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.
The state of
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.
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.
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
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.
If upscale tourist resorts aren't your thing, ditch Cancun for these alternative destinations on the Yucatan Peninsula.