For the past 2 months my girlfriend, Aubrey, has been in Mexico (and now Guatemala) on a soul-searching voyage, so it was about time I flew down to visit. Aside from a trip to Baja when I was five, this was my first time in Mexico. Everyone I talked to said Oaxaca was a special place, but until I spent the next two weeks traveling through other areas, I did not fully appreciate why. The first thing that stood out to me were the colors. Every building was painted, on the inside and out, with some combination of brilliant yellow, orange, red, green, and blue. Every fence was covered with blooming bougainvillea sporting vibrant pink, magenta, and purple flowers. The jacaranda trees were laden with purple flowers. The walls were covered in brilliant murals (“graffiti”), and the markets filled with ripe and colorful fruits of all shapes, colors, and sizes.
Culinary highlights included chapulines (fried seasoned crickets), mamey and guanábana fruits, a guava molé (sauce made from cacao and spices), tejate (fermented cacao and corn drink), and mezcal (smokey tequila) ice cream.
After two days in the city, I was anxious to get out and see what nature had to offer in Mexico. And truth be told, Aubrey was excited to get out of the city, too. For that, we headed into Chiapas, the southern most state of Mexico, bordering Guatemala. Chiapas has one of the highest numbers of species diversity of any place on Earth thanks to its range of terrain from arid savannah to pine forests and tropical jungles.
Over the following 16 days we spent over 50 hours in 36 different vehicles, including a “platinum” night bus, taxis, combis, camionetas, pick-up trucks, and horses. We travelled through 5 major cities, passed 5 military checkpoints and 2 Zapatista protest blockades. We slept in 12 distinct places ranging from fancy hotels (US$50 / night) to camping in the lawns of fancy hotels (US$8 / night), and we never saw an American, just a few french, germans, and one kiwi (and lot of mexicans). Everything was in the hands of Aubrey’s 1.5 month old spanish skills, and whatever was left of my middle and high school classes from 10 years ago. Much to our surprise, everything worked out in the end!
Our first destination was Sima de las Cotorras, which means “abyss of the parakeets.” We left Oaxaca on a 10 hr night bus, and arrived in Tuxtla, the capital of Chiapas, at 5:30am. After following several dead-end leads to information centers and ecotourism bureaus from friendly strangers on the streets, we hailed a cab and asked him to take us to the tourism office. He dropped us off in front of this official looking state department building.
To appreciate how daunting this building seemed to us, you have to picture that it was the only skyscraper in the city, and the only building that didn’t still have rebar poking out of the side of the cement walls and roof. And probably the only building with air conditioning. Confused, we walked inside, where we were asked to check our passports in exchange for an access key which would take us to the 5th floor. Our gigantic backpacks didn’t fit through the x-ray scanner, but the security guard just waived us through. We definitely did not belong there. But there on the 5th floor, mixed in with fifty other people sitting at their computers, was the lady in charge of tourism. She seemed confused that two dirty backpack-carrying American tourists were there to see her, but she did have helpful (english!) information packets to give us.
Armed with the necessary information we found our way to Ocozocoautla, where we found a cab willing to take us to the Sima. First things first: a cold beer, followed by a pitcher of agua fresca de melon (cantaloupe juice blended with water). Refreshed and hydrated, we set up our tent under a dilapidated roof, which used to be a horse stable. We were probably the first people to have camped there in at least a year, probably more – most people stay in the nice cabanas for an extra US$15. To accompany the beautiful natural scenery, several of the ecotourism places we visited had signs posted with inspirational quotes I particularly enjoyed.
In the mornings and evenings the hundreds of little green parakeets (Aratinga holochlora) that make their homes in the walls of the Sima fly out in search of food, chattering vociferously as they zoom past at over 60 mph.
After relaxing to the sounds of happy screeching parakeets for a day, we set off to our next destination: Cañon Rió la Venta. The owner of the restaurant at the Sima was kind enough to take us to the trailhead (for the right price), where we descended the 700+ steps into paradise: towering canyon walls, sandy beaches, a warm river, and splashing waterfalls! We both agree that this was our favorite place of the trip, and I think we might go back someday. It was incredible that so close to a major city, was such a beautiful and peaceful place that we had almost entirely to ourselves for most of the 3 days we stayed there. That is, aside from the three men with dogs that apparently made daily walks up and down the canyon through some secret entrance to fill their buckets with… something.
Click image for larger view!
Click image for larger view!
Regretfully, we left the canyon, on to the next adventure: Mayan ruins, the Lacandon Jungle, and la Biosfera Montes Azules. And lots of rides in combis (12 passenger vans that race through the countryside bringing mexicans to wherever they want to go). That will be the next blog post!