Tlaxiaco is about a three-hour colectivo ride from Oaxaca City in the Mixteca Alta. It will cost you around 120 pesos (less than $10 USD) to get there. Vans carrying passengers and cargo depart on the hour from Oaxaca and there are a few companies that will take you virtually anywhere in the state for a modest fee. I suggest getting to the colectivo stand a bit early to lay claim on a seat with a little leg room. Our kneecaps were crammed against the seats in front of us until passengers vacated the roomy front row about 30 minutes outside Tlaxiaco. I would also recommend getting a window seat if possible to take advantage of the panoramic mountain views along the way.
We made the same voyage last summer, but were only in Tlaxiaco for lunch before we boarded a taxi bound for San Juan Mixtepec. This time, we were in town for a couple of days and I was able to get some of the photos that I wanted to take last year – most importantly a lingerie shop with some suggestive artwork on the exterior wall.
We arrived in Tlaxiaco on Friday afternoon and stayed at the Hotel del Portal, which is located on the zócalo. We immediately dropped our backpacks in the room scouted out a place to eat and drink a few beers. Tlayudas San Jacinto is the jam. The interior of the restaurant is cluttered with an array of interesting old junk hanging from the walls and the ceiling. They also craft about a dozen different flavors of mezcal ranging from Jamaica to guava. A wood-burning oven cooks all the items on the restaurant’s short menu and the folks who own the place are friendly and knowledgeable about the city. They also gave us a map of Tlaxiaco that contained some valuable coupons for local businesses.
Overnight, a multitude of vendors arrived and set up the weekly tianguis in the center of the city. When we departed the hotel on Saturday morning, we stepped into a sprawling market where almost anything you can imagine is for sale. We carried away a molcajete in the shape of a pig, a terra cotta cazuela and an embroidered cloth to keep our tortillas warm. The return trip to Oaxaca is a breeze. Just listen for a guy yelling “İOAXACA!” outside a colectivo stand. Buen viaje.
¿Quieres ir a un rodeo gratis?
Our amigo Miguel picked us up in Oaxaca around 4:30 p.m. so we had ample time to travel to Santa María Guelacé and arrive an hour early to claim a few prime seats before throngs of people arrived to watch the rodeo. A couple of men balanced themselves on the fences surrounding the ring and strung up plastic bulls and cowboy hats while a few boys chased stray dogs and each other with lassos. We found a good vantage point and ate a couple tortas that Miguel’s girlfriend, Lety, brought along before the event got underway. The multi-colored metal stands soon became jam-packed with just about everyone in Guelacé in anticipation for the spectacle to begin.
As soon as the town’s mayordomos showed up with cases of Corona and bottles of mezcal in tow, the show commenced. Charros trotted out on horses that danced to music played by a local band on a stage behind the ring. Vendors waded through the crowd selling potato chips, nieves, cheeseburgers, French fries and cigarettes.
After the horses waltzed out of the ring, it was time for the bull riders to take over and attempt to latch onto the creatures while they struggled to eject the men from their backs by bounding and gyrating around the ring. I don’t know the particulars, but I’ve heard that the most effective way to create a hostile toro is to bind its testicles. I spied a few men making adjustments to that general area before the gate swung open and the beast tore off flailing about. The first few riders appeared to be amateurs, but none of them looked as if they were inexperienced.
Soon after the bull riding started, a rider’s foot became ensnared in the ropes strapped to the side of one of the beasts and was violently thrashed before breaking free and slamming into the fence. The crowd gasped. Some folks shrieked. Members of the audience snatched the man from the ring and pulled him under the fence so that volunteer paramedics could tend to his wounds. I couldn’t see the guy from where we were sitting, but I saw looks of horror on a few faces of bystanders who were near the injured man. The announcer took over, the band started playing, and the paramedics carted the injured man off before the next round began.
The second tier – men in leather chaps embellished with various logos and designs, plus a rear flap with the name of his ranch sewn into it – paraded into the ring. The announcer said a prayer that I mostly understood and many of the men stooped down to the ground, drew a cross into the dirt with their fingers, said a few words and made the sign of the cross upon their chests. This was done by each of the riders directly before mounting the bull as well. An extra plea to the man upstairs never hurts.
Not all of the bulls transformed into enraged farm animals, bucking wildly in an attempt to remove the human from their backs even though their genitalia were restricted. Some simply lurched a few times and stood idle in the center of the ring with their tongues sticking out. Evidently, when this happens, the solution is for the passenger to lean down and smack the creature about the head in an attempt to antagonize it. At times, this plan of action was successful and the animal would erupt into a fury. Other times, it would remain docile and men with lassos would snare the animal’s head in a tangle of ropes and escort it toward the exit.
During the time it took for us to watch 33 bull and rider combinations, a few guys got trampled, a bystander received a broken nose for standing too close to the action and we ate some delicious prickly pear flavored nieves before riding back to Oaxaca.
I emerged from our hut on the agave farm in San Felipe del Agua at 4:30 am. The moon looked like a fingernail clipping, thus shedding no light on the landscape. I shuffled across the farm’s acreage in absolute darkness past rows of cacti and mentally prepared myself for an encounter with the approximately 30 lb. mystery-mammal that dances across our roof on a nightly basis. Because of light pollution in the populated areas I have dwelled in for decades, I have not seen stars in years. The constellations caught me by surprise and reminded me that there are some distinct drawbacks to living in a city. The taxi driver was due arrive any moment and transport us and our overnight bags to the centro. For fear of being attacked by a roving pack of street dogs, I waited behind the gate and scanned the street for approaching headlights.
The taxi pulled up, we loaded in and joked with the driver about drunken people who had been riding in his taxi all night. Twenty minutes and 80 pesos later, we arrived at the colectivo station, met up with the other folks in our group and boarded a 16-passenger van bound for Huajuapan. The first part of the journey was relatively silent. Many of the passengers slept while the van wound its way through the mountains. The sun finally lit the sky as we drove through Teposcolula. In another hour, we pulled into Huajuapan and lugged our belongings to another colectivo station and inquired about passage to Juxtlahuaca.
After wandering around the central market and hunting down a statue of Valerio Trujano in the zócalo, we waited on the pavement in the morning sun next to a pile of luggage. Rad and I decided to claim the front bench seat so we could get a good view of the mountains and pick the driver’s brain about this area of Oaxaca. Our driver told us about how his van is meticulously maintained and that he takes pride in driving in a professional and safe manner. He asked us our names and told us his name was Vicente Guerrero. We finally believed him when he offered to produce identification.
Along the way, Vicente directed our attention to points of interest, including a canyon, a peak called the devil’s backbone and a point on the road where two buses crashed about seven or eight years ago. The buses tumbled down the cliff and many people died. Today, there is a 50-foot metal cross to mark the scene of the crash and a guardrail has been installed. We soon passed over the devil’s backbone and began our descent into Juxtlahuaca.
The town’s buildings and roads are constructed entirely of concrete. Everything is gray except for the brightly colored paint on the buildings. We made our way to the zócalo to meet up with more people and attempt to find hotel accommodations. The plan was to meet back in 45 minutes to allow some people to hunt down lunch while two others searched for a hotel.
While we waited for the others to return to the rendezvous point, the town drunk stumbled up to us with a chicharrón in his hand. He asked us for a few pesos, we refused his request, but he continued to accost us and nibble on his fried pork skin. A few onlookers found the scene amusing while others were indifferent to the tanked-up man’s antics. We finally outfoxed him by walking about 12 feet away. Once we were out of his direct line of sight, he staggered away.
Everyone in the group finally returned and we wandered over to the hotel. We scored a room with a balcony that overlooked the main road plus had its own restroom, but no toilet seat. About half of the 13 people in our party boarded another van to another town two hours away. We stayed behind to rest and look for a restaurant that had cold beer at a reasonable price.
I awoke sometime in the afternoon to the sound of a parade. I darted out onto the balcony with my camera and saw people dressed as devils, women in traditional dresses, a band and men wearing suits made entirely of torn rags who were abusing an effigy of a bull. There was no time to put on shoes and run down three flights of stairs to get some street-level photos, but I got another chance a few hours later when the same parade made another pass through town.
We inquired about a place to eat, and were directed to a restaurant that served grilled meat and 18-peso beers. After eating, we made a stop at the store for provisions and returned to the hotel, just before a thunderstorm soaked the streets and sent people and dogs scrambling for shelter. We stood on the balcony, watched the rain and sipped Vicky tall-boys.
The other half of our group returned to the hotel some time later and described a harrowing journey of washed-out roads and dangerously close lightning strikes. One woman told me that she spent the entire ride in absolute terror; weeping and clutching the hands of the passengers next to her.
The next day, we milled around downstairs and waited for the others before we ate a leisurely breakfast. After eating, we all dawdled down to the cathedral and loitered there for a while. The big parade was not until 3 p.m. and nobody wanted to hang around and wait. A vote was taken and we decided to leave Juxtlahuaca and visit the canyon we passed by the day before.
The ride down to the canyon was uneventful except for when our van stopped in the road so we could get out and look across the valley. We were standing on the narrow shoulder when the sound of a Jake brake broke the silence. The driver of a semi came to halt behind the van and angrily motioned for us to remove ourselves from the narrow highway. Naturally, we obliged and the van continued to speed down the mountain.
The van left us on the side of the road near Cañyon el Boqueron and sped off down the mountain. After a pleasant riverside stroll, we sat on the side of the highway and waited for another van to scoop us up and take us back into Huajuapan where we would board yet another van bound for Oaxaca.
The final leg of the journey distressed every gringo on board the 22-passenger van. The cocksure driver took hairpin turns at high speed, passed other vehicles on blind corners and drove with total abandon for the laws of physics. I thought of the 50-foot cross outside Juxtlahuaca and wondered if a similar one would be erected in memory of the 22 people aboard our van. The fact that you’re reading this means we escaped death on this expedition, but we agreed that we are both finished with inexpensive van transportation in Mexico for a while.
We spent hours travelling between Oaxaca, Nochixtlán and Santiago Apoala yesterday. At 8 a.m. we left Oaxaca for Nochixtlán, where we ate in the market and inquired in a few stores before tracking down a roll of film for the Nikon F. After procuring all of our necessary supplies, we met up with Angél, an energetic man wearing a Che Guevara shirt. He directed us toward his Suburban and we took off through the campo toward Santiago Apoala.
We pulled over at an overlook, saw a few farm animals and peered down into the valley before making a pulque pit stop at a local man’s house. We stood next to giant cacti in the middle of a corn field and drank from plastic cups while our host showed us a cavity in the side of a cactus where the pulque ferments.
In Apoala, we visited the library, cathedral and city hall before walking through another corn field toward a waterfall. We visited this same town last year and hiked down to the bottom of the falls. Those photos can be viewed by clicking here. This year, I was not foolish enough to believe that I possess the physical endurance to climb back up from the bottom. Instead, we sat on a rock a quarter of the way down and watched others struggle as they made their way back up the mountain.
We reached the only restaurant in town just as a thunderstorm rolled in. There was some talk of the road potentially washing out along our planned route back to Nochixtlán, so we elected to take the longer, safer route back. A family of three was stranded in Apoala, and we invited them to share our Suburban back to town. It was a tight fit, so the driver squeezed the teenage son into the back with the baggage.
Good timing allowed us to board a van that was just pulling out bound for Oaxaca City. After suffering through the driver’s Linkin Park album, we rolled into the city, flagged down a local bus that was headed to San Felipe and dashed through a downpour back home.
At 5:30 a.m. we grabbed our overnight bags and walked to the zócalo in Oaxaca City to meet up with the maestro of Rad’s Mixtec class. I was excited about the opportunity to tag along on the trip, meet some new people and take a few photos. Our final destination was San Juan Mixtepec for its yearly three-day San Juan Bautista festival. We walked in the rain toward the colectivo station and boarded a camioneta bound for Tlaxiaco.
It continued to rain as we made our way through the mountains. A crucifix mounted to the windshield by a suction cup kept an eye on us as we weaved through the mountains. As we passed vehicles and sped around blind corners, I noticed that Jesus listed about 45 degrees. So did we. The camoineta stopped at the town of San Martin Huamelulpan. We grabbed our bags and walked down the road into town. After indulging in some five-peso coffee, we climbed a hill to see ancient Mixtec ruins.
A few centuries ago, the Spanish really liked to steal the stones from indigenous religious structures to erect their cathedrals, and this was no exception. They were even thoughtful enough to embed a Mixtec statue in the side of the cathedral. After a visit to the town museum, we arranged for two Nissan Tsurus to take us on into Tlaxiaco.
After lunch, we waited in the rain for other Nissan Tsurus to take us the rest of the way in San Juan Mixtepec while local people stared at us with puzzled expressions. A good portion of the road leaving Tlaxiaco is unpaved and littered with boulders from the surrounding mountains. Large sections have been washed away, but our taxi driver navigated the route without incident. Shoddy wiper blades screeched across the windshield with each pass. The taxista swiped at the inside of the glass with the back of his hand to combat the fogged glass. It must have been enough visibility to keep us from careening off the side of the mountain, because we rolled into the clogged streets of San Juan Mixtepec 45 minutes later.
After dropping our bags at the hotel, we walked around the flooded streets, watched a basketball tournament, played rigged carnival games and crashed into each other in bumper cars. Later, three teenage girls in elaborate white dresses stood on a stage while other festivities took place below. One of the girls in white was crowned the reina (queen) and the other two were crowned first and second princesas (princesses).
We soon realized that about half the town had been drinking for several hours by this point in the evening. We met several people that used to reside in Florida and were pleased to hear that we both grew up near Tampa. One man was persistent with his offer of Modelo Especial from the back of his truck and invited us to his home several times. Two youths that were leaning up against said pickup truck beckoned Rad over and began criticizing the deportation practices of the United States. A local girl yelled over the noise of the crowd and advised us not to talk to these folks on account of their high level of intoxication.
The next morning, we left the hotel at daybreak and walked around town to grab a few photos before the festival was in full swing. Later, our group cruised by the cathedral in town that was bedecked with elaborate flower displays inside and out. We then trudged uphill to a celebration under a circus tent next to another church. We waded through the mud to where the festivities were being held, and we were ushered into a small wooden structure with an altar of San Juan Bautista inside. We stated where we were from and why we wanted to learn about their pueblo’s Mixtec culture. I was really hoping I would not be singled out from the group and questioned because I knew I was incapable of articulating very much in Spanish. The mayordormo, a sort of master of ceremonies, welcomed us to sit down under the tent.
I had only a rudimentary understanding of the festival. Fireworks that were all bang and no show continually exploded above us, bands played, people drank and ate and I heard that some roosters were going to be relieved of their heads later in the day. I also understood that we were going to eat some food prepared by dozens of local women who rushed back and forth between rows of tables and a temporary kitchen area. They set plates of rice, beans and the best chicken I’ve ever eaten before us. I sat next to a vegetarian, so I quickly offered to eat his piece of chicken as well as mine. Men poured Tepache, a fermented pineapple drink, from large clay pitchers into Styrofoam cups and handed them to us. My initial thought was that the jugs contained coffee, but instead, it was this sweet, thick alcoholic drink to start the day.
After breakfast, we were asked to join the procession as it meandered through town to the pueblo’s oldest cathedral. Locals piled in until the building was at maximum capacity and people clustered outside around the doorway. We opted to stay outside because we are not religious and I didn’t want to prevent local people from getting a glimpse inside on this special day.
It was not long before the rain returned and we took a vote on whether to return to the mayordormo’s place and eat again or return to the hotel and rest before the mass beheading of roosters. Naturally, Rad and I opted to return to the site of the morning feast to eat beef stew and drink mezcal, tepache and soda. Not long after we ate, the mayordormo, the reina, the two princesas, the band and several other people in indigenous traje started back down the hill with festooned roosters and fireworks in tow. The procession made stops by the cathedral and to the presidente municipal’s office to present the birds to the pueblo’s highest ranking politician.
The maestro suggested that we beat the throng of onlookers down to the rooster gallows so we could stake our claim to a good vantage point. As we stood frying in the sun, we could hear the procession approaching. Hundreds of people, men on horseback and masked men playing harmonicas and dancing accompanied the convoy.
A few of the birds let out one last cock-a-doodle-doo before they were strung up by the feet to a rope between two telephone poles. A man stood on one side and yanked the clusters of birds up and down like piñatas while men on horseback grasped for the heads. The necks of the chickens stretched like a tube out of a bicycle tire before the men on horseback ripped the heads off and flung them into the crowd. Lively music played, feathers flew and fireworks burst in the air above the flapping and squawking birds. When all the birds in the first group had been decapitated, more were strung up and the ritual was repeated. Midway through the massacre, it began to rain. We scurried for cover as the killing continued and emerged after the rain to join the other people in our party at the edge of the river. It was then that I learned one of the reasons that the roosters are sacrificed is to ensure a bountiful crop the next year. It lasted about an hour and we watched people from our hotel balcony return from the edge of the river carrying headless birds. Santa Claus showed up near the end of the event and I snapped a photo of him and a guy in a Miguel Hidalgo mask before climbing into a taxi and bouncing back down the road toward Tlaxiaco. I have seen a few roosters around since the festival. Even though they don’t understand, I warn them to stay far away from San Juan Mixtepec on June 24.
If you are looking to visit an archeological site outside Oaxaca City and want to avoid having tchotchkes thrust into your face on the way up to the gate, you should consider visiting Yagul. First, pack some water and a snack because there isn’t anything to eat or drink at the site.
If you are sans vehicle like we are, the best way to get to Yagul is to walk south on Niños Heroes past the baseball stadium. You should see a crowd of people on the corner waiting for buses and taxis. Wait for a bus that reads “Tlacolula” and “Mitla” on the windshield. See the example below.
When the man comes around collecting pesos, tell him you are headed to Yagul and pay whatever he tells you. We paid around 16 pesos per person. A few kilometers outside of Tlacolula, there will be a sign over the highway that reads “Yagul” with an arrow pointing down a two-lane road. They should holler at you when the stop comes up, but be ready to jump off the bus. Scamper across the highway in the direction of the arrow. Be careful when crossing the road. Most vehicles are travelling at top speed.
As you take off down the road, look to the right and check out the paintings on the cliff. If you don’t feel like making the two kilometer uphill trek, you might see some guys in a green minivan who will offer you a ride for a modest fee. I recommend walking and checking out the surroundings. A ticket to get through the gate will run you about 45 pesos. If you hear gunshots, don’t be too alarmed. It’s only a firing range a short distance away. Judging by the absence of bullet holes in the north wall of the ruins, the folks who go shooting down there have good marksmanship skills. A few of the features I enjoyed were giant ant hills, massive cacti and the trail behind the complex that leads to a lookout point over the entire valley.
After hiking back to the highway, we waited on the side of the road and saw a collectivo flash its lights at us, giving us the signal there was room for three gringos in the taxi. The fare to continue on to Mitla was 10 pesos per person. After gorging ourselves at La Choza, we rode in a mototaxi for a nominal fee to where the buses pick up passengers heading back to Oaxaca City. If it happens to be Sunday and it’s still relatively early, I recommend stopping in Tlacolula for market day before heading back into Oaxaca.
inside the mototaxi
outside the mototaxi
the return bus
During our first week in Oaxaca, we moved into a filthy house that had been severely misrepresented in craigslist. Initially, we tried to solve the problem with bleach and other solvents, but when Rad found me lying in bed with insects crawling all over my body, we made plans to flee and seek other lodging. In the new apartment I contracted some variety of food poisoning complete with projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhea. Rosita, one of the women who manages our apartment building, has years of experience dealing with ailing gringos. She made me some sort of miracle tea and sent Rad to the pharmacy for the wonder drugs Loperamida and Hioscina. My condition quickly improved and I have been able to snap a few photos from around town and a trip to the Sierra Norte mountains. I have been on this tour before, but it never gets old. Plus, I’m really into riding in a big van full of people I have never met and I usually get some good photos.