A Road Less Traveled: Oaxaca City to Puerto Escondido


We found ourselves on a quiet road heading up a volcano on the way to Oaxaca. By the time we hit this particular road, we have been driving in Mexico for close to 4 months and every arrival feels like cause for celebration. The toll roads stop us every 30 or 40 kms for more pesos and the free roads through towns slow us every 3 or 4 kms because of the topes (speed bumps). The forks in the road all seem to have the same (or no) highway numbers to cities that are unpronounceable (like Xocoyahualco...which is in Tlalnepantla!). The occasional "officer" waves us off the road for no reason, and then on again. And let's not forget the goats. We avoid lots of goats. All of which is done primarily with the aid of (I have started calling them) our magic devices. The iPad, iPhones, the Garmin and our GPS tracker (we have paper maps as back up to our back ups). They magically know where we are on this planet and tell us where we want to go. None of these devices work 100% of the time and we frequently have them all going at once. We place utter faith in these devices that they'll get us from point A to point B in the-middle-of-nowhere-Mexico. Sometimes blind faith...but more on that later.

On this day, the magic devices have taken us up this road through a dense pine forest to the base of La Malinche volcano, just outside of Puebla. When these thing work, it does feel a little like magic. This place is the prefect antidote to our time in and around Mexico City. Magic Google took us right to the end of the road and into a beautiful camping area at the base of the trailhead. We need quiet. We need to get outside and hike. Something I did almost every day at home, and John and I did almost every weekend. A literal breath of fresh air we used to take for granted and we crave all the more since hitting mainland Mexico. We hiked 6 miles with 2,500 ft. of elevation gain up to over 12,500 feet. Only one trail up, but steep and the last 1,500 feet we are scrambling up tree roots and creek beds. It's beautiful. We are the only ones camped here, besides our new four legged friends who show up at mealtimes. We have the hottest shower of the entire trip, we learn the word for firewood (Leña) and buy 2 bundles. John makes spaghetti and we enjoy the end of a great day.

Camping at La Malinche

One way up

We made it to 12,500. Little hard to breathe....

The peak is over 14,500 feet.

Hiking fashionista

proof.

I asked them both if they wanted to come, but they didn't jump in the truck. They ate well for a few days though.

From there we are refreshed enough to head to Oaxaca City. It is a very long drive though a large mountain pass and the magic devices tell us we'll arrive several hours before we actual do. This is a key lesson we have learned. While Google and the Garmin tell us 200 km will take 2 hours, we now know to double the time. They may be magic, but they are not very accurate in this country.

Our primary goals for this very large colonial city are to eat well and get the truck serviced. We accomplish both, but as we have found with most things in Mexico, getting the truck into the dealership took twice as long as we planned. We camped at the Overland Oasis about 10 km outside of Oaxaca City in Santa Maria El Tule. Leanne and Calvin are former overlanders themselves who bought an old restaurant site, and parked their converted greyhound bus in it. They have space for about 5 rigs and are fantastic camp hosts. It was cozy. We met up with Adam and Karen who were next to us in San Miguel, and our communal living commenced once again. We ate well - Oaxaca is known for it's unique cuisine and fabulous mole. We roamed the colonial city and hit the Sunday market in Tlacolula, one of the oldest and busiest in Oaxaca.

Church and former monastery of Santo Domingo de Guzmán in Oaxaca City

Church grounds

Church Gate

Sunday market

Sunday Market...toward the end

Los Danzantes restaurant. We also ate at Casa Oaxaca. Both delicious.

Mole, shredded duck, sauces, wine, craft beer, all organic, slow food stuff...amazing.

LoJo gets a check up. First one in Mexico and all seems ok. Toyota service guys were SO nice!

We had to wait for the truck. John found ways to amuse himself. Team Toyota!!

Dinner at the Overland Oasis. We had gringas (huge yummy tacos) around the fire, the bus and our own rolling homes.

Camping at Overland Oasis with the VW club: Karen & Adam, Cameron & Jacquie, Janice & Gregor

Our timing out of Oaxaca down to the coast is the same as Adam & Karen, so we decide to caravan together. Our first stop is Hierve el Agua. The road there was described as awful by some people camping with us. Steep drop-offs, no guard rails, winding, etc. But it really wasn't bad. It was a lesson to take other people's perspective with a grain of salt. Everyone out here has different levels of comfort. "Getting out of your comfort zone" is a very different thing for different people. We are trying to find that balance when we read what other overlanders are up to. We are also trying to find that balance with each other. When to let our guard down, when to head to riskier parts of the country, and...what roads to take.

Caravan with the Eurovan: Karen & Adam. Pretty easy. Navigating around the goats was the most watching out we had to do.

Hierve el Agua

There are bubbling natural mineral pools and a petrified waterfall that was formed over thousands of years. And beautful views.

The water bubbles up through the rocks and the minerals create beautiful copper colored streams.

From there we hit a small mezcal factory. Well, factory isn't the right word. These small, family owned distilleries dot the hillsides around Oaxaca and produce the majority of the mezcal in Mexico. It involves agave plants, a horse, some fermenting and a jug. It's moonshine. Really good artisanal moonshine. We bought 2 bottles.

The "heart" of the agave plant is burned, pulverized, feremented and then distilled. All the around the hillsides of Oaxaca similar set ups are producing the best mezcal in Mexico.

Ready to hit the road south.

This is where things start to get interesting with the magic devices. Our next stop is Puerto Escondido, about 260 km away. We've been told the road is hell - through the mountains, winding, with chunks missing. We are told we should overnight at the top of the mountain pass on the way there. We put the route in the magic iPad and we head out. Within a few kilometers it tells us to take a right onto a dirt road. Uh, oh. Google has dirt roads? We have 6 hours to go. So we pull over and trot up to a traffic cop and ask (we think) if it's all dirt (tierra) or pavement (pavimento). Through our broken Spanish and Google translate we learn its dirt for 11 kilometers and then pavement. We don't realize it then, but learning this phrase will prove very valuable in just a few days.

We get back in the truck and look at each other. And hope we understood correctly. We turn onto the road and bounce around pretty good. We pull over and ask Adam and Karen...Ok with you? They don't have 4 wheel drive. Munching on a PB&J, Adam says through their window, "Well, we just did 1 km, only need to do it ten more times." Then he dead pans..."and we haven't seen all the goats yet." So off we go.

The road does indeed turn to pavement in 11 kilometers and it's a beautiful drive. I appreciate the rewards of getting off the beaten path -of letting go of the toll roads once in a while (which are safer and faster). We can see the mountains in the distance which is Hwy 175 and will take us up over the mountains to the beach. We can also see the clouds swirling around the mountain peaks. We wind our way up into the mountains and the road gets more winding and more narrow as we ascend to over 8,500 feet, and then into the clouds. Toward the top, we have to slow to about 5 miles an hour the visibility is so bad. Occasionally, we have to stop on curves to let big trucks loaded with lumber pass because they are take up the whole road. It's close to 5:00 pm, but it feels like night. Adam and Karen seem to disappear in the mist around the turns. Several times I see we are on the very top of the ridge, only as wide as the road we are driving on. John tells me he sure wouldn't want to do this route in the rain....and then big drops start to fall out of the clouds onto the windshield. Fantastic. When we finally see the sign (and big parking lot!) for the cabins where we'll spend the night, my death grip on the door handle loosens. Our little cabins in the sky feel like a safe haven, and the four of us have dinner in the restaurant & drinks that warm and calm us.

Highway 175 to San Jose del Pacifico. No visibility

THIS road has the steep drop-offs, no guard rails, winding turns and trucks barrelling down on us. Oh. got it.

A well-deserved beer after some serious Team Toyota driving!!

What a difference a day makes. View from our cabin. Again no guard rails!

The next morning, we are still very tired. A fiesta for some unnamed saint was rocking the dance music until well past 2 in the morning. On a Wednesday, in this tiny mountain top town. Around 5 am fireworks are being set off that wake the roosters. And then a marching band starts up at 6 am. When do these people sleep?

After breakfast John and I set out on our own and plan to meet up again with Karen and Adam in Puerto Escondido the following day. John puts the route in the magic device and Google shows him serval options. He takes the shortest route. I don't zero in on this until we are a few hours in and realize the route takes us not over Highway 175, but on a road off to the left. Way left. We have a lively discussion about whether or not we were told to stay on Hwy 175 (we were), and he says this road seems fine. Hwy 175 is the rest of the twisty road we just did yesterday so it's not exactly an easy road either. I'm not sure about this option at all. The back up paper map shows no road at all.

We drive about 10 more kilometers and the road doesn't look so fine. We pass a section where most of the road is washed away and then slowly roll into mountain village perched on the very top of the ridge. It has one paved road through town. The road is so narrow, I have to pull in the rear view mirror to avoid hitting one building, a few cars and local women selling their vegetables. We garner stares of wonder mixed with smirks that clearly communicate they know we are lost. We decide its time to ask if we can really get to Puerto Escondido from here. They tell us yes. We ask if it's "tierra o pavimento" and the first guy says yes. He says a lot more than just "yes", so we don't know if we really understand.

Uh, no passing.

Kind of tight, Google!

We snake our way through the village and hope things don't get even more narrow and then...we lose pavement. And it's a hairpin turn down what looks like a hiking path, so we stop to reassess. John gets out to scout it, and I flag down a pick up truck loaded with about 10 people and ask if we can pass with our truck. We do this about 4 more times and they all say yes, we can pass. Yes, we can get to Puerto Escondido from here. But they all say it's "camino de tierra" all the way. More smirks. We've been on plenty of 4 wheel drive roads in Mexico, but ones we expected to be on. Today we expected to be on the highway. We also have no idea what shape these are in. But we forge on.

We end up on a dirt road for close to 60 kilometers, winding even farther up in the mountains on one ribbon of road as far as the eye can see. Past tiny houses perched on cliffs, and donkeys hauling up firewood. We inch across stretches of road that were only as wide as the rig, with drop offs to nothing on either side...and a bit washed out for at least one tire. John admits we probably should have taken Hwy 175, but tells me to look at the view and how amazing this drive is. I am not sharing that sentiment just yet. A few hairpins turns are so tight John has to stop and back up to make the turn. We climb and climb, up and around the mountains until finally we started to go down. With the brakes screaming, John puts us in 4 wheel low to slow the truck with the engine. We'll see no place to get gas anywhere on this drive. All the while, Google is showing us each twist and turn. It knows exactly where we are. The middle of no-where-Mexico.

Seriously, Google?

Yep, this is acutally our road.

Notice the drop off...and the cross.

After 5 hours, we see our first banana plants. Now I know we are starting to get close to the ocean, and the road begins to level out. And I can let go of the door handle again. Again it's was a beautiful drive with breathtaking (literally) views but we now know the "suggested route" provided by the magic devices include dirt tracks way, way off the beaten path. There were a few moments on this drive where the unknown was uncomfortable. Turn back or keep going? We have the comfort level conversation again. Adventure vs. stupidity. When it all works out, its adventure. When it goes wrong and you retrace the steps that ended in a bad situation...well, that was stupid. Sometimes its very important to be cautious, and sometimes it's amazing to get off the beaten path. It's then that we realize, even though everyone has different interpretations of risk, ours need to be in sync.

The first banana plant. We should be out of these f'in mountains soon! Lojo did great.

When we finally see the thin strip blue of ocean on the horizon, we are close to Highway 200 at the coast. Looking back, we think the first guy we asked told us we'll see "pavimento" ...when you get all the way out of the mountains. But just like magic, we made it.

So happy to see the ocean again. Finally.

#mexico #hiking #volcanoes #LoJo #Friends