Jan. 12-24, 2007
Alone again! Bypassing Manzanilla again, I headed down the Michaocan coast where the 250 km highway hugs the beautiful coast. It reminded my of the Oregon coast passing dozens of untouched beaches and few towns. There were many vistas of beaches stretching for miles. I stopped at Playa Maruta (black sea turtles and very laid back), Playa Marachutitas, and Playa Azul and actually passed three recreational vehicles on the road, possibly the first since crossing the Mexican border. I was developing the feeling that I was an explorer venturing where none had gone before. Bypassing Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan’s largest port city, I entered Guerrero State on my way to Ixtapa, a large resort complex conceived in 1970 by Fonatur, the Mexican governments tourism-development organization that developed Cancun. A string of luxurious resort hotels cater to gringos and a growing Mexican middle class and have privatized all the shoreline contrary to the Mexican public access law. West of the hotels, the beaches are accessible and are popular with Mexicans. I walked a long stretch working on a tan for my still white body. Ten kilometers south is Zihuatanejo, a touristy town set on a beautiful bay with several fine beaches. As my main truck odometer approached 50,000 km, I have traveled 12,600 km since leaving home with 8,300 of it in Mexico.
I then drove the 200 km south to Acapulco, the granddaddy of Mexican resorts. With 700.000 people, it is a big bustling city with tourism as its main focus. Finding a great parking space next to the marina, I walked Old Town and the beach south towards all the big hotels (many overweight old people not speaking English). The fort and the mask museum were closed (Monday), but I caught the I2:30 performance of the La Quebrada cliff divers. Seven young men did flips and swan dives from 25-35 meters into the narrow cove below – quite spectacular. The Volkswagen Beetle, painted white with blue fenders, must be every third car as all of the taxis are beetles. With little else to do other than lay on the beach and fish, which I don’t do, I drove south 100kms along the coast over atrocious roads. Besides being very narrow, they were full of potholes and chickens, donkeys, horses, turkeys, dogs, and pigs. The pigs seemed most oblivious to the dangers. Every house warrants at least two, and more often four topes (speed bumps), and there seems to be a small community every two kilometers. I camped at one of my favorite spots, a Pemex station, with a German couple in a large German-made motor home towing a vehicle. They have been in North America since 2004, having arrived by boat in Halifax. It is getting warmer every day with daily temperatures well over 30. I sleep on top of the sheets.
Driving south along the coast, the roads deteriorated on the way to Puerto Escondido (pop. 60,000) on the Oaxaca coast. Home to many travelers, especially Quebecers, it is a surf mecca. Long straight Playa Zicatela is known as the ‘Mexican Pipeline’ and its big waves test the mettle of surfers far and wide. It is not swimmable due to the strong undertow. Walking along the hip hotels and cafes, I was soon accosted by Marcos, who has lived in BC, many US states and everywhere in Mexico as far as I could tell. Everything he says is laced with so much BS, I can’t believe a word he says but he seems harmless enough. Despite making millions of dollars and giving it all away, he has eschewed money or possessions, but still manages a healthy beer and cigarette habit. We had beer with two military, talked to an ex-CIA agent (with the bullet wound to prove it), a Torontonian who runs the movie theater in town, a fellow from Missouri who makes hot air balloons in all shapes and sizes, and bought bread from an Austrian women carrying it around on her head. Marcos wants to go to Palenque and has attached himself to me for the ride. We drove south along the coast to Pochutla and turned north on highway 178 to begin the long, twisty climb over the Sierra Madre Sur to Oaxaca. Just as steep and narrow as the Devils Backbone to Durango, there were thankfully no trucks. We stopped at San Jose del Pacifico, where he owns land (part of the 7000 acres he owns all over the place!), and mostly bought drugs. Outside of Oaxaca, we stopped in Ocotlan to see the church with its beautiful, colorful paintwork.
Oaxaca (pop. 400,000) is the state capital. It was destroyed completely in two large earthquakes in 1854 and 1931. Site of the riots last year, many building still are covered in graffiti. Every building in town has graffiti, much of it painted over in large swathes of other color. Dry and hot, the colonial center has a strong cultural and restaurant scene and arguably the best handicraft shopping in Mexico. Around the zocalo, we visited the churches of La Campania, San Juan de Dios (Oaxaca’s first church dating from 1520 with many murals and paintings), and the cathedral dating from 1553 with its fine baroque carving. The State Government Palace had a wonderful courtyard and fine murals. I parked next to the Central de Abastos, a huge market covering several city blocks, where you can buy almost anything. The next day we hit the Basilica de la Soledad, Museo Rufino Tamayo (wonderful pre-Hispanic art museum), and Iglesia de Santa Domingo (the most splendid of Oaxaca’s churches – built 1570-1608 by the finest artisans from Puebla, immensely thick stone walls to survive earthquakes, interior lavish with gilded and colored stucco). The best mescal in the world is made around Oaxaca and is for sale everywhere. It is made in hundreds of small operations each with a horse turning a large millstone for grinding the cooked agave hearts. The ancient Zapotec capital of Monte Alban stands on a flattened hilltop 1500 feet above Oaxaca to the north-west. Built from 500 BC to 800 AD, it commands 360 degree views. Surrounding a grand plaza are multiple pyramids and temples. Thanks to Marcos, we were allowed to stay overnight in the parking lot, and I enjoyed the quietest night of the trip.
Leaving Oaxaca, we traveled SW back towards the ocean. It was a large detour inland to see Oaxaca. Just outside of town is El Tule, a huge tree claimed to be the largest single biomass in the world. 2000-3000 years old, 58 meters around and 42 m high, it dwarfs the 17th century church it stands beside. Road signs in Mexico can be very frustrating as at important intersections, the one you need isn’t there. There was a sign for El Tule on the outskirts of Oaxaca but not another especially for that crucial one needed to leave the highway. We detoured to Mitla whose ruins contain many painted mosaics. The 260 km drive went up and over 5 small rugged mountain ranges covered with cactus similar to organ pipe cactus. We drove into the small lakeside town of Jalapa del Marques just as they were celebrating San Marques day with a great parade. Seven pairs of bullocks pulling carts led three bands and groups of women in wonderful embroidered dresses carrying flowers.
Staying between Tehuantepec and Juchitan, the strong wind is notorious as it sweeps down from the north. The camper rocked and rolled all night and made Lethbridge seem calm. Twelve semi-trailer trucks had blown over the previous day and two were turned over when we passed. Threatened with the same fate, we drove very slowly for 35kms where the wind funnels through the mountains in the narrowest part of Mexico. A large wind farm with hundreds of turbines lined the road. We entered the State of Chiapis – beautiful landscapes, a rich indigenous culture, and many archaeological sites. Bananas and coffee, oil and gas and hydroelectric power make it one of the richest states but most citizens are very poor with wealth concentrated in a small oligarchy. The 1994 Zapotista revolution was centered in Chiapis when they occupied four towns with a goal of overturning the wealthy local oligarchy’s centuries old hold on land, resources and power. Easily repelled by the Mexican army, they continued the battle mainly by the internet with the charismatic Subcomandante Marcos (actually a former university professor named Rafael Guillen) becoming a cult figure. Little has been achieved for the poor indigenous peoples and there is a strong military presence in the state ready for the next revolution.
Arriving in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital city of Chiapis State (population 500,000), I visited Mexico’s best zoo with its many big cats including jaguar, puma, and ocelot, crocodiles, and many birds including macaws and many types of parrots. The enclosures were spacious set in natural settings and most signs were in English. A few miles south of Tuxtla is Chiapa de Corzo (population 35,000), a small colonial town in the midst of their annual fiesta (January 9-21), the Fiesta de Enero. It was quite a spectacle with nightly dances involving cross dressing young men. Blond wigged, mask wearing Parchicos (conquistador-impersonators) were everywhere. The large plaza was filled with a midway reminiscent of small town midways at home, and hundreds of stalls selling food and carney games of skill (like ours heavily biased to losing). It was a loud, crowded affair. Another highlight was a marimba band with seven players on three marimbas – they were excellent. The players were a father and his two sons and four daughters. The next day I took a boat trip up the spectacular Canon del Sumidero, a 35 km long reservoir produced by a hydroelectric dam, through a canyon with sheer 800 meter high rock walls.
I drove 75km up into the mountains to San Cristobal de las Casas (pop. 50,000, elevation 2163m), a beautiful colonial town with cobbled streets and nearby indigenous villages. Northwest of town, I drove to the Huitepec Ecological Reserve, a 2.5 km guided walk through an oak forest and up a ridge into a cloud forest with many orchids. The nearby town of San Juan Chamula is home to the fiercely independent Chamulans, a subgroup of Mayans. Beside the plaza filled with vendors is the Templo de San Juan, their main church, the only church I’ve been to that charged admission (20 pesos). The only Catholic function carried on in the church is baptisms. Otherwise the practices are still Mayan in origin. With no pews, people kneel on the floor covered in pine needles. Glassed cases with Catholic saints line the walls and thousands of candles are burning, giving it a smoky, wax smell. Candles in glasses cover multiple tables in front of the effigies and thousands, from birthday sized to large, are stuck onto the floor. Headless chickens and yucca flowers adorn the walls. Everybody is chanting. Pictures are forbidden inside the church and the locals resent their pictures being taken. Local dress is distinctive with men wearing thick black wool tunics and the women in heavy wool pleated skirts, lavishly embroidered satin blouses and light cardigans. Conflicts between adherents to traditional Chamulan religion and converts to Protestantism have resulted in the expulsion of thousands of Chamulans from their villages, and they now inhabit the shantytowns around San Cristobal de las Casas. I next went to San Lorenzo Zinacantan on the last day of the festival of San Sebastion (Jan. 19-22). The large plaza was a sea of purple with everyone wearing purple tunics lavishly embroidered with flowers in pink, blue and silver thread. Many men wore flat wound palm hats festooned with ribbons. Many rituals were carried out by two men wearing jaguar costumes leading several men with brown leggings, black tunics and baseball hats and faces painted black. They carried stuffed rodents the size of ferrets. One ritual had them climbing a tree with short stripped branches and when descending they waved the stuffed rodents as if biting the ones coming down. They paraded into the church backwards behind a band playing odd versions of typical instruments. There were horse races with the crowds lining the dirt road and covering the hillside. As I was the only gringo and almost the only one not wearing the purple tunic, I tended to stand out. Photography is banned everywhere.
Over the next two days, I explored San Cristobal, climbing two hills on either side of the central district, and visiting a few mediocre museums, an orchid garden, and the usual gaggle of churches. Only one, the Templo de Santo Domingo was worth the visit. Built between 1547 and 1560, it has a unique baroque façade and very lavishly gilded interior with many religious oil paintings. The church is surrounded by a supercolorful market operated by Chamulan women and bohemian types from around the world. There were local and Guatemalan textiles, woolen goods, leather products, dolls, hippie jewelry and more. The busy municipal market gives a real flavor of the regions indigenous character. With a warren of stalls, the selection of fresh vegetables and fruit is incredible. The meat vendors take some getting used to as everything is unrefrigerated and the cuts of meat available resemble nothing we have. There are many gringos, most European and mostly young. As the odometer approaches 10,000 km, I wanted to obtain an oil change. The Chev dealer in Oaxaca did not service diesel trucks and the ones in Tuxtla and San Cristobal did not have the oil or filter. After ordering the filter from Mexico City, and walking all over San Cristobal, I was finally able to find the correct oil. Another lesson learned. The next time I come south of the US border, I will bring oil and filters with me. Tonight (Jan 24), I went to a play, Palenque Rojo, about a war between two Mayan city states, Palenque and Tonina, that was in Mayan so nobody could understand it. An excellent synopsis was handed out so the story was easy to follow. The costumes were incredible and the play very well done – a highlight of San Cristobal.
Tomorrow I leave for Palenque and the Yucatan before starting the return trip home. I’m looking forward to seeing all the Mayan ruins. Still not missing the winter as it has been quite cold at home.