How To Visit La Sierra Norte from Oaxaca, Mexico (Inlcuding Tips For Taking Kids With You)
There’s never much information available about how to visit somewhere interesting or off the beaten track if you have kids in tow is there? Yet I know that we are certainly not the only ones who don’t think having small kids should stop us visiting interesting places. So, if, like me, you want to visit La Sierra Norte with kids, let me assure you, it’s perfectly doable. First off though, why not see what Oaxaca has to offer you, the visiting family with my article about family travel to Oaxaca.
La Sierra Norte From Oaxaca
One of the first things everyone visiting Oaxaca notices is that you’re basically surrounded by mountains. Flying in to Oaxaca you fly over them, holding your breath and gripping the arm rests as the teeny plane is buffeted around by the colliding air currents. Once you’ve landed safely, I promise your breath will again be held, but this time due to the sheer beauty of being surrounded by mountains. And then you’ll start trying to figure out how to visit La Sierra Norte from Oaxaca.
Only, They’re Not Mountains
Huh? No. They’re not. Mountains in Spanish is montañas and Oaxacenos would never refer to these particular ones as montañas, instead they’re called cerros, or big hills.
Well, whatever, they look like mountains to me! Everywhere you go in Oaxaca your view will be framed by these beauties and if you’re anything like me, when you’re not delighting in being in Oaxaca, you’ll be working out a cunning plan to get yourself in to the cerros to see what they’re really like.
How To Visit La Sierra Norte
I found a way. I did. I got us in to La Sierra Norte, a region of Oaxaca just 62km east of the city. I admit that I used information I found in the Lonely Planet to start my planning process. As my guide book told me, ‘the beautiful forested highlands are home to several successful community ecotourism ventures providing comfortable accommodations…’. I also learned about the Pueblos Mancomunados, or Commonwealth of Villages established by a wily group of friends who realised ecotourism was a Big Thing.
Although it isn’t difficult to organise to get yourself to one of these villages, unusually for us, we opted to pay someone to organise things for us. We did this primarily because we have two small kids and didn’t feel like heading in to the complete unknown with them in tow. We also didn’t want to show up for a short weekend trip from Oaxaca and find we had no accommodation. So we booked.
We used Expediciones Sierra Norte to book for us. They were very helpful in helping us figure out which village we should visit although all we used them for was transport in and out of the villages and then booking up a cabaña for the two nights we spent there.
Latuvi, Sierra Norte
Of the eight villages on offer (Amatlán, Benito Juárez, Caujimoloyas, La Nevería, Lachahtao, Llano Grande and Yavesía are the other seven) we opted to visit Latuvi. We chose it because it was easily accessible and the lowest altitude of all the villages. We have a small girl who gets car sick at the drop of a hat so didn’t fancy too long on bendy mountain roads with her.
Despite being the closest of all the villages it was still a good two hours of winding roads, some tarred, some not. We had to stop to give our son travel sickness medicine it was so winding. We hadn’t even considered that he of cast iron stomach might feel the affect of the roads too. So be warned! The views, though, were spectacular.
Climatic Differences Between La Sierra Norte and Oaxaca
We had been told that it was chilly in the Sierra Norte and that certainly wasn’t wrong. We took all our warm clothes with us but given that we had packed for Mexico, we didn’t have anything especially warm. So if you are planning on heading in to the Sierra Norte, I do recommend packing something warmer than you might think necessary. We all had thin sweaters and body warmers but could have done with something more, particularly at night.
Eating And Drinking In Latuvi, La Sierra Norte
You aren’t going to be overwhelmed with options. In Latuvi we found two places serving meals and neither particularly looked as if that was really how they made their living! The food we had was pleasant enough but you will need to be brave about marching in to comedores (canteen type places) that basically look like a part of someone’s house and asking if they’re serving that day.
We had good, hearty, breakfasts of huevos mexicanos (Mexican scrambled eggs), frijoles (refried beans) and quesadillas (melted cheese tortillas) for the kids with pan dulces (local sweet breads), coffee and hot chocolate. All very tasty and warming.
Do be prepared for standards to vary wildly. We had a first delicious evening meal in the comedor by our cabin and so arranged to eat our breakfast and supper there the following day. Whereas on the first day we had enjoyed everything served to us, on the second, we weren’t given food for the kids at all, despite having ordered it and everything was cold. When we questioned the temperature of the food the waitress told us that foreigners like cold food. Hmmm. I suspect that on our first night the owner was working but the second night found us with either a young family member or an employee left in charge! No matter. It was all an interesting experience.
There are also a couple of small convenience stores where you can buy bread, fruit and snacks. We stocked up here and sorted out our own lunch.
On our walk to the waterfalls (see below), we saw a sign for a ‘tepucheria‘, which we sneakily translated as ‘coffee shop’ for the kids who were immediately convinced they would be able to order home-made carrot cake! We investigated and found that we had been a trifle liberal in our translation. What we found was a house with a very kind old woman who immediately served us tepache, a prehispanic drink made from the heart of the maguey (from whence comes the far tastier mescal). Honestly, it tasted of slightly fermented orange juice. The kids immediately, and loudly, pronounced it to be vile. While I didn’t disagree with them I wasn’t thrilled they were so brazen about their dislike. Anyway, they got their comeuppance when the kind woman gave them atole de maís instead, this was also not to our liking but it was interesting to try two local drinks.
So kind was this woman that she absolutely refused to take any money from us, being, as she was, completely smitten with our rude but very blonde children!
CHILD FRIENDLY TIPS:
- Take snacks with you.
- Chat with the comedor staff to find out what they have that your kids will eat. They’re really friendly and may well rustle up something a bit plainer for the kids. Quesadillas con queso y nada mas (plain cheese quesadillas), omelette sencillo (plain omelette), papas fritas (chips / fries) all work up there.
- We also found it a useful location to make our kids try new foods or foods they were reluctantly eating in Oaxaca, such as refried beans and veg!
Where To Stay When You Visit La Sierra Norte With Kids
Cabañas are offered, either as dorms or private rooms. We pad around $550 pesos for a whole cabin, which had a set of bunks, a double bed, fireplace and small bathroom. The preference is for you to book this in Oaxaca but, particularly in low season, it wouldn’t be hard to show up unannounced.
(Note there is an additional small fee to pay for access to the area – about $60 pesos per adult and $35 per child).
It was COLD. We were very grateful when the manager brought us firewood and firelighters and made the first fire for us. Seriously, we even had the fire on when we were in bed…and we had liberated a number of blankets from the dorm next to us as we needed more than provided.
Note: Do ask for the gas to be turned on because if you don’t, you won’t have hot water. We had been told there was hot water but not told to request it! If you don’t ask for gas then you’re relying on solar panels and if it’s as cloudy as it was when we were there, this won’t cut any mustard!
What To Do When You Visit La Sierra Norte With Kids
Many people who venture in to the Sierra Norte without small kids spend their time trekking and riding horses. Obviously, with our small ones along for the ride, this wasn’t a possibility for us. Instead, we kind of just hung out and enjoyed the views. But specifically, what did we do?
We spent a lot of time playing with the hammocks available at the cabañas. Luckily there was almost no one else around so we had them all to ourselves.
We got the kids to go to the shops on their own to buy things. They loved the freedom of being able to walk along with their own money and then actually buy something with it.
We attempted to walk to the waterfalls. We’d be told they were stunning and we’d seen a sign proclaiming it was 1.5km from the village. After an hour and a half we gave up walking and turned back. Even though we didn’t find the waterfall, we still felt like we’d had a fantastic adventure walking through the lush forest, checking out flowers and trees that were completely new to us and examining all the wildlife we found, including a dung beetle and a dead snake. Who says you need a classroom to learn anything?
Exploring The Village:
We took a stroll through the village in both directions. At one end we found ourselves near the village church so we spent some time exploring the grounds and the huge dead lizard we found on the way there.
We decided to find one of the techarias (trout farms and restaurants) that we’d read about. We asked around. The first people just shook their heads and told us it was too far at an hour there and an hour back. We ignored them and set off on our new adventure. What we hadn’t been told was that there was a chance the techaria wouldn’t be open. But again, it didn’t matter, so stunning and fascinating was our walk. We sat down and I fed the kids on the old snacks I dredged up from the bottom of my bag and we turned around and walked back home. We saw NO ONE at all on this walk. It was just us and the incredible countryside all around us. We watched birds soaring overhead and marvelled at the beauty of the land. Even our kids really enjoyed this adventure.
Have A Temezcal:
This is a traditional, local, sauna basically. Col and I opted to go one at a time, leaving one of us in the cabaña with the kids while the other relaxed. Returning from his temezcal, Col refused to tell me anything except ‘it’s an interesting experience’. It costs $580 pesos per person for this experience.
So what does happen?
Well, basically, you take off your clothes and wrap a sheet around you and sit outside whilst being hit with a bunch of rosemary and mint until you smell just like a leg of lamb about to go in the oven. In our case, the woman looked bored to tears whilst administering the beating (or should I say basting?). Then she opens the door to what I can only describe as a large pizza oven and tells you to get inside. Because Col had returned uncooked and uneaten from his temezcal I could infer that this was not actually a pizza oven and that it was safe enough to get in, so I did what I was told and got in.
Inside the pizza oven there is a chair, a torch, a bottle of cold mint tea and water for throwing over the hot mud to increase the temperature as required. I was told to stay in there for forty minutes but with no watch I had no idea how long forty minutes was so assumed, wrongly, I’d be told when to get out. When I eventually knocked to be let out I was told I’d been in there for over an hour.
Once released I was put on a bed and given a half hearted massage whilst her son watched tv pretty loudly in the room next door.
I don’t knock this experience lightly. I understand that the point of Los Pueblos Mancomunados is not to attract mass tourism but to bring interested visitors to the villages in a sustainable manner and to allow them a glimpse of traditional village life. I left feeling incredibly underwhelmed though. I’ve had traditional massages and sauna experiences in a variety of locations (my favourite will always be a massage and sauna in a monastery in Vientiane) but the total lack of interest and effort given for something that really wasn’t cheap was quite surprising. I’d still recommend the experience to visitors but with the caveat to not expect too much from it. It’s meant to be a spiritual way of cleansing your body and mind but all I could think about was how a pizza must feel when cooking.
Tips For Visiting La Sierra Norte
- Take warm clothes. Seriously
- Take good shoes
- Take a waterproof jacket. You might well be in a cloud for much of your visit
- Take water (we were driven there so we took a couple of large garafones with us)
- Take snacks, especially if you have kids
- If you’re going with kids, take something to entertain them, a card game, ball, toys, ipad, whatever. While it’s great to be cut off from the fast pace of modern life, actually, the kids could do with something to play with so you can relax too!
I imagine that visiting La Sierra Norte might be more rewarding without kids because it really is all about exploring the area on foot or horseback. With kids we couldn’t really go far or check out the other village. Still, we had an incredible time and I wouldn’t let the having of children stop you getting out in to La Sierra Norte.
If you’re in Oaxaca in late October, early November, then are you a lucky one! It’s Dia de los Muertos time and there’s no place in Mexico better than Oaxaca to see the festivities. Check out my blog on how to enjoy this!
Whilst travelling with kids you’re obliged to feed them. If, like me, you have fussy kids, this article might be of use to you.