Hiking to the Pueblos Mancomunados in Sierra Norte, Oaxaca, Mexico is a unique experience to see a different side of Mexico most travelers don’t get to see. The trek involves visiting the indigenous villages and an overnight stay in a cozy cabin in the mountains. This guide walks you through everything you need to know to book your trek.
When most people picture Mexico, they imagine beaches and margaritas, not pine tree forests and mountain top villages.
There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Pueblos Mancomunados, a collection of 8 communities set in the highlands of northern Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte region. Most travelers have no idea this area exists, which is great if you want to experience a different side of Mexico that few visitors see.
You’re in for a treat, because we’re going to tell you all about this spectacularly under-hyped place that offers both nature and culture.
We’re sharing our story and explaining how you too can get off the typical tourist path and experience a place that few people see while on vacation in Mexico.
If you’re looking for a unique and adventurous thing to do in Oaxaca, look no further.
Sierra Norte Oaxaca Hiking Guide
- Pueblos Mancomunados
- Our experience
- How to book your trek
- Visiting the Pueblos Mancomunados on your own
- Best time to visit
- Wildlife on the trail
- What to pack
Sierra Norte Oaxaca Hiking Overview
The first time we heard of trekking in Sierra Norte Oaxaca was 4 years ago while backpacking in South America. An Australian couple we befriended had been traveling around the world for the better part of the year, and one of the experiences they raved about was trekking between these little villages in the mountains of southern Mexico.
It certainly didn’t sound like the overcrowded beaches of Cancun I’d always associated with Mexico, and the image of these villages off the beaten path stuck in my head ever since.
Once I started researching the villages of Pueblos Mancomunados, I knew we needed to make it a priority on our trip to Mexico, even though our time was crunched. And I’m so glad we did.
It just so happened that the only time that would work for us to visit Sierra Norte Oaxaca fell over my birthday. And so I rang in thirty years of life beside a wood-burning fireplace in a cozy little cabin.
But let’s start from the beginning…
What are the Pueblos Mancomunados?
Pueblos Mancomunados roughly translates to “commonwealth”, and how they are run is utterly fascinating.
The 8 villages that make up the Pueblos Mancomunados are not controlled by the Mexican government. Instead, they are self-governing and have their own president, their own laws and their own legal system. To uphold their status in the community, members must spend a year doing community service every 3 years.
Our guide Celestino told us there are roughly 3,000 people who permanently live in the villages. He went on to explain that there are somewhere around 5,300 total members who contribute in some way to the community, even though they might live there only part time.
Eco-Tourism in Sierra Norte’s Pueblos Mancomunados
The highlands region of Mexico known as Sierra Norte Oaxaca is celebrated for its incredible biodiversity. With an impressive amount of flora and fauna as well as many animals, the people in the villages feel that it’s important to protect their precious land.
These communities are dedicated to eco tourism, and are committed to sharing their culture while protecting the environment.
The Pueblos Mancomunados have been accepting tourists for more than 20 years, and they’ve been recognized and even awarded for their dedication to sustainability. These communities welcome around 35,000 tourists per year, the majority of whom are from the United States or Europe.
- They only hire local community members to work in tourism.
- The cabins built for visitors are made with natural resources found in the area. For instance, some of the furniture is made from pines that have been infected and must be cut down.
- The communities held a vote and decided to close down their gold and silver mines in order to focus their efforts on eco tourism. They saw the industries as opposites where they could not logically have both at the same time.
- You will have a local guide from each community along with your main English-speaking guide. This creates more local jobs and empowers the communities to share their home with visitors.
Our experience hiking in Sierra Norte Oaxaca
Our first morning started with a 2-hour ride into the mountains, which went surprisingly fast because we were chatting away with the other couple in our group. The first thing we noticed when we arrived at the small village of Llano Grande (translating to “large meadow” in Spanish) was the significantly cooler temperature than we’d had in Oaxaca City.
We checked into our cabins, which were spacious and complete with a wood-burning fireplace and a comfy bed with lots of blankets.
After getting situated, we sat down at the only restaurant in town for a pre-hiking breakfast. While our meals were being prepared, our guide, Celestino, shared more about these communities.
On our 2-day excursion, we hiked through pine forests in which the tree branches are covered in moss. In a way it actually reminded us of some of the hikes we had done in Washington state.
That is until we’d come across a patch of giant agave. The juxtaposition of the two very dissimilar plants was pretty cool to see.
The areas we hiked through were beautiful, there’s no doubt about it. But truthfully, learning about the communities and exploring a different side of Mexico was the highlight for us as this is the part that was utterly unique and different from what we’ve experienced.
The hiking was not all that strenuous, and is suitable for all levels of hikers. In many places, the hikes were quite flat, and there were only a few places where we felt challenged.
One thing to consider is the altitude in Sierra Norte is significantly higher than in Oaxaca City. The guides are great at allowing you to go at your own pace, so as long as you’re relatively fit, it shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
Our guide Celestino’s story
Our guide, Celestino, was fantastic. A combination of fun, professional and passionate, it was a pleasure getting to know him and learning about his story along the way.
Celestino was born in one of the 8 villages, but his family moved to Los Angeles when he was just a child. He returned to his hometown at the age of 19 for what was supposed to be just a short period of time. However, after learning about the place he came from and connecting with the people in the communities, he plans to call this home for the rest of his life.
“I saw that people from other countries wanted to come to my community and they thought it was beautiful. It was then that I realized I should be proud of where I come from,” Celestino said.
How to book a trek to the Pueblos Mancomunados in Sierra Norte Oaxaca
There are a few tour operators that offer trips to the Sierra Norte. However, it’s important to know that they all must go through Expediciones Sierra Norte. So no matter what operator you book with or how much you pay, you will have access to the same guides and accommodation.
This means the best way to book a tour is to go through Expediciones Sierra Norte directly. Since each tour is customizable depending on what your interests are and what dates you have available, it is best to email them at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss your options and preferences.
Tip: If you have the time, we’d highly recommend doing a trek for 3-4 days so you can experience more of the villages and gain a better understanding of this unique culture.
What is included in your trek
- English-speaking guide as well as local guides along the way
- Comfortable accommodation: beautiful cabin with wood-burning fireplace, comfortable bed, hot water
- Meals: very hearty and more than enough food!
Note: They are able to accommodate vegetarians and vegans quite well! Just let them know when you are booking your trek.
Can you visit the Pueblos Mancomunados on your own?
Technically, yes. It wouldn’t be all that difficult to find a colectivo to take you to the main village of Benito Juarez. That said, getting between the villages would be more difficult unless you’re willing to hire a private driver.
Hiking between the villages can be difficult on your own (Celestino said it took him years to memorize some of the routes), and there are only a couple paths that are open to visitors without a guide.
In the villages it is rare to find anyone who speaks English, so if your Spanish is rusty, this might be a bit tricky for you.
We like doing things independently, but this is an instance where we felt like going with a guide was the right way to learn about this special place. Going with Expediciones Sierra Norte also provides jobs for the locals, and you know your money is going back into the community.
Best time for trekking in Sierra Norte Oaxaca
The best time for trekking to the Pueblos Mancomunados in the Sierra Norte region of Oaxaca, Mexico, is typically during the dry season, which runs from late fall to early spring. Specifically, the months of November to April are considered ideal for trekking and outdoor activities in this region.
During these months, you can expect milder temperatures, less rainfall, and clearer skies, creating favorable conditions for hiking and exploring the beautiful landscapes of the Sierra Norte.
Psst! For an in-depth guide on the seasonal weather patterns and other factors, check out our complete guide on the best time to visit Mexico.
Wildlife on the trail
We didn’t see much wildlife other than birds and some small creatures, but this region is known to be home to many animals.
- wild pigs
- all sorts of birds
These are just some of the plants we saw along our hike:
- huge agave plants
- many trees (the region has 9 types of pines and more than 40 oaks)
What to pack for hiking in Sierra Norte Oaxaca
- Water bottles and/or bladder for your Camelbak
- Way to purify your water (we love our Grayl water bottles, and before them we always brought along our Steripen)
- Comfortable hiking boots or shoes
- Clothes for hiking
- Layers (it gets cold up in the mountains!)
- Rain jacket
- Natural bug repellant
- Sunscreen (even if it’s not sunny!)
- Camera/tripod (this one’s our favorite for hiking)
- Cash (your food and accommodation is covered, but if you want to buy souvenirs or snacks along the way or tip guides, it’s nice to have a bit of cash)
Be sure to download our complete packing list for Mexico! It’s packed with good suggestions and insider tips to help plan your Mexico vacation. And it’s completely FREE, so why not!?
FAQs about trekking in Sierra Norte
We’ve got answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about trekking to the Pueblos Mancomunados below.
What is the elevation of the Pueblos Mancomunados?
The Pueblos Mancomunados in the Sierra Norte region of Oaxaca, Mexico, are located at varying elevations, as the area consists of several interconnected mountain villages. The elevations of these villages can range from around 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) to over 3,000 meters (9,842 feet) above sea level.
Each pueblo (village) within the Mancomunados has its own unique altitude. For example, Benito Juárez, one of the Pueblos Mancomunados, is situated at an elevation of approximately 2,400 meters (7,874 feet).
What towns are part of the Pueblos Mancomunados?
The following towns are part of the Pueblos Mancomunados:
- Benito Juárez
- La Nevería
- Llano Grande
- San Miguel Amatlán
Where is Sierra Norte Oaxaca?
The Sierra Norte is a mountainous region located in the northern part of the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. This area is known for its rugged landscapes, diverse ecosystems, and indigenous communities.
The Sierra Norte encompasses a range of elevations, which contribute to the region’s rich biodiversity and create a range of ecosystems, including cloud forests.
You might also like…
- Incredible Things to Do in Mexico (that aren’t beaches!)
- Must-Do Adventures in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
- Things to Do in Oaxaca That You Can’t Miss
- 3 Exciting Days in Mexico City: The Perfect Itinerary
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We want to hear from you!
Are you planning a trip to Mexico and interested in hiking in Sierra Norte Oaxaca to see the Pueblos Mancomunados? Do you have any more questions about the experience? Let us know in the comment section below and we’ll do our best to get back to you!