Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Oaxacan Odyssey - Part I

I'm overwhelmed by my recent odyssey to a place, known for its food, people, culture and nature - Oaxaca. Don't twist your tongue trying to utter that word, simply read it Wo-Ha-Ka. Located in the southern most part of Mexico, the diverse state of Oaxaca is home to more than 16 indigenous communities. This is a comprehensive travelogue (I mean it! It's got upwards of 4000 words) of my most recent journey to this wonderland. For the ease of reading, I've split the article into 2 parts. Part I is all about the Pacific side of Oaxaca, while Part II will be about Oaxaca city and the Central Valleys. Before I start the discourse, let me give a very brief introduction to Oaxaca.

A withered flower afloat on La Laguna de Ventanilla

As stated earlier, Oaxaca is located in southern Mexico bordering the states of Guerrero on the west, Puebla and Veracruz on the north and Chiapas on the eastern side. On the southern side is the great Pacific (Isthmus of Tehuantepec). The capital of the state, Oaxaca city, is located almost in the center of the state in the Valley of Oaxaca among the South Sierra Madre mountains. It's famed for it's Mixtec and Zapotec settlements as early as 300BC, which could now be witnessed in the form of archaeological ruins in and around Oaxaca city. Zapotecs developed the first writing system using glyphs.

Feeding Tortoise, Ventanilla

Even to this day Oaxaca is crowded with indigenous tribes, proud descendants of Mixtec or Zapotec origins. As a result of this, the fine flower of culture is still blossoming and spreading it's fragrance in Oaxaca. You happen to see aged women dressed in their traditional attire selling artwork or delicious hand-made tortillas or sundries. Food is the most alluring part of Oaxaca - pollo en mole (chicken cooked in varieties of delicious sauces), empanadas de flor de calavaza (tortillas with fillings of Oaxacan cheese and flower of zucchini), tlayudas (tortillas coated with bean paste and topped with cheese, chicken and avocados), chapulines (fried grasshoppers topped with chili, lemon and salt) and many more. I almost forgot one thing of prime importance - Mezcal, a close cousin of Tequila made from maguey plants, is a traditional alcoholic beverage prepared by many families in Oaxaca. It's cheaper yet stronger than Tequila and is usually drank with lemon. Enough of introductory blabbering, over to Oaxaca!

Rocky beaches of Huatulco

Day 1 (Friday, 5th Sept 2008): Landing in Oaxaca city, reaching Zipolite

An hour and three quarters by flight is all it took for us to reach Oaxaca from Monterrey. We flew by Vivaaerobus, delayed by 45 minutes 'as usual'. A peek outside the window near Oaxaca city reveals the vast stretch of green Sierra Madre del Sur mountains, veiled and unveiled alternatively by the white clouds. Warm but not humid weather with artistic skies welcomed us, we went straight to Collectivo counter in the airport and bought tickets to Centro. Collectivos are a sort of public transport, where a mini van or a taxi is shared among others, number of people varies as per the carrying capacity of the vehicle. They charge 40 pesos per person (pre-paid) for the airport collectivo to drop us to Centro; thanks to traffic, it took about 40 minutes for us to reach Cento which usually takes 20 minutes.

Flight over the Pacific, Huatulco

We were dropped at Mercado 20 de Noviembre (20th November Market, more about this in Part II) and told that we could find restaurants in this market. With a couple of inquiries we reached the central hall which had ample eat-outs, vendors calling out loud to sell their carne asadas or pollos en mole. We settled down in one of them and tried pollo en mole rojo and negra (chicken in red sauce and black sauce; red made of chilies and tomato while black one is made of chocolate and other ingredients). Oaxaca boasts of 7 different types of moles, somehow I couldn't appreciate the taste of both the ones we just tried for they tasted sweet.

View of La Laguna de Ventanilla from boat

Our earlier plan was to take the night bus to Zipolite, given the fact that we didn't have anything better to do in Oaxaca city at that moment, we decided to hit Zipolite right after lunch. There are innumerable collectivo stands in Oaxaca, we reached the one on calle Bustamante (calle: street) and bought tickets (costing 120 pesos per person) to Pochutla, the nearest town to Zipolite. Our long and winding (literally) journey to Pochutla started at 3:20 in the evening...we head straight down-south along the Sierra Madre mountain passes for the next 6 hours. My sincere advice to people who get sick travelling on winding roads : Avoid Collectivos. Then how? Other means of getting to the coastal areas - second class bus (takes the same winding road, but goes much slower, slightly more expensive) and first class bus (takes an entirely different road, air conditioned, comfortable seats, video, costs 240 pesos and takes 8 long hours, ideal for travelling in the night).

Colourful dinghies on banks of La Laguna de Ventanilla

At about 9:30 we reached Pochutla, we alighted the collectivo and just outside the collectivo station we found a taxi. It was a sort of creepy journey - roads surrounded by dense woods on both sides, darkness, heavy rainfall, unknown place. It took 20 minutes and 100 pesos for us to reach Zipolite, we were dropped off at the gates of our inn, Posada Castillo Oasis. Korina welcomed us in and ushered us to our 'Tower Room', two floors above the ground. I instantly fell in love with the place, a beautifully built rustic hut with neatly arranged beds and artistically embellished with conches and shells. We went out in search of dinner, it was dark and drizzling, almost all shops were shuttered down. A lit fluorescent lamp from one of beach side restaurant made us think it was open, we entered and it was almost the time for their closure. But the old lady over there was kind enough to serve us eggs with beans and a cocktail of mezcal and fruit juice.

Baby Crocs in Ventanilla

Day 2 (Saturday, 6th Sept 2008): Zipolite

I was glad that I was awakened not by the cacophonous alarm, but by a pleasing cock-a-doodle-doosounding rooster. We bought some healthy breakfast from the neighbouring store...bananas, apples, yogurt and bread. No rains, no winds could stop us from hitting the beach, we finished our breakfast and head to the beach which was at stones-throw-away from the hostel. The beach, Playa Principal de Zipolite, definitely, is not a tranquil one but has a vast shoal and hence it's swimmable though precaution is advised. Supposedly Zipolite beach is a nudist beach, but we didn't get lucky due to off-season.

Sunset at Zipolite

I relished every moment on the beach, the waves were strong and nice for satiating my water lust. The currents were sort of strong pulling towards the rocky end, but it was manageable. It was a bit chilly due to drizzles and a strong hot americano we had at one of the beach huts was very welcoming. Hot coffee was immediately followed by chilled beer and more beach pleasure...almost until lunch. We head back to hostel for a lunch break, Korina suggested us El Restaurante Alex just behind the hostel. We had Pescado a la Veracruzana (fish in Vercruz style, with hot and spicy soup), Chilaquiles (fried tortillas in hot salsa served with beans and salad) and Tlayudas con pollo (large tortilla coated with bean paste, topped with shredded chicken, cheese, lettuce and avocados). We were so damn impressed by the restaurant that for the rest of our stay in Zipolite, Alex restaurant was the choice for our dinner.

Sunset at Zipolite

Post lunch we head to Playa del Amor, a tiny little beach separated from Playa Principal by a small mountain. Ask anybody on the beach and they'll tell you how to reach Playa del Amor, you gotto take the narrow stairway that leads upto a small forsaken house atop the mountain and descend a couple of steps to reach this "cute little beach". Playa del Amor, more like a small bay in between two small mountains, is not tranquil either, but this is the beach where all the European nudists find Nirvana...it's secluded, it's beautiful, it's small, it's perfect to forget all the worriers. I heard that drug scene is Zipolite takes you back in time, picture those hippies smoking joints on beach...drug peddlers keep pestering you once a while, "Quieres fumar? Marijuana?" Playa del Amor is a great place for girls to collect shells...the sand in this beach is coarser than Playa Prinicpal and the waves bring in plethora of shells and conches.

Sunset at Zipolite

We then head back to hostel, hit shower and relaxed over couple of UNO card games. I struck a conversation with Korina, the hostel owner. She is an Austrian married to a German guy, living in Zipolite for past 8 years. She told me that they live very close to nature in total isolation - no television, no internet, no newspapers. They go to their neighbours' place to watch some extreme weather reports, if any. She said that they don't earn too much money, but they're extremely contented with their laidback life in Zipolite. When I invited her to join us for the game of UNO card, she said that at that time she was busy playing 'canicas' (marbles) with her 8 year old son. I was astounded by that answer, while most children are spoilt by those bloody computer games, PS2s and X-BOXs, here I was seeing a young boy practicing playing marbles with his mother to win more among his friends!!! I got nostalgic while writing this particular paragraph...many a times I felt like giving up everything in life...go back to Zipolite and live there for ever, happily.

Sunset at Zipolite

Later we strolled till Puerto Angel, the neighbouring town. It took us about an hour to reach that place, we went in search of a restaurant for dinner...since we couldn't find anything at the entrance of the town, we didn't bother to explore much, we took a collectivo and returned to our favourite restaurant Alex. Vegetable soup and Huevos entomatada (eggs cooked in spicy hot tomato sauce, served with beans and lettuce) tasted sumptuous.

Sunset at Zipolite

No lugging of cameras, no train to be caught, no hurry-scurry or worry. Our second day in Zipolite was one of the most relaxed, laid-back day of my life.

Day 3 (Sunday, 7th Sept 2008): Puerto Escondido, Spotting flying fish and sea-turtles

Like the previous day, we had healthy breakfast of fruits and yogurt before we set out to Puerto Escondido.

Crab portrait, Puerto Escondido

We wanted to take collectvio to La Crucera (that's how the highway between Huatulco and Puerto Escondido is called there), but the collectivo we took agreed to drop us all the way till Puerto Escondido for 250 pesos. We thought it was not too bad a deal, given the fact that Puerto Escondido is more than an hour long journey from Zipolite. But the taxi driver did one unpardonable mistake, he lied to us that the Centre of Sea Turtles in Mazunte (enroute Puerto Escondido) was closed on Sunday, while it actually remains closed only on Monday and Tuesday. It took about an hour to reach Puerto Escondido, he dropped us just off the Playa Principal.

Pelican portrait, Puerto Escondido

We entered Playa Principal beach in Puerto Escondido and started clicking, the water of Playa Prinicpal is muddy probably due to the presence of an estuary. The sea is not all that rough and is relatively shallow, it acts a parking space for most of the fishing boats and water taxis. After few clicks we walked along the man-made sea-side walkway, Andador Escénico. It's about a mile long path made of stones which runs along the Playa Principal. It's nice to walk on this, but equally dangerous. The waves are too strong and you're lucky if you don't get wet, in my case not just me but also my camera had a salt water ablution. It's a different feeling altogether, you don't need to take the trouble of entering the beach, just stand on the rocks holding on tight and you'll be splashed completely wet by huge waves.

Sand slide in estuary, Puerto Escondido

Be very wary about waves for sometimes it may prove to be fatal, we were sitting on a rock waiting for a wave to splash us. I saw a really gigantic wave, like a wave of a tempest, getting formed...I knew it was going to bombard us badly, it scared me but it was too late for me to move to a safer place. All I could do was grip the rocks firmly and before I could comprehend anything, we were thrown on the rocks. Thanks heavens we ended up in minor bruises...the worst thing that could have happened to us was that this mighty wave could have sucked us into the turbulent sea. The very thought gives me goose-bumps.

Fisherman, Puerto Escondido

After this mini-adventure, we head back to pedestrian street - Perez Gasga (adoquín) in search of a place for lunch. There are innumerable shops selling souvenirs and a couple of small restaurants. We entered one of them, the name of which I can't recall, which served delicious Enchiladas (cheese filled in salsa marinated tortillas, served with chicken and lettuce), Ceviches (fish salad prepared with chopped onions, tomatoes and jalapeño chillies) and Pollo Empanizados (chicken fillet rolled on powdered bread and deep fried, to be eaten with tortillas and salsa).

Sea Turtle, Puerto Escondido

Post lunch we thought of exploring Pacific ocean to see "What's in store for us". We rented one of the boats, bleakly hoping to spot sea-turtles for which the place is known for. The boat ride was an experience in itself, the rough waves undulated the boat greatly...everytime a gigantic wave passed our boat, the bottom of the boat slapped aloud on the water surface splashing water on both sides. The sea looked infinitely vast and we mortals on the boat seemed to be infinitesimal, it reminded me of Thor Heyerdahl's 101 days of Kon-Tiki expedition to Polynesian islands. We sailed for quite sometime in search of sea-turtles but to our dismay all we could see was unbounded, unlimited and unending stretch of water.

Egret feeding in estuary, Puerto Escondido

Somewhere at the horizon, we could spot some weird moments, very small to be concluded what it was. The boatman said they were flying dolphins, he steered the boat and cruised rapidly in that direction and within few moments we were indeed close to dolphins...nearly a dozen of them. Out of the blue they leaped out of water and in the wink of an eye, they would disappear...they were sort of grayish and slimy but considerably big, around 4-5 feet. They were jumping all around the boat, you expect them on the left, they would fly by on the right, you wait for them on the front, they splash at the back. Obviously my camera was glad with such a delightful sight, but it was the most difficult photography I've ever done, my odds of getting the right shot was 1 out 10. I felt an immense respect to all those NatGeo photo gurus for whom such a thing would a piece of cake. It's a genre of photography which requires all three...good equipment, good shooting skills and most importantly good luck.

Dolphin in action, Puerto Escondido

After sometime the dolphins gradually drifted apart and we continued our turtle hunt out resumed. We could finally spot them a little away from the place where we found the dolphins. There were two of them happily basking on the surface, before I could even point and shoot them...the boatman abandoned the boat and dived like a madman into the sea and snatched one of them and swam to the boat along with turtle. He got the turtle on board, but I was kind of disappointed that I couldn't capture those happy turtles on my CCD in it's natural habitat, though it was good opportunity to sea the turtle up-close-and-personal. They are really huge and tough, the fact I didn't know was that they bite! I guess it might have weighed around 40-50Kg and we were told that it was a female. The boatman also told that it's called "Gulfina" for it was spotted first in Gulf of Mexico. Another boat passed by and they borrowed the turtle to show it to the mortals onboard, the turtle kept flapping it's arms and hitting it's head...probably it's their behaviour when in distress. Finally I was glad that it was set free, it dived into water and took less than a second to disappear.

Catching sea-turtle, Puerto Escondido

We were shown some beaches from the boat for we couldn't land on any beach due to strong waves. In Playa Manzanilla, he stopped the boat about 100 meters away from the beach and we dived into the sea and swam for sometime...the feeling was nice and different than entering the beach through sand shoal. We returned to Playa Principal wholeheartedly contented. We thanked the boatman and paid 400 pesos for the whole thing including the tip (we paid a little extra tip for the unexpected dolphin show we had).

Dirty froth on Playa Zicatela

It took us about 20 minutes to walk across Playa Principal to Playa Zicatela. Zicatela was a bit too dirty with defaced coke cans and shrapnel of beer bottles and other odds and ends. The sea was very harsh with waves scoring as high as 6 meters, but I was disappointed not to find any surfers with their boards. Zicatela is supposed to be one of the best surfing beaches in the world. We bought palomas (beverage made of tequila and grapefruit soda) and chips, had them gazing at the high waves and planned to return.

Waves and clouds, Playa San Agustinillo

It took 5 minutes to reach the highway through stairs from Playa Zicatela and we had to wait nearly 20 minutes to get the bus. The bus costs 10 pesos per person to drive us to a place where we deviate towards Zipolite. From there we took a collectivo to Playa San Agustinillo (costs about 15 pesos per person), for there was sun and we had energy.

Hungry stray dog, Playa San Agustinillo

Playa San Agustinillo is a tranquil beach with coarse sand and bed of rocks onto the right side of the beach. There is a small stranded chapel on one of those partially submerged rocks. It's very less crowded when compared to the beaches of Puerto Escondido. We had one left over paloma from the 6 pack, which we finished here, played in the beach and started walking back towards Zipolite. Someone with great sense of distance told us it takes just 15 minutes by foot to reach Zipolite, but it took us one full hour. We were in Zipolite centro (colonial roca blanca), we found some restaurants there and decided to try one of them. One looked very touristy and pricey, we avoided that and headed to another which was at the dead-end of the main road. It was a very small one but the food they served was delicious - Empanada de Pescado (fish fillet rolled on powdered bread and deep fried, to be eaten with tortillas and salsa), Filete de Pescado en Ajo (fish filete cooked with garlic) and Pollo Tinga (chicken marinated in chipolte chilly sauce) . We finished dinner and retired to hostel along the beach way.

Panoramic view of Huatulco beaches

Day 4 (Monday, 8th Sept 2008): Huatulco, Snorkeling in Playa Entrega, Puerto Angel

Coloured waters, Huatulco

Bahías de Huatulco (read Bays of Watulko) was our destination for our fourth day. It didn't take much time to get a collectivo (15 pesos per person) to La Crucera from which we had an option of either taking a bus or another collectivo (25 pesos per person) to Huatulco, which is about 45 minutes drive among the green mountains. The collectivo stops at a stipulated point, after which the same car incarnates as taxi. Huatulco has lots of beaches, each of them can be accessed only by private vehicles or taxis, no public transportation buses goto beaches. The driver suggested us to goto Playa Entrega and we okayed.

Background, Huatulco

Enroute Playa Entrega, he stopped at a couple of Los Miradores (viewpoints) and one of them was breathtaking. The blue beaches and the blue skies reminded me of Cancun. The air was very clean with a great visibility, the blue waters stretched till where the sky and earth met. The panoramic view of the Pacific was a memorable one. At the entrance of Playa Entrega, you'll be crowded by blokes promoting their restaurants or their snorkel and boat services. Playa Entrega reminded me of Playa Norte in Isla Mujeres, Cancun - it was a very tranquil beach and turquiose blue coloured. The only affordable option for us there was snorkelling, 50 pesos per person for renting out the equipment for the whole day, with lockers for our belongings. We didn't waste too much time, we changed, geared up and head to the corals. I would say that the corals we saw here was nothing when compared to the ones in Cancun, but it was definitely worth the time and money we spent. The marine life underneath the sparkling blue waters was vivid and varied. After sipping chilled beer in hot sun, we took leave from Playa Entrega for lunch. We had lunch at one of the inexpensive markets of Pollo Tinga (chicken marinated in chipolte chilly sauce) and Huevos Mexicana (eggs scrambled with onions, tomatoes and jalapeños), after which we decided to get back to Puerto Angel.

Boats of Puerto Angel

We took bus instead of collectivo (19 pesos per person) to La Crucera from where we were supposed to deviate to Puerto Angel. A taxi (10 pesos per person) dropped us at the entrance of the beach in Puerto Angel. Puerto Angel is a bay where the fishermen station their boats, the village is slightly bigger than Zipolite. It is a very rough beach with granular sand, the knock-down waves were hitting the shore churning up the gravels with all it's might.

Children of sea, Puerto Angel

We found a bunch of children, Children of the Sea - I would call them, who were swimming as though the beach was one goddamn tranquil lake. They didn't fear those violent waves, but instead leaped into such waves, swam and surfed with such courage that they inspired me to enter the sea. I got slammed badly by a huge wave, but it was easier to swim once I was off the shore. The children of the sea not only inspired me to hit the beach, but they were a good subject for my photography too. Lack of tourists, local kids on beach, colour boats ashore, the stray dogs, the fishermen reminded me of Palolem beach in Goa.

In the air, Puerto Angel

We started back to Zipolite by foot and it took about 45 minutes to reach our hostel. We were lucky to witness an opulent sunset in Ziplote beach. It was dark and our stomaches were craving for food, we head to Alex where we tried delicious Huevos Oaxaqueños (eggs and cheese scrambled in hot and spicy sauce) and Chilaquiles (fried tortillas in hot salsa served with beans and salad). That was our 'Last Supper' in Zipolite after which we retired to bed.

Children of sea, surfing in Puerto Angel

Day 5 (Tuesday, 9th Sept 2008): Zipolite, Crocodiles of La Laguna de Ventanilla

Prowling adult croc, La Laguna de Ventanilla

Sad but true, it was the last day of our stay in Zipolite. After breakfast we head to Playa Prinicpal of Zipolite and satiated our aquatic pleasure. The weather was very plesant, which was evident by the naked European chicks on the beach (don't ask for photographs...I didn't shoot them). We spent nearly about an hour and a half in the beach, we returned to hostel, changed and head to Ventanilla.
A colourful rooster in the island in La Laguna de Ventanilla

The taxi to Ventanilla cost 20 pesos per person, since it's located about a kilometer off the main road. Ventanilla, is the name of the beach as well as the lagoon, which is close to Mazunte (Mazunte is beach, as well as home for Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga). It's called Ventanilla because of a small gap in the rock formation which resembles a small window. The ecotour office is located close to the beach, we were accompanied by a guide to La Laguna de Ventanilla which is about 7 minutes walk from the office.

Egret on tree, Ventanilla

The lagoon was not a sparkling blue one, which I had imagined, but of dark reddish-brown colour due to the presence of some variety of plants which gave such a tint to water. The sand bed separated the beach from the lagoon, there were about a dozen of saturated blue and green coloured dinghies on the bank, he chose the green one for our voyage. We started sailing slowly and it was not too long, when we had a first glimpse of a crocodile which was basking on the bank. The moment it heard us approaching, it prowled towards us and vanished in the water. We continued our sailing in lagoon, we saw egrets, small turtles feeding on marshes, and iguanas in their natural habitats and some young crocodiles which were out of my lens' range. He then took us to an island which had a crocodile breeding center and contained some animals in captivity. We were not enthralled to see those animals in captivity, we gulped coconut water and started sailing in reverse direction. We then saw a huge crocodile, lurking superficially in the water, with just eyes and snout projecting out of the surface. It was a happy moment for my camera, I was enthusiastically clicking the buoyant croc, probably it was hoping that I would lose balance and become it's lunch...but it was not lucky to have Indian meat. There finished our ecotour and it cost 40 pesos per person for such a wonderful tour.

Green Iguana, Ventanilla

We relaxed over a beer, awaiting for the taxi which dropped us at Alex restaurant for our last lunch. We had a very tasty Spaghetti with vegetables, Enchiladas verdes (cheese rolled inside tortillas, topped by spicy green salsa) and fish fillet. El restaurante Alex, was an out of the world restaurant, which made our stay in Zipolite deliciously memorable. Though the wait was a tad longer, it's definitely worth the mouthwatering dishes they serve. We head back to hostel and had a nap on the hammocks and by around 5, we packed our bags, bid farewell to the owners and with a heavy-hearted feelings stopped a taxi to take us to Pochutla.

Croc texture, Ventanilla

We were in Pochutla two hours earlier than the earliest bus to Oaxaca. We roamed around the crowded centro, to kill time we watched volley ball for sometime. We had dinner of Tortas (almost like a sandwich with chicken, tomatoes and lettuce) and Tlayudas in one of the restaurants at Centro. One unique thing that astounded us in Pochutla, I would like mention here, is the plethora of birds crowding the transmission lines near Centro. Tens of thousands of, unknown sparrow sized, birds had patterned the wire with such precision that it would envy a scientist's scale. I had seen birds crowding the electric wires, but not such an extent and to such accuracy.

Bird crowd, Pochutla

Our bus to Oaxaca city (costing 234 pesos per person) left Pochutla by 10:15PM. Rest in Part II.

Angry Croc in it's breeding ground, Ventanilla

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