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Trekking in the Sierra Norte, Mexico

MEXICO | Monday, 29 August 2005 | Views [9621] | Comments [11]

Zapotec route markers

Zapotec route markers

The Sierra Norte is a range of mountains just to the North of Oaxaca which contain a network of trekking and mountain biking routes through spectacular pine forests. The ancient pathways connect eight villages ( the pueblos mancomunados) which work together communally to provide tourist accommodation and guides to help people discover the area. The landscape and flora are spectacular, and being at 3000 meters and with very few roads, it is always fresh and peaceful. A few days walking up here is the perfect escape from the pressures of traveling.

Bookings for accommodation can be made in Oaxaca at Expediciones Sierra Norte at M.Bravo 210 – 1 (9/514 8271). It really helps if you can speak some Spanish, as the people here and up in the hills don’t speak much English. Accommodation is in dormitories or cabins, which are very comfortable and clean and have hot water. Each of the eight villages has accommodation, and you can just turn up and hope there’s space. If there is room, you are usually “upgraded” to a cabin, even if you have only paid for a dorm.

Expediciones Sierra Norte sells a very useful map of the area, which has the walking routes marked on them. Buying this is highly recommended (50 pesos), as it’s difficult to work out where to go and where to stay without it. They will also press you to hire a guide to accompany you on your trek. This is not necessary, as the routes are well way marked, but if you’re Spanish is good, having a guide will give you a broader insight into this unique area.

There is also an entrance fee of 50 pesos per person. The tourist office in Oaxaca has useful fact sheets on the villages.

The villages run on Mountain Time, which is 1 hour behind Oaxaca time, so always clarify what time is being quoted, particularly important for buses.

At 3,000m, it gets very cold at night and may also rain anytime, so pack that fleece and raincoat.

What you get to eat depends on the size of the village you are in. Most of the larger places have a couple of eating places, but in smaller places, you may be eating a meal with a family. The food is simple, but they will often try to accommodate you if you give the cook some warning. All the villages have at least one simple shop.

Getting there .Buses run five times a day to Cuajimoloyas, the main village on the southern edge of the community area. These buses run from the second-class bus station in Oaxaca from gate no. 37. There are also buses three times a week to Benito Juarez, which run from a wood yard on the edge of Oaxaca; ask at Expediciones Sierra Norte for the exact location and times.

The routes are all numbered and are shown on the Pueblos Mancomunados map. The map also gives the distances and gradients for each route so you can plan your trip. Most walkers walk the routes between Benito Juarez, Cuajimoloyas, and Llano Grande on the southern edge of the area, as these are on the bus routes, so it is easier to walk between them and get the bus back. The Trek Mexico-type groups only walk between these villages.

If you use a guide, you’ll have no problems finding the way. If you don’t, then you will have to rely on the markings, which are generally very good. There are markers (and usually a seat) at the start of each route, and there are regular Zapotec markers (see photo) along the walk, with a larger one at each kilometer, givin the distance you have gone. A compass is often useful, though.

Recommended Routes (of the ones I have personal experience with)

Route 7 – Loma de Cucharilla

This is a great ridge walk through forest, taking you from an area of tracks and trout farms onto paths high on a ridge. Although the route is way marked, not many locals come this way anymore, and the time I did it, the path looked like it had not been walked on for months. The farther you go, the more primeval the forest becomes. The one problem is that the turn-off the ridge to descend to the river valley is not signposted. If anyone wants advice on this, they can contact me directly.

Route 3 – Camino Real

This is one of the easier routes and one of the best. The walk follows the ancient Royal Road of the Zapotecs up a river valley, and some of the original flagstones are still in place. What makes this walk so wonderful is the huge variety of flora, which changes along the way as you gain height. You may also see deer. Towards the end, the path rises above a gorge where the trees are draped in lichen, with spectacular views. It is an outstanding trek.

I have done other routes, but these are the highlights, and you can contact me if you want more information.

An added dimension to visiting this area is that the community of villages, the pueblos mancomunados, or joint villages, are run like, for all intensive purposes, a communist state.

All the land is owned communally by the whole village and is allocated to individuals to work, with the proceeds being shared by everyone. When a young person comes of age, they are given a year to decide whether they wish to become part of the commune or want to leave. Some do leave, with the USA and Mexico City being the main destinations. If they decide to stay, they are allocated land, but also have to give one year in three to the community. Jobs are also divided up between the villages, with individuals being elected to particular roles. These include running the tourist facilities or running the village shop. Smaller jobs, liking cleaning the cabins or being a guide, are also divided up, but you may find that your guide may also have another job, such as police chief! The villages also organize business, like timber extraction or running trout farms, which you are likely to see on your treks. Everyone has a stake in the system and in making it work, particularly the tourist business. For this reason, being among these people is a delight, as they are very open and friendly, making it a particularly relaxing place to spend time.

Tags: trekking route descriptions



We are thinking about going to oaxaca city on the 15th December and would like to visit Sierra Norte and the villages. Would you recommend booking accommodation and hiking trips before or could we book when we get to oaxaca city? How long would you recommend staying at Sierra Norte? Do you think it is OK with the trouble that has been happening recently? Thanks, ali

  Alison Fox-Robinson Nov 20, 2006 3:37 AM


hi will - thanks for your great travel blog! i hiked in the sierra norte a few years ago, just did the upper trails, and want to go back and do the whole thing. i was there in early september, it was a good time, tho cold at night and a bit rainy at times. what time of year do you think is the best to go?

  norma cross May 1, 2007 4:34 AM


The information you have posted is very helpful. Myself and 3 others are heading to the Sierra Norte Mtns on July 2nd. We have been having trouble getting more information and I have few questions, if you wouldn't mind taking the time to answer I would really appreciate it. First, are hiking boots needed or would trail shoes suffice? Do we need to bring our own sleeping bags? and is it important to book the places we plan on staying in the mtns ahead of time?

Thank you,

  Taryn Jun 18, 2008 11:24 PM


Thank you for this helpful information-- it was exactly what I was hoping to find. Just a quick note to mention, however, that the Mancomunados are run more like a family or a cooperative than a communist state. The leadership does NOT believe in central planning of the economy and decisions are not made by a small elite. I think that this is a really important distinction. Thank you again for the information!!

  Elizabeth Aug 3, 2009 12:59 AM


This was a really helpful article, I am definitely going to consider your advice on my trip to Oaxaca. I just wanted to ask about luggage. Is there a way to not have to carry your full bag from village to village? I will be in Mexico for a month and plan on packing light but was just wondering if you knew... Thanks again!

  Momo Sep 7, 2009 5:15 AM


Hi there,

You have to be aware that this area is quite remote, with few roads or transport, so it’s not possible to move luggage from place to place. It may be possible to hire a porter to carry your bag for you. I left a lot of my kit in store at a hostel in Oaxaca, and just carried what I needed for my time in the hills. You could also do this at one of the villages at the trail head and just pick it up on the way back.

Hope this helps,

  Will Sep 7, 2009 7:03 PM


Hi Will,

My brother and I will be in Oaxaca this January for about 3 weeks. I am curious, how long would it take to trek thru all 8 of the villages? We are both very active outdoor enthusiasts and are looking for more than a 3-4 day adventure out of the city. Also, is there somewhere to purchase these maps before I leave for Mexico? What are the regulations of the land? Any info would be great!


  Christina Dec 2, 2009 6:41 PM


Hi there,
Thanks for such a helpful blog. We are hoping to do the Sierra Norte in a few days (though it might be a bit chilly in the winter season). You felt the trails were easily navigable without a guide? Everyone says you need a guide and it'd be great to converse with someone who did it without. Everyone said the same thing about the Sierra de La Laguna in Baja, which was perfectly navigable without a guide.
Any advice is great!


  Seanessy Feb 1, 2011 3:57 PM


Dear Seanessy,

Firstly it is a few years since I wrote that article and did the walks, so I can’t really comment on the current conditions on the trails or the upkeep of the waymarks. If you can still get the map I mention in the text then you should have no problems on most of the trails. Having said that I did get lost trying to find the start of one route and in fact never found it, so it always helps to have some local knowledge.

As a rule I don’t hire guides mainly because I like to do things myself and always enjoy the challenge of navigation and wayfinding. I will hire guides if the route is supposed to be too difficult to find without one or the guide has special knowledge, he is (and their nearly always men) an expert on the local bird life, or knows where to find the interesting animals.

Bear in mind that the Sierra Norte region is very poor and the local people could use the money from guiding. When I was there no one suggested I needed a guide or offered their services, but maybe that has changed.

I did these treks in July, and it was cold at night, you needed a fleece jacket when the sun went down. I suggest you check out the present conditions as it will be cold up there and facilities are fairly basic. Even so it’s a wonderful area to trek in and the people very friendly so do make the effort to visit it if you can.


  Will Feb 3, 2011 3:43 AM


Hi Will. Great piece, even if it's old. I've stayed in Benito Juaraz and really loved it, but had a real problem with the altitude - heart palipatations, etc. Did you have any such experience, there or elsewhere? If so, has any medication helped. I'd love to take my group of trekking friends to los Pueblos Mancomunados this summer (2012) and have written to the Sierra Norte org and tieradventura for info. Thanks.

  Mary Jo Dec 19, 2011 9:46 AM


Hi Mary Jo,

I have trekked in some very high places, in the Andes and Nepal and I have experienced some problems. Compared to these places the Sierra Norte are not that high. Simply, be as fit as you can, and train, train, train. Before you go, hit those hills every weekend you can, carrying the biggest pack you can. If you do that, when you get to Mexico, you won't find the trails much of a problem.


  Will Dec 20, 2011 10:41 AM



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