Oaxaca is one of the most popular destinations in all of Mexico, and rightly so. A beautiful state that is home to beautiful beaches, incredible biodiversity, expert and diverse artisans, a cuisine of it's own, heritage foods, vast markets, mezcal, hiking, ancient ruins, and on and on.
The Mexican State of Oaxaca is famous for the city of Oaxaca, and also the coastal beaches, but we didn't even touch the coastline. After weeks in the Baja, the ocean held memories of sand and humidity which we were "over." And - Oaxaca has so much to offer even without the nudist beaches in Zipolite and the beach culture. Mexico's coastlines attract hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, but we weren't in search of tourist destinations. We wanted something a bit more enlightening.
We came here for a volunteer job through workaway.com working at a horse ranch breaking in young horses, building a small shade shelter for the garden, and re-fabricating a falling down chicken coop. What we got was a real-life glimpse into what life is like in the Central Valley.
Volunteering is a great way to travel on the cheap but even better, it allows you to become acquainted with places in a much more intimate way than solely through tourism.
Oaxaca is home to hundreds of micro-climates; from mountains to ocean beaches, cactus forests to fertile valleys rich in culture and life. We spent an afternoon at the Botanical gardens in the city (a fully worthwhile tourist attraction) where we learned about some of the amazing and unique plants in the region. The gardens are caretakers of varieties of plants including "Milpa" (maize field) staples; squash, beans, and corn over 10,000-years-old We also spent time wandering the hills watching the pueblos work in harmony to produce heirloom food and fodder and delighting in the fields of fall wildflowers.
For several days prior to arriving in Oaxaca we rode by vast fields of marigolds - orange and purple, all being harvested, sold on the road side, and loaded into overflowing trucks and tractor trailers to be shipped throughout the country.
As the timing was right , before starting in on our volunteer project, we spent some time in the city exploring and celebrating Dia De Muertos. Dia De Muertos is an old indigenous custom and is an interesting example of the way the native cultures have adapted to the intrusion of Catholicism while maintaining the heart of many traditions. Today, the celebration takes place over a week or more and it is both joyous and rambunctious but also somber and reflective. We visited graveyards large and small where families decorate the burial places of loved ones and ancestors, and sit in vigil all night long drinking Mezcal (or not), remembering, and lighting the way of the dead. We found wild parties in city neighborhoods where we were clearly outsiders but were warmly welcome, our bellies and pockets filled with sweets, fruits, mezcal, and hot drinks. Of course, we joined a parade of raucous families dancing to a 15-piece brass and percussion band and shooting off fireworks in the street. We watched preparations, theatrical plays in which the dead and living interact, ate street food, and even went to a wild late-night cock fight. It was marvelous. It was thought provoking. It was beautiful.
Our volunteer experience was a time of working, and learning. It was a time for reflecting, re-evaluating, being humble and giving ourselves and each other grace, and also to make some really wonderful friends. I spent half the time working with a rescue horse and donkey, ground driving a half-blind pony, and riding a new Criollo horse along with the tourists to give him some training and get him used to his new job. Scott and I worked together the rest of the time re-building a rotted and broken chicken coop and building a shade-shelter green house for the garden. It was a good break from being on the road every day, and I am glad we did it despite the challenges.
Motorcycles. Scott noticed that his moto was handling very poorly and determined that he needed to replace the headset bearings. Ha! After five days of pounding, scraping, dremmeling, and throwing wrenches without success we rolled it down the road to the local metal shop who spent about 5 minutes welding in a cross bar and pounding the bearing race out. Gah! Somehow in the nightmarish process, Scott punched a hole in his Clarke gas tank which is made of a plastic that is virtually impossible to patch. Having no choice but to try, he carved a stick to plug the hole and then sealed it in with gasket maker. It worked! Sort of. The tank held gas, but leaked and dripped all the way to Belize where you will later learn what the solution was to be...
A quick clutch job more, and we were ready to roll on out of Oaxaca - after exploring the mountains with our friends Farina and Octavio who's Italika ate up the dirt roads like a champ.
Italikas are cheap motorcycles originally produced in South Korea, but now designed and made right in Mexico. They are everywhere and they make sense - light, simple, and with millions of spare parts around. It's kind of like a bicycle but without the pedals.
But one cannot stay in Oaxaca forever, and after a month we were ready to keep moving southward. But not before we stopped to admire glowing mezcal medicinal tinctures and fill a roto-pax with delicious agave rot-gut. We paid $100 pesos per liter (about $6) to fill up a water tank. Chapolines (grasshoppers), and pepitas (squash seeds) are natural friends to Mezcal. Agaves are often planted along side squash and corn, and in the mornings and evenings chapolines are harvested. This particular mezcal producing family also had hundreds of pounds of pepitas and buckets of chapolines waiting to be consumed in the traditional style of Oaxaca - Roasted or fried with chilis and garlic, and snacked on while sipping Mezcal. Complimentary products both in the field and on the table. This is agriculture at it's best. Family farms, sustainable practices, crop rotation, habitat-friendly, integrated crops, naturally organic products... and all stemming from a culture and heritage of sensical stewardship. We could learn a lot from the people who live in this place called "Mexico." It's beautiful.
For me (Scott) one of the hardest parts of traveling is the fear of missing out. Leaving Michoacan we passed a number of towns with rodeos in full swing and had to shed a tear and drive onward in order to make miles towards Puebla. How far can you possibly travel if you try to do everything? Finding the balance is hard.
Somewhere between towns north of Mexico City Sharah pulled over in a dirt parking lot as her clutch cable had snapped. We had brought an OEM spare so we installed it and were back on the road in 30 minutes. We've found that in Mexico universal motorcycle parts are as easy to find as coca-cola. Nearly everybody in Mexico drives a motorcycle and the most important thing for them isn't to find OEM parts but rather to just fix it and keep going for as little money as possible.
Our slight clutch cable delay and normally slow pace brought us into the town of Ixmiquilpan with the setting sun and threat of rain so we abandoned our plans to camp at a swimming pool in the mountains and splurged instead on a $500 peso ($30USD) hotel room with private jacuzzi. This was the last bath tub we would see in our travels for months.
We drove into Puebla planning to change Sharah's rear tire and both of our oil. The economy of Mexico is incredible sometimes. What would normally have taken me about an hour of sweating and cursing, some busted knuckles, and a few popped tubes to change Sharah's tire instead cost $150 pesos ($9.00 USD) at the Yamaha dealership in town where a team of two burly men spent an hour doing the exact same, and all I had to do was eat the street food and watch. Such luxury would usually cost $30 USD in the States, plus the food. Total cost in Puebla, $10.00 USD, including food.
We changed our oil and filters in the afternoon shade behind an Autozone but learned you can't drop off your old oil inside like in the States. A street kid waving a red handkerchief collecting parking fees pointed at a grassy patch and said to just dump it out but we couldn't bring ourselves to do it.
A British geologist once told me that bacteria eats most of the hydrocarbons before our tiny spill could become dangerous, but I still resist the idea. We poured the oil back into bottles and left it by the back door hoping our conscience wouldn't haunt us.
Our host in Puebla is a bit of a Yamaha enthusiast, specifically the 80's and 90's FZR and TZR series. His attention to detail in rebuilding these antiques was apparent when you saw how excited he got as he showed off his OEM engine seals that had just come in the mail. Manolo also owns a KTM 990 and a Cagiva Navigator as well as a Honda XR200 pit bike. We were in good hands for specialty tools and a library of old Paris-Dakar race footage DVD's.
We backtracked a bit to visit the famous pre-Aztec pyramids of the moon and sun in Teotihuacan. The pyramids here are some of the largest Mexico and our self-guided tour through the ruins was full of wonder and the incessant calls of street vendors growling into jaguar sculptures and hawk whistles.
Despite the noise of hundreds of tourists from all over the globe, there is a palatable solemness about this place The road of the dead stretches between the pyramid of the sun and moon and is lined with smaller pyramid structures. Ancient secrets and mysteries crawl into your head with whispers and hints of things you will never know of but of which you are somehow aware. There is an energy in the imagination of thousands of ancient feet and bodies traveling the same pathways in such a meaningful place, climbing the same steep stairways, feeling the same sunshine and looking across the same valleys which are today undoubtedly very changed.
A variety of murals found on the walls of Teotihuacan
The temple of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, under excavation.
One of the thousands of small figures removed from the pyramids of Teotihuacan and put on display in the museum.
Mornings in our campsite were replete with hot air balloon launchings and landings. Our site was adjacent to open fields perfect for landings and perhaps more than 30 balloons would be in the air by sunrise.
Our three nights in Teotihuacan gave us time for maintenance. Since owning her bike Sharah has now replaced the cylinder, piston, rings, valve stems, drive train, and rear mono-shock, and does her routine valve adjustments and oil changes too.
Fellow traveler Marco from Italy is driving a 1990 Honda Africa Twin he imported from Europe. Like many he is Ushuaia bound.
Puebla and Teotihucan we welcome stopovers en route south. Next up was Oaxaca, the heart of Mexico.
Guadalajara was the first city we had seen in several weeks. All of my photos came out badly due to traffic, smog, and general distraction in my first true Mexican city - and a good one at that! The city sits on hillsides and is teeming with traffic. The gasoline is red, the construction zones are "pass-if-you-can" and the spirit of the place is survival of the fittest. Our bikes are well suited for bad roads, speed bumps, traffic weaving, and accelerating through tunnels - even loaded with a hundred and fifty pounds of gear.
Leaving the City you find new worlds in any direction - we went a bit to the West and up in elevation - climbing through the remote mountains until we found the cold, racing the sunset, and came upon the edge of the Jaliscan world - or at least an incredible view of the valley.
For $50 pesos each, we found an amazing campsite high up in the mountains, near the Magic Puebla of Tapalpa. One thing - hot showers. Pretty nice ones at that, though I only took one in the three nights we stayed there. The small resort also had a bread and pizza oven, a great little kitchen, cabins for rent for those wanting to spend a bit more than $3 per day, great people, and an incredible view of farmlands, the valley, and volcanos.
Our host at the campsite shared a drink with us - his grandmother's recipe, made of chili pepper, local sour pomegranate grenadine, sugar, and tequila. The perfect cure for chills, weary bones, motorcycle-shaken and buzzy heads, and just about any other ailment you can think of. It was delicious. Perfection. The folks in the Mountains of Jalisco know how to heal your soul.
Tapalpa is one of Mexico's first "Magic Pueblas" a designation given to historically or culturally significant villages in an effort to promote tourism in places other than the coastal towns. It's a smart concept as there is so much to see and experience away from the tourism-heavy coasts. We wandered Tapalpa for a few days finding blue-corn street food for a few cents, Brooklyn worthy pastries for $20 pesos, fruity mountain mystery mezcal, $5 peso avacodos, $30 peso rounds of fresh home made cheese, and original 16th century cobbled streets and avenues.
One of my favorite Jalisco experiences was the Pajarates. An ex-pat, ex-pilot friend that we met told us about this tradition. He told us which road to drive up in the morning - to look for a cow on the side of the road with people surrounding it. Take one part sugar, one part cinnamon, one part instant coffee, five parts cane liquor, and five parts fresh cow's milk. Mix together in a big redware mug and put a good buzz on. 10am Sunday morning pleasures.
I am adjusting to being on the road. So far we have run into quite a few other motorcycle tourists, but I haven't seen a single one who is a woman (save a woman from Russia, riding on the back of her husband's bike). I had previously guessed that one of every hundred people who ride motos on this sort of trip are female, but now I think that number might be even lower. It can feel isolating.
It's tough, although, now, a week or so removed from the Baja and the beginnings, I am settling into the rhythm and the discomforts of not having a bed, not speaking the language, riding a big heavy motorcycle every day, packing, un-packing, and packing again in a matter of a few hours. Scraping bugs off of my visor, dodging mules on the side of the road, wiping dust and gravel out of my eyes, and removing wasps from my sleeves as they sting me, repeatedly.
But All is Well!? we are off of the ferry and on the mainland and I must say that I am thoroughly enjoying life despite the occasional difficulties. It's hard, but it's also really great. We are meeting new people, learning new things, and as always, feel so fortunate to have this opportunity and some semblance fortitude, even though it doesn’t always feel like it.
Our first day in the mountains we stopped for a moment to look at enormous white butterflies that fluttered like crepe paper in the green hills. For the first time, we saw cornfields on steep mountain sides being grown and harvested entirely by hand. The road wound along knife-edges through tiny villages where the inhabitants stood around shooting the breeze on horseback. Horses and mules wandered around in the middle of the road. We are not in Baja any more.
The Devil's Backbone is the name of the old highway that winds up to the City of Durango from Mazatlan. This road is incredible - steep drops and tight turns for hundreds of kilometers through tiny villages and not much else You can see what looks like impossibly placed crops on the sides and tops of the mountains. Those are corn fields, and yes, it takes an incredible amount of work to plant, cultivate, and harvest in these places.
Our first night on the mainland we spent with Alex, our friend who took the ferry with us, half way to the City of Durango. At the top of the mountain we ate Elotes and Guavas and cooked a meal of rice, beans, and tomatoes before parting ways in the morning.
Scott and I took an easy riding day and spent two nights at Parque National Sierra de Organos where we hiked about, took a rest, and enjoyed the cacti and rock formations. The campsite was $40 pesos per person each night and was primitive, secure, and very very nice. The tiny town provided us with terrible but inexpensive mescal (the "liquor and wine" store had exactly 5 bottles on the shelf total) and some fresh vegetables.
The Parque host was lovely (we made friends when I picked him up 2 loosies on my grocery run at his request), and Scott and I rested, read books, wandered about and did nothing for a glorious day or two.
Parque Nacional de Órganos
Mexican National Parks aren’t the same as American Parks. I’m trying to draw a comparison between the two but other than a focus on natural beauty there isn’t much in common.
A National Park in Mexico is a forgotten corner of the world maintained by a man in a rundown pick-up who wants $40 pesos for a campsite and for you to pack out your trash. His needs are simple.
People don’t often tent camp in Mexico so the guy in the pick-up will instruct you to pitch camp in the picnic area down the road. There might be toilet paper in the pit toilet but don’t count on it.
The park is a marvel of nature, a protected parcel of land with soaring rock towers and an abundance of cactus demarcated by a gate that closes at 7pm, but which lacks the pomp or circumstance one might attribute to a National Park.
You probably won’t see anybody at the Park other than the guy in the pick-up. Some coyote biologists might pass by and say hello but that’s about it.
There are trails and some informational signs but the guy in the pick-up won’t be out there to tell you about this rock or that rock. He’s busy watching the gate for more people that won’t arrive.
When you need more water or food you go to town a half hour away and you buy some cigarettes for the man the in the pick-up. He will be thankful. The townsfolk will wonder where you came from.
At the end of the day the man in the pick-up will be out in a field moving brush and he will give you a ride back to your camp. Knock twice on the quarter panel to get off.
At night it gets cold and the needles of the pine whistle in the wind. The stars shine bright, the moon rises and you can see your breath in the moonlight. You are blissfully alone.
The crows wake you up in the morning. A fog hangs low in the valley waiting for the sun to clear the air and your coffee steams under the propane flame. Your path up to the pipe organ shaped rocks soon flames red with the sunrise and the cathedral of stone seems to glow from within.
By noon it’s time again for another run to town for beer and cigarettes and the man with the pick-up will wave as you pass the gate. It’s been three days and your routine is set.
In an American Park you pay $25+ dollars a day for the privilege to pay $20 more dollars for a campsite next to a generator farm. The Park rangers are in the business of childcare for the ignorant and foolish, and you’ll be lucky to find a quiet place that doesn’t break the rules of the parks system.
In Mexico, $3 dollars slows life down to a crawl and the only other person in the park just wants, if you could please if you’re going to town, a beer and a cigarette.
After leaving the State of Durango we found some local hot springs near El Zoyate and stayed for a while. During high-water they are difficult to get to but we hadn't seen rain in weeks, and the water over the ford was only 8" deep at it's worst. The springs were at a water park which was closed for the season, but the locals came to use the hot pools for bathing each evening and morning. Very functional hot springs, and likely the only hot water in the neighborhood.
Aside from the out door river-side hot pools, there were underground dungeon springs built in a concrete chamber which added a sweat-box element to the experience.
Honestly, I am still getting used to camping here in Mexico - these places are so very remote, we have no phone service, and there are over 30,000 people in Mexico who have simply gone missing in the past few years. I have never felt unsafe, but I do feel a heightened awareness and am more cautious about where we camp than I might be in other parts of the world.
With the fiesta coming up soon, people have been shooting off fireworks every night which disturbs my sleep and keeps me on edge.
This is all part of traveling - being uncomfortable, and knowing that there are risks. You are forced to confront fears, and enter into situations that are unknown. It has been interesting to observe how attached and secure I feel when at home where I know what to avoid, I can talk to people easily, and I generally have the ability to communicate with anyone at any time from anywhere.
I didn't realize how ingrained those securities and habits had become - even with my sense of adventure. It's sort of embarrassing. I want to be super tough and not afraid of anything - but I am not always those things. Add a bunch of processing, adjusting, language barrier, and feeling often hyper-aware, and it's been hard. Keeping my head in the game, not smoking, and being a nice person to my partner and the rest of the world is difficult. I believe that it gets easier, and in some ways it has. The tiny parts of the world, and the people that inhabit them make it worth it. All I have to do is just keep it all together! Don't drop the bike, eat well, exercise, set up and break down camp every day, ride hard, cook meals, sleep through fireworks, be kind to your partner, be kind to yourself, explore, enjoy, etc... just keep it all together! It's fun, right? It's easy, right? It's pretty much just a long vacation, right? To be continued~~