Standing at a taxi stand in Jamiltepec, Rad, Bryan and I debated which town to visit next on our whirlwind tour of La Costa Chica. Chacahua came up as a possible destination on account of some seemingly solid advice from a friend in Oaxaca. He told us that the coastal town was a good “jumping off point” for other locales along the coast. Rad pumped his fist and said, “Let’s do it! High adventure!” So we crammed our suitcases into the trunk of a waiting taxi while several taxistas and a couple old men on the street corner mocked us. After a few jokes about none of us ever being seen again, we sped out of town in a cloud of dust.
We crept down a crater-filled dirt road after leaving the main highway through an isolated landscape. I had no sense of time or direction, but it later became clear that Chacahua was not a jumping off point to anywhere. On both sides of the road was dense jungle with an occasional cow pasture or rows of coconut palms and papaya trees. Blockades of cattle forced us to stop while we waited for them mosey out of the roadway and allow us to pass.
“Are we in Guatemala?” Bryan asked the driver. Nervous laughter filled the taxi and we rode in almost absolute silence for a period of time until we started seeing houses with thatched roofs, turkeys and pigs pacing around in yards and people welcoming us with a casual wave. The road dead-ended and the taxi backed up to a lagoon and popped the trunk.
A small gathering of men sat on the steps on a building near the water next to a sign that advertised water taxi services. One of the guys said his name was Lupe and that there were seaside cabins for rent on the opposite side of the lagoon. He would take us across in a lancha (small boat) named Rosy, and show us some available lodging. Lupe beached the small craft on the opposite shore of the massive lagoon and we disembarked with our luggage. Right about this time I was feeling pretty good about the smart investment I made when I bought a waterproof Samsonite hard-shell suitcase from a yard sale for five bucks last summer. What a pity that the previous owner didn’t leave his information on the address tag. I would have sent him this photo and a thank you note:
The four of us visited a few outposts that offered cabins on the Pacific Ocean for a couple hundred pesos a night, but two people said they had nothing available and one man told us he was without power and couldn’t offer us any lodging. We finally staggered up the beach to a woman who said she had plenty of cabins and showed us three options. We splurged on a couple cabins that came with a seatless toilet and a shower head jutting out from the bathroom wall.
After we made arrangements, the dueña informed us that that the entire community was without electricity. This was apparently a common occurrence and our hosts used a generator to keep a Coca-Cola cooler running. We at least had cold beer to drink that night. Good enough. We sat in molded plastic chairs under a palm-thatched roof near the ocean and watched the daylight fade. A candle jammed into some sand in the bottom of an empty mayonnaise jar gave us a little light as we sat and debated the day’s travel decision. Lupe was coming back the next morning to take us on a lagoon tour, so we decided to turn in for the night and took a couple more candles with us into the cabins so we could fumble around and get ready for bed.
Thin Christmas-themed fabric that hung over our bed was intended to keep the voracious coastal mosquitoes at bay. It didn’t. It did, however, choke out any air that might blow across our sweaty bodies during the night. A storm pounded our cabins in the wee hours of the morning, but the thatched roof held tight and we safely perspired the night away. As the rooster crowed before dawn, I found myself with the synthetic fabric of the bedspread and pillowcases stuck to my skin. Dozens of insect bites covered my legs like a bad case of chicken pox. We dressed ourselves, sprayed on more seemingly futile insect repellent and met Bryan downstairs for breakfast.
Eggs, beans and endless supplies of tortillas and coffee helped us recover. We gave up on Lupe meeting us at the cabins after an hour, and we decided to take our lagoon tour destiny into our own hands. However, we awkwardly ran into him on the road a few moments later. The tour package was described with a few confusing options and told us he could take us to an ATM in another town as part of the deal, since we were a little light on pesos. We hammered out a deal and started off for the Pacific in another small craft named Henry with the word “TUR” pained on the bow as well.
As we reached the mouth of the lagoon, we discovered that the Pacific Ocean was too turbulent for the six-passenger boat, so we cancelled the open ocean leg of the tour and returned to the safety of the lagoon. Lupe found a place to tie up the Henry and we started climbing up a rugged trail through the forest bound for a bat-infested lighthouse. Scarlet red crabs scuttled among the rocks and tree roots of the jagged trail as I tried to avoid injury and take in the scenery at the same time.
A bat buzzed my head as I entered the lighthouse. I placed my feet parallel with the narrow concrete steps and gripped the wall with my fingertips as I ascended the tower sideways. After almost falling down to the bottom of the shaft when my camera became ensnared in a ladder, I reached the roof to check out panoramic views of the surrounding area . I also spied a dead dog that had washed up on the shore, but I didn’t tell anyone until later. I thought it might ruin the moment.
After clodhopping my way back down to sea level, we trolled through a canal that bisected an immense mangrove forest, waved at fishermen who sat in boats with names like Chupacabra and Xomary and took pictures of sea birds. The other side of the canal deposited our lancha into another part of the lagoon where we floated around an island that is supposed to house a special kind of bird, but Lupe said none of them were home at the moment. I took a photo anyway.
The town of Zapotalito is located on the far shore of this part of the lagoon. Lupe pulled up along the banks of the town and hopped out with his fuel tank in the hope of buying some gas for the return trip. This was also where we embarked on our mission to find an ATM. We all walked up to the road where we climbed into the back of a pickup truck that took us to the main highway. We then got into a taxi that took us to the town of Rio Grande where we finally accessed our bank accounts. If you ever go to Chacahua, bring plenty of cash.
The money problem was solved, but we had to skip down the coast a bit to procure some gasoline in order to get back to Chacahua. We stopped in place with a large pig wallowing on the shore and some chickens scratching around. There was fuel available, which was dispensed from repurposed six-liter water jugs into our fuel tank and we were off for the return trip through the mangroves. We were all thankful to be headed back because everyone’s ass was tired from bouncing up and down on the wooden planks that we had been perched on for hours.
Halfway through the canal, we heard a man yelling something unintelligible from a breach in the mangroves. It was Rodrigo, Lupe’s extremely animated cousin and an absolute treasure to the town to of Chacahua. We made a U-turn and fetched him from the shore. He settled in next to Bryan and began telling us about the wonders of the lagoon and promised us a trip to the crocodile farm when we got back to Chacahua. Since we suffered so many insect bites since arriving in town, Rad inquired about Dengue and Chikunguya, two diseases that have been a problem on the coast and are spread by mosquito bites. “İNo pasa nada!” Rodrigo replied and waved his hand around in the air to demonstrate that our concerns were ridiculous.
As we emerged from the canal, the winds had picked up considerably and made the return trip down the length of the lagoon quite harrowing. The boat slammed against the white caps and I quickly returned my camera to the safety of a gallon Ziploc freezer bag to protect it from the saltwater spray that drenched everyone in the boat. I blew extra air into the bag before sealing it in the hopes that if we had to swim for it, I could snatch my camera from the water before it sank to the bottom of the lagoon. “İNo pasa nada!” Rodrigo howled through the wind. He cackled and antagonized other skippers as the Henry struggled upwind with Lupe striking the waves at an angle to keep the boat from capsizing.
We arrived safely ashore in plenty of time before the “Cocodrilario de Chacahua” closed for the day. Inside the main gate, we found dozens of crocodiles classified by size in several different enclosures surrounded by chain-link fence. Bryan asked about the possibility of a crocodile jailbreak, but the guy who manned the crocodile ranch gave him the old “no pasa nada.” Just in case, there was a trailer explicitly for crocodile emergencies on site. I assume that if you have a crocodile problem, these folks will deploy the trailer and collect the offending reptile so it doesn’t consume you, your pets or your children. Our host was full of fascinating crocodile fun facts and gave us the grand tour around the different enclosures. Rodrigo tried to convince the young man to wrestle a croc for us, but he forcefully declined.
The day-long tour ended and we ate some fresh fish at the water’s edge before Lupe’s brother took us back across the lagoon for the night. Lupe promised to arrive at 7 a.m. the next morning and ferry us back across the water so we could board a taxi operated by his brother-in-law bound for the main highway.
When we arrived back in camp, we were thrilled to see that the electricity was back on. One of our hosts was swinging in a hammock watching telenovelas. High winds swept stinging grains of sand hurdling toward the outdoor dining area. Rad and I sat down behind a makeshift windbreak fashioned from a lattice of tree branches and a blue tarp. There was still plenty of cold beer, so we ordered up a couple Vickies and looked out across the turbulent ocean. I dashed over to the cabin and grabbed my tripod to get a few longer exposures of the driving winds. Observing the sustained nature of the wind, we joked with our hosts that a hurricane might be off the coast. They laughed, gave us the “no pasa nada” and told us that they had a hurricane. Once. The luxury of electricity allowed us the stay up past sunset and we remarked to one another how our circumstances had vastly improved in past 24 hours.
Moments later, our host came running up yelling about tortugas. Several sea turtles had lumbered onto the beach to lay their eggs and we all ran to the beach to see the spectacle. I asked a child who stooped behind a turtle with a flashlight about what was happening. She dived head first into a crater the creature dug and began piling up eggs on the sand. She and a couple other folks were members of a turtle rescue squad that incubated the eggs and released the hatchlings into the ocean at a later date. Since one turtle laying eggs looks a lot like the next, we decided to escape the flying sand and hide behind the windbreak. While we lounged under the glow of compact fluorescent bulbs swaying in the wind under the shelter, the light confused one of the turtles. It staggered into our vicinity and wandered around without direction before it tried to enter one of the cabins. Dogs barked and chased the sea creature while other people tried to reroute the rogue turtle back toward the Pacific. I can’t imagine the terror it must have felt inside its tiny turtle brain.
That night, we cranked the fan in our cabin to maximum velocity and slept in relative comfort. We awoke refreshed, hosed the grit off ourselves, beat the sand out of our belongings, and set out for the rendezvous point to meet Lupe and slog our way back to the highway and move up the coast to Pinotepa Nacional. With rain drizzling on our heads, we found Lupe’s boat, Rosy, sans motor beached on the shore. The water looked relatively calm and we sat by the water’s edge on a defunct vessel until we saw Lupe coming down the road with his boat motor in a wheelbarrow. He transported us to the opposite shore and offloaded us and our cargo. As he collected our 45 peso fare, Lupe looked a bit sad to see us leaving Chacahua. We promised that would return soon and began hoisting our suitcases into the trunk of the waiting red and white taxi.
I glanced down at the bald right rear tire that had about 6 psi of air in it, thought “no pasa nada” to myself and climbed in the back seat. The driver limped the vehicle over to man who inflated the tire for a few pesitos and we started up the rutted dirt road through the jungle and cattle blockades. About halfway between Chacahua and the paved road, we heard a chafing sound from the rear of the vehicle. Everyone in the jalopy we were riding in was certain that the threadbare tire had finally given up the ghost. I opened up the door and looked toward the rear of the vehicle, delighted to see that the noise was emanating from the rear bumper falling off the car being dragged through the mud. I gave the driver a “no pasa nada” and he nodded his head in agreement. With the plastic bumper pounded back into place, he plodded down the road, reaching out the driver’s window with a wiper blade in his hand to clear rain from the windshield periodically. We made it to the paved road without further incident, paid the man and continued our strange odyssey up the Costa Chica of Oaxaca.
Later that day, when we reached a place with Internet access, we discovered that Hurricane Patricia had been churning off the coast the entire time we were in Chacahua. Growing up in Florida and weathering several hurricanes during our lifetimes, one would think we could readily recognize the distinct weather patterns of a hurricane and flee any coastal areas. Perhaps not. Rad and I looked at each other in our Pinotepa Nacional hotel room, shrugged our shoulders and said, “No pasa nada.”
Side note: As I was writing the last paragraph of this post back in our Oaxaca City apartment, the earthquake sirens began to sound. We walked outside and our landlords told us that since we lived further up the mountain, we would not feel most earthquakes. Our dueña swished her hand around in the air and said, “No pasa nada.” Indeed.