An immersive, active journey through the region’s famously diverse landscapes and cultures
Isolated by a ring of rugged mountains, the Oaxaca region has one of the largest indigenous populations in Mexico, and its heritage runs deep, from its famous markets and handicrafts, to its fascinating archaeological sites, to its famed local cuisine (especially mole, a smoky, spicy regional specialty with seemingly endless variations). A visit here is a study in contrasts—the state of Oaxaca boasts an exceptionally diverse range of ethnic groups and environmental zones, while the city is both a Colonial masterpiece and Mexico’s most important hub of contemporary art. MTS has been operating tours in this part of Mexico for many years, and our itinerary immerses you deeply into the history, landscapes, customs, and distinctive personality of the region. This trip is ideal for active travelers who want to explore both the natural and cultural wonders of Oaxaca. You’ll tour the evocative ancient ruins of Monte Albán and Mitla, learn how traditional crafts are made, and hike through the varied ecosystem of the Sierra Norte, known by locals as the “Village of the Clouds.” It’s a journey as multi-faceted and captivating as Oaxaca itself.
4 days moderate day hikes on varied terrain (max. elev. 10,000')
- Visit the ruins of Monte Albán, believed to be Mesoamerica's oldest city, and Mitla, with its unique stone fretwork
- Discover Oaxaca’s vibrant contemporary art scene, inspired by famous local artists like Francisco Toledo, and rooted in folk traditions and the region’s history of social justice movements
- Visit a family of weavers, watch how prized Oaxacan rugs are woven, and learn to spin wool
- Hike in the remote and biologically diverse Sierra Norte, known by locals as the “Village of the Clouds,” where eight local pueblos have formed a cooperative for sustainable ecotourism
Duration: 5 days Start Location: Oaxaca End Location: OaxacaDownload Detailed Itinerary
Day 1 : Oaxaca
Your guide will pick you up in the late morning at the Oaxaca Airport and will take you to our hotel, the Quinta Real Oaxaca, which in itself is an experience. This 16th century national monument used to be a convent inhabited by Dominican nuns from 1576 to 1862, charged with converting the local Zapotec inhabitants to Christianity.
Beautiful Oaxaca is known as the city of 1,000 churches, and indeed hundreds of domes can be seen from its rooftops. A little over 300 miles south of Mexico City, Oaxaca is centrally located for our exploration of Mixtec and Zapotec cultures. The center of the city is made up entirely of colonial buildings and churches, with a Zócalo, or central square, that is one of the most beautiful in all of Mexico. In the evenings there are usually bands playing here. Its temperate climate means it enjoys spring-like conditions throughout the year—perfect for discovering its narrow streets, lovely courtyards, and sidewalk cafés. Fortunately, it has been saved from development, so the streets are intact with no modern eyesores. The afternoon is free to explore this charming city on your own.
Day 2 : Monte Albán
After breakfast at our hotel, we’ll spend the morning at the Zapotec ruins of Monte Albán, one of Mesoamerica’s most amazing and best preserved ancient sites. A hilltop town just a few miles west of Oaxaca, Monte Albán commands panoramic views of the mountains rising above the checkerboard fields of the Oaxaca Valley. Archaeologists believe the site was occupied as early as 500 BC as the capital of the Zapotecs, and reached its apex around 750-800 AD, boasting a population of as much as 40,000; however, the site was virtually abandoned by 1,000 AD. Noted structures include Building J, a ship-shaped structure some believe to be an astronomical observatory; the thousand-foot-long Main Plaza, aligned exactly on a north-south axis; and the Danzantes building, with its walls carved with a myriad of danzantes (personages including engaged in ritual dances, individuals with deformities who were thought to possess special powers in ancient Mesoamerica, and others representing slain and mutilated captives). We will visit ball courts and plazas, view platforms topped by clusters of temples, and contemplate what the city must have been like at the height of its glory.
After lunch on your own at one of Oaxaca’s restaurants, we visit the market in the city center, an amazing place with all sorts of stalls (handicrafts, clothing, meat, produce), plus locals on the street selling just about everything. Later, we go to the Catedral Santo Domingo and Museo de las Culturas. The museum occupies the restored convent section of the church and contains, among other things, treasures from the tombs of nearby Monte Albán, including gold and turquoise ornaments from Tomb 7 and an original danzante from the site. The interior of the church is quite beautiful, and includes dozens of paintings representing passages from the Old Testament and scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ.
Oaxaca is not limited, however, to traditional crafts and archaeological works. The Oaxaca area is home to more than 500,000 artists, and the work of many of these and other Mexican artists are on display all over Oaxaca. Oaxaca gave birth to contemporary artists Rufino Tamayo, Francisco Toledo, Rodolfo Morales, and is the most vibrant art center of today's Mexico. You might even purchase your very own alebrije, one of the brightly painted imaginary or fantasy creatures that Oaxaca has become famous for, made of wood of the copal tree and carved entirely by hand.
Lunch and dinner are on your own today, and there are wonderful options to choose from! The region’s best known culinary contribution is mole—a thick, sweetly complex, chili sauce with notes of smoke, sometimes clove and citrus, but always undertones of dried-chile heat. Sometimes incorporating chocolate, nuts or toasted seeds and spices, the flavors and colors of mole can range from negro (black), amarillo (yellow), coloradito (reddish), almendrado (with almonds), verde (green), rojo (red), Manchamanteles (tablecloth stainer), to chichilo negro—thus the region’s nickname as of the “land of the seven moles.”
Day 3 : Mitla
This morning we drive one hour to the Mixtec ruin of Mitla, another of the architectural wonders of Mexico. Mitla is known for the unique stone fretwork found on the facades of its palace-like structures; in fact, it is called greca for its resemblance to traditional Greek designs. A colonial church was built on top of (and still occupies) one of the palaces, and even today the remains of tombs, plazas, and ancient dwellings continue to be unearthed.
After an hour at Mitla we will drive to Teotitlan de Valle and visit the Bautista family who specialize in spinning and weaving the famous Oaxacan rugs, highly prized by collectors for their use of natural, organic dyes. Here we will get a chance to spin wool and see silkworm production used for wonderful handmade scarves. All dyes are natural, made from various fruits and vegetables, and even an insect called the cochineal. You will be witness to an amazing process that dates back hundreds of years.
It takes about six months for one person to make a rug. If you are interested in purchasing a rug in Oaxaca, plan on spending around $700 for a 5 x 8-foot rug, which is the largest the family sells. Smaller ones are less expensive. Handmade silk scarves cost around $300-$400. They only take cash, and pesos are best, so please come prepared with money if you want to purchase anything. (NOTE—We recommend not buying rugs in Oaxaca City, as they are not necessarily 100% handmade and some are mass produced with synthetic dyes.)
You'll continue on to Cujimoloyas (8,500') and hike about five miles to Llano Grande (10,000'), a picturesque Oaxacan Zapotec village in the Sierra Norte with about one hundred inhabitants. Eight local pueblos have formed a cooperative for sustainable ecotourism, which was recognized in 2002 by Conde Nast Traveler as one of the “Best Ecotourism Sustainability Projects” in the world for protecting the local environment. We’ll stay here in rustic cabanas tonight.
Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte (Northern Sierra) is among the three richest areas in variety of fauna in Mexico, with more than 400 species of birds and 350 species of butterflies, and is one of the most biologically diverse. Local inhabitants call their region “Village of the Clouds,” as clouds accumulate daily, providing more than 200 inches of rain each year. Ranging from 300- to 11,000-feet above sea level, from warm and cold climate mountainous areas to hot and humid tropical areas, this unique biodiversity enables it to support a rich variety of flowers, as well as seven of the nine kinds of vegetation found in the country. It also provides us with the opportunity to travel through very diverse ecosystems and terrain. And it is no accident that Sierra Norte is also one of the best preserved. The Sierra Norte communities have collaboratively decided on the management of their lands, and rely on ancestral knowledge that guides the use, protection, and conservation of their natural resources.
Day 4 : Llano Grande
We´ll get up very early to enjoy a head-lamp lit hike to El Mirador, which translates to a "place with a view", where we will have a fantastic—you guessed it!—view of the mist covered valleys bellow during sunrise. (Make sure you bring a warm jacket!). Then, we will hike to Piedra Larga, on the northern side of the same mountain range, where on a clear day we can get a glimpse of the Pico de Orizaba Volcano, the highest snow covered peak in México. We’ll also have views of Sierra Mixteca, one of the oldest geological regions in the territory of Mexico, and certainly one of the most rugged. This is known as the only region of Mexico that was not conquered by the Spanish, yet to this day it is debated whether that was due to the ruggedness of the terrain or the fierceness of the Mixtec people. After two to three hours of hiking, we will catch a ride back to Llano Grande where local women will have a warm and well deserved brunch waiting for us.
After regaining our energy, we will begin our second hike of the day in the early afternoon. Our local guide will take us on a three hour walk through places where the local flora will help us understand why this region has been declared one of the most important conservation projects in the country. After returning to Llano Grande and enjoying a warm shower, we drive 1½ hours and visit “El Arbol de Tule,” a 2,000-year-old Ahuehuete cypress that is the largest tree in the world (and one of the oldest living). Its statistics are amazing: 33 feet in diameter, a circumference of 178 feet, and 130 feet in height, with foliage extending to 170 feet in diameter and weighing an estimated 500 tons or more.
From here will transfer back to Oaxaca City and check into our hotel. After freshening up we’ll go out on the town and visit a famous mescal cava (mescal or mezcal is traditionally-made, small production liquor made from agave, similar to tequila; cava is a cellar) for a celebratory drink and festive farewell dinner at our favorite local dinner spot.
Day 5 : Fly Home
Early morning transfer to the airport for flights from Oaxaca City. You might wish to spend time in Mexico City before you depart, or if you are continuing with us for our extension in Toluca (call us for details), there are flights available connecting through Mexico City.
DATES: Best time to go: March - April, July - August, December Departures: No group departures scheduled. Private departures are available on the dates of your choice, pending availablity. Call us for details.
Properties shown are representative of the accommodations we use on this trip, may not be inclusive of all accommodations we use, and are subject to change.
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