Battle of the Beaches: Oaxaca v. Chiapas

March 12, 2015 § 2 Comments

Continuing our travels south, we waited on the side of the ‘highway’ (where the mountain road from San Mateo joins back up to the main carretera) with a cardboard sign that said A LA PLAYA!  It didn’t take long before a truck with a metal frame on the back (our favourite and most common pick-up) stopped and loaded us into the back.  Our ride was a group of Christian guys who were going to Huatulco to play at some Christin beach festival.  The air was fresh, the views were amazing, and we were giddy to get to lower elevations and seashores- perfection, almost.  Except for the boy that kept throwing up over the side of the truck, and no matter how loud I turned up my Marc Anthony playlist, I couldn’t cover up the retching sounds.

So, when they dropped us up in the middle of nowhere in the mountains, we didn’t complain.  The second truck that passed picked us up and took us all the way to Pochutla, from where we took a colectivo to Puerto Angel.  We filled up on tacos on the street:


, and then hopped in the back of a French couple’s van that took us the remainder of the way to Zipolite.  After so many months, finalmente!  The ocean!  Waves and sand and salty breezes and a full moon to usher us in.  We set up our tent in the dark, next to a psychedelic reggae party.  My first view of the beach when I woke up the next morning and peaked outside was that of a naked hippie taking down his tent- we picked a good spot, it seems.

Nope, not bad at all:


But, not perfect, we felt.  So, we rolled everything up again, put the backpacks on, and walked a few kilometers to the next seaside town- San Agustinillo.  And, as we collapsed, sweaty and exhausted, into a café for breakfast and found an available room upstairs (the only one in San Agustinillo, it seemed), we didn’t hesitate.  A delicious and cozy café downstairs and not-too-shabby of a view from the balcony?


Sold!  And I really loved this beach.


Unfortunately, the red flag was up, so there wasn’t too much swimming that happened, but it was still fun to wade in the waves and jump around:


And walk the cove and admire all of the palapas:


And go for morning jogs:


My favourite part of the stay was hiking out to punta cometa for sunset; a small rocky peninsula that juts out from the shoreline in Mazunte (the adjacent town, about a kilometer west of San Agustinillo):


It almoooooost felt like I was back in Scotland, with waves pounding onto cliffs:

Except that the temperature was about 30 degrees C warmer and that there were cacti:


And there were a lot more people to keep us company in the sun-going-down ceremony than on secluded rock-tips on the Isle of Skye:


But, a little bit of similarity, no?

And it was all very beautiful, but also very hot.  It had already been rather steamy in Oaxaca the past couple of weeks, but add the seaside humidity, and it was less-than-enjoyable.  So, after less than 48 hours, we rolled everything up again and returned to the side of the road.  The first van that passed us by was headed to  Matías Romero, a city about five hours east of Mazunte.  So, we told the kind sir to take us as far away as possible from the heat.

He dropped us off on the side of the highway, right outside of La Ventosa.


The name does not lie.  It was the windiest place that I have ever been in; I couldn’t stand up by myself and our heavy backpacking bags were rolling around and into the ditches on the side of the road.  We somehow inched along the highway until a run-down truck took pity on us and gave us a lift (windiest ride of my life, help!) to the next small town.  There was nothing there, other than more wind, an empty bar with bachata music, and a bus stop.


By this point, it was getting dark, so we took the last bus to Tapanatepec, which was not any more inviting.  So, another bus on to Arriaga.  Not much better.  One more bus, to Tonalá.  Not any better, but is was midnight and we were kind of discouraged by our entry into Chiapas, so we checked into an overpriced and less-than-quaint hotel and turned up the AC so that it could lull us to sleep.

The next day, we moved (very slowly, as people in Chiapas do not pick up anywhere near as enthusiastically as in Oaxaca) to the coastline, for one more night on the sand before heading inland again.  Our destination was Madre Sal, an isolated strand of beach about an hour (or, in our case, six hours) southeast of Tonalá.

It took a lot of walking on little dirt roads (Our last ride was holding on for dear life, hanging out of a watermelon truck.  As a reward for surviving, we go at a watermelon.  So, we got to carry one of those with us the last couple of kilometers):


And crossed a lagoon surrounded by mangrove trees on a lancha:


And then,  voilà, paradise:


Madre Sal is an ecotourism project, working to conserve the land and provide a safe, isolated refuge to the turtles that come ashore in the fall to lay eggs.  As now is not turtle season, we found the place utterly empty:

Except for our friend, the Red Flag:

And many flocks of seagulls flying parallel to the waves in the morning sun:

We set up camp in the sand, under a palapa (and a clear night sky that graced us with the Milky Way):

We wandered around the property and had fake mojitos with the sunset and felt like we were a hundred miles away (well, I guess that we were… so, maybe more like a lifetime and a thousand miles) from the beaches of Oaxaca we were lounging at slightly more then 24 hours ago.

I suppose that both the Oaxaca and Chiapas coastlines had their pro’s and con’s.  But, the heat was similar in both.  So, reluctantly (for I love the sound of the ocean waves so much) we put our backpacks on again and continued the journey inland, toward the highlands of Chiapas and away from the sandy horizon line:

The next chapter is colder, but just a beautiful!






San José del Pacifico + San Mateo Río Hondo

March 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

And, finally- after a month of lounging around Oaxaca City, life moves on!  And it feels so good, to be moving in a linear direction again, instead of walking around in circles (though I am already missing the dance classes and art libraries of Oaxaca).

The direction was south, to the mountains, before hitting the coast.


We took a colectivo van to San José del Pacifico, hopping out on the side of the mountain (ie: the one road that makes up the town) three hours later.


San Jose is more than 2000 meters above sea level, and I cannot even begin to describe how good it felt to be out of the city, in the open, with the sun shining, but it not being depressingly hot and dry.  And every evening, an hour or so before sunset, you could see the clouds rolling in below you, like a blanket of seafoam suspended a couple of thousand feet above the ocean.


Mainly, we went on a couple of meandering hikes, up to hilltops and inbetween a lot of pine trees.


And stumbled upon several interesting flowers.


And admired the freshness of the land.


The main attraction- other than the isolation, I suppose- of the town though, is its magic.  Really.  Its sense of mysticism.  I’m not sure how it all originated, but there is a very strong culture of spiritualism and herbal healing.  The main souvenir of this town is the local mushroom- which attracts a steady stream of travelers hungry for more than just tortillas and tortas.


We skipped out on the shrooms, but did go to a temazcal in lieu of breakfast one day.  It was an interesting experience- to be stuffed inside an adobe igloo, to sprinkle herbal water on a bed of coals that would turn the structure into a scented sauna after an hour, to cover ourselves with honey, to have a mud bath, and finally be rinsed with freezing water.  As a reward for surviving: hammocks to lounge in without a time limit.


After a couple of days in San Jose, we put on our packs and hiked over the mountain to San Mateo, a slightly bigger (perhaps 1.5 roads) town deeper in the mountain range.


It was a recommendation from a friend to come stay there, in a place called La casa de la Abuela.  And what a good recommendation it was!


We stayed there for a couple of nights, not doing much other than eating the most delicious organic food, lounging in abuela’s kitchen, listening to people play guitar and sing in front of fire places, and almost freezing to death in our own, fireplace-less cabin.  When we wanted something new, we strolled into town and checked out the local library and looked at travel magazines of Mexico and watched everyone prepare for the town’s annual fiesta that upcoming weekend: fresh coats of paint on almost every surface, dance rehearsals, and lots of decorations.


One day, we did hike out to look for waterfalls rumoured to be in the area… but, no such luck.  Great views and a refreshingly cold river to hop into, but no waterfalls.


It was surprisingly difficult to motivate ourselves to get out of the little mountain town, even with the call of the coast roaring so close by.  But, after one last large brunch in abuela’s kitchen, we did. We put on our backpacks, hiked ten kilometers out of the valley, and then stood on the side of the road with a cardboard sign that would take us back down to sea level.  Good hitchhiking travels to come; stay tuned for more tropical tales!

Hierve el Agua

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:

The first pool of water was a series of levels; all of them shallow and deceptively clear-looking:


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?!)




Teotitlán del Valle

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 then some more sheep and corn:

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.



Wow, Oaxaca

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:

Other than that, it’s a lot of walking through colorful streets:


, 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):

Inside is also a pretty impressive library full of thick, dusty books:

, with a childrens’ corner for coloring and to juxtapose the seriousness of the place:

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:

Then there’s all of the stained glass windows, with a twist:



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.


San Agustín (Etla)

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.

The current exhibition features the work of Beatriz Russek, a fashion and costume designer who works for various dance, theatre, and opera productions. 


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:

And beautiful views all around:


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.




Monte Albán

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.

There were also a lot of quirky flowers, and a lot of really big bees surrounding them.


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.