Caves, Hikes, and Waterfalls: Getting Outside Oaxaca City

5-18 August 2022

Hiking is one of those things I always intend to do more of but end up doing rarely. Don’t get me wrong, I like nature and the outdoors, but hiking and outdoor activities were just not something we did as a family growing up. Vacations were spent going to museums and sightseeing, not whitewater rafting or mountain biking or whatever it is that active people do together for fun. I was a young adult of 20 the first time I even went camping. So it stands to reason that when I travel, it sometimes doesn’t even occur to me to go on a hike or explore some nature. 

Luckily though, the friend I was staying with in Oaxaca loves nothing better than getting out into nature, and made sure that I got to experience that on this trip. I’m so grateful, because if I hadn’t experienced some of the natural wonders of Oaxaca, I would have been missing out on one of the things that makes this region so special. 

Geographically, Mexico is a long country, with diverse regions and weather patterns. Oaxaca State, in the south, is criss-crossed by mountain ranges, with valleys and canyons lying between rolling hills. I visited during the rainy season, and everywhere you looked were lush forests and greenery. Surprisingly, it wasn’t as hot as I’d feared, and even with sudden storms and rain throughout my stay, my spirits weren’t dampened by the weather. 

Our first excursion was to San Sebastien de las Grutas, a huge underground cave system a two hour minibus ride outside Oaxaca City. The area is developed for tourism, and there are a number of activities you can do, including visiting the caves, a subterranean river, and swimming in a cenote. We did the tour of the caves, and, as I’d never heard of this area, I went in with zero expectations, and was blown away. The caves were huge, with all the things you’d expect: impressive stalactites and stalagmites, sparkling minerals, and curious rock formations. Our young guide had a stern and no-nonsense attitude, even delivering his few jokes so drily that I wasn’t sure if he was in fact joking. You could tell he’d guided so many groups of idiots through these caves and wasn’t putting up with anyone’s shit anymore. At the end of the cave tour, we thought about upgrading to see the subterranean river, but it involved rappelling down further into the caverns for a ways and I wasn’t feeling quite that adventurous, plus a few members of our group were not wearing the right shoes for such an activity. Personally, I’d been so impressed with the cave tour that I wasn’t too bothered by not seeing the river after all. 

The following week, we set off to do a big, all-day hike with my friend’s hiking group, made up of 19 kind, passionate people who go hiking together on the weekends. We drove for a few hours, including stopping for barbacoa (a type of cooked meat, in this case sheep) tacos and consume soup for breakfast, until we reached Santiago Apoala, a community with some of the best hiking trails in the state. We paid a fee to access the area and were given a guide to accompany us for the day, a 13 year old boy from the local Mixtec culture who was wise beyond his years and knew the history and flora of the region well. It was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever been, and quite a challenge for me, but I’m proud that I was able to keep up with the group for the most part. It would be hard for me to give a complete play-by-play of all of the natural sights that we saw that day. We did a lot of scrambling up and down the hillsides, across creeks and streams, picked our way through squelching mud from the previous night’s storm, and sat in a dark cave next to an underwater pool while the guide recounted some local legends. I found his Spanish a bit difficult to understand, but his presence was comforting. 

At one point, he instructed us all to pull a rock from the river, and then one by one, we handed him our rocks and he told us what element we were. I know he was just reading us, but he did it very well. No sooner had his hand closed over my rock than he told me that my element was fire. “Claro que sí,” I replied. “Of course.” He went on to say that if I’m thinking something, I shouldn’t hold it in, but that I should just say it. 

The highlight of Santiago Apoala, though, is its waterfalls, two massive ones accessed via a set of steep steps that took the wind out of me. I merely waded in the first one, but in the second, I got all the way in. I’ve always found water to be therapeutic and healing, and at that moment, immersing myself in pure water from the depths of the mountain was exactly what I needed. At the end of that magical day, my friend and I were surprised to find that we weren’t that tired from hours of hiking. We felt light, calm, and exhilarated. 

On my final day in Oaxaca, I went on an organized bus tour that took us around a number of the small local villages to the south of the city. In between the weaving demonstration and mezcal tasting, we visited Hierve el Agua, a unique and stunning natural site. Perched on the side of the hill and overlooking a deep, dramatic valley, are a number of petrified waterfalls and mineral pools. This is one of the only places in the world where you can see petrified waterfalls, rock formations that formed over time from mineral-rich spring water cascading over the hillside. Since I’d previously missed seeing petrified waterfalls during my time in Turkey, I was glad I was able to view them in Mexico. I went for a swim in the pools, and luxuriated in the silky water, my breath taken away by the incredible view. Talk about ending the trip on a high note!

In just two weeks, I’d been able to paint a complex picture of Oaxaca, because I was able to have so many different types of experiences and do so many different types of things while I was there. Food and culture were important parts of this, but so too was nature, and the relationship of the people I encountered to it. To fellow travelers planning to visit Oaxaca, I’d say that, while the city is amazing, make sure you get outside the city too. You’ll get more pieces of the puzzle that way. 

Safe and Happy Travels,

2 thoughts on “Caves, Hikes, and Waterfalls: Getting Outside Oaxaca City”

  1. Wow Mo, it sounds like you had a fabulous time. I’m a huge fan of Mexico generally, but for sure our stay in Oaxaca was a highlight. Your post brought back good memories of a hike we did there: challenging, and fun, and stunning scenery. We also went to a village market that was fascinating. I agree – the city’s great, but you have to get out of town too.

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