We are not “Beach People”:
However, we do like to take a few days once or twice a year, just to get away from home. And, we are always looking for material for the Newsletter. So, on Monday, the 4th, we packed our bags and headed for Puerto Escondido (PE), with an ultimate destination of San Augustinillo (SA).
At 11:00, we boarded the Express. Express runs 15-passenger Mercedes Benz stretch vans, out of an office / parking lot near the University language school. Seating is in a two-on-the-left, one-on-the-right configuration. The seats were surprisingly small, with not a lot of leg room. The van had air conditioning, but the driver never used it. There were no seat belts.
[Many hands make light work. Beaching the fishing boats at the main beach, Puerto Escondido]
The trip took six hours, with a 15-minute stop among the dozens of side-by-side eateries along the highway just outside Juquila. This is the pilgrimage season, so the highway was jammed with bicyclists and the trucks that support them (most bike pilgrimages are organized by tour companies). The highway surface was surprisingly good almost all the way. The driver was a kamikaze pilot, squealing around the curves, jamming on the brakes and then floorboarding the accelerator. We were knocked around for hours, and finally dropped off at a hotel in the middle of the “old city”. The driver couldn’t be bothered to open the cargo door, so we did it ourselves. Considering that Express is the most expensive land carrier to the coast (130 pesos), disappointing is the least pejorative word I can think of to describe the experience.
A short taxi ride later, we made our way down a long stairway to the Mayflower hotel, a plain and simple building housing a combination of private rooms and hostel dorms. The beds were comfortable, the private bathroom was adequate, and there was free internet service in house (although I only used it once, briefly, just to make sure there were no family emergencies). Located just a few meters up from the Andador, the location was convenient. The guy at the desk was helpful and friendly. At 250p per room, a pretty good deal for PE.
[Sitting at a table on the beach, eating and toasting the sunset, is one of the great joys of any trip to the Pacific coast. This shot was taken from the San Cristobal restaurant in Zipolite]
After a quick shower (no hot water, but it was very hot and muggy in PE) and a change into hot-weather gear (Oaxaca was suffering a cold spell when we left), we wandered out to check out the changes, and changes there are aplenty. Saddest to say, Herman’s Best has gone. Those of you who have known it will know what I mean. There are new restaurants, from Alicia’s on the “budget” end of the scale to Pascual at the top end. Bananas appears to be defunct. A lot of refurbishing and new construction is taking place. Generally, the Andador has gone “yuppie”, with boutiquey and more expensive places featuring “baguettes” and fancy coffees. There is now a “suites” hotel, with rates of 500p on the Andador and 600 on the beach side. Fortunately, there are still lots of lower priced alternatives such as the Mayflower. A very fancy ATM kiosk has sprung up across the street from one of several new cybercafés.
In any case, there were very few tourists about, either in the old town or in Zicatela, with one exception: the campground at Marinaro was packed with busloads of low-budget Mexican tourists, cooking “en situ” and enjoying the charms –such as they are – of the Playa Principal.
On Tuesday, we went to the beach, at Playa Carrazalillo. There are three ways to get there: walking, by taxi (20 pesos), or by boat. We tried getting a boat, but were accosted by a “steerer” at the top of the stairs down to he main beach. He offered us passage back and forth for 200 pesos, an outrageous sum. We refused. He came down to 150. We declined. From then on, while we were on the beach, he followed us, letting the boatmen know that we were “his”. We went back up to the street and took a cab.
The steps down the cliff from where the taxi dropped us off were long, but well built and wide enough so slowpokes such as us could be easily passed by the more energetic and limber. Once you get down on the beach, there are numerous palapa restaurants to choose from. They charge 100 pesos to occupy a table for the day, and if you order more than 100 pesos of food and drink, the table is free. With beer, soda, and a couple of shrimp cocktails, we ended up spending about 200p for the four hours we were there.
The surf was up a bit in Carrazalillo, a partially sheltered cove, so we didn’t snorkel, or go very far from shore, but it was nice to sit in the shade, read, watch the antics of others, and take advantage of the breeze: PE was – we thought unseasonably – hot and muggy.
Around four in the afternoon, a launch showed up, trolling for passengers back to the main beach, and we scrambled to pay our bill, gather up our stuff, and get on board. The trip back – with no “steerer” – was 25 pesos apiece.
That evening, we walked to Zicatela for dinner. By the time we passed the Santa Fe, it was dark. There were few shops open, fewer strollers. We were in search of a salad. We ended up at Carmen’s, which has undergone a considerable face lift and gotten smaller. When we got there, three tables were occupied. Last year it would have been packed. The salad was a disappointment, using iceberg lettuce and some sort of weird dressing, but the wine – a full juice glass for 25 pesos – was a very good deal. We taxied back to our hotel.
[The view from out front porch in San Augustinillo]
Wednesday morning, after breakfast, we packed up and grabbed a cab up to the highway to catch the bus for Pochutla. We got off at the cruzero (cross: intersection) for Mazunte, and were approached by a taxi driver who wanted 20 pesos each for the ride into SA. We refused, waited a few minutes, and caught a poor-man’s collective (a pickup with benches in the back) for half the price. By the time we got to SA it was after noon and very hot. We weren’t in the mood for too much looking around, although Diana did do a quick reconnoiter while I guarded the luggage. We ended up at the first place we checked out, the Casamar, near the west end of town, which charged us 400p per night, three night minimum (for one night only, the price was 450).
Our room was on the ground floor, fronting on the beach. All the amenities were there (fan, hot water, a wardrobe, good screens), including a nice veranda with comfortable chairs and a plastic table-and-chair set, and a palapa just a few feet away with (grin) hammocks. Most of the restaurants in town were closed until the 15th, when the official Temporada de Navidad (Christmas season) starts, and the floods of Chilangos (MexCity denizens) arrive for the school holiday; and the remaining few had limited hours; but we managed a couple of good meals at Tio Natone, where chef Guido and his German partner Tina turn out excellent pasta and fish fillets while bickering at each other. Interestingly enough, she speaks a little Italian, he speaks a little German, they both speak pretty good Spanish, but they do all their bickering in English…
One night we went to Zipolite for a fish dinner on the beach. The colectivo price was 10 pesos each, going. By the time we were ready to go home, the sun had set, the pickup colectivos had stopped running, and taxi fares had become, according to one expat we met, exorbitant: expect to pay over 100 pesos, we were told. Fortunately, a passing cab going past our hotel to Mazunte hauling a couple of Canadians picked us up for a free ride (although we tipped the driver anyway).
[These little cuties are enjoying the “play area” of the SA Library (see below)]
One day we took breakfast at Armadillo restaurant and bakery in Mazunte, surrounded by brass sculptures by owner Raúl Avila. The day before, Diana had visited the Turtle Center, and reported that it appeared run-down, and rather empty.
On Saturday, we grabbed a colectivo taxi, and for ten pesos each we rode all the way into Pochutla, within a block of the van company Eclipse 70. After a wait of an hour and a half, we boarded a Ford stretch van for the trip back to Oaxaca (120p each). Expecting the worse after our trip down, we were pleasantly surprised by the comfort of the seats (I sat in the “shotgun” seat, which had a seat belt; Diana’s seat did not) and, most importantly, the caution and reasonable speed of the driver, who slowed down for curves. When we were about half way through the trip, the transmission burned up at the top of the mountains, near San Jose del Pacifico, but after half an hour’s wait another Eclipse 70 van showed up and all ten of us were merrily on our way. The second driver was just as professional as the first.
Eclipse 70, unlike the busses which ply this route, does not stop in San Jose del Pacifico, opting instead to break about 20 kilometers beforehand. The stop was only for about 10 minutes. The road was in excellent shape all the way. Once down out of the mountains, much of the (new) road was four lane, and bypassed some of the towns.
With a scheduled stop in Miahuatlán, our trip ended up taking about six hours, and we arrived safely, and considerably less worn than we were by our trip down, at the company offices on Armenta y Lopez just up from the Red Cross.
The San Augustinillo Library:
The lending library in SA is housed in three rooms of the small Municipal building. One of the rooms houses the collection. Another contains several computers which are used for teaching computer skills to locals. The third, a large and semi-open space, is a play-room for kids, with art supplies, etc. The Library is open from 2 pm until 5 every day.
Reflecting the mix of borrowers (SA has 200 permanent residents), the collection is in English, Spanish, Italian and German, holding over 4,000 books. Books are culled after two years of non-use, and put – along with most of the “beach read” books – in a pile outside the Library door, where they are available 24 / 7. Borrowers are required to check out the other books, but there is no time limit for returns.
Carole Reedy, seen on the right, one of the two founders, was there when we stopped by, as well as a volunteer helper. There is no Board. The Library is the property of the founders, who make all the (very infrequent) decisions. Period. The space is donated by the Municipio, and nobody makes any money off the operation. Electricity, phone, and internet, as well as other expenses (crayons, drawing paper, computer parts, etc.) are all paid with donated funds. When we unloaded our half-suitcase of books, Carolina went through each one, speaking knowledgeably about almost all of them, and exclaiming over a few that she had heard of but not yet read.
We found the ambiance to be friendly. There is little space for “hanging out”, but Carole is a fount of valuable information, which she gladly shares if you ask. For those of us who prefer to find other homes for our used books, this Library would be an excellent choice. To contact the partners, it’s Carolina_reedy@yahoo.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org
Oaxaca spruces up for the Holidays:
[Indigenous teachers marching on the 10th. The pictures on the banner are of arrested and disappeared co-workers]
The federal government has lavished millions of dollars on “post-rebellion” (they wish) Oaxaca, which is undergoing a major make-over. The paucity of tourists and the small expatriate community (along with the local folks) can enjoy a newly painted historic center, and cultural activities galore. The Radish Festival will, according to the posters, be held around the Zócalo (thus proving another of my vaunted predictions to be less than accurate). There is a food festival, a dance festival, a crafts fair, and concerts.. What we await with great interest is to see how many Oaxacans and tourists from other parts of Mexico show up for the events.
There is a tension I observed among many local folks: family members, neighbors, and acquaintances have been arrested, disappeared, beaten. Many do not consider the night-time streets to be safe, as out-of-uniform state police and PRI thugs have been using the presence of the PFP as cover for terrorizing the population. Many shops and a few restaurants and hotels have gone under. People who have been coming down for 20 years and more, cancelled their reservations for this year. The hotels are claiming around 10% occupancy for this season (through February).
Still, one sees hopeful signs that Oaxaca has not been crushed: the last (8th) “mega-march”, a powerful display of defiance not only by the marchers but by the citizens who lined the route cheering them; the announcement by the APPO state council that they intend to be visible and to go on with the work of organizing a statewide congress to, among other things, construct a new state constitution; the demonstration (brief, silent, orderly) of business people on the steps of Santo Domingo Plaza holding placards asking where all the money appropriated by the feds and given to Ulises on November 25, the infamous day of the military crackdown, has disappeared to. Today (Sunday), the PFP and their heavy equipment are gone from the center of the city (although a Interior Ministry press release seems to indicate that they will maintain a small, permanent garrison nearby), their places taken by State police in uniform manning steel “crowd mover” barricades. So far, we have not detected the presence of any Tourist Police.
We were out Friday night attending a book introduction at Amate Books, a craft fair at Corazon del Pueblo, and a guitar / flute concert at the MACO afterward, and observed a few strolling couples cruising the Alcalá: a beginning, perhaps, for the return of the masses of youth that used to fill the street every Friday night, before the PFP attack. The OHIO produced an organ concert this morning (Sunday) at 11:00, the first in several months, an indication that things have normalized somewhat. This afternoon, there was a band concert on the Zócalo, and the sidewalk cafés, while not crowded by any means, were well attended. There is a crèche in the Zócalo, and poinsettias planted everywhere.
In the neighborhoods, where the raids are still taking place, and in the “out back” where the Army has occupied many villages, things are still pretty bad, but I think it safe to say that the historic center is a “safe” place for outsiders – as it has been, really, all along. Of course, many imported Oaxaqueños hope that the tourists will stay away, as do some “boycott” advocates. Some of them even subscribe to this Newsletter. We are not among them. We like tourists. We like what they do for the economy. There were a few days when we came very close to flat out saying “don’t come”, but we managed not to. We have, do, and will, keep insisting that they “c’mon down”, and experience Oaxaca –warts and all – for themselves.
Some short subjects:
2. A deal has been signed between the feds, the government of MexCity, and the administration of the Church of Guadalupe, Mexico’s holiest Catholic religious shrine, to install a Domino’s Pizza outlet in the atrium of the cathedral. To make room for this transnational colossus of cholesterol, the powers that be intend to get rid of 150 food stalls that now cater to the crowds that daily inundate one of the Mexican church’s richest cash cows. This year, on Guadalupe’s feast day, December 12, five million people crossed her threshold, part of over 11 million pilgrims expected to worship at her altar during this season. While the building is, as are all Catholic churches, owned by the Mexican government, the proceeds (one million pesos for signing the deal, and an undisclosed percentage of the profits) go to Guadalupe, whose head guy is already so powerful that in the past, there have been open and rancorous disputes between the church – nominally part of his see – and Mexico’s cardinal Noriberto Rivera.
[High up in the Southern Sierra, where our van broke down. The settlement, while tiny, appears to be prospering by making dining room chairs to be sold in the markets of Miahuatlan, Ocotlan and Oaxaca]
3. Eight days before he left office, Vicente Fox Quesada’s secretary for Ecology granted a permit to build a 750-acre resort to include over 1,025 rooms, to Roberto Hernandez, a long-time Fox crony and one of the largest – and earliest – contributors to his pre-election campaign. Based, as La Jornada says, on “vapor” – that is without any real environmental impact statement, the development, along the coast of the Sea of Cortez, in a protected biosphere, next to a sea turtle protection project, will be part of the “Nautical Ladder”, a string of marinas, fancy resorts, housing developments and similar ecological disasters, and thereby eligible for a LOT of government funded “development” help.
Roberto Hernandez, one of Mexico’s richest men, is thought by some to be the biggest bankroller of the narcotics trade in Mexico, and was implicated in drug smuggling in a series of articles, both in the newspaper Por Esto and by Narco News, whom he sued unsuccessfully for defamation, the verdict essentially being that the allegations made against him were likely true (in Mexico), and (in the case of a New York lawsuit) protected free speech.
This deal will be opposed by the international preservation community, and by the people who live in the biosphere and eke out their living either doing eco-tourism or fishing, both industries threatened severely by this gross violation of law, procedure, and common sense.
Thanks for your support over the last year, our 11th in publication. The Newsletter’s subscriber list has been growing steadily, thanks to you and to the growing awareness (and for that, thanks to the Internet), in the face of a paucity of mainstream media news, of the political situation here in Oaxaca. We’ll be back in touch in January. In the meantime, if there’s anything you’d like to say about how we can improve our service to you, don’t hesitate to let us know.