Tag Archives: mexico travels

Oaxaca – the long road to get there

29 Jan 2020 – 6 February 2020

Driving from San Cristobal de las Casas to Oaxaca was always going to be a two day affair for us. The distance is just under 400 miles but the route involves long steep climbs through the mountains and many, many topes . Those are the fiendish traffic slowing road bumps that still manage to catch us unawares.

Molly may have a reconditioned engine but our 30-year old campervan still finds big hills hard going. But we weren’t in any hurry so taking it slow was fine with us. And to make sure we didn’t end up overheating, we stuck with Stuart’s (so far) failsafe method of getting up the steepest of climbs.

That imvolves keeping the speed below 25 mph, staying in third gear or 18 mph for second gear. At any sign of the water getting to 110 degree centigrade and the oil temperature heating up to 100 degrees centigrade, we pull over …

…. put on the kettle …

…and have a cuppa while we wait for the engine to cool down.

As an additional aid to keeping the engine cool, we put the blow heater on full blast. It makes inside the van unbearably hot when it is already hot outside but that’s a small complaint if it helps to keep Molly moving.

Our two-day trip to Oaxaca took us through the most beautiful scenery we’ve seen on our travels through Mexico so far.

The route across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec also took us through the windiest part of Mexico and past what is apparently the biggest wind farm in Latin America. There are wind turbines as far as the eye could see, row after row of them, on both sides of the road.

There were no convenient campsites en route so we spent the first night in a hotel in Juchitan de Zaragoza and the second in one a hotel in the small town of Najapad de Madero .

Secure parking spot – right below our bedroom.

Here we are on one of our many van cooling stops, on a quiet mountain road where the loudest noise….

..was from a woodpecker pecking a cactus for grubs.

We knew we were getting near Oaxaca when we started seeing agave .

This is mezcal country and the landscape is dominated by the crop which is boiled and distilled to make the spirit.

We finally reached Santa Maria del Tule, the small town not far from Oaxaca where we had booked into Oasis Overland, a small campsite run by Canadians Leanne and Calvin. Experienced travellers themselves, they haven’t quite left their ‘home is where you park it’ days behind. They still sleep inside their bus…

…though nowadays, it has a mighty plush extended living area.

We ended up spending four days there, making new friends…

Jenny and Dennis – blogging about their travels in A Kiwi and a Pom

Tim and Sarah (Dennis’ daughter) – blogging about their travels in Our World Safari

Molly looking very petite in the corner there

We helped Stretch and Lucinda work through their mezcal selection. .

Mezcal tasting with Lucinda and Stretch

The carnival was on in the town and we went with Tim, Sarah, Leanne and Calvin to watch the firework show. Young men dressed as toritos or young bulls scattered sparklers and set off rockets as they danced around and charged at each other.

On reflection, it wasn’t sensible to take a ringside seat for the show. Tim and Sarah each received scorch burns from flying sparks and Stuart’s evening ended in the paramedics’ van after a firework shot straight at his head, smashing his specs to the ground and burning his forehead.

Thankfully it missed his eye and left only a small scar on this forehead.

Alright Harry

It wasn’t quite as magical as this one. Behold the wonder of photo editing!

The main attraction at Santa Maria del Tule is this Montezuma Cypress which is apparently one of the oldest and widest trees in the world.

El Arbol del Tule – 2,000 year old tree

The campsite was a good base for day tripping. We went to the Sunday market at Tlacolula…

…and bought mole sauce, new spanners and a replacement radio for the van. It was a good place to restock the van after the robbery.

We drove to the nearby village of Teotitlan del Valle, famous for weaving …

…and bought a new rug for home.

God is in the house – inside Preciosa Sangre de Cristo Church in Teotitlan del Valle

We drove out to see Hierve del Agua where the rock formations look like a waterfall ..

….and we had a dip in the naturally made infinity pool. If you get the camera angle right, it looks like you have the place to yourself.

You don’t.

And on the way back, we stopped off at Esmerelda’s roadside stand for tacos.

Stuart gave some of the locals a tour of the van and I had a shot at making tortillas…


Are they meant to have holes?

And on the way back along the mountain track…

…we were hailed by Don Alberto to come try his mezcal. He showed us the whole process , starting with the roasting of the agave pinas or pineapple ‘hearts’…

The agave pina or pineapple hearts ready for roasting

..through to distillation, then to tasting and, of course, buying.

The flash of colour in the corner caught our eye. It turned out that our stop at Don Alberto’s coincided with a photoshoot for Lukas Avendano, Zapotec transgender muxe performance artist and, for the purposes of the shoot, a mezcalero hard at work turning the mill wheel to pulp the roasted agave.

I confess I had not heard of the word muxe before (pronounced moo-shay). The word is said to be derived from mujer, the Spanish word for woman, and is a third gender specific to the Zapotec indigenous people in the Oaxaca region.

Reading more about the muxe story, we found out that Lukas is something a celebrity. And so never knowingly passing up an opportunity for sleb spotting, I shamelessly crashed the photoshoot for a happy snap .

So that’s what we did around Oaxaca, in the city itself, we did plenty of wandering around the colourful streets…

Even the dentist surgery looks appealing

Remind you of The Third Man?

…checked out the street art..

…one of the Zapatista shops/art galleries…

We did a tour of the botanic gardens which are lovely though the tour was in Spanish so I’m afraid we drifted off after a bit..

…and started taking selfies.

We visited the cathedral..

….and ate and drank aplenty in the wide choice of bars and restaurants. We recommend the soup…

…which is heated with hot stones.

We would have been happy to stay a lot longer exploring Oaxaca but it was time to get back on the road again.

And so after a scrub up for Molly…

…we joined the pilgrims and pointed our van north.

Ruins and rodeo – Palenque to San Cristobal de las Casas

23 Jan 2020 – 29 Jan 2020

From Catamaco in Tabasco, we travelled further south and into the state of Chiapas to see the Mayan ruins at Palenque.

The journey took us to the most southern point we will go in our Mexico road trip. We stayed at a campsite conveniently close to the ruins, if a little noisy. The howler monkeys kept us awake for part of the night with their unearthly screeches.

We also met a convoy of Canadians – three motorhomes travelling together – and they told us very reassuring tales about the skills of Mexican mechanics. They can fix anything, we were told, and they relayed to us one story of a truck which had snapped in two and had been miraculously welded together. Nice to hear but we hope we never have to test this one.

Our Canadian companions also passed on alarming stories about the route we intended to take the following day to get to San Cristobel de las Casas. We had already read on various blogs and Tripadviser reviews plenty of scare stories about the risks travellers faced on the mountain road there. There were reports of Zapatista bandits barricading the roads and not letting drivers through unless a ransom sum was paid.

Worse than that, the Canadians told us they had heard about a couple who had been held up at gun point and robbed the previous week. But then, they added, this couple had apparently been driving the road at midnight. The one piece of advice we have had drummed in to us from all sources is ‘do not drive at night in Mexico’. In the dark, the risks come from all directions – unseen topes or sleeping policemen, potholes, wandering animals, drunk drivers. Armed bandits are at the end of a long list of risks to be aware of.

We weren’t sure if all the scare stories were true or had grown with the telling. Some of the reviews were a few years old. But they unnerved us sufficiently that we seriously dithered about whether we should avoid taking the mountain road to San Cristobal and, instead, back track to Villahermosa and take the main highway there. It was by all accounts a much longer, less scenic but much safer route. But if we did that, we would have missed out Ocosingo, or more specifically, we would have staying at “Jose’s House”.

We had read on iOverlander – the app we rely on heavily to find safe places to park overnight – that in Ocosingo, local family Jose and his wife Elki offer a warm welcome to passing campervanners and cyclists. Previous travellers waxed lyrical about the warmth of the welcome they received. The opportunity to stay with and meet a Mexican family? It sounded too good to miss. Just to reassure ourselves, we texted Elki at the mobile number given in the app. We wanted to come visit but would it be safe to travel? Her daughter Nina responded with an enthusiastic welcome – their house would be our house. Do come. She added that she was aware the police were patrolling this road because of the risks.

That was the reassurance we needed to hear. Though still very apprehensive, we set off at around 7 am, taking Nina’s advice to travel early in the morning.

Just in case we did meet some barricades, we made sure we had a stash of smaller peso notes at hand, ready to hand over.

It was a long steep climb through the mountains and when the engine started to heat up too much, we pulled up outside a village to wait for it to cool down. Two youngsters approached the campervan. But all they wanted was to sell us some warm empanadas…

…and crispy plantain which were delicious.

We carried on along the mountain road…

…and then we hit the first of the five informal road barricades that day. The first was manned a young girl, no more than eight years old, holding rope across the road to block our way and demanding nothing more from us than to buy some of her goodies. We couldn’t work out what but we waved our bag of plantain at her. She smiled, shrugged and down went her rope. On we drove and so it continued for the rest of the drive to Ocasingo. We met five more makeshift baricades and on each occasion, an apologetic smile and waved bag of plantain gave us a free pass through.

Further along on our road through the mountains, a fleet of police and army trucks came speeding past us and we saw them screech to a halt and assemble around a truck which had been pulled over at the side of the road. Something was kicking off for someone that afternoon but thankfully nothing that involved us.

Afterwards we heard the horrific tale of the gruesome murder of two cyclists – a Polish and a German – on that same route two years ago. The still unsolved murder has led to the setting up on a whatsapp group for solo cyclists in Mexico so they plan their route from one ‘safe’ house to another.

We were very glad we made the trip to Ocasingo and our time there will be one of the highlights of our whole trip I’m sure. Jose, Elki, Elki’s mum and daughter Nina were so warm and hospitable to us.

We were offered a parking spot just outside their house to stay the night …….

….as well as the use of their outdoor kitchen where we dined with Jose and Elki and fellow guest Duvan from Columbia. Here we all are…

And here with Molly, from left, daughter Nina, Elki and Jose.

Jose was very keen for us to stay in Ocasingo longer than one night but we had to press on with our trip. Still, we did take the family’s advice and before we set off for San Cristobel de las Casas, we visited the Mayan ruins at Tonino which, in the Mayan civilization, was once a more powerful city than Palenque.

Unlike Palenque which was busy with other tourists the day we visited, we had Tonino to ourselves which was magical.


And then Jose tempted us with a further reason to linger on in Ocosingo – there was a chario or rodeo on that afternoon. We should come along for a bit before setting off on our travels again. We weakened…..we couldn’t miss this. Jose and Duvan piled in to the back of the van…

….squashing themselves in around our stuff with what turned out to be all their kit for a clothes and hat stall at the rodeo. All designs by daughter Elki.

We watched the caballeros compete….

….and pray…

…and did some shopping. I’ll take one of Elki’ s hats please.

Then it was time to leave – a slow departure as it turned out as we had timed it just as all the local ranchers arrived in procession, beers in hand, to celebrate the rodeo.

Though only 95km away, it was a long slow climb over the mountains to get to San Cristobal de la Casas. The first person we met when we arrived at the campsite there was Michelle, a cyclist from Dublin. And we discovered just how small the traveller world is in Mexico….we knew of her before she introduced herself. At Ocasingo, Jose had already showed us the snaps he had taken with Michelle. And parked next to us were Hans and Katya, a couple from Holland still in the recovery stage from the shock when their truck camper had snapped in two and had to be welded back together. Yes, they were the couple mentioned to us at Palenque.

Here we are with Michelle…

…..before she set off to complete her cycle from Cancun to Oaxaca.

We spent four days at the campsite in San Cristobal de las Casas. It was great to have some time to do some important stuff for the van…..like attaching the sunflower stickers we’ve carried around with us for months.

….and the plastic ivy that makes us look like intrepid travellers (thanks Regan – an inspired pressie!)…

Our fellow campers Maggie from Michigan and Antonio from Mexico who are heading down the Pan American highway indulged us by looking suitably impressed.

And we met Melisa and Derrin from Vermont…

…who gave us great tips on where to camp once we cross the border into the US.

And, of course, we also spent time wandering around the quaint town of San Cristobal de las Casas.

So as the sun sets over San Cristobel de la Casas (cue final credits) ….

….that’s the end of this part of our journey. Our next post is takes us over the mountains to Oaxaca and onward and, unfortunately, we get the opportunity to see for ourselves just how helpful Mexican mechanics can be. There’s van trouble ahead.

Cigars and chocolate – from Veracruz to Tabasco

16 Jan 2020 – 22 Jan 2020

Hola again. You left us at the last blog post licking our wounds on a campsite just outside Veracruz. Here we are…

We’ve travelled a good few miles in Mexico since then, bumping and shaking our way across the top of hundreds of topes that come upon you with, and mostly without, warning. Those are the Mexican versions of sleeping policemen that dot every road in a bid to slow down speeding drivers. And very effective they are too.

And so normal travel blog service has been resumed and we will try very, very hard not to harp on again about the thievin’ curs who are currently besporting themselves somewhere in the world with all our stuff. Do spare some sympathy though for the unfortunate travellers who cross our paths and who, Ancient Mariner-like, we can’t resist grabbing hold of and fixing with glittering eyes to tell our tale of woe.

Well at least we’ve got a good story out of it while they got our chairs, clothes, tools…….ENOUGH!!

As for our travels so far, we ended up spending nine nights in Veracruz while we were waiting for the van to arrive into port. We used the time to plan our route for the next few months.

Stuart in planning mode

We strolled along the harbour front to watch the local boys dive for pesos and shells …

…and along the beach where vultures were swooping down to pick up dead seagulls…

…and it was bathtime for this lady’s chihuahua.

Some days it was just too windy to walk very far.

Usually at lunchtimes we would head across the road from the hotel to Tacos David for suckling pig tacos in a broth and a glass of cold cold horchata made of rice milk and flavoured with vanilla and cinnamon.

At night time we would go to zocalo, the main square in the city, where there was usually great music and fantastic dance shows.

Zocalo was always a lively, buzzy place. In the time it would take to eat a fish taco and drink two cervezas, we would have been approached by a parade of street vendors asking you to buy something – cakes, nuts, a lantern, cigars, painted bookmarks…you name it. It was on offer. But it was all very chilled out and hassle free. A polite ‘no gracias’ and they moved on. We did buy a lantern though because did I mention that our’s was stolen. (YES YES YES YOU DID BUT ENOUGH!)

Go on if think you’re hard enough

We did do some of the tourist ‘musts’ in the city. We visited the fort of San Juan de Ulúa where Cortes landed in 1519 and there started the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

And we had lecheros in the city’s Grand Cafe de Paroquia where the waiter first pours black coffee into to your glass then clinks it with a spoon to summon another waiter to pour out steaming hot milk from a height like so…

We have heard since that Veracruz has a reputation for being a dangerous city. Certainly the police and army presence was very obvious and our first sighting of an open back truck whizzing by manned by two black masked machine gun bearing officers was a shock. It was a common occurrence though and it’s slightly disconcerting how quickly you became immune to it. We’d scarcely pause in conversation while passing armed soliders in full fatigues on the pavement. Well maybe not completely immune. The burly machine-gun armed security guard emerging from the lingerie section of Walmart in Veracruz did give me a start.

Once we had our van sorted and re-stocked, we headed 100 miles south to Catemaco and to a little campsite called La Jongle.

It is appropriately named because it is set within rainforest overlooking Lake Catemaco and we slept or at least tried to sleep to a soundtrack of macaws and howler monkeys.

If the site looks familiar, maybe it’s because you’ve seen either Medicine Man with Sean Connery or Apocalypto with Mel Gibson. The family who own the campsite rented out their land as sets for both films.

It poured rain the whole time we were there so we stayed only one night. But it was a good base for a visit to the factory where they make Mexico’s most famous Te Amo cigars. The workers scarcely glanced up at us as they focussed on stripping out the stalks from the tobacco leaves in one section…

…and, in the next section, handrolled them into shape.

And next door to La Jongle, the nature reserve at Nanciyaga provided an opportunity for an unexpected beauty treatment.

Me: Smooth away my laughter lines please
Her: Laughter lines? Nothing’s that funny

Planning our route to the cocoa plantations of Tabasco, we asked the campsite owner for advice on a good place to stopover en route. It was unnerving to hear that she considered that the town midway along our route would not be safe for us. She has friends living there and she told us a bit cryptically that things weren’t very good there at the moment and we should steer clear.

So to bypass it, we decided to do the 200 mile drive to the city of Villharamosa, setting off early in the fog…

…and as there were no convenient campsites, arriving early evening to a hotel offering unlimited porn. (See our instagram post on Tabasco for more details!) And when we weren’t watching telly, we used our hotel as the base to go north to the cocoa plantations of Comalcalco. We visited the beautiful Hacienda La Luz…

cocoa beans roasting in the sun

and then stopped off at the Cocina Chantal de Nelly Cordova for some typical Tabascan-cuisine.

…..where we learned the valuable lesson – try a teeny bit of the salsa verde piquante before slathering it all over your meal such that you can’t focus for the fire in your gob.

Before leaving Tabasco to travel further south to the state of Chiapas, we clocked up another Mayan ruins visit at Comalcalco. Them’s Mayan fingerprints in the brickwork apparently….

We met some igunas and a very friendly Mexican woman who was truly baffled at why we had shipped our van from the UK to Mexico and wanted to know more about it. Oh yes, the perfect audience to offload our tale of woe. We’re word perfect by now.

Next post is about our route to Palenque and on to Oaxaca.