Crossing Sierra Madre del Sur
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  Posted December 28th, 2011 by Zdenko  in Travel | 10 comments

Driving from Oaxaca to Huatulco (Hwy 175)

By: Zdenko Kahlina

If you’re not travelling, you’re not living!
It was time to hit the road again. We were ready to move on, after two very busy days in Oaxaca (see my previous blog). After some thought about which road to use, we finally decided to use highway 175 from Oaxaca City and drive across the mountains to our destination Huatulco. This road is also called the “vomit” road. Soon we’ll discover why… lol!

TOPE – was the word for the day

From Oaxaca to Huatulco (or Puerto Escondido), you can choose between two main routes, 175 and 130. Highway 175 is normally in better shape but longer and 130 is not as good of a road, but it is more direct. In October, both roads will have gone through a full wet season and there will more than likely be bad sections.

Driving in Mexico has its own share of oddities from ambiguous turn signals other drivers use, farm animals on the road, road blocks for whatever political reason happening at the time, possibly getting a “ticket” that you pay directly to the police officer (it happened to us in Mexico City), and although rare, being robbed. Insurance laws in Mexico are also very different. There are lots of guides and articles on the net that can give you some experiences others have had. However, having the freedom of your own car to drive at whatever pace you wish and being able to stop and go as you wish and to see whatever you want may outweigh any potential negative aspects of driving in Mexico.

Probable the most scenic road in the world

Just another “Reductor” that’s hard to see.

Before this trip I contacted some local people and we have been advised to following four simple rules:

  1. 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, there’s much more of a risk when driving at night of encountering inebriated drivers, pedestrians or animals.
  2. Start out with a full tank of gas. While there are gas stations en route, and signs advertising mechanics and gasoline along the roadways, by not having to make a stop to fill up, you have an opportunity to make other stops along the way, more productive than stopping to simply top up. The trip to the coast takes well less than a tank of gas.
  3. While stating the obvious, make sure you’ve had the mechanical fitness, and oil and water levels of the car checked before leaving. Brakes, tires and steering are the most important for negotiating the portions of highway with mountain switchbacks.
  4. 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.

ROUTE – Highway 175
I knew that this was one of the most scenic highways in the world. The plan was to leave our hotel early in the morning and drive up slowly, so that we have full day to make this trip. Numerous people told us the road was the worse road they had driven on. I laughed. I’m originally from Europe (Croatia) where we have real mountain roads so I wasn’t really bothered about some flatlander’s anguish of “bad roads”. But the road was everything advertised and more. It is an unforgiving, unrelenting, twisting, turning, up and down, bender of a road and if you get car sick this is the road that could make you yearn for death.

The good news is the Mexican government is building a new super highway to replace highway 175 and it should be finished this year. The bad news is the highway is not finished yet and by far, the worst sections of the road were around construction zones. Occasionally you can run into frustrations and difficulties. We were directed to use gravel sections on several occasions, to bypass workers working on new highway.

So on this fine morning, we skipped our usual coffee and pastries with fresh fruit for breakfast, because all the food places were still closed so early in the morning. We packed our bags and left Oaxaca City, determined to have a breakfast somewhere on the road.

Driving out of the city was straight-forward and didn’t involve any trickery as it did in Puebla two days before. We quickly hit highway 175 heading south and since it was so early in the morning, traffic was “normal”. First thing to note about driving in Mexico is to watch out for a sign that reads ‘Tope’ and slow down when you see one. I mean, really slow down. Tope means randomly placed big bump on the road. This seems like an ingenious system that the Mexican highway authority had devised to discipline the Mexican macho drivers. The Topes were initially annoying but we quickly got used to them. If you swing the steering wheel quickly to the left and then right (you may change the order) as the front wheels go over the hump, then you don’t have to slow down as much and the car will not sustain any damages. Perhaps next time I should rent an SUV instead…

The road was in good condition

Oaxaca to Ocotlan: Takes about 45 minutes, initially with urban sprawl out of the city, and then gently rolling hills with a few strong curves, vegetation predominantly agave and corn under cultivation. Passes 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…his home and foundation, mural at the municipal offices, and museum featuring his and earlier works.

Ocotlan to Ejutla: Takes about 35 minutes, with long easy straight-aways and occasional curves and gentle hills. Once again agave and some corn, with a number of outcrops of carriso (river reed used for making ceilings, roofs and fences). Known for its Thursday market, with sale of animal skins. You can easily avoid going into Ejutla by taking the well-marked bypass. But we wanted to buy some food, so we drove straight into the town. There was a small stand in front of one house that we couldn’t miss. They were selling fresh pastry… but no coffee. The pastry was fresh and smelled so nice…

So far it is a nice quiet drive with some detours on gravel road, because of construction zones around new highway. Otherwise, fair road conditions. No traffic. Perfect weather. Vera kept taking pictures while I kept my focus on the road -The Topes! They are really slowing us down.

In Sierra Madre mountains

Scenic drive across the mountains

Ejutla to Mihuatlan: Takes about 1 hour, with more pronounced curves and hills, and easy-to-navigate peaks and valleys through similar vegetation and some mixed brush. 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 town. Just keep going straight and the highway takes you out of the city.

Mihuatlan to San Jose del Pacífico: Takes also about 1 hour. Leaving Mihuatlan you’ll see the 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, growing from rock outcrops, some reaching an immense size, with stock (chiote) shooting up from its core dwarfing many of the surrounding trees. This segment of the trip, and the next with 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 has internet café…

Several restaurants and good choice for food

The road got narrower and more winding as we climbed higher until we reached San Jose del Pacifico. San Jose del Pacífico 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.

View from 9000 feet is incredible

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 are more modern and advertise satellite TV and other facilities. There are a few restaurants, grocery stores, bakery, etc. It’s a relaxing way to spend a few hours, perhaps hiking up the dirt roads where most residents tend to live. We stopped here to have a lunch. The place was busy but we had a good food and good service. If you ever take this route, making a stop at this place is highly recommended. It’s probably one of the sleepiest towns you’ll ever see in Mexico.

San Jose del Pacífico to Pochutla: You’ll continue to climb for about another 10 minutes until you reach El Manzanal, then begin the descent. This portion of the trip takes about 3  hours and 25 minutes. The ride down is initially quite gradual, and then more pronounced once you reach San Miguel Suchixtepec, a picturesque village with large impressive church, and homes strung out along a few hilly mountain roads.

San Miguel Suchixtepec a picturesque village

You’ll begin to detect another significant temperature change, depending on the facing of the portion of mountain you are descending relative to the sun. At different portions of the stretch you’ll pass by a couple of waterfalls and three or four smaller rivulets spilling across the highway, goats and donkeys, home construction 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.

San Miguel Suchixtepec has large impressive church

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 three 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 curves much easier to navigate. Tropical grasses predominate the roadside landscapes. An indication that you’re getting closer to the ocean will be blown sand encroaching part of the roadway, and finally a sign stating “Iguana Hunting Prohibited.”

Donkey that loves flowers

Twisty road all the way to Pochutla

All in all it was a beautiful drive. Although we were both a bit disappointed not to see all the street side food stalls and fruit and vegetable vendors we were hoping to see. And going downhill and all those tight curves made Vera a bit dizzy. The weather was getting much warmer as well.

You can buy these souvenirs at the road side food stalls

Pochutla to Puerto Escondido: Takes about an hour. The road goes straight thru the Pochutla town. On the other side of the town you’ll get to intersection and see the sign pointing left to Huatulco and right for the Puerto Escondido. Highway 175 continues straight all the way to Puerto Angel. At this intersection, you’ll also see the army check point. We made a left turn on highway 200 towards Huatulco, following along the Pacific. However, we didn’t see the ocean for about 40 minutes. For the last half hour or so we did see mango, papaya and coconut under cultivation. We’d pass by the exit to San Maria Huatulco on our left, shortly after there was a turnoff for Huatulco international airport. About 20 minutes later we made right turn onto a wide boulevard heading towards La Crucecita and Santa Cruz… our destination and vacation base for next 10 days. Finally the ocean was in front of us and we can start looking for a place to stay. By now it was already 5 PM.

I highly recommend driving this route. Consider taking an extra day so you can stop at some of the sites and villages, perhaps 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 Mexico, and add immeasurably to the totality of 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 45 33
Ocotlán to Ejutla 35 25
Ejutla to Mihuatlán 60 40
Mihuatlán to San Jose del Pacífico 60 36
San Jose del Pacífico to Pochutla 200 100
Pochutla to Puerto Escondido 60 69




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10 comments to “Crossing Sierra Madre del Sur”

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  7. Comment by Luis:

    It’s been a long time since I’ve seen my church… I was born in San Miguel Suchixtepec, and now I live in Atlanta (GA). Thanks for you blog…
    My name is Luis and have a wonderful day!

  8. Comment by Zdenko Kahlina:

    You welcome Luis. That’s been a trip to remember. You were born in a beautiful place in Sierra Madre mountains!!

  9. Comment by Kaitlin Bahlmann:

    It’s actually nice post, good blog.. I am actually waiting for your next post. Very good post and informative content material… Thanks for sharing it.

  10. Comment by Anastacia Rowman:

    It’s hard to find people with experiance like yours on this topic… I was thinking of doing the same route with a rental. Now I know what to expect. Thanks for sharing…

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