We spent three weeks cruising the coast of Oaxaca and enjoyed every second of it. It had been months since we had been on the pacific coast and we were longing for the ocean. When it was time to say goodbye, we knew it was the last time we would see the pacific for a long while, but it was bittersweet because that meant we were beginning our trek inland. We had been looking forward to exploring the interior of Oaxaca for some time now, and our first stop as we ventured towards Ciudad de Oaxaca turned out to be more than we bargained for, in a fantastic way.
San Jose del Pacifico
The journey from the coast to the center of the state, where the capital city of Oaxaca is located, is a long winding ride through the mountains. Right around the halfway point, maybe a little further, our route took us through this unsuspecting little mountain village called San Jose del Pacifico. Up until a few days earlier, we hadn’t ever heard of the place, but our friend Charlie told us an interesting fact about the town, which made me add it to our agenda.
Now considering our potential audience for this story, I considered not telling it. I wouldn’t want any of our family to think of us any differently after reading it, or certainly wouldn’t want to open ourselves up to any judgement. With that said, I kindly ask that no family members think of us any differently after reading this, and please avoid casting any judgements upon us. As the story goes…
We pulled into the town in the early afternoon, unsure of what our intentions would be. We had never been to a place where hallucinogenic(magic) mushrooms were legal, and really had no idea what to expect. When Charlie told us about the town, all we could imagine was a town gone mad with random people tripping in the street at all hours of the day. Picturing what it was going to be like was like picturing what Burning Man is like when you have never been. All you can imagine is people running around naked and on drugs, doing crazy things.
Well, just like that imagine of Burning Man is not completely accurate, neither was our image of this town. Beyond paintings of mushrooms on a couple buildings, there was nothing weird about it. It was a quaint mountain village with a handful of restaurants, shops, and a bunch of hostels & motels. Being at the peak of a mountain, the streets were extremely tight, and parking was basically non-existent. The only option was parking at one of the hostels, but we could only do that if we were staying the night.
Again, our intentions were not clear when we arrived. We hadn’t planned on partaking in the “local cuisine”, if you will, but we also didn’t rule it out. Since we wanted to check out the place, the parking situation made our decision for us, we were staying for the night. It was as if the town was sucking us in…
The place we ended up staying at was amazing. We rented a log cabin bungalow that was built on stilts on the edge of the mountain, overlooking this enormous valley below. The interior was all wood (floors, walls, and ceiling) and had an unbelievably comfortable king size bed that sat in front of a brick fireplace built in the corner of the room. It had a full bathroom along with a small deck, complete with a nice hammock for gazing out at the valley. It was one of the most private, comfortable accommodations we have had thus far, the perfect setting…
Once we got settled in, I decided to take a little walk around the town to feel it out. I figured I would see mushrooms for sale all over the place, but there was nothing to that effect. After maybe 20 minutes of checking things out, I found myself back at the café attached to our hostel. Being curious, I asked my waiter about the mushroom thing and he gave me the low down.
Mushrooms of all kinds grow extremely well in the cloud forests that surround the town. Their menu featured a variety of dishes utilizing an array of mushrooms grown nearby. On top of your various mushrooms used for cooking, they also grow magic mushrooms. Turns out, the season for harvesting these magic mushrooms was from June thru November (give or take, I don’t fully remember). Either way, it was off season, and he explained to me that they didn’t have any at the time.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about this, because on one hand I hadn’t planned on taking them, but on the other hand, I was interested in the experience while at this strange place. He then went on to tell me about another form of “magic mushrooms” they had called Trufos, which are actually the spores of the magic mushrooms found underground. He saw I was curious, so he went in the back and brought out a bag of these spores. They didn’t look like mushrooms at all, more like nuts, or hard chunks of dirty popcorn.
After a bit of conversation, he asked if I would like him to make me some tea. This threw me for a loop since it was 3:30 in the afternoon. So, you mean to tell me it’s a normal thing for you guys to make magic mushroom tea in the middle of the day and for patrons to drink on the spot, in your restaurant? Yep, that was the case. I was beginning to see the weird side of the town.
He asked me again if I was interested as I was sitting there processing this whole thing, and in that moment, I decided we should give it a shot. Not then and there, but that night in our cabin. So, I went ahead and asked him to give me enough for two people, had him tell me the best way to ingest them, and I was off.
I got back to the room, told Lindsey what happened, got her on board with the decision, and proceeded to get the room set up for our evening. We had a nice fire ready to go, lots of warm comfy clothes, all our pillows and soft blankets, some music, a string of Christmas lights (that Lindsey insisted on holding on to for months of travel, knowing they would come in handy one day), and The Psychedelic Experience written by Timothy Leary (thanks Tom!). Everything was perfect.
Around 8pm, we spread some peanut butter on a rice cake, topped it with our spores, and Bon Appetit! It took about an hour to start kicking in, and we were off and running. Between the comfy king size bed, the bright warm fireplace, and our cozy hammock on the porch, we had plenty to keep us entertained.
It was a colorful psychedelic adventure that never got too intense. A little bit of deep thought, specifically about how cell phones are destroying our society, and lots of laughter. We even dove into The Psychedelic Experience a handful of times which provided some interesting perspective. I’m not going to go into any detail about it now, but it was an extremely interesting read. It also turned out to be a very cool tool to have on hand to guide us through this experience with more purpose. I highly recommend it to anyone that has any curiosity at all about the psychedelic world.
We spend what seemed like a couple hours on the hammock taking it all in. Our cabin was above the thick layer of clouds, and the sky above was vibrant with stars and wispy clouds that looked like the northern lights (granted the colors were in our eyes only…). Below, the valley was filled with dense clouds flowing in and out against the mountains, like waves crashing on the shore. I couldn’t have imagined a better scene for the experience.
The night was perfect, that is up until we got off the hammock to go inside and lay down. Turned out, the door to our cabin locked automatically and had shut behind us! So, there we were, tripping on mushrooms at 3 o’clock in the morning in a strange mountain village in the heart of Oaxaca, Mexico, locked out of our cabin in our PJ’s. All we could manage to do at first was look at each other and die laughing!
There was no way we were going to go wake up a staff member to open the door for us considering the state we were in, so that option was out. After inspecting the door for a way to break in, I concluded that it was extremely secure, so that option was also out. Luckily for us, our third and final option had hope. The windows were old and unsecure, we just needed something to slip in and jimmy the lock. Quick on her feet, Lindsey found some heavy-duty aloe plants that had skinny leaves, just small enough to slip through the crack of the window frame. I was able to wedge the aloe branch in to lift the latch, and we were in!
Worst case scenario, we were sleeping on the hammock outside, but I am sure glad it didn’t come to that. We got a great night sleep after a bit of winding down, and got to wake up to an incredible view on our private deck.
While it wasn’t our intention, I am glad that the town sucked us in the way it did. We both had a wonderful experience in yet another one of the worlds extremely unique places. Whatever your opinion of hallucinogens may be, they can certainly expand your mind in ways you have never imagined. Not just in the seeing pink elephants kind of way, but in an authentic way that can help you understand things about yourself that you may not otherwise ever discover. So, before you go saying they aren’t for you, maybe just think about it…or at least read the fuckin’ book!
Ciudad de Oaxaca
It was all downhill from there. Literally, from over a mile high in the psychedelic mountain town of San Jose del Pacifico down into the deep valley of central Oaxaca. We have loved most all the larger cities we had visited in Mexico up to this point, so we were excited to see what the City of Oaxaca had to offer. As for overlanding spots for us to sleep in the truck, our options were limited, so we ended up staying in a small town outside of the city called El Tule.
At first, I figured this spot would simply be our jumping off point to visit Oaxaca, but it turned out to be much more. We weren’t aware when we got to the town, and I am still slightly skeptical, but they claim that El Tule is home to the world’s largest tree! Don’t get me wrong, it’s an extremely impressive tree, and absolutely massive, but Lindsey and I have been camping up in Sequoia National Park in California, and from what I recall, old General Sherman looked bigger…just sayin’. I think if I had contested it to anyone in the town, I may have ended up hanging from the tree, so I decided to keep my thoughts to myself.
More than anything, the place we stayed, Overlander Oasis, was one of better truck camping experiences we’ve had. Its owned by an extremely nice couple from Canada, Calvin & Leanne. They bought an old restaurant a little under 10 years ago and converted it into a space that could house their tour bus camper, complete with an outside kitchen, living space with fire pit, and a great little workshop. Aside from their private living space, they built an extra full bathroom outside and created space for up to 4 or 5 overlanding vehicles that may be passing through. The Oaxaca area was greatly lacking in a good space for overlanders, and they did a wonderful job filling the void.
Beyond the comfort of the space they provided, the experience was truly made best through our interaction with our hosts. Honestly some of the nicest people I have met, it felt like we were staying with family. With some help for Calvin, I was able to take care of pretty much every outstanding “to-do” list item I had on my truck. He spent at least a few hours over the course of four days helping me.
For my oil change, he pointed me in the direction of a guy in town he has known for years and does decent work for cheap. After that, I told him about my troubles with our camping stove, and he had an immediate solution. The issue was due to the threads stripping at the connection point where you screw in the green propane bottle into the stove. The only way to properly fix it was getting a new fixture, which I could only get directly from Coleman, and that wasn’t happening in Mexico. Instead, Calvin gave me a list of parts to get from the local hardware store and then proceeded to jerry rig it in his little workshop. 20 minutes late, boom! We had our stove back!
One day, him and I spent two hours trying to figure out why the back outdoor light on Poppins wasn’t working. I had been trying to figure this out since I installed it with my buddy Bobo last July. Calvin had all sorts of tools needed to trace the wires and measure the continuity to help us figure it out. The explanation of what caused it is a little convoluted, but essentially the electrical system didn’t have a ground. The interior lights only worked because one of the wires I had connected to the batteries was screwed into the camper frame creating a closed circuit. Now, not only does my back-light work, but my interior lights are properly connected, and the running lights (which I thought were just old and broken), also work!
If that wasn’t enough, Lindsey and I both decided to get a professional teeth cleaning since Leanne had a trusted dentist in town. It was only 25 bucks each for us to get caught up on our regular cleanings! It’s a slim chance that any of our readers will be overlanding through Oaxaca, but if you do, I highly recommend making a stop at Overlander Oasis. Best part was that we got all of this done in four days while also spending a fair amount of time down in the city, which by the way is one of the best cities in Mexico.
I think what I liked most about the city of Oaxaca was that even though it was a huge city, it still maintained the feel of the Oaxaca culture. The state of Oaxaca is heavily populated with indigenous Mayan people, more so than most other states throughout the country. The city hasn’t been taken over by modern structures and technology. Instead, they have held onto what makes them who they are. The streets are mostly cobblestone, lined with colorful single-story stone buildings which all seem to be part of one larger structure. Almost as if every square block was one building split into many spaces, with all sorts of hidden courtyards and cools areas in the center.
In the center of the city you find one of the largest most impressive cathedrals in all of Mexico, Templo de Santo Domingo. Beyond its impressive size, the interior walls and ceilings are awe-inspiring. Like most Mexican cathedrals, they were covered in art, but instead of painted art, almost every square inch was sculpted art, sort of like three-dimensional religious paintings and figures. It wasn’t the first time I had seen such art in a cathedral, as opposed to paintings, but this place was massive which made it that much more impressive. There were three other rooms off the main cathedral hall that were larger than most other standalone cathedrals, and each of those rooms were also covered with this sculpted art from head to toe. I couldn’t even begin to imagine the amount of time and effort that went into completing such a magnificent place.
Throughout much of Mexico, on top of cathedrals, the large cities are also jam packed with restaurants. Oaxaca was no exception, and possibly had one of the highest concentrations of bars and restaurants I have seen. It was extremely difficult walking around the city passing each one of these spots, each with their own character, some with courtyards, some patios, and many with delicious aromas pouring into the streets. We just wanted to spend a month there so we could try all the different spots.
In the brief time we did have there, we tried a few restaurants and all were places we would go back to. At our first stop, Lindsey got a squash blossom soup that was out of this world. Beyond that, Oaxaca is specifically known for its mole, offering seven varieties, all with an extremely unique flavor. Prior to our visit here, mole wasn’t for me, but after we sampled three of the flavors, I can honestly say I am a mole fan. My favorite is the Mole Amarillo, hands down.
Our most memorable experience was at a nice rooftop spot called Comala. Here, we decided to indulge in more of the local cuisine and got an amazing platter filled with locally spiced meats & cheeses, along with crickets sautéed with onions. Yes, crickets sautéed with onions. It certainly helped that we had a buzz on, and that there was a little jazz band playing music for us on the roof, but we embraced the culture and almost finished the entire bowl of sautéed crickets.
Speaking of music, the live scene in Oaxaca is one of the healthier music scenes I have seen throughout Mexico. Mexico City is probably the only city that rivals it. Every night there is a slew of choices ranging from classical music, jazz, reggae, rock, traditional, and more. Just visit http://www.quepasaoaxaca.com/es/ and you get all the info you need for what’s going one each night. Only problem is, and this is an issue for us all throughout the bigger cities, the music usually starts at 10pm, the earliest. Life on the road has caused us to shift to normal operating hours, and for the most part, 10pm is bed time. Regardless, we managed to break our curfew and enjoy a few local bands during our stay.
The icing on the cake for me with this city, on top of all this great stuff I mentioned, was the street art. I randomly came across a blog about the Oaxaca street art, and I’m glad I did, because there is a ton of amazing street paintings throughout the city. Linds and I spent an entire afternoon wandering the streets in awe of the incredible art found all over the place. It was very impressive. The blog I found was very well done, even providing a map with location tags for each different painting you can find throughout the city. I have lots of great pictures in our gallery HERE, but if you’re visiting Oaxaca, be sure to check out this other blog with maps of the art. (http://www.mexicotrippa.com/street-art-in-oaxaca/)
As if the place could get any more interesting, one of the highlights of visiting the region around Oaxaca is visiting one of the many village markets. In downtown Oaxaca, there are a couple larger markets, but the best of the best is found in the small towns surrounding the city. They are all very unique because each area has a particular craft its known for.
There is a town that specializes in red pottery, one that does black pottery, and one that does the green glazed pottery. There are towns that specialize in all textiles, others specifically in rugs, and some in smaller hand crafts. Each one of these towns has a major market for these items that takes place only on specific days, so you can hop from town to town on any given day and experience each different market and what they offer. It’s a fantastic way to get a feel for the local culture and customs.
With the time that we gave ourselves to spend in Oaxaca, we didn’t have the chance to explore more than one of these different markets, so we decided to go to the biggest one that happens every Sunday, and draws people from each of the surrounding towns to sell their given craft. Basically, the gigantic one stop shop market where you can get a taste of everything.
The market was held in the town of Tlacolula, which just so happen to be on our route as we made our way out of Oaxaca. We got there early, and the place was already a madhouse. I had pictured it to be in a big open lot or something, but the market just took over the streets of this little town. It covered about 5 or 6 square blocks, and every street was lined up and down with people selling any and everything you could possibly imagine. There was a section with prepared food, stands for butchers, farm produce, second hand clothes, red pottery, green glazed pottery, black pottery, textiles, handmade shoes, handmade rugs, small crafts, the list goes on. There was even people selling live chickens and turkeys, but they didn’t need stands. These people just walked around with the live birds tied by the feet hanging upside-down from their arms. It was an experience worth having.
Beyond picking up a few gifts, we also couldn’t help but get ourselves one of these gorgeous handmade Oaxaca rugs. We chatted for a while with the guy that made them, learning about what goes into it and all. Most interesting is the natural colors they use for dye. He was telling us they use avocado for green, the seed of the avocado for light brown, coffee beans for darker brown, flowers for yellows and blues, and even insects for the bright red (their blood!).
As the morning drifted into the early afternoon, the market got increasingly crowded, so it was time for us to break out. With our sweet new rug in hand, we fought our way out of the dense streets of this wild market and found our way back to Poppins. We were heading east to our final stop in the state of Oaxaca, a little place called Hierve el Agua.
Hierve el Agua
As we neared the state of Chiapas, we began getting excited to get back to nature a bit. Oaxaca to this point had been mostly beaches and cities (except for a night in the mountains hallucinating), and Yucatan was much of the same (except for the cenotes). While that all had been fantastic, we love nature, so we were ready to get back to it. Our last stop in Oaxaca was a good place to ease back in.
Hierve el Agua is deep in the mountains of eastern Oaxaca. At first, the roads we followed towards this place were all main highways that seemed to be just recently paved. That quickly changed as we began to make our way deeper into the mountains. Before we knew it, we were making our way through extremely rural mountain villages on dirt roads only wide enough for a single vehicle. Its wild how quickly things change when driving through Mexico. One minute you are passing by a modern shopping mall, the next you need four-wheel drive to get through a mountain village that doesn’t even have electricity in every building. We certainly got a taste of the primitive Oaxaca culture as we passed through a handful of these villages before finally arriving at our destination.
Hierve el Agua, meaning “Boil the Water”, is a series of pools and petrified waterfalls created over time from the fresh water springs that flow out of the mountain sides. Over the centuries, the prominent levels of calcium in the water slowly created rock formations that today resemble giant stone waterfalls. The springs continue to flow out of a handful of spouts forming pools at the top of these petrified falls. The water, being rich with calcium, gives the pools a creamy greenish blue color that creates a vibrant picturesque scene with the beautiful mountainous backdrop.
Even though this natural wonder is buried deep off the beaten path, there were still a surprisingly high number of visitors that made the trek. When we arrived, the two pools were jam packed with Mexican families enjoying their Sunday afternoon, but it didn’t even matter because this place was flat out amazing. One of the larger pools, which is about 6-7 ft. at its deepest point, leads right up to the edge of the cliff creating an incredible natural infinity pool. Since its Mexico, and you can usually do anything you want, you could sit right at the edge, dangling your feet over the ~150 ft. cliff and stare out at this amazing view of the valley below. Talk about getting back to nature!
We spent the night in the camping area and planned on waking up early to watch the sunrise over the valley and have the infinity pool all to ourselves. Once the sun went down, the cicadas took over, and it was like nothing we had ever heard. The entire valley was seemingly filled with them, and it was as if they were communicating to each other from opposite sides, close to a mile away. I don’t know if they were a different kind of cicada or what, but their screams were so powerful that they echoed off the surrounding mountains! Luckily the fans inside of Poppins are strong enough to drown out any outside noise, so we could get a good night sleep, regardless of the symphony of bugs happening outside.
In the morning we got up for a little hike to watch the sunrise, which was breathtaking. It was one of those landscape views that leave you speechless. We were excited to follow it up with a dip in the pools, but unfortunately Monday happens to be the day that the park staff clean the pools, so our perfect morning got slightly derailed. We were still able to walk around the edges and enjoy the area with barely anyone else around, which made for some nice photos, so it wasn’t a total loss. There was even a couple there with us that was taking their wedding photos, full wedding dress and all. I can’t really imagine a better backdrop, it looked like it was for a magazine or something. I even snagged a photo or two, figured I could Photoshop our heads in and we can save some money on our own wedding photos…
Not getting the opportunity to swim in the pools early morning by ourselves left us hungry for more nature. Perfect timing because next stop was the state of Chiapas where there is an abundance of that.
Moving Right Along
Our time in Oaxaca was extremely fulfilling, and one of our favorite areas of Mexico for sure. The state covered the entire spectrum; beautiful beaches, high altitude mountain towns, bustling cities, culture rich villages, and even some outstanding natural wonders. Oaxaca certainly ranks high on the top ten places in Mexico.
We had now spent about four months traveling in Mexico, slightly longer than the two months we had originally planned for. Anyone who has spent some time exploring Mexico can understand how this happens, the country is simply incredible. Our next destination was to be our final stop, and the place I had been looking forward to most. Chiapas, here we come!