Long ago, Oaxaca’s city fathers provided for a permanent town water supply. They tapped the bountiful natural springs flowing from the mountains rising directly north of the city, topped by the towering Cerro San Felipe (elev. 10,200 feet/3,100 meters).
The aqueduct they built gave rise to the name San Felipe del Agua, the foothill village where the aqueduct begins. Although now replaced by underground steel pipes, the original 18th-century aqueduct still stands, paralleling the downhill road from San Felipe and ending in a quaint string of arches, called Los Arquitos, in the city neighborhood several blocks northwest of Iglesia de Santo Domingo .
The following walking tour consists of two separate parts. First, a one- or two-hour stroll through the relatively close-in Los Arquitos neighborhood, and next, an out-of-downtown two- or three-hour (or more) exploration of the cooler, leafy heights of picturesque San Felipe de Agua village.
Starting from the Santo Domingo churchfront , at the corner of Alcalá and Allende, walk a block west along Allende to Garcia Vigil, turn right and continue uphill three blocks to Calle Cosojopi. If it’s Friday or Saturday between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. you’re in for a special treat. Step into the garden- courtyard (half a block beyond Calle Cosojopi, on the left as you’re heading uphill), of the Cinema Pochote (G. Vigil 817).
Inside, find the Pochote Market, a collection of stalls offering all-organic home-grown selections of fruit, vegetables, drinks, and food. Don’t miss sampling some porchaca (por-CHA-kah), genuine indigenous Oaxacan pizza, washed down with delicious tejate, “the drink of the gods,” made of pressed sweet corn juice and natural floral flavors.
Continue uphill along Vigil; pass Calle Xolotl (show-LOH-tuhl) immediately on the right, where Calle Garcia Vigil changes its name to Calle Rufino Tamayo, which continues, paralleling the arches for three blocks, to thoroughfare Calzada Niños Héroes. The most entertaining thing about the Los Arquitos neighborhood is the way the residents have adapted to the aqueduct, ingeniously tucking their individual home and store doorways beneath the arches.
Don’t miss the little shrine built beneath one arch, at Tamayo 802, and also the tiny café, El Pavito (The Little Peacock), beneath another. Also notice the colorfully picturesque contrast between the arches’ red brick and light green volcanic cantera stone construction. Finally, be sure to explore some of the side lanes, such as the one opposite Tamayo 818 that heads beneath an arch and opens into a tiny plaza presided over by Archangel Gabriel.
During your walk, you might also stop by the diminutive Café Pochotita (Rufino Tamayo 814, no phone, 9 a.m.–8 p.m. Mon.–Sat.) for some savory coffee and maybe a snack (tortas, banana bread, baguettes, light meals $3–6). If you’d like to linger overnight in Los Arquitos, ring the doorbell at Casa Los Arquitos bed-and-breakfast (Rufino Tamayo 818, tel. 951/132-4975, www.casalosarquitos.com ) and take a look inside.
For the second part of the North-End tour, especially for those in the mood for more active adventures, it’s easiest to first hire a taxi ($5) to San Felipe del Agua village, though buses are available for the five-mile tip.
Alternatively, you can drive the five miles uphill to San Felipe del Agua village. The jumping-off point is Avenida Netzahualcoyotl (nay-tzah-oo-wahl-coh-YOH-tuhl), which heads uphill at its intersection with the Highway 190 thoroughfare (Calz. Niños Héroes), at the big green San Felipe sign, one block east of the Pemex station.
Continue about two-thirds of a mile (one km) uphill; at Calle Naranjos, at the hotel sign, bear left around the curve, then take the first right. After one more uphill block, go left; a long block later, you’ll see the aqueduct.
Turn right at the aqueduct, and you’ll be on your way uphill, heading along Calzada San Felipe, which parallels the old stone aqueduct on your left. In a few miles the road becomes San Felipe’s Calle Hidalgo, which leads you to San Felipe Apostol Church behind the pocket-sized village plaza on the right.
If at this point you simply want a leisurely stroll, take a turn around the plaza and church and a couple side streets. For a real treat walk a block or two uphill from the plaza, along the main street to the lovely, relaxing Hacienda Los Laureles (driveway on the right, at Hidalgo 21, tel. 951/520-0890, Mex. toll-free tel. 800/508-7923, www.hotelhaciendaloslaureles.com ) for lunch or early dinner (about $15 per person) and a walk around the luscious grounds.
If, on the other hand, you hanker for more adventure, continue by taxi, bus, or car another half mile to the road’s-end bus turnaround at the foot of Cerro San Felipe. Here the air is fresh and cool, and the view, both uphill and down, is inspiring. Below spreads the city and valley both left and right, while uphill rises the green, pine-tufted massif of Cerro San Felipe.
Continue (on foot if necessary) along the road that runs north below the bus turnaround. After about a quarter mile (0.4 km) arrive at the Parque Comunal de San Felipe trailhead and guard station. See the map at the guard station that traces tracks that lead (with an experienced guide only) steeply uphill through pine-shadowed glens and past a waterfall all the way to the top of the mountain.
It’s a stiff, all-day 4,000-foot (1,200-meter) uphill hike. Your guide knows the way, and you start hiking early enough (preferably before 9 a.m.); if clouds don’t gather, the stupendous mountaintop view will be your reward. Under any conditions, be prepared with a hat, water, lunch, and sturdy shoes.