Cueva de Bandidos Driveabout and Hike – 01/20/2020

For this post, in addition to describing a Hike in the territory of the village of San Miguel del Valle in the Sierra Norte, this entry in my journal is also about the Story leading up to this adventure and the Driveabout Inbound getting to the hiking trail, and the Driveabout Outbound returning to San Miguel del Valle .

The Story

This adventure actually began two days earlier when Pat and I forayed from Oaxaca City to the Zapotec village of San Miguel del Valle to arrange an overnight trip, with hikes scheduled for both days. Our past 3 years of experience, almost always with a guide of some form, had given us sufficient confidence that, with our meager Spanish, we could 1) take public buses to San Miguel, and 2) arrange with the staff at their Ecotourism office for a cabin and hiking guide.

  • From the Baseball Stadium in Oaxaca City where one can catch transportation going east, we caught the bus to Tlacolula planning to then get a bus or a colectivo to San Miguel.
    • Colectivos provide transportation to nearly all of the villages within many miles of Oaxaca City. They are much less expensive than taxis, but collect riders until all 5 seats are filled. This can make for a less than comfortable ride; buses are generally more comfortable.
  • We got off the bus in Tlacolula and easily found the station for buses to San Miguel. After 15 or 20 minutes waiting we were on our way. In San Miguel we easily found the Ecotourism office where we hoped to make arrangements for our visit.
    • San Miguel, like all the Zapotec villages in those parts, is a cooperative community in which citizens take their turn at various jobs, much like the Pueblos in New Mexico. The two people in the Ecotourism office received us warmly but spoke no English. Even with our meager Spanish we were able to communicate our desires (a cabaña for one night and a guide for hiking on each of the two days) and we believed we had successfully completed the arrangements.
    • As our final step, we asked if we could get a guide who spoke English. They made a phone call and we were speaking with a gentlemen with excellent English. We reviewed with him what we believed we had arranged, he confirmed it all with the office members, and we scheduled to meet him two days later.

Having enjoyed such good fortune in getting to San Miguel for planning, we were ready to repeat the travel from Oaxaca City for our adventure.

  • As before, now with our packs and overnight bag, we caught a bus from the Baseball Stadium headed for Tlacolula.
  • The bus didn’t stop at the bus station as it had the other day. We realized this as it started to leave Tlacolula on its way to another nearby town; we got off the bus at the outskirts of the village to wait for a bus or colectivo going to San Miguel.
  • After waiting 20 minutes or so, we walked the half mile back to the center of town and the transportation hub, ultimately getting a ride in a colectivo.
    • We later learned that the citizens of San Miguel were in a town meeting at which everyone is expected to attend, including drivers for buses and colectivos. Thus, none were running while were waiting.
  • The colectivo deposited us in the parking lot for the Ecotourism. Our guide wasn’t waiting there for us as expected – he was in the town meeting along with everyone else. He joined us shortly, introduced us to our cabaña, and we headed out for the day’s tip into the mountains.
  • Throughout all this, everyone we encountered was friendly and helpful which we’ve found to be a universal trait of Oaxaceños.

I relate all this because it brings back memories for us (now and when we read it in the future), and also in hopes that others can use our experience as a jumping off point for your own adventures.

The Driveabout Inbound

Having met up with Memo, we first stopped by a cafe in San Miguel for lunch where we had about the best chicken soup ever. Then we headed up into the Sierra Norte in Memo’s car. After a few miles on a paved road passing through dry scrubland, we started ascending into the mountains. We soon found ourselves 1) into the forest, 2) on a road climbing steeply with a steep drop off on one side or the other, and 3) winding through sharp switchbacks.

Reaching the pueblo of Cuajimoloyas, at 10,000 feet elevation, we stopped briefly where Memo pointed out the extent of the San Miguel Parque. Each of the pueblos in these Sierra Norte mountains has jurisdiction over a defined territory which they manage for the benefit of the community. Memo had pointed out on the drive up that the road is generally the boundary between the San Miguel’s territory and the adjoining pueblo’s. The pueblos hereabouts are recognized as ecotourism destinations and have developed trails and other amenities; Memo showed us on the billboard map the trails for the San Miguel Parque.

Back in the car, we continued a bit further on paved road before turning off onto a good though seldom-used two-track,  driving through an open forest of pine, oak, and other trees. In some 2 miles we stopped for the hike for this day.


The HikeP1040484The weather up here high in the mountains was foggy (this is sometimes referred to as a Cloud Forest) and quite chilly and we missed the blue skies so typical this time of year. The hike began by going through some open forest, but we soon found ourselves descending into a deep, narrow, even dark canyon, winding our way between rock walls. Then we came upon a small cave, then a very large cave – the Caves of the Bandits? The trail showed regular use, even with stair steps where necessary, to climb up or down rock ledges. Further along we passed by a pool of water and more large crevices, all pointing to the advantage of this area for bandits to hide out. The climb out of the canyon was on a long stairway constructed with local materials – sections of the small diameter trunks of pine trees prevalent in the area, or steps carved in the rock.

The return trail was again through the tropical forest so prevalent in the area. Along the way we admired the many plants new to us – the huge agave plants (not suitable for making mezcal), bromeliads, a few flowers (I wonder what it is like during and after the rainy season). We finished by climbing up on a large bed of rock to look across the canyon, and as far as the fog permitted, the mountains beyond.

The Driveabout Outbound

P1040486The drive out followed a different route. Still on what appeared to be seldom used two-track in good condition, we enjoyed the scenery of this high mountain forest. We stopped at a large meadow with a lake and a few cabins constructed on the hillside above the lake; Memo told this was a favorite getaway for people from San Miguel, to come high in the mountains in summer to escape the heat in the valley. (I was late in starting the GPS track, so the the .kml file misses the first mile or so of the driveout.) The two-track brought us to the pueblo of Llano Grande where we stopped for a break before heading back down to San Miguel. This included a visit to the cafe where we enjoyed chocolate con agua and herbia te while standing around the wood-fired stove in the kitchen for the warmth. It was then back down to San Miguel for a night in their cabana.


Total Distance: 1.06 miles
Elevation: start 9,994 ft, maximum 10,092 ft, minimum 9,933 ft
Gross gain: 99 ft. Aggregate ascending 232 ft, descending 231 ft
Maximum slope: 28% ascending, 18% descending, 7.6% average
Duration: 2:00

GPS Track Files for Download

I urge you to explore our hiking tracks with Google Earth. With the virtual 3-dimensional presentation, achieved by panning and tilting the view, you can get a much better idea of the hikes and terrain than you can get from the 2-dimensional screenshot above. For assistance: Using Google Earth Track Files.

References and Resources

ZapoTrek: Cueva Iglesia Trip Advisor: Zapotrek Hike and Bike – Cueva Iglesia Hike

This entry was posted in 2020, Driveabout, Flowers, Oaxaca and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply