Zapotrek Oaxaca: Caves of the Southern Sierra

If you’re thinking about visiting Oaxaca City or another part of Oaxaca state, a vibrant and authentic part of Southeastern Mexico, I’d highly recommend that you experience an adventure with Zapotrek while you’re there.

I discovered Zapotrek while looking for hiking and trekking opportunities outside of Oaxaca City – a place that’s going to need a few blog posts of its own to introduce you to! – and I can’t explain just how incredible our experience with them was.  If you’re interested in sustainable tourism, cultural experiences and getting off the beaten track, keep reading to find out more about a day-trip I took with Zapotrek this year to the ‘Caves of the Southern Sierra’.

oaxaca state rural scenery zapotrek

A bit about Zapotrek and ecotourism

Zapotrek describe themselves as a responsible tourism organisation, and if you take a look at their full list of hikes, bike rides and cultural trips, you’ll see that they’re careful to live by the kind of ‘take only photos, leave only footsteps’ (or bike tracks) mantra that eco tourism has become known for.

Any trip you take with Zapotrek will be in a group of no more than 6 people, accompanied by a guide from the local area who can give you real insight on everything you’re experiencing. We were lucky enough to find ourselves on an accidentally-private tour, just the two of us and our brilliant guide Sabino.

Zapotrek’s reason for being is to increase awareness and understanding of the Zapotec culture and history, all while bringing newcomers to the area in a way that is sustainable for people and the planet. Whichever trip you pick, you’ll stop off at out-of-the-way locations that I’m pretty sure you’d never find or know to look for if you were travelling self-guided.

As well as learning about the history of your chosen expedition areas and the communities that populate them, there are opportunities to meet artisans not shown off by the mainstream tourist trips – people offering incredible and unique services, who don’t have the means to promote themselves and who are too far off the beaten track for other tour operators to come to.

A bit about Oaxaca’s Southern Sierra

Zapotrek San Sebastian de las grutas

Sierra Sur de Oaxaca, also known as Oaxaca’s Southern Sierra to those of us from faraway lands, is a vast expanse of mountains and valleys south of Oaxaca City and stretching out to the east.

Inhabited by armadillos, deer and more kinds of cacti than you could possibly begin to count, this part of the Sierra is also home to numerous indigenous peoples, with the main ethnic groups being Zapotec and Mixtec. Chatinos, Amuzgo and Triques communities all live in parts of the Southern Sierra too, along with other smaller groups.

While I’d definitely recommend improving your Spanish as much as possible before a trip to Oaxaca City, where you’ll struggle to get by on English alone, it’s worth noting that in the rural communities outside of the city it’s really, really useful to have a guide with you who speaks Zapoteca or Mixteca, depending on where you’re headed. With over 60 variants of the Zapotecan languages alone, and no sign of any of them appearing on Duolingo any time soon, you’ll find it easier to shop and order food if you have a little multilingual assistance.

Like other parts of Oaxaca state, the economy of the Southern Sierra region is heavily powered by the Mezcal trade (which if you’re not familiar, is a tequila-like drink made with smoked and fermented agave). While there are also weavers, pottery makers and other craftspeople keeping things afloat, it’s both wild and farmed agave that are the lifeblood of the area.

Scenic hikes and bat-inhabited caves

The order of the day:

  • Depart Oaxaca City in a four-wheel drive, checking maps for the day and getting the low-down on San Sebastian de las Grutas from Sabino
  • Flying visit to San Bartolo Coyotepec, home to numerous artisans producing Oaxaca’s famous Barro Negro
  • Stop for breakfast and snacks at the roadside – I’m not sure of the exact location!
  • Arrive at an eco lodge in Los Fustes, just below the caves
  • A few hours hiking up, rappelling down, and meandering around the caves and countryside
  • Feasting on local cuisine at a nearby comedor for lunch
  • 10/10 detour to an independent mezcal distillery up another mountain
  • Return back to Oaxaca City around 12 hours after initial pick-up, to spend the evening marvelling at the greatness of the whole experience

The main focus of our day out, which saw us set off at 7am from the guesthouse and drive for around two and a half hours into the mountains, was hiking into and around some ancient caves in the area of San Sebastian de las Grutas.

Aside from a steep incline to walk up to the cave entrance, which was easy enough but immediately tiring, the hike was definitely straightforward and unchallenging for the most part. However, if you want to make the most of the experience, I’d advise being brave enough for the optional rappel down into a river that runs beneath the caves! This is a little trickier, but manageable even if you have weak and puny arms like mine – and a nervous disposition to match.

southern sierra cave interior oaxaca mexico zapotrekAfter spending a while in the first and biggest group of caves, admiring stalactites that have formed over millions of years and marvelling at the natural quartz in the cave walls, you’re given the option to navigate your way deeper underground using a few lengths of rope, a couple of ladders and your own determination.

While we’d been advised to wear close-toed shoes, I’d say any hiking sandal with good grip on the soles will do you fine – and if you have something you don’t mind getting wet then bring it. It was suggested that I switch into some borrowed rubber pumps from a nearby eco lodge which wouldn’t get soaked like my chosen hiking footwear, but they had zero grip –  when faced with a slippery surface and nothing more than a wet rope to hold onto during the rappel, I decided it was time to go barefoot and embrace the cave mud between my toes as I made the descent!

When you’re in the main body of the caves, you’ll get to hear all kinds of interesting stories about their historic use in everything from living quarters and celebrations to human sacrifice. After carefully negotiating your way down to the river, you then walk through the shallower parts to the point at which the water enters through the rock – where there are fewer stories to tell, but just as great a sense of awe and wonder.

Obviously it’s beyond pitch black this far under the ground, so you are relying on head torches to see around you – and there’s plenty to see, with three different types of bat calling the caves home and a seemingly endless array of rock formations and mineral deposits to admire.

Zapotrek dogs caves of the southern Sierra hike

A fuzzy photo of our fuzzy friends

A pair of stray dogs even joined us for the duration of the initial hike, although they had to wait for us while we explored the river as that bit was impossible even for professional cave exploring dogs such as these. After oo-ing and aah-ing at large groups of bats in the ceiling of the caves, and laughing at the dogs doing their best to climb up after them, we took a break outside in the sunshine and a stroll through the hills to admire some better-lit open air views.

There is a secondary section of cave to visit, and if you don’t have the bottle for the initial rappel, the much shorter and simpler climb down a few meters – in daylight – into this part might be more for you. There are more sleepy bats to coo over, and another shallow river you can paddle through while watching out for fish around your ankles.

An unbeatable micro-distillery mezcal stop-off

rajabule mezcal oaxaca san sebastian de las grutas

An unexpected highlight of the expedition was stopping off at a mezcal distillery on the way back to Oaxaca City. If you’re staying in the city centre, there are dozens and dozens of minibus trips you can take which will whizz you round to a commercial mezcal distillery at the side of a motorway and offer you a range of mezcals to try – they’re interesting in that they’re so big and busy you’ll be able to see the whole distillation process in action, but compared to the place we went with Zapotrek, they just don’t have the same amount of heart.

On “unnamed road” in the vague area of San Sebastian, Sabino drove us up some winding, potholey dirt tracks through fields of agave on all sides, eventually bringing us to a family homestead where we were invited to see the place that Rajabule mezcal is made. We were also, of course, invited to try the mezcals – which have been distilled by this family for more than 70 years.

Mezcal distillery Oaxaca San sebastian

You’d never know to look at the rather swanky bottle, when you see it on a shelf in Switzerland or Germany, that this ridiculously good mezcal is distilled in a hole in the ground out the back of a no-frills, hand-built family home in the middle of nowhere in rural Oaxaca. You’d also probably never guess that if you tasted any of it.

Unlike the big and brash distilleries where it’s a sales pitch a minute and a bus load of tourists being brought in nearly as often, this was just somebody’s home where a few batches of mezcal are made each year, using varieties of agave that don’t grow elsewhere in Oaxaca. We sat and drank with the people that make it, enjoyed yet more phenomenal views and felt utterly spoiled by the warm hospitality.

It’s safe to say that while I was intent on a great hike and not thinking about booze at all when I booked this trip, I’m immeasurably pleased we got to stop here.

Eating local on our adventure

local comedor oaxaca zapotrek

The view from our lunchtime comedor stop-off

A few people had commented on the fact that they thought it would be difficult to eat veggie, let alone vegan, in rural Mexico. Well, the people of Oaxaca took great joy in telling us that traditional Zapotec food actually was mostly vegan – because the land here is too rocky and mountainous for grazing animals, so people always relied on peppers, cacti and chillis to give them the nutrients they need.

Modern-day Mexico certainly leans a lot more towards meaty, cheesy eating, but that doesn’t mean it’s hard to find good veggie and vegan cuisine. Again, having a local guide was definitely needed when we were meeting people who only spoke Zapoteca or a little Spanish, but we had some great food during this trip out of the city.

En route to the hike we first stopped off at a roadside grocery stall, where Sabino stocked us up on melon, bananas and other fresh fruit to have as snacks throughout the day. Our breakfast shortly after this was a more filling affair at one of the many mom-and-pop-style ‘comedors’.

Roadside grocery stall Oaxaca mexico

Comedors are predominantly tiny independent kitchens, where you can roll up and order whatever dish they happen to be preparing that day. We had a slight panic on being told that today’s option at breakfast was either chorizo or beef – but on mentioning that we don’t eat meat, we were presented with a steaming bowl of black bean stew, fresh rice and homemade tortillas, plus enough salsa to satisfy even the hungriest stomach.

On the way to the caves, Sabino had taken us on a detour past another local comedor, where he’d mentioned that we were vegetarian and said we’d be back to eat in 2-3 hours. By the time we arrived, sweaty and (in my case) covered in cave mud, the woman in charge had stewed up a delicious vegetable soup filled with sweetcorn and fresh greens, with another sizeable side of rice, tortillas and salsa.

Though meat is a big part of many people’s diets here, fresh vegetables, beans and rice seemed to be even bigger. Wash it all down with a few Coronas, or a spicy michelada (which I’ll talk more about in my next post) and you’re on to a simple and effective, properly Mexican meal.

A shout out to our amazing guide

Sabino zapotrek Oaxaca hiking guide

Sabino and my other half comparing motorbike photos

Last, but by no means least, a big thanks to Sabino – our brilliant local guide, and the person who’ll be showing you around if you opt for the Southern Sierra cave tour for your own hiking trip.

Particularly when it’s just you and the guide, whoever is tasked with showing you the sights can make or break the whole experience. Luckily, Sabino is a freakin’ awesome guy, and aside from his impeccable hospitality it’s safe to say you’ll do well to find another guide with the passion and knowledge for Zapotec culture he has. Of course, I expect Zapotrek have hired people equally great for their other day trips and weekend hike/bike excursions – and I’ll definitely be trying out one of their other options if I’m in the area again.

Coming soon, I’ll be posting about other things do in and around Oaxaca City, some general tips for travelling in this part of Mexico and of course, updating y’all about what to look for in the search for great vegan and veggie eating.

Zapotrek Oaxaca_ Caves of the Southern Sierra

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