July 24, 2012
After two more days of spectacular ocean sunsets, many mugs of a drink of mangoes and deliciousness, many many more mosquito bites, and thankfully only normal hour-long afternoon rains, we fled Mazunte for our de facto home in Oaxaca, Posada de Los Angeles. Our return journey was much like our original one, except our cabbie had once lived in Portland (only natural, given the decidedly hacky-sack vibe of Mazunte) and the day bus included six awful Hollywood movies dubbed into Spanish to the night bus’s one (A-Team, Avatar, Twilight: Eclipse, something called Charlie St. Cloud, something with a pregnant Sandra Oh in Italy and something else starring Brendan Fraser and a bevy of militaristic animals are as insipid in Spanish as in English.)
Oaxaca returned us to that wonderfully grounded feeling of a place we knew (our bed in Mazunte had quite literally been floating causing spells of dizziness when we awoke) in the midst of traveling to places we don’t. Where Oaxaca only a week ago had presented the daunting freshness of a new place, now the few short hours we spent eating, sleeping and recharging at Posada de Los Angeles were nothing short of precious.
At 6 am, the following morning we set out for Pueblos Mancomunados in Sierra Norte, an enclave of six mountain villages that remains somewhat autonomous from the rest of Mexico. The journey appeared deceptively simple on the paper handed to us at the Pueblos’ office in Oaxaca the previous week. Take the 7am bus to Yalalag from gate 37 the 2nd class bus station. Arrive 20 minutes early to buy your ticket to Cuajimoloyas. Ride for 2 hours to Cuajimoloyas. Once you exit the bus walk to the tour office to meet your guide. My only question had been, “will it be clear where the office is when we arrive?” “Yes, it’s very obvious,” replied the English-fluent organizer.
We arrived earlier than instructed at the 2nd class bus station at 6:30 and this is where having an undeveloped understanding the language went from being a somewhat challenging annoyance to a great hindrance to our general well-being. Where the 1st class bus station had been well-lit, well-maintained, and full of straight-forward signage, the 2nd class bus station was decidedly dark, crumbling, and full of confusion (at least for us). It took ten minutes to figure out that each gate was run by a different bus company and that our tickets were only available at our particular gate (marked by a small number above the exit door).
Our queue extended about a dozen deep, but we had arrived the 20 minutes early needed but our tickets. Linda set out for some breakfast while I waited in the line. I’m not a great waiter and this line seemed much slower than I thought it should be, given the impending departure. I kept one eye on Linda, given my general nervousness about the situation and my perceived seediness of the station (I say perceived because I have no idea if the 2nd class bus station in Oaxaca is in fact seedy, but given the darkness, the lack of upkeep, my unfamiliarity with it and my experience with actually seedy places like the Greyhound stations in Philadelphia and Jacksonville, it was not the most pleasant place to catch a bus. Oaxaca does have an exceptionally low crime rate).
I made it to the front of the line and pointed to our destination on the paper from the tour office. The man explained to me in Spanish that there were no more tickets, he showed me on the computer screen that all the seats had been filled. I asked when the next bus was, he replied 2pm. We would miss our guide, the money we had invested in the trip was gone and we would miss out on what we thought would be one of the highlights of the trip, something we could only find in this particular place.
But these problems soon evaporated when I look over at the food stand where Linda had been buying breakfast before I had started my fruitless attempt to buy tickets. She wasn’t there. I walked the length of the station, growing more terrified by the moment. She wasn’t there. I returned to the ticket booth and only when I made it back to the spot I had started from did she appear from around a corner. Smiling and as relieved as I was. She had been in the bathroom.
With the bus about to leave without us, I explained the situation, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw a couple I had passed on my walk across the station. They had backpacks and appeared, like us, to be headed for Sierra Norte. They finished their conversation with the ticket agent, failed to get tickets, but still walked through the gate toward the bus.
Still recovering from our separation fear, I asked Linda to follow me through the gate, even as she devised plans to find another way to Sierra Norte. I asked the Mexican woman if the bus–which reminded me of the godawful public buses in Kingston– went to our destination, she nodded. I then asked the couple (I think they were French) in English if we could board without tickets, they replied somewhat curtly, “Yes, but you have to stand.” And so we would make it after all. A seat would open up for Linda. I would stand for two hours with 30 others. But we would make it.
Our exit from the bus proved as confusing as our entrance. The driver mumbled stops and ours was Cuajimoloyas, not easy to understand in any language. Fortunately, our stop was a major one and we exited with yet another couple (this time, an American and a New Zealander) bound for Sierra Norte. The office that had promised to be obvious was not. We wandered a bit, asked around and eventually a man with a walkie-talkie (always trust a man with a walkie-talkie) led us to the office.
Despite this rather auspicious start, the remaining three days in Sierra Norte left us breathless. We hiked for seven hours the first day, past agaves the size of Volkswagons (flora and fauna the size of small cars is definitely a theme this trip) and under trees covered in a thick moss and stretching toward Jupiter. We walked quite literally through clouds. It was similar to traveling through a national park with no other people except a local guide to show you all the good stuff. I had feared that walking with a guide would be awkward at best and stifling at worst, but all three of our guides were simply people from each village with an expert knowledge of the surrounding area.
Our first day’s hike landed us in Latuvi, the largest of the villages at 600 people. We expected little from our cabanas given the economic poverty of the village, but to our surprise, the small cabin had a working fireplace, a comfortable bed and the best shower we’ve had in Mexico (this says more about our choices in accommodation than it does about Mexico). We slept as only one can under five blankets, with a roaring fire, having thoroughly exhausted all of your own energy reserves.
The next day we awoke above the clouds. They blew softly across the mountains and although sore from the seven hours the day before (5 downhill, 2 up), we set out again. Linda had rearranged our packs to lighten the load. This next hike was four hours over somewhat less steep, but no less beautiful terrain. Our only moment of unease came as a snake (never my favorite) slithered across our path and our guide froze waiting for it to move on. Muy venenoso. A good reminder that despite the serenity of our surroundings, we were still at the mercy of the elements.
With night came the cold and for Linda, an unfortunate onset of altitude sickness. Between the attack mosquitoes in Mazunte, the windy roads of the bus trips and now the unsettling nausea and headache of altitude sickness, this has not been the easiest trip for Linda. But she never loses sight of her appreciation for each new experience and continues to find happiness in each small gift that Mexico provides for us. She is a perfect travel companion for me, willing to use a dictionary and persist in understanding as much as she can. The sickness eventually wore off over night as she slept.
Our final hike, seemingly by design was the easiest. Three hours, slightly uphill, many new vistas and finally back to the road where we had departed the Oaxaca bus. Our last meal in the Pueblos ended with grape Jell-O, after everything else had been so natural. The bus station on the road back to Oaxaca was a sign on the side of the road. We waited for about 15 minutes until a taxi stopped. “A Oaxaca” “Si, cuando?” “45 a la persona.”
This seemed way too good a deal. The standing-room only bus had cost 40, no way a private taxi ride for two hours would cost the equivalent of three dollars each. But it was true and even though we ended up sharing the ride with four other people, it beat another bus ride.
Now we’re home again, back in Posada de Los Angeles. We ordered pizza in, because our legs are too tired to find another amazing Oaxacan restaurant. Tomorrow we finally leave our home in Oaxaca for good, as we travel north to Mexico City.