Many motorcyclists in CDA / USA will go on about ‘Tail of the Dragon’ in Tennessee – the road with 318 curves in 17 kilometres (11 miles). Don’t get me wrong… it was super fun – we raved (a lot) about it ourselves in our American Parkways post, we even rode it multiple times. But, it is only 11 miles long, is staggeringly slow at 30mph (45kph) and riddled with the traffic of the aforementioned motorcyclists and the occasional Winnebago pulling an SUV (save me!). The road from Cuernavaca through the mountains to Oaxaca City, however, is over 430kms long, of which 300 are shift-down-to-second-gear-twisties! Oh, and the posted speed limit is completely ignored by everyone (including us) and there is very little traffic through traditional Mayan villages. So, it was with big smiles and very little chit chat that we continued to make our way south. If interested, check out our route, here. Zoom in to see those curves!
Acatlan de Osorio is located almost exactly 1/2 way between Cuernavaca and Oaxaca – it was the obvious stopping place for the night. An interesting little town that looked like it was once something very spectacular that is now, sadly, crumbling to pieces.
Our hotel, Hotel Mexico was a huge complex with a grand outdoor dining area that is now abandoned (yet still fully furnished) and a gorgeous courtyard complete with palms & parakeets. However, our room was rustic and the metal door was actually rusty. We had to put my riding pants up against the rust hole to prevent mosquitos from entering our room to eat us up while we slept, and we’re not 100% sure the shower worked (we felt cleaner without one). We could sift sand through the towels we were provided so it was a good thing we learned the spanish words for ‘other’ and ‘towel’ in our spanish night classes two years ago. We are tightening our purse strings and this is what you get for our new budget in central Mexico.
Despite the depressing image presented here, we really enjoyed our evening in Acatlan. We had yummy street-vendor hamburgers (they were called “Woopers” – not to be confused with actual Whoppers – haha!) bought beer on the street and did a fairly good job answering questions about ourselves and our bikes posed by the stand’s operators. The old Victorian-style square was a shadow of its formal self, but it still bustled with families and high school students, out for a night of ice-cream and fresh air. It was in Actalan that we loaded up on mosquito repellent, having noticed a large increase of their presence.
The following day, we found a coffee (more difficult than you might think) and some fresh, peeled fruit from a street vendor (we now have stomachs of steel, people) then loaded the bikes for day 2. I was in front and took a right turn out of the hotel because we were at the corner of the south end of the main square. As luck would have it, I chose the wrong direction and we ended up riding the wrong way on a one way street for about 10 meters. If you haven’t been in Mexico for a while, you may not remember that there are various levels of police presence… military, federales, municipales, tourist police and, of course, traffic police. We were promptly stopped by the traffic police where they proceeded to inform me of our infraction. Since I thought I heard word like “detencia” (call me paranoid) I simply kept replying ‘no comprendo’ to anything they said to me in the hopes they would let us proceed in our established direction. After rolling their eyes and approaching Jordan for a better response, he motioned our intension to turn our bikes around and this pleased them. So we rode around the entire square in the opposite direction in the proper flow of traffic (of which there was none of course, since it was very early in the morning in a small, rural town) and went on our way. Well, at least there were no fines and we were on our way to Oaxaca City.
We were now in the middle of a thick jungle landscape and we continued to ride up high through mountain passes to views of passes below us, and layers of stereotypical volcanic peaks (now covered with forest) all the way to the horizon. We also started to notice tall cactus plants sprouting up from within the forest as we crossed over into Oaxaca state. Truly, a spectacular and fun ride!
The fun stopped immediately as we entered the outskirts of the city, itself. The road changed from smooth and curvy to a complete disaster. There were numerous holes, topes (large speed bumps / sleeping policemen), and half-finished construction projects to the edge of town where we were greeted by impatient and highly aggressive drivers. They would honk at us while they tried (successfully sometimes) to squeeze us out of their way. Somehow, it felt intentional, not matter-of-fact as it did near Mexico City. The owner of the hostel we stayed in later told us it was ‘because Oaxcans don’t like motorbikes’ – even though it was in Oaxaca City where we saw more large motorbikes (500cc and up) than in the rest of Mexico combined.
We found our hostel by chance – we simply saw “hostel” within 5 minutes of parking our bikes. It turns out that there used to be a popular hostel (promoted by the travel book, LonelyPlanet) called Magic Hostel Oaxaca. However, it closed down a few years ago. The neighbour to this closed-down hostel (a 60-year old man) endured hundreds of knocks on his door from travellers with old editions of the book wondering where the hostel went to. In good entrepreneurial fashion, he capitalized on the situation and converted his family home into a hostel called Hostal Oaxaca Magic – clever. We rented a private room at a price 1/2 of any other hostel in the city and enjoyed the family atmosphere. In fact, 5 other people came to this hostel from other ‘premier’ hostels in the city during our 4 day stay. All said this place had a better vibe and better prices.
We visited another great museum (located in an old monestary), peeked in at the outrageous, over the top, all-gold interior of the Santa Domingo Cathedral and enjoyed the vibe of this mecca of counter culture and public protest which is still visible in the streets today.
On day 3 of our stay we made our way to the second class bus terminal to purchase tickets and a ride to Monte Alban. The bus was a bit worrisome – slightly broken down and strangely odiferous…we were more than relieved when the 30-minute bumpy ride up the narrow, dusty road let us off at the site. Monte Alban is huge, despite only being partially excavated, and sits on a hill 400m (1,300 ft) higher than the valley below – a great defensive position! The city was the major political and economic centre for Zapotec culture from c500BC to c750AD. It is one of the most-extensively understood ancient civilizations in mesoamerica.
Afterwards, we enjoyed more street food – Oaxaca’s regional speciality is tlayuda and you can find it on any street corner. Try it if you can pronounce it… it is a very large flour tortilla grilled over coals, folded and stuffed with the fillings of your choice – ours happens to be chorizo. Many people in Oaxaca opt for the other regional speciality – cuitlacoche, which is actually corn afflicted with a fungus. Instead of throwing them out, Oaxacan farmers have found a way to market and sell the infested crops as edible food. We didn’t try the black goo, but we did read this hilarious article describing it in grotesque detail. Oaxaca is also known for its chocolate, so we couldn’t miss visiting the chocolaterias where fresh coco beans are roasted and ground to make you a hot (or cold) chocolate from scratch, on site. Unreal!
Before leaving, we had an intense conversation with someone who I won’t name – it started because this person saw the book I was reading – Teaching Rebellion, about the grassroots protests against the Mexican government’s violent response to peaceful protests by Oaxaca’s teachers’ union in 2006. She told of her personal experiences and those of her friends and family during the crack down. Her own sister was a teacher at the time (still is) and her responsibility in the fight was to assist in the manning of one of the famous barricades put up by regular citizens as a first line of defence for their neighbourhoods against the violent government repression. Her job at the barricade was to make molotov cocktails by filling bottles with gasoline and a rag – others would light and toss the fire bombs as required. It was interesting to watch her flip through the book, filled with photos & personal accounts from the women of the protest. Bombs & gunfire were exploding outside of her family’s door. Can you honestly imagine this!?She is very proud of her sister and she continues to support the Teachers’ Union with a bed or food, or a place to relax when they are in Oaxaca for their annual May protest against the poverty they & their students face at the hand of government corruption.
Like most Mexican villages and cities that we’ve visited, Oaxaca City did not disappoint. The low slung architecture (to minimize earthquake damage) is simple and elegant, we found great food, plenty of history, and fierce political debates. Not everyone was in support of the protests, we also spent some time also chatting with a few men (one of whom actually tried [unsuccessfully!] to outrun American border guards) that did not in support the teacher’s union. The region is among the poorest in the country and many have been violently and economically repressed by various governments for years. As a result, Oaxacans seem protective of each other and, in my personal opinion, are more reluctant to offer a foreigner a “buenas dias” than some of the northern cities we’ve visited. We found our hostel-family to be extremely warm and genuine and my bet is that most of the residents are equally as friendly, but one needs more than 4 days to figure it all out.