The pavements were sticky with heat, the roads became rivers of exhaust and steam and the air felt lifeless. Eager to leave Zipolite, albeit Pearl’s clutch cable was hanging on by a frayed thread. It’d consequently engaged the gears, which is always a laugh-a-minute when riding through the rush hour traffic. Jase executed a quick fix in the bustling thick of it all—utilising a clutch repair kit from eBay that’d been rattling around his pannier for the last 18 months—in front of an intrigued audience of passers-by. Outnumbered by traffic wardens, one guy on patrol made a beeline for me and asked in addition to my wheels, if my ensemble—item by item—was for sale. You want my wrecked gloves, why? Sorry sugar, Pearl and my girl-sized gear are going nowhere.
Escaping Zipolite’s clutches by hastily replacing the ruined one on Pearl, little did we know we were on the road to buckarooing torment. The flatness of the fast roads disappeared and an interminable set of deep undulations began. There had been a strong pattern emerging on the highways earlier through southern Mexico but those were long forgotten. I’ve never been one to live in the past.
I apologise in advance for the alliteration but the troublesome topes and ridiculous reductors (speed bumps) were the size and shape of semi-submerged submarines, some steep, sharp and worst of all, unseen. Now take the distance between each aforementioned alliterated word to be the same in length between each lumpy hump. Excessive would be understating it somewhat. Still, I became quite the show jumper on Pearl, my champion show pony. Neither of us knew we could perform to a ribbon and rosette standard when airborne. Go me, go Pearl..! “Watch your back wheel, Lise! SLOW DOWN!” Jason barked. Oops, sorry, getting carried away…
The road to Overlander Oasis in Santa Maria del Tule (El Tule for short) less than 7 miles southeast of Oaxaca was well worth the jarring jolts and sustained scraping of Pearl’s undercarriage. Simply another stonking campground (or place to rent a casita, an apartment), the Canadian owners Leanne and Calvin couldn’t have been more super to boot. Despite their land being able to accommodate up to around six 4×4 rigs, or double the number of tents and motorcycles, or most combinations of, the bulk of their premises is consumed by their fabulous ‘house’.
The gregarious couple live and dine in a quirky three-walled converted restaurant but sleep in a 1957-built Greyhound bus, which once upon a time serviced the locals on the east coast all the way up from Montreal, down to Florida and across to New Orleans back in the ‘60s. Calvin told me about this wonderful sign he was sadly unable to save, which had come with the bus and read ‘Seating aboard this bus is done without regard to race, creed, colour and religion.’ Can you imagine the stories that bus could tell?
Today, the 30-footer Greyhound is an integral extension of Calvin and Leanne’s home, both the exterior and interior of which they’ve lovingly restored in beautiful vintage detail. Even the hand-cranked destination sign still worked where everything was roller bearings and grease fittings. An era when things were built to last. I was head over heels in love with their place, not to mention Calvin’s melt-in-your-mouth ‘bastardised eggs benedict’ and Leanne’s I’ve-died-and-gone-to-heaven ‘tear and share’ pecan cake, at one of their impromptu social gatherings. Right place at the right time; thanks both, we’ll forever rave about our shining stay with you. When conditions align and you’re left deliriously happy and galactically grateful.
Translated to “the water boils,” Hierve el Agua is actually a misnomer. A mere 46 miles east of Oaxaca city—two locations are set about 75 feet apart—water does indeed ‘boil’ up from the ground; not hot, but rather sent to the surface by the Earth’s interior pressure. Perhaps appreciated more as a set of natural rock formations, Hierve el Aqua resembles petrified cascades of water.
Taking an old concrete two laner and then a narrow, winding unpaved road for the last mile or two leading to the site, aesthetically it did anything but disappoint. Standing on the rock shelf and looking out over the other one, a vertical wall corded in browns, mochas, creams and peach spills over 90 metres into the valley and forms a cliff that is the frozen waterfall. It was a serious ‘wow’ moment, which seeped happiness out of every orifice.
Incredibly, the long formations were created by fresh water springs, whose water was saturated with calcium carbonate and other nutrient-rich minerals. As the water tumbles over the cliffs, the excess minerals are deposited, the same way stalactites are formed inside caves. Cascada chica (small waterfall) or the Amphitheatre contains a lattice of small natural pools, green but pure, packed with natural mineral compounds, situated near two larger artificial ones made to imitate infinity pools.
We soaked up the scene from a high wild camping spot overlooking the pools and solid-state cascades. Tranquil and detached. A puff of cloud sailed across the sky, its edges tinged with the palest of pinks. The breeze had become a warm caress punctuated by occasional whispers; a finger of wind ruffled my hair-gently, affectionately. Though the sun had sunk below the horizon, its brightness lingered on the green hilltops in luminous smudges of orange.
As magical as this find was, it was perhaps more intriguing when a chap who’d spotted us with our bikes earlier in the day dashed over. Before a minute into any rapport building conversation, this ardent American had already crossed Jason’s palm with a $20 bill. Curiously random and once again, time to pay it forward.
Having had a half-day fussy out of Oaxaca, my heart remained in the small town of El Tule, despite the big city being renowned for its ‘foody’ vibe and magnificently mixed indoor markets. Our lunch was appetising although the same standard was effortlessly achieved back in El Tule for a tuppence of the price. My inner fru-gal just can’t help herself.
Entering a Wembley Stadium sized market, every sense was assaulted, or at least Jason’s fully functioning five were. Squeezing my way in between the people-packed aisles, we feasted our eyes on just about everything: mounds of colour—russet, ochre, crimson—were delicately heaped in woven sacks. Butchered slabs of raw beef were engulfed in a haze of flies; the claws of chickens’ feet dominated counter-tops and brimming baskets of fried chapulines (little fingernail sized grasshoppers) stared out at me, I did a double take to check they weren’t writhing. Lured in by a free spoon of them shoved towards my face, I gingerly bit into a grasshopper and grinned in relief. ‘Ooh, didn’t think they’d be salty, just crunchy!’ I concluded.
Less than ten minutes into our exploration Jase piped up, “Lise, I’m starting to feel sick, lets get outer here.” “Oh no, why?” Apparently, the pungent meat and fish aromas wafting Jason’s way were overpowering. Shame as I wouldn’t have minded looking round the nooks and crannies a bit more, the place was a treasure-trove of trinkets. Sometimes, I guess having no sense of smell is a serious blessing, even if my sense of taste isn’t sharp and at the risk of over-sharing, I’m sure I’m a little deaf in my right ear!
Yogurt pot sized tumblers of water housed listless goldfish touching head to feathering tail on the sides, while pyramids of terrapins fought for survival, clambering on top of one another for an escape route. Inside small tanks dwelled inordinate numbers of bigger fish, which were doing everything they could not to collide into each other. Mouth pursed and nostrils quivering in rage, I hadn’t felt such a purity of disgust in a while. (Well, not since the week previous in Zipolite where we clocked a dying dog in a sickening amount of distress whose nether region had been severely bitten into. The nearest veterinarian was a day away.) Although I’d seen a lot worse in South East Asia, I think the vendors’ visible nonchalant indifference at their ‘pet’ stores got to me the most. They say you can discern a lot about a country by the way in which a community treats its animals; some Mexicans are abhorrent to say the least.
Stockpiled stacks of trilby hats adjacent to towers of enamel-dissolving rainbow coloured candy sat next to bagged balls of stringy cheese, where walls of Mescal caught my eye on every corner. I was amid a never-ending eye-line of bread rolls and tortillas, accompanied by huge vats of steaming soup, and could have filled my boots from the inside out with the fare and wares in superabundance. I love places that offer up a mish-mash of anything vaguely consumable and wearable. It was an eclectic sight alright.