Oaxaca to Utila in a Week

2 weeks ago I agreed to meet Clive in Utila on February 1st, I spent the first of those weeks in Oaxaca having a whale of a time and I spent the second week cramped onto bumpy, noisy buses. Well it’s not quite that bad, it went something like this.

Despite all I’d heard about Chiapas I’d only left myself two days in this southern state of Mexico, awash with the natural beauty of blue waterfalls (something Terri had seen on Bing.com and put on my To-Do list long before I came) mountainous lush green hills and remote coastlines you Englanders can only dream of mixed up with indigenous tribes, hippy “alternative” moderners and small town life. Fan-frigging-tastic!

However I had only two nights in a brilliant hostel in San Cristobal, the first as a CouchSurfer and the second at a discount rate for CouchSurfers. The hostel, run by Rob and Rebecca (Calling her the many names for Bex I have made me think of sister Becky several times a day :)), was the first hostel I stayed in in Mexico and it made me realise that as great as couch surfing is it’s not necessarily better (or worse) than staying in a hostel.

CouchSurfing vs. Hostels

CouchSurfing is like living in the town for a short while, you follow the routine of your host which usually revolves around a job, family time and hanging out with friends. While they’re happy to advise you on and may visit some tourist destinations with you it’s not the focus of their lives. In a hostel, however, you meet other people in the same boat as you. With the same excitement to discover the town and visit the churches and museums. They’re travelling, so they have recent tales of plans made and plans changes and very up to date advice on travelling in places you may be planning to go.

La Posada del Abuelito

Rob and BeckyBoos were also travellers who have just settled down to run a hostel for a bit, combined with the knowledge of all their guests they have a huge wealth of know-how to share and a passion for sharing it in front of the open fire available to guests at night. They’d already booked me onto a tour to some [[Tzotzil]] and [[Tzeltal]] villages they’d heard good reviews about when Rob came and said he was in the progress of putting new tour together and would I like to come for an experimentary price. This new tour was to some other, less visited villages, a cemetery and a coffee plantation, a little pricier but included a coffee plantation!

The Tour

We left at 10am, picked up outside the hostel in a minibus. There were 6 of us, plus the tour guide (and driver), his brother and his sister in law who were coming along for the lift home, since it was their family plantation we were to visit.

After about an hours drive we hopped out to see the cemetery. At first it looked like any Christian cemetery with a scattering of graves of various sizes and decorations marked by crosses. However with a little explanation we learned that the cross represents the 4 [[cardinal directions]] (and the 4 corners of the Mesoamerican universe) and the colour of the cross tells you how old the person was when they died. I forget the specifics, but it was something like blue under 18 year olds, red for 18-65 and white for over. At the top of the the hill stood a small forest of huge crosses, built bigger each time the Spaniards managed to pull them down.

Back on the bus for another hour and we were in the second village, there were a few people about nattering in their local language walking here and there. I had a short wander while Rob went off in search of food, returning 10 minutes later having been served by a woefully unfriendly shop assistant. We snacked on tortillas with beans and a tinned tomato sauce, actually far tastier than I make it sound.

On the bus again for another while, I’ve actually forgotten all the specific times so when I said an hour previously I just meant some time. The third village we spent just as little time but it was far more interesting. High up in the mountain in the village square was a church the Spaniards had built before the villagers said “No Thanks” and kicked them out. The building is now used both by those who did take up Christianity and by the locals who now use Coca-Cola for their ancient “Burping up the evil spirits” rituals, sitting huddled around a candle just behind the rows of pews.

Our final destination as to the coffee plantation, another short schlep on the bus with a photo opportunity en route had us in the middle of nowhere. On the far mountain you could see a highway climbing up the side, but in every other direction was trees and more mountains. We crossed the fence at a small opening and followed our guide down, and down. After going down and along, passing some cow, crossing a river, closing a gate behind us, entering the next village and ducking under some bushes we came across a few small buildings and lots of coffee bushes.

We started at the start, as is usually a good place to start, and learned about collecting the coffee beans, removing the husks (later used for fertiliser), cleaning them and drying them. We met the bushes and the fruit trees planted between them to add flavour to the beans (citrus usually) and to control the temperature and humidity (often mango).

After a lengthy and enjoyable lesson we were invited into one of the buildings – which turned out to be the kitchen – for some freshly made tortillas and bean soup and, of course, a nice cup of coffee.

After walking back up to the road, where the minibus had been waiting, we had a well earned snooze on the 2 and a half hour drive home, watching the sun set as we arrived back in San Cristobal.

Back on Track

Moving swiftly on from San Cristobal I threw 450 pesos at Rob and hopped in the Minibus which arrived for me the next morning which would get me to Antigua, Guatemala one way or another. A little risky, perhaps, but I had faith in Rob and it turned out to be a fantastic trip. I was in the small van with a couple of Dutchies, two Israeli electrical engineers (who were living in Canada), a Swede and a few more I’ve unfortunately forgotten. That’ll teach me to leave blog-writing so late eh?

We snoozed and chatted for about 6 hours until we reached the border where we were churned out and each fumbled our way through the stamp giving office before being picked up effortlessly on the other side by another guy and minibus our driver was pointing at. I’m in Guatemala!

The second bus was equally comfortable and had the atmosphere of back ally cafe trying to be a pub. The hours passed with the odd toilet break before we were suddenly split! At one of our toilet breaks a 4×4 truck pulled up next to us and some body swapping went on. We swapped our Israelis – bound for Xela – for a  couple of Frenchies and continued on to Antigua.

We arrived shortly after sundown, when asked everyone called out where they wanted to be dropped off and the driver did the rounds. I wasn’t sure since my communication with Guate had been a bit vague, so I stuck with the Swede and told sent one last text with where I’d be. I was just finishing up the last of the 5 type of Guatemalan beer I was working my way through when he and his sister entered. 2 years of waiting, I could finally deliver the hug I’d offered Guate last time he was in London!

They stayed for another beer, I mentioned I’d read about a place selling “Israeli Falafel” and suggested it would be a good place to catch up with an old friend made in Israel. Sweden joined us (Not quite in place of Mr Hermansson!) for what turned out to be a tasty plate of humous and falafel balls.

The next day Guate took me to two very good museums on the Maya (one nearly resulting in an expensive copy of the [[Popel Vuh]] and the other massively fuelling my desire to do some weaving), the night was spent in a busy but nice bar meeting Guate’s friends. My plan is to return and spend most of April here while I get some work done, and I can’t wait to be hanging out with these guys every week 🙂

The last leg

At 4 in the morning, after a measly 2 hours sleep, I woke Guate and hoped he still felt up for driving me to the bus station. Lucky for me, he did! I bought a ticket and waited the extra hour for the bus – the lady on the phone had said 5, the lady at the station said 6. I sent Guate home to finish his sleeping, made a failed attempt at buying some bread and boarded the bus.

That was a long, long bus. The book said 8 hours, the guy next to me said 6. 11 bumpy, noisy, smelly hours later with a few toilet stops at paperless (and in one instance waterless) shacks and a short visit to immigration as we entered Honduras we alighted in San Pedro Sula. I was blessed to have made friends with a French Canadian lady who had some idea what was going on, and so directed me to the next bus (which she was also getting, though alighting earlier).

This bus was far nicer, quiet and comfortable enough to get some sleep. Upon arriving in La Ceiba – from where I can catch a ferry to Utila – I shared a taxi to a hostel with a French couple, the Banana Republic (listed as the “only decent hostel in La Ceiba”) was full according to the guy at the door, but surprise surprise the driver knew a guy who had a brother who’s friend ran a hostel “right on the beach”. He didn’t mention it’s also in the western side of town, which is run by gangs and you are advised against visiting. The hostel was comfortable, and at that time of night I didn’t notice the lack of a kitchen and the Internet.

La Ceiba

I spent the next day in La Ceiba looking for some bits Clive had asked me to pick up (Black Duct Tape and a 12v Battery Charger), being Sunday everything was closed so wandered around the town before I moved to the now completely empty Banana Republic Hostel. I have nothing to say about La Ceiba, the Parque Central was boarded up, I spent a couple of hours online in a petrol station and the rest reading about the handful of nice places which are all closed on a Sunday.

Finally in Utila!

Getting to Utila was far easier than I had feared from that office chair in Coatepec. With a lot of help from Lonely Planet and a good bus network it was easy, if uncomfortable at times. After popping to the electrical store for Clive I caught a bus which delivered me to the 9am ferry. At 10:30 I met Shell, from [[Reading]], in Captain Morgan’ss Dive Centre – the most unnecessarily friendly place – where I could hang out, leave my bag, enjoy a nice glass of cold water and borrow a phone to call Clive. I had an hour until he arrived, to I set about finding the 650USD for my boat contribution. With a few [[Limperas]] from each ATM and a few from the bank teller and some advice from Shell I found the guy who changes money and was all ready.

Hanging out back in Captain Morgan’s Dive Centre I used their Wi-Fi to update my Google Latitude to keep the mother happy and very soon met Tom. Soon to be my favourite Israeli aboard the boat, she had joined Clive a few days earlier and soon thanked him for finding a Hebrew speaker for her.

So here begins my adventure with Nuthin Wong, the 50″ [[Chinese Junk]] from Canada.


A perfect day in Oaxaca

After a comfortable and productive (thanks to my recent Laptop purchase) bus journey from Puebla to Oaxaca I clambered off the bus and asked for directions to Independencia. Easy as cake, I asked a few people along the way and everyone knew exactly how many blocks and what I’d pass. What a relief after Puebla!

Soon enough, I was standing on Independencia. I checked the number, I was in the thousands. Ah dear, I wanted something less than 10! Never mind, and to the tune of Just Keep Swimming I set off for what I thought was going to be a long trek. I had not yet learnt, you see, that that in Mexico each block is one hundred regardless of how many houses are on there. So a mere 10 blocks later I had arrived!

That night I ate well, slept well and had the pleasure of partaking in a small birthday ceremony for one of the house mates. I was staying in an open house run by some great people who are starting a project to acquire land in order to become self sufficient and then to to open it up to anyone who needs it. An admirable goal and I met some dedicated people, but it’s not quite my capitalist cup of tea.

So I can’t say I was too disappointed to fall back to my CouchSurfer when the group announced they were all going for a trip, and if I had somewhere else that might work best (for everyone, since we’d only just met they didn’t want to hand over the keys just yet, and if they were all going I’d be all alone anyway).

Sami meet Ricardo. Ricardo, Sami

After a few text messages on Monday evening I had arranged to meet Ricardo in the Zocalo (town centre) in the morning. As often happens when you contact many CouchSurfers in one town, I remembered little about him – let alone what he looked like – but I knew I’d not made contact with anyone I didn’t like (which doesn’t really narrow it down). So in front of the cathedral I sat and waited for someone with that “Are you the person I’m looking for?” expression. After an uncustomary (for Mexicans) “Sorry I’m late” text he soon showed up and so began the day which was to begin the week.

I can’t honestly say I remember what we did the first day, I remember getting told off in the market for testing the avocados (“Don’t squeeze them if you’re not going to buy them”, to which I refrained from a “but how do I know if I want to buy them, then?”) and I remember catching a very bumpy bus back to Ricardo’s house. I thought that bus would never end. 20 whole minutes later, I put my spine back in line and we hopped off. It wasn’t intentional, but with a combination of Ricardo being late for work in the mornings and me forgetting how early the buses stop running (9pm) that turned out to be the penultimate bus in my whole week in Oaxaca.

Ricardo was a fantastic host, he owns and runs a restaurant with his parents and also works with other restaurants to help them attain a particular star rating. So his working hours were flexible, and for anything aside from work it seems he was a punctual person – only the second I’ve met in Mexico! We hung out a lot, usually in coffee shops and pubs. Oaxaca has no shortage of coffee shops, virtually all with Wi-Fi (though my favourite didn’t and one added 10 pesos to my 12 peso bill for using it!).

He took me to his favourite places, let me go up the hill on my own and I hung out with his friends my new friends and whoever else was sitting in the pub at the time. If this were one of the days of creation, God would have looked upon it and seen that it was good.

The Perfect Day

Wednesday morning started like any other day – in someone’s house in the suburbs of a small city in southern Mexico. After an avocado based breakfast (remember the lady who’s fruits I squished? The next lady along had a better pear.) Ricardo announced he was late for work, so into a taxi we hopped. Since he was working all day, I had the day to myself and I had big plans. I’d been making good progress with work, and today felt like a good day to fly ahead with an actual solid days work. Possibly the first since I left Currency Solutions.

I started in Cafe Brujula, one I’d heard about from Maureen and various travel guides, I heard the internet was slow but the people nice. I ordered a black coffee (local and organic as is the standard in Oaxaca) and sat down to crack on.

I had managed a good few mugs, several solid hours of work and had just finished up a blog post when Ricardo text me saying he was going for Lunch so how about meeting for a coffee in Coffee Beans? “Excellent, about time for a coffee break” I thought to myself. I paid up and headed the three blocks to meet him.

I explained a dilemma I’d been having, I want to try the local brew but I’m afraid it’s too hot out to be drinking scorching hot coffee at this mid day hour. He explained that I was in the right place for such a dilemma, since Coffee Beans have a menu of iced and flavoured coffees. By the end of my week there, we’d been through all of the flavours and even come up with a few flavour combinations of our own.

Ricardo headed off to work, and I decided I’d probably had enough coffees for one day if I wanted to have a hope of sleeping that night. I headed to Mina Street, a few blocks south of the Zocalo, where Maureen and I had found a Wi-Fi enabled chocolate cafe selling an assortment of flavoured hot chocolates. Local and organic, naturally.

I spent the rest of the afternoon working my way through a host of flavoured hot chocolate drinks while churning through another bucket load of work. That evening, Ricardo and I returned to Coffee Beans for some beers. Unfortunately there’s only one local beer and we didn’t discover it until late in the week (though we managed to squeeze one in just in time for me to still catch my bus as I left!).

An excellent day 🙂

All good things must come to an end

Nothing last forever, even a blissful week in Oaxaca. Early in the week I had ordered an extra battery for my laptop, so I could have twice as much time on the busses, but when the Genuine HP 9 Cell battery I had ordered arrived it turned out to be a compatible 6 Cell for the same price. The lying scumbag in the shop stood his ground nonetheless and persisted that it was as ordered. I took my deposit back and met Maureen in Coffee Beans for quick drink, a short rant and a ponder. Eventually it became apparent that I wouldn’t get another chance to get an extra battery, this one wasn’t too expensive (1050 pesos, around 50 GBP). So first thing Sunday I returned to Del Boy.

I booked my bus ticket for Sunday night, paying the extra 90 pesos to have the super luxury deluxe bus which had a power connection for up to 12 hours of work all the way to San Cristobal! Though I did stop to sleep, admire the view, and chat to the slightly nuts gringo in front of me.

My last two hours in Oaxaca were spent with Ricardo, we were happily finishing off the flavour list in Coffee Beans when we remembered the local beer we’d heard about but not yet tried! Oops, I was so carried away with the coffee I forgot the beer! (Saz would not be impressed!). We rushed off to the bus station, left my back pack in the left luggage and shot off up the dark northern streets of Oaxaca vaguely following my now battered tourist map courtesy of the tourist office on day 1.

We arrived, and arrived we did. This was no off license serving up the local brew, this was a beer emporium with at least 5 dozen beers from around the world and Mexico. Tempting though it all was, we had a mission. Buying a light and a dark version of the local we drank like louts on the street as we headed back to the bus stop. I have no special words for the local beer, but I’m glad I enjoyed it 🙂 We stopped on the way to the bus station only because I saw a bubble tea place and felt a desire to pay homage to Ol’ Sarah-Jane 🙂


Oaxaca’s Hill of Doom

Well it’s really not so bad, but the few people who I’d spoken to about climbing this hill, slightly to the west of Oaxaca central, didn’t seem so keen to come with. I didn’t think it was so bad. There’s a wide path consisting of about 10 sets of stairs taking you right to the auditorium at the top. Entering the auditorium made me feel like a [[Gladiator]]. After the climb I was slightly out of breath as I walked through the cool shade of the tunnel, curving at the end so the lions can’t see you coming. I soon forgot about [[Ancient Rome]] as I climbed the final (so I thought) set of steps and looked down over a lake of buildings which was Oaxaca, filling the valley between the mountains and spilling through the gap between them to the North East.

A collection of slacking police sat chatting with their guns on their shoulders busy guarding a totally empty plot of concrete, throwing them a very Mexican “Buenos Tardes” I continued my journey up. Another half a dozen set of steps and I could see into the auditorium from the back down to the stage. The city, mountains and sky form the backdrop to the stage and you can really see why this has been a popular spot for events for many years.

The Planetarium and Observatory

Another 5 minutes up hill, along a path surrounded by trees which look like they’re bowing down to the east, lie the Planetarium and Observatory. The former is a modest size but the small exhibition outside looks well done and presumably the inside is of a similar quality. Unfortunately there’s nothing in English so my explorations stopped short. With diminishing hopes for a star studded evening I continued to the Observatory. It didn’t look promising, and a local who had come up here (with a couple of buddies) for some exercise panted between breaths that it wasn’t functioning at all anyway.

Despite the closed auditorium, all Spanish planetarium and shut down observatory I’m a big fan of the hill. It’s got a wild feel to it (though it’s being conserved by  a local group of volunteers who plant trees) and is more tranquil than an empty park on a Tuesday morning.

HUB, Oaxaca

Last summer I went for an interview at TechHub in [[Old Street]]. I’d never seen a place like it before and thought it was a fantastic idea, had the company had the money and I not been running off to Mexico it’d have been a great place to work. Maureen has found a similar place in Oaxaca (remember when I said I might not come home?). I’m meeting her in a short while to have a visit, but based on her description and my experience at TechHub it’s essentially an open plan office where freelancers, start-ups and teeny businesses can base themselves to enjoy the office culture which you can’t get working alone and to be able to network with people from different industries and sectors. So if you need a designer, you can walk around and ask for a designer. If you need a [[videographer in Oaxaca]], just pop over and say hi!

So about coming home…

Now of course I’m going to come home eventually, because London and my life there is far to fantastic to refuse, but it’s getting very tempting to stay here longer. Here being Oaxaca. With local, organic coffee on every corner and chocolate (also local, organic and almost always without milk) like you’ve never tasted before it’s going to be hard, even with gems such as Chococo back home!


The Coatepec Crosses

Today I climbed the hill. I’d actually seen this patch of green in the middle of the town on a map before I came and planned to walk through it from the bus to get to Shayla’s.

After my Balagan in Puebla I ended up getting a taxi. Thankfully! Because this hill is 80m high! Note for next time, use a map with contour lines.

When I left the house I had about an hour and a half. I hadn’t yet decided whether to go to the river or the hill so I just walked. It soon became apparent that the river would be harder to get to, houses and houses in progress lined the hillside between me and her.

So I looked up at the giant leafy mound to my left and pictured the map I had carefully studied last week. None of it applied – I was on the other side and heading to the top rather than Shayla’s house.

A few minutes wandering lead me up a dusty lane of run down houses to a small staircase made of large stones. At the top I followed the path. Of course I didn’t know it was the path at the time, but left went down hill and right headed upwards so it was a good enough presumption.


I say path, it was actually a road with two lines of cobbles for tyres and a strip of dirt between to catch peoples litter. The first interesting thing I noticed about this path was the abundance of crosses. Now Mexico is a religious place by any standards, but this was getting extreme. Three crosses later I took a closer look and noticed they were depicting Stations of the Cross, excellent! Now I have some idea of how close to the top I am (presuming number 14 was at the top). I was at number 8.

Some wanderings later, and after feeling very suspicious for trying to catch a glimpse of the school I could hear through the trees, I was presented with a decision. The arrow to the left said something in Spanish, the one to the right something else in Spanish. I thought I’d have my cake and eat it and headed right first. A good choice, a few meters up the road was a viewing point with an almost areal view of the city dissolving into the countryside and eventually fading into misty mountains.

After a few awe filled gazes, and a few more after I put my glasses on, I headed off. The path which continued round was a decline, so I went back to the sign and took the left path, which turned out to be a grass covered shortcut to the top. Score! At the top there’s a viewing point to get a bit higher, but it was closed and a ring of trees surrounding the plain actually makes the view less exciting. That said, while gazing out seeing a monstrously big and snow capped mountain slowly fade out of the mist on the horizon isn’t something you experience every day!