March 23, 2015 § 2 Comments
It’s been a while- momentum has been strong, and rests few inbetween. And, looking back at the past couple of weeks, I find it surprising that there have been more moments than usual that I have felt frustrated or ‘stuck’ in some place that I shouldn’t be, when, in fact, we have been on a quick and steady move eastward through Mexico. I suppose that there are other factors than physical movement to take into consideration when calculating restlessness, but it is still a slightly strange juxtaposition when I think about it logically.
After our hop through the beaches, we took a day to camp out at the Cascada el Aguacero in the Cañón Río La Venta (how many geographic features can you have in one name?):
It was a nice river to wade through, but we were expecting jungle (which, we later learned does not start until east of San Cristóbal), so we hopped in the back of a few more trucks and eventually made it to our next destination: San Cristóbal de las Casas.
This was our home for the next five days, with nightly accomodation ranging from fancy posadas with fireplaces and courtyards, to hostels dedicated to Corto Maltese, to colorful hostels where we (for the first time all trip) made use of the kitchen to create all sorts of fancy, international dishes. Food was never a shortage though; between all of the pastry shops and organic food markets and cafés, food was pretty much our main past-time.
That, and coffee.
And analyzed graffiti:
And climbed long series of steps to get the best view points of the town:
There were also some jazz sets and yoga classes, but nothing to rave about. The churches, however, were pretty cool, and seemed somehow warmer than in the other cities (but maybe it was just the clarity of the air at this elevation):
On one hand, I had higher hopes for our time in San Cristóbal de las Casas because I had envisioned something more similar to Oaxaca: classes and dancing and a stable base for a couple of days. But, in the end, a few days of checking out different types of lodgings and eating and making it a mission to try every espresso in town was a satisfying pastime.
However, the lack of dancing nooks and the presence of itchy feet spurred us onward. I think that we are both in a position in which we see the potential of and appreciate the places that we visit, but there is somewhere else that we feel like we should be. On one hand, I would have had a great time setting up base here for a couple of weeks and living of fresh croissants and getting in touch with my spiritual hippie side, but I felt torn between moving on and settling down for a longer period of time, in a different place, that wouldn’t be just a ‘stop’ before the continuing adventure.
So, it was time to bid farewell to San Cristóbal de las Casas, with all of its cozy charm and delicious nooks, and get back on the highway and find the next string of rides to flag down.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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 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.
January 29, 2015 § Leave a comment
Road Trip over, it was time to rest low for a couple of days (ie: stay in fuzzy socks until the afternoon and lay in the grass and eat big lunches). And plan the next outing for the weekend: the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.
This was kind of my #1 To Do item on my When In Mexico list (that and the Cave of the Swallows), so… it is needless to say that I was like a wound-up bouncy ball the entire drive there. Which was supposed to be a couple of hours away from Cuernavaca, where I was staying, but…. somehow ended up taking half the day. Like all good car trips : )
The first morning stop was at the Lagunas de Zempoala:
It’s still strange to me, to have such clean and undiluted natural beauty just a few minutes’ drive away from a city that feels packed and dirty and dusty and like it has no end. And then, poof, you are here:
Really, this is just over the hill? And all car noises and fumes magically disappear?
After a sunny breakfast a la picnic, it was time to hit the playground:
Which was exactly like the rusty, colorful playgrounds I played on in Poland twenty years ago. Except in a better setting and with horses.
Which we ended up riding for a few minutes, around the valley. Not very climatic, but it’s not like you can ever not enjoy being on a horse, so it was all good.
And then, a long stretch of road, interrupted only by people selling us fruit on the road and us asking a million and a half people for directions. We made it to Macheros in the afternoon, just in time for a late lunch and a hike up to (attempt to) find invisible pyramids behind the B&B we were staying at.
The next morning, it was a foggy sunrise and then a long hike up to the top of the mountain. I chose to go to the Cerro Pelón reserve because it seemed the most off-the-beaten path. And what’s the fun in butterfly-hunting when there are more weekend vacationers from Mexco City than trees? It’s also the first place that the butterflies were discovered, some forty years ago, so it seemed like the place to be. And it was; it was beautiful. The hike up was an hour-and-a-half of perpetual up, but we made it on our two feet (against everyone’s insisting offers that it’s better to take a horse), and it was the best reward ever, to be on top of a 3,000m mountain with millions of butterflies fluttering about you.
My only complaint is that it was my first day in Mexico that wasn’t sunny. And, butterflies tend to play best when there is sunshine. So, I might have to re-do the hike one day. But it was still amazing to see towering trees covered in butterflies instead of leaves. Or to be laying down and watching them swim all around you.
Between October and March, millions of butterflies fly from Canada to this area to enjoy the warmer weather and to mate. It’s impressive. And macabre, to see all of the dead males lying on the forest floor, their deeds already extinguished. Macabre, but beautiful:
After the hike back down and another round of the village’s specialty- hot coco with rum- it was time for the equally-long drive back. Scenic stops and market-browsing included a random town with a pretty yellow church and purple flowers:
The latter was not unlike Lake Como in northern Italy, and it was easy to see why all of the international and wealthy people build their houses around here. For me, it wasn’t anything particularly remarkable, but I do understand why people find it charming. I was probably just holding a grudge against something that seems like Italy, but isn’t (after all, that’s where my heart belongs to first).
Then, another couple of hours of unmarked topes and potholes and dark mountain roads to get back home. While singing to sappy latin songs and reflecting on