A Nomad's Guide to Exploring Sierra Norte, Mexico

In the southwestern Mexican state of Oaxaca, lace up your hiking boots or grab a mountain bike to take explore the region's high mountains and steep valleys.


Photo © Getty Images/Wu Swee Ong

Starting at sea level on the tropical Pacific Coast of Mexico, the land rises through slopes covered in cactus to forests of pine and oak at over 10,498ft (3,200m). Welcome to the Sierra Norte.


In the highest part of the Sierra Norte, Zapotec Indigenous communities have banded together to shut down the felling timber industry that has threatened to end their way of life, embracing eco-tourism as a way to help maintain the environment.

The Pueblos Mancomunados is a network of eight villages in the most remote wilderness of the Sierra Norte. Here, 62mi (100km) of tracks connect the villages, and in each village, you'll find accommodation, food, or a guide to take you hiking. Many trails can also be done on horseback, so ask around in the villages to see if the activity on offer. Keen mountain bikers can take to the tracks on two wheels, enjoying steep descents and challenging climbs, the reward? Incredible views.

Mountain biking in the Sierra Norte. Photo credit: Expediciones Sierra Norte

Is Sierra Norte Safe?

The state of Oaxaca is in southwestern Mexico, and Oaxaca (the capital) is a center for Indigenous art and culture. It's one of the poorest states of Mexico, and sees its fair share of civil unrest, protests, and low-level drug gang activity. But none of this is directed at travelers. Many visitors find the city and the state of Oaxaca to be peaceful and laid-back – that is, of course, if you stick to the well-traveled parts.

Once you're in the Pueblos Mancomunados, you'll be traveling among the locals who may generously invite you to experience their lifestyle for a short time on a homestay.

If you choose to hike without a local guide, the trails are well marked with bright yellow signs. Enjoying the company of a local guide will give you insights you might not learn alone. Plus, locals always know the best places to go.

Rushing rivers in the Sierra Norte. Photo credit: Expediciones Sierra Norte

Stay Healthy


Occasionally, there have been cases of malaria in Oaxaca state, especially in the lowlands and resorts of Puerto Escondido. It's not a problem at higher altitudes, where temperatures are cooler, and therefore mosquitoes less of a risk. 


Speaking of cool climate, it can get very cold at night at the higher altitudes, so always pack a jacket for the evenings – even if temperatures are warm during the day.


The highest parts of the Sierra Norte rise to 10,000ft (3,200m) above sea level, so it's important you understand the symptoms and seriousness of altitude sickness. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) can strike when you're above 8,200ft (2,500m) or higher. It can cause shortness of breath, headaches, blurred vision, and disorientation. In extreme cases, AMS can be deadly.

Trip Notes

You can book a trip to the Sierra Norte through a local agency in Oaxaca, but support the Zapotec locals by choosing a locally owned and operated tour with Expediciones Sierra Norte.

The company will provide you with maps and bus timetables to get to your starting destination. If you are traveling outside busy holiday periods or on weekdays, you can generally turn up to any of the villages (except the two most remote ones), find the local office (they're open 9am–9pm), pay your fee, get a map, meet your guide, and set off.

Before you go, make sure your travel insurance policy covers you for the activities you'll be doing.

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