Oaxacan beaches visited: all of them
Litres sweated: 11,457
We awoke with throbbing heads and unhappy guts in a Puerto Escondido hostel, and after a brief farewell Simon was gone. He took with him his trout (Simon-speak for “chat”), his charming smile and his invariably sunny disposition, and immediately thoughts turned to getting the hell out of town.
Bikes have a habit of breaking down exactly when you want to leave after a few rest days, and it was late in the afternoon before we climbed away from the hostels, the restaurants with English menus and the ding-repair workshops and hit the highway. We only made it nine kilometres down the coast before a quick ride through a flowery village took us to a beach that was deserted until a group of fishermen arrived, chatting as they untangled their nets. We were back in Mexico.
The cyclist smoosher
What followed was a grand tour of Oaxaca’s many famous and not-so-famous beaches, in which cycling featured very little and was replaced with lots and lots of laying around on sand. Our first stop was
which we’d been told was a bit of a hippy paradise.
Mazunte’s beach at sunrise
Despite its idyllic setting, Mazunte is a somewhat troubled town. In a bar by night we watched dreadlocked Argentines playing Manu Chao and Joe Arroyo covers while shirtless tourists stomped and hopped around the tables. An older American woman in a crooked black dress staggered between them, her eyes rolling back in her head. A local guy, too young to be a drunk, snatched Jamie’s beer from his hand and gulped until it was taken back. Dealers hiss at the foreigners from the shadows in the street and as we stepped out of the bar glowering young men watched us from the gutter.
“Oye, español pennnnnnndejo,” growled one drunk, the Mexican equivalent of Australian bogans telling off immigrants for speaking in their native language.
Cocaine is an affliction in many Latin American tourist towns. Foreigners want to let their hair down on holiday, locals make a living from it and an uneasy codependency develops. In a restaurant one evening we watched three blonde American girls in hippy regalia call out to every local boy who ambled by. The boy would approach with a shy smile and the girls would question him: “Where is the party tonight? Where can we find cocaine?” In a burger place I asked the owner for the bathroom and he gave me a wary eye. “You’re not going to consume in there, are you?”
Just eight kilometres down the road from Mazunte, Zipolite is a whole other scene. The wannabe hippies, the yuppies and the party animals are filtered out by Zipolite’s reputation as a nudist beach.
It’s a much more friendly place as a result. There was the family who’d driven a combivan all the way up from their native Argentina, the handsome father and red-haired, pregnant mother with their brown children crawling about in the sand. Occasionally they would put pants on the squirming toddler but minutes later he would burst onto the beach, naked once more and screeching with a wild grin. There was the squat señora who had her big bottle of water and her tent and would stomp about in the shallows, industrially splashing water on her face and up into her armpits. And there were the French retirees who’d shipped their camper van to Canada and were road tripping the Americas. She wore her hair in a beehive and would sit in the shade, reading or stroking at her tablet in her birthday suit. Her husband, who we called Big Dick, would stand in the sun with his hands on his hips, smiling and squinting through his glasses with all the confidence that a nickname like his will afford.
Jamie and his ukelele making everyone’s beach holiday cliches come true
Well, we were a bit self conscious about nude swimming in front of all those people at first, and all the more conspicuous for it. It must have looked pretty ridiculous to watch the three of us stroll across the sand to the water’s edge, stand in a row with our backs to the public, look around and simultaneously drop our pants. We got over it pretty quickly though, and of course swimming with your bits free to jangle about as they please is much more fun than hiding under a layer of synthetic material. I remember diving under waves as the sun hovered above the headland at the western end of the beach. I looked over and saw Rob striding through thigh-deep water, silhouetted by the sunset that turned the ocean to swirling liquid gold. Jamie saw it too.
“I’m going to remember that image for the rest of my fucking life!” he shouted, slapping the water. We hooted like maniacs.
Unlike Mazunte, Zipolite also has waves, and pretty solid ones at that. I managed to borrow a board from an Australian backpacker and went for my first surf in almost a year, scrambling to my feet on a few waves and vaulting into the abyss like an uncoordinated high jumper on many more.
It took two short days of riding (and a camp in between at another beach whose name escapes me) to make San Agustin, a bay of yellow sand with islands offshore to stop the swell. San Agustin’s beach is packed wall-to-wall with restaurants on the sand and with sea levels obviously rising more than anyone anticipated, the waiters there do a lot of digging of trenches and barriers to stop diners being washed away.
Generally speaking, Mexicans are terrible swimmers and are therefore absolutely petrified of the ocean. Many are happy to roll about at the water’s edge, at least until they’re surprised by the shore break and get blasted with sand and foam. As a result, business is very good for anyone in the floaty accessory business. For there are Mexicans who are willing to brave the deeps up to three, or even five metres from shore, but never without a lifejacket or an inflatable ring that looks like a giant ducky.
This was a little puzzling in tranquil, waveless San Agustin. Just beyond the reach of the inflatable duck mariners a reef started and filled the entire bay. I swam through a cloud of angel fish who lazily parted to let me pass, uninterested and undisturbed by my intrusion.
The latest in cycle tourist fashion. The kiwi shirt, by the way, started as Robbie’s, then became mine, then Simon’s, and now resides on Jamie’s hefty shoulders.
Bahia Cacaluta lies in an isolated corner of the horrendously over-developed Huatulco National Park. We arrived late in the afternoon and a couple of garbage men told us we wouldn’t be allowed to camp. Still, with a certain arrogance and willful ignorance that I’ve noticed in myself and other foreigners in Mexico we pushed on regardless and found the place deserted.
By this point we’d become coastal connoisseurs, discerning critics who would discuss and evaluate every aspect of any given beach. Cacaluta lost points for its washy and at times dangerous shore break but more than made up for it in beauty, isolation and most of all, its sand. Thick and grainy, as if the beach itself was young (“Young Sand,” we decided, would make a great U2 song), the Cacaluta sand would tumble off your bare bum with the lightest brush of your hand.
This beach was made famous by the raunchy road movie “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and we found it looking just like it does here:
I couldn’t find a better-quality version
Roberto Negro in a post card
“This is bullshit.”
Finding Bahia Cacaluta was also a bit of an adventure
I wasn’t 23 anymore when I woke up the next morning. A yellow beach beside deep, clear water with naught to share it with but two of your closest friends is probably the most picturesque place I’ve had a birthday. But I was a little selfish, rising early to swim to the island just offshore and thereby robbing Jamie of the chance to wake me up by crooning “Happy Birthday”. The ocean dropped me onto a beach of stones and boulders on the coastward side of the island and I scrambled up a rock face as high as I could. I watched a hazy sunrise and for the first time since I was riding alone in the United States, I had a big old chat with myself.
I was surprised to find that I’d missed it. I talked about getting older (although Robbie, 28, and Jamie, 27, quite rightly scoff at this) and how I felt about that and life in general. I talked about the things I wanted to do as a 24-year-old: big-picture Life things, smaller box-ticking type things and things that would ease and please my soul. It’s definitely easier for a cyclist in the lonely places of the world than for those who share a house in a city, but if I could be so presumptuous as to give advice to any readers, it would be to try doing just that. Give voice to those dangerous ideas and thoughts that you may as well acknowledge. You’ve had them, after all, and there’s no point pretending they’re not there. It feels good, somehow, and it’s cheaper than a therapist. Rob was waiting on the sand when I swam back into the world.
We rode back into Crucecita to go looking for a little cyclist named Alejandra. She’d been our Warm Showers host way back in Mexico City and one of my favourite things about her was the way she decided, one day, that she was going to join us as we rode along the Oaxacan coast towards Chiapas. She might tell it differently, but I don’t actually remember her asking if she could come along. She simply told us “I’m taking a week off work and I’m going to join you in Oaxaca” and that was that.
And there she was! With her little green bike, big hugs all round and a “Feliz cumpleaños!” for me.
Simon-inspired American smiles to celebrate the bike gang becoming four once more.
La Bocana is apparently quite pretty most of the time, but we found it a foamy, silty mess. Still, we camped in a beachfront restaurant after closing and cooked a taco feast on a grassy traffic island while we waited, garnishing it with all sorts of treats brought by Alejandra. She became known as Big Al. They sang happy birthday for me and reverently produced a big bowl of chips and popcorn to go with the movie we watched in the empty restaurant. And that was how I turned 24.
Barra de la Cruz
Road signs covered in surf brand stickers are a dead giveaway for not-so-secret surf spots in Mexico, and Barra de la Cruz is one of them. The town is nestled in a fertile flatland between two fingers of hills grasping for the ocean. The break itself was breathless, a long headland off which giant brown waves peeled in to the beach, with the occasional glimpse of distant American and Australian surfers scratching over the sets or hurtling down their steep faces. The whitewash from the bigger sets would overwhelm the beach and spill over into the car park.
I wonder what this pretty little town will look like in ten or fifteen years, because with waves like that the surfers will keep coming. Each year they’ll come in greater numbers than the last, and with them will come those seeking to make money from them. Right now there’s nothing more than a few campgrounds that rent boards, but soon the hostels will come.There’ll be restaurants with menus in English and surf schools and coke dealers and tour agencies and perhaps even “I heart Barra de la Cruz” t-shirts. A Lonely Planet writer will say it’s “just like Puerto Escondido twenty years ago”.
On the stage in the town’s central plaza a band was playing and señoras in floral dresses whirled about. Teenage girls hovered around the outside, aware of the glances of their awkward boy friends. Those too old or two young to dance sat in the crowd and clapped along, and everywhere people were tucking into mounds and mounds of food. I looked at them and wondered: are they ready for what’s already happening to their town?
This isn’t Barra de la Cruz as I didn’t take any photos there. I did take photos at this beach but I forget it’s name.
Dawn at the nameless beach
Real life adventure time!
I was riding with Robbie late one afternoon. After a brief climb the road levelled out and we could see, ahead, a place where the road sliced through the hillside and beside it our favourite road sign: A car going downhill. This elicited the usual hoots and bell ringing, and Robbie yelled something I didn’t catch. I looked for him over my shoulder and caught a glimpse of a man sitting in a drain a couple of metres off and below the road to the right. Now, Mexico is full of people doing all sorts of weird things in the bush and the fact that this guy was some kilometres from the nearest town was nothing noteworthy. What was noteworthy was the flash of red I caught on his face and when I looked again, I saw he was covered in what could only have been blood.
For a moment I glanced up and down the empty road and wondered “Do we really need to stop?” This was a relatively isolated stretch, after all, and it was getting late. We were all low on water and would need to find groceries before dark, not to mention a place to sleep.
“There’s a guy in the bushes,” I yelled at Rob and we jumped off the bikes and picked our way towards him.
He was more a kid than a man, on closer inspection. His right eye was swollen shut and purple around the slit, and blood trickled from his mess of a mouth. His right arm was covered in grazes and what looked like road rash. His wrist appeared broken. There was blood in his hair, on his shirt, on his face and soaking his jeans, the dark patches where it had dried renewed with fresh drips from his mouth or hand.
I asked him his name, where he was from, what had happened and if he wanted water, but he could do nothing but groan and sigh. He kept trying to stand and when he did so, his pale leg would stick out at a strange angle and he would fall back into the gutter. He had only one shoe and he kept slipping it on and off his foot.
Big Al and Jamie rolled up after a time and we stood around watching him, uncertain of what to do. There was no phone reception.
“¿Como te llamas?” asked Big Al – what’s your name? – and then, more softly, “¿Dónde está tu familia?” – where is your family? He rocked and shook his head and groaned.
As a physiotherapist, Jamie had the most medical training of the three of us. He said our new friend’s inability to respond to basic questions suggested swelling in the brain, which meant he’d have to get to hospital right away or risk lasting mental injury. This stirred us to action. We began flagging down cars, asking them to call an ambulance when they could. Not all the cars stopped, and none of the fancy expensive ones at all. There were several trucks and colectivos who pulled over, but none would put him in the back to take him to hospital. No one would touch him. A colectivo pulled over and a few passengers got out to gawk at him. One woman said she would “Dar parte” which meant she would notify the police as well as an ambulance.
But others said they had seen the same guy that morning on the same stretch of road. He’d been there all day? Why did nobody stop? And what would’ve happened if we didn’t see him?
Now, in general I’ve found Mexicans to be far more kindly and generous than Australians both with foreigners and with each other, but that evaporates in these situations. Where I’m from – a rural area not unlike the place we were in – I’m confident the first driver to pull up in a truck or ute would put this kid in the back and take him straight to the nearest hospital. But something else was at work here.
“I don’t want any problems for myself if the police are involved,” explained one driver.
Further up the road Robbie found his other shoe and a dried puddle of blood. I thought he’d fallen from the back of a truck, but one man claimed to have seen him walking around in apparent good health earlier in the day. Which means he might’ve been hit by a car, but surely someone would stop?
We’d already sent a few people off with promises to call ambulances when our mate started nodding off to sleep. Jamie said sleep would be very dangerous for him, so Robbie and I jumped on our bikes with Big Al’s phone and started pedaling east down the highway, hunting a phone signal and the number for an ambulance.
We crossed a flat section and climbed another range, and in the dying light the beaches and headlands below glowed under an orange sky. Somewhere along the way I rode my 11,000th kilometre since Vancouver, and for the first time I was riding for something more than my own happy desire to roam and explore. “For once it’s a real life adventure,” I thought melodramatically. “This is actually important. If I don’t ride as fast as I possibly can, someone might actually die.”
We found a turnoff where Robbie stayed to wait for the others while I rode into the village of Zonjal. A stern señora listened to me explain the situation and called the police, who she assured me would call an ambulance. Nobody in Mexico seems to actually know the number for an ambulance.
So I rode back to the highway and sat a while with Rob until, at last, two ambulances flew by in quick succession. Jamie and Big Al arrived long after the ambulances passed again in the opposite direction and they said our mate had been conscious when he went into the ambulance. We never found out what happened to him, before or after.
Putting in some kilometres before the midday heat in Tehauntepec, Oaxaca.
Oscar and Rob rest up at the top of a Big Hill.
Strange old Unión Hidalgo
“Tierra de las mujeres bonitas” – the land of pretty women
At Unión Hidalgo we camped at a pool owned by a muscly señor and a big burly señora. They spoke to us in Spanish and to one another in Zapoteco, the local indigenous language. We slept in hammocks and they would pull a bed out in the evening to sleep under the stars. Each morning I awoke to the señora’s thunderous farts.
A train line runs right through the middle of town and apparently this is the same line that once carried La Bestia – “the beast”. The beast was a monstrous freight train which illegal immigrants from Central America would ride from Mexico’s southern border northwards, towards the United States. The train doesn’t run anymore, but Mexican immigration authorities are everywhere. In eastern Oaxaca and Chiapas Mexicans started warning us against wild camping, saying Guatemalans would rob us or worse. This is exactly the same thing that Americans in southern California and Arizona told me about Mexicans.
I remember riding towards Bakersfield, California last November. I was lost in agricultural back roads and, upon spotting some grape pickers at work by the side of the road, pulled over to ask for directions. I spoke Spanish and they replied in a rapid accent that I haven’t heard since. They asked where I was going and when I said “Argentina” one replied, “You’ll be going through El Salvador then! That’s where I’m from.” They gave me a bag of grapes for the road and when I put it in my front-right pannier they put another bag in its opposite number.
“For balance,” explained one with a wink. I ate fat grapes all that day and the next.
I thought about them now. It’s probable that at least a few of them came through or at least close by Unión Hidalgo.
So although it is a hot, unremarkable Oaxacan town with no beautiful beach or picturesque centre to interest tourists, we ended up hanging around for three days. Why? Because there was a festival in town, for some saint or another.
The first order of business was the parade, which was a riot. First came a calf led on a rope. A child was placed on its back and off it went, bucking and veering around the cheering kids that ran alongside. The calf threw him off eventually but he looked fine, if a little rattled.
Next it was time for all the religious imagery, the music and symbolism associated with the festival. I don’t pretend to understand or care what any of it meant, but at times it felt like being on some backwater planet in the Star Wars galaxy. The swirling music, the swaths of strange plants and herbs, the bobbing heads and braying voices of the cattle, it was all very strange.
What was obvious, though, was that everyone was having fun.
This one, however, did seem a little too seedy:
Get that leer off your face mate, you just look sleazy.
Finally there came the section of the parade that everyone was there for: gifts! Decorated trucks came by packed with girls and women in traditional gowns, each with a bag of stuff to hurl at the crowd to their heart’s content. At first they pelted us with the usual suspects: sweets, toys, balls, that sort of thing. Then more obscure items began somersaulting through the air: fly swatters, strainers, salt shakers, bags of pasta and rice that would explode on outstretched fingers and shower the crowd with their contents. For some families this was a coordinated operation, with kids scurrying after bowls and bags of oats before handing off the loot to their parents farther back.
One truck went by with two little girls in white seated at either side, handing out bouncy balls. One was throwing her loot into the jostling crowd with abandon but the other would sit with perfect posture and her hands in her lap, eyes scanning the crowd. She would ignore the lighthearted pleas and outstretched arms, searching for a worthy recipient. Without warning she would spot someone and bend down, retrieve her next ball and gracefully pass – not throw, mind – it into their waiting hands. She was the picture of a benevolent princess and she took her job very seriously.
Then the biggest float of all arrived, and atop it a young girl in a green gown and tiara who flung plastic cups and toys at the crowd with dainty hands. She was the reina – the queen – of the festival and she too took her role very seriously.
It all ended just as people were getting particularly rowdy. There was a party the next evening, with live bands and all the women in whirling, brightly-patterned traditional dresses. Big Sylvia had invites and was happy to take us along as guests. I asked her to dance at one point and she took me to the floor only to try and wingman me onto her clearly distressed nieces. Beer flowed liberally and we were assured of an all-night affair until Silvia, tired of the scene (this must’ve been her 50th or 60th Festival de San Isidro) decided it was time for us to go home.
Jamie tries out one of the tricycles Mexicans use for everything from taxis to cargo transport to food vending.
We had to go through the cemetery on the way into town, which is like a little empty suburb.
Next month’s soup at the pool
The bike gang rolls out of Union Hidalgo
Not long after that we bid Big Al goodbye and rode on into Chiapas, Robbie and I’s 17th Mexican state. It was an unremarkable few days’ ride, at least by cycle touring standards, and right on Robbie’s 6000th kilometre we hit Tuxtla Gutierrez, which is about as unremarkable as Mexican cities come.
Mango paradise in Chiapas. They go for $1 peso each in the roadside stalls.
Ocozocautla is probably the funnest place name yet.
It was in Tuxtla Gutierrez that I said goodbye to Robbie for a month and Jamie for the foreseeable future. They would continue riding north together towards Cancun, where Jamie had a flight to Europe for the next part of his journey while Rob and I would fly to Cuba a couple of weeks later.
It was in Tuxtla that I broke the line, as the saying goes, meaning that I cheated and jumped on a bus. I went to Cancun, left big bad Baxter there and travelled around Chiapas and the Yucatan like a normal backpacker. I forgot about flat tyres and tired legs, about numb fingers and headwinds and rain and rusty chains. And after eight months and eleven-and-a-half-thousand kilometres on the road, I needed it. I was sick of riding and camping and mosquitos and semi-trailers and sweating and hills and cooking by the light of a head torch and I made no secret of it.
Now, back in Cancun and having barely touched a bicycle in a month of backpacking, the thought of loading up Baxter and pedaling off once more seems absolutely exhausting. But I will do it.
Why? Because now, with a little hindsight and rested legs, having written about what I thought at the time was a largely unremarkable stretch of riding, I realise now that even the days I wouldn’t write home about are always full of little adventures and an uncertainty that becomes addictive. Sitting under an overpass throwing rocks at a can while you wait for a mate might be boring or uncomfortable, but it’s good for your soul.
But first I’m meeting Robbie again and we’re off to Cuba to catch up with some friends we first met during our university exchanges in Colombia. I’ll be back with Baxter in about a month. I’ll catch you then, saddle sores and all.