Ahhhh... OAXACA. The mere whispering of this word ignites promises of remarkable beauty and an indefinable spirituality radiating from within its stark and alluring mystery: The Land of the Sixteen Cultures, the Land of the Seven Mol's, the perennial Spell which seems to forever answer the soft and peaceful yearning of one's soul. Thus was the case once more, as I again found myself inextricably drawn to this fascinating region of southern Mexico: OAXACA: the Land of Sensitivity.|
I departed San Diego with a full itinerary and every intention of another extensive overland trip throughout this gracious, friendly and wonderfully diverse State. After all, Halloween was just three weeks way and where else to be other than the unrivaled urban
Dia de Los Muertos festivities in
Oaxaca pueblo? But first stop:
Puerto Escondido for a quick brush-up on the local tan before scouring inland.
After a surprisingly comfortable seven-hour overnight bus from Acapulco, I arrived at my beloved Hotel Santa Fe at the south end of Puerto Escondido. Dawn was breaking and I could see that the 'rainy season' had delivered on its annual promise of yet another spring lush with dense green hillsides and every conceivable color of wildflowers exploding at every turn. The morning breeze off the Pacific carried a hint that I was closer to home at last. And the compelling smiles of these incredibly warm and hospitable Oaxacan people only confirmed that fact.
Puerto Escondido had not changed much since my last visit three years earlier, and had thankfully recovered from the damages wrought by Hurricane Pauline last year. The unspoiled remoteness and natural charm of this dreamy coastal region now seems indefinitely secured from the once inevitable Big Development. Due to the government's recent decisions to divert direct air traffic to its sizeable tourism investments in
Huatulco to the south, access to "Los Puertos" is limited to connecting small-craft flights out of Oaxaca pueblo and Huatulco only. And of course, by the indelible Deluxe Autobuses which regularly challenge the endless supply of 'topes' (speed bumps) forever announcing the presence of each hamlet along this serpentine highway.
As Puerto Escondido has long been noted as one of the infamous surfing spots of the world, the minimal growth of this charming beach town has been human scaled, relatively indigenous, and comparatively inexpensive in response to its comfortable international array of relaxed surf and sun worshipers. While notably a place to completely unwind, it is certainly an ideal 'home port' for some of the most remarkable Eco-Tourism in the country. Spectacular flora, fauna and diverse wildlife are in beholding abundance here. With that said, one of the most enchanting aspects of this region of the Mexican coast is the fact that the surrounding ecological interests are neither set apart from, nor independent of, the 'populated' areas. In fact, the inseparable graciousness of these people is an essential and seamless facet of these environmental attractions!
Thus, appeased after a long awaited breakfast of wonderful mole tamales and stiff espresso at my favorite hotel, dawn merged with the clean light of this salty morning air. I drifted along the deserted south beach in a willful attempt to shake off a seven hour bus haul stacked on a four hour flight. As the fishing launches could be seen returning from a night at sea, I was suddenly startled by a torrent of sand flapping in the air just in front of me.
To my absolute delight, I encroached upon a female sea turtle laying her eggs in the warm, instinctive sand of the beachhead. She barely took notice me as I sat quietly nearby on a driftwood log watching this remarkably calming event. With the extenuated face of a struggling human mother at birth, this wide eyed mammal softly covered her brood, and leaving the telltale sand tracks of her journey, she scurried down to the shoreline and was off in the surf in an instant. By the time I reached the rocky point a mile and a half ahead, I had encountered five such stunning events. October and November are spawning season here and these are apparently common daily occurrences. Thus, I thought, "That's it! I've got to get to Puerto Angel where THE REAL turtles spawn en masse!"
But first, an excursion up to Nopala - a rugged little coffee-growing town an hour's drive northeast in the mountains. My inescapable fascination with pre-Columbian artifacts led me here as I was told of some notable ruins of the early Chalino Indians. I took a "collectivo" (a very small taxis with five of us sharing the inexpensive $10US fare) and proceeded inland at 6:30 in the morning. This mountainous region is absolutely electric in its array of diverse flora and cascading streams. Morning glories (Ipomoea purpurea) incarcerate the jungle here in an impenetrable web of timeless color. One quickly realizes how inseparable the natural environment is from the life of these native cultures, as this dense floral landscape is so richly reflected in traditional Oaxacan pattern and dress.
I met this jovial little "afiladoro" (the visiting area knife-sharpener!) in the taxis and he warmly insisted of being my 'guide' to Nopala. Now this is a funny story, but I have to share it! After a hearty breakfast of mole con pollo at his ancient Chalino grandmother's home (I couldn't believe how much this fellow ate at 8 am in the morning!), we wound our way through the livestock-filled streets of this adobe-n-tiled-roof village with Raul forever playing his curious plastic Pan-Flute - a melodic little tune which announced to all that "The Knife-Sharpener was back in town." Raul employed this ingeniously converted bicycle which, when placed upsidedown, allowed him to sit and peddle a grinding stone for the knives! With his regular clientele emerging happily from shadowy doorways, we eventually reached the municipal building at the small central zocalo. There are some very primitive stone edifices collected here, but I was a bit disappointed that this was all there was - I had been led to believe that there was more.
Raul instinctively knew what I came for, and beckoned me to follow. After a half hour of umpteen sharpened edges and thorough introductions to nearly everyone in town, we came upon the thatched home of yet another relative. With an excited and accommodating gleam in his eye, El Afiladoro pointed to two things: a cluster of enormous white stone objects some five miles off in the distant mountainsides, and to the two small Spanish horses tied to his family's front porch! Yep - You got it! With a young 'cousin' clad in a decaying old straw hat, I ventured out for nearly two hours on trodden horseback to these remarkable stone carvings immovably set among the high mountainside coffee fields. Pre-Columbian Chalino edifices: intoxicatingly primitive, laden with unexplained figurative references; real "Chariot of The Gods" images carved in stone. The sheer view of the valley from this vantage point was breathtaking. I will forever remember that day, and the proud joy with which these people shared their lives with me.
Anyway, more days of relaxed 'palapa' reading, twelve-foot hollow surf and endless discussions in Spanish, French, German, Dutch, and a little 'Down Under' thrown in, and my darkening skin color told me that it was time to venture on. Southeast of Puerto Escondido is Puerto Angel - a beautiful ninety minute drive in a collectivo along some of the most spectacular silhouetted mountain-to-shore scenery in the world. The beaches and lagoons surrounding Puerto Angel are a naturalist's dream come true - remote and untouched. Blue herons, white and scarlet ibis, abundant fish and turtle life grace these secluded sanctuaries. Accommodations here are comparatively minimal, but well worth the rare prize of merging seamlessly with the natural environment in such a pristine, quiet and unobtrusive context. The mangrove lagoons are extensive and completely unfettered; the waters are immaculate and intense blue. To roam in a local canoe in personal solitude here is a priceless opportunity - a tangible gift from God.
Puerto Angel is also a very special place to both fish, snorkel and scuba dive among the elements au natural. Shellfish are abundant, as are dorado and altun, and the attraction is not simply the inexpensive option of the services, but it is the remarkable way in which these activities seem to blend so naturally into the nature of essential daily life here. You are less "developing a tourist option" than you are simply joining the local people in their normal life routine. The Red Tide had been with us for days, so we forgave inshore rock snorkeling and headed out via pangas for the "deep blue" in glorious free-dives. I have dived around the world and never before have I seen this color of radiant blue water.
We encountered numerous sea turtles swimming about this blue, stopping for a quick chat before they dropped 50-60 meters with an efficient swoop of their magnanimous flippers. Dolphins also abound, as we playfully swam and dove one day with a school of nearly 200 of them. These incredible mammals look you straight in the eye and beg you to come and play in the water - they instinctively seem to know what you want, and magically seem to know what you need ... a very special afternoon!
But of equal highlight was 'Day 14' outside
Puerto Angel when I (speedo-clad with baseball cap at the bow of our launch) directed 'El Capitan's' attention to a commercial shrimp-fisher on the horizon. In his perfect local 'pescadero' style, he nodded quite knowingly, dug out a small cellular phone from his primitive first-aid kit, and proceeded to hail down the shrimp boat. Bottom line - we sped flat-out to that shrimper, negotiated board-to-board, and left with fresh shrimp the size of your fist. 'El Capitan' proudly took his take back home to the family, as we 'viajeros' didn't miss a beat and knocked back these giant prawns on-deck with good ole wasabe! Ah yes, natural human life, inexpensive pangas, and digital satellite technology. I may have just found heaven....
Needless to say, on this particular trip, I never made it to pueblo Oaxaca (as I have done in past years) or to Juchitan de Zaragoza for the Dia de Los Muertos festivities, nor any other of the intended inland destinations of my planned three week itinerary. With no regrets, I simply married with the Pacific Coast this trip. But such is the nature of OAXACA . The mere whispering of this word surrenders all human intention to the will of its magic...the inescapable "knowing" and divine magic of OAXACA itself....
Ken Richards writes from a diverse background as a painter, sculptor, architect, and design manufacturer in San Diego. After years of culinary and archeological travel throughout Latin America, Mr. Richards is currently developing plans for a resort combining all of these interests in the coastal region of Oaxaca. He can be contacted at email@example.com