Sunday, April 5, 2015

Beach Bumming Along the Oaxacan Coast

Written by Karen.
From Oaxaca our small caravan of two headed southwest across the Sierra Madre mountain range to Puerto Escondido on the Oaxacan coast in search of some sun and beach time. According to our paper maps the trip over Highway 175 was less than 200 miles.  According to Google, the trip would take us just over 6 hours driving time.  We have learned from experience to double Google’s driving estimates while in Mexico.  After this trip, we would learn to consider tripling Google’s driving estimates when it entails mountain driving.  We would be going from 5,102 feet in altitude to sea level; a drop of over 5,000 feet.  If you thought that we would be easily coasting downwards on this stretch of road, you would be mistaken. This seemingly quick jaunt of 180 miles to the beach took us two days to finish. 

Up until this point, we have driven to fairly large cities or to places that we have visited before that are easy to locate despite contrary input from Garmin or our second line of navigational defence consisting of digital apps, our road atlas, or just our intuition.  Early into our road trip, Adam and I established road rules, one of them being that we blame Garmin for any errors, wrong turns, u-turns, or any faulty navigational directions that we might encounter. It makes us laugh and it keeps the marital harmony humming.  Seems to have worked so far.  

We are now visiting places that are new to us and are relying far more on GPS coordinates and digital and paper maps to figure out how to get to our destination.  As a result, Chinook often zigs and zags, circles around, and goes back and forth as we navigate our way, rarely getting really lost, just maybe getting to our destination a bit later than we expected.  

But today we were off the navigation hook.  We were caravanning to Puerto Escondido with John and Paula, and they were taking the lead and the navigating duties that come with being in front.  We got to sit back and truly enjoy the ride.  I didn't open up our atlas once and Garmin stayed under wraps, unable to provide even the slightest bit of conflicting advice.  

Highway 175 is a narrow, very curvy, two-lane road that quickly climbs to an altitude where pine trees reside and misty clouds obliterate both the steep drop-offs and the valley views.  It is a scenic road, although a bit nerve-wracking, and Adam kept Chinook strongly chugging away on roughly 15 degree extended mountain climbs for a couple of hours.  First gear.  Second gear. First gear. Brake. First gear. Second gear. First Gear.  And so it went.  

Despite the narrow road, steep drops and extremely sharp turns, this is a main thoroughfare, connecting the many small villages and families that are scattered throughout this Oaxacan mountain and valley region.  The road was busy with a range of roadworthy (or not) vehicles, including colectivos*, loaded or empty semi-trucks dragging one or two trailers, delivery trucks and other private cars and trucks all jockeying to break the speed record.  

We on the other hand didn't dare pass slower moving vehicles on blind curves, so we never got higher than second gear once we started climbing.  Chinook sputtered a few times and we wrote it off thinking that that was due to the quick ascent into a higher altitude.

One of the more interesting sights/road hazards is the amount of grazing farm animals on the road.  Goats, burros, cows, and/or bulls are often tended by a single male along the road.  No one seems too anxious when we drive by.  Often we have to wait while the animal herder gathers his charges and moves them off the road and to relative safety.  When we were in Baja, we sadly kept a roadkill count for the cows and horses that we passed on the highway.  In Baja, we didn't see animal herders and the large animals freely roamed with few fences to keep them off the highways.  Here on the mainland, we mostly see herds of goats, a few burros and a cow or bull or two closely watched by the animal herder.
As we started driving up the backside of Sierra Madre mountain range.  The geography changed dramatically - from rather dry to very moist and green.  
We would find out later that dense clouds cover the mountain top on a fairly regular basis and that it is a good idea to leave the Oaxaca area early in the morning to make it over the mountain with plenty of time.  Well, now we know!  
It didn't take long for the fog to drop our visibility down to about a hundred feet.   Our speed dropped accordingly.
We pulled over for the night in a small town, San Jose del Pacifico, close to the summit.  We were almost at the half-way point.  It was getting dark quickly and the hours of driving slowly because of the road/weather conditions had taken a toll on all of us.  We were looking for a quiet place to relax a bit, have a hot meal, a hot shower and try again tomorrow.  Hopefully the clouds would lift.    

The next day did bring us brilliant sunshine and puffy white clouds, and mostly a downhill ride as Chinook got as high as third gear during this leg of the trip.  It was still a challenging road with steep drop-offs, few guard rails, and a couple of wash outs.  That by itself would be manageable; it was the passing of cars on blind curves that would come into our narrow lane that gave us pause and kept our speed down in the teens.  

In part because we were driving so slowly, we enjoyed the endless mountain and valley views and seeing a bit of the vibrant mountain everyday life as we slowly crept past.  We saw tiny corrugated aluminium and brick homes, shops and tiny traditional mezcal distilleries, flower nurseries, chicken farms, and minute grocery stores as the road ribboned across the edges of mountain passes and then down and up again. Chinook continues to garner some attention with smiles, waves and the occasional peace sign from people that we pass. 

We did see our first fatal car accident involving a semi-truck and a taxi-van, and we slowed our pace down even further after that sobering event.  You could tell what happened, even without an official report from forensics: driving too fast and cutting it inside a blind curve.  A deadly combination.  

We rolled into Puerto Escondido without incident in the late afternoon.  

Puerto Escondido
Walking the beach at sunrise near Puerto Escondido
We were rooftop enjoying a cold beverage when we heard someone exclaim, "Look!" A plane had flown overhead and maybe 25 or 30 skydivers had jumped out with bright colourful canopies.  You can barely see the tiny skydiving specks against the sunset in this picture, but from our vantage point it looked like a handful of confetti was gently falling to earth.  
It was easy to fall into the beach bum way of life: walking on the beach, napping, talking, reading, eating/drinking, playing the guitar (Adam), and then doing it all over again.  The sun was hot, the beer was cold, and the fan worked.  Perfect!

After a few days of sun and sand in Puerto Escondido, it was time for us to head south and for John and Paula to head north.  We had great fun together and we'll see them on the road again.

After Puerto Escondido, we headed south towards Bahia San Agustin, one of the protected bays within Huatulco National Park, Oaxaca.  It was off-road a bit, and we might have camped there for a few days if that drunk guy would have sauntered off and left us alone. Instead he swayed two feet away from us as he unsteadily crooned love songs with his hand out for money and another beer. Every time we turned around, there he was.  

The beach itself was beautiful - just what I could have envisioned if I was stranded on a beach island.  White sand, clear turquoise and aqua water, blue skies. But the vibe didn't feel right, so we left and kept looking for that perfect beach where we can pull up under a palm tree and camp for a few days. 

We did camp at one beach campground that was a little odd.  It was outside of the town of Huatulco and we were the only ones there.  It was a large parking lot with each parking spot outlined in white painted rocks.  The good part was that it was a couple hundred feet to the beach.  We were walking through a wooded area to the beach and noticed all of these holes in the ground.  We couldn't figure out what had caused them.  Was the place overrun by gophers?  Could it be...gulp...tarantulas?  And then when we stopped moving, we started seeing little bits of movement through the trees.  Adam walked over to one of the holes and saw something moving.  "I don't think it is a gopher," he said.  "Don't tell me we're surrounded by tarantulas!" I replied.  "I don't know," he said.  We both saw something rather large - and very quick - move fairly close to where we were standing.  "They're crabs!", we said in unison.  But creepy crabs, for sure.  Thousands of them just watching us. We quickly walked through the forest, avoiding all holes in the ground.  I made sure that we were back to our campground well before dark!

I've never seen such a combination of colors on a crab before.  They were about 6 inches big and moved very quickly.
The beach though was lovely.  The area of beach where our campsite was located was nearly deserted, and we sat and just watched and listened to the beauty before us.   
Back on the road again, heading south and loving being in a warm beach environment again.  We haven't been on the beach since late February when we headed north from Puerto Vallarta.  It's one of the best feelings in the world to bury your feet and wiggle your toes into the warm coarse sand.  Ahhh!

Next planned destination?  Guatemala.  

*Colectivo - a form of public transportation usually a smaller-sized car, truck or van.  The colectivos pack as many people as they possibly can inside - or in the case of trucks, in the back - and drive as quickly as possible to various destinations.  In Oaxaca, for instance, getting into a colectivo will cost 10 pesos (less than $1 USD) and the driver will try and get five other adults inside a smaller-sized Nissan.  Although cheap, this style of transport is not for the faint of heart.  However, colectivos are sometimes the only option and are used extensively throughout Mexico.  


Jennifer Chase said...

Wow! If I was stranded on a deserted island... Just beautiful photos.

Janice L. said...

Love your description of the nerve-wrecking drive to the coast. And I know what you mean about finding "the right vibe" on a beach. Wrong vibe can lead to a sketchy experience.

This Journey We Call Life said...

Hi Jennifer -

Thanks! Some of the beaches we visited would be perfect for a deserted island getaway....and you can drive yourself back to civilization when you were ready to leave!


This Journey We Call Life said...

Hey Janice!

Yeah...everything was perfect about that beach....except for that drunk guy. I'm sure if we went back there today, it might be a different story. Maybe he would have moved on to a different beach.


gunna said...

What a wonderfull and amazing world!!!!

tlc2950 said...

Karen...have you been getting the emails i have sent?
please let me know.

This Journey We Call Life said...

Hi tlc2950 -

No, sorry. I haven't received any of your emails.


This Journey We Call Life said...

Hi Gunnlaug!

You would have loved sitting in the warm sand watching the waves. So beautiful! Hopefully, spring is on its way to Norway? Take care, Much love,

Anonymous said...

Like you took that sunset pic from dabs rooftop, and the photo of puerto was taken how many years ago?

This Journey We Call Life said...

Hi - Sorry for the delay.....just saw your question. We took the sunset picture from the rooftop of Casa Dan's in Puerto Escondido. All of the pictures that were in the post were taken while we visited the area in March 2015.