ecoturístico but it has sporadic hours. Round the corner, you can find a community store but hours are also limited, so it’s worth having food with you. If it’s open, look for the locally-made cookies!
- At the time of posting this route, Llano Grande is open to through-travel, but the restaurants that line the paved road are closed. There are other roadside eateries in the area, though.
- Cuajimoloyas is the best place to resupply and has plenty of restaurants (including a favourite marked on the map), a number of small general stores, and one that specializes in local produce like jams and mezcal.
- Both the campsite and the cabanas in Cuajimoloyas have small comedors that operate at weekends – the lower campsite has a small trout farm and the one at the cabanas can even show you how to prepare your mushrooms, if you find any, and cook them for you! They tend to close up in the afternoon, so don’t rely on them for food.
- When you’re down in the valley, ask to fill your bottles and offer a few extra pesos to save buying unnecessary plastic.
- Within the villages of the Sierra Norte, the water is clean enough to drink. Bring a means to purify it if you’re concerned.
- The only part of the route where access to water is limited is the big climb up from San Miguel del Valle, especially in the dry season as there’s little chance of shade.
- See our San José del Pacífico Grand Dirt Tour route for recommended eats in Oaxaca.
In terms of breaking this ride up, there are a number of possibilities.
Day 1: Consider enjoying a shorter first day and riding to Yagul, checking out the various sights en route. Day 2: This will be relatively short distance-wise, but it will be much more challenging, as the climb to El Carrizal is a tough one.
Day 3: From El Carrizal, ride onwards to Cuajimaloyas, taking time to explore the area by camping there for the night, or continuing on for a bigger day back to Oaxaca.
Day 4: Finish of the route with an easy day back to Oaxaca, with time to visit Huayapam, and even Presa La Mina, on the way back into the city.
Another option, if you don’t want to overnight in Yagul/Tlacolula, is to ride all the way from Oaxaca to El Carrizal in a day, taking the shortcut to the village to shorten the distance. If you do this, I’d strongly advise (!) to retrace the part of the route that you missed – it really is a highlight of the route. You can either double back up the climb, or do so in reverse. This loop is a slight variation on a theme, as there are a number of dirt roads in the area.
Day 1: Ride to El Carrizal, via the short cut. Approx 6 hours riding time and 1600m of elevation gain.
Day 2: Half day loop, with time to explore the area by bike or foot, then ride to Cuajimaloyas and camp there.
Day 3: Finish of the route with an easy day back to Oaxaca, with time to visit Huayapam, and even Presa La Mina, on the way back into the city.
In the past, I’ve also enjoyed the half-day loop on day two, and some hiking in the area, leaving for Cuajimaloyas the next day, just to make the most of my time in these beautiful mountains!
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