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Published: February 11th 2019
The winding three hour descent from San Jose to the Oaxacan coast was accompanied by rising temperatures, increasing humidity and the gradual accretion of coconut palms and those towering potassium-rich herbs we know as bananas.
Pochutla is the bustling little hub of a town from which camionettas depart to Zipolite or Puerto Escondido. Not being gay or naturists (although Laura will dispute the latter) we obviously headed to the naked LGBTQ enclave that is Zipolite. This is literally a one street town, the sleepy thoroughfare running parallel to the pretty, chilled beach being lined on either side with restaurants and guest houses. Although we had deliberately allowed the festive season to pass into distant memory before venturing beach wards, apparently we were still on the heel of high season.... and high season prices were still enforced: huts on the beach ranging between 500p (basic) to 900p (seriously nice). Forget the possibility of bargaining. Ali's solo recce offered little in the way of budget options and so I was sent wandering. I sourced one room for 150p but reasoned that Ali was unlikely to be enamored with backing onto a rubbish dump, or with the proprietor who was so
stoned that attaining an erect posture had necessitated multiple attempts. Cue Pio (owner of Posada Cary), a man whose fingers appear to be in multiple pies and who was willing to show me around his varied portfolio of properties. He had a rather spacious airy room with internal bathroom, a private courtyard garden and basic al fresco kitchen, mere yards from the beach, for 350p. I gave him a definite "kissass". No, I wasn't sticking him the finger: "kissass" - a new word in our vocabulary - actually means "maybe". I returned with an Ali instructed to be non-plussed, a charade she carried off with aplomb and that resulted in an immediate counter offer of 300p. We, happily, took it. Nevertheless, it had still taken us almost four weeks to knock-down a room price. Whilst we may not yet be running at full ruthlessness we do feel that the Mexicans are largely like their southern neighbours (too laid back to chase/haggle with punters) and we have been battling "high season", so roll on the next couple of months prior to Easter...
Our first day in residence saw Ali misjudge the deep concrete step leading from courtyard to
covered outdoor kitchen area - I say misjudge, she merely forgot its existence: a senior moment (she was relatively sober) that left her both bloody and bruised, lacerating her knee (out came the steri-strips) and now sporting a rather distorted, apparently torn, deltoid. To make matters worse we were struggling to find reasonably priced food.
In somewhat of a frustrated flux we attempted to catch a camionetta to the next beach town, Mazunte. We duly flagged down what appeared to be such a vehicle, although it wasn't. Regardless, the driver was more than happy to let us climb up onto the back of his truck and, on dropping us off, had to be persuaded to accept some money alongside our hearty thanks. Mazunte is marginally larger, definitely has fewer exposed geriatric derrieres... and dangly bits, is a tad more hip, the sea imminently less fatal, but was just as pricey on all fronts (with the exception of beers - we returned with a rucksack full).
The Mazunte look-see not having inspired us, and still being generally aggrieved with costs, we were considering pushing on even further along the coast. That was until we happened
upon a little place that served only ceviche, very good and cheap dorado ceviche, done four ways (with a stunning and delightful young owner - the establishment seemingly always predominantly occupied by swooning admirers, both Mexican and gringo). Then we encountered two great taco establishments (one of which remained open well into the early hours, frequented exclusively - in those insomniant hours - by individuals with very dilated pupils) and, finally, "Salt and Pepper". The latter is well known - yep, even to LP - for its great fish at reasonable prices, and so it proved. Suddenly Zipolite was looking up (something we both try to do when greeting strollers on the beach). Adjoining our room was an Irish pub "The Bar" - well, it is run by an Irish couple - that is now the only late night boozer on the strip. Fortunately the separating wall is thick. Our little annex tried its best on the wi-fi front, but any connection was sporadic; the bar's signal by contrast was temptingly strong. Thus Ali befriended our Irish neighbours, who were totally accommodating... to such an extent that we felt compelled to patronize their establishment and even with their generous discounts
we still accrued a scary bill.
Also a boon to Zipolite - as if wrinkly full moons weren't enough - are the beautiful sunsets that see the crimson disk sink slowly below the sea's horizon between a natural frame of two off-shore rock formations.
I guess here is as good a juncture as any to broach the issue of marijuana: whilst still illegal here we have never encountered a country where its usage is so tolerated, so accepted, so.... simply mainstream. We've witnessed a lovely elderly lady cook us a great breakfast only to, on completion, plonk herself down and roll a chubby one; we've yet to stay at any guesthouse where smoking was an issue (regardless of the occasional self-preservation sign to the contrary); whilst most backpackers apparently think the risks of carrying between destinations is not even worthy of consideration. Alaska, Colorado, California, et al. may be legal, but Mexico simply cares not a jot.
Meanwhile on Zipolite's beach the lifeguards remained vigilant. Typically the flags along the high tide mark were red, indicating that even a paddle is ill-advised; occasionally these were replaced with their yellow variant, notification
that a knee-deep incursion should prove survivable. Regardless of colouration there were always plenty of souls prepared to run-the-risk and the guards were constantly blowing on their whistles to coral swimmers back into safer areas and shallower depths. We did see guards sprinting along the surf line, but never - thankfully - did they have to perform a rescue. What Ali did, rather distastefully, witness was the practice of certain prone male individuals arranging their tackle to ensure that every conceivable epidermal surface received suitable exposure to the solar rays.
Less than two hours westwards lie the beaches of Puerto Escondido where our chum Mark (first met in Oaxaca) was now renting an apartment. Escondido is famed for its surf, notably the "tube" at Playa Zicatala. That said, "town" has something like a dozen beaches, spread over several miles; some are expansive wave-crashed stretches that may be developed (Zicatala) or, conversely, deserted virgin terrain backed only by shrub (Bococha). Others are flat calm, Greek-like, turquoise bays (Manzanillo/Angelito/Carrizalillo), separated by eroded rocky projections, that harbour tiny fishing vessels and to the rear of which men sit under the shading palms mending nets in an aromatic green fug. All
have glorious, powder-fine, white sands and are totally litter/debris free. Hawkers, and this is the case for the whole of Oaxaca state, are little in evidence, but those that do trawl the sands stand apart from pretty much anywhere, world-wide, in their approach: they will ask if you are interested in their hammocks, ice cream, coconuts, several kilos of coffee beans (?)... but a simple "no gracias" will see them depart immediately. You'll not experience that on Kutan or Goan beaches. Oh, and whilst Asia rears its head: feral dogs. In Asia a wise man is very aware of rabies, indeed an after dark stroll down a country lane is sensibly accompanied by a stout stick (although a flaming brand is rarely necessary, see Three weddings and a tweeting cockwomble*
). Here the mangiest pooch is friendliness personified and even the most flea-ridden invariably ends up with a pet.... and maybe a post-meal morsel, if we've been eating.
Mark's gaff was located high to the northwest of town, some 15 minutes from the coast. It materialised that his neighbours were a couple of Honduran prostitutes. The two girls were friendly enough, although their presence was to cost us dearly... One night they held
a karaoke party with - presumably - a couple of punters. The caterwauling eminating from their apartment was unpleasant indeed. However, the next morning, even more unpleasantly, we realised that our boots and, totally bizarrely, my scabby flip-flops had disappeared from outside our door. Of course this was pretty sloppy security on our part, but the theft of stinky boots had seemed unlikely - that was until we tried to replace them and discovered that Merrills in Mexico cost an astounding $200 a pop. Ooooppps. Actually that was not quite my phraseology and subsequent days were spent with us scrutinizing the footwear of all we passed. I can only hope that the thieves departed with more than they anticipated.
Whilst with Mark we enjoyed the novelty of having a well-kitted-out kitchen and thus took it upon ourselves to repay his kind hospitality by cooking some meals. As much as we are enjoying Mexican cuisine it was also extremely welcome to have some tortilla-free days. Nevertheless, after almost a week of comfortable living, beach bumming and excessive drinking (encouraged by England's dismal performance in the first Windies Test) we pushed on to a location that had been recommended
by a number of different acquaintances: Lagunas de Chacahua.
This is not a mainstream destination and, accordingly, gains a mere few lines in LP. Getting there did require a modicum of effort: a collectivo minibus to Rio Grande, a collectivo taxi to the Zapotalito turn-off and yet another to the dock at Zapotalito itself. As the collectivo draws near to the dock touts swoop in an attempt to lure you into a private, leisurely, scenic, expensive crossing. We'd already told our driver that we wanted the "mas economico" option of a collectivo boat and he delighted in telling them as much. The little motorboats leave every thirty minutes or so and whisk you across the interlinked, Pelican and Cormorant dive-bombed lagoons to another jetty situated in a quiet backwater lined with mangroves. I rather fancied the idea of casting a line from the bank until I remembered the crocs... and that scene from Crocodile Dundee. A ten minute wait later, a respectful distance from the bank, and up rolled a camionetta for the bone-shaking twenty minutes ride to town that sits nestled between beach and lagoon.
It transpired that there are half a dozen
or so such vehicles and their owners rotate pick-ups and drop-offs. Most of the drivers also happen to be hostel owners and so, unless you have an establishment targeted, they get first shot at cajoling you into staying at theirs. All operations are rustic in the extreme with palm frond-roofed wooden huts on, or just back from, the beach. Today's driver was Charlie, a very amiable chap who easily persuaded us to take one of his cheaper huts. At 150p (about $8) this was our cheapest room to date. Situated above the fragrance-free, bucket-flushed, loos it is accessed by wooden stairs of dubious structural integrity, but it does sport a wrap-a-round balcony that catches the sea breeze and is equipped with hammocks, plus a table and chairs; whilst, inside, there is also a free standing fan and semi-functional mosquito net covering the bed. The fan was a real boon for the steamy nights but as the blades were totally unprotected I constantly envisioned Ali being scalped or myself neutered. On our first ascent up to our des-res I observed a large bag of somewhat soggy weed drying on a step. As I was examining the package it's owner, Obdulio, down
for several months from Mexico City, emerged below and regaled his tale of woe: he'd mistakenly taken his stash surfing.
Being so rural all establishments are very much family affairs: Charlie's wife and daughter run the kitchen, when so inclined (great - late - breakfasts, no one rises early here); and his son, when not striding purposefully surf wards with board under arm, potters about fixing what little needs fixing. One night Charlie promised a home cooked meal. Dusk arrived, the beckon for dinner didn't. Eventually surfing son climbed up to our perch and announced that dad had gone (?) to get our dinner, but hadn't returned... Worry not, he'd lead us to a non-touristico place that we'd really like. A few dark, dusty, head torch-lit lanes later and we were presented at what appeared to be a dimly lit family home. Surfing son gave me a knowing nod and stated "enchiladas moi bien". Yes, there were two empty tables in the glowing courtyard but the ladies and babies present were merely relaxing and cooking seemed the furthest thing from their minds. Nevertheless, with our appearance, and with Ali having commandeered a baby, the ladies went to
work. We'd eaten numerous great enchiladas elsewhere and here the fillings (chicken or cheese) were pretty sparse, but never had we tasted such a sauce (mole) or such heavenly earthy purple tortillas - truly they were divine. We ordered more and Ali licked every plate clean. Charlie's sister's "restaurant" was to become our go-to and we'd view with pity those backpackers heading on by who simply were not in the know. Quite where Charlie had disappeared to that first night was never related.
On our second visitation we became aware of distant music emanating from somewhere unseen. Plates licked we followed the sound and discovered a small sandy clearing amidst a copse of trees with a mass of local people assembled around a group of "musicians". Brass, wind and percussion were all in evidence and as we sidled up behind the, apparently rapt, audience we stood in wonder. The performance had been on-going for something like forty minutes and yet - to our ears - surely they were still tuning up. We made a rapid, giggling-repressed, retreat.
In theory getting to the Central Highlands, notably Morelio and Gaunajuato, by the most direct route, would
take you along the coast to Acapulco and then up, a not inconsiderable jaunt requiring three or more buses over several days. In practice it appeared somewhat cheaper, and quicker, to backtrack to Escondido, head up to Mexico city and then westwards to said destinations. That is if you believe LP... Thus this month's peevishly shoddy award is jointly shared between LP and - shock/horror - Mexico itself: the advice given by LP is simply incorrect (there are no second class buses heading in this direction from Mexico City), whilst Mexico has to take the blame for their absence. We had intended to visit Reserva Mariposa Monarca to view the masses of over-wintering Monarch butterflies, then proceed onwards to the scenic town of Morelio before the UNESCO World Heritage city of Gaunajuato. The lack of second class buses, that are half the price of their first class equivalents, simply put the two former targets out of our budget (tight fists). Indeed the cost of overland travel forced our hands into taking multiple flights (crazily cheaper than buses, if booked in advance) for subsequent long distance destinations, whilst omitting other potential stops - San Miguel de Allende was a notable miss.
Surely many Mexicans cannot afford these over-AC'd enforcements, equally backpackers of certain means. Their lack is not encouraging wandering.
Thus, on the back of lousy literary information, we found ourselves once again in Escondido for a further few days at chez Mark - even crap advice has some benefits. Whilst there we became more acquainted with his landlady, the delightful Georgina, who introduced us to a new fruit (the creamy moussey mamay) and who invited us all back to her beautiful home to enjoy the sunset beneath the rooftop palapa (giant thatched canopy) with her gentleman husband Carlos and the family dogs, including Frijoles (or little bean as he's affectionately known). Frijoles is a Chihuahua and a bonus point goes to anyone who knew that the breed originated in.... Malta.
Also whilst with Mark we, much to his disbelief/bemusement/chagrin, completed a drunken boast and named 40 British biscuits: remembering Tunnocks caramel wafers, Viscount biscuits and Viennese whirls was particularly rewarding. On another night we were sat watching an episode of the comedy Catastrophe, the living room door open to the accessible (boot vulnerable) balcony when a very large woman appeared. We all looked up.
Straddling the doorway she, or maybe he, clutched at their breast and gushed something gushing. Mark speaks some Spanish, but he was speechless. We all, frozen, just looked on. The individual advanced into the room proffering a coitish hand whilst blowing kisses with the other. I escorted her (her preferred pronoun) off the premises... and the building, a process that necessitated a great many, overly affectionate - for my tastes - hugs.... and, I admit, a peck on the cheek (received, not given).
Just as the light was softening we finally, begrudgingly of the cost, made it to Guanajuato. Disorientated amongst its narrow, twisting, multi-leveled maze of pastel-coloured streets pickled with dainty plazas and subterranean tunnels we sat on our packs. We hadn't a clue where we were or where we would sleep, but we immediately agreed that the journey was worth every penny.
Apparently it was my turn to go seek refuge and there are far worse places for that to be the case. Hostel Seis 7 had a young but cravated man leaning jauntily against it's open door, beside him was a window in which a blackboard stated 200p/night/person - this was
actually less than we feared we might have to pay, even for a dorm. The quizzical gentleman was indeed the proprietor and that was indeed the rate. No, really that was the rate. No, the rate was the rate regardless of number of nights stayed. I viewed the rooms (and cute roof terrace). Of the fifteen beds between three nice dorms, each on separate floors, not a single one appeared to be occupied. That seemed weird, whilst the dapper man seemed mildly irritated at my hesitancy to snaffle two up. As I departed my "Mykiss, muchos gracias" trailed off with some Spanglish about a peculiarly particular wife... He appeared most surprised when I did actually reappear with said wife who duly loved the place and an hour later we were drinking some vodka on the cute terrace with our proprietor, Amando. It turned out that the two upper floors were fully booked that night (they hadn't arrived yet), that subsequent nights (Sunday through Friday) would be reduced to 170p and that the hostel had actually only been open for three months. We stayed in Guanajuato for four idyllic days. Following that initial Saturday we had the hostel pretty much to
ourselves. Indeed we were regularly the only presence on-site and I personally turned various potential guests away on numerous occasions (one poor lost soul at 1am) as there were no staff (Amando) present to check them in. He'd thanked us but declined our offer of acting as pseudo staff in his absence, seemingly he was little concerned by lost custom.
Our wanderings during our stay never failed to throw up new delights, both visual and culinary. It really is a spectacularly beautiful and romantic destination; the late afternoon light is a wonder. The mercado provided new, delicious variants of pozeles (soups) and rellenos' (breaded, stuffed, chicken or peppers). And then on our last night we chanced to wander (just for a peek) into the restaurant - by appearances well above our budget - directly across from the hostel. The proprietor gave us the full, four floor, tour. They had only been open for three days and their prices were, he was most keen to emphasise, highly competitive, belying - he assured - the quality provided. We said we might well be back and several hours later we were: he was correct on all accounts. Our reasonable bill
was, however, somewhat swollen by the lure of a foxy Argentinian red that was irresistable from atop their deserted classy terrace.
Next up an unwanted stop - Guadalajara, Mexico's second city - purely for the purpose of flying onwards to La Paz, Baja California. According to Mark we were going to hate this place that he described as Mexico's americanised Blackpool, with a hefty price tag. Nevertheless, just off its coast, lurk the Earth's largest fish that were just too much of a draw to be ignored....
The cheapest way from San Jose del Pacifico to Pochutla is by mini bus, 110p
Camionetta from Pochutla to Zipolite, 12p. In Zapolite, on the back-cusp of high season, ca. 300p for a private room w/ bath. Expect to pay at least 500p for a private cabana literally on the beach.
Camionetta from Zipolite to Mazunte (only about 3km, but very hilly), 10p. Cabannas 350p+ away from beach and similar/more to Zipolite on the beach, although dorms on the beach from 120p.
Zipolite to Puerto Escondido: camionetta
from Zipolite to San Antonio, about 35 min. - look for the junction at the Oxxo shop - 15p; then a local bus, about an hour, to Escondido is 50p. Towerbridge hostel (to north of Bococho beach - the most deserted beach, 15 mins walk) - many facilities, great communal areas with small swimming pool, pool table and bar (20p/small beer): private room 320p w/o bath, 350 with; Shalom hostel (cool place in Rinconada - near beaches), dorms 120p, double w/o 300p, double with 350p; hostel at top of 75 steps above Carrizalillo beach (small but popular pretty cove), private room with bath 300p. Two large supermarkets: Chedraui (has everything) near ADO bus station; Bodaga, near central market. Santandere bank on main drag has lowest withdrawal fees, ca. 34p.
P. Escondido to Lagunas de Chacahua: 45p collectivo minibus to Rio Grande; 15p extra to turnoff junction for Zapotalito; then 15p collectivo taxi to the dock at Zapotolito; collectivo boats leave about every 30 mins, 40-50p (private sightseeing boat 200-1000p); and finally a camionetta to Chacahua village, 40p. Total time about 2-3 hrs.
All four beach locations have the option of camping, usually right on
the beach and might even be free if you agree to take your meals at the hosting operation.
P. Escondido to Mexico: mini bus to Oaxaca, 250p (7hrs); bus to Mexico 280p (AU from Oaxaca Periferico, 8hrs). The cheapest direct bus is more expensive and slower (20+ hours and 715p) as it takes a longer route. More expensive buses are...... even more expensive, but much quicker.
Heading north and west from Mexico city appears to be served by only 1st class buses. We attempted to do some journeys in small hops in an effort to pick up more local transport, but it only proved to be considerably slower (no surprise there) and actually.... cost us only marginally less: grrrrrrr. Mexico city to Guanajuato (direct = 660p) via Queretaro (LP said second class buses from here - there weren't) 348p + 280p = 628p. Five extra hours for 32p less, even we aren't that anal... if in the know.
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