Hierve el Agua:

Close to an hour past Mitla, Hierve el Agua – literally, the water is boiling – is a mineral spring seep nestled in the foothills of the southern Mixteca. Over the centuries, the limestone deposits have sculpted a “waterfall”, pictured above in the masthead, and a series of bathing (wading) pools.

In this case, “Hierve” refers to the bubbling as the water rises from the “ojo” or eye where the spring comes out of the ground, and not to any heat. This is not a hot spring. Nor is the ojo the only place where the spring surfaces, although it is the largest by far.

We had not been to Hierve for a few years, when we decided, after a visit to the “Jaguar Zoo” (more about that, below), to “nip over there”. Reaching Hierve is a trip for driving aficionados and those who, either from photos or friends’ statements, or just plain adventurousness anticipate that the rewards of getting there outweigh the effort. Especially if you take the “back road” to get there, as we did.

As you drive down the newly finished section of the Carretera Internacionál – the Pan American Highway – running from Oaxaca to Mitla (and, eventually, to Tehuantepec, and then branching into a four-lane road to Huatulco), you will pick up signs for Hierve. Big green and white superhighway signage, clearly marked. For a few kilometers, the road from the Pan American is new, smooth, relatively straight and utterly empty. Then, around the town of Xaaga , the tarmac runs out and the dirt endurance course begins. Twisting and turning its way through this dusty blip on the map, the road soon begins to climb. And climb. And climb.

Twisting ones way up the mountains on a road that is often only one lane wide around curves that could hold any number of dangers is a great way to whiten your knuckles, and mine were no exception. Gravel, sand traps, chunks of roadway missing (why does that always happen on the downhill side?), kept us from ever getting out of first or second gear. Then, you get to the top. And begin to descend the other side of the mountain, into the town of San Isidro Roaguia, a surprisingly busy little town whose close proximity to Hierve may have a lot to do with its prosperity. Worrying about brake failure kept us from getting out of first or second gear.

As soon as you have passed through San Isidro, you encounter the chain stretched across the road which announces that you have arrived at the perimeter. Three or four smiling men are there to greet you and to make sure you are furnished with entry tickets – fifteen pesos each – which, they are quick to inform you, include the use of a rest room. Which, having jounced for nearly an hour over the rough roads, will be a welcome perk indeed.

First thing I noticed, on entering the grounds of Hierve, was that the old bamboo / Carrizo stands selling refrescos, beer and tlayudas have been replaced. Last time I was there, maybe six or eight puestos were there, some of which were not opened. They sat on the ground. There were a few stools, but most people took their food over to some tables overlooking the valley.

Now, there are maybe twenty puestos, all permanent structures sitting on concrete slabs, with tables and benches, all covered by a tin roof. Just like before, while they tend to serve more of a variety of dishes, they appear to all serve the same menu. If I hadn’t seen my quesadillas assembled and cooked, I might have fantasized about a factory kitchen somewhere churning out cookie-cutter packages like airline food.

The old, small toilet house has been replaced by one much more modern and commodious (no pun intended). There is now a large wooden sign containing a map of the much expanded grounds: most of the expansion is camping, parking, and tourist cabaña areas. The one thing remaining the same (with the exception of a new restroom facility) is the area down to and including the pools. The path is still sometimes steep, lacking in steps, and in a rain probably slippery. The largest pool still affords a view from its’ far side wall of the spectacular valley. For those with better balance and surer feet than ours, there are paths going further down the cliff.

Coming back, we decided to take “the other road”. When you get back to San Isidro, you merely go straight ahead instead of turning left to retrace the road from hell (which, by the way, did offer some astounding views). This road is no picnic, but it is wider, a little more level, a scootsh less twisty, and takes you to the juncture of a macadam road that passes by the village of Santa Ana del Rio. As the road passes Mitla, there is an endless series of topes, until finally you are back on the Pan American.

There were several stretch vans and even a taxi from town parked in the lot at Hierve. Continental Istmo tours was the most represented. As I said, Hierve is not a quickie trip, so factor that into your plans. Also consider a tour that combines Hierve with one other stop. I like Yagúl.

Zapatistas vs. the PRD?

The pundits – most of whom have no love for either the EZLN or the PRD (particularly their symbols,Subcomandante Marcos and López Obrador (AMLO)) – have been having a field day lately. It all started when Marcos, acting for the Central Command (as he always does: the indigenous leadership is very much in charge of what he says) made a statement to the press declaring that AMLO would not receive the support of the EZLN – as nor would any organized political party as presently constituted – in the 2006 elections.

AMLO chose to remain above the fray, but PRD apparatchiks were quick to declare their incredulousness. How could he say such things? Is not the PRD – as guardian of the Left in the political process – the only hope for reform? The only party to declare itself a supporter of the San Larrainzar accords?

On Wednesday, in an open letter to the PRD and the country published in La Jornada (which has been the journal of record for the Subcomandante every since he first came to prominence in 1993), Marcos expanded on his statements of last week, and presented the case for EZLN distrust of the PRD and of AMLO. As he said last week, if the parties make a mistake, they might lose an election, but if the Zapatistas make a mistake, they could lose everything…

Where was the national organization of the PRD when the PRD government of Zinacantan, a community just outside San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas –known for its fierce Catholicism as well as its’ PRD politics – cut off the water supply to Zapatista neighborhoods (many Zapatistas are Protestants)? When the PRD government in La Realidad (the EZLN has a “good government council there, trying to run a “liberated” community alongside the old-line government) kidnapped, tortured, and otherwise intimidated Zapatista citizens, where was the censure from Mexico City ? In neither case could Zapatista supporters within the PRD move the central committee to act. Why has the PRD never agreed to endorse – in writing – any positions the Zapatistas took in the issue of indigenous rights to self-governance, in spite of being invited participants in many of the conferences called by the EZLN to discuss this and other issues?

Neoglobalism and expansion of private capital at the expense of autonomy and self-governance is, the Zapatistas believe, the central contradiction of our times. AMLO, while talking about not selling the nation’s birthright to the transnationals, is already introducing language into his speeches meant to tone down his “too radical” liberal stance, resulting in his making some very confusing statements about seeking private investment in the few state industries that have not already been dismantled under firstCarlos Salinas de Gortari, then Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, and now – if only he could lead his way out of a paper bag – by Vicente Fox Quesada.

AMLO, Marcos says, is surrounded by right-wingers, particularly Salinistas – a situation that ledCuauhtemoc Cárdenas to resign all PRD party positions and seek another party for a possible presidential run – and either doesn’t know what they are doing, or doesn’t care. He talks a good game, but so far he has been less than reliable when it comes to the issues most dear to the Zapatistas.

Marcos did leave AMLO an opening, however. If the PRD and AMLO can demonstrate a serious commitment to their main demands for change, then the EZLN might change its mind and support him.

My guess is that at this point in the game AMLO believes he can win without Marcos – and perhaps prevent some as-yet-unspecified trouble. If and when his current nearly 20 point lead in the presidential race takes a dramatic dip, we shall see…

A trip to the Yaguar Xoo:

That’s not a spelling error. It is, according to the owner of this ambitious project, the “Zapotec spelling” of Jaguar Zoo.

However you spell it, one man with a vision and a lot of money has taken a tract of scrub land in the middle of nowhere and turned it into a refuge of sorts for a variety of native – and not so native – animals. Lined up along both sides of a kilometer-long more-or-less oval track, there are open-air enclosures with minimalist shelter buildings, as well as a souvenir shop, a “food court”, restrooms and a playground for kids. There are no trees: they just don’t grow in this high desert wasteland. There are small open-sided shelters made from bamboo, half falling down. The feeling of neglect permeates the project.

We saw a Siberian tiger, a pair of Sumatran jaguars, and a lion; a black bear, some emus, a really giant ostrich, a spider monkey, some coatimundi, and in a small building some cages containing a couple of parrots and a cockatoo, and glass aquariums holding some snakes and a tarantula.

There is no other zoo in Oaxaca , and for local families with children there is probably some satisfaction to be gained. For us, it was a waste of 50 pesos each (discounted from 65 because of our senility cards). If you must go, be sure to bring an umbrella: the sun is brutal.

How about that Zócalo?

The new benches are in, and the concrete monstrosities have disappeared. The pavement is far from complete, but the streets are passable and the flower beds – mostly around the trees that are left – are outlined if not yet rimmed in concrete. Note the seal, which is federal. The old-old benches had the Oaxaca seal… Work has slowed way down. The current joke on the street is: The Zócalo will be ready by Guelaguetza (next Guelaguetza).

Plans to revise the Alameda have been put into indefinite deep freeze. Maybe they’ll let the balloon sellers back.

Francisco Toledo (someone today suggested we ought to change the name of the town from Oaxaca de Juarez to Oaxaca de Francisco Toledo ) has come up with a new idea: tear down the Marquez del Valle hotel. It is, he said, obstructing the view of the south side of the Cathedral (a stone wall).

The street musicians and most of the beggars have been removed from the Alcalá and the area around the square. The beautiful woman who sells rebozos (you know, the one with the long silver braid and the lovely smile) says she has to be careful, the inspectors are clamping down. It’s all too clean and sanitized for my taste. Still, I confess that there is something lulling about the lack of constantly interrupted conversation while some poor wretch tries to feed her family by selling a cocoa stirrer…