Depending on how you look at things, the coast of Oaxaca either runs North to South (intuitive but wrong), or East to West (counter-intuitive but right). In February, we decided to explore some familiar, and some new, areas of our State, and our travels took us south and west (to the coast and toward Guerrero).

Five of us sojourned together for a week. Our transport was a new (6,00o miles) Toyota Four-Runner. While there is something to be said for the way the second class bus puts one alongside the native folk, air conditioned four wheel drive comfort has its compensations. Fortunately, we are all reasonably seasoned travellers who are willing to stop at the merest hint of an artesania (shop selling handcrafts), a spectacular vista, or a photo opportunity. Aside from Diana and me, there was Jane, our bilingual travel guide wrMariter neighbor, Nancy, the driver and an outdoorsperson / adventurer, and Dan, our driver on last year’s Yucatan trip, who arrived in town by airplane the afternoon before our departure.

First stop on our mini-tour was the mountain town of Juquila. About 5 hours out of Oaxaca to the right of the Sola de Vega road on a still-being-constructed highway, Juquila would be of little interest if it didn’t have a miraculous Virgin. However, having same, it is one of the most revered and pilgrimaged-to shrines in all of Mexico. People come from all over the country to crawl down the aisle of Her church on their knees, begging for her intercession. On Her day, hundreds of bicyclists arrive after a grueling 5 day ride, along with thousands of pilgrims who walk from the intersection with the main road. Some, in a demonstration of piety and endurance, are on their knees from the town limits, a good mile away.

There are many hotels in Juquila that have facilities adequate for gringo comfort levels, and dozens that provide more marginal facilities. Food is available in abundance, but plain, and like most Mexican mountain towns, heavy in lard and red meat. The streets leading to the church are lined with stands selling relics, likenesses, and triptychs of the Virgen. You can buy Virgens in mirrored boxes decorated in tinfoil and paper flowers; Virgen playing cards; Virgen pendants, bracelets, rings, and balloons. Milagros (little arms, legs, pigs, etc. for the Virgen to bless) and candles (to light to Her) are also on display.

I don’t know about the others, but I can testify that the Virgen did indeed intercede for me. I forgot all me i.d. at home, and during the entire trip we encountered not a single roadblock, checkpoint of military inspection — and this in one of the “hot” areas of the state. Truly a miracle…

Next day, back to the main road and down to Puerto Escondido. We figured out that our elapsed time, Oaxaca to Puerto, was no more than going through Pochutla, even with the fifty kilometers of sand-and-gravel road we had to traverse. Fewer hairpins, but also less spectacular: there were no vistas to compare with San Jose del Pacifico. However, there was plenty of pretty scenery.

Puerto Escondido has grown in the last three years. Zicatela beach, where the surfers gather every November for their international contest, has sprouted palapas (open thatched roof buildings), selling food, drink, and shade (umbrellas, for rent by the day or hour) all along its length, where there used to be just sand. Most of the other changes seem equally squalid and intrusive. Still, it’s nice to see P.E. prospering (and some old friends and acquaintances along with it). Prices don’t seem to have gone up more than they have in Oaxaca. Herman still sells the Best chicken or fish platter for the money (17 pesos), there is often a line waiting for a table at Carmen’s Bakery, and the boat from the Playa Central is still affordable at 30p round-trip to Carazalillo; 20 to Angelito.

We stayed in the center, at the Casa Blanca (room for 5 – see, we really do get along — 200 pesos). We were pleased to note that central hotel rooms – and there are lots of them – are quite comparable with Oaxaca for price. For me and Diana, this was our first time on Perez Gazca, having always stayed either on Zicatela or on the other side of the center along Angelito Road. We found we liked the convenience of being able to walk right down to the main beach, and go strolling or catch a boat to the other (snorkeling) beaches. We also discovered a fine breakfast place, Posada del Tiburon, on the beach near the Port Captain’s offices. However, the fine service and careful attention to our orders may have been the result of the fact that we were the only ones there…

Also new in P.E.: a language academy, started by a gringo expat couple. Using local teachers, some of whom have special training in Law, Medicine, business, etc., they do their best to customize the lessons to the interests of the students. Their location, above the highway in the “worker’s town”, features one of the finest views of the bay I’ve seen.

The Tequila Sunrise Disco was bought about six months ago by a couple from California, who are struggling with its location (just a little too far from the tourist byways). They are planning to turn it into a small hotel with a bar/dining room; meanwhile there are two dance floors and no waiting…

After two days in P.E., we pushed on to Pinotepa Nacional, a regional market town about three hours north of P.E., which straddles the intersection of the coastal highway with a mountain road leading back to Oaxaca through Tlaxiaco, the heart of the Triqui indian region. Along the way, we stopped at Santiago Jamiltepec, where our guidebook assured us, we would find carved wooden masks of high quality. In fact we combed the town, and found very little worth looking at.

Pinotepa is a dusty, unprepossessing town, located in a nexus of scenery. There are a few decent hotels (we stayed at Las Gaviotas Central, because we wanted to be as close to the center as we could be), but as far as I could tell none have swimming pools (a nice extra: Pinotepa is HOT). We couldn’t find a single interesting place to eat (there are plenty of simple puestos and small restaurants) in the center. Out by the Pemex station to the north, the India serves pretty tasty meals; and if you are satisfied with sycronizadas or tacos there are a couple of good arabe (the Mexican name for the upright spits featured at gyros restaurants in the States) places a couple of blocks north of the zocalo on the road coming in to town. Pinotepa is, however, a wonderful place to base yourself for exploring the area, and the area is muy interesante.

Corralero is a spit of land containing a lagoon and a town of the same name. If you don’t have a car, you take a cab to the village, and from there you can get a launch to the lagoon, and the beach. The beach, which can be gotten to by car (a much longer trip by cab, therefore cabbing to the launch), is on a point where the lagoon empties into the ocean. The tide is very strong on the ocean side, and swimming is highly discouraged. Likewise, swimming at the mouth of the lagoon when the tide is going out. However, when the tide comes in, you can swim downstream until you are tired, and the tide will wash you back “upriver”. We grabbed a table on the ocean side (the lagoon is literally across the road at that point) at “Baños”, where we ate good fish dinners which included a chapati-like tortilla fresh made on the premises, that surpassed any that I have had in Guatemala (where they are made that way regularly).

During the course of our day, we ran into a Chicano rock band from the Central Valley of California, whose central members came from Pinotepa, and who were doing a mini-tour of that part of Oaxaca. Diana, who comes from the Valley, knew their name and was well acquainted with the halls in which they play. Unfortunately, they were not gigging while we were there.

Highlight of our trip – for everyone but me, suffering from La Grippe back at our hotel — was Pinotepa de Don Luis, otherwise known as Pinotepa Chica. In the mountains about an hour outside of town, P.C. boasts the area’s most acclaimed Carnival celebrations, and on Fat Tuesday, it was a gas. (I had a preview, having been up there the day before and seen some dancing practice). Costumed dancers from P.C. and surrounding towns compete for recognition. A Carnival Queen is chosen and rides in a parade through town. There is a dance at night. During the afternoon, the main street is lined for a couple of blocks with tables and chairs where a giant beef stew is served. A special drink, much like a hard cider, made with fermented cane, fruit, honey and water, is drunk in copious quantities, yet few people get obnoxiously drunk (unlike in Pinotepa Nacional the night before, where the local carcel (jail) did a brisk business).

After four nights in Pinotepa, we headed for home, a nine hour drive. Along the way, we stopped in San Pedro Amuzgos, where Diana and Nancy picked up some remarkable huipiles (woven dresses). Lunch was in Tlaxiaco, in the Hotel del Portal, with a brief walk through the market to the church. Completely restored in the last couple of years with funds supplied by the government agency charged with preserving antiquities (INAH), the inside will amaze you, especially after the 7th century style plain missionary outside. Tlaxiaco probably deserved more than a two-hour stop, something we hope to correct soon.

A list of all the places we DIDN’T go to would fill several newsletters. Trips like this make us aware of what a diverse and fascinating place Oaxaca is. Had a wonderful time, wish you had been there.