Jayne, Phil, Ida and I loaded up Cricket, Juggs and Georgia, and headed into the south-eastern mountains of Oaxaca. We sought to relax in the mineral springs of Hierve del Agua, but I secretly hoped for much more – and Mexico delivered as always.
About an hour on the highway brought us to a great gravel and sand twisty going into the mountains. We passed a small village with the requisite poverty and ramshackle housing which seems to be the signature of Oaxaca.
Hierve del Agua is not hugely impressive. Water bubbles up from the mountain and drains into a succession of pools, most tiny, but two large enough to swim in, one of the pools was not even particularly clean. However, the pools do overlook a valley, mountain ridges and a mineral cascade. It was relaxing and pleasant without needing to be stupendous or overwhelmingly impressive. After the excellent ride, we spent most of the day relaxing there.
While we lounged in the water I noticed a snaky path winding its way up the opposing ridge and into the beyond of the sierra. I was not sure to where it lead, but I was sure I wanted to ride it. It connected somewhere with the road that took us here, and then would bring us to the middle of nowhere in the mountains opposite of where we were taking in the waters. It screamed of adventure in the views it promised to provide and the unknown to which it promised to lead.
It was getting late and none of us had brought a tent or sleeping bags. For some reason we were not happy with the $8 per person rate of the cabins near springs, so we decided to head to the next village in the mountains to look for a place to stay. I knew there would be no motels at either of the villages, so we went with the hope of finding someone with a couple of extra beds. When we got to the outskirts of the little pueblo we began asking people, and everyone replied in the same way: go to the center and ask the authorities. Ask the authorities? All of a sudden we were in Europe during the dark ages. The authorities had to approve the wayward travelers before anyone could take them in, or be provided by the town with accommodations. It was odd, a bit inconvenient, but held promise of an interesting experience!
We turned a lot of heads riding into that pueblo. It was not on any tourist map, and it was not really on the way to anything, unless you were a Mexican Maguey farmer. For those without TV it is possible we were the first white people they have seen. White people, and on huge motorcycles! I would give anything to know what they were thinking. When we got to the little town center, there was a gaggle of kids, as always. Their playfulness and shyness and curiosity raged a great battle as they ran off giggling, but inevitably returned time and time again. Ida and I chose to play with the kids while Phil and Jayne went to seek the great authority of the town.
It was getting late – the sun was already scratching at the mountain peaks. The authorities were nowhere to be found and would not return for at least an hour and a half according to some helpful gentlemen we found around the town hall. Knowing Mexico, an hour and a half could easily mean sometime tomorrow. This is not a chance we could take. The guys did show us the likely room where we could be put up. It had nothing but a concrete floor, and possibly some light mattresses, but no blankets. We did not know how much, if anything would be charged, but we knew the night would be cold as we were in the mountains. It would be unlikely that the authorities would turn us down. But a night of bitter mountain cold was not something any of us were looking forward to. It was a nice idea for a little adventure, but when there was an affordable option which guaranteed warmth, we preferred to take that. At the end of the day we are not desperate. This is something I try to keep in mind: my homelessness and meagre living are a choice, as opposed to billions of people in poverty around the word. I am a relatively sane white man, and that means there is no way I could ever starve. There’s something so sad about the reality of that security.
We bought some bread and headed back toward Hierve del Agua. Right before the entrance there was a small restaurant, so we decided to take the chance and ask whether they had any room for us. They said they did, and only wanted 150 pesos ($12) for the 4 of us and our steeds. I took one look at the place, which had room in the little courtyard for our bikes, and knew this is where we were meant to stay.
There was already a fire in the kitchen, and food in preparation. The land lady lent us some plates and knives to make our own guacamole, and put on a kettle of water to make tea from the yerba buena we brought from the market. We had not eaten in a long time so when the nopales and beans and tortillas started coming, we dug in ravenously. By then the guac was ready as well, and the lady brought out homemade mescal for us to try. All of a sudden, we went from not being sure where we would sleep and eat, to having comfortable, if small, beds and a feast worthy of the road.
The following day we made our breakfast and took leave of our hosts. The road I had spotted the day before was now our route.
We passed through the village of the night before and within minutes found ourselves in the middle of the mountains. Hierve del Agua is also in the mountains, but just on the other side of a ridge from the main road to Oaxaca. Now we were truly in the middle of nowhere. The road was pure gravel and sand; it wound up and down the mountain sides, into valleys and along ridges. 80km of pure mountain riding. The forest kept changing, almost as fast as one side of a mountain to the next. Sometimes we saw cacti and palms, at others we were in pure pine forest. Much more often though it was an impossible mix of trees which seemed to come from different parts of the world. There was not much cloud forest as on the east side going toward Tuxtepec and Veracruz, but still a sufficient amount to make us stop often and wander at how such a mix could be found in such a small area.
Maguey farms, or fields rather, dotted the mountain sides. For the most part the fields were tiny – either because each plants takes a lot of water from the surrounding ground, or to prevent infestation destroying large swaths. There were also maguey plants growing precariously on steep, rocky slopes, which made us wonder of the bravery or foolheartedness of the men who had to pick them. The only other people on the road came in small trucks to harvest the maguey, but for the most part were quite alone. In 80km we passed only a small handful of villages, and missed a few more which lay on tiny diversions from the main paths.
We were fortunate enough to meet a few residents of Santa Ana del Rio – a little village a world away from civilization. All of a sudden we were not listening to Spanish, we heard life in Zapoteco instead – A language that at one point dominated Oaxaca, along with Mixteca, but is now spoken by only a few thousand people. As Phil and I shared a hammock, and the ladies a bench, while we sipped our cokes to stave off the lethargy of the heat, it was Zapotec spoken around us as though it were normal. In fact not everyone spoke Spanish, my guess is that many there have never even left the mountains, or have seen white people (some probably have on TV, but for others we surely were the first – this is mostly true for the women and kids, not so much the men). We were in the middle of nowhere, and yet in another world. And here too, as other parts of Oaxaca, we found a missing contingency of men who have gone to the U.S to work and send money home.
We stopped by a small market and discovered something that would hold true for many markets in Oaxaca: they operate on a barter system. They will not accept the little money that others have, as they do not have much use for it, but they will trade tomatoes or avocados for a chicken or wood or clothes… something they can actually use. Some people are fortunate enough to have a small patch of land on which they can grow some fruit or vegetables to help feed the family.
The riding was fantastic! Pure off-road for 80 clicks with nothing but the ever changing forest and beautiful vistas that opened to every side of us.
Jayne is significantly less experienced than Phil or me so she rode much slower, and even dropped her bike a couple of times. She was badly shaken up after almost dropping her bike off a cliff, so she rode even slower then. Considering the distance and the slow speeds it took us all of day light to make it back to the blacktop. Plus we stopped to help one of the villagers fix a flat tire. He was a few hours walk from his village, and as it was getting dark and there is practically no one there, we could not just let him go. Phil and I made a 30 minute job of it, give or take, and sent him with a questionable patch on his way. But all this meant that the last 2 hours of riding through the mountains, on paved road this time, would be in the dark. This is dangerous in Mexico, but in the mountains, especially in Oaxaca, it’s even more so. And of course the KLR headlamp did nothing to help us!
But in spite of all the obstacles – huge stretches of unpainted road, often with no signs or too many of them, no barrier and no reflective arrows or posts, even on sharp curves above high cliffs – we made it back in one piece. With our horrible headlights we were often driving on a prayer that the blacktop would continue and that we would stay on it.
We collapsed, thrilled and exhausted, on the beds and couches of our hosts, wondering, till the dreams came, of what adventures were yet in store for us in this magical land.