Friday, July 29, 2011


In haste to spend as little time as possible in internet shops, I left out some interesting details of our travel to San Miguel Suchixtepec, as well as from there.  Before we started up towards the mushroom-infused clouds, somewhere around San Martín de los Cansecos, we were enjoying the beautiful day that we had for riding (no rain!) and the relatively good roads.  Immediately after passing the little town, there was a long string of stopped traffic in both lanes of the highway.  Driving to the front of the line, as is customary for motorcycle traffic in Mexico, we passed vendors of all sorts, kids playing, people picnicking on the side of the road, people napping in their cars, one or two guys peeing in the ditch (as is customary in Mexico), people sitting on tailgates, cooking food, etc. which is all quite a pleasant scene (save the guys peeing), but also quite indicative of this traffic jam staying put for awhile...

And sho´ ´nuff! the road was fully blocked. Two trucks parked across it and a large banner will stop most travelers, but what really stopped us as a motorcycle was that every person within and alongside the blockade had a machete or very large stick in their hands, seemingly willing to use it if necessary. A policeman and city representative were talking near the block, but I´m not sure they were going to solve much. The blockade was a protest by the rurual outlying communities against the misappropriation of community funds by the treasurer. They planned it for the entire day, saying it may break at 3pm, but that would be on Mexican time.

Someone waiting in the line was kind enough to tell us that there was a way around the blockade through some fields. We turned down a small farm road, following a couple of pick ups and car, bouncing our way through fields, easing our way through some mud, and thankful the whole time that we were following some vehicles that knew were they were going (more than us, at least).

After following parallel to the main highway for some time, there was still a lot of confusion as to how we were to access the main road again. Luckily the pick up in front of us kept asking oncoming trucks, because after about an hour of skirting around the blockade, we still barely made it back to the highway beyond the final blockade. In fact, just as the truck in front of us pulled onto the highway, a group of campesinos realized that a steady stream of traffic was now coming through that road. We had stopped on the shoulder of the highway to check a road sign a few meters back down the road, and stretch a bit after our sidetrack, when a group of 10 or 12 machete-wielding campesinos came running at us. Luckily they kept running past us (and didn´t seem that angry while running, which kept our heart rates to reasonable levels). They ran to the road that we had just come from, and rolled a huge boulder into the middle of it, preventing the car behind us from leaving, then parked their pick up truck across it for good measure.

That car may still be there. We don´t know. We left.

Another fun sideroad activity (that I spaced when posting previously) was when arriving to the Oaxacan coast after leaving San Miguel Suchixtepec. We had a wet ride basically all the way down the mountains to the coast. It wasn´t too bad of a downpour, so visibility while riding was fine, but it was certainly enough rain to make the ride a little less....dry. That also had the effect to bring a lot of water down streambeds towards the ocean, which was foaming and furious, thanks to Hurricane Dora. When we got to Puerto Ángel, we stopped at the empty hostel, and decided to go on. The first wash that we came to was absolutely raging with water. We saw a couple of trucks go through, but the depth was past their axles, and while Mike´s enough of an idiot to try his hand at some dual-sporting beyond his abilities, this was not the right time. So we headed up the street where some shallower (and still rushing) crossings may have led us around the worst of it, when a guy on a moped shouted for us to follow him. But he was going back towards the crazy stream. I told him that´s crazy town, the water is very deep. He said, follow me, we´ll go around it! So we followed him, and sure enough, went right around it by riding onto a small sidewalk that turned into a bridge over the water.

Moped Man of Genius, we owe you one!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Prohibido el nudismo

We had received some good info from many people about beaches to visit along the Oaxacan coast. Pto Escondido is known for its tourism and surfing, but we were already a bit further south, so headed towards Pto Ángel, Mazunte, Zipolite, and San Augustinillo. Pto Ángel was a definitel fisherman´s town, at the start of a loop of beaches within about 20 km of each other. We first went into a hostel in Pto Ángel to find a room in order to get our soaking wet clothes off, take a warm shower, and eat. But no one was to be found. We took that as a sign, and went in search of a little more relaxed beach town. We passed by the turn off for Zipolite (guessing that lodging would be a bit pricey since it´s so well known for its tourism since it´s so well known for it´s nude beach) and arrived in San Augustinillo.

There we stopped at a small hospedaje at the entrance of town, but again, no one to be found. It must be rainy season or something. Thankfully a British ex-pat drove by and kindly recommended a place 2 doors down, where the rooms were simple, cheap, and clean. Just what we were looking for! It worked out. We got a nice sized room for 200 pesos, and sure enough the staff was super nice. After a luke warm shower (as close as we could get to hot) we ate at their restaurant and enjoyed a beer. The rain was still coming down in sheets. Nap time it was.

We walked through the town of San Augustinillo that afternoon when the rains slowed. It´s about 3 blocks long, just along the highway, and has a number of very nice looking hotels, cabañas, and spas that are out of our league (if you´re into a little nicer things, then you should check out el Sueño - it looked amazing and probably around M$X500-750). The beach was pleasant, but has definitely seen some rough weather recently.

The next day we drove over to Mazunte to check out another beach. The town has a bit more going on, more food options, some craft shops, lots of pizza places, a turtle reserve, etc. A bit more of a hippy enclave. We had some good tortas for M$X15 each, wandered around, and just read on the beach for awhile. This beach definitely had more people around. It also had signs expressly forbidding nudity. Apparently too many people tried to get all Zipolite all over the place.


Suchixtepec this, Sucka!

I have absolutely no idea what Suchixtepec really means, but it sure is fun to yell. And that´s what Jill wanted to do to stay warm the whole time we were in San Miguel Suchixtepec, where it was quite chilly and rainy. We ended up riding straight through San José del Pacífico, the mushroom capital of N America (maybe?), where very, uhhh, "inspired" art adorned the side of the highway, and visionary murals were on each wall. The town seemed like it would be interesting, but the weather was gross. It was already fairly chilly, rain was falling pretty heavily, and I´m not even sure how it was falling, because we were definitely not below the clouds, we were right in the middle of them.

We went on down the winding highway until we found the first pull off to San Miguel Suchixtepec, where we had rough directions to the Casa SARAR in our heads (and better directions written down, but not excited to dig through our luggage in the rain). So we wound our way around this crazy vertical, yet still switch-backed alleyway, asking for the plaza principal a couple of times. We stopped when we were right next to it, asking two people setting up a large tent where we might find Casa SARAR, explaining that it was near the municipal building. They looked at us strangely, and pointed behind us. We had parked immediately beneath the stairs of Casa SARAR (see photo of the TA below for reference). Sometimes things work out that well. (On our way out of town, we learned that the next turn off the highway led directly into the plaza, about 50 meters from the Casa SARAR, but we got a better tour of the city this way.) And the tour of the city paid off, because we never had a chance to see it all.

Although we intended to see some of the school projects that SARAR was involved in, we failed to do that because summer had just begin this past week, and also because the Friday we were in town was the inaugural exposition for the regional area. Many local, regional, and national government officials came into town, bands played, food was served, goods and wares were sold. It was pretty cool to see such a big event in such a small town.

(The warm up act)

(Traditional dance in a Veracruz style)

(Jill´s closest new friend)

(A huge feast was prepared)

We learned from our host at Casa SARAR, Tajëëw, that a couple of people from within each small community in the area are responsible for putting on town festivals within their own town every year. It used to be a position of honor that people sought, particularly as a means to enter political life. Now it is a position that people get nominated for. The shift is partially because of the expense of putting on a party that big, and the expectation to offer good food and refreshment. Families are forced to sell their homes to afford the expense, some men have to travel to the states for work to be able to send back money to cover the loans taken out. In any case, this event was a government sponsored expo showcasing the agricultural businesses in the area, as well as the handcrafted furniture, mezcal, jams, woven goods, pastries,... so not quite the same. But interesting to learn about those other parties.

We made some other friends while in SMS. They loved Tajëëw, especially the hot chocolate that she makes, and served as almost daily afternoon entertainment for her, as well as us while we were there:

Casa SARAR also uses a dry toilet system. We didn´t include pictures of the toilet itself before, but here it is in all of it´s grandeur:

(Urine contained in front funnel, goes to separate storage. Dry pit at back of toilet has almost no smell, since it is kept dry (and since a scoop full of earth, sawdust mix is added after each use, visible in the bucket at right). Stick in background used to tamp the mountain when needed, stored carefully to remember which end is the business end. Trashcan at left is the receptacle for used paper, like all toilets in latin america)

Eventually, the clouds broke a bit, allowing us to see a bit more of the mountainside community.

And we were treated to a celebration dinner on our last night there. Alan and Tajëëw were celebrating their last day of work for a couple weeks - after all it was summer break for the schools. Alan cooked up some fantastic rice and lentils, and we shared some mezcal from Oaxaca.

Much to Jill´s relief (please remember that although you´ve only been reading this post for a few minutes, she was cold the entire couple of days we were in SMS), we were off to the beach next!

Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Oaxaca

About the time you enter into Oaxaca state from Tepoztlán, the horizon opens up and you can see miles of mountains on all sides. Dispersed throughout are organ pipe cactus.


Passing through some random town we even happened upon a motocross competition. It was a little surreal to see such a huge crowd gathered around the track in the middle of nowhere.

We were able to enjoy the ride all morning but in the afternoon, a couple hours outside Oaxaca city, our goal for the day, the big open sky turned ominously dark. We stopped as soon as we felt sprinkles. By the time we were both off the bike we were in the middle of a flash flood, on top of a mountain with no shelter in sight and completely soaked. About the time we had gotten the rain gear on ourselves and the bags on the bike, it started hailing. We had no choice but to keep riding and fortunately the hail only lasted a few minutes. Since rainy season had started while we were in Tepoz, this was the first of what seems to be a very stormy and powerful season. For the rest of the ride into Oaxaca we had rain on and off but nothing like the huge initial downpour, although we did see evidence of some substantial recent rain.  We had to ride through some streams of water on the highway that were a good 6 inches deep.  Even at fairly low speeds, and particularly with cars passing the other direction, the water splashed up high enough to enter the bottom of our saddlebag raincovers, and the top of Mike´s left boot.  This made for some mildew, mank, funk stink hotel rooms for the next couple days.  (Even worse than just our usual riding gear)

We got to downtown Oaxaca and stayed in a hostel in the middle of downtown. We spread out our wet gear and found a taco stand. We quickly learned that Oaxacan cheese is delicious. It has a very mild flavor and pulls apart like string cheese. We also had our first tlayuda, another Oaxacan specialty, which is a jumbo sized tortilla folded in half with beans, our favorite new cheese, and any kind of meat you want on the inside. About midway through our meal, the sky opened up again and we had a wet run back to the hostel, trying to avoid rain when possible by selecting blocks that seemed to have the best awnings.

We explored the city the next day, going first to the contemporary art museum and then walking around aimlessly, managing to explore most of the greater downtown area.

(Contemporary Art Museum)

(ceiling of the museum)

(Museum of Artifacts and Kids Museum)

(The Little Bull Meat Shop)


(band playing in the rain)

One of our stops while touring was at a Mezcal shop. Mezcal is another Oaxacan specialty and is like tequila except arguably a little smoother, also made from agave. There are mezcal shops all over town and we lucked out in the one we went into because the lady let us sample about 20 different kinds. They make flavored creme that makes it taste a lot less mezcally, pleasant almost. Our favorite was mocha, so we bought some and took it back to the hostel. We offered the owner a shot and were scolded for bringing alcohol in because they serve alcohol there and it is stated clearly in the rules he had us read. Whoops.

(view from hostel roof)

For dinner, a restaurant caught Mike's eye because it had a sign that said "Bar  2 X 1." Jill wasn't as excited because the only person in the restaurant was an old man smoking a cigarette. Turns out the bar deal was only for one type of beer that was priced about double what it should be. The bar was also a karoake bar and a man already in the bar (previously out of view) sang several songs for us shortly after we came in. He was even kind enough to look for an English song to sing (Radiohead, in fact, truly English). The waiter and owner (the old man smoking a cigarette) were excited to have us there and gave us both a free shot of Mezcal and had us sign their guestbook. Although the food was pretty horrible, we had an interesting ending to the evening as Jill was hit on by the old owner and the karoake singer cried to Mike because his wife had left him that day, followed by long, elaborate wails of prayers after he sat back down at his table (also after a long and heated discussion with the bar owner as to how far he had made it through his purchased box of 10 beers).

We were going to leave the next day but decided to stay to see some sites just outside of town. We decided to go to El Tule, a tree that is approximately 120 feet in circumference. According to Wikipedia, it is the "stoutest" tree of any tree in the world. Mike really wanted to hug it, but it was fenced in so he only got to hug a branch. It was still much bigger than him. The area surrounding the tree is also very beautiful as the city has done a very good job with the gardens.

Next we drove on to the town of Mitla to see the ruins there. The Catholic church had again done a good job of building on top of indigenous structures, as this church even used some of the original stones as its foundation. The stones of the ruins were more detailed and ornate than we had seen at other sites, but it is pretty small. We were glad we snuck in the back way because the $3 fee to get in was maybe a little high considering you can see most everything from outside the structure. The site is surrounded by an artesanal market. Luckily, we had neither money nor room on the bike because there was some very nice stuff.

Just outside of Mitla heading back to Oaxaca we stopped in at a small scale Mezcal distillary and learned the surprisingly simple process.

(heat piña from the agave, or maguey, plant on hot stones covered with earth and tarp to hold in heat)

(crush the cooked piña by horse power)

(copper distiller to boil the fermented product - fermentation tanks were wood barrels, where the cooked piña was stored in hot water for a few days)

(copper condenser)

(drink - the raw product, reposado for 8 months, reposado for 2 years, or refinado (=double distilled and very smooth))

(drive - just kidding)

Then just outside of Oaxaca we detoured through the town of Teotitlan del Valle, known for its handmade rugs. Every other house was selling rugs and many had their own loom. Space constraints again were a good reason not to shop. The region is filled with artesanal towns specializing in various textiles, pottery, handicrafts and mezcal.

A friend Jill met in Tepoz was traveling through Oaxaca on her way to Costa Rica and she got to the hostel that evening. The next morning the three of us went to check out Monte Albán, ruins just outside of town. We took public transport and then hiked up the road to the ruins for another 2-3 kilometers. The ruins were older than many we have seen, as they were founded around 500 BC and continued to have importance as the Zapotec socio-political and economic center for about 1000 years. The ruins are huge and are spread over a hillside with views of surrounding cities all around. With probably 20 structures, it is by far the largest area of ruins we have seen yet (although people who have seen ruins further south and in Guatemala feel otherwise...).

(ball field)

(intricate skull carvings on a skull showing early childhood deformation, common practices at Monte Albán)

Once back into town we had a wonderful meal in the market, including some of the mole negro that Oaxaca is known for - yum!  spicy chocolate sauce on perfectly roasted chicken.

We got back to the hostel and a British group had purchased cooked crickets (chapulínes) and worms (guisanos, another Oaxacan specialty) so we got to try those without having to buy them. Mike had a cricket, which he describes as fried, salty, crunchy, crickety. Jill thinks she had the worm and she says it tasted like a raisin. Later, we got to talking with an American in the hostel who had seen a sign for artesinal beer, so we went to check it out. It ended up being a sweet bar that did sell microbrewed beer, including a Mexican Stout with chile. We were only able to afford one round of the good stuff, but have several more of the normal Mexican stuff before going back to the hostel and crashing a party being held by the owner of the hostel for his brother who was leaving Mexico for the states the next day. The night ended in us all going to get tlayudas at 3 am. We guess he forgave us for bringing our own drinks into the hostel from the day before because the beers he gave us were definitely not from the hostel.