Travelers to the state of Oaxaca frequently inquire about the drive from the City of Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido, expressing concerns about the length of the drive, 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 best option unless of course you plan to visit Salina Cruz or Huatulco anyway.
- By contrast, taking highway 175 through Pochutla, then highway 200 north to Oaxaca, takes about 6 hours (I tend to drive fast, and stop about 3 times during a trip). It's the most interesting route 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 Escondido and of the 131 for the return to Oaxaca 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 roadway conditions for each segment of the journey.
Keep in mind that route 131 should take about an hour less than 175, and for this particular trip we stopped more frequently than usual along 131.
Sixteen years of traveling these routes have been incident free, attributable in part to following four simple rules:
- 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, you have a higher risk of encountering inebriated drivers, pedestrians and animals when you're driving at night.
- Start out with a full tank of gas. While there are gas stations en route, and signs advertising mechanics and gasoline along the roadways, you can save time and make more stops along the way if you begin with a full tank. The trip to the coast takes well less than a full tank.
- Make sure your car is up for the journey. While this is stating the obvious, make sure you’ve had the mechanical fitness, oil and water levels of the car checked before leaving. Working brakes, tires and steering are essential for negotiating the portions of highway with mountain switchbacks.
- Prepare for the altitude. 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. The drive begins through the urban sprawl that leads you out of the city. It gives way to gently rolling hills with a few strong curves. The vegetation is predominantly agave and corn under cultivation. You'll then pass 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…including his home and foundation, a mural at the municipal offices, and a museum featuring his and earlier works.
- Ocotlan to Ejutla: Takes about 25 minutes. This drive has long, easy straight-aways, occasional curves and gentle hills. Once again you'll encounter agave and some corn, with a number of outcrops of carriso (river reed used for making ceilings, roofs and fences). Ejutla is known for its Thursday market, which sells animal skins. You can also easily avoid going into Ejutla by taking the well-marked bypass.
- Ejutla to Mihuatlan: Takes about 35 minutes. This stretch of road has more pronounced curves and hills, as well as easy-to-navigate peaks and valleys through similar vegetation and some mixed brush. It's a 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 Mihuatlan. Just keep going straight and the highway takes you out of the city.
- Mihuatlan to San Jose del Pacifico: Takes about 50 minutes. Leaving Mihuatlan you’ll see an 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. The agave grows from rock outcrops and some reach an immense size, with stock (chiote) shooting up from thier core, dwarfing many of the surrounding trees.
This segment of the trip, and the next with the 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 Pacifico 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 cabins are more modern and advertise satellite TV and other facilities. There are a few restaurants, grocery stores, bakeries, 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 Pacifico to Pochutla: From San Jose del Pacifico, you’ll continue to climb for about another 10 minutes until you reach El Manzanal, then you'll begin your descent. This portion of the trip takes about an hour and 45 minutes. The ride down is initially quite gradual, and then more pronounced once you reach San Miguel Suchixtepec, a picturesque village with an impressive, large church and homes strung out along a few hilly mountain roads. You’ll likely begin to detect another significant temperature change, depending on where you are relative to the sun.
At different portions of the stretch you’ll pass by a couple of waterfalls, three or four smaller rivulets spilling across the highway, goats and donkeys, homes constructed 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 gradual curves that are much easier to navigate. Tropical grasses predominate the roadside landscapes. You'll know you're getting close when you encounter blown sand encroaching on part of the roadway and 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, which follows along the Pacific. However, you won’t be able to see the ocean for about 40 minutes. The 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:
- While 175 is predominantly a single ascent, and then descent, 131 consists of several hills and valleys which must be negotiated. Occasionally you'll arrive in a town at the bottom of a valley, and then head back up after passing through it. This may contribute to the roller-coaster effect on your stomach.
- The road quality is inferior on 131, in particular for about an hour in the approach to San Gabriel Mixtepec and thereafter. You'll encounter potholes, poor attempts to repave the road, etc. However, until around the end of 2006 it was far worse. Now there are long stretches of fresh, new tar, and improvements continue.
- Immediately upon leaving Puerto you begin an ascent, so there is no gradual departure from the tropical climate.
- 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 the same altitude as on 175. There are no significant micro-climates which manifest in extremes of vegetation and particular commercial enterprise. Waterfalls are abundant, and landscapes are impressive, though perhaps less so than on the other highway. There is much more livestock (predominantly donkeys and mules) along the sides of the roadway than on route 175.
- Puerto Escondido to San Gabriel Mixtepec: Takes about an hour. This leg includes switchbacks and the climb commences almost immediately. Take your motion-sickness 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. You'll immediately notice the abundant number of roadside coconut stands. A maple essence will then accompany you on your journey, off and on, for three or four hours. The village of San Gabriel Mixtepec is quaint, with grocery stores, a major pharmacy and several restaurants.
- San Gabriel Mixtepec to Cerro del Vidrio: This portion of the trip, which takes just over an hour, results in a net incline, but with 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 deviation), 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 license plate, along with a framed image of the virgin. Right at the turn-off you’ll encounter several vendors of fruit, memelitas filled with beans, souvenirs, etc.
- Cerro del Vidrio to San Pedro Juchatengo: Takes about 40 minutes. This stretch terminates at the bottom of the largest valley you’ll encounter and you'll be driving along switchbacks most of the way. 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: Takes an about 1 hour and 20 minutes. You’ll continue negotiating strong switchbacks, initially following along the banks of the river, then deviating, and finally climbing until you reach the pinnacle (“El Mirador” ).Here you'll ind a small restaurant, rest stop and mezcal outlet. By this point you will have noticed three different types of agave under cultivation for mezcal production.
During your descent to Sola de Vega you'll encounter corn and 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. It's initially marked by a climb that's easy to navigate, then you'll find more 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, which is 13 km off to the left. If you follow this detour you'll find a series of caves you can hike.
By km 190 the road will straighten out and for the balance of the trip, another 60 kilometers, there will be rolling straight-aways. The agave fields will begin to diminish in number as corn becomes the predominate crop. You'll also notice outcrops of carriso, some cactus under cultivation, and roadside stands selling sugar cane. By now the temperature will have risen and you'll be cruising in a typical Oaxaca valley climate. Your approach to the city will be marked by the same urban sprawl that you passed through 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, 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 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.
Segment Time (min) Distance (km)
Oaxaca to Octotlán 40 33
Ocotlán to Ejutla 25 25
Ejutla to Mihuatlán 38 40
Mihuatlán to San Jose del Pacífico 50 36
San Jose del Pacífico to Pochutla 145 100
Pochutla to Puerto Escondido 55 69
Segment Time (min) Distance (km)
Puerto Escondido to San Gabriel Mixtepec 60 42
San Gabriel Mixtepec to Cerro del Vidrio 70 38
Cerro del Vidrio to San Pedro Juchatengo 40 24
San Pedro Juchatengo to Sola de Vega 80 50
Sola de Vega to Oaxaca 120 93