The Camino Copalita

In January 22-27 of 2017 I participated in a trek down the valley of the Copalita River in the Sierra Madre del Sur in Oaxaca, Mexico. This is a reasonably faithful account of the trip. If you are interested in joining the Camino Copalita, just visit their website at

Map of the Camino Copalita Trail The trail is marked with blue for actual hiking trails, brown for dirt roads we walked, black for roads on which we were driven and purple for the part of the river we were supposed to float. North is to the left on this map.

The Copalita trail is a guided walk down a river valley in Oaxaca, Mexico. Small native villages in the valley have set up rustic camps to act as stops on the trek. Each camp provides a sleeping area, in tents or in hammocks, as well as meals made from locally produced crops and livestock. The village hosts are mostly descended from the Zapotec culture and they speak a dialect of Zapotec in their homes and Spanish in the broader world. The trek itself involves walking about 37 miles total while the bulk of the luggage is carried from camp to camp by truck and/or burro. Sleeping facilities are pretty basic, guests are expected to provide their own sleeping bags, warm clothes and other personal items for camping in remote locations. The trek starts at a camp at 10,700 feet above sea level and continues down to the ocean. The start of the hike features forests of long needle pines and descends into the tropical jungles of the coast.

My interest in the trek started when I was looking for hikes that I could sign up for as a single person. Through a strange set of circumstances, I had ended up going to Oaxaca by myself in January of 2017 and I was looking for some way to get out into the countryside and walk about. Although my Spanish is pretty bad, this hike really appealed to me. I was 63 years old and a pretty constant hiker all my life, but I hadn't done anything really major in a long time. I found their website while browsing around for simple day hikes around the city of Oaxaca de Juarez and decided to sign up. Later I was told that they normally want a minimum of six people before they schedule the hike but I was fortunate they were willing to go with the four people they had.

Day 1 - We met on a Sunday at the small Cafe Ciudadania in the city of Oaxaca de Juarez. The coordination of the event was all done through a smart phone app called whatsapp. I wasn't told that was a requirement so I was out of the loop until the last as to where and when we would all meet. A gentleman named Marco was the main organizer of this particular trip but he was not going to accompany the group this time. He gave a long talk to the group in Spanish which I was unable to follow. This was the first time I realized how limited my interaction with the group might be because of my very limited Spanish. I met the main guide for the trek, Alex Winer who, fortunately for me, was fluent in English. My fellow hikers were Maru (an accountant with no previous hiking or camping experience), Gerardo and David (two friends who own and manage 9 restaurants in Mexico City). They, although Mexicans from the interior, also were fluent in English so my chances were looking up. A second guide/docent was Angelo Martinez, an older native of the Copalita valley who had walked the trails all his life spoke only Spanish. His son (also named Angelo, so we called him Angelito) was also Spanish only. Angelo Sr was making his last trip on the Copalita trail and his son was looking to take over for him. los Angelos were a wealth of knowledge about local customs, plants, crops and village history. I probably missed more by not being able to understand Angelo than any other aspect of the trip.

(Translated information: About 80% of the land in the state of Oaxaca is owned and maintained by the native villages, that's more than any other Mexican state. The villagers manage the land to try and produce a sustainable yield which is then doled out to the community. Various committees are formed to manage the sale and marketing of the various products. These committees specialize in a particular product like honey or raw sugar and they bring together an entire region of villages. All the Ozolotepec villages, for example, would use a single honey committee. Each villager owes a certain amount of time, a "tekio", to the community to pay back the community services like food, schooling for the children, etc. I guess everybody pays taxes one way or another. Anyway, Marco and the people who set up the Camino Copalita have negotiated with the villages along the route asking them to build camps and arranging the best times to bring through groups like ours. That's how the Camino works. The "hosts" in the various camps are performing part of their tekio to the village. Our fee to the Camino Copalita groups pays for the use of these camps.)

We all piled onto a small bus around 10 in the morning and drove south into the Sierra Madre del Sur. We stopped around lunchtime for a bathroom break and lunch in a typically smoky Mexican kitchen/dining hut. I had noticed this before, that the native kitchens feature open wood burning stoves, generally just a few bricks piled in columns and a steel plate laid over the top. And no chimney. The smoke billows out of the front of the stove and then finds its way to holes in the gable peaks. My understanding is that this causes a lot of the native women to suffer from various lung conditions caused by smoke inhalation. It also makes for a pretty smoky environment for eating.

Road to San Juan OzolotepecWe drove on some pretty hairy mountain roads to the village of San Juan Ozolotepec where we saw the last store we would see for several days. The town square featured a basketball court like so many of the small villages we would see. One missed pass out of bounds and the ball would be 3000 feet below in no time at all. I bet that makes for some careful dribblers. We got back in our bus and went up through the community forest to our first camp located at 10,700 feet. We got there about 4:30. Immediately to the east was a ridge at over 12,000 feet and to the west, the Cerro Nube Flan, the highest point in the state of Oaxaca.

The camp was a simple clearing in a forest of mostly long needle pine trees very much like the Ponderosa pines I'm used to back home in Washington State. Under the trees, the bed of dry needles must have been a foot deep. A very nice floor for the tents. The villagers were constructing a common building with large opening doors and many windows. It wasn't complete but it was good enough to give us a dining area. The kitchen was outdoors on the ground and I was amazed through the whole trip with the ease at which they produced incredible food from these simple kitchens. Always there was fresh fruit juices, hot sweet coffee and teas from local plants. Corn is a major stable in the form of tortillas and masa and even as a hot beverage called atole. Lots of eggs, cheese and fresh vegetables and always wonderful freshly made salsas. I managed to lose weight on this trip but I have no idea how. Maybe I was just too tired to over eat.

We watched the sun set and the clouds roll in from the ocean a thousand feet below us. When the stars came out, the temperature dropped pretty fast as you might imagine at that altitude. But the sky was about the clearest viewing I have ever seen. I don't know why there isn't an observatory up there. I've never seen anything quite like it. Of course, being from Washington state, I don't generally get to sit out under a January sky and watch the constellations. It's just too darn cold where I come from. And when I do, Orion isn't north of me so everything I knew was upside down and sideways. We went around the campfire and told our stories, who we were and what we were hoping for on the trip down the valley. My fellow hikers were an interesting mixture, but I will respect their privacy and let them tell their own stories if they wish.

Sleeping was very difficult for me that night. I kept feeling like I was suffocating. I think it was the altitude. I don't think I've ever tried to spend a night anywhere near that high. During the day, I didn't have that feeling but oxygen is a rare thing up in the high Sierra.

Day 2 - Morning came in pretty chilly. I'm told that it never snows up here but it sure felt like it could. Once the sun hit, things warmed up pretty fast. We had a marvelous breakfast. Our hosts gave us tamales to pack with us for lunch and they boiled water for us to use to fill our water bottles. Then we packed up our luggage and made a pile that would be trucked to the next camp by an entirely different road than the one we were going to hike. We shouldered our day packs and set off down the trail.

The start of the trailOf course, when I say down the trail I'm being ironic. For some reason, descending from over 10,000 feet to the ocean involves going up about as much as it does going down. We walked on faint trails that only our local guide could have located and about an equal distance on dirt logging roads. Our path for the day involved traveling around the end of a high valley, then up onto a ridge and finally dropping down the ridge to our next camp. It took about 5 and a half hours to walk about 9 miles. According to David's GPS watch, we did this while climbing 1400 feet and dropping about 2500. The second camp was located at 9640 feet and was sponsored by the village of San Francisco Ozolotepec which was a mile or so farther down the ridge.

This camp was much like the last in similar forest but for some reason, the locals had swept away all the pine needles from the ground under the tents. I could have used some of those, I don't think they anticipated a 250# gringo when they ordered those sleeping mats. The tents were also beach tents made to keep out mosquitoes but they sure let the wind blow through. We were greeted with big glasses of fresh fruit juice, avocadoes, salsa and tea and warm broth. Later in the evening after dark we got a second dinner of quesadillas. That was the pattern most nights. A meal greeted us when we got off the trail and then something just before bed time.

They showed us around their herb patch just above our tent sites. They grow oregano and thyme as a cash crop during the rainy season. At this time of year, they were just little shrubs clinging to the rocky soil. The main occupation on these high mountain slopes is a sustainable silva-culture. We saw lots of evidence of logging activity but no clear cuts. I understand they are having trouble with a pine bark beetle killing lots of older trees but the forests we walked through today were very healthy.

I should mention the toilets in case anyone is interested. At each camp there were pit toilets all made from the same pattern. Built over concrete foundations. They had no running water but they were odorless and clean and amply stocked with toilet paper. For some reason Oaxacanos do not believe in toilet seats, but that slight defect aside, they were much better than anything I had the right to expect.

For some reason, the hike this day had totally kicked my butt. I'm claiming it was the altitude because 9 miles shouldn't have been that hard. Angelo kept complaining we were going too slow. We should be able to do 4 km an hour was his estimate (2.5 miles). And I was obviously the slowest one on the trip, especially when going uphill. But I can do much better, when there's some oxygen in the air.

The kitchen crew we had this night was the happiest group on the trek. They were laughing like crazy all night long. If my Zapotec was better, I could tell you what they were talking about. Good humor was what we needed because about the time it got dark a rather huge wind storm came up blowing our campfire furiously in all directions. It was pretty useless to sit around so we hit our tents right after dinner about 8. All night long we could hear the gusts roaring their way up the mountain and finally when they hit our campsite, the tents would flap thunderously. Because they were beach tents, the wind also whistled through them pretty effectively too. I was very glad our tents were pitched far from the trees so I didn't have to worry about branches crashing down on my tent. Meanwhile, los Angelos had decided tents were for sissies and they had bedded down in the pine needles under the trees. They claimed they were toasty and warm all night because of the needles.

The bottom of the valleyDay 3 - The next morning there was frost on the tents. The wind had finally died down in the wee hours of the morning and we all had a pretty good night's sleep. We had another great breakfast and we all warmed up fast when the sun came up. I got a big quiz from Sophie, a local villager that asked me all sorts of questions about my life. It was a real test of my Spanish to try and understand and answer his questions. I really wished I had studied more before I came. The hosts seem to be very willing to talk but my language abilities are not to the level of conversation.

Today was advertised as being the most difficult and longest hiking day of the trip with a drop of over 7000 feet to the valley floor and an estimated 10 hours. Since we only have 11 hours of daylight, I figured that, if I made it down the mountain at all, it was going to be in the dark. Alex was having stomach troubles so he was going to accompany Maru in the luggage truck, through the village and down to the bottom of the valley where the luggage was going to have to transfer to the burros. Long story short, I chickened out on the long hike and took the truck down the mountain.

Gerardo, David and los Angelos took off down the trail about 8 am while we hung around the camp until 10. Then we packed up the pickup and took off down the mountain. I'm told the road is only 2 years old. Before that, SFO was supplied only on foot. The road barely clung to the side of the mountain. Maru's hands were sweating and she spent the whole trip trying to help the driver learn English to try and take her mind off the drop outside the truck windows. Personally, I wasn't worried for some reason. I was just glad to be riding instead of walking.

We stopped at the village of San Francisco Ozolotepec for about a half hour while Alex got his medication and then headed down to the bottom of the valley. After crossing the river, the road headed out of the valley pretty quickly, so we unloaded the luggage and waited by the road until the burro driver showed up with two animals. He took one look at our pile of luggage and went back to get another burro. Once he had all the luggage packed on the backs of the burros, we started down the trail following the stream at the bottom of the valley. We passed through cultivated fields of banana and sugar cane and corn. We crossed the creek 8 times but the water level was so low, we never got our boots wet. Just hopped from rock to rock. I'm told that, even for the dry season, this year has been particularly dry.

The pool at the 3rd campWe got to the next camp about 3:30. The major hikers came in about an hour later. In all they had walked about 11 miles but that included a drop of over 7000 feet straight down thru some of the cultivated fields around SFO. Maru, Alex and I had only walked about 4 miles with barely a drop at all. The camp was located at about 2900 feet and was sponsored by the village of San Jose Ozolotepec which I am told can still only be reached on foot. There was a beautiful pool of water in the creek right next to the camp so we all took a big swim. Gerardo and David proved to be real honorable gentlemen by not rubbing our noses in the fact that they had done the real hike while Maru and I had wimped out.

The meals we got here reflected the more tropical nature of our new setting with fruits and such but black beans and corn were still the staples. The tamales were no longer wrapped in corn husks; banana leaves had taken their place. Also, the mosquitoes began to make their presence known. I tend to like to hike in shorts and a t-shirt but that wasn't working well for me here. By the end of the trip my lower legs and arms looked like I had the measles. I kept sweating off my bug repellant. I think I gave a unit of blood on this trip.

I was offered the chance to sleep in a hammock with a built in mosquito net here for the first time. I gave it a try but they just weren't built for a gringo my size. As it was, they gave me a cot to use that my arms and legs hung off. Even so, it was the best night's sleep I had on the trip.

Day 4 - I woke up after a solid 8 hours and it was still back as pitch, so I went out to the rocks on the stream and watched the stars dance on the top of the hills and the dawn pop up. Not much twilight in the tropics. It's pretty much like someone flips on a light switch each morning and off again at night. It was a cool morning and they still made a camp fire, but not really cold like the previous camps. We had another wonderful breakfast, featuring eggs and nopales, and then we headed down the trail with our luggage, this time, on small horses.

The trail we followed this day was so old even Angelo couldn't say who built it. The roads in the valley are only 10 years old so it is likely we were walking trails that have been used for thousands of years. We followed our stream downhill for a short distance where it poured into a much larger flow coming from the valley under the Cerro Nube Flan. We crossed this larger stream on a brand new concrete bridge someone had just completed. Alex pointed out the three log bridge that they used to use on previous hikes. Didn't look fun at all.

Crossing The RiverWe followed our new river down the valley through some developed fields, by a few farm houses, past goat herds and through a few fruit tree plantations. Most of the time, the path stayed close to the river, but, sometimes, we had to head up and over stone outcrops taking us high above the river. We eventually came to a place where we were forced to ford the river. This involved a change of shoes (I had brought some fairly substantial sandals for this purpose) but posed no great hardship. I'm told that, when these trips occur during the rainy season, these crossing can be quite a challenge. We hiked a short ways on the right bank of the river and then forded back. I mention this mostly because at this second ford, we sat for a while and talked and I managed to completely forget my sandals and left them lying on a rock by the river. Maru, apparently, did the same thing. If anyone finds a pair of size 12 sandals in Mexico, they're mine.

We walked for about an hour and then a halt was called for on a big rock overlooking a large pool in the river. We had lunch there and then a swim. It was at this point that I discovered my missing sandals but was too lazy to miss the swim and run back to get them. The swim was great, very refreshing if only a little hard on bare feet.

All through this hike, Angelo was pointing out various plants and trees, talking to the locals because he seemed to know everyone in the valley and leading the way. I was able to pick up a small amount of this treasure of information but only bits and pieces.

After our lunch break Angelo pointed to the top of a steep ridge rising to our left and told us that was where we were going next. We all thought he was joking. That was before we climbed 1000 feet up this ridge on a path that the rains had carved into huge trenches on the side of the mountain. At the top of the ridge we were just below the town of San Filipe Lachilo. We had walked about 5 and a half hours and 7 miles with a gradual fall of about 1000 feet and then a rather abrupt climb of 1000 feet.

The pools at YuviagaFortunately, at the top of this hill, we were met with a large pickup truck into which we all piled along with our luggage and we were driven down the mountain to our next camp. I was very happy to see the truck. No one had bothered to tell me I wasn't going to have to hike down the other side of that blasted ridge and it was a very warm day.

The ride down the road revealed the new power poles that were being put up. Electrification was on its way to San Filipe.

The truck took us down into the bottom of the valley and then back up the left flank a bit to a large spring called Yuviaga. The Yuviaga spring gushes at an incredible rate from under a limestone hill complete with Neolithic caves containing cave paintings. Large pools have been created below the spring for swimming. Very much what the doctor ordered at the end of a very warm day.

The Yuvaga spring is located at an elevation of 1440 feet. Then its a climb up above the spring to the kitchen where we had the best feasts of the trip. Many things here I've never even heard of before. Tepeche is a fermented cane juice, eggs roasted in san hojas (saint leaves), chili stick? I'm pretty sure chili stick is a neurotoxin of some sort. It makes your tongue and lips buzz. But it sure adds to the meal. Potatoes mashed with chilies and garlic, guanabana juice, piping hot atole and lots of hot tea and coffee.

It's warm down here in the jungle and we sat out and watched the stars for a bit but, somehow, this going to bed by 8 is getting to be a habit with me. I think I might have held out to about 9 before I hit the tent and was out like a light.

Day 5 - Our final day hiking began with a great breakfast and then on again up the road through an old coffee plantation. We hiked through wonderful jungles up about 900 feet to a tiny hamlet called Mirador (viewpoint). Then down the other side about 1200 feet to our first real town of San Miguel del Puerto. We actually found stores here that sold refrigerated drinks. That was a nice touch, it was getting far too warm for this gringo. We had lunch at the local basketball court and then headed out of town to the west along an increasingly abandoned looking road dropping down another 400 feet to the river. The river at this point was quite wide and in the rainy season might involve a crossing of several hundred yards. However, during this very dry year, it meant wading about 30 yards through a gentle current about a foot deep.

The palapa at MandimboWe walked along the river a bit and then straight up the bank for about a 500 foot elevation gain, then a drop of 200 feet to the tiny village of Mandimbo at about 1100 feet elevation. During our walk out of the river valley, our guide showed us the fresh water crabs that lived in a small creek flowing down the hillside. Shrimp, it appears, also live in the fresh water around here. I had never heard of such things. The village itself sported a very grand palapa that provided both a nice kitchen and sleeping area. We all took showers around the back under a hose and all was right with the world.

I figured this was a good 11 mile day with a bunch of ups and downs, but nothing too bad. The heat had me pretty worn out so I didn't even stay up late enough for our "late night" meal. No campfire tonight or even in the morning. Things were plenty warm.

Day 6 - Our final day started with another great meal provided by our hosts. Angelo talked for some time about how the various commodity committees worked in the villages around the area. Once again, I was not able to grasp the nuances of the discussion. We walked our luggage down the hill to a road I hadn't realized was just below our camp. The village maintains an ethno-botanical garden and we were given a tour. The woman who was serving as the docent told us about the many medicinal plants and I got to see a lot of the shrubs we had been eating in the form of teas and leaves and even the chili stick shrub. They had a large collection of bromeliads. Even a local variety that had recently been identified and named Bromeliadi mandibosi after the village.

Once our tour was done, we piled all of our gear and such into a strange bus-like contraption owned and operated by a Huatulco river rafting company and off we went to the river. Normally, the put in point is at a bridge just a few miles from the village at an elevation of about 650 feet. But the water has been so low this year that they decided to drive us all over the place so we could put in at Las Blas, the final village on the trip that is usually the lunch stop on the rafting trip. One of the guides tells me that, in August, the river here is a class 3. Right now, it is a class 1 where there's enough water for the boat to float. By bypassing the upper section of the river we missed about 1/2 of the float trip that is normally part of the trek. The final distance run was about 10 miles.

We were fitted with helmets all the same which we were told to wear over the top of our sun hats giving us all a genuine geek look if there ever was one. After another great meal provided by our hosts at Las Blas, we headed down the river. There was some raft carrying and a lot of bottom scraping on the rocks but the guides knew their stuff and got us down the river. Unfortunately, with so little water in the river, when we weren't in a rapids bumping along the rocks, we were in big currentless pools that required us to row and row. And here I thought it was going to be a restful day.

The rafts at the mouth of the CopalitaIn the end, our boat, featuring Maru, Angelo, our guide Chiro and myself hit the beach waaaay ahead of the other boat due to our superior water skills and physical conditioning. We took pictures at the beach signaling the end of the trek only to find there was more to do. In order to reach the place where the magic bus would pick us up, we had to scramble over three fairly large granite headlands above the surf.

Safely back in the arms of civilization we had some celebratory cervesas and a few cocos and we boarded the bus which kindly dropped us off at our hotels in and around Huatulco.

Final Thoughts - Why in the heck did I just do that? You might ask. This wasn't a major backpacking hike like doing the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachians, but it was a good walk for me. I was interested in seeing the transition from the high Sierra to the tropical jungles. I wanted to see the ancient trails and the native villages minus the big tourist element. I should have studied my Spanish more before I came on the Camino because I missed a lot of potential interaction with my guides and hosts. I was fortunate that my fellow hikers were willing to include me in English conversations and to translate some of what was going on around me. I was very eager to do the rafting bit on the last day and a bit disappointed by the lack of river flow. However, what we did and what we saw was exceptional. The food was exceptional, the guides knew their business and I never felt like I was doing anything I wasn't going to be able to accomplish. I think I stretched myself a bit and saw a world I would never have normally been privy to. I thank Alex and los Angelos (my guides on the expedition) and the people that organized the whole experience. I'd recommend a trip down the Copalita to anyone interested in a good walk in the back country of Mexico. I'll never forget this.

Paul Kahle
Seattle, Washington USA
February 2017

Update: Tropical Storm Beatriz smashed into the Copalita Valley in June 2017 and devastated the communities that support the trail. As of late summer 2017, the trail is still closed. It would be very sad if this opportunity was lost for good. Please support these villages if you can.

The crew at the Beach