The Heart Of Oaxaca – Part 1
I had been hearing stories of the beauty and magic of Oaxaca, Mexico. Stories of colorful colonial cities, ancient ruins, and gorgeous beaches. It had been weeks since my last adventure, and I was craving action.
So I decided to set off on a mission to find that place where magic meets reality. I was going searching for the heart of Oaxaca.
The Outskirts Of Oaxaca
Many travelers who come to Oaxaca only visit the central city of Oaxaca and coastal towns like Puerto Escondido. That is all well and good, however, to truly understand and experience this beautiful state in all its glory, one needs to venture to the outskirts.
San Pablo Villa de Mitla
The small town of San Pablo Villa de Mitla is one such outskirt. About forty-five minutes southeast of Oaxaca City; Mitla was once the religious center of the Zapotec culture and second in archeological importance only to Monte Alban the Zapotec political capital.
Mitla is a quiet town filled with bright colors and friendly faces. The tuk-tuk cabs zoom by, each sporting the owner’s individual flair. As you stroll the cobblestone streets, the sun sheds light on the once shadowed nooks in the wall. Women who have been selling small intricate jewelry and woven baskets in the same spot since they were little girls.
Just about the time that you think you’ve seen all the beauty Mitla has to offer, you round yet another corner much like all the others, except this time you are presented with this.
P.S. My jaw dropped!
Church of San Pablo
The Church of San Pablo built by the Spanish in the sixteenth century. It sits atop what was believed to be the home of the lord and lady of the underworld. Its main purpose was to keep the “Devil” from escaping.
It is strongly symbolic of the effects of colonization, where a newly arrived culture destroys the prior and builds their own version of the house of God atop the remains. The ancient compound surrounding the church displays Zapotecan architecture at its finest. Thousands of individual stones perfectly pieced together without mortar to form amazing murals called Friezes.
San Pablo Courtyard
I was pleasantly surprised by this small town. I spent the entire morning just walking around and eating delicious mole-infused dishes and washing it down with some very refreshing agua de Jamaica.
Normally I would Chalk that up to a good full day. However, it was not my sole mission. I had come to the outskirts of Oaxaca not to see yet another colonial city; I had come to see the natural wonder known as Hierve El Agua. A collection of springs atop petrified waterfall-like cliffs. Let the hunt commence.
The Hunt For Hierve El Agua
When trying to work out the logistics of a trip to Hierve El Agua in the heart of Oaxaca, there will be an overwhelming number of guides and tour companies vying for your money. If a nice easy air-conditioned charter van for about 250 pesos entices you, then by all means that is the way you should go. However, if you’re like me and the idea of taking a tour bus into nature doesn’t necessarily get your motor running, then there is another option available.
From many places in Oaxaca city, there are collectivo taxis (pretty much fitting seven people into a four-person vehicle) for 25 pesos. You can just ask anyone in town where they pick up. It’s pretty easy. This will take you to Mitla where you can spend a few hours and maybe grab some lunch.
Across the street from the taxi drop off, there are a few trucks that advertise transport to Hierve El Agua. The downside is sitting on a bench for an hour waiting for enough people to make the ride cheap. It allows for some pretty spectacular people watching. It will cost you a whopping 50 pesos.
Sitting in the back of a truck up a very steep mountain is an adventure in itself. With the right soundtrack though, it can turn into one of the best rides of your life. Trust me. Plus when you arrive, the reward is well worth the time and sweat.
Spanish for “where the water boils,” Hierve el Agua consists of a set of cliffs resembling waterfalls that reach as high as 295 feet. These amazing creations are formed from minerals in the calcium-rich water being deposited as the water streams down the face. It is the same process as stalactites being formed in caves.
Hierve El Agua
Fresh spring watering holes litter the top of Cascada Chica, the larger of the two formations. Contrary to the name the aqua green water is in fact not boiling at all. It is rather cold, but on a hot day in the sun and after a very rough and dusty ride in the back of a truck. The water offers some much-needed refreshment.
After a few frigid minutes swimming, the best remedy is to lay yourself flat out on the rock and catch some rays. (and no that is not me, I’m not as visually striking in a bikini).
Catching Some Rays
You’re thinking that the magic has reached its limits, right? Aqua green infinity pools, sunbathing on stalactite cliffs overlooking the heart of Oaxaca. This is as good as it gets.
Well, think again!
More amazing formations lie just beneath the ice-cold waters atop the valley walls. Another great reason to travel to Hierve El Agua without a tour is the opportunity to explore all of the natural wonders surrounding it. You only get fifty minutes with a tour when you really need quite a few hours to see things like this.
With just a little more effort and a few cuts and scrapes, the noise of the other travelers starts to fade into the distance. The only thing left is the sound of the wind running through the trees and the water trickling slowly down the face.
It’s as if the cascades are showing off; the setting sun lighting up every small nook and cranny. It is nice to sit and think about how long it took for these natural formations to become what they are today. What they must have seen through the centuries.
Words of Advice: The trek from the cascades through the valley and back up the other side is a bit of a task. So if you don’t have a couple of hours left before the last truck out at seven, then I would turn back.
Remember that first picture of Cascada Chica? Well, I was running out of time before the last truck was due to leave. So I decided I would try a shortcut. Please don’t be like me and try to climb a rock face made entirely of soggy calcified minerals.
The Great Fall Of Oaxaca
Green – My start where I felt safe and eager to climb.
Yellow – I’m starting to regret my decision, but I can’t turn back now.
Red – Almost there. Oh crap, my foot just slipped, HOLD ON!
Black – That hurt, SWEET! I’m not dead.
After a day of walking quaint cobblestone streets, swimming in cold clear waters, and falling down a cliff. I was ready for a nice hot cup of tea and some rest. So I loaded up in the back of the truck, popped in my headphones and went barreling down the mountain towards home.
My body was more than happy to be done for the day, but my mind wanted more. I had only a taste of what I was looking for. Surely there had to be more magic waiting for me in the heart of Oaxaca.
To Be Continued…
Great writing Grant. Hope you’re ok after the slip!
Grant, the enchanting visual imagery you create with artful choice of words makes me want to go there! The entertaining words of advice on The Great Fall of Oaxaca will be quite helpful! My much older body probably won’t bounce back the same as yours. I look forward to hearing more! Thanks for the virtual tour!
The Church of San Pablo looks spectacular! Is it truly a tragedy that it has destroyed temples of human sacrifice?
No, I believe the only tragedy is the destruction of what today would be considered a UNESCO site displaying the although not always peaceful heritage of Mexico.
Looks awesome Simpson! My pen is going to run out of ink trying to write down all these places to visit.
Great photos! You are a better photographer than you made out to be 😉
Thanks, Stephanie, that means a lot.
I’m not sure the place you are getting your information,
however great topic. I needs to spend a while finding out much more or understanding more.
Thanks for wonderful information I used to be on the lookout for this info for my mission.