Wednesday, November 22
As the plane arrived in Mexico City, we weren't sure where we were going to spend the night. The plan was to get to Oaxaca as soon as possible and that meant potentially taking an overnight bus from the capital's eastern TAPO bus terminal. If there weren't any more busses that night, we figured we'd take a cab downtown, get a hotel and leave the next morning.
After going through customs, we entered the airport's modern arrival area, where we were besieged by Mexican men offering taxi services. If there was one thing I'd learned from reading my guidebooks, it's that you don't get in just any taxi in Mexico City, due to a history of extremely violent robberies of tourists. I'd read that there was a licensed "Transportation Terrestrial??" taxi ticket booth, where you could buy set-fare tickets to zoned parts of the capital. This was difficult to find, on the absolute far end of the arrival area. On the way there, with Lee looking like she was fading with her heavy bag, I asked one of the taxi hawkers how much he charged to TAPO. He offered $15, for what my guidebook should be a $7 ride.
Eventually, at the ticket booth, I bought a $7 ticket, and we got in one of the safer green sedan taxis. It took just 10 minutes or so to get to the bus station. We got off the airport freeway to enter some grimy secondary streets with industrial developments, then a quiet and tidy residential area. Soon, the gigantic round TAPO bus station came into view. The taxi let us off at the curb, and we had to lug our bags through a long tunnel that passed under the tarmac of the bus station.
The inside of the bus terminal was surprisingly nice. It had a number of fast-food counters, and some kiosks where you could buy drinks and bagged snacks. We found the Cristobol Colon bus counter, and found that there was an 11 p.m. 1st class overnight bus departing for Oaxaca, which would be leaving in about an hour. I bought two tickets for about $15 each.
LeeAnn was feeling a bit uneasy. Her heart was racing and she was having a little breathing trouble -- probably from the altitude. I got her a drink from one of the few kiosks that was still open, and soon she was feeling better. She starting obsessing about a guy who had fallen asleep in a chair and had lost his hat off of the back of his head. I finally forced her to go put it in the seat beside him.
We boarded the bus, which was as comfortable as any tourist coach, and I began getting our pillows out, as well as my eye mask and earplugs. I stayed awake for the first half-hour or so, as I watched the city go by. We passed by huge, wide boulevards with heavy traffic, and brightly-lit nighttime market stalls set up on the sidewalks or the median. This first/third world contrast was further accentuated by the presence of US-style motels on the sides of the road at various places. The motels were centainly car-oriented, but were all built around a central courtyard -- where cars could be parked -- with only concrete walls facing the street, in the typical Latin American style.
I started dozing off as we headed into the mountains. When I woke up, the bus was stopped, and people were wandering around the aisle with flashlights. A checkpoint, I thought. Except we didn't move on. LeeAnn wasn't sleeping, and she kept fidgeting and waking me up. It was cold in the mountains, and with the bus stopped, there wasn't any heat. I wished I had a blanket. I came in and out of sleep until the faintest light started peeking in the windows. The bus started moving again.
Thursday, November 23
LeeAnn, who apparently hadn't slept at all, said she saw a horribly wrecked semi-trailer on the side of the road, and she figured we'd stopped because the accident had closed the highway.
As we passed through the mountains, I noticed an unusual fact about the terrain. The soil was a deep red, and was bare and eroded in many places, as in the arid parts of the American southwest. Lush green shrubbery, small crops, and trees covered the vast majority of the landscape. The area was very sparsely populated.
We reached a soldier-manned interchange on the two-lane highway, and we exited to refill with gas. We didn't seem to get back on the same road, but maybe I was wrong. Regardless, it was less than an hour before we started winding down the hills north of Oaxaca City. The houses in the hills north of town were a diverse mix of aluminum shacks and large, impressive homes. You could see below to the sprawling city with its low-rise construction nearly filing the valley ringed by mountains.
The first class bus terminal was on a wide boulevard with suburban-style development. A motel was next door, and a standalone restaurant with a parking lot across the street. We grabbed a cab and negotiated a $3 fare to our chosen destination, the Magic Hostel, where we'd planned to stay to just shower and store our stuff for the day before getting on another overnight bus for the coast.
The door to the Magic Hostel was locked, and when we saw a scruffy backpacker go in, we relented, knowing it wasn't for us. This was a real youth hostel. We shelpped our bags a couple of blocks over to the main square, where LeeAnn had decided she wanted to stay. She was waffling on the whole idea of taking another overnight bus -- she was tired and quite grouchy. We checked out the nicest hotel facing the square, and saw that the posted rates were an outrageous $85 per night. We quickly exited and got a table for breakfast on the sidewalk on the north side of the square.
The central square of Oaxaca is lovely and relaxing. There is an attractive gazebo in the middle, with small snack stands in a downstairs level. This is surrounded by green space of shrubs and trees with trunks painted white. Gently curving sidewalks pass through the square, with abundant park benches to sit and relax. Around the square, colonial-style buildings frame the setting, as artists and musicians roam around to entertain visitors.
We enjoyed the view, as well as an excellent Oaxacan breakfast. Oaxacan string cheese should not be missed -- it has a fantastic texture and a mild but rich flavor. I had it served on top of a dish of tortillas in spicy tomato sauce with onions and cheese on top. Along with this, I had a glass of something called Chocolate, but which was white and tasted a bit like nutmeg. Lee had the Veracruz-style eggs, which were equally delicious. The meal total with coffee and juice for two came to about $10.
While Lee was having another cup of coffee, I ran back into the expensive hotel to check the price verbally and see the room. An English-speaking confirmed the $85 price, and sent a bellman to show me a bright, and clean room with a view of the cathedral square adjacent to the main one. It was nice, but not spectacular. I told the senorita at the desk that I would check elsewhere, and after conferring with Lee, I went into the other hotel on the square, the one on the west side.
From the time I went in, it was clear that this place was a museum. Orange-brown carpet and similar threadbare furniture was in the lobby, and behind the desk was a fantastic telephone switchboard, complete with plugs to connect calls to various rooms. Shockingly, it appeared to still be in use. I asked to see a room, anyway, and was shown one for $45 and one for $55.
The cheaper room was small, with the same old furniture, a sagging bed, and a view of a cinderblock wall. The bathroom had a musty smell, mildew-stained caulk, and a faucet that put out disgusting rust-colored water. The more expensive room had less threadbare, but equally dated furnishings, and a less nasty bathroom whose water still managed to leak all over the counter. The view from here was also of a cinderblock wall. I thanked the man at the desk, but left quickly.
Lee and I then walked around the pretty square facing the cathedral to check yet another room, which was somewhat overpriced at $35 for a nicely furnished but windowless cave. Lee was starting to get picky -- wanting something brighter for our short stay -- and after we left we began to fight. She walked away from me, and I sat down on a park bench to read the paper until the situation was diffused. We then went around the corner to the Hotel Las Rosas, which had a nice central courtyard with a fountain. We paid $35 for a huge room with 4 OK beds, and a hot shower. There wasn't much of a view, but it was convenient at less than a block from the square.
I showered and changed clothes. Lee laid down and I said I was gong to go read the paper in the square. After a bit more fighting, and Lee's hyperbolic proposals that we spend the day apart, I agreed to come back in one hour.
I grabbed an English-language Mexico City newspaper from a magazine store on the corner of the square, and read some more details about the wildly close election still being contested in the United States. While I sat in the park, I watched a quiet student vigil and demonstration in front of some of the state governmental offices. I did some people watching, and before I knew it, it was time to go back to the room.
Lee and I then walked down a cruddy city street with high foot traffic and narrow sidewalks as we headed toward the main city market. The businesses along the way included countless pharmacies, restaurants and music stores. We had to cross a very busy boulevard to get to the market area. We found that we were accidentally on the side of the second class bus terminal, so we had to cross another street to get to the market.
This market was huge, and absolutely a local affair. Covered stalls went on for perhaps a half mile. Goods included everything locals would want -- fresh meat, produce, tires, cheap clothing, blankets, toys, etc. There were only a very few souvenir stands, with unimpressive quality. Near the center, we found a large number of commedor lunch counters. Amongst these, old ladies with baskets of fried crickets wandered around, calling out., "Chapulinas!" I'd read about these, and LeeAnn expressed interest in trying them. "No way," I said, "but you go ahead." Lee said she wouldn't try them without me.
We stopped at a commedor and had a couple of drinks. We wanted to get a snack of Oaxacan tamales, but it was already mid-afternoon and the kitchen was closed. We paid for our drinks and continued to wonder. The vegetable stalls were beautifully arrayed with color, and the butcheries had a fascinating variety of freshly-slaughtered meat, including all the parts you don't expect to see in the supermarket.
Leaving the market, we walked back along the same street. Lee wanted to see if she could get Rhetin-A in one of the pharmacies, but then wouldn't go in. We stopped by the room for a minute, then went out and had a snack at a corner restaurant on the main square. We then went into the smaller city market a couple of blocks from the square, and I found a counter with a good selection of painted Oaxacan wooden animals. Prices weren't marked, and the vendors wouldn't come down very much on the quoted prices. I bought a few small and medium sized pieces for about $20, then continued to wander around the market. This one was a bit cleaner and had more tourist-oriented items, but still had a wealth of character.
Crossing the street, we entered the food market, which had a number of raw food stands, bakeries, and a wealth of commedors. Having recently eaten, we passed through fairly quickly, and went a block and a half further to the handicraft market.
This was the market for souvenirs. There was an abundance of rugs, clothing, black pottery, and painted wooden animals. I looked at the animals at a couple of stands, including one manned by an adorable little girl, before finding one in the far corner from the entrances that had the best quality and variety. They had marked prices -- which were quite reasonable, and showed a complete unwillingness to haggle. Given the great deals, I wasn't going to complain. I bought a fantastic 8-inch wooden fly for $10, and a few gifts for others.
With the sun setting, we walked back to the room to drop off my purchases before walking to the north side of town. After crossing the square, we noticed a concert going on in front of the cathedral. We stayed to listen for a few minutes and browsed at a few tables of jewelry and other souvenirs. We then went up the main northbound street, which was clean as a whistle and heavily touristed. A street vendor approached Lee about buying a chair hammock with a nice curved wooden bow, which she bought for $15.
Higher-priced shops lined the sides of the road, and we stopped in a couple to look for silver jewelry for LeeAnn. She was looking for a specific necklace and bracelet shaped like a lizard that we'd seen in an expensive Georgetown shop. We found none like that, soon realizing that Taxco was the city to shop in for this specialty.
We did find a couple of fantastic craft galleries, including one that had a few giant life-sized skeletons that I just loved, but were clearly out of my price range. It was only in these galleries that we saw the Day of the Dead dioramas that I wanted so badly -- perhaps because they were all sold before the holiday a few weeks earlier.
Several blocks from the square was the most spectacular church in Oaxaca, XXXXXX. It was brightly lit against the nighttime sky, and a peek inside the doors revealed a beautifully guilded interior. It had a wide cobblestone plaza in front of it, were people congregated to enjoy the beautiful nighttime view.
Once here, I carefully mentioned to Lee that we weren't that far from the bus terminal, and I wanted to check to see what time the busses to Pochutla left the next day. She agreed to walk there, but after it took a few more blocks than I expected, she began to complain about the danger. I protested that the neighborhood seemed quite good -- it was filled with nice houses, and doctors' offices. When we got to the wide boulevard and we still didn't see the terminal, I was about prepared to turn around with her. I sighted it a block away, however, and we proceeded to enter.
We found that Cristobol Colon had a bus departing the next day at 9 a.m. We reserved our tickets, then took a $2 cab back to the main square, where we got a seat for dinner in an outdoor restaurant on the eastern side.
The evening people watching was fantastic. Various artists strolled around, some in festive attire, and a xylophone band played at the restaurant next door. There was a party of 10 or so Mexicans celebrating at the next table, and they hired a mariachi band to play a few times. The food we ordered was very good -- I had one of the Oaxacan tortilla pizzas -- but we were too tired to enjoy it properly.
After a couple of beers, we retired to our room, where I packed everything up before getting to bed at about 11 p.m.
Friday, November 24
We woke up early, cleaned up, then completed packing before going to our usual breakfast restaurant on the square. Excited about election news, I tried to get a newspaper, but the store hadn't opened yet. I had yet another fantastic, spicy Oaxacan breakfast and with time wearing on, I went back to check out of the room while Lee drank her coffee. We had trouble getting the check, and we ended up leaving the money on the table, as we skipped away and hopped in a cab for the bus station.
As we were getting on the bus, there was a crazy guy who tried to take tickets from the passengers boarding, apparently pretending it was his job. We shooed him away, and boarded. We departed on time, and I followed along in my guidebook to try and see some of the sites as we went out of town to the east. One of these sites was what was supposed to be the largest tree biomass in the Western Hemisphere in the town of El Tula??. It was big, allright, but I can't imagine making a day drip just to see it! There were a few cute towns here and there, and we dropped off some people along the way. At one point, we got to watch a woman making fresh tortillas on a griddle at a roadside commedor.
It was about at this point that I realized the road leading east didn't go directly to the Puerto Angel. I kept wondering when we were going to turn around or take a loop that wasn't on my map. It soon became apparent, that we were taking a super long way around through the coastal town of Salina Cruz near the Chiapas border. This would certainly make the normally 6-hour trip much longer.
As we got to the end of the central valley, there were a number of agave plantations. The yucca-like plants were planted in neat rows up the hillsides, and after they were harvested to make Mescal Tequila, the spiny stalks were thrown in piles. We passes several stores that sold the liquor.
We began to climb in the mountains and reading became impossible. There were some spectacular views, especially of cactus forests on the hillsides, but the windy road made non-blurry photography nearly impossible. We began to follow a river that grew as we wound down the mountains. The views helped pass the time as the long, windy bus ride wore on. When we reached Tehuantepec, the first junction after the long ride to the coastal region, we stopped at a small restaurant for a half-hour.
It was a fantastic place given the grimy location. Lee and I got a couple of beers and I had an ice cream bar, as we sat in a couple of hammocks underneath a canopy in the back of the lounge. We felt quite recharged when we reboarded the bus.
Salina Cruz is a refinery town, and it was reflected in the development we saw going in. There were all kinds of automotive-related businesses. Pennzoil stores. Tire shops. Repair operations. It was ugly, and it was stinky. We stopped briefly at its bus station, then headed out of town up the hill past the disco. When we reached the peak, we could see the beautiful Pacific on our left, with the waves crashing against an endless beach separated from the hills by a swampy band.
The sun started to set as we neared the resort area of Los Bahias de Huatluca. This was supposed to be an upscale centrally-planned resort, and had prices that went along with it. We thought about staying here because it was closer given our long route, but we decided not to, largely because of our books' characterization of the waters being spoiled by jet-skis. The town of Santa Cruz Huatluca was tidy, with perfect roads. All of the roads in the area had the look of a resort -- brightly painted curbs, landscaping, etc.
It became dark by the time we reached Pochutla, and the road had returned to its adquately paved but otherwise non-resortish condition. The bus terminal was small and bright, but the town was otherwise quite dusty. We grabbed a cab with a Belgian couple who agreed to go toward Mazantes beach -- about 10 miles away.
We put our luggage in the trunk, and it soon became apparent that our companions didn't want to go that far -- they wanted to get off in Puerto Angel. The lights of the harbor town came into view, and we dropped them off at their desired hotel. The cab driver protested at going the rest of the way to Mazantes, but agreed to do it for an extra $8 on top of the $6 we'd already paid.
I was tired and in no mood to argue. We continued along the road for about 10 minutes, past a washed out region to get to a spot on the dark road that the driver identified as Mazunte. I saw very little here, but got out and paid him. I was distraught to see that my sack that held the wooden figures I'd bought in Oaxaca was no longer in the trunk -- apparently the cab driver had removed it when he dropped of the Belgian couple. I shouted in frustration.
I had about had it. There didn't appear to be anything in this town. Since we couldn't see any lodging, we decided to go in a roadside establishment and get a drink. We had a couple of beers and we noted a group of English-speaking people next to us. I asked them about a place to stay, and they recommended a place called Ziga, which had rooms with fan and shared bath. Lee asked about something nicer, and they said there were much more expensive places up the hill about 200 yards where you could spend "as much as you want." They noted though, that since it was dark, it was probably easier just to stay at Ziga tonight. Besides, they said, you could then spend your money on a nice meal, instead of lodging.
After our beers, we walked up the hill to try and find the nicer places. It was dark. Really dark. There were few street lights in the town, and after we went about 100 yards, you couldn't see much of anything. Lee got scared and wanted to turn around. I was extremely frustrated with her because I wanted to go a bit further. I angrily gave in to her and then shut off completely, saying she was in charge.
She elected to go in and have dinner at a pretty outdoor Italian restaurant we passed on the west side of the village. We sat at a nice candle-lit table underneath a tree, and had a good dinner in silence. Lee had the shrimp with dried chipolte peppers, and I had a fish filet prepared with a local sauce. I was so angry I refused to even look at her. It was almost 9 p.m., pitch black, and we had no place to stay.
After a couple of beers I relaxed a bit and we paid the check. Lee asked the Italian owner, who spoke English, where to stay. She recommended the places up on the hill, but said we probably couldn't find it at night. We tried again anyway.
This time, dogs started barking at us incessantly as we went up the hill. With Lee scared again, we turned around. We walked past the village in the other direction, still seeing nothing. After we passed the turtle research station on the west side, and began going up another hill, it became clear we were not finding anything more. We talked about it and I suggested we keep walking back to Puerto Angel, where they at least had proper electricity. After a few yards, though, I remembered that the guidebook talked about how people had been robbed at knifepoint along this very road, and I knew we wouldn't make it.
I then suggested we hike over to the beach and sleep there. We walked along a small path south of the road until we got there. It was sooo dark. There was no moon and you could barely see your hand in front of your face. There appeared to be very little development along the beach except a television that could be seen a hundred yards or so to the south, up a flight of stairs. We decided to go up the stairs, and it was here we found the Hotel Ziga. A couple was sitting watching the television, and showed us a room that was available for $15. It was small, cruddy, and very musty. It had a fan with quarter-inch thick caked dust. And it had a marginally-clean shared bathroom behind a plywood door. It was nasty.
Since it was safer than the beach, though, we took it. I also bought four beers from them, which we took down to the beach to drink. The water had phosphorescent algae, which appeared to be huge. I wondered if they were actually small jellyfish. We looked for nesting turtles, but saw none.
The waves were crashing more violently than anywhere I'd been since Sri Lanka. We'd heard that many of the beaches near here were great for surfing, but not very safe for bathing. I was worried that might be true here, too. After about a half-hour or so, we retreated to our room, carefully climbing up the dark stairs.
It was very hot and there was no air circulation. I turned on the fan and adjusted the mosquito net to protect us as much as possible. I fell asleep after awhile, but it was clear from Lee's tossing and turning that she couldn't doze off.
A few hours later, I woke up hot, and went to turn up the fan. I heard LeeAnn wheezing with asthma. I asked her if she was okay, and she said she couldn't breathe well. Knowing this was a very serious situation in our isolated location, I asked her what she wanted to do. She almost started crying when she said she thought the dusty fan was causing the problem.
I turned it off and took her out to sleep on the beach in the fresh air. There were no electric lights visible anywhere, and we had to feel around in the dark for the stairs. We walked around carefully so as not to kill ourselves, and finally made it down to the beach. The mosquitoes were biting me incessantly -- there was an amazingly small amount of breeze on the beach.
After about an hour, LeeAnn's breathing became less labored, and we walked back up to the room, where she considered sleeping in the hammock outside. Instead, we shut off the fan and opened all the windows as well as the door, looping our bags straps around the legs of the beds so they couldn't be stolen easily. With this configuration complete, we finally went to sleep for the night in the still muggy air at about 3 a.m.
Saturday, November 25
We were tired enough to sleep well past dawn, despite the bright light shining through our windows. When I went out to look around at about 9 a.m., I was thrilled to see a fantastically beautiful beach ringed by lush green palms and tropical vegetation. The top of the broad beach had a handful of restaurants with tables facing the sea. Backpackers in hammocks and tents at these places were slowly waking from their rest. None of them had been visible in the dark of night -- apparently none have electricity after dark.
On each end of the beach the land rose quickly to create rocky coves. This beautiful setting was enhanced by the early morning light, and the view down from the hill where the Hotel Ziga sat on the east side. How could such a horrible hotel be in such a wonderful place?
Lee and I showered in the scary shared bath, then locked out bags in the room. We walked down the beach exploring and had a tasty local breakfast at one of the restaurants facing the water. The clientele were all European hippies, and we saw the group of people we'd talked to the night before at the next table. They were pleased to hear we stayed at Ziga, but couldn't comprehend that we found it a bit dank.
After breakfast we wandered to the west side of the beach and took a trail that cut back toward the main road. We were hot from our walk and the rapidly climbing temperature, so we stopped at a small restaurant on the path and had a couple of cold drinks. They didn't have change for our money, so they asked where we were staying and said we could pay later. The restaurant had a second floor under construction, probably for lodging during the high season that was due to start at Christmastime.
We made it to the main road and started trudging up what was once a very, very dark road. The distance seemed quite short in the light of day, but it became clear when we neared the top that there were no expensive Cabanas up this road. We turned around and went back down the path, noticing a locally-produced cosmetic store we'd read about in our guidebooks. Inexplicably, the marked prices weren't any better than in a Body Shop at the mall. Since I had no real interest, we left quickly.
On the way back toward the beach, we stopped for yet more drinks at the small restaurant, where this time we overpaid. After we showed our deep pockets, a little girl working with her family brought out a tub from the refrigerator with lobsters, asking if we wanted to have a lobster dinner. The price was good, but we didn't want to eat at this place that had no view when other places that did were readily available.
We saw a few decent cabanas right on the beach next to a retired-gringo couple's trailer that was parked on the sand. We went a few dozen yards to what looked like an office, and found an innkeeper from Spain who spoke broken English and showed us a dumpy room with a shared bath and without a view for $10. We asked about more expensive places, and he referred us to ????? which was up on the hill. To get there, he said we had to take the road up the hill past the cemetery.
After some trouble finding it, we located the cemetery and continued climbing. When we reached the top, we found the neatly-manicured compound. We went inside and saw a couple having breakfast at a table with a breathtaking view down the hill to the sea. We asked to see a room as close as possible to the beach, and we were taken on steep steps down the long hill until we were only a few dozen feet above the elevation of the beach.
Here we found a very pretty 1? story cabana with white plaster walls and a terra-cotta roof. The windows had nicely stained wooden shutters, and inside there were attractive wooden furnishings and a bed with mosquito net. The bathroom had hot water, a shower and a toilet. Outside, there was a patio with chairs and a hammock, with a red-tile deck and a great view of the sea and the beach. I asked the price, and was told $37. I was very excited, but LeeAnn wanted to stay closer to the beach.
She pointed at a similar cabana that looked vacant that was right down on the beach, just out of eyesight from where the trailer was sitting. The man shook his head no, but our language barrier kept us from understanding why it wasn't available. We said we wanted to check that one out, and we departed down a dirt path for the beach. There was nobody around it, and no signs of an office. Two men were building a stairway on the dirt path we'd just used, and we asked them if ????? owned the cabana. They said no.
Lee still didn't want to give up, so I tried to explain to her how nice the one we saw really was. After a bit, she gave up on the one right by the water and agreed to take it.
We hiked all the way back up to the top, and told a guy at the counter we were taking it. He spoke reasonably good English, and asked us what price we agreed on, which I gullibly answered with $37. As he got our key, we asked him about getting a bus back to Oaxaca City, explaining we didn't want to go back through Salina Cruz.
He said there were direct overnight busses that were much shorter, if you went to the Oaxaca Pacifico bus terminal in Pochutla. He said we couldn't buy the tickets without going there, and for the overnight busses, we should get them the day before.
It was time to move our heavy bags out of Ziga and the full 300 yards or so to the other end of the beach, then 100 feet up the steep hill to our room. I dreaded it. In order to make it easier, we agreed we'd change into our bathing suits, swim first to cool off, then slowly bring them over.
We did just that. We walked over to get our room and changed into our suits. The waves were much softer than the night before, and at various points on the beach, provided good places to swim and good places to body surf. We swam for in the while in the fantastically warm but refreshing water, then went back up to get the bags. We carried them halfway across the beach, then stopped for a cold drink at one of the restaurants. Afterward, we took them to some rocks nearer the west side, where they would be difficult to steal, then took another dip in the water. Finally, Lee and I brought them up the hill, huffing and puffing.
After we relaxed for a minute in the Cabana, we put together a daypack with towels and books and headed back down to the beach. We swam for a bit, and Lee claimed to see a whale out in the water (I thought it was just a rock in the surf.) We kept worrying about stepping on turtles or other sea creatures, but there wasn't anything but the few large rocks on the bottom. There were some fairly large fish swimming about, and entire schools of them that were as long as your hand.
We had some lunch at one of the restaurants on the beach. Lee wanted seafood but she decided to wait for the evening meal. Both of us had some tasty local food, including some delicious guacamole.
After lunch, we continued to play in the water, leaving our daypack and towels on one of the deck chairs at the restaurant. When the sun began to sink low in the sky, we saw an amazing sight. A little boy -- no more than 8 -- with a roll of fishing line and a hook would run along the beach and throw the hook in the water. Immediately, he would pull out a medium-sized fish on the hook. He did this over and over again, as if it were magic. Almost every time he put the hook in the water, he pulled a fish out an instant later.
This seemed incredible enough until one time he pulled out a whole school of small fishes. This boy was some kind of fishing savant! His mother and sisters followed behind him, picking his catch up in buckets as he went about his fantastic work.
We watched him for a good 20 minutes before I suggested we head up the hill. We'd planned to go to Pochutla to get our bus tickets for the next night, and then have dinner on the harbor in Puerto Angel.
Lee didn't know it, but I was hoping to find a nice romantic spot in Puerto Angel, because I'd brought her engagement ring with me, and I was planning to ask her to marry me on the trip. I wanted to wait until we'd had a relaxing day and had a nice place to stay. Since we had to leave the next night, this evening seemed like the best candidate.
Once up the hill, we enjoyed the sunset and then quickly showered cleaned ourselves up a bit before dinner. It was at this time we realized the cabana had no electricity! It was wired for it, but it apparently wasn't turned on yet. This explained all the candles and the (empty) gas lantern. With it getting dark, we hurried up to the office to find nobody there to fill our lamp. We left it there, and went down to the road to catch the bus for Pochutla.
There was a soccer game just finishing, and we bought a couple of beers from two girls manning a roadside stand. They confirmed it was the right spot to wait for a bus, and soon an Australian backpacker joined us in our wait. He said he'd just come from the turtle station by the beach where he'd seen a bunch of hatchlings get released. He said there was a TV cameraman there and it was an amazing sight. How did we miss it! We were on the beach, then in our cabana with a view of the research station!
We waited about 10 minutes getting mauled by mosquitoes as we stood by the damp field in the open dusk air. The "bus" arrived, but was actually a pickup with benches in back. We climbed aboard and continued west until we hooked back up with the main coastal highway, and started backtracking toward Pochutla. It was a very windy ride, and I tried to keep the debris out of my contacts. It took only about 10 minutes to get to town, and the fare for two people was about $1.
The truck dropped us off by the Cristobal Colon bus station, but I could see a Oaxaca Pacifico sign only about a block away just off the main intersection in the town. We went over there and found a wide parking lot with people watching television on outdoor benches as they waited. I checked the times, and there was a 10 p.m. overnight that went back to Oaxaca City. They guy wouldn't sell us tickets. Due to language difficulties, I wasn't sure if they were sold out, or if I just couldn't buy them yet. I think it was the latter, and he said to come back tomorrow.
We went to the Cristobol Colon office to see if they had one tomorrow -- if we were taking an overnight bus, maybe a 9 hour ride wasn't much worse than a 6 hour ride. There was one here, leaving at about 8 p.m. We decided therefore, to come back tomorrow at around 7:30 and see if we could get on either.
We grabbed a cab to Puerto Angel, where we planned to have dinner. Lee went through the Lonely Planet guidebook, and found a list of restaurants on the far beach where the view was supposed to be pretty. The only caveat was the book said to be "careful about the freshness of seafood in the low season." We figured it was worth a shot, and since it was Saturday night, things would probably be busy.
I had the taxi drop us off in the center of town, which was a mistake, because the beach we wanted to eat on was on the opposite side of the harbor. Here, there were a number of poorly-constructed but brightly-lit commedors filled with locals enjoying quick meals. The lights were pretty against the water of the harbor. I saw a couple of taxis and asked one to take me to the other beach. He offered $2. I said no way -- you could see it from there, and countered with $1. He said no, then began to follow us in the cab, warning us in Spanish not to walk because of the danger of "ratos" (muggers).
This unnerved me a bit, but we ignored him until he agreed to take us for $1. It was about a 3 minute slow ride over a couple of hills. Once there, we had to negotiate our way through a soccer game in the street to get into one of the restaurants.
Nobody was there. No customers. No waiters. Nobody. Then a guy ran in from the soccer game to seat us.
The restaurant had tables on the beach with candles and a lovely view of the harbor. We reluctantly sat down and asked for a Negro Modelo. He had none. We asked for Dos Equis Obscura. He had none. All he had was Corona. We groaned and moved to the next restaurant on the beach, which had one customer, then finally to the last one, which had a grand total of two tables occupied.
Here, we got the beer we wanted, and we ordered a couple of appetizers, waiting to order entrees until after we got them. We were both hungry, but the appetizers we received were just awful. I had a fried taco thing, which was so full of nearly-rancid oil that it almost made me sick. Lee had the worst shrimp and avacado appetizer that I have ever tasted. These items, along with the warning from the book, scared us. We decided to cut our losses, and head back to Mazunte for dinner.
So much for proposing on the beach in Puerto Angel.
We had to walk back toward the center of town because there were no taxis along the road. This was the same stretch where the driver had warned of "ratos," but once on foot, it was clear to us that it was full of hotels and tourists strolling about. Hardly a place to be worried.
We found a driver willing to take us to Mazunte for $4, and we went down the road more relazed and confident than when we'd gone before. There was a tiny but affluent spot along the way, just past Zipolite beach and before Mazunte. It looked like it wouldn't be a bad place to stay.
Once in town, we figured it was too late for the beach restaurants without electricity, so we returned to the Italian place we liked. I had the fish diablo with dried chipolte peppers (which wasn't as good as the shrimp diablo Lee had had the night before.) I was too tired to go through with the proposal, and the evening had hardly been relaxing, so I put it off. Lee fed a dog and a cat under the table, but then got scared of getting in trouble, so she had to refrain.
We watched a bit of the village life, the blond son of the Italian woman at the restaurant politely argued about whether he would be allowed to ride his bike with his friends. (He wasn't, but was allowed to go on foot.) The woman spoke to us about our meal, and about where we had found a place to stay. As soon as we told her, she exclaimed, "very nice, but they have no electricity!."
Indeed. And we had no flashlight to find our way back. On the way back to the room, we had to choose whether to climb the hill by the cemetery, or scale the path and stairs by the beach. We chose the latter.
Once again, there was no moon, and it was incredibly dark. We had to walk very, very carefully so not to trip or run into anything. It was okay once we got to the beach, but then how could we find the narrow path through the thick vegetation?! I remembered there were a few corn stalks by it, which helped me, and we began to feel our way up the path. I knew I had to be careful of the ravine on the right (!) and the barbed wire fence just beyond it. We went up very slowly, feeling trees and shrubs on the sides, until we went under the canopy, and we could see absolutely nothing. The starlight was blocked and our eyes were useless.
Luckily, LeeAnn had matches. She lit one and I got a brief look around. I was able to go several steps up the path before it went out and then my mind's picture of the surroundings faded. She tried again. This time, I made a few more steps, and just enough to see the tiled start of the stairway leading to our room!
We carefully went up the stairs until we got to what I believed was our room. Walking toward the door, I heard somebody shout out "hello!" from the pitch black porch and then hold up a candle. We were at the wrong one.
We went up one further, to see a Mexican man come out of an under construction cabana. It was the guy who had initially shown us the room. We told him the number of our room, and he used his flashlight to show us the way. Once there, we lit a few candles and cleaned up for bed.
The air in the cabana was warm and humid, but much better than at Ziga. We were on the hill, so there was a slight breeze and a dearth of mosquitoes. We fell asleep, finally relaxed, in the wonderful bed listening to the crashing waves in the ocean below.
Sunday, November 26
The next morning we awoke to the early sunlight streaming through our shutters. The waves were still crashing below, and we went out on our patio to see the morning light making the view as beautiful as ever. We traded off swinging in the hammock for a bit, before Lee was ready to go get coffee.
We first tried climbing the hill to the office where we'd seen a couple having breakfast a day earlier. There was a guy working there, and he asked in Spanish what we wanted. Lee said coffee, and he tried, but eventually communicated that there was no gas to heat the water. We then tried to get breakfast at a place next door on the top of the hill, but quickly learned we were stepping on private property. We had to go down to the beach.
We went to one of the hippie places on the beach that had a sign advertising Cappuccino at 7 a.m. We figured they'd have good strong coffee. They didn't. The coffee was weak and unappetizing. The restaurant did have an amazing display of frighteningly ungroomed, tatooed and pierced ugly hippie-types emerging from their slumber in tents or hammocks. We decided to move down a few spots for breakfast.
We went to the restaurant we'd liked a couple of times before. It always had the biggest crowds, and now we could see why. Lee had the Ouevos Rancheros and I had another local egg dish. Both were enjoyable.
After breakfast, we began to alternate swimming in the ocean and stopping for a cold drink. When it began to get hot, at midday, we covered ourselves up and went to the turtle station for a tour. It was very warm. We paid about $5 per person to get in, then waited a few minutes for a guided tour to begin.
The tour wasn't all that interesting, as most of it was answering inane questions from idiot tourists who came in on a bus from the all-inclusive resorts at Huatulco. They asked stupid things like, "can Turtles breathe underwater?" After a few of these, we wandered off from the tour and just looked at the turtles in the tanks.
They had three large outdoor tanks with quite large specimens, some with shells as much as four feet across. There were also hatcheries and some smaller domesticated species that didn't even nest nearby. There was also an indoor aquarium, where you could see turtles in displays representing their natural habitat. It was pretty big and professional looking -- not quite state of the art, but much better than any other facility in this tiny town in the middle of nowhere.
We left the tour a bit early, and seeing nothing in the gift shop, we went out to the road and got a couple of cold drinks at a roadside eatery.
Returning to the beach, we started swimming again. The body surfing was very good, although I started getting a few abrasions from being thrown onto the beach in places where there were rougher bits of sand. We had a couple of more beers. We swam again. We went down to the west end of the beach so I could sit in the sand while Lee went up the room to use the bathroom. We swam some more. And when the sun started getting lower, we watched the fisherman savant once more.
As sunset neared, I had to usher LeeAnn up the hill. She didn't want to give up her long day of swimming. But I knew it would be difficult to get out if it got dark.
Once in the room, we showered and packed our bags, being careful to avoid the slight trickle of leakage coming out of the bottom of our toilet and streaming toward the drain. My shower was nice and hot, and I was clean shaven and ready to go when Lee came out on the patio to see the beach glowing in the light of the fading sunset.
She was ready to go, but I was not. I made her stand and look out at the beautiful ocean with me. Then I reached in my pocket and handed her the engagement ring. I told her I wanted to be with her forever and marry her. She was clearly surprised, and said, "No, no, no!" in a way to let me know she was surprised. Then she said, "Of course I'll marry you," and put on the ring. We embraced and kissed.
With the available light fading, the moment didn't last long enough. We had to start lugging our bags down the hill and toward the road, where we waited a few minutes for a taxi to Pochutla. A driver came and I agreed on a $4 fare. Fifteen minutes later, we were at the Oaxaca Pacifico bus station.
The guy at the ticket booth still wouldn't sell us a ticket, but it was now clear that it was because it was too early to get one. A British woman asked us if we were trying to get on the 7:30 bus to Mexico City, which she was going to use to get to Oaxaca City. As we found out, this was just as direct, but we'd have to pay the full fare all the way to Mexico. The advantage was that it would save us almost four hours of waiting around for the overnight bus.
We decided to take it, and I bought the tickets right as the bus was arriving. The bus was completely full, and we were lucky we got seats. Men who got tickets after us had to stand, or sit in the luggage space behind us. People were standing in the aisles.
This second class bus wasn't as nice as the others we'd been in. Superficially, it was find, but the standing people made it difficult to relax, and it was extremely hot. We went around corners in the tiny town that I found unbelievable for the huge bus to negotiate. Dust from the roads filled the cabin and made it difficult to breathe -- unfortunately, you couldn't close the windows without suffocating from the heat. The bus engine was incredibly loud, and we were sitting right on top of it in back, which made things even hotter.
Things moved fast on the open road. It was quite dark and you couldn't see any scenery, but it was clear from the twists and turns that we were on mountainous roads. They played a bad 1960s Mexican movie on the television, with a guys in a brightly-colored tacky sunbreroes going to cockfights.
I started to doze in and out of sleep after a few hours, but the noise of the engine, the weaving of the bus mad it difficult to stay asleep.
We started nearing Oaxaca at about 2 a.m. Once we pulled in to the huge second class bus station, it was clear we were in a much seedier spot than the first class station. Vagrants were lying around and rubbish was everywhere. We were pleased, though, to see a long line of taxis outside the doors, and we grabbed one. We decided to try to go back to our last hotel, Las Rosas, but when we got there it was closed. The driver talked on the intercom to the woman at the desk, and he said in Spanish there was another location a few blocks away that was open.
We went there and found a simple but acceptable room for the same $35 price as before. With little cash on me, we agreed to pay the next day. Exhausted again, we fell to sleep immediately upon hitting the bed.
Monday, November 27
After cleaning up in the morning, we returned to the Zocalo for another fantastic Oaxacan breakfast. While we waited for our meal, I heard drums down the street. Figuring it was a protest march, I grabbed my camera and snapped a couple of pictures. I was pleased to see that the march came right into the square beside our breakfast table, so I sat down and enjoyed the show.
The people in the procession were young adults wearing uniform berets and carrying banners. After deciphering the Spanish on the signs, it became clear that this march wasn't political at all, but a parade of the high school seniors from all parts of the Central Valley of Oaxaca. It was an easy mistake to make though -- given the highly militaristic design of many of the marching uniforms.
We needed cash to pay for the room, and since we'd planned to do some shopping, Lee and I went to the cash machine around the corner and took out about $400 worth of pesos. We then walked up the main shopping street and went in the gallery with the skeletons I saw before. I decided to at least ask how much they were -- I figured about $800 apiece. When I heard $200, I was quite pleased, and told them to wrap one up! The only issue was which one? The woman skeleton feeding a skeleton baby with a bottle? I'd terrify my guests! I settled for the man wearing a sunbrero and playing the tuba -- it seemed just whimsical enough to soften the skeletonness of it all.
Lee looked at some of the other fantastic souvenirs. She wanted to get a beaded jaguar mask, but they were very expensive -- clearly they required a lot of time and patience to make with their many, many thousands of tiny beads. She also considered the wooden boxes and crosses with tin ornamentation, as well as some of the dioramas and the painted animals. In the end though, she just wouldn't buy.
We left agreeing to pick up the skeleton later. In the meantime, we went up to the bus station and bought two tickets back to Mexico City on the 4:30 p.m. bus -- Lee had to keep me 24-hour clock confusion when I tried mistakenly to buy tickets for the 14:30 bus. On the way back, we checked out the gardens of a beautiful English-language school, and stopped by a huge direct craft gallery called XXXXXXXXXX.
The craft gallery had a fantastic variety and very, very good quality, but the prices were not as good as elsewhere, and the omnipresent saleswoman who kept bugging us was a bit annoying. They had great painted animals, black pottery, textiles, as well as some more unusual items. In the end though, we picked up my daypack I had checked at the security counter, and left without buying anything.
We went to one other craft store before heading back to the room -- the XXXXX gallery we'd read about in my guidebook. Here, they had similar skeletons to the one I'd bought earlier for about $20 less, but not quite as cool. In general their quality was a bit lacking, especially with the carved animals and the pottery. I was surprised to find no black pottery I wanted to buy -- of course I was looking for a quality small piece, preferably one in the shape of an animal or a man. What I did find, though, was a fairly nice diorama with a glass front and religious pictures behind skeletons posing before a buffet. I picked it up for $23.
It was time to check out of our room, but Lee was getting a bit cranky so we stopped at a restaurant on the square for a coke. Afterward, we went back to the room and paid, putting all of our belongings behind the counter.
I was ready to go replace my painted animals I'd lost in Puerto Angel by buying the same ones at the craft market. Lee, though, was insisting on lunch. I tried to explain to her that we were going to be on the bus to Mexico for many hours without dinner, so we should eat as late as possible. She didn't care. She wanted food now, like a baby wants its bottle. I tried to offer her a quick snack at one of the commedores in the food market, but this only enraged her more. She was about to stomp off in the opposite direction, when I made her get a pastry from a counter in the market and then took her to another counter to get her a freshly-blended fruit juice. She was still angry, though her hunger was subsiding, so I got her one more pastry on the way out.
We went the two blocks to the handicraft market and I spent nearly an hour picking out all of the items I wanted for myself and gifts for my family. Lee found a great nativity set for her mom, and I found a replacement fly for myself, a lobster for my mom, a wolf for Ron, a frog for Patti, and some cat figures for Alison and Kathleen. We also found a nice curved lizard for Kyla. The total for this giant box of items (each wrapped in paper) was still under $50.
I was starting to feel sick. I finally had a bit of diarrhea after several days in Mexico, and I was now dizzy and weak. I'd taken some Immodium, but it wasn't kicking in yet. We walked back to the Zocalo and stopped at the restaurant on the Southwest corner for a pre-bus ride lunch. After I used the bathroom, Lee and I ordered a giant appetizer sampler. It looked great, but with time running out, we were afraid it wouldn't get there in time. When it arrived, it was huge, and we asked for the check immediately. We wolfed down whatever we could, then packed up some of the delicious Oaxacan cheese and tortillas in the paper napkins. Sadly, we had to leave nearly half of it behind.
We ran around to our hotel and flagged a taxi while I pulled the bags outside the room. We climbed in and made it back to the bus station with about 15 minutes to spare. We immediately started boarding, and I put my duffel, bubble-wrapped skeleton, and Lee's duffel and our box of wooden figures in the luggage compartment and hopped in our seats.
I was pleased to be feeling better, and I enjoyed the view as we went out of town. This Cristobal Colon bus was much more comfortable than the noisy Oaxaca Pacifico one. Not an hour along the way, we stopped at a gas station in small town for a 20-minute break. The mountain air was fantastic, but I was too worried about the adorable puppy that was playing underneath the bus. I just hoped he got out in time.
They started playing a movie as it got dark -- a sappy American romance film with Spanish subtitles. When this ended I tried to read a little, then watched the lights as we reached the outskirts of Mexico City. We discussed staying at a fairly nice place in the historic center, so we could walk around the main square in the morning before heading to the airport. My guidebooks said the Holiday Inn was right by the cathedral on the square and had a great rooftop deck -- for less than $100. Lee was happy. I was sold.
When we arrived at the bus station around 10 p.m., we grabbed a yellow taxi for downtown, but the driver insisted there was no hotel at the address I'd listed. I pointed to the cathedral, but he shook his head. Instead, he dropped us off at the Hotel Canada, which I noticed also displayed the logo of the Holiday Inn. Was this it?
Inside, I found the rooms were much cheaper -- $35. We went up to our room with the bellman to find a tiny but clean western-standard room with somewhat dated colors in the furnishings. It was clear that LeeAnn was not happy with the place, and after about 20 minutes of grouching and pouting I got her to admit that she hated it. We fought about whether it was my fault that we weren't staying at the Holiday Inn. I was furious. I had given up plans to go out and have a drink, and got in bed -- I didn't even want to be with such an ill-behaved baby.
She shaped up enough for me to walk with her to get a snack, and we found a model of the new Holiday Inn in our lobby, saying it was a block over toward the square, and inviting us to go enjoy the rooftop deck. When we got there, at 11 p.m., the deck was closed. We peeked at the Zocalo, then went back toward our room and stopped in a diner on the other side of the street.
We ordered a couple of beers as the waitress kept looking at her watch -- maybe seeking to enforce a curfew on the sale of alcoholic beverages. The people in the restaurant were urban, and reasonably hip. They wouldn't be out of place in Washington or New York. At one point a pair of drag queens sat at the booth next to us, while a group of obvious computer geeks sat on the other side.
We had a couple of simple Mexican dishes served diner style, including some tasty fried plantains, and then a couple more beers before going to pay at the cash register in front.
After crossing the street to our hotel and taking the elevator to our room, I set the alarm to get me up at 6 a.m. -- I wanted to have time to see the Zocalo before going to the airport.
Tuesday, November 28
It was still dark when the alarm went off at 6 a.m. I hopped in the shower, got dressed, and packed everything up. I could just see the first light through the window when Lee began stirring. I waited about 20 minutes for her to get ready, then we headed downstairs. She had to have coffee, of course, so we went into the McDonalds on the square, and got her coffee, and a couple of burrito wraps.
We walked around the huge square with its giant Mexican flag at the center. It is quite gray -- the absence of trees or shrubbery of any kind makes it seem quite impersonal. tour busses are parked there, and spots of construction barriers and police tape make it look like a giant parking lot at the mall. The presidential palace has a fair amount of detail, but has no variations in color, nor large-scale variations from its monolithic construction. The cathedral, the only truly beautiful building on the square, is visibly leaning. Without constrasting features to frame it, it is almost lost in the blandness that is Mexico's Zocalo.
After spending some time in the square, we noticed a very large group of uniformed policemen that were beginning to congregate on the northeast corner. At first I was concerned that there was going to be a violent street demonstration, but then I realized they were probably rehearsing for the inaugural events of incoming president Vicente Fox, which were to take place on Friday. As we passed by, straggling officers showed up and filed into the ranks.
We headed over to the neighboring ruins of the Aztec temple, XXXXXX. This is an archaeological dig in progress, which is recovering the large and interesting -- if not beautiful -- foundation of an old Aztec temple -- one that predated and was physically underneath the one that stood when Cortez arrived and destroyed the Aztec empire. Much of the parts of the dig were covered by corrugated metal covers to protect it from the rain. This made it much more difficult to see.
We went around the block and passed back through the square, then stopped briefly inside the cathedral, where we had to be subtle because of a mass going on. The interior was quite ornate, and well worth the visit.
From there, we headed north and stopped for a minute in the XXXXX square, which was filled with idle carnival rides. A museum on the side was hosting a group of uniformed schoolchildren, and we watched them file in -- some playing musical instruments as they went.
We walked by the church on the north side of the square, and sat for a second on a bench next to a couple of policemen with huge rifles. On the northeast corner, we quickly went inside a medical museum, which apparently dated from long before the advent of modern medicine, then walked through the national pawn shop on the way to the hotel.
We grabbed our bags and checked out. The bellman tried to help us get a taxi, but we rejected his choice of a green VW bug taxi -- both because of safety concerns and the fact that there was no way it could hold all of our luggage. We waited for a yellow cab, and hopped in it for the airport.
We were worried about Mexico City's notorious traffic, but the trip to the terminal took no more than 15 minutes. After we checked in, I continued on a fruitless search with LeeAnn for a silver souvenir. With the final boarding call announced on the intercom, LeeAnn finally gave in. We'd have to wait for a new trip -- to the silver center of Taxco -- to get the items she desired.