Our Mexican Road Trip!
Our last week in Oaxaca was filled with goodbyes and farewells to people, places, and food we had grown to love and enjoy. In our hearts, we knew the “goodbye” was not permanent, but it didn’t make leaving any easier. The girls are already talking about “coming back next year”. They want to know if we can incorporate visiting Oaxaca (and several other places we’ve been in Mexico) into our regular Baja trip! I’m not sure how that will all pan out, but I love that Oaxaca, and Mexico itself, has taken a hold of their hearts as well.
Driving out of Oaxaca, in our rented minivan, it felt great to be in charge of our own destiny once again! I loved the feeling of NOT being dependent on a taxi driver or a bus driver. We could stop wherever and whenever we wanted, we could turn down any street on a whim, we could take pee breaks (and we took many), and stop to buy food from street vendors (which we did). We were road-tripping, and it felt awesome!
To get to the coast from Oaxaca, one must drive up and over mountains and pass through several mountain villages before the road begins to descend to the ocean. In fact, this seven hour drive is not for the faint at heart! If you are at all susceptible to car sickness, this drive is not for you. The road twists and turns for hours and hours and the “S” bends are relentless and unforgiving. We all had waves of nausea, at one point or another, but unfortunately Isla struggled the most. Luckily, we had something in our first aid kit for motion sickness, and once Isla took it, she became herself again. Well, almost!
I fell in love with several villages (the names of which I can’t remember now), as we drove up and out of the city, and I vowed to explore the mountains that surround Oaxaca when we next come back. I loved noticing the changes as we drove from the city into the mountains. Smoke puffed out of chimneys, something we did not see in the city. Wool clothes (ponchos, beanies, sweaters) replaced the cotton embroidered “blusas” (blouses) and faldas (skirts) of Oaxaca. Houses (and shacks) were made out of wood rather then cement and brick. So many times I wanted to stop and take a picture, of the views, the villages, and the people, but these mountain roads were not built for tourists wanting to take pictures. These roads were built for locals wanting to get from point A to point B. The road was narrow, just wide enough for two cars to pass, and hugged the edge of the mountain. There was absolutely no room to pullover and take a picture.
Unsure of what we would find in Puerto Escondido on a whim, we made a reservation at a hotel ahead of time. This made our turn around time, once in Puerto Escondido, from the car to the beach very short! When we finally put our toes in the ocean that evening, the water was warm, SO warm!! We marveled at the fact that this was the SAME Pacific Ocean that we had played in, on the California and Oregon coasts, that made our feet numb from the cold water! We played on the beach all evening, and only when the girls had become simple black silhouettes in the evening light, did we decide it was time for dinner. That night Isla chose our restaurant and she only had one criteria - to be able to dig her toes into the sand while we ate dinner! That sounded perfect to all of us, and it wasn’t hard to find.
Puerto Escondido has one of those “endless” white sandy beaches that stretches from one rocky out cropping to another. The beach is lined with palm trees and thatch-roofed restaurants and bars (where you can dig your toes in the sand), giving the town a laid back, low key vibe. There are no large resorts here, only smaller, funkier hotels, so “Puerto” draws in a certain type of traveler. It’s home to the “Mexican Pipeline”, so it draws in a fair share of surfers, but you will also find backpackers, people like us (whatever that means), foreigners from all over the world, and many Mexican “tourists” seeking a beach vacation. The water is beautiful, crystal clear with various shades of blue and turquoise. On some beaches the waves crash and pound the shore. While on others, the ocean gently rolls in, allowing you to float and feel the swell of the ocean. Whatever you’re looking for (as long as it’s not a big resort) you can probably find it in Puerto. I fell in love with this place. It’s simplicity and beauty reminded me of beaches I traveled to long ago. It made me happy to know that places like Puerto still exist.
Our three days in Puerto Escondido were fun, and warm, and relaxing. In the early mornings, we would either join the walkers and joggers for a stroll on the beach or simply watch them walk and workout while we drank coffee!!! Healthy, fresh food was abundant and it was a nice change to start our days with green drinks, smoothies, and/or plates of fresh fruit! The lighter, healthier food in Puerto was a welcomed change from the starchier foods of Oaxaca. On our first day, we played in the waves of Zicatela Beach and avoided the extreme undertow by finding a swimming hole near the shore (Zicatela is a non-swimming beach because the undertow and riptide are so dangerous). In the afternoon we lounged in beach chairs under umbrellas, sipped cocktails, talked with other travelers, and watched the beautiful waves. That night we met our friends from Oaxaca, Sylvia and Carolyn, who were also in Puerto at the time, to watch the sunset and eat dinner.
The next two days were spent exploring new beaches, swimming in the warm water, finding beautiful coves, and trying new restaurants. We jumped in, and dove through, the calmer waves of Playa Principal. We took an unanticipated boat ride to Playa Carrizalillo (we were planning on walking there), which culminated with our captain diving unexpectedly off the boat to catch a sea turtle with his bare hands and a rope (we will have to tell this story in person)! We walked up the infamous 167 stone steps from Playa Carrizalillo, swam in the pool at our hotel, ate great food, and played lots of family Monopoly. John and I also enjoyed some alone time together, either sipping coffee in the mornings or having a cocktail across the street at sunset.
On our last evening we joined up with a sea turtle preservation and conservation organization that releases baby “Olive Ridley” sea turtles into the ocean at sunset. Palmarito Beach, where the turtles are found, has long been a site for nesting turtles, Olive Ridleys and Leatherbacks. In fact, the whole Oaxacan coast is one of the world’s top five turtle nesting areas, and many organizations and groups are working diligently to protect it. Animal predators, human poachers, and of course natural obstacles (like overpowering surf) threaten the turtles and it’s estimated that only 2% of the hatchlings make it to adulthood. However, the population of Olive Ridley turtles is on the rise thanks to the recovery efforts of these organizations.
The next morning we drove to San Augustanillo where we spent one more night at the beach. Along the way we drove through Puerto Angel, a beautiful “working” or fishermen’s beach, and the smaller beach towns of Zipolite and Mazunte. Although the drive was short, I was reminded that driving in Mexico always keeps you on your toes. A perfectly good looking road that your cruising on can suddenly change. There might be a massive pothole or unexpected topo (speed bump) that could end your trip if you hit it at 60 mph! Not to mention the countless stray dogs, or livestock, that walk along the highway (or try to cross it), and the general condition of cars and trucks (bald tires, bad brakes) that keep safety in the forefront of our minds when driving.
The next morning we left the beach and started to drive inland. We were hoping to reach San Cristobal, in the state of Chiapas, about seven hours away. Unfortunately, a tractor trailer had crashed and blocked the highway about an hour south of San Cristobal, so we ended up staying the night in Tuxtla Gutierrez. We were all a little bummed to not make it, but we were also happy to finally get out of the car.
The drive the following morning was one of my favorite sections of the entire road trip. The highway out of Tuxtla Gutierrez climbed up and into the mountains. From the highway we had our first expansive views, since leaving Oaxaca, that overlooked the valley below. Morning clouds wrapped around the mountains ahead, but were slowly being burned off by the sun. The road, in some ways, reminded me of driving up Wolf Creek Pass.
San Cristabol is amazing! It’s a colonial town that is charming and quaint, with cobble-stone streets, wrought iron balconies, vibrant flower pots, and brightly painted houses. It’s a place that lends to endless meandering and spending your afternoons sitting in a cafe. Every street we turned down seemed cuter then the last, and John and I found ourselves daydreaming about coming back to San Cristobal to live and learn Spanish. We liked San Cristobal so much we wanted to stay for a night, but we let the girls decide our “next moves” (as we try to run the trip as democratically as possible) and they wanted to move on.
I enjoyed the drive out of San Cristobal just as much as I had enjoyed the drive in. The road out of the city took us through high mountain farmland (San Cristobal sits at over 7000 feet) with lots of sheep and goats, and acres and acres of corn planted in every nook and cranny of the hillsides. The state of Chiapas is known for its corn, and it was easy to see that anyone who had any land, be it a garden, hillside, or farm, used it to plant, grow, and harvest corn. The road from San Cristobal to Palenque took us through countless villages and larger towns, and I appreciated getting to see the countryside, the people, and a part of Mexico I hadn’t seen before. I think my favorite part, of this kind of drive, is watching the kids in the villages as we drive by. Sometimes they are being washed in a natural spring on the side of the road, sometimes they are selling food, sometimes they run alongside the car like its some sort of game, and other times they are simply playing. Regardless of what it is, it’s their smiles, their bright eyes, and happy faces that grab hold of my heart every time.
When we arrived in Palenque that evening, we found a hotel quite quickly in the Centro and went out for what turned out to be one of the best meals of the entire BT! The following morning we drove to the Cascadas de Roberto Barrios (waterfalls) where we spent the morning and early afternoon swimming and exploring. We had intended on going to the more well known Cascadas de Agua Azul, but John ended up befriending a man who worked at the hotel, of course, and learned about the “less crowded, but just as beautiful” Roberto Barrios waterfalls. The information he gave us was spot on, and as it turned out, we had the waterfalls essentially to ourselves. We also had the added bonus of seeing monkeys for the first time playing freely in the trees above us. The girls loved the monkeys!!!
From the waterfalls we drove directly to the Mayan ruins of Palenque. Pulling into the parking lot we all felt a bit overwhelmed, and turned off, by all the tour guides trying to get us to hire them. Once we got our tickets and got past the gate and onto the grounds of the ruins, we were much more at peace. I’m always torn about whether to hire a guide or not. While on the one hand I know I will learn so much more with a guide, on the other, I love the freedom of being guide-less and free to roam. John was blown away by how much Palenque had changed in the 25 years since he was last there. He shared fun stories about being there with the place virtually to himself. No vendors, no guides, no paved road. Back then visitors could walk all over the ruins (for better and for worse) also hike back into the jungle to check out smaller ruins. Nowadays, most of those trails are closed and more of the ruins are closed off to the public.
The day we went to Palenque it was quite crowded. Vendors lined the pathways selling “Mayan” souvenirs and large groups of people moved in mass with their tour guides. Regardless of the people and the vendors, Palenque remains an impressive ruin worth visiting. Although it’s considered a “mid-sized” ruin, it still seems large. Several temples, platforms, palaces, hieroglyphics, and other structures have been excavated, but there are still over 1,000 structures that remain enveloped in the Lacandona Jungle. John and I are fascinated by ruins, the mystery of the unexcavated structures and what it must have felt like to have found an abandoned civilization! I mean, how cool! I have never been much of a museum lover, however I can spend hours and hours meandering and daydreaming amongst ruins.
Our plan for the following day, to visit the Yaxchilan Ruins, changed rather quickly when Isla became sick in the night. She was not up for adventuring the following morning, so we spent the day at the hotel hanging out and playing a lot of cards. It actually turned out perfectly because it rained pretty hard on and off throughout the day, making it a great day to be indoors.
With Isla feeling better the following morning, we decided to keep on with our plan to drive to Bacalar, where we had a reservation for three nights. Before arriving, we stopped to check out Becan, an ancient Mayan city that was surrounded by a moat. We LOVED these ruins! They are worth checking out if you ever find yourselves in the area!
Bacalar, our second to last stop on our road trip, has been called “the lake of seven colors” and the “Maldives of Mexico”, and I can honestly say that it’s stunningly beautiful! The lake is long and narrow, and the “seven” shades of blue come from a combination of the soft, white limestone bottom and the varying depths of the water. We spent two full days on the lake, but unfortunately that stomach bug that got hold of Isla in Pelenque, took down both John and Ellie while we were in Bacalar. With the Shaw family functioning at less then 50%, we stuck close to our cabana the first day. The next day we decided it was best to hit to the “farmacia" and dropped in on the doctor. When we walked out of his office, we had four different prescriptions in hand to cure our gurgling bellies.
With only one afternoon left in Bacalar, we wanted to spend it sailing on the lake. We had tried to make a reservation to sail from our hotel, on one of their really nice catamarans, but they weren’t able to find a captain. So, we went with plan B, which was hiring and paying for a sailing trip from a kiosk in the center of town. After we paid for our trip and arrived at the “marina” (which was nothing more then a dock) we realized we had fallen for the classic “bait and switch”! Our sailboat was a far cry from what we had seen in the pictures, it wasn’t , or new, or well kept, it was old and dilapidated. And our captain, although very nice, started chugging beers after he threw out our first anchor about thirty minutes after we started sailing! In a way it was comical, and in a way it wasn’t! But we didn’t let it get us down. We sailed, and laughed, and swam, and played, and walked away with a funny story that John and I will certainly remember!
Our final day on the road took us from Bacalar to Cancun, with a stop in Akumal to check out the sea turtles. As with many places in Mexico, Akumal has changed in the last few years, and the small bay and it’s sea turtles are no longer freely accessible. The government has taken over the area to protect the turtles, and as a result the water is sectioned off by ropes and buoys, making it far less pretty then it once was. Furthermore, snorkeling is now only permitted with an official guide. All these changes, I know, are supposed to be fore the betterment of the turtles, and I believe they probably are, but I was really wanting (expecting) to have a more natural, unstructured experience. With that being said, I need to say that despite my pessimism at the start, I walked away from our experience very happy. We saw seven sea turtles, our first stingray, and a rusted “pirates” canon on the bottom of the ocean. Although we were only allowed to snorkel in one roped off area, the area seemed large enough, and the allotted time was sufficient. Our guide was also really great and the girls absolutely LOVED the experience as well.
We took twelve days to road-trip from Oaxaca to Cancun and passed through four states on the way: Oaxaca, Chiapas, Campeche, and Quintana Roo. As always, our travels in Mexico did not disappoint! The people, the places, the beauty, and the culture provide so much. We always walk away happy from yet another amazing experience in Mexico!
We are now in Alicante, Spain where we have been for almost three weeks. It’s hard to believe that we’ve entered the third and final “phase” of the BT. We will spend our final four months based in Spain and the UK and will (hopefully) take several smaller trips to other countries and places before heading back to the States.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written the blog, and I feel a bit rusty! However, I’ve already “started” the next blog post in my mind, so my “blog brain” is firing up! As always, I send this with LOTS of love and happiness in my heart for our friends and family. I hope everyone is doing great!
And, finally, I want to end by saying THANK YOU to all of you who have reached out to me about my mother. It has really meant a lot, and it’s a true reminder that in times of need and distress, friends and family alike come together to support and care for one another. I’m happy to report that my mother is doing great! She’s back to playing golf, hosting friends, walking with her dog, traveling, and everything in between. Way to rock the recovery Mummy!!!!
PS -John and I have Spanish phone numbers, for the time being, so if you would like to connect with either of us, it’s best to email us or us WhatsApp to call or text. Besos!!!