3 Reasons to Go Mountain Biking in Oaxaca, Mexico

If you need a reason to take your mountain bike to the rich city of Oaxaca, Mexico, here are three.
Photos: Matt Miller

Compared to so many other drivable or flyable mountain bike destinations, Oaxaca, Mexico is a hassle for North American mountain bikers. A trip to the city requires a passport, flying with a bike, clearing customs, traveling with someone who speaks Spanish, finding a guide or both, and bringing an extra set of everything on your bike in case something goes wrong.

So why travel to Mexico to go mountain biking? Yes, Bentonville, Whistler, and Crested Butte are amazing for their own reasons. The same follows for Oaxaca, but arguably because it is not one of those places.

It’s fine and fair that some people want to travel places to ride the best trails in the world, which the above destinations have. But if you’re looking for more than the standard, ride a bunch of miles/laps, have dinner at the microbrewery, and rinse/repeat trip, then consider a mountain biking trip to Oaxaca City.

About Oaxaca City

The state of Oaxaca sits near the southern end of the country and includes a stretch of the Pacific coast. Oaxaca City however sits inland, about six to seven hours from the coast at an elevation of 5,100ft, with the Sierra Norte mountains jutting northeast of the city. Naturally, this make the trails of Oaxaca a great place to host the TranSierra Norte enduro race.

Carlos from Coyote Aventuras kicking up dust.

For folks in the US and Canada, Oaxaca is likely the largest mountain bike trail destination south of the US border currently, with races and guided tours only gaining more traction. We’ve seen more and more bike brand videos and influencers visiting the area and the interest in ecotourism seems to have risen with the city’s popularity as a food destination. According to the Mexico Daily Post, tourism in Oaxaca in 2019 was up 24% over 2018 and 51% over 2016. This year, Oaxaca City was rated the best city in the world to visit by Travel & Leisure readers.

Mountain biking isn’t your typical leisurely activity though and Oaxaca still isn’t a typical mountain bike destination. But if you ride, chances are you’re in for a bit of an adventure, so here are a few reasons why Oaxaca should be on your bucket list.

Oaxaca food and culture

Oaxaca’s food and the ingredients of the region give it a distinct style even within Mexico and are laying claim to new styles of Mexican dining in the U.S., with a strong presence of chiles, corn, and beans.

If you’re a cocktail or spirits fan and frequent cocktail bars, you’ve likely noticed the growing popularity of mezcal, which is everywhere in Oaxaca, along with the boulder-sized agaves where the liquor comes from.

According to Carlos Vázquez, a guide and co-founder for Coyote Aventuras, mezcal was seen as a poor substitute for tequila and wasn’t even popular in the region until recently, but an interest in finer, local spirits have helped grow its popularity. The growth isn’t without complication.

The restaurants around Oaxaca City are easy to navigate. For breakfast, you’ll find chilaquiles (I like to call them breakfast nachos) or dishes with corn tortillas, eggs, and grilled meat, where you can assemble a sort-of breakfast taco. Memelas, an open face taco using pork fat, beans, and cheese, and tlayudas, the master of all quesadillas, are also popular. Most mornings, the coffee I had was sweeter and less bitter than the style we’re used to in the States.

Cafe do olla blends coffee with brown sugar and cinnamon for something that almost tastes like a blend of coffee and tea. It’s a sweet and cozy way to warm up for a day of riding.

As mentioned above, it’s easy to eat around Oaxaca City. But, most of the mountain biking in Oaxaca happens about an hour from the city in Ixtepeji. As you pull away from the city, it gets quite rural and sparse, but comedores — which means dining room, or loosely translated to “eateries,” dot the road sides. I wasn’t on a tour, but when our group finished up the day and went out for food, we stopped at a number of these comedores, usually after 7 or 8 p.m, when the cinder-blocked, outdoor dining room enclaves were empty and dim.

But, every time we cruised up, the ladies running the comedores opened their kitchen for us. We sat down, they warmed up their grills, and started chopping meat and vegetables, and 20 minutes later, we were treated to the best tacos and Mexican food of our lives.

Finish the night with a rough, clay mug of fresh hot chocolate or atole between your palms; a warm, corn-based drink with cinnamon and rice sitting at the bottom of the mug.

It’s perfectly fine to start the day with hot chocolate too, on top of coffee.

Oaxaca is a hotbed of history with a mixture of indigenous and colonial cultures. Coyote Aventuras and 2Wheel Epix offer tours that dive into the dia de los muertos, mezcal distilleries or palenques, art tours and more.

Getting outside of your comfort zone

Vato Steve cools down after a ride before breakfast at the restaurant behind the walls.

You don’t have to get far past the Oaxaca international airport for the realization to set in that you’re in a much different country. Usually, it’s when your cabbie is zipping around cars on the way to the hotel, and motorcycles with three people to the saddle split lanes next to you. I’m not gonna get all preachy about recognizing your privilege, but traveling to foreign countries is a fast-track to gratitude. I’ve reeled with excitement every time I’ve visited Mexico for what’s to come, but after a week, my spoiled ass is ready to get home to air conditioning, internet, modern plumbing, and a not-too-firm, not-too-soft mattress.

Then, you have the language barrier and even if you have a guide who does most of the talking for you, you’ll probably have to make some attempt at communication. It can be intimidating and embarrassing at the same time. It’s OK. Attempting communication through two different languages is one of the most human experiences we can have, and when the end goal is reached, whether it’s accurately ordering a taco or a beer or finding the bathroom, it’s a pretty sweet feeling.

Mountain bikers are practiced at adversity and that’s what makes us great candidates for foreign travel. Because we’ve worked up and down chundery mountains, we can work our way through a bit of cultural adversity too.

Vibrant colors of the city of Oaxaca

The downhills wouldn’t feel nearly as sweet if we didn’t have to grind our way to the top. Going home feels a bit like that. Sure, traveling is filled with excitement. But we’re also confronted with the reality that not everyone has it as good as us. There are feral dogs and cats everywhere, it’s a little off-putting not flushing TP at first, and you can’t just open the tap and drink a glass of water. But, while they might not have everything we have, they always seem to have everything they need.

Any time I’ve gone to Mexico, stressed about work, or wanting a newer car or bigger house, I’ve always gone home, remembering that material things are not my problem.

Oaxaca mountain bike trails

Scotty and Vato Steve from Shire Built carving down the top of Llano Carreta

Lastly, the mountain biking trails are a great reason to visit Oaxaca. There are trails closer to the city, but much of the riding happens at the Santa Catarina Ixtepeji Community Ecotourism Park. I’d recommend going with 2Wheel Epix or Coyote Aventuras, which often work together. The guides know Oaxaca and its singletrack inside and out and are professional and personable.

Flying into the city of Oaxaca, almost feels like visiting Arizona, without the protruding saguaros. Ixtepeji however sits at 8,000 – 9,000ft. There are towering pine trees and bursting ferns. When damp, the dirt feels similar to that in the Northwest, and even though it’s a bit dusty when dry, the dirt is incredible.

I rode a mix of green, blue, and black trails. Take an extra set of brake pads with you because the trails are steep. Also, you never know what might happen. Some of the singletrack trails are a little looser and rockier than others, but many of the blue trails are flowy enough that the steepness isn’t intimidating.

Picking up speed at the bottom of Llano Carreta.

My personal favorite was Llano Carreta, a black-rated trail that takes you from the top of the mountain into a little village dissected by a creek. Llano Carreta starts high in the woods, with electric moss hanging off the branches and before you know it, you’re weaving through agaves, and skittering down jagged rocks.

There are a ton of fun blue trails on the mountain too, including Tierra Negra, Dragoncito, and Los Raices. Cabeza de Vaca is a screaming fun green trail and a nice extension to Los Raices.

As mentioned, there are a handful of trails not directly in La Cumbre Ixtepeji. We’re looking forward to riding those next time!