March 1, 2015 § Leave a comment
After a month of anticipation, I finally made it out to Hierve el Agua- the last item on the Oaxaca agenda before leaving this region. Though it wasn’t exactly how I had envisioned it, it certainly did not disappoint!
After waiting for an hour for a nonexistent bus that would take us to Mitla, we jumped into a collectivo instead that took us to the first town. From there, we were herded into what seemed like a converted cattle wagon that took us the remaining twenty kilometers to Hierve el Agua.
After veering off the highway and passing through San Lorenzo, we decided to play it cool and walk the rest of the way, so we hung ourselves off the back of the wagon and jumped off mid-acction… only to find it stop a few feet later at its final destination. But, that’s alright; we still made a daring escape off a moving vehicle. And then, the remaining trail on foot, befriending a couple of donkeys on the way:
These natural rock formations resemble petrified waterfalls, but the actual amount of water currently there is more of a trickle.
But it did provide us with one pool to jump in (cold sulfur water!) and admire the view from:
From the first pool (the cascada chica), we trekked a little ways to the next, most iconic rock formation. The first one was more wide than tall:
, while the second one was taller (but decisively drier):
The different colors of water flowing out of the ground and mixing together was really interesting to observe though:
Little hidden springs coming out of the middle of the rock and flowing together to make slightly-larger ribbons of water:
We hiked back to our cabins through the valley below the ‘waterfalls’, with much sunshine and really tall spiky palm tree/cactus plants:
After a dinner of tamales and tlayudas, it was time for a sunset stroll to the town (er, church and two shacks):
My favourite part of the whole experience was after the sun set. We were one of only two couples staying at the premise, and the gates to the grounds were locked, and it was kinda of surreal to hike back down to the rock formations under the moon and sit there, amid stars and UFO’s, just gazing off a steep cliff, onto the mountains and desert in front of you. Cool, and windy, and quiet.
The next day: walking seven kilometers under the sun, back to the highway. From there, we caught a ride back to Mitla, whose weekly market was a disappointment. So, back into another collectivo that took us to Oaxaca for lunch and one last night amid museums and coffee shops… (who thought that that night would ever get here?!)
March 1, 2015 § Leave a comment
To escape Oaxacan city life (and hopefully the heat of the city), I organized myself a Couchsurfing stay in Teotitlán del Valle for the weekend. I’m not sure that I got away from the heat, and the CS experience was debatable, but it did let me tread around new dirt paths, so I’m content.
I caught a bus from Oaxaca to Teotitlán del Valle, being dropped off in front of the main church just as a miraculous cloud passed overhead and shed half a dozen (sadly, literally) thick drops of warm water that evaporated before they even reached the ground.
Still, I pretended that it was a downpour and sought shelter inside the church, whose creepy stillness was mildly helped out with piles of Easter flowers everywhere and a hand-painted dome:
From there, I went off in search of my Couchsurfer, whose address was rather difficult to find in a town with no street names or house numbers. The destination was only stumbled upon because I saw a couple of kids my age (the only ones that weren’t little kids or old people) yelling through a gate to a mysterious señora. It was the only sign of life in the entire village. So, I decided that I had nothing better to go off and, as soon as they left, walked up to the same metal gate and yelled to the señora. I mentioned the name of the CS, she said yes, and I was admitted entrance to the farm that would be my home for the next two nights.
Basically, it was a big courtyard with a lot of corn and sheep:
And a couple of tractors and pumpkin peels scattered about. The family that lived there was, like every inhabitant of Teotitlán del Valle, in the rug weaving business. So, I learned about cochineal, a bug that lives on certain cacti that, when ground up, produces a powder that you can mix with various ingredients to get different colors that is then used to dye the wool, which will eventually be used to weave the rugs.
(I ended up dying my hair with it instead, and rocked a pink-and-purple hairstyle for a few days before it washed out.)
Other than learning about wool and attempting to fix tractor shafts with rubber tires so that the corn kettles wouldn’t backfire and amputate our heads as we ground it up to make corn flour, my days were spent soaking my feet in a little stream (hallelujah, cold water) and walking up and down the road that leads above town:
There wasn’t much there, other than cactus:
And, amazingly, like an oasis in the middle of the desert, a pond:
Which looks cool and inviting, and I got so excited to jump into it, but it was more warm and muddy than anything else. So, disappointment, and back to dangling my legs in the stream by a couple of larger pebbles.
The last day, before heading back to Oaxaca, I did climb up to the top of the mountain, which was a zig-zag path up, up, up. Minimal shade, but worth the view at the top, in the company of a steady breeze and a family of large birds that swooped down mere feet away from you.
And so, dustier than when left, I hopped on another bus that would take me back to the coffee shops and art museums of Oaxaca- whose presence was even more appreciated after the weekend outing. Home, sweet, home.
February 17, 2015 § Leave a comment
I have been in Oaxaca for two weeks now, and circumstances will keep me here another week-ish. Thank goodness that this town is charming, full of great people, and flooding with art and culture. I suppose that it always happens when you establish a routine and form friendships to share adventures with, but I feel like I am at home here, and it’s a great feeling. Furthermore, it’s the city of chocolate and coffee- how can you go wrong with a home like that?
I arrived here at 4:30 in the morning, on a night bus from Mexico City. I wasn’t sure what to expect, or where to go in the city, so I hung out around the zócalo for a couple of hours before moving myself and my red backpack a few blocks up north, to the Santo Domingo church, where I awaited the sunrise.
When the first coffee shop opened up at 8 AM, I warmed up with a big cup of moka and researched accommodation for the the next few days. I have been switching back and forth between a cozy hostel with bare bunk beds and incredible people and a family of cats and hammocks around a fountain:
, and a two-room space tucked behind a couple of courtyards that are part of a private art studio/school complex in my favorite corner of town:
Today was the first day that I simply walked around and poked my head into art museums and bookstores. So far, my days have been full, and my nights even fuller, but… with things that are more characteristic of being at home than of traveling. I spend most of my weekdays at Spanish Magic, a fun and intimate Spanish school inside someone’s house. And then, daily zumba classes and dance classes at Labastide Park. Some nights it’s salsa, some nights it’s bachata… but plenty of people always stop to watch and take videos of us practicing in the middle of the green plaza. It’s kind of entertaining.
Other than conjugating verbs and learning dance steps and jumping up and down, my days are filled with plenty of delicious food- such as chapulines (grasshoppers, served everywhere) and mole, a typical nut/chili/spice/chocolate-based sauce that goes great with anything you can imagine putting on a plate:
, and more colorful streets:
, and colorful downhills:
, and colorful dead-ends:
, and some more colorful streets:
, which are all filled with brightly-colored buildings:
Breakfasts and rendezvous’es always occur in front of the Santo Domingo church:
, which houses an extensive museum and had a convent that sometimes puts together public events (such as the opera recital yesterday morning):
One of the things that I appreciate the most about the city is all of the access to art and books, especially for children. My favorite place in Oaxaca is the Biblioteca Infantil, the children’s library.
It’s a quirky architectural space, as they did not want to cut down any trees in the building of the library, and thus is kind of weaves around the land. And it has so many beautiful books, and an outside space with colorful flowers, and a fountain that performs magic when the sun shines down at a certain angle.
But there is no shortage of literary and art spaces to chose from; it seems that every single doorway here leads to some sort of cultural cafe’ (with live music) or exhibition. There are beautiful textile museums:
, and design exhibitions (there is also the Graphic Arts Museum, which hosts two large rooms packed with art books from all over the world and study spaces, so you can just grab anything and sit there all day, learning):
, and nooks featuring the captivating alebrije art style traditional to this region:
And while there is no shortage of proper art on display in great (and almost always free) spaces, it’s everywhere. Some of the best graffiti that I have seen is here:
Some of it is political, some of it is existential, and some of it just is.
But most of it features some sort of skeleton, because- hey, it is Mexico.
In the evening, when there’s no latin dance club open, it’s time for some live music and a little glass (or two or three) of mezcal, an agave-based bebita espirituosa, in one of the many mezcalerias that dot the city and fill you with courage to tackle anything in the course of the night:
And architecture to admire all around:
And then, always sunny plazas to lounge in, while wolfing down mamelitas and people-watching:
And warmly-lit streets to stroll down at night, when the temperatures drop from stifling to semi-freezing.
My heart is craving some big bodies of water, and I wish that there would be some more green spaces in the city itself, but… I suppose that I am too busy learning and moving around to lounge in them anyways. There’s so many places in Mexico that people label as ‘dangerous’, but they never mention Oaxaca as one of them. Why not? It lures you in, and latches on tight, and refuses to let you go.
February 16, 2015 § Leave a comment
I’m still dwelling in Oaxaca and loving it. But, there’s only so much city (no matter how magical it is) that I can do before my feet start craving grass and my lungs need some fresh air. So, this Valentine’s Day was spent hopping out to San Agustín, a little town about 18 kilometers northwest of Oaxaca.
I went with a friend and we decided to spice things up a bit and hitchhike out there. Which I highly enjoy incorporating in my travels, but haven’t had the opportunity to do so yet in Mexico. So, I was very curious to see how it would work.
After walking out of the outskirts of Oaxaca, we flagged our first car down at a gas station. Older man driving back to el D.F. It wasn’t a long ride; about five kilometers north, but at least it got us out of town and onto the right road. Next car was a Couchsurfer that dropped us off where the road forked off to San Agustín. We walked a bit, and then hopped in the back of a truck that took us to the town. An elderly lady offered to take us to our final destination:
Centro de las Artes de San Agustín (CaSa), an arts center in a restored 20th-century textile mill, now used to host all sorts of artistic exhibitions, seminars, and events.
The space was great; full of hidden nooks and flavour of what it once used to be.
I particularly enjoyed all of the different levels of water pools, so still on their surface, yet gently flooding over to the lower steps.
And the isolation of the place- quiet and hidden from the rest of the world.
Her work is lovely, as it incorporates mostly traditional Mexican attire, but with a modern flair. The exhibition area itself and organization of space was just as interesting to me though, and I applaud the set-up. Definitely not what you would expect to see in a crumbling textile mill in the middle of nowhere of the Mexican hills.
After filling up on some artsy culture, it was time for a hike. We were interested in trailing the river upstream, to see old aqueducts and dilapidated water mills, but we didn’t find that particular trail. Instead, we ended up climbing uphill, into the mountains, with the river far below us. It was a nice walk, but very sunny and a lot drier than I had mentally prepared myself for.
Upon making our way back into town, we looked for the ‘downtown’. It turns out that there really isn’t much in San Agustín, other than CaSa; the zócalo was unimpressive, and the main church received a brownie point only because it had a festive Valentine’s Day ribbon draped over the doors.
Other than that, nothing. (Not even food stands!) Just clusters of signs on the lamp posts:
, and random statues on rooftops:
So, we deemed it time to head back. We walked down the hill from the town, and were picked up by our first vehicle for the return trip: an old, blue tractor which we climbed to the top of and rumbled down the dirt path on. Definitely the most unusual ride I had gotten so far; it even beats the mushroom van that I was crammed into in the middle of Croatia. Then, a quick ride with a local, down to the highway. From there, one long ride with a really nice man that dropped us off at the Mercado de Abastos of Oaxaca; a ten-minute walk from the hostel.
This trip made me realize why I enjoy traveling so much, and fall in love with it all over again. The contact with real people that you would never meet otherwise, and the leap of faith that you need to take, trusting that all is good in the world.
While I had initially planned for one long hike in nature for the day, the thumbs-up adventure and cultural sprinkle were welcomed treats. And we still got our dose of green and fresh air, so I’m more than satisfied with the excursion.
February 12, 2015 § Leave a comment
I’ve been based in Oaxaca for over a week now, and loving it. But, there is so much to tie together and document that I haven’t been able to coherently put it together and feature it in a clear manner. So, for now, this travel update will be about a day’s outing to Monte Albán.
Monte Albán is a thirty-minute drive from Oaxaca, on a bus much too big for the tight curves that hug the mountain upon which the ruins are perched. It’s amazing, how much the landscape changed in the ten kilometers: from flat streets in the valley city at the base of several different mountain ranges to nature on top of these peaks.
I wouldn’t have bothered to go visit this place (once you see so many ruins, they just kind of become ruins) if it hadn’t been for a dare- to climb the tallest pyramid and clap my hands. And I am very glad that I went. It was the perfect escape from the hustle-and-bustle of Oaxaca. I thought that it would be packed, but it was practically empty. More shrubberies than people.
The architectural grounds themselves were a pleasant surprise. So far, all I had seen were isolated pyramids and old building, so it was impressive to see an entire city laid out before me in all of its former glory.
I understand why it has been named a UNESCO site. Not only is it one of the earliest Mesoamerican cities, but it is the second-largest (surpassed only by Teotihuacan), and was the center for Zapotec and Mixtec culture for a very long time.
There are many elaborate, yet still undeciphered, hieroglyphs, as well as strange rock carvings called danzantes. The site itself is pretty extensive, including a vast plaza, various pyramids, a ball game court, underground passageways (that I didn’t manage to sneak into), and well over a hundred tombs. And a lot of steps.
There are a lot of questions to the function of the settlement and the decision of its locations, as it seems less-than-convenient. I mean, it’s on top of a tall plateau (have fun dragging all of the heavy stones up), there was no source of water, it wasn’t used as a habitation or military site. Just a ceremonial ground.
Which is broken, in my humble opinion. Because I climbed the highest pyramid and clapped my hands, and nothing happened. I climbed all of the other pyramids as well and clapped, and nothing happened. So, I started clapping in random places, and still, nada.
I did hear one group of visitors clap in a group, and the echo was pretty funky- something between monkeys and a bird. Upon getting back home, I read up on the acoustic mysteries of Monte Albán. Apparently, a whisper from one corner of the sunken ball court can be heard on the other end, and a clap from a particular spot travels through the entire grounds.
I guess that I need another field trip to the ruins to properly test all of these ancient sound engineerings.
But, honestly, what I liked the most about the place was the very opposite of the acoustics: it was its silence. Noise is constant in towns and cities here; to have found myself lying on a bench, under the trees, and not hearing anything other than a gentle wind for a couple of hours, was my favourite reason to stay there the entire afternoon.
February 7, 2015 § Leave a comment
It seems that I cannot go for more than a few days without some sort of road trip this year, so that’s exactly what happened after my few days in Tepoztlán.
The prelude to the weekend away was half a day in Cuernavaca, which is more than enough time to spend in that particular city, in my humble opinion. Although, I did enjoy the evening, as I spent most of it hiding in the Jardín Borda.
They had an exhibit featuring Zárraga, which wasn’t really up my alley, but the museum space was great.
There, I met a young man who was fretting about his current situation in life, so we had a hearty heart-to-heart conversation for a couple of hours, and then he invited me to his piano recital at the garden theater. It’s been too long since I had attended a piano concert, so it was thoroughly enjoyed. After that, it was time to seek refuge with a salad and a cup of espresso, and call it a night.
The next morning, off to check out Malinalco, a town fabled to be the next Tepoztlán. The drive there was great, with lots of mountains and cliffs and tall trees and winding roads to enjoy in the sunlight.
I can see why people compare Malinalco to Tepoztlán; both are in a valley with ruins up above, and both have a generous handful of hippie and boutique nooks to satisfy the international traveler. Overall, I do prefer the smaller size of Malinalco and its proximity to more nature and seclusion, but I like the hike to the ruins more in Tepoztlán. And Tepoztlán does have some sort of mystic feel that did not penetrate quite as deep in Malinalco. But, still special in its own way. After all, it is the rumoured home to the goddess Malinalxochitl, so you can’t be completely magic-less.
The main attraction here are the ruins build upon Cerro de los Idolos (Hill of the Idols)- most importantly, Cuauhcalli (House of Eagles):
But there are also a few charming churches in town:
I particularly enjoyed the colorful buildings:
I also did appreciate a lot of the interior designs here- a lot of clear and furnished looks out of recycled materials, and a lot of rustic feels. Like at the hotel, which had no shortage of warm sienna hues and textured wood:
After a night of strobe lights and a lazy morning of markets and church courtyards, it was time to jump back into the car and head back to Mexico City, as my next adventure would be taking the bus from there to Oaxaca the following day. I highly enjoy all of these little jaunts into the city; easing my way into it.
This time, it was spent mostly walking around random streets in the dark:
, but also venturing into national museums and zoo’s. To be honest, the main mission of Mexico City this time was visiting its most famous bookstore branch: El Péndulo.
And not just one of them- four of its stores. Which was a great tour of the city, as it required us to walk through four different neighborhoods: Condesa, Polanco, Zona Rosa, and Roma. All of the bookstores were quirky and special in their own way, with an impressive selection of books and a yummy food menu for the café portion of the Cafebreria. If all of the books wouldn’t be sealed in Mexico, I would call this place perfect and would have probably not have made it out of there in time to catch my night bus (or any bus, ever). I loved the walking tour accompanying all of them, but my favourite one was the first one, in Polanco.
Maybe it had something to do with the accompanying breakfast on painted tables though?
February 4, 2015 § 1 Comment
To keep things balanced, it was time to follow up another packed weekend adventure with a week of being stationary- or, at least, of having the same base after sunset. In other words, a few nights in the small and cozy town of Tepoztlán, rumored birthplace of Quetzalcoatl (the feathered serpent god; kind of a big deal in ancient Mexico).
Very much a pueblo mágico, full of sunshine and all sorts of good vibes.
Actually, the first morning was probably the most terrifying awakening of my life because what sounded like a gunshot and bomb and some sort of horrible, deadly explosion shook the (already-broken) windows of my room at 6 o’clock in the morning and I had no idea what was going on, but remembered the demonstration at the zócalo the night before. I thought there was some sort of military siege and I was going to die. But, after a couple of hours of pacing the room, fully dressed and packed in case of required evacuation, the sun came out and people started selling bread in the streets, and I decided that it was safe to laugh at myself.
I learned that it was a firework. And I would get very used to them, as they exploded at 6 AM, on the dot, every single morning. And a few dozen other times throughout the day. Why? No reason.
On my first day, I hiked up to El Tepozteco, a pyramid build on top of a very long series of steep steps and dedicated to Tepotztecatl, god of pulque.
I wasn’t too impressed by the ruin itself, but did love the hike (and the view wasn’t too shabby).
Other than that, it was just a bunch of cortado‘s and jugo‘s in the courtyard of the convent:
When I got bored of wandering through the same streets, I jumped into a combi and headed to Amatlán, a collection of houses about fifteen minutes east of Tepoztlan. It was kind of abandoned, but not creepy at all.
The main plaza featured a happy man singing from the rooftop, and the church was definitely the happiest church that I have seen in Mexico so far.
I asked around for hiking opportunities and was pointed in a couple of potential directions. I settled for the closest one, and walked out of town following a small cobblestone road that turned into a dirt path that turned into flattened grass trails that turned into a dried creek bed that kind of withered away into nothing. So, by the end, I was just walking through bushes and scaling cliffs in the middle of the mountains, but the trail was great while it lasted. Definitely my cup of shady, rugged tea.
With only one encounter with some sort of big animal noises. And a few butterflies of all sorts of patterns.
Eventually, I somehow made it back to town and had one last stroll around the three streets.
Then, back home, for more pastries and grammar practice and fireworks. I did not manage to find the dance lessons that they advertised on random poles, but the week’s repose was otherwise satisfying. It was my first days of autonomy in Mexico, and, while completely different and a bit more intimidating, it was a good break for pacing around in circles and contemplating life.