Thursday, April 21, 2005

MEXICO, DAYS 23-25: Oaxaca

Known around the world for its arts and theatre scene, its unique cuisine, its picturesque 16th century Colonial architecture, and its seemingly endless stream of festivals, the city of Oaxaca is a popular destination for tourists from all over. We especially noticed a number of French and German speaking tourists, as well as a few gringos; however most of them were older and more “straight-laced” than us. Of course we were here during a very non-touristy time of year, by Oaxaca standards. We also spotted a variety of fashionable and hip college students and an abundance of activist graffiti including “Free all political prisoners!” and “No to Plan Puebla Panama!” During our walks around town, we discovered a hip little club with a live jazz band, and we noticed a number of posters advertising plays and independent films.

After the peaceful village of San José del Pacifico and the small beachside towns, however, the main thing that struck us about Oaxaca was its decidedly urban character. Packed full of obnoxious taxis, with honking cars going nowhere in traffic gridlock, major construction making a terrible racket and tearing up the most beautiful part of the city right next to the central zócalo, and even a huge stinking pool of liquid in the street from a previously broken down garbage truck, Oaxaca insisted on showing us its worst. After giving up in frustration on finding an affordable place to sleep in town (even the hostels were too expensive since we’d have to pay for private parking), we ended up staying about 5 miles outside the city, at another one of Mexico’s infamous “no-tell” motels, for a very reasonable price. And yet, with its booming activist and art culture combined with frustrating traffic, Oaxaca actually reminded us a bit of San Francisco, albeit a very Mexican San Francisco.

The one thing we really enjoyed about Oaxaca (especially Rob) was the food, which is distinctly Oaxacan. One of the main specialties here is the famous mole sauce (pronounced MO-lay) which typically combines chocolate (yes, chocolate) with spicy peppers and tomatoes, and is often served on top of chicken, beef or cheese and tortillas. Another specialty is quesillo, a special Oaxacan queso (cheese) that many Oaxacan menus describe in English as “Oaxaca’s famous string cheese”. A bit like mozzarella but saltier, this stuff turns up in sandwiches, soups, omelets, quesadillas, and even as its own main dish (covered with Oaxaca’s famous mole, if you wish). Also of interest is the tlayuda - it's sort of like a Mexican "pizza", sliced into wedges just like real pizza, except the crust is a large crispy fried tortilla instead of pizza dough; and instead of sauce, it's covered with cheese and fresh vegetables (tomatoes, avocado). A tasty snack! Another specialty seems to be squash flowers, which often turn up in quesadillas, while yet another specialty is hot chocolate milk with cinnamon, the preferred breakfast drink here. The chocolate is rich and exquisite (definitely not the powdered kind) and may have been just the thing to help Rob finally kick the coffee habit once and for all. (especially since the Nescafe instant coffee served in most places really wasn’t doing the trick)

One of the popular attractions just outside of Oaxaca is the ruins of an ancient 12th -13th century Zapotec (indigenous) city now known as Monte Albán. This archaeological wonder sits on top of a large hill overlooking Oaxaca, and we figured it would be a great idea to check it out in the late afternoon and beat the heat while catching the sunset. Unfortunately, the site closes its gates over an hour before sunset, so by the time we got up the hill, we were too late! We briefly enjoyed the view of the city below from outside the gates, snapped a couple of photos of the ruins over on the next hilltop, and congratulated ourselves on not paying the admission fee. What else could we do? Anyways we figured Monte Albán would pale in comparison to the Mayan ruins we would be checking out next week.

Monte Albán, the ancient hilltop ruins outside of Oaxaca

After getting fed up with the noise and traffic of Oaxaca, we decided on Thursday that we needed to get back to nature. Our Lonely Planet book mentioned a cliff-side mineral bath called Hierve El Agua (water boil), only an hour’s drive east of Oaxaca. Here a handful of mineral springs (lukewarm, definitely not hot) emerge from some extremely large boulders at the top of a cliff and flow into a couple of large, man-made “baths”, all overlooking a tranquil valley below. The area is very picturesque and rural, with a variety of desert plant-life, including many cactus and agaves, reminiscent of Arizona. A beautiful hiking trail goes all the way around the site, offering great views from the bottom of the cliffs. These cliffs are covered with mineral deposits from the water flowing down from the springs above, making them look like giant, frozen, multi-colored waterfalls. The site also offers basic conveniences such as cabañas, a few comedors (food stands, not quite deserving of the word restaurant), and a camping area where we could set up our tent for the night. With nobody but us staying in the campground on this quiet weeknight, we were happy campers.

The mineral baths at Hierve El Agua. The springs bubble from the small fenced-in area at the edge of the cliff.

Rob chills in a mineral bath at the top of the cliffs

Rob at the bottom of a mineral "waterfall"

Mineral cliffs as viewed from below at Hierve El Agua

The most enormous cactus Carley has ever seen at Hierve El Agua

On to DAY 26: Tuxtla Guittiérez, capital of Chiapas

MEXICO, DAYS 21-22: San José del Pacifico

As we were getting ready to leave Mazunte, Carlos Einstein asked where we were going next. “Oh, maybe to Puerto Angel and then to Oaxaca City.” Carlos shriveled his nose in disgust. He did not like our plan. “No! There is nothing to see in Puerto Angel. It’s ugly. This is what you will do: you will go to San José del Pacifico and you will ask for Catalina, la española (the Spanish woman).” He proceeded to extol Catalina’s virtues as a poet, musician and card-reader, as well as all-around good hostess. However he also warned “She’s crazy!”…this coming from a man who is medio loco himself. Nevertheless, Catalina sounded like a character we wanted to meet, and her guest house sounded like just the change of pace we needed, as we were getting burnt out from 10 days on the beach. So, we left the coast for the 4-hour winding ascent to San José del Pacifico, high up in the mountains of south-central Oaxaca state.

This turned out to be a great recommendation, one of our favorite spots on the whole trip. We ended up spending the next two nights in this peaceful mountaintop village, enjoying the company of some very cool locals, ex-pats and travelers, while hiking in the pine forests, enjoying spectacular sunsets over the superb mountain vista, and generally relishing the warm vibes and cool breezes (as well as the opportunity to use English when talking to people besides each other!).

The mountain-top village of San José del Pacifico

Hiking in the forests around San José del Pacifico, where large agaves grow side-by-side with mountain pines

The main attraction here for many is during the rainy season, when certain travelers are drawn to the preponderance of “magic mushrooms” that grow around these parts. We’re told that these include a variety of culinary and even medicinal mushrooms, in addition to the more “adventurous” kinds. However, it was not rainy season during our stay (it did not rain on us once during our 30 days in Mexico!), and the town was refreshingly tranquil. It was not long before we were completely charmed by the friendly locals and the beautiful surroundings.

We had arrived in town late in the afternoon, hungry and tired from the night before at Carlos Einstein’s. Our #1 priority was food. We randomly chose one of the 3 roadside restaurants in the center of the village, and this decision led us to the first in our cast of interesting characters. After our meal, Carley asked our unenthusiastic waitress/cook if she knew where we could find Catalina, la española. “Si,” she said with a sigh, and indicated that “Freddy” lives there. She went back to chopping tomatoes, so Carley prodded, “Who’s Freddy?” The woman gave an even more exasperated sigh and pointed to Freddy, standing just outside the door, as if he were the most obvious thing in the world.

In retrospect, it was pretty obvious, as Freddy didn’t look like most of the other villagers. He was probably in his early twenties, with a long, somewhat unkempt ponytail, and a black Led Zeppelin T-shirt (which he wore for the rest of our 2-day stay here - perhaps longer). As we soon learned, Freddy’s tastes lean towards those of many of the travelers that come through town, and he expressed a lot of interest in hearing some of our Frank Zappa and Grateful Dead CDs, in addition to playing some Pink Floyd, Bob Marley and Santana for us. This was quite a welcome change from most of the music we’ve heard in Mexico! (besides in our car, of course)

Freddy, our host at Catalina's guest house

It turns out that Freddy was to serve as our gracious host at Catalina’s guest house for the next couple of days, since the notorious Catalina was out of town for an undetermined amount of time. Carley especially was disappointed about the lack of Catalina, since she sounds like such an interesting character. This disappointment faded quickly, however, once we got the tour and met the other delightful people staying in or around Catalina’s guesthouse.

What a great house! Rather small (but growing), it’s situated right on the edge of a steep hill overlooking the village and a spectacular valley, with comfortable private rooms, and a shared area including living room, kitchen and bathroom. The living area was brightly colored with a table, couch, chairs, fluffy pillows and window seats – the perfect place for pow-wows. What’s more, Catalina’s house is apparently the epicenter of the small hippie/ex-pat community in San José del Pacifico, and there was a steady influx of colorful characters stopping by to hang out.

Our fellow guests at Catalina’s included Nuno, a young Portuguese guy currently living in Tulum, Mexico; and the Davids, two travelers from St. Paul, Minnesota. Between them, the Davids were into just about everything – art, music, organic wine-making (including blueberry wine!), carpentry, carving, and horticulture. David #1 regaled us with stories about his epic journey bicycling all the way down the US Pacific coast, from Canada to Mexico – what an adventure! His objective here in San José del Pacifico was to find a piece of land for his dream: running a guesthouse with cabañas, hot tubs, a mushroom farm (the legal kind), and a pond for farm-raised fish. He had already lined up some investors and had explored other locations in Central America, including Costa Rica, but he had decided that San José del Pacifico was his favorite. The beauty of his plan was that his place would be completely self-sustaining and eco-friendly. One of the cornerstones of this plan is a biodigester that will convert human waste into a means of water purification and fuel production that he will share with his neighbors (read more on biodigesters). In addition, solar panels will help heat the hot tubs and provide electricity. We were both completely inspired by this whole concept. For a variety of political-economic reasons, the idea of unplugging completely from the globalization empire is very appealing to us. We even half-heartedly discussed the idea of selling our mutual funds to invest in David’s guesthouse / mushroom farm! Of course, this just reaffirmed for us that we have our own goals to accomplish first, and that we’ll know when the time and place are right for such an investment – so we settled on promising to patronize his establishment in the future.

David #2 preparing a special batch of hotcakes in the kitchen at Catalina's

Mmmmmm, breakfast! (David #1)

The only character who didn’t seem to have such a wonderful time here was Kina. As we quickly learned, there are a lot of cats in San José del Pacifico, and they are tough! Now, Kina is normally one of the more mellow, mild-mannered dogs we know of (despite her overwhelming urge to chase squirrels); however, she generally likes to chase cats, probably more out of curiosity than anything. Well, within half an hour of our arrival, Kina had discovered a mama black cat and her litter of tiny kittens around the side of the property. However, this cat was not going to let Kina anywhere near the kittens, and she came out swinging! (and snarling and hissing.) Kina beat a hasty retreat after coming less than an inch from having her nose sliced by sharp claws. The rest of our stay, Kina gave this cat and her kittens a wide berth, even though we had to pass them every time we went from the living area to our bedroom. “Good,” we thought, “maybe she’s learned her lesson.” Wrong. The next day as we lounged around the living room, a loud racket of yelping and snarling commenced from outside, and seconds later, Kina charged around the corner toward us, with a white cat from the neighborhood in full pursuit! After shooing off the cat, we discovered a small white cat claw stuck inside one of Kina’s nostrils, along with a row of slash marks on the outside of her nose from the rest of the cat’s right-front claw. (see photo below) Maybe now she’s learned her lesson? She certainly treaded carefully and humbly for the rest of our stay, and she seemed quite pleased when we finally packed up to go.

Kina's nose shows battle-wounds from San José del Pacifico's no-nonsense cats

By Tuesday morning we were feeling completely rested and rejuvenated. Though we were as comfortable here as any place we’d been in Mexico, and though we’d never gotten the opportunity to meet the illustrious Catalina, we knew there were still a lot of places we wanted to see in the next 8 days, when the Mexico chapter of our adventure would come to an end. (at least until the next time we return!) So after leaving a gift for Freddy (a 3-disc Grateful Dead show from August 1974 that Rob had downloaded a year earlier from; Freddy was overjoyed), we hit the road again.

On to DAYS 23-25: Oaxaca