Friday, October 30, 2015


Oaxaca was one of the first places that I'd added to my map of "places I should go" in Mexico. I was told that the state as a whole was beautiful, and the city in particular had a number of interesting archaeological sites, natural wonders, and other interesting things to see in close proximity. Oaxaca was big enough that I looked for a couchsurfer, and while I didn't find someone to stay with, I did end up finding a good guide - and the hostel I stayed in led to some good adventures as well.

I got into the downtown area and started checking out a few hostels - it's always a little tricky in downtown areas to find someplace that has secure parking, but on the third try I finally found a place with a ramp into the courtyard where I could stash the bike.

Not a bad setup.
I settled in, cranked out a blog post, and started chatting with some of the other guests. There were the Alejandro's - same name, both from Chula Vista, so we talked San Diego and Tijuana some, and talked about Spanglish. And I ended up talking to Damien a bit too, a French guy who was traveling through Mexico - his first time farther from France than Great Britain. For those who said my French wouldn't come in handy on this trip: suck it, that's the third time I've been able to use it already.

Damien and I chatted in three different languages for a bit, using whichever one seemed to work best - his Spanish was much better than mine, and we were obviously much better in our native languages than the other one, but we could swap between them pretty easily. We'd both been thinking about doing one of the tours that left straight from the hostel, so we went up to ask at the desk about them, and ended up both deciding to go on the same tour in the morning.

That set, I messaged someone who'd contacted me on couchsurfing to see what was going on in the city that night. I ended up meeting Claudia at the art gallery she worked at, and while we'd been messaging mostly in English, I quickly got tested on my Spanish skills by how quickly she spoke. Fortunately her English was good enough that it was easy to clarify the parts I missed (which turned out to be quite a few parts, actually).

After the gallery closed and she was off work, we headed out and wandered through the city center a bit before walking up to a viewpoint on the hill above the city.

Santo Domingo church with a full moon above it.

I've really been getting my fair share of stairs lately.
After enjoying the view from the top (enough that I didn't even think to take a picture) we headed back down to the Zócalo for a showing of a 1920's movie (Dr. Caligari) accompanied by live "soundtrack" music.

The guy on the left was also narrating.
To top off what was already a pretty good night, we headed over to a bar called the Mezcaloteca for what would now be my second time trying mezcal - according to Claudia, mezcal in Guadalajara just didn't count as real mezcal. But it turned out to be a double score, as the bar also boasted the kind of craft beer selection I hadn't seen since San Diego - and all of it from Mexico as well, organized by region.

Enjoying our beers.

A few of the ones we tried that night.
I woke up in the morning... slightly hungover. After two small glasses of mezcal and about three beers. That's twice now that I've tried mezcal, twice that I haven't had too much to drink in total, and twice that I've ended up with a hangover. That stuff is dangerous.

Luckily the tour didn't leave until 10am, so I had plenty of time to enjoy the included breakfast at the hostel ($10 for the bed and cereal/toast/coffee breakfast) and throw back some water. We finally got underway, and headed off to our first destination: Tule, the widest tree trunk in the world.

I couldn't get far enough away to capture the whole tree without panorama.

Still doesn't quite do it justice.

The whole park around the tree was filled with sculpted bushes, like this somewhat lewd-looking squirrel

The thing in the top right corner of the picture is the fence behind me as I flipped the phone all the way back behind me for the panorama.
I'd chosen this particular tour because it went to Hierve el Agua - that was one of the only things I knew I wanted to see. But already after Tule I was glad I'd taken the time to see a few others. The tree is amazing, and it's really hard to describe what it's like to be near something like that. Given my penchant for climbing anything tall in my near vicinity, you can probably guess what my main thought was though.

Damien and I also started talking with another one of the hostel residents while at the tree, Nancy, from the "D.F." - the Distrito Federal in Mexico. The three of us quickly became that group that everyone else probably hates because we were giggling together and making jokes in the back for the rest of the day, whether at a tour or in the van. Most of it was in Spanish too, since that was the language the three of us had in common, so I got a significant amount of lessons over the course of the day.

The next stop was to a place where they make wool blankets and other things by hand. They even gave demonstrations of spinning the wool from scratch - the woman there has been doing it for decades after learning when she was five, and can do it both with the more modern spinning wheel and with the ancient tools that the native people used. They talked about how to dye the different colors and what's used to make the dyes, from rock moss to insects that stick to cactus leaves - apparently the pH is super important in making the dyes and the ingredients are very carefully chosen. There was even a little demonstration of how pH changes the color by adding some dye to a glass of water and then adding lime and baking soda to change the colors.

The only picture I took before I realized we weren't supposed to take pictures.
The demonstration ended with a sales pitch, of course, but everything was pretty expensive - turns out scraping bugs off a cactus by hand isn't the most efficient way to make a red rug. Not that I have room for anything on the motorcycle anyway.

Onward we went to another tour of old-school production of goods: this time, to a mezcal factory. I was still a little hesitant given how the evening before had gone, but after hearing all about how mezcal is made I decided it was worth giving it one more shot. They showed us the original device used to crush the smoked agave, and even let us taste some - it basically tasted like barbecue flavored sugarcane (aka delicious - they should sell that stuff how it is).

The wall of different varieties.
We did some tastings then, and while my brain was subtly reminding me of the night before, it held up fine and I got to taste everything I wanted to. They had the typical varieties that you probably know from tequila - Añejo, joven (blanco), and reposado, as well as having a number of creme flavored concoctions, from fruit to cappuccino.

Roughly translated (though clearly not as well rhymed): For every ill, mezcal, for every good as well, and for relief a liter and a half.
Slightly tipsy and starting to get hungry (it was after noon), we still had another stop before lunch: Mitla, the archaeological ruins - they collected 50 pesos from us for an entrance fee before we got there. (Why wasn't this part of the original tour price? I'm really not sure.) Perhaps I'm a little jaded to these now - it was still impressive, but after Teotihuacan, it did seem a little on the small side. Having a tour guide did improve the visit a little bit at least, because I learned a few things I would have otherwise about why it was architected the way it was - all the way down to a particular wall in a dead-end room with no windows being white, in order to reflect light in. The stone work was quite amazing though.

Each step is super tall because you should have to work hard to be closer to the gods.

Check out that stone work - each stone individually cut to fit.

Damien's sharp eyes spotted this terrifying jaguar in the distance... or so he thought. This quickly became a favorite joke of ours for the day.
After the ruins it was finally time for lunch - a giant buffet with different kinds of mole, all kinds of different soups and sauces, fruits and salads, and a selection of desserts - my favorite in Mexico is still arroz con leche (rice with milk). We stuffed ourselves with plate after plate, and then all lamented the lack of siesta as the food and mezcal did its work.

But thankfully we stayed awake as we headed to our last stop of the day. They collected another 50 pesos from us (again - why not part of the original price?) for tolls and entrance to the area, and after a short drive we made our way down a trail to Hierve el Agua.

The name means boiling water, but the water is actually pretty chilly - the name comes from the bubbling that occurs where the mineral-laden water emerges from the earth. There's so many minerals in the water that it ends up forming structures similar to stalactites in caves as it flows over the edge of a cliff. It was a beautiful sight, and with the day just ending and giving us wonderful sunset light, it made for some pretty good pictures as well.

Smooth pools of water not very deep...

Followed by a cliff of minerals holding it in.

A similar "waterfall" off in the distance.

Cascades of little pools. The interaction of the minerals building walls to hold the water in and the water going over the side of it was really interesting to me.

Some of that fading light starting to make things really pretty.

The shadows start to take over the valley.

A few people went in the water. They all looked miserable.

The master photographer showing his work to an interested buyer.

Candid shot enjoying the scenery.

The light started to get really good as we were leaving.

One of my favorites from there, even though the falls aren't even in it.

Sunset behind cactuses.
We hopped back in the car, having finally made it through all of our adventures. All that was left was the drive back - which took quite a while, because each successive site had taken us farther and farther away from town. After an hour in the car (spent laughing and joking and singing Disney songs in three different languages), we arrived back in town to find... some sort of demonstration blocking a main street, and diverting us on a half hour detour. But we finally got back, rested a bit, and then made plans to head out.

After searching for a fabled tamale place, we actually ended up at a restaurant right on the Zócalo. They invited to dine upstairs, and as it turned out we were the only ones up there. It felt like an empty wedding banquet room, all the way down to the lite 80's and 90's music playing slightly louder than necessary.

Tamales, mole, and a burger. Guess who's the American?
I got a cheeseburger with avocado and habanero "salsa" - but the salsa ended up basically just being peppers and carrots in a bowl on the side. I nibbled on them a bit, but the burger was messy enough to eat without adding them as well. Damien tried them, and really enjoyed them - and by really enjoyed them, I mean actually had to ask for something to help cool off his mouth.

After finishing up dinner, we headed out to a bar and met up with Claudia again where we sat and talked, and then eventually made our way to the dancefloor upstairs so that Damien and I could whip out our dance moves - which Claudia referred to as "the gayest dance moves I've ever seen in my life."

The four of us enjoying our evening.
Another late night on the books, I decided I wasn't making it all the way through the 7 hour drive to the coast the next day. I woke up, did a little wrenching on the bike, and then made my way to try to find a new spare tube for the back tire since I'd used up mine back on the way to Colima.

Google maps led me astray this time though, as it had three different locations marked as "Motos Lesa" (and both the Yamaha and Suzuki dealers also recommended I got to a place called that), and all three of them were not actually even a storefront of any sort, let alone the motorcycle store everyone kept singing the praises of. I finally asked for directions from a cabbie and found my way there, where I chatted with the guy behind the counter about my trip a bit before picking up the tube. I've found that the guys at the motorcycle shops are some of the most interested in the trip, and usually have really good advice or contacts as far as places to check out or what to take with me.

Finally set, I finally headed out towards San Jose del Pacifico, a halfway point between Oaxaca and the coast, and one also famed for its beautiful views.

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