If you ever get the chance to ride in a twelve-passenger van down a dirt road in Mexico, do it. If you can lay claim on the back seat – even better. The excursion from Oaxaca to Santiago Apoala started out on a paved freeway, but we got off the highway at the Asunción Nochixtlán exit, ate breakfast and then started bouncing down a dirt road through the mountains. A couple people in the van wore seat belts, but a few of us in the back opted to ride sans seat belt. The logic was that if the van rolled off the side of the mountain, we were going to need to escape.

“How are we going to smash the window so we can get out of this thing?” our friend asked from the third-row seat.

I looked picked up my three-pound Nikon F 35mm camera and said, “With this.”

Solid plan. We continued down the road, winding our way through small villages for over an hour with two angry locals tailgating us in a Ford Bronco. Occasionally, we pulled over and asked someone if we were headed the right way. They made hand motions, nodded their heads and smiled. I had confidence that out driver, Jorge, knew where he was going.

Soon, the van pulled over at a scenic overlook where there was a massive cross and two large bulls tied to a tree. As I looked across the valley, I saw another dirt road that zigzagged up the opposite side of the mountains. I pointed, laughed, and said, “Holy shit! At least we’re not on that road.”

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check out the dirt road on in the upper left side of the photo

Jorge whistled for all of us to get back into the van and we took off down the road with asses flying off the seats the rest of the way to Santiago Apoala.

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Chevy van

There is an impressive waterfall in Santiago Apoala that visitors can hike to. Our guides were a 14-year-old local who told us about the area on our way to the waterfall and a dog that trotted along the roadway with our group. There is a house on the way down to the falls that, legend has it, was built by a couple of mysterious gringos who left one day and never returned.

During our steep descent to the waterfall, I couldn’t help but think about what an undertaking it would be to get back out of there. The dog was smart enough to stay at the top while the rest of us continued down the mountain grasping at small trees and roots on the way down.

We continued hiking lower and lower until we reached the bottom of the falls. After wading around in the pool at the bottom of the falls and taking some photos, we started the long climb out. A couple of us quickly fell behind the others. Our guide stayed behind with us, clearly annoyed by our lack of physical fitness. I began thinking of a television show I watched about rangers around the Grand Canyon who have to rescue people that hike down into the canyon and can’t get back out. There are no rangers in Santiago Apoala and I was certain that the irritated teenager glaring at me was unable and unwilling to haul my ass out of there. Several rest stops and one bout of hyperventilation later, I emerged from valley under my own power and the tour continued on to a cave of the other side of the town.

Caves are great, but I decided not to press my luck and climb down into this one clinging to a rope and led by a dim flashlight. I was happy to take photos of the people in our group who did go. I had enough climbing for one day and I was also busy swatting at potential dengue fever-carrying mosquitoes since I washed all my repellent off at the waterfall.

It wasn’t long before we were back at the only restaurant in town where the owner had been cooking food for us since we left. We raided the cooler of most of their supply of 14-peso beer and loaded up on tinga de res, tortillas and beans and rice.

We loaded up in the van and tore off down a dirt road back toward Oaxaca City. I looked back through the cloud of dust behind the van across the valley and saw the cross I had been standing next to earlier that day. The van was climbing up the same dirt road I was laughing at earlier in the day. I leisurely put my hand on the old Nikon, just in case the van rolled off the side of the road and I needed to bust the window out and make my escape. A couple hours later we returned to Oaxaca City without a scratch.

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concrete cross at the lookout

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two bulls tied to a tree. I’m glad I wasn’t wearing red.

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tour guide/dog

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the same dog with a couple of his buddies

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the side of the house built by mysterious gringos

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the waterfall as seen from halfway down

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bottom of the waterfall

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the road to the cave

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coming out of the cave

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the road out of the valley

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cows hitched to a plow

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