Scott and I had been bouncing around Mexico like a pinball for a while. We were enjoying ourselves but looking forward to when the pinball that is us bounces off the beach again. We hit that beach in a tiny town called Las Casitas. It is located on the Gulf of Mexico just a smidge north of the city of Veracruz.
Our beach fantasies were not realized there. You see, it was winter and winter is chilly there. And windy. We spent most of our time there wearing jackets and hats. We were the only guests at a little place that offered palapas for shelter, Wi-Fi, electricity, hot showers, flush toilets (with toilet seats!), and a pool. It was nice and if it had been warm, I would have been in heaven. We stayed a few days there before moving on down the coast in search of warmer weather.
That search lead us to the little lakeside town of Catemaco. We stopped into a sweet little restaurant on the water and sat in the sun enjoying the warmth. Our waiter kept offering us shady tables but we were enjoying the exposure. A tiny man with a tiny guitar came by to serenade us. He was missing a couple strings on his instrument and most of his teeth but that did not stop him from belting out La Bamba like he was born for it. Catemaco is known for its high concentration of witches. There are many little stores that dot the streets where you can by charms for whatever ails you. If you are looking for love or looking for money they have a charm for that. If you are looking to take out your ex-wife’s new boyfriend then you will need an appointment and a trip into the back room of the store where the dark charms are kept. Nothing was really ailing us save for some congestion I was attributing to all of the smoke from the burning sugar fields surrounding us so we skipped the local brujo shops and headed to our camp spot.
About 4 miles outside of town, tucked up next to Reserva Ecológica de Nanciyaga, was a place called La Jungla. They had little cabins for rent, a grassy area for camping, a pool, and a defunct waterslide. Unfortunately, our arrival coincided with a cold rain storm so there would be no swimming on our agenda. We parked our truck on the edge of the grass with only a giant yellow bamboo patch between us and the lake.
We were surprised to find that the jungle this far north had howler monkeys! We were never visited by them but we could hear them in the trees nearby. Howler monkeys are the loudest land animal on the planet, if they are around you will know it! We did get to see some other loud forest dwellers. A flock of scarlet macaws (guacamayas) stopped by the trees surrounding our camp a couple of times each day. They are absolutely beautiful to look at as they fly over in pairs or hop around in the tree branches but they have an obnoxious cacophonous call that is music to no ears I can think of. We were also visited by toucans. There is nothing unpleasant about toucans. They are my current favorite jungle bird. We also got to spy a crocodile in the lake. I spent most of my time there hiding out from the rain in our tent. It turns out that the congestion I had been attributing to sugar smoke was actually a full-blown head cold. Thankfully we had a fully stocked medicine cabinet so I dosed myself with Alka Seltzer PM and tried to sleep until I felt better. The real miracle was that I didn’t give Scott my cold. My nose was producing about two quarts of mucus an hour and I was constantly surrounded by a cloud of damp tissues. By the time my cold was on its way out the door and the rain clouds were lifting it was time for us to head toward Oaxaca.
Mexico is pretty big and we are not the best at getting an early start on our driving days. Therefore, we made a stop about halfway between Catemaco and Oaxaca at a place called Zazul. It was a park in a tiny little town. We arrived on Saturday evening and the place was hopping! Really loud music was coming from the bar on the other side of the park and it seemed like the whole town was there hanging out and having a good time. The big draw to the park was a cenote type swimming hole. They had put in amphitheater seating around the spring. And a high-diving platform! Crystal clear water bubbled up from a very deep center and eventually poured into the adjacent river. We set up camp a couple hundred yards from the epicenter of the fun and enjoyed the beautiful scenery. During the night it started to rain. When morning arrived, the rain became quite heavy. We hid out in the tent as long as we could until it became clear that the weather was not going to clear up and we needed to get moving. We had reserved a little apartment on Airbnb in Oaxaca for the week and needed to meet our host at 4:00pm. So, we packed up in the rain knowing that we would need to unpack again in Oaxaca to dry everything out and thwart an onslaught of mold.
Our arrival in Oaxaca was the end of our rain woes. The weather was warm and dry. When we opened the tent up on the street outside of our apartment we got quite a few stares. I don’t think rooftop tents are a common sight around there. The tent dried within a couple of hours and we took the opportunity to get all of our bedding to the local lavanderia for a super thorough washing. Our apartment was only about five blocks away from the center of town so we could walk everywhere we needed to go. Our little place was perfect for us. It had a shared courtyard that was cared for by a sweet lady named Inez. She kept everything tidy and picked up all of the oranges that fell from the trees and piled them in the corner. There wasn’t much of a kitchen to speak of but that was fine with us as we often look for excuses to eat in restaurants anyway. For us, Oaxaca was a chance to eat fancy vegan food and look at art. If Scott had his way we would still be there eating. Every day we would find a new vegan restaurant and find either a museum or art gallery to visit. Eventually, the lure of the vegan restaurants we had visited was too strong and we quit trying new places so that we could try new things at the places we knew were fabulous. We are very much motivated by our stomachs. Oaxaca is known for its mole. There are seven different types of mole and we were going to try to find each one but got distracted. The classic black mole was readily available and very delicious. Tlayudas were also on the hit list for things to try. They are kind of like a Mexican version of pizza folded in half. Traditionally they are coated in a type of lard called asiento before the toppings are added (which are traditionally meat). We found a restaurant that catered to vegans and offered tlayudas without the lard and with grilled veggies. Only in Oaxaca. Another one of our favorites was the artisanal ice cream shop. They had frozen delights that met the vegan requirements and were amazingly delicious. Scott’s favorite was the passionfruit, mezcal, chili. I went with mint on mint and was not disappointed. Another highlight for us was the opportunity to try pulque. We don’t drink alcohol in January and while we were in Oaxaca January became February. To celebrate we broke our booze fast with pulque. As we traveled through central Mexico we kept seeing signs on the side of the road for pulque and I was very curious. I was afraid it was just a regional thing and we would be out of the pulque zone before we were back in “booze-ness.” After all of that mental build up I was disappointed. It was like drinking kombucha without all of the things that make kombucha good. No zing, no bite, no delight. Just slightly viscous sweetness that I could do without. Live and learn. We really enjoyed our break from camping and all of the things the city had to offer. Soon, our week was up and fortified by hugs from Inez we were on our way to continue touring through Mexico.
While we were in the city of Oaxaca we had intended to take a day trip out to a land formation called Hierve El Agua but never got around to going. It turned out to be for the best because it was a major destination for tours in the area. When we arrived late in the afternoon there were still a half dozen giant tour busses in the parking lot. We got a michelada at one of the food stands in the parking lot and then headed down to the pools. There were probably around 150 people vying for the perfect Instagram shot. It was mayhem. We actually managed to get a couple uncrowded photos after sunset and enjoyed the increasing peace that came on the heals of the departure of each tour bus. Eventually we were the only people there. Well, almost the only people there. We could hear some young guys camped down at the base of the falls drinking and shooting off fireworks. When morning came we hiked down to the pools to take some pictures before the crowds arrived. The morning was so peaceful. We walked to the distant falls and by the time we got back to the truck the first tour busses were arriving. As we prepped our morning coffee a man from one of the tour busses asked if we were coffee venders. We would have offered the guy a cup of coffee but we have no spare mugs with us.
Once we finished our coffee we packed up and set our sights for the beach… again.