"The flight is very full, so please check any carry ons you don't need" the ticket agent kept announcing over the loudspeaker. Flying standby is stressful. There is only one flight from LA to Mexico City on AK air every day, and its at 12:10am. We stood near a trash can in the middle of the boarding area watching the standby list grow and the paying passengers board, oblivious to the stress of an uncertain future. Fortunately, fortune would smile on us and we gleefully take up the last two seats on the plane.
After our flight to Mexico City, the cabbie wound his way through the insane city traffic to the bus stop and we started the next leg of our trip, a six hour bus ride to Oaxaca. I will admit, after a flight from LA to Mexico City, a six hour (probably more like seven) bus ride was just a wee bit too long. I would recommend flying to Oaxaca if you can swing the extra dinero and find a good connection. However, you might miss out on watching Labor Day in Spanish on your bus ride. Oh man, how confusing was that?
We stayed at a great Airbnb with a lovely host and a wonderful older lady who would check up on us from time to time. She loved to ask us about our day and ask me questions in Spanish that I could only return with a blank stare and a smile. Luckily Becky can translate. Mucho calor indeed...
There was a cat, a turtle in a plastic tub, a really sad looking chicken (and another chicken that apparently beat up on it) and a dog named Api . It had a great little courtyard full of plants, an orange tree, and a couple other units.
Across the small alley from our place was a coffee shop, Café Caracal Púrpura, that sold fresh Oaxacan beans (roasted right in the tight quarters of the store) and delicious cups of coffee. Friendly owners, and its single room full of personality, beat out all the coffee shops in the town center that seemed to be modeled after fast food chains. Definitely the second best cup of coffee we had in Mexico - the first being a cup of instant mix and milk at 10,500 ft in Cuajimoloyas. Sometimes it's not just the quality of the thing, but the experience itself that creates a memory you want to return to, even when thousands of miles away.
We spent a few days seeing the sights around Oaxaca City. My personal favorite was the Sunday Tlacolula market - one of the largest and oldest in Oaxaca. Filled with wonderful sights, every sort of meat, a plethora of dried and fresh chilis, and every craft or widget from lime (the mineral, to mix with corn), to yoke for oxen. All sorts of smells of freshly cooked street food lingered under the tarps hung overhead.
It would pour rain pretty much every afternoon or evening we were in mexico - usually accompanied by thunder and lightning. This afternoon was no different.
It dumped overhead but nobody seemed to mind; splashes as vendors cleared the pooling water at the edges of their tarps. We ate as much as we could fit in our bellies. Some fried, rolled up tortilla thing from over here, some other quesadilla looking goodies over there and some fresh cheese in various shapes from another place. That salty, stringy, white delicious Oaxacan cheese. Everything was wonderful and fresh and tasted amazing.
After a white knuckled, insanely quick, taxi ride back into the city, we calmed our nerves with some rooftop margaritas and made the decision to head to the mountains. While the city is wonderful, full of color and history, we both can only take the excitement for so long. Its hard to connect with local people in a city. It's hard to find that glimpse into what local life is actually like. Cities are so much harder to feel incorporated into - to feel like you are part of it, and not just watching it. One of the things I love about travel is being part of something different. Experiencing something that I wouldn't normally experience. Actually bing a part of it. Cities can feel very much the same.
So, we were to head to the mountains. We were headed to Cuajimoloyas.
As the bus ever so slowly wound its way up a narrow mountain road, we started seeing patches of white pass us by. "Is that snow?" Becky asked. How could that be snow? We're in Mexico after all.
As we pulled into the little mountain town, and I stepped off the bus and into the sun, I found myself face to face with a snow bunny, complete with scarf and carrot for nose. My mind was blown. Everything I was used to in Mexico had faded away at around 10k ft. I found myself surrounded by wooden buildings with little chimneys puffing out smoke. The ground covered in melting snow (that was actually leftover from a hail storm or, granizo). I felt like I had just walked into a different world. Everyone was in jackets and hats and bundled up.
We stepped into what was apparently a little restaurant, or home with tables, those lines were blurred and sometimes confusing in the mountain towns. "Do I just walk in?" "Are we supposed to be eating here" I'd often wonder.
We sat and talked about the snow, ate a big egg breakfast cooked on a wood stove behind a counter, and drank delicious instant cafe con leche. It was that kind of delicious you get when you eat a meal camping - it's amazing, but you know it wouldn't be if you were eating it anywhere else. Somehow the joy and excitement of a wonderful experience can radiate all the way out from your core and through to your tastebuds, making anything that much more delicious.
The town of Cuajimoloyas sits at 10,500 ft. It is wonderful. It is small. Kids run through the streets and the school basketball court always seemed full of some sort of small game. Announcements would come over the loudspeaker, blasting information in rapid Spanish. There were lots of goats, dogs, cats, and donkeys. Becky took a special liking to donkeys on this trip. It must be their somewhat sad demeanor and the fact that they are usually staked out by themselves. Or maybe it is their ridiculous huge ears. Once in a while you could hear a burro call across town with their strange scream. Moments later, a call would echo back.
The day still being young after our great breakfast and cup of coffee, we decided to do the nine mile hike to the neighboring town of Latuvi. After convincing the people of Expeditions Sierra Norte that we did not need a guide, we headed off on a little adventure that would be the highlight of our trip.
So we take off down a dirt road with a sign pointing us to Latuvi, a map in our hands, and little "yellow men" posted to trees to reassure us that we were indeed heading the right direction. After a while we departed the dirt road and the little yellow man coaxed us into the jungle. It was beautiful up there. At first, it felt like you were wandering through some strange forest in Northern California. The Pine and Oak trees towering tall. After ducking into the jungle, giant red blooming air plants drooped from the trees. At first we would see one off in the distance, a little dot of red in the otherwise green and brown landscape. By the time we were half way down the trail they were everywhere. Foreign red blooms bleeding out of the green trees.
The path was well marked, for the most part. The going was slow and I had to remind myself that we were above 10,000 ft every time I started huffing and puffing up a small hill. There were little stone walls every once in a while and at one point we passed the remains of an old aqueduct; history buried in overgrowth.
As we started our descent into the valley before the final climb to the mountain town of Latuvi, the sky was growing dark with the promise of rain, or worse. It must have scared the little yellow man away because as the number of dead leaves on the forest floor increased, the path seemed to fade away, and the little yellow man vanished.
"I hate that those little yellow men!" I heard becky exclaim several times as we came to realize that we weren't exactly lost, but we weren't exactly on the trail either. We did some loops, backtracked and split up (within yelling distance) to search for the elusive yellow signs. Eventually we had to abandon the idea of finding the actual trail and stick to our gut (and pull up the basic map of mexico I had download on my phone for offline use). We figured out our general direction and made our way through the dead leaves and down the mountain - the sun long ago blocked by ominous clouds.
After a few river crossings that reassured us we were heading the right way, we made our final ascent into Latuvi. We could see lightning silently cutting the sky in the distance. I wanted to stop and watch but luckily Becky tugged on my arm and urged us on. By the time we dropped our bags at our Cabaña and stepped back outside, the storm was directly overhead. Someone had punched a hole in the sky and hail and water poured down. It rained so hard, thunder rolling overhead, flashes of lighting barely visible through the dense gray. We sat in the chairs outside our cabin door and watched and listened - thinking the whole time of how glad we were that we weren't still wandering around out in the woods in search of little yellow men - but as it was, it was the perfect ending to the day.
Our bellies getting the better of us, we braved the downpour to run over to a little store for snacks while we waited for the place that served food to open. "Cerveza?" I asked the two little kids who had answered our knocking. With an "uno momento," they disappeared into the house that was attached to the store. We browsed the goods, the only light coming in from the open door behind us.
When we returned to our Cabaña, we sat outside and drank water, and warm corona, and ate bananas and watched the rain. We relaxed, and for the first time on our trip, I really felt like we were on vacation.
The next day, our legs a little wiped from the hike (my phone's pedometer said 15miles, 6 more than the trail was supposed to be), we decided to rent horses and take a guide on our trip to Amatlán. Another completely amazing trail filled with totally different vegetation. This time it was the moss that was amazing - draped over the trees making an etherial atmosphere. We passed by and over rivers, up hills that overlooked beautiful vistas of the water below, and through the moss covered forest.
It was perfect riding into Amatlán. Traveling through the forest and a few small villages on horse before reaching Amatlán felt right, like you were supposed to reach this mountain town by horse. The hooves thumping down on the cobblestone street as we navigated our way to our Cabaña. No downpour to greet us this time... just the warm sun and a hammock.
It was vacation again...