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Published: April 8th 2018
We left the flat, fairly good roads of the Yucatan behind and commenced our journey towards Oaxaca (pronounced wahaca). We bumped along the road to Escarcega, turned east/right to follow the coastline of Bahia de Campeche, & took our last look at the turquoise blue sea, before heading back west across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
This is the narrowest point of the country and was once the route considered for the building of the canal to link the Atlantic & Pacific Oceans. However Panama got the gig. Perhaps one reason for it not being chosen is that the Chivela mountain pass provides a gap for the wind to pass between the mountain ranges, so at times it is very, very gusty. I imagine some days the ships may have travelled though in record time. Now, instead of the canal there is a road lined by hundreds of wind machines dotted across the landscape.
We avoided being blown off the road and took the beautiful, narrow, twisty, mountain road to our destination. Tantalisingly, on our 2016 map there was a suggestion that a Cuota/Toll road may have been completed, that would make the journey considerably easier.
Journey to Oaxaca
A few tricky road situations. Top right , someone is definitely on the wrong side of the road.
However we discovered there was the small matter of a few kilometres left to build and currently no building going on, so it was the mountain road for us.
But before tackling that, we stopped at Isla Aguada at a campsite we had visited before. We had met a really inspirational man here so this place had always stayed in our minds. The site was run by Bill and his wife Thelma. As a young man in the Marines he had sustained an injury that left him quadriplegic. This didn’t stop him though, he was a successful businessman, had a career as a teacher, travelled everywhere in their adapted RV and 12 years ago, when we met, they were working on making their place a wheelchair friendly RV park & resort. We thought we would stop in and see what had happened.
They had completed the project but sadly Bill had died about 5 years ago but Thelma was there running the place and fulfilling their dream. Whilst we were here we noticed a man deliver a really smart bike cover for the couple a few spaces down. We went to look and were
really impressed by the result. Our bike cover puts up a fight every time we take it on and off. It gets filthy dirty, ergo so do I, it never goes on the same each time and it takes up far too much of my life trying to squeeze it over the bikes . Looking at this creation I had instant cover envy. A bespoke, made to measure cover, how could we resist?
Could you make one for our bikes? We enquired, and then added would it take long as we are planning to leave Sunday / Monday morning at the latest. With Thelma overseeing the project he whipped out his tape measure and sketch pad, made a few notes said it will be here by Sunday morning or....... at the latest Monday morning. Yeah really! We are used to Mexican time now, so decided that at worst it would be here by Monday morning which would be OK.
Sunday came and went. Early Monday morning there was a phone call to say he was 10 minutes away.....we couldn’t believe it....even allowing for Mexican time we would be away by midday. Midday came and
went, we had lunch, we idled a few more hours away, too late to leave now so had a beer. Then at 6pm a very happy smiling man appeared with our very smart cover. Well worth the wait. Next day, bespoke bike cover in situ, we were on our way.
Our journey took us from sea level to 5101 ft /1555 meters; we were driving into Mescal country. As we wound our way up the mountain roads, we noted rocky arid landscapes replacing the lush green jungle, cactus and agave plants replacing banana, cacoa and rubber trees. So different but equally beautiful. Two overnight Pemex stops and a three day journey we pulled into our campground.
The State of Oaxaca is one of the safest in Mexico but ironically the second poorest, partly due to its geographical location and its large indigenous population. There are sixteen officially recognised indigenous groups each with their own culture, language and traditions, but there are actually many more. These indigenous villages are renowned for the high quality handcrafts they produce which outside this area, sell for loads of money.
Oaxaca is a vibrant, arty, university,
world heritage city. It is known for its Colonial buildings, many of which are made from green volcanic stone, arts and cuisine. There are the usual beautiful churches, monasteries, museums, and markets to visit, as well as colourful pretty streets to stroll along, and leafy squares in which you can sit and watch the world go by. Oaxaca is also a place of demonstrations and we watched a couple of those too. Long considered “Mexico's culinary capital”, Oaxaca is most famous for the variety of moles (sauces) available here. The origins of this dish go back to the melding of Spanish and Arabic food in Spain which after the conquest incorporated new world ingredients such as chile mulato, 'miltomate' (a small whitish wild tomato), tomatoes, peanuts, avocado leaves, and chocolate. Moles can be found in many parts of Mexico, but Oaxaca has the greatest variety including negro (black), Colorado (red), coloradito (faint red), chichilo, verde (green), amarillo (yellow), and manchamanteles, which rather wonderfully translates as 'stainer of tablecloths'.
The other speciality here is chocolate. Not Cadburys or the Hershey variety, but a thick, rich, variety flavoured with cinnamon or almonds which you buy in blocks, or powder
form. Chocolate has always had special importance here, as well as well as being a foodstuff, it was also used as medicine, and before the Conquest cacao seeds were used as money. The Mole Negro (our favourite) is chocolate based, and we came across some chocolate pasta. Believe it or not we are still building up to try the rich chocolate drink.
There are some really good restaurants here, and we were going to try a few, so we kept our culture tourism to a minimum and our gourmet tourism to the maximum. Long lunches and a few cocktails made for perfect days out.
To earn our lunch, we first wandered around the museum of Oaxacan culture, which is housed in the former monastery buildings attached to Santo Domingo church. They were restored in 1996 and considered to be one of the best restoration works in Latin America.
The courtyards with beautiful stone fountains in the centre are surrounded by vaulted ceiling passages, cupolas and intricate corridors, where small rooms, once cells, now housing displays, aligned each side. The ceiling of the central grand staircase is decorated with the usual beautiful
but depressing, understated Spanish religious art. I think one thing the Spanish Conquistadors forgot to bring with them was a sense of fun. We skipped by all the rather morbid religious Hispanic stuff to enjoy the rather more attractive pre Hispanic, Zapotec and Mixtec displays instead.
At the campground we had been told there was a good auto paintshop a few Km away, in the small town of Tlacolula. We have received a few chips and scrapes as we travelled around and we were still sporting the scrape on the roof we got in Patzcuaro last year, we went down for them to assess our damage. Sure enough, it could be done, no problem. We could stay in the Motor home whilst the work was being done, Tlacolula was a 10 minute walk, which we wanted to visit anyway, and there was a 24hr donut shop next door, oh and they also made their own Mescal, which was strangely nice. It had a sort of smoky / diesel taste!! We moved there for a few days.
Tlacolula (from the Nahuatal for “place of abundance.") Is known for its Sunday market (tianguis), this is one
of the oldest continuous markets in Mesoamerica. People come from all the surrounding communities to buy, sell and socialize. There are over a thousand stalls crammed in along the narrow streets selling anything you could think of required for daily life, as well as many things that are not. They also trade the beautiful crafts that all the villages around here are famous for.
Locals used to jokingly refer to this market as "Tokyolula" since it carried many counterfeit and cheap items from Asia. In the 80s there was a concerted, and quite successful effort to eliminate this trade but the counterfeit goods have made their way back, especially CDs and DVDs.... I hear they are quite good. Even if you can’t find the bargain of your dreams, It is a colourful, vibrant place to wander around. The women all wear their traditional dress, and as each village has its own style, there is plenty to look at.
Nearby is Hierve el Agua, which we had been told many times “you MUST visit”. So we did. Hierve el Agua, which translates as "the water boils", are natural rock formations that resemble cascades of water.
They are created by fresh water springs that are over-saturated with calcium carbonate and other minerals. As the water seeps over the cliffs, the excess minerals are deposited creating a frozen waterfall.
They are high up in the mountains, and to reach them we caught the local truck taxi from Mitla. You could get a typical cab and take the new paved road, but why would you when you can be packed into a small truck and for 50 minutes bounce along the narrow, winding, unpaved, dusty, mountainous back road to the site. At one point as we took a 180 degree turn in the track we got our first glance of the falls way down below us. The view from this route was worth the dust bath along the way.
The site consists of two cliffs which rise between fifty and ninety metres from the valley below. The water collects in pools before the water flows over the edge. You can bathe in the therapeutic, green blue waters; it is nature’s ultimate infinity pool. The view is fantastic. We will now tell everyone we meet “You MUST go and see them”.
This area is also of archaeological interest because of the extensive irrigation system and terraces cut into the side of the mountain by the Zapotecs more than 2,500 years ago. Researchers have studied the terraces and canals and concluded that it is an irrigation system unique in Mexico.
Whilst here we took a daytrip to Mitla, the most important site of the Zapotecs. We have seen lots of ruins, but what makes Mitla unique among them is the elaborate and intricate mosaic fretwork, & geometric designs that cover tombs, friezes, and walls. These mosaics are made with small, finely cut and polished stone pieces which have been fitted together without the use of mortar. No other site in Mexico has this.
Oaxaca is a great area to explore, there are many more villages and sites to see and over a couple of weeks we enjoyed a few of them
Then with a refill of good food inside us, small stock of Mescal stashed and a shiny new paint job we set off towards Teotihuacan. We had stopped here last year and liked it. It is easy to access, we like
the pyramids and it is an easy hour bus trip from Mexico City. This was really the reason for this stop as Brad, whom Graeme had toured / worked with in the past was on tour with Phil Collins and they were in Mexico City, and he would get us passes to the show.
We decided to make a mini break of it: a quick Hotel.com search; accommodation booked; 40 peso bus ticket( 80p) purchased, and we were on our way. Actually the “quick hotel search” may have been a little too quick. Only as we were on the way, whilst I was reading the guide book, I noted it said: “this previously sleazy area has considerably improved recently.”
It was fine, it was the area where The Mariachi bands gathered every night to play. Now Mariachi music is a bit rowdy at the best of times, but many bands playing at the same time made it a little difficult to distinguish any tune at all. It was a bit overwhelming perhaps but a very joyous cacophonous noise.
Everything you read, and everyone you meet advise that you should always take
a licensed taxi in the city. At the bus station there are signs telling you to take a picture of your cabs number and the photo license displayed on the cabs window. It is a really efficient service. Having got across the city to our hotel and wandered about a bit it was time to go to the concert. We were standing on the roadside wondering whether to use the tube, Uber or get a cab, when a licensed Mexico City taxi pulled up and discharged his passenger. Decision made, we waved him over and asked him how much it was to the venue. “No, meter, meter” he said pointing to a meter. “Ok pero quanto es?” we asked again.....he just flicked the meter on. We looked at each other, well; it is a proper cab we said so we got in.
A rather crazy death defying taxi journey across Mexico City commenced. It was like “Wacky races” as we whizzed through the traffic, weaving in and out. The city had just experienced a torrential, tropical downpour, & we created tsunami-like waves as we passed through the tunnels. All the while the driver was speaking to himself,
or maybe not perhaps it was his phantom friend. Having taken my eyes from the road for a moment I noticed the meter, its little dials were spinning round like fruit machine bars. I nudged Graeme and nodded towards it, we sat mesmerised watching it. We then also noticed the really poorly doctored, photocopied Cab licence on the window.
Due to our earlier trip we knew approximately how much it should be, so were fascinated to watch the fare double, then treble. We arrived at the venue, cut across a few lanes of traffic and slammed to a halt, 500 peso he said. ....... “No, es incorrecto” we said....... 500$ he insisted, whilst locking the doors. We sat there, traffic flowing around us as water goes around a pebble in a stream. Your Taxi ID is fake, we pointed out, indicating towards the poorly photocopied / laminated licence with the name and number tippexed out. I took a photo. Locked in, we sat there a bit longer, Graeme explained that we knew how much the fare should be, & offered him the amount we had paid earlier from the bus station into town.... Oh the insult, a
stream of taxi drivers curses poured forth, however as it was all in very excitable Spanish we just sat and looked at him with bemusement. That’s a no then? We sat a bit longer. He tried to make us feel as if we were robbing him, instead of him robbing us. Eventually, reluctantly, (but we had a concert to go to) Graeme upped the offer by 50$ / £2, he jumped at the cash, unlocked the doors and off we went. So much for only take the licensed cabs we said as we wandered off to find our tickets.
After several false attempts we eventually found the place to pick up the tickets for seats G1&2 / A1. The girl showing us to our seats, stopped at the end of a row, waved her torch around indicating they were down there somewhere. We looked at the seat number, Graeme pointed out it said G22, and she nodded and again indicated we should push our way through the entire row. Graeme tried to suggest that as 1&2 might be the other end would it not be easier to walk around to that end of the row? This went
on for a while, attracted a few other staff all of whom looked at the tickets and pointed down the row. Eventually, someone got the idea and walked us around the other side and hey Presto there were seats right on the end and no need to disturb anyone. Exhausted we collapsed into them. There we were enjoying a great performance by Chrissie Hynde & The Pretenders, when we noted two people staring at us, pointedly looking at our seat numbers. The usher came along indicated we were put into the wrong seats, and we should move. Tickets closely re examined we were in G1/2 but section A2, off we went, escorted to even better seats just 7 rows from the front. They were excellent seats, I was thrilled, at concerts / films etc there is always a tall man lurking about, just waiting to sit /stand in front of me, so this was perfect. Well almost, there was a man sitting in one of our seats but once he was evicted we settled down to enjoy the show.
So, now, here comes my first grumpy old woman moment. Phil Collins comes on, naturally everyone stands up
to cheer and clap, fine, they will sit down soon. ...... Out come the phones. Fine, take a few pictures....... then watch the show, wouldn’t you think? No, just six rows from the front and everyone appears to be watching the show through their phones. The set had the usual huge screens at the side and back of the stage. Then I realised that, as everyone was standing up the people in front of me were actually filming the screens. They were six rows or nearer from the actual person they had come to see, you couldn’t get better seats but they were filming the screen!!. There is something so wrong here. Anyway, being at the end I could look down the aisle and watch the real thing, it was an excellent show. Thank you Brad.
Mexico City is a fantastic place, so many things to see. Last time we visited Casa Azul, Frida Khalos house, so this time we decided to visited Frieda and Diego Rivera’s studio, situated in the arty suburb of San Angel. Here, you can you see where and how they worked and lived, in the buildings, designed by a friend of Rivera,
the famous painter and architect Juan O’Gorman.
Built in the 30s O’Gorman’s work caused a heated controversy by combining organic Mexican architecture and architectural murals with functionalism. It was one of the first examples of functionalist architecture. O’Gorman designed and built two concrete blocks independent of one another but linked by a narrow bridge that joined the rooftops. One block is red and represents Diego. The other is blue, representing Frida. The rooftop bridge that united them represents the bond of love between them.....ahhhh.
Whilst traditional Mexican touches, including murals and fencing created by planting rows of cactus were included. These structures are more functional and factory-like than Fridas more homely Casa Azul. Built with huge windows and orientated for the optimum light at all times of the day, it is very much a working space. Frida Kahlo lived here until her death in 1954, Rivera continuing to live there until he died three years later.
We completed our arts tour by visiting Rivera’s murals museum. On display here is his famous "Dream of a Sunday afternoon in the Alameda" Mural. This fifty foot fresco depicts a Sunday walk through Alameda
Park, Mexico City’s first city park which was built on the grounds of an ancient Aztec marketplace. It represents three principal eras of Mexican History: The Conquest, The Porfiriato Dictatorship, and the 1910 Revolution. With Catrina in the centre, Diego represented as a child and Frida standing behind him, they are flanked by numerous important people of history, there are more than a hundred historical figures in the mural. The museum helped interpret the scenes by having actors play the figures represented in the painting, telling their tales.
After a perfect city break, a bit of culture, some music, several good meals and a Mexican taxi story to tell we caught the bus back to Teotihuacan.
Having enjoyed it so much last time we decided to go again to the “Experiencia Nocturna en Teotihuan” or sound and light show at the Pyramids. Last time I seemed to spend quite a lot of the time trying to work out how to use the audio gadget thing (iphone) they give you, only to find out later I had a faulty set. So this time I was ready for all the technology and wouldn’t be distracted. Actually
just to be able to see this amazing site at night, with the fabulous lighting is worth the experience on its own.
In small groups you walk along the Avenue of the Dead towards the Pyramid of the Moon, stopping along the way to listen to the tape guide and watch the buildings spectacularly illuminated. It was much better this time as I had the right narration to the correct building. At the end you sit opposite the Pyramid of the Sun, which is then used as the backdrop to the light show. Audio guide working, yes, correct channel, yes, correct language, yes, sound level good, headphones working, all excellent. This time I had no technical problems. I was really anticipating being able to focus completely on the show. I knew how good it was. I was really looking forward to it.
Here comes grumpy moment number two.
So, we are sat on the steps of the ruins, enigmatic lighting along the Avenue of the Dead, even nature was helping to set the mood. We watched as forked lighting flashed away lighting up the night sky behind the Pyramid of the
It is pitch black silence for quite some while then, atmospheric music starts playing, they really build the anticipation for you.... I was in “The zone” when the guy in front of me got his phone out. This in itself is fine, it is a very photogenic show, and we had all been instructed not to use flash so as not to be distracting, but he turns it on and................ up pops a bright white screen with a selection of bunny faces!! He was then filming a black void with Bunny faces superimposed on it. I tried so hard to ignore it, I really did but all I could see out of the corner of my eye were these Rabbit ears on the screen. Eventually I gave in, I leaned forward, tapped him on the shoulder, pointed to the phone and said you are really annoying me the Rabbit ears have to go. He looked at me like I was a madwoman (possibly true, I was cross) as I frantically tapped on the screen of the phone in an agitated manner. I didn’t know what language he spoke but he got the message. After several attempts
he eventually found how to remove the bunny faces. He continued to film the entire show sans rabbit ears. Occasionally I glanced at the screen and all that was on it a faint outline of the pyramid in the distance, bet that will be worth watching back. I settled down and re immersed myself into the moment. It is one of the best sound and light shows I have seen. I would add a picture but having made a scene I was too scared to take any photos.
We returned to our campsite to encounter Grumpy woman moment number three.
On out travels we have met mostly Europeans, usually single or couples. The exception to this is the French. They are travelling En famile. Most are travelling in quite small vehicles often with three or four kids. It turns out the French are allowed to take their children out of school for extended periods. As they have travelled they have met up and now often collect together in a group. Initially I thought that’s nice, what an experience for them all. But gradually as we have observed them we realised that it’s the adults
that want to be away and the kids have no idea where they are, don’t want to see ruins etc and all they want to do is play. This is fair enough, but......whilst the adults all turn on their ”I can’t hear the kids button” and have a nice social moment they let the kids use the campground as their backyard. So whilst their kids are running amuck screaming (why do little girls have to scream at such a high pitch) the rest of us, who don’t have that “I can’t hear the kids switch” are left traumatised. I truly hate them and............ Like cats or dogs that know you don’t like them, they are attracted to you, they all came and played around us.
Really frustratingly, due to my pathetic lack of language skills I can’t even engage them in a discussion of why that’s not a good idea! One is OK, two I can manage but any more ...... it’s just like being surrounded by frenetic gremlins and these ones had bows and arrows! One evening we watched in interest as the parents were all having a nice social pre dinner drink whilst the kids
explored the delight of Mexican electricity by playing with the hanging out of the wall, socket wires whilst earthing themselves with a metal plate. Oh well, I guess its Darwinism at work.( It wasn’t just me, even the campsite owner stayed away!
We had a month left in Mexico and were deciding what to do. We really were at that crossroads. Semana Santa (Easter) was coming up, a big holiday for the Mexicans. The remaining places we wanted to stop wouldn’t really take a month and we didn’t plan on entering the US until then.
We looked at our rapidly deteriorating paper map and considered our choices. Should we head back into the mountains, visit my favourite place of Patzcuaro or have a seaside stop before we hit real life again ? We could visit Christine and Bernard who were at Lo de Marcos, where we had stopped at the start of the trip but were driven out by the humidity. This idea appealed to us. It was only a two day detour, we could join in a Mexican holiday and catch up with friends, so that’s what we did .
We arrived, It was now a pleasant, non humid 30c . The air was clear, the sea warm and the beer cold. As the Easter weekend drew nearer the previously empty beach filled up with brightly coloured umbrellas, awnings, palm leave palapas and any other type structure that could be constructed. In the hot afternoon sun we watched as mariachi bands, in full mariachi outfits strolled by, playing requests for a few pesos, families and couples danced. You will never starve on a Mexican beach, alongside the usual mobile retail opportunities of jewellery, hammocks, brightly coloured fish mobiles and dresses, to name a few items, a constant stream of fruit cups, mangos on sticks, empanadas, nuts, ice cream, fruit drinks, oysters & donut sellers pass by, calling out their wares. Crates full of cold Cervaza are hauled down, beach restaurants build extensions, the ocean now lapping gently around the table legs and food stalls pop up everywhere. Different food maybe, different music, definitely, but families the world over enjoy the same seaside fun.
We decided to stay here a while and prepare ourselves for re entry into the real world later in the month.
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