Hiking in Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte Indigenous Villages

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Hiking in Oaxaca's Sierra Norte Villages Flower Tree

When most people picture Mexico, they imagine beaches and margaritas, not pine tree forests and mountaintop 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 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 going to share our story and explain 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.

Southern Mexico’s Best Kept Secret 

Hiking in Oaxaca's Sierra Norte Villages

The first time we heard of Pueblos Mancomunados 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.

Hiking in Oaxaca Sierra Norte Villages Viewpoint Girl

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 the Sierra Norte 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 at the beginning…

Introduction: Pueblos Mancomunados in the Sierra Norte

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 arrive to the small village of Llano Grande (translating to “large meadow” in Spanish) was the significantly cooler temperature than we’d had in Oaxaca City.

Hiking in Oaxaca's Sierra Norte Cabin Fireplace

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.

How the Pueblos Mancomunados work

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. 

Hiking in Oaxaca Sierra Norte Villages Doorway with Skull

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 

Hiking in Oaxaca's Sierra Norte Horse and plow farmer

The Sierra Norte region in Oaxaca’s highlands 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. 

Hiking in Oaxaca Sierra Norte Villages Cabin
  • 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.
Hiking in Oaxaca Sierra Norte Villages Guide

Hiking in Oaxaca’s Highlands

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.

Plants in the Sierra Norte

Hiking in Oaxaca Sierra Norte Villages Century Agave

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)
  • ferns
  • wildflowers
Hiking in Oaxaca Sierra Norte Villages Orange Pink Flower
Hiking in Oaxaca Sierra Norte Villages Succulents

Animals in the Sierra Norte

We didn’t see much wildlife other than birds and some small creatures, but this region is known to be home to many animals.

  • pumas
  • bobcats
  • snakes
  • armadillos
  • foxes
  • deer
  • wild pigs
  • all sorts of birds
  • butterflies
Hiking in Oaxaca Sierra Norte Villages Hummingbird
Hiking in Oaxaca's Sierra Norte Colorful Butterfly

Note on difficulty of the hiking: 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 is significantly higher than 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. 

Celestino’s story

Hiking in Oaxaca Sierra Norte Villages Local Guide

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

Hiking in Oaxaca's Sierra Norte Water drops on plants

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 info@sierranorte.org.mx 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

  • 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.

Hiking in Oaxaca's Sierra Norte Trail hiking

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.

Final Thoughts: 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.

Hiking in Oaxaca's Sierra Norte Pine Cone

What to pack for hiking in the Sierra Norte

  • Clothes for hiking
  • Sturdy shoes
  • Layers (it gets cold up in the mountains!)
  • Natural Bug Balm
  • Steripen (we filled up water from the tap and purified it instead of using plastic bottles)
  • Reusable water bottle
  • Rain jacket
  • Camera
  • 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!?

One of the easiest ways to get around Mexico is by driving a rental car. You get to explore on your own, it’s safe, and crazy cheap. We got a rental car in Costa Rica for so cheap one day, we decided to keep the car for two weeks. We use RentalCars.com to search for the best deals on rental cars around the world. 

Tip: Check out these 32 creative travel photography tips to help get even better pictures along your trip!

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We want to hear from you!

Have you been hiking in the Sierra Norte? How was your experience? Are you planning a trip to Central Mexico? Give us your comments and questions below and we’ll be sure to get back to you!

Comments (11) on “Hiking in Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte Indigenous Villages

  1. Wesley says:

    The hyperlink you provided “Expediciones Sierra Norte” lists a guided day hike for $1600 per person. Is that correct? Did you spend $3000 per day? Sounds super fun

  2. Reed says:

    I heard about Cuajimoloyas on Yalitza Aparacio’s YouTube then found your blog. In the process of booking a 4 day trek for Jan 2023 through the Expediciones Sierra Norte – sounds like an amazing cultural and natural experience! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Mili says:

    If you want more strenuous
    hikes try going farther up north but of course you will be on your own without tour guides.

  4. Mcmanley16@gmail.com says:

    Hey there!! I love these blog and feed! Thank you guys so much for the great info 🙂 I have booked a few nights to stay at the youth hostel
    You recommended! My boyfriend and I are also super interested a few of the adventures you guys mentioned. I was wondering if you booked your hierve el Agua in advance through the hostel or when you got there you were able to book the day tour?! I found one similar to the one y’all mentioned where you get to try mezcal and wasn’t sure if I should just go through the hostel?

    Also, I contacted the people you guys said to go through for the Sierra Norte trip and I haven’t heard back at all, is this the only site to book through?

    Thanks so much!!!

  5. ybchuah@yahoo.com says:

    Thank you so much for this write up. Question bout the overnight hike, do we have to carry our own backpack, or they transport our luggage from cabin to cabin?

    • hello@twowanderingsoles.com says:

      We packed just what we needed in daypacks and kept the rest stored at our hotel in Oaxaca. However, the other couple who was on the trek with us had a larger bag that was transported for them. And they only carried what they needed for the day.

    • hello@twowanderingsoles.com says:

      Yes, you’re so right! I guess I was using that word instead of "inland" by mistake. I’ve corrected myself. Thanks!

  6. dvandellen@gowithadvanced.com says:

    So first off, you two are amazing! I want to say thank you for all the hard work and information you put in this blog. It makes the idea of doing something like this much more realistic and exciting! My boyfriend and I have never been out of the country together. We are going to a wedding in Cabo and we were looking to do something more adventurous and cultural for a few days before hand. We booked our tickets to Oaxaca solely based on your recommendation and all the great info on your blog (so thank you!) We DEFINITELY want to go on this trek! We will have 4 full days in Oaxaca, before heading to Cabo.

    With the 4 full days (Sunday- Wednesday) that we have, would you suggest doing a 2 day trek, 1 day exploring Oaxaca and 1 day going to Hierve El Agua? Or was Hierve El Agua not worth it and you would say doing a longer trek and maybe just having 1 day to explore the city of Oaxaca? I know we have a short trip but want to soak up and explore as much as possible!

    Thank you so much, you are such an inspiration!

    • bwzweber@gmail.com says:

      Hey Daryan! If you really really want to go on the trek, the two days will be good for you. I think Oaxaca has so much to offer that just 2 days in the city is not enough, but I understand your time constraint. I would say Hierve del Agua is pretty cool to experience and for fun pictures, but if you really want a cultural experience you should stick to the hike or even a cooking class (or mescal tasting)! So much to do in Oaxaca!

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