Running Off the Grid in Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte Mountains
“It’s like… everything has a meaning” James said, looking at us from across his plate of quesadillas and hot cup of atole. We burst out laughing at the naivety of what he just said. At the time, James was referring to a burrito translating into English as “little donkey”, but after returning back to Toronto from a week in Oaxaca City and the Sierra Norte mountains, I’ve realized that what he said that evening was far more impactful than I could have imagined.
I can probably speak for everyone who went when I say that the fourth iteration of Off The Grid in Oaxaca, Mexico pushed us all out of our comfort zone. Some of us had never been outside of Canada or the continental U.S., most of us didn’t own the proper shoes or equipment needed for long trail runs until the day before we left, and barely anyone spoke Spanish. But, more often than not, being pushed outside one’s comfort zone is an incredibly humbling experience and really encourages one to grow.
Arriving in Oaxaca
We arrived in Oaxaca and immediately felt the warm embrace of the sun — something we had been without for several months now. Within those first few hours in the city, we were met at our hotel by Daniel and Ana, two amazing photographers and members of the Aire Libre running collective. That first night, we gorged ourselves on some of the finest Oaxacan cuisine (agave worms, ants, and grasshoppers included) and romanced mezcal. Daniel & Ana spent the next few days showing us around, patiently translating menus, organizing excursions, and being incredibly gracious hosts. We would’ve been lost without them and how immediately they welcomed us into their family.
The fun and relaxation of the city was much needed for many of us, but the running we were doing was already proving to be a challenge. The altitude, pollution, and the occasional low-hanging razor wire caught many of us off guard and made us wonder how we would fare when the altitude was doubled and the terrain more unpredictable in the Sierra Norte. We just had to trust that like so many aspects of the trip thus far, everything would just keep getting better.
After a long third day of running, eating, shopping, and more eating, our group loaded up a couple vans with our bags and set off on a 3-hour drive up the mountains. By this time, we had met up with the rest of the Aire Libre crew, but it wouldn’t be until later that evening that we were properly introduced. The sun was setting as we made our way on the highway and out of city. As we drove higher and higher up the mountain, constellations slowly began illuminating the sky. The further we went up, the brighter the stars got and the cell service became non-existent. We arrived in the small village of Llano Grande where we shared a light meal and each of us shared why we were there. Looking back at this moment, I have no doubt that every person in that room got more than they could have ever expected out of this trip. The rest of the night and much of the next morning was spent shivering as we prepared for our first trail run in the mountains. The altitude left many of us short of breath while we walked up the small hill for breakfast.
The First Mountain Run
That morning we set off, bundled up in long sleeves, tights, vests, and headbands, but by 8 kilometres and the end of the first leg of our day’s run, many of us were down to short sleeves and looking to change into shorts. Temperature change notwithstanding, we had made it! We jogged into Cuajimoloyas and survived the first part of journey. Adrenaline surged through our body as we prepared ourselves for the rest of our adventure. For the next fourteen or so kilometres that day, our guide Carlos led us up to forested lookout points and down dusty pine needle-laden trails, culminating in an insane ascent up to his home village of Latuvi.
The day prior, when one of the co-founders of Aire Libre, Mau, told me that Carlos was a beast, I was not expecting those words to be so true. Carlos ran every single kilometre in long, heavy basketball shorts and an old pair of Nike high-tops that had been worn slick. Running with him and seeing him almost float across trails and climb hills without breaking a sweat really put things in perspective. Most of us were totally geared out and had spent so much of the beginning of the trip touting the benefits of a merino blend running shirt, or comparing the new trail shoes we had just recently bought. When we arrived at Latuvi though, the topic of conversation had shifted. We were no longer comparing gear, but sharing stories over cold Coronas about how epic the trails were and how much our quads would hurt the next day. That evening we ate, laughed, drank, and practiced yoga as the sun went down over the mountains and some local children looked on and laughed at us.
Cleansing Our Auras
We woke up the next morning and were guided through a mindfulness session. We reflected on what we’ve experienced, and prepared ourselves for what was to come. We developed personal mantras that would prove invaluable for those moments on the trail when our muscles cramped and ached but had to keep pushing ourselves.
Soon after, we ran fourteen kilometres to Lachatao, passing revolutionary trenches, century-old Spanish bridges, Zapotec trail markings, and ran through the forest of ghost trees (trees with wispy strands of white moss that hung down from their branches). There was such a unique tension that was experienced while running this leg — the desire to push forward and fly across the technical terrain, and the desire to just stop and take in all the scenery. Eventually, the trail ended and we came upon a dusty road where Ana and our support van were. When we found out that it was only 3km to Lachatao and the end of our run that day, we dropped our hydration packs into the van, lightened our load, and took off like a pack of wolves through the rolling hills towards the village square. The exhilaration of pushing pace with one another was only a fraction of the excitement that would occur that day.
After lunch we met up with the village’s shaman who, wearing blue jeans, a white traditional Oaxacan shirt, and a red bandana, looked like he could very well have been a Tommy Chong impersonator. Our group gathered in a circle around him as he prepared to perform a limpia — a traditional aura cleansing ceremony. He assembled wild basil, eggs, mezcal, and burned copal, which he would use to invoke the gods and cleanse us of our negative energies.
First, he covered us in the smoke of the burning copal, then he individually brushed us with us with our bouquets of basil. He then proceeded to rub the shelled egg over our limbs, and when he brought out the mezcal and spat it all over the first person in the group, we tried incredibly hard not to laugh. As the process went on, the laughter stopped. Time passed and the sun was beginning to go down. You could tell everyone was starting to get antsy. An hour passed and he wasn’t halfway through the group. Many of us began to wonder whether this was worth the wait. As my turn approached, I stood in front of him and tried my best to disconnect. The shaman chanted and invoked the gods and did what he had done to everyone else, coating me in a perfumed blend of copal, basil, egg, and mezcal. After he finished with me and move on to the next person in the circle, I opened my eyes. I can’t exactly describe the feeling, but I felt an inner-calmness. My body, which felt fragmented by a multitude of experiences, emotions, and the pain from running, now felt whole.
The next part of the limpia would prove to be even more transformational. In small groups we entered a temazcal — a small igloo-like clay structure meant to symbolize the mother’s womb. We were handed another bouquet of herbs, as well as maracas and flutes. We sat cross-legged around the temazcal, forming a circle around a pit in the centre. Rocks, which had just been in a fire outside were shovelled into the pit and the shaman entered and closed the door behind him, engulfing us in darkness, heat, and steam. Over the course of the next hour, the temperature would rise significantly and we would sweat like never before. The shaman led us through various chants, songs, and primal sounds, immersing us in an experience of rebirth. We slept like babies that night.
Keep Moving Forward
We packed up the van early the next morning and drove back to Latuvi to eat breakfast and start the final leg of our journey. Setting out that morning, many of us knew we’d be relying on our mantras to get us through the day. “All we’ve gotta do is just keep moving forward,” I said to myself. No stopping, just keep moving forward… KMF. My quads burned and trembled over the next ten kilometres. Six kilometres in, I knew I had to really push if I wanted to make it to the next village. I queued up some music on my iPhone and set it in the front pocket of my hydration pack. There was no need for talking anymore as Mau and I charged up the next hill, the tempo set by Kanye’s Highlights. We ran stride for stride for several kilometres, emerging from the trail and descending down into the village of La Neveria.
As a group we spent the next several hours eating our final lunch together and preparing for the last 8km of the trip. After lunch, we hiked to explore a local waterfall and prepped ourselves for the final run. Carlos explained the route to us, and despite many of us catching the words “muy grande” and “intenso”, when it was translated into English, it was described as a “super chill run, mostly flat, with a little bit of a hill at the end.”
By this point, we had caught on — the word “flat” to Mexicans meant “rolling hills with a 500m+ elevation gain”. Despite the absurdity of the incline of the next part of run, we kept moving forward. As I ran down the single-track trail enclosed by 8ft agave plants, I soon forgot how steep the terrain was, or about the abundance of lactic acid in my legs and just gave in to my surroundings. When the trail ended, and I hiked up the last 400m of steep hill, everything started to come together. With every one of those steps I began reflecting on the experience I had over the past week. Every time I pushed myself, every time I stepped outside of my comfort zone, every smile and laugh shared with a group of people I now considered family… everything was starting to make sense. Everything has a meaning. After that climb up the hill, each one of us stood at the foot of a 100m long suspension bridge and ran towards these new family members. The bridge would sway and shake with every step, but the perseverance to keep moving forward remained steady.
Over the course of the week we spent in Oaxaca, our minds, bodies, and expectations were pushed to the limits. We were humbled by the culture, the beauty, the history, and the landscape among many other things; and, as is the essence of any Off The Grid adventure, we found new ways of connecting with others and ourselves. What we may have lacked in expectations was more than made up for in memories.