And to Puerto Ángel, mazunte, Zipolite, Pochutla, etc.
Alvin Starkman, M.A., LL.B.
Travelers to the state of Oaxaca frequently inquire about the drive from the City of Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido and other coastal destinations, expressing concerns about the length of the trip, quality of the highways, and the overall advisability of driving versus flying or bussing. This essay speaks to the doubts tourists might have regarding the journey using their own or a rental vehicle.
We’ve driven the three main routes on a number of occasions over the past several years, at different times of the year. I’ve written elsewhere about highway 190 to Huatulco. That road, the easiest to navigate, takes you at least a couple of hours out of your way, south, and is therefore not the most advisable unless of course you plan to visit Salina Cruz or Huatulco anyway. By contrast, highway 175 through Pochutla, and then north on highway 200 to Oaxaca, takes about 6 hours (I tend to drive fast, and stop about 3 times during a trip) and is the most interesting and a relatively easy drive. Highway 131 is the most direct and quickest route, albeit with its downsides.
I will provide details of the 175 route driving to Puerto, and 131 by way of return route, in terms of what to expect regarding landscapes, towns and villages, and highway characteristics. A schedule of times and distances between particular towns appears as an appendix, providing a quick-and-easy summary of road conditions for each segment of the journey. However, for this trip we stopped more than usual along 131, so keep in mind that without any lengthy stops it should take about an hour less.
Sixteen years of traveling these routes have been incident free, attributable in part to following four simple rules:
1) Drive only during daytime. While the roads are paved and generally good, and in fact many of the bridges are freshly painted white, lighting is an issue. More importantly, there’s much more of a risk when driving at night of encountering inebriated drivers and pedestrians, and animals.
2) Start out with a full tank of gas. While there are gas stations en route, and signs advertising mechanics and gasoline along the roadways, by not having to make a stop to fill up, you have an opportunity to make other stops along the way, more productive than stopping to simply top up. The trip to the coast takes well less than a tank of gas.
3) While stating the obvious, make sure you’ve had the mechanical fitness, and oil and water levels of the car checked before leaving. Brakes, tires and steering are the most important for negotiating the portions of highway with mountain switchbacks.
4) Regardless of time of year, take a jacket, sweater or sweatshirt since you’ll be climbing to about 9,000 feet on route 175. If you tend to be susceptible to motion sickness, take along anti-nausea medication.
Oaxaca to Ocotlan: Takes about 40 minutes, initially with urban sprawl out of the city, and then gently rolling hills with a few strong curves, vegetation predominantly agave and corn under cultivation. Passes by the villages producing black pottery (San Bartolo Coyotepec), alebrijes (San Martin Tilcajete), and cotton textiles (Santo Tomas Jalieza). In Ocotlan, noted for its Friday market, you’ll find clay painted figures of the Aguilar sisters, the workshop of knife maker Angel Aguilar, and tributes to artist Rodolfo Morales…his home and foundation, mural at the municipal offices, and museum featuring his and earlier works.
Ocotlan to Ejutla: Takes about 25 minutes, with long easy straight-aways and occasional curves and gentle hills. Once again agave and some corn, with a number of outcrops of carriso (river reed used for making ceilings, roofs and fences). Known for its Thursday market, with sale of animal skins. You can easily avoid going into Ejutla by taking the well-marked bypass.
Ejutla to Mihuatlan: Takes about 35 minutes, with more pronounced curves and hills, and easy-to-navigate peaks and valleys through similar vegetation and some mixed brush. Good idea to take your Dramamine or Gravol about 15 minutes into this portion of the trip. While there is no specific bypass, it’s not necessary to enter the main downtown section of town. Just keep going straight and the highway takes you out of the city.
Mihuatlan to San Jose del Pacífico: Takes about 50 minutes. Leaving Mihuatlan you’ll see the impressive mountain range in front of you, which you quickly begin to climb. You’ll note the temperature change quite readily, as you witness the dramatic change in vegetation. In addition to deciduous trees including scrub oak, you’ll see an abundance of conifers, mainly pine. The agave changes from espadín under cultivation, to very different and impressive wild varieties along the side of the road, growing from rock outcrops, some reaching an immense size, with stock (chiote) shooting up from its core dwarfing many of the surrounding trees. This segment of the trip, and the next with descent to Pochutla, are characterized predominantly by significant mountain switchbacks. You’ll see roadside eateries, booths with alebrijes for sale, and small cottage-industry lumber and firewood producers. San Jose del Pacífico is noted for the sale of locally harvested hallucinogenic mushrooms, in particular during the rainy season, and therefore you’ll come across roadside workshops selling hand-made wooden mushrooms as well as other hand-crafted products. You can rent a cabin if you wish to break up the trip and spend the night. Clean accommodations, with private bath, start at about 300 pesos. There’s well-marked signage alongside the highway. Some are more modern and advertise satellite TV and other facilities. There are a few restaurants, grocery stores, bakery, etc. It’s a relaxing way to spend a few hours, perhaps hiking up the dirt roads where most residents tend to live.
San Jose del Pacífico to Pochutla: You’ll continue to climb for about another 10 minutes until you reach El Manzanal, then begin the descent. This portion of the trip takes about two hours and 25 minutes. The ride down is initially quite gradual, and then more pronounced once you reach San Miguel Suchixtepec, a picturesque village with large impressive church, and homes strung out along a few hilly mountain roads. You’ll begin to detect another significant temperature change, depending on the facing of the portion of mountain you are descending relative to the sun. At different portions of the stretch you’ll pass by a couple of waterfalls and three or four smaller rivulets spilling across the highway, goats and donkeys, home construction of wood, pine cones on the roadway, brilliant orange flowered bromeliads, wild orchids, large expanses of boston-like ferns, and perhaps one or two patches of fog. For several kilometers you’ll encounter a sweet smell similar to that of maple syrup. Because of the steep descent, you may even detect the smell of burning rubber, but don’t worry, it’s likely a truck up ahead having brake problems. At about four hours into the trip you’ll begin to hear tropical insect and bird sounds and calls, and see bananas and sugar cane under cultivation and for sale, with coffee and honey also offered at roadside stands. On the approach to Pochutla the roadway will then gradually straighten out, with curves much easier to navigate. Tropical grasses predominate the roadside landscapes. An indication that you’re getting closer with be blown sand encroaching part of the roadway, and finally a sign stating “Iguana Hunting Prohibited.” A short while later you’ll see the sign pointing to the right for the Puerto Escondido bypass.
Pochutla to Puerto Escondido: Takes about an hour. Highway 175 ends at a “Y”, so veer to the right and you’re on highway 200, following along the Pacific. However, you won’t be able to see the ocean for about 40 minutes. You’ll pass by the exit to Puerto Ángel, Mazunte and Zipolite. The entire final leg of the trip is basically straight and flat. For the last half hour or so you’ll see mango, papaya and coconut under cultivation.
Aside from the fact that this route should be quicker than 175, and is about 50 km shorter, there are other differences to note, in addition to similarities:
1) While 175 is predominantly a single ascent, and then descent, 131 consists of several hills and valleys which must be negotiated, on a couple of occasions arriving in a town at the bottom of a valley, and then again beginning to climb. This may contribute to the roller-coaster effect on your stomach.
2) The road quality is inferior on 131, in particular for about an hour in the approach to San Gabriel Mixtepec and thereafter, with potholes, poor attempts to repave, etc. However, until around the end of 2006 it was far worse. Now there are long stretches of fresh, new tar, and improvements continue.
3) Immediately upon leaving Puerto you begin an ascent, so there is no gradual departure from the tropical climate.
4) Much of the vegetation found on 175 is the same along 131, although it is less defined, in part because you do not climb to same altitude as on 175, and there are really no significant micro-climates which manifest in extremes of vegetation and particular commercial enterprise. Waterfalls are abundant, and landscapes are impressive, perhaps less so than on the other highway. There is much more livestock along the sides of the roadway than on route 175, predominantly donkeys and mules, so be a bit more vigilant.
Puerto Escondido to San Gabriel Mixtepec: Takes about an hour, with switchbacks and the climb commencing almost immediately. Take your meds as you leave the coast. As suggested earlier, there are peaks and valleys along this portion of the route. The patchwork of road repairs becomes apparent rather readily. Roadside coconut stands predominate initially. You’ll then begin to welcome the maple essence, in fact off and on for three or four hours as your journey continues. The village is quaint, with grocery stores, a major pharmacy and several restaurants.
San Gabriel Mixtepec to Cerro del Vidrio: This portion of the trip, just over an hour, is a net incline, not without several ascents and descents of mountain passes. At km 55 you’ll pass the exit to a well-known coffee plantation, Finca Las Nieves. Just before arriving at Cerro del Vidrio you’ll start a gradual descent, arriving in the town after about 10 minutes. This is where traffic turns off to go to Juquila (about a 45 minute detour), famous for the appearance of the Virgin of Juquila. Cerro del Vidrio developed much more rapidly once Oaxacans began making pilgrimages to Juquila. In fact along the entire 131 route you’ll see vehicles with gladioli tacked onto the front on either side of the license plate, along with a framed image of the virgin. Right at the turn-off you’ll encounter several vendors of fruit and memelitas filled with beans.
Cerro del Vidrio to San Pedro Juchatengo: Takes about 40 minutes, and terminates at the bottom of the largest valley you’ll encounter. Switchbacks. Upon arrival you’ll begin to see corn under cultivation, as well as some agave. The town boasts swimming in El Rio de Las Flores, as well as an ecological preserve.
San Pedro Juchatengo to Sola de Vega: You’ll continue negotiating strong switchbacks, initially following along the banks of the river, then deviating, and finally climbing until the pinnacle, “El Mirador,” where a small restaurant, rest stop and mezcal outlet are situate. You will have already begun to notice three different types of agave under cultivation, for mezcal production. You’ll then descend to Sola de Vega, arriving after about an hour and twenty minutes, now encountering some corn, and even banana trees. Sola de Vega is noted for its mezcal, and historically for its occupation by the French during colonial times.
Sola de Vega to Oaxaca: This final leg of the trip takes just under two hours, initially marked by climbing, albeit much easier to navigate, and then again peaks and valleys, much softer than during the first couple of hours of the return route. At km 181 you’ll see the cutoff to San Sebastián de Las Grutas, 13 km off to the left, where there are a series of caves you can hike. By km 190 the road will have straightened out, and for the balance of the trip, another 60 kilometers, there will be rolling straight-aways, the agave fields diminishing in number as corn becomes the predominate crop, with outcrops of carriso, some cactus under cultivation, and roadside stands selling sugar cane. By now the temperature will have risen and stabilized at typical Oaxaca valley climate. Your approach to the city will be marked by the same urban sprawl as when you left.
I highly recommend driving these routes. Consider taking an extra day so you can stop at some of the sites and villages, perhaps at a couple of mezcal operations, or just to get out of the car and take a stroll. Spending one overnight will help you to get a feel for rural Oaxaca, and add immeasurably to the totality of your vacation. San Jose del Pacífico gets my vote since it’s seemingly a bit more geared to ecotourism than the other towns and villages en route, although there are other quaint, interesting stopovers, where tourists don’t normally stop for the night, which might lead to even a more interesting sojourn. .
Oaxaca to Octotlán, 40 min and 33 km; Ocotlán to Ejutla, 25 min and 25 km;
Ejutla to Mihuatlán, 38 min and 40 km; Mihuatlán to San Jose del Pacífico, 50 min and 36 km; San Jose del Pacífico to Pochutla, 145 min and 100 km; Pochutla to Puerto Escondido, 55 min and 69 km.
Puerto Escondido to San Gabriel Mixtepec, 60 min and 42 km; San Gabriel Mixtepec to Cerro del Vidrio, 70 min and 38 km; Cerro del Vidrio to San Pedro Juchatengo, 40 min and 24 km; San Pedro Juchatengo to Sola de Vega, 80 min and 50 km; Sola de Vega to Oaxaca, 120 min and 93 km.
Alvin Starkman together with wife Arlene operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ). Alvin received his masters in social anthropology in 1978, and his law degree in 1984. Thereafter he was a litigator in Toronto until taking early retirement. He and his family were frequent visitors to Oaxaca between 1991 and when they became permanent residents in 2004. Alvin reviews restaurants, writes about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca, and tours couples and families to the villages.