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.