Written By Alex Dickinson, Photos by Daniel Almazán Klinckwort.
Like many of my favorite people and places, I got to know Oaxaca while running.
Early last year, I had just moved to New York City. I was getting into my routine, slowly memorizing my running routes and spending too many miles on the treadmill—not yet outfitted for the harsh weather. I’m a copywriter at my day job, a yoga teacher on the side, and a runner on the side side.
Someone named Mauricio Diaz reached out to me, asking if I could teach yoga sessions on a running retreat in Central Mexico.
Writing? Here we are.
Mauricio, or Mau, got my name from a mutual friend—thanks Max. Mau and I hit it off. We had too many things in common not to. Six months later, I was on the tarmac in Mexico City, worrying that I might miss my connecting flight to Oaxaca.
Running to connect with place seems like a novel and somewhat trendy idea. With the rising popularity of trail running, adventure travel, and randonnée-style cycling—exploration through silent sport is having its moment. Yet like many things we like to claim as our own, running to connect with land and people is as ancient as running. It’s through this lens that Aire Libre looks at their offering. It’s an ancient practice of exploring internal and external landscapes, and should be enjoyed as such.
The group leads running excursions throughout the Americas, point-to-point journeys with support along the way. They’ve led retreats in Chiapas in Mexico, Patagonia in Chile and Argentina, and the Bolivian high country. Importantly, all of these routes have some connection to the indigenous peoples that once populated the land or still live there. Many of these cultures were semi-nomadic and running is a part of their societal DNA.
Aire Libre seeks to remind people living in Central or South America of their ancient culture—of natural medicines, mindfulness practices including running, and traditional foods. And they want to share these cultures with outsiders, to give them a more accurate and rightfully complex picture of people and places.
I knew this when I joined them. I just didn’t realize how much running through a place for a week could change you long term. There’s something about the pace of running, especially in the mountains, that makes it a perfect tool for simultaneous discovery and self-discovery.
I’m not the first to have this idea. Emerson and Thoreau wrote about it at length—they referenced a brisk walk, though. It’s slow enough, yet dynamic enough, to keep your brain working through tough problems. Active and meditative—and now, we’re seeing it proven to have a particular, neurological effect by Western Science.
Oaxaca by Foot
Oaxaca is mountainous. Far away from the beaches that make up the American imagination of Mexico, we ran in the high country, often above 12,000 feet of elevation. To me, it looked like the Northern Sierra Nevada, until I passed a massive, trailside agave plant. It was one of the most stunning places I’ve ever been.
We made our way from indigenous village to indigenous village—which Mau referred to as the Commonwealth Towns—they’re completely independent of the Mexican government. These are essentially hippy mountain towns where people focus on living simply and close to the land. Outdoor pursuits like hiking, mountain biking, and trail running are simply a part of life, a way to commute.
We met characters along the way. The Mezcal maker and his sons who run the branding and distribution. We met amazing cooks in each town, who brought us rounds of tortillas long after we’d cleared our plates. Carlos, the young rancher who ran to check in on his cattle, then carried his daughters up a 1,000 foot climb to school each morning before meeting us to charge over miles of hills.
Starting a run one morning, we passed Carlos’ grandparents and stopped to hear stories of runners from their Zapotec tribe who made their way to distant cities by foot. All of them were proud, kind, generous, smiling people.
Our most proper running happened on our second day in the mountains, our third full day on the trip.
Setting out, we knew the trail was relatively flat, which would allow us to get some turnover going. I’d been nursing a swollen knee from an embarrassing, speed-bump related fall on my first day in Oaxaca city during a solo 17-miler. Without painful downhills on this particular route, I figured I could hang with the lead group for most of day two.
It was an ancient, sacred footpath used by the Zapotec for long-distance travel and transport. It traced the river through the valley. And it had become known as the Trail of Tears, since the Spanish had eventually forced the indigenous people to carry materials across it. We’d hear the stories of the costs imperialism from Mau along the way.
I couldn’t help but feel like an intruder. I’m descended from the same cultures of conquest. It was a strange feeling. Serious questions came up for me as we ran. I know that wrongs can’t be made right, but how can I listen better, see things from outside my own narrow worldview, and seek to serve the incredible people who so graciously welcomed me into their homes?
Aire Libre is highly intentional about how they deal with this idea. They work closely with the communities, aiming to create a new kind of tourism that, instead of being invasive, is inclusive and respectful. They consider it important to connect people in an open and respectful way.
They told me after the trip that it goes both ways. The people in the communities are not only happy to have visitors, but learn a lot from the stories Aire Libre shares as well. They told me that if done properly, and for the right reasons, there’s a way to tackle the traditional idea of “tourism” and replace it with something more meaningful. I’m still blown away by their intentionality.
In the Sierra Norte, flat is a relative term. We got into the rhythm of punching it up the hills and coasting the downhills at the same clip. Myself, Mau, Carlos, and a British runner named Shane went off the front. Mau whooping like a wild man, he got us all into the spirit of a pack running through the woods like animals. We stopped a few times so he could tell us a story about a cultural artifact—an ancient bridge or a hideout for the Zapotecs as they fought the Spanish.
I ate shit on a downhill, doing a half-splits and smashing the already swollen knee. That would put a damper on the remaining running days, but I let adrenaline carry me through the rest of that one, getting in sync with everyone’s strides as we made our way out of the canyon on perfect trails, each of us breathing hard. We were thoroughly worked by the time we made it back to flat roads.
As we rounded the bend and saw town, fireworks went off. Some thought Mau had arranged a grand entrance, but it was the holiday of the town’s patron Saint. We stretched on the lawn of a cathedral, then drank cold beer and watched a parade and ceremonial dance. We had lunch in the sun, catching up with the rest of the group about the day, and told stories with Mau translating to Carlos. Mau said something about a course record on our route today. We had been moving.
We climbed to the top of the cathedral and sat on the roof, looking out over the Sierra Norte, drawing the path of our trail back into the mountains. We could see another village on a hilltop. I asked Mau if we’d run there. Not on this trip, he responded. Next time.