At 2 o’clock in the morning on December 7, 1993, just a month shy of his 12th birthday, Ivan Vásquez hopped on a recycled bike made from a refurbished frame and scraps and headed off to ride 118 miles along treacherous, high-altitude mountain roads from Oaxaca City to Iglesia de Santa Catarina Juquila.
Wearing jogging pants, soccer shoes, a black “Venice” hoodie his aunt had sent him from LA, and a backpack (contents: water, torta de jamón, tire patch kit, blanket, muscle pain relief cream), Vásquez made the exhausting trip — which takes a full 24 hours — as part of a grueling ritual pilgrimage that ends at the feet of the Vírgen de Juquila. The petite wooden figurine of the Virgin Mary was given to a local Indigenous man in the 16th century by Fray Jordán de Santa Catalina and became an even greater object of devotion after surviving a fire in 1633 that decimated the church but left the statue intact — with a new morena complexion that resembled the native Chatinos and other Indigenous groups.
Vásquez was not alone. Each year in the days leading up to the Virgin of Juquila’s Day, on December 8, the two lanes of the winding, worn Federal Highway 131 that rises and falls with the contours of the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains accommodates thousands of Zapotecos, Mixes, and Maya groups from Guatemala and Chiapas, as well as other Indigenous people from the region. Some on bikes, others on foot, they make the trek for all sorts of reasons — to pray for a loved one or to make a vow of self-change. Vásquez made the journey with the hope of helping his father overcome his alcohol dependency and to somehow come up with the money to make the payments on their family home, which they were in jeopardy of losing.
The trip was undoubtedly hard — at one point Vásquez’s cousin found him stalled on the road, leg muscles burning and cramped — but it was also riddled with pit stops that served a vast array of fortifying Oaxacan delicacies. Vásquez remembers stopping roadside for memelas brushed with salty lard and topped with black bean puree and cheese, smoky pit-roasted barbacoa, hearty soups infused with wild herbs, and of course mezcal. In the end, helped along by the nourishment of good food, his family, and his faith, he successfully completed the journey that year and repeated it twice more before ultimately leaving Oaxaca for the States at the age of 16. Vásquez now owns a mini-chain of acclaimed Oaxacan restaurants in Los Angeles known as Madre. “I didn’t realize it at the moment, but all the pain, fear, sweat, and cramps were preparing me to leave Oaxaca,” he says. “It gave me the courage to come to the U.S. alone.”
Today, in addition to serving as the challenging path for thousands of religious pilgrims each year, the 131 Highway is one of two main roads from Oaxaca City to the Oaxacan coast and its beautiful beach towns of Puerto Escondido and Huatulco. Those who choose to drive the six-plus hours to the beach and back pass through the same small villages and roadside food stands that Vásquez and his fellow journeymen stopped at during their trips. This summer, however, the long-awaited Oaxaca-Barranca Larga-Ventanilla superhighway is slated to open, replacing the bumpy, twisting, nausea-inducing 131 and 175 highways and turning the trip to the coast into a short two-and-a-half-hour drive.
But like a handmade pot of mole, shortcuts in Oaxaca are ill-advised; what one saves in time, one loses in deliciousness. Should you then choose to embark on your own pilgrimage down the 131, an itinerary of mouthwatering dishes awaits — as well as welcoming villages full of talented local cooks ready to cure your road weariness. Here, Vásquez shares his favorite stops and dishes found along the way, wistful memories formed during childhood treks, and his many returns since.
Note: You can complete this itinerary in as few as two days or up to a week, depending on how long you want to stay on the coast or in any of the scenic villages. Also note that while the mileage may look low, the roads are very windy and slow going. Either way, don’t be in a hurry, but be hungry.
PART I: 131 to Puerto Escondido
Stop 1: Villa de Zaachila (about 10 miles from Oaxaca City)
Eat this: Antojitos at Empanadas y Memelas Irlanda
After you leave Oaxaca International Airport, your first taste of Oaxaca is just 20 minutes down the highway at the Mercado Gastronómico, in the small town of Villa de Zaachila — specifically, the antojitos at Empanadas y Memelas Irlanda. Here, empanadas de verde are filled with a pungent green mole that’s tart, sweet, and minty from a mixture of green tomatoes, chayotes, and epazote. Irlanda’s giant memelas — big enough to share — come coated with porky asientos (unrefined lard), diced white onions, and salty cheese, but add an upgrade in the form of a huevo de comal: a fried egg cooked hard over a wood fire on a clay comal.
Stop 2: Villa de Zaachila, colonia soledad (1 mile)
Eat this: Pollos Asados a la Cubana Lencho Verano
Just a little farther down the highway at Ñatipaa, a rare taste of the Cuenca del Papaloapan region can be found at Pollos Asados a la Cubana Lencho Verano. Here, wood-fired roasted chicken and whole suckling pig make for an exciting break from the mostly Valles Centrales cuisine you’ll be eating the rest of the way. The crispy birds and pigs are marinated in Cuban mojo de ajo, a recipe adopted by Oaxacans in Papaloapan from Cuban immigrants, and paired with thick, refried black beans, rice, corn tortillas, and salsa.
Stop 3: Villa Sola de Vega (48 miles)
Drink this: Café de olla at Comedor Juquilita
“Arriving in Sola de Vega in the morning was a great feeling of accomplishment of completing the first leg of the ride,” remembers Vásquez of his first trek. “Then I had a café de olla, frijoles de la olla, surrounded by the beauty of the Sierra Madre Sur.” After your first ascent up the lush, green mountains, it’s time for a café de olla at Comedor Juquilita, a humble blue-painted restaurant obscured by a large tree with leaves that stretch over the restaurant’s quartet of parking spaces. There are also fortifying bowls of pollo enchilado — browned chicken legs and stock in a salsa of pure chile guajillo, garnished with epazote — and caldo de pollo (chicken soup) bulked up with Mexican rice, with a side of black beans with tortillas blanditas.
STOP 4: San Pedro Juchatengo (31 miles)
Drink this: Mezcal de marihuana at the roadside market
There will be sharp, sinuous curves on the next climb, memorable for the spectacular views of the canyon on your left lined with pine-oak forest and agave espadin, which brings you to the town of San Pedro Juchatengo for a shot of mezcal de marihuana. Even at 11, Vásquez was encouraged to drink a little mezcal to help lift his spirits up the mountain. “It’s funny how things have changed,” he says. “Back then [when I was making these pilgrimages], there was no tepextate, cuishe, espadin, or anything like that — just cheap mezcal, no labels.” Today, just off the road, is a small market in full swing with comedores (food stalls) — Comedor Lupita and Comedor Sagitario are both great for comforting bowls of costillas en salsa roja (pork ribs in a salsa of dried red chiles) and tasajo asado (beef jerky cooked over fire). But first, sample a flight of mezcals at the small stand on the market’s right. Among the many unlabeled bottles are mezcal infusions like gusano (grubs), fruit punch, and showstopping glass carboys loaded with pounds of mountain marihuana floating in espadin mezcal. It tastes like puffs of mild, skunky, pine-scented smoke, but don’t expect much in the way of mind-altering effects. Still, it’s not a bad bet to grab some chips and Maruchan to go, just in case.
STOP 5: Santa Catarina Cerro del Vidrio (15 miles)
Eat this: Sopa caldosa and café de olla at Comedor Emi
Comedor Emy and Comedor Beather are just past the intersection of the roads to Juquila and Puerto Escondido. “Here is where we’d always stop for one last café de olla before arriving in Juquila, and this is also the first time you feel the cooler climate of La Costa,” says Vásquez. A jolt of cinnamon-spiked café de olla is best enjoyed with sopa caldosa, the next-level fideo soup from the Valles Centrales made with an anise- and eucalyptus-scented chicken stock with hierba santa leaves and served with cilantro and a dash of hospitality to sustain the descent into Puerto Escondido.
STOP 6: Puerto Escondido (53 miles)
Eat this: Check out the city’s essential destinations here
Once you settle into your lodging for the night, it’s time to explore the trendy scene on the beaches of Puerto Escondido — to sip tropical cocktails, enjoy the local seafood at popular restaurants, and dance to electronic music with your feet in the sand.
PART II: 175 to Oaxaca
STOP 1: Santa Maria Huatulco (about 70 miles from Puerto Escondido)
Eat this: Piña rellena at Ay Caray and pancita de res and agua fresca de guanabana at the unnamed morning stand
Cruise south from Puerto Escondido toward the 175 on your way to Santa Maria Huatulco. Development of Huatulco began in the ’80s to bring tourism to its nine attractive bays, 36 beaches, and lush forest reserve, and today the area is a hit with families and ecotourists from Oaxaca City and CDMX. The biggest attraction is its beachside palapas serving barbecued fish, ceviches, and the pride of the marisquerías: piña rellena, or seafood-stuffed pineapples au gratin.
At the southwest corner of Av. Benito Juarez and Juan Escutia is a busy, unnamed morning stand encircled by a parade of colorful aguas frescas and a pair of anafres asadores (stainless steel charcoal grills), where women cook memelas and goat barbacoa tacos. There is also a large bubbling pot of inky pancita de res (menudo) stained a dark red by chile cascabel, charred chile de árbol, and chile morita. Finish with a refreshing cup of agua fresca de guanabana, a sweet, pulpy drink with notes of sugary apple, pineapple, and berries. Save room for a second breakfast in the mountains.
STOP 2: Candelaria Loxicha (29 miles)
Eat this: Oaxacan breakfast at Comedor “el rincon del sabor”
Just an hour or so drive up the mountain overlooking a cliff is a quiet wood-framed hut lined with aluminum siding that offers perhaps the best breakfast on planet earth: a plate of warm, herbed beans, barbecued tasajo (regional beef jerky), salsa de molcajete, and a huevo de comal cooked on a hot, greaseless clay disc until it’s splayed, crispy flesh easily lifting away. “Memories of special places like this are why I’ll still be using the old highway,” says Vásquez, echoing the sentiments of many who worry what might be lost with the new road. Peer through the open window at hazy mountains and the forest obscured by morning fog as winding plumes of steam waft from your plate. Indigenous communities throughout Oaxaca cook a similar breakfast of black beans with epazote, hierba de conejo (a fragrant wild herb), and other local aromatics, with dry cooked eggs that soak up the bean liquid and a side of tasajo. There are tortillas, of course — shaped from masa made with landrace corn — and stone-ground salsas of foraged fresh chiles and dried ones from the local market. If there’s one meal that’s worth the extra miles, it’s this one.
STOP 3: San José del Pacífico (34 miles)
Eat this: Los hongos sagrados in San José del Pacífico if you so wish; mole coloradito at Comedor Familiar
Legend has it that the Beatles’ George Harrison and John Lennon came to this sacred land of magic mushrooms in 1969 to expand their minds in ritual ceremony under the guidance of the high priestess of psilocybin mushrooms, Maria Sabina. The city has since become a favorite of spiritual seekers, but its status as a drug tourism hot spot has its drawbacks — namely, the overharvesting of the mushrooms and a lack of infrastructure for dealing with inexperienced trippers. Still, there are plenty of nonhallucinogenic things worth eating here. “My uncle would say, ‘Let’s dine in the clouds,’” says Vásquez, “because of the altitude and cold weather in San José del Pacifico, but also because the people eating those mushrooms really were in the clouds.”
If you’re considering a longer stop along the highway, this cool, wooded town is the ideal spot for nature hikes up the mirador, the healing energy of a temazcal, and a range of ecotourism activities. Hotel Boutique y Cabañas Alto de la Sierra is a very comfortable, upscale lodge, or there’s Cabañas Pacifíco, one of the many established rustic cabin resorts where you can rest, connect with a shaman, and procure los hongos sagrados (sacred mushrooms). Fuel up for your trip with a well-spiced mole coloradito and salsa de chicharron with stewed pork rinds in a red-orange salsa at Comedor Familiar, a cozy restaurant at the entrance to the adjacent town of San Mateo Rio Hondo. Whether for a few hours or overnight, you’re now in the Mihuatlán District, home to many of Oaxaca’s most revered maestro mezcaleros and wild agaves, and it’s time for a mezcal.
STOP 4: San Guillermo, Municipality of Mihuatlán de Porfirio Dīaz (35 MILES before Oaxaca City)
Drink this: Mezcal at Palenque de Francisco Garcia Léon (Cuishe)
“The terroir in Mihuatlán has been an essential stop for me in learning about mezcal and represents the historical taste of Oaxaca,” says Vásquez. “It’s the town of great mezcaleros: Francisco García, Hermoneges Vásquez, Sosimo Jarquín, and many others.”
As you leave the mountains in your rearview mirror, the drier scenery calls for a taste of the hottest brand of mezcal in the town of San Guillermo: Cuishe. It’s produced by maestro mezcalero Francisco García Léon, who crafts herbaceous, mineral mezcales with different agaves at his countryside palenque: cuishe, tepextate espadin, verde, and mexicano (the last is his favorite agave). Cuishe has become a hit in the U.S. and now has a fancy tasting room in Oaxaca City, but García has also remodeled his own roadside distillery along the highway in San Guillermo. While the Cuishe property is now more inviting for new customers, the rugged copper stills — and García himself — keep this heritage brand true to tradition. “Francisco is still shy to take pictures, but I imagine now he’ll have to get used to it,” says Vásquez.
Buy a few bottles to take back to your hotel in Oaxaca City — it’s the ideal cap off to all the flavors, sights, and sounds experienced along the twisting, winding highways of old Oaxaca.
Bill Esparza is a James Beard Award-winning writer and author of LA Mexicano, covering Latino food and culture. Juan de Dios Garza Vela is a photographer specializing in food and travel. When he isn’t doing photo work he also does illustration work and murals. Based at the moment in Guadalajara, he can’t imagine life without tacos.