Thursday, January 28, 2010


I can't imagine what long term travel was like in the days before email and Skype. But for all the luxury of inexpensive instant communication, it still pales in comparison to the luxury of spending a few days with a good friend. So when Scott Mattoon emailed us that he would be on the coast in the state of Oaxaca we did our best to speed through Belize, the Yucatán, and Chiapas to meet up with him.

Just before we left California, Scott and Nancy (soon to be his lovely wife) had us over for dinner and wine and gave us lots of useful information on traveling and trekking in South America. That summer Scott had led me through one of the hardest days I've had in the Sierras to a lake full of the biggest, fattest, most delicious trout I've ever seen (or tasted!), so I particularly wanted his advice as an alpinista who knew Patagonia.

We spent only one night in San Cristobál de las Casas before getting on an overnight bus to Pochutla that gave Hilary severe motion sickness as it wound its way to the coast. In Pochutla we jumped in the back of a pick up to Puerto Ángel. Another passenger, Carlos, a local right out of a Kerouac novel, told us where to get good coffee and entertained us with descriptions of various mescal hangovers he has endured. An older guy sitting next to us recommended to Hilary a cocktail of gasoline and sugar for motion sickness.

We spent the morning and afternoon on the beach in Puerto Ángel, a small town built around a beautiful cove. We swam in the clear water with bright blue fish, and explored the rocks full of crab, urchins, and sea snails. We were lounging in beach chairs and sipping Bohemias when Scott rolled up. As much as we have enjoyed meeting new people on our trip, nothing beats seeing the familiar face of an old friend. We sat around and caught up for a while before taking a cab to Zipolite, an even smaller town, stretched along almost two miles of beautiful fine-sand beach. We walked along it until, just as the sun was setting, we found a room in a thatched roofed building on stilts full of the sound of the waves.

We spent the next two days hanging out with Scott, enjoying the beautiful beach and trying Oaxaca's most famous product: mescal, a smokey, usually handmade alcohol similar to tequila.

Zipolite, according to Wikipedia means playa de los muertos (the beach of the dead) in the Zapotec language. It has a fun beach break and strong currents that have taken a number of lives over the years. Perhaps because I grew up playing in the waves and strong currents around San Francisco, I never felt in much danger.

Like many beaches in California, Zipolite attracts a wide range of slackers, hippies, and other relaxation artists. It is also one of the few places in Latin America where nudity is tolerated. Our hotel was run and patronized (other than us) entirely by friendly Italian beatniks, who sent most of everyday sitting in the shade, drinking, smoking, and talking between meals of the Signora´s delicious food. One of my favorite local characters spent his days patrolling the beach with a rolling hipster gait wearing long dreadlocks, a burly beard, and a miniskirt. Suddenly San Francisco didn't feel so far away.

During one of my swims I found myself surrounded by a huge school of anchovies or sardines and pelicans were splashing down all around me. An astonishing manta ray leaped out of the water twenty feet away. Later, Hilary saw dolphins arc past.

On our final day with Scott we took a long magical walk through the hills overlooking cliffs and coves, and down to another long beach leading to the town of San Agustinillo. We saw crabs and iguanas and many more birds. We also ran across a recently deceased sea turtle. We chased off the vultures who had taken his eyes and stood around him talking with Ira, a soft-spoken guy in a Speedo from Ithaca, New York who was quite moved by the whole thing. He and Scott estimated the turtle's age at 47 by counting sections of his shell. Scott was due to turn 48 the following day. Ira told us that he had recently sat next to a pelican as it was dying over the course of half an hour. He spoke of it calmly but with almost religious emotion. I guess where there is much life, there is also much death. We found lots of dead animals, the most beautiful of which was a long pouting pufferfish.

On Scott's birthday he got up early to catch a plane to the city of Oaxaca. We planned to meet him there for dinner after a seven hour bus ride on a winding road through the mountains. I woke up with a nasty little head cold but probably could have made it. Hilary woke up with the stomach ailment often blamed on the late Montezuma. No amount of gasoline and sugar was going to make the ride bearable for her.

Scott had a delicious but solitary dinner in Oaxaca while we tried to recover on the beach. I managed two three-hour naps in a hammock, giving myself a blister on my behind. Hilary got a bit better by avoiding food altogether.

The following day we finally left for Oaxaca. Our bus took almost nine hours instead of the advertised seven. Scott was on a flight back to San Francisco well before we arrived. He left us some Valium for the trip which we were told would be harrowing. I can't speak for gasoline and sugar, but Dramamine and Valium work well if you don't mind a little catatonia.

We miss you Scott. Thanks for joining us. Happy birthday.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


The state of Chiapas is possibly best known for Subcomandante Marcos' Zapatista Army of National Liberation, an indigenous rights revolutionary group that seized the town of San Cristobál de las Casas in 1994. It is also one of Mexico's main coffee-growing regions. We found San Cristobál to be a pretty tourist town without much revolutionary fervor and with excellent coffee, arriving there after visiting the Mayan ruins at Palenque and at Toniná.

In Palenque we stayed just outside the park at the Jungle Palace, in a tiny cabin by a stream. It reminded me of the cozy cabin where we spent our honeymoon at Deetjen's, Big Sur. Palenque's temples are impressive -- I still can't quite get over the immensity of the Mayan pyramids. A beautiful stream runs through the site over unreal looking rock formations and forms the Baths of the Queen.

In the museum there is a replica of the tomb of Lord Pakal, an enormous sarcophagus covered in carving and filled with funerary offerings. You can read more about the discovery of the burial site here. Also in the excellent site museum are many fully painted pottery incense burners, each about 18 inches tall. They are elaborately figured and survived in such good shape because they were ritually buried every 20 years to be replaced by new ones.

Toniná is a Mayan ruin outside Ocosingo on the road between Palenque and San Cristobál. We hopped off the bus, asked the people who fed us some tacos if they could watch our backpacks and found a micro to the site. The courtly guard solemnly explained to us that it was free that day, in addition to which we had the park nearly to ourselves. The site is more compact than others we have seen and you can survey nearly all of it from the top of the temple on the highest point. It also has my favorite carvings so far. At Toniná we met a man named Juan; originally from Guanajuato he now owns a restaurant back in Stockton, CA. (If you are driving that way look him up at La Posada -- Juan advises, "Ask any Mexican you see, they'll know where it is.")

San Cristobál is a town of beautiful churches and plazas, made for strolling. We also have to plug a great bookstore there, Abuelita Books. Chris moved to Mexico from Washington state and she has a fantastic used and new bookstore with lots in English as well as in Spanish. She also bakes cookies in the store. Chris named the shop for her 91-year-old grandmother who is still catching enormous fish in Alaska and traveling the globe. Abuelita Books is at Calle Cristóbal Colón #2.

From San Cristobál we headed off for the Pacific coast in Oaxaca state to meet our friend Scott and get down to some beach lounging.