The Heart Of Oaxaca – Part 2
As I furthered into the mountains, I felt that I was getting closer to finding what I was looking for. Ancient civilizations atop a mountain, the tree of life, and a tiny town in the clouds, were all leading me closer to finding the heart of Oaxaca.
Atop The Ancient Mountain
Around twenty-five minutes Southwest of Oaxaca city atop an artificially leveled mountain sits the Zapotecan political center of Monte Albán. Thought to have been founded around 500 B.C.E. Monte Albán thrived in early Mesoamerican Oaxaca, often even trading and communicating with other civilizations like Teotihuacan. Quite possibly the heart of Oaxaca in its hay day,
By around 500 – 750 AD the Zapotecan capital had lost what remained of its political power and was largely abandoned. Due to the lack of a founding people, the original name of the site is unknown. There are many opinions on how the site inherited its current title ranging from a Spanish soldier with the name Montalbán to the Alban hills found in Italy
Normally I wouldn’t write about the ancient ruins in Mexico. Most of the sites are very touristy and lack the sense of adventure that I enjoy sharing with you all. However, Monte Albán is a special case. The place was empty. I felt like my friend, and I were the first explorers to set foot on the site since the abandonment thousands of years ago.
Monte Albán is extremely easy and affordable to visit. The round-trip bus ride costs 55 pesos, starting at eight thirty in the morning and the last bus returning at five in the evening. Just ask your hostel or hotel, and they will surely know where they pick up.
The South Platform
Monte Albán was visually stunning atop the mountain overlooking Oaxaca Valley. It was surely once the heart of all that was Oaxaca. I, however, was not looking for what once was, but for what currently is the heart of Oaxaca. I had heard about a tree that is often referred to as “the tree of life.” So I hit the road to investigate.
The Tree Of Life
The small quiet town of Santa Maria del Tule just outside of Oaxaca City was something completely unexpected. The town’s square looks like a painting. The bright green manicured grass, the intricately designed fountains glistening in the afternoon sun, and the women in colorful dresses selling handcrafts, give it the feeling of a utopia surrounded by the usual chaos of a Mexican towns’ architecture and zoning laws or lack thereof.
The grounds surrounding the tree are filled with beautifully sculpted bushes in the shape of birds and little dancing men holding maracas. The sun setting behind me lighting up the bright red and blue accented church with bells ringing in the hour, yet again set the scene for a utopian like oasis in the heart of Oaxaca.
Church Of Tule
Introducing El Árbol del Tule (the tree of life). With a trunk diameter of 46.1 feet, it is the widest tree in the world. Narrowly beating the giant sequoias (redwoods) in California’s Sequoia National Park. It is often overlooked because it lacks the height of the sequoias. At 116 feet it looks very awkward. I’m willing to bet it has short angry man’s syndrome.
El Árbol del Tule
Given the name “the tree of life” because of the images of animals like Jaguars and elephants that can be seen in the trunk (pun intended). I thought that maybe the tree of life would contain the secrets of the heart of Oaxaca. However, it is just a tree. A very impressive and ancient work of nature, but only a tree.
I had one last place to visit that I was told might contain the heart of Oaxaca. So I hopped into yet another Colectivo and set off towards the mountains to a tiny town in the clouds.
A Tiny Town In The Clouds
San Jose del Pacifico is a town more like the size of a village halfway between Oaxaca City and the coastal city of Puerto Ángel. It is known for a few main reasons. The scary movie-like mist that rolls in, the Temazcal rituals, and for the organically grown magic mushrooms.
There are no buses that run through the mountains. The only options are a personal vehicle or a Colectivo van. I recommend you catch the Colectivo. At just 160 pesos and 4 hours from Oaxaca City, it is the cheapest and fastest option. Once again just ask anyone in Oaxaca City, and they will know where the Colectivos pick-up.
San Jose Del Pacifico
The days are sunny and pleasant. Birds are chirping, and the flowers are bloomed. It has every essential mountain town quality in summer except it’s December. Around mid-afternoon there is a sudden shift, after which the place is barely recognizable from just an hour before.
The mist is a product of rapid cooling of the air coming off of the Pacific Ocean which you can see from San Jose del Pacifico by the way. Hence the Pacifico. The only difference between the scene pictured above and the one below is about two minutes. You can imagine the difference an hour will show or not show. I tried and my camera fogged up. I could no longer see the end of the street I was standing in.
There isn’t much to do in San Jose del Pacifico. Especially after three o’clock hits and you can barely even see where you are going. Still, there was something special about this place. It felt like a secret trapped in the clouds closed off from the rest of the world.
Walking around town is about the extent of the adventure inside the dense haze and It doesn’t disappoint. Clothes damp and breath visible, I got a feeling that I still can’t explain. I knew I had to be getting close to the heart of Oaxaca.
A Surrealistic Ritual
This was it. One last ditch effort to find the heart of Oaxaca. The ritual of Temazcal (sweat lodge) is one that has been around since the beginning of time. Early Mesoamericans used it as a post-battle or ball game cleansing ceremony. It is believed to represent the mother’s womb and rebirth.
Natural plants and herbs such as eucalyptus, basil, and rosemary are soaked in water and then dripped onto hot volcanic stones to create a healing steam that envelopes your entire being.
Early Morning Rituals
The Temazcal structures come in all shapes and sizes. Usually, a combination of volcanic rock and cement, they are permanently placed unlike sweat lodges from other cultures. I sat in the middle of the red tepee-shaped Temazcal as my shaman loaded in the hot stones. He then placed a tarp-covered wooden pallet over the opening beginning the process of sweating out my demons.
I am no stranger to hot, miserable environments, so with reckless abandon, I dipped and poured the nutrient-rich water over the stones and steam started to fill the pitch black tepee. This would go on for forty minutes. All of a sudden the door was removed letting blinding light in and breathe stealing steam out. It was a mixture of both pain and relief all in the same moment.
He ushered me from my dark sweat box to a rickety structure built into the side of the hill. He looked me in the eyes and asked: “are you ready for your rebirth”? Before I could answer, I was hit by the coldest water I’ve ever encountered. He told me that the shock of the cold water was representative of your first breath into the world. He was not mistaken.
Sitting there filling completely refreshed and exhausted at the same time, I knew that my surrealistic experience was just beginning. A colorful bowl sat on the table across from me. He removed the lid and began to pour the tea into a handmade ceramic cup. I was then informed about the ancient rituals associated with magic mushrooms as a medicine rather than a drug as it is often misused.
Now I know what you are thinking. “Ok, here we go just another guy taking drugs that mess up his mind, and I can’t stand reading things like this.” Well … just stick with me for a little while longer. I was about to take magic mushrooms not to trip my face off for the thrill. No. I was taking them as part of an ancient experience with hopes to understand better what countless indigenous people of Oaxaca have been experiencing for thousands of years. That being said, I will now refer to the mushrooms as medicine.
I was given advice on the best ways to handle the medicine I had just ingested. After about twenty minutes I was starting to feel the effects, and I knew it was time. So I set off into the wild.
I won’t go into too much detail on the next few hours as there isn’t enough room. Shortly after entering the forest I found a good spot, stripped myself of everything that connected me to the world I had just left behind (yes, I was in my birthday suit) and laid down on the cold, wet mossy earth without a care in the world.
I spent the next few hours contemplating my current path in life. Why I was actually traveling the world, what I was running from or what I was chasing after. I came to some pretty awesome conclusions. None of which I will share, they are all mine. Although, I will say that I am pretty happy with the way my life is going.
The combination of the medicine and the wild was so awe-inspiring that I don’t think there is a place that would have been better suited for this experience. I am truly in love with nature. Watching the sea of trees each moving individually and the fluorescent flours moving ebb and flow as if there was a heartbeat.
I slowly started to come back to reality, gathered my clothes and started working on a plan out of the forest. The funny part about entering an extremely dense forest when you are in another world is trying to find your way out. Nothing and I mean nothing looked familiar. I spent the next hour trying to find my point of origin which in the end was a few hundred yards behind me.
I slowly emerged from the abyss still feeling the effects of the medicine. The first thing that I saw when re-entering reality was a grungy man grinning from ear to ear. Meet Navarro, owner of Temazcal Los 4 Elementos and my makeshift spirit guide for the day.
Mexico’s Most Interesting Man
Usually, I would not be able to tolerate a lengthy conversation with someone whose life revolves around magic mushrooms. Not that they are bad people, it’s just my mind leans more towards the analytical and often dark reality of the world in which we live. Talking with someone who thinks that the Earth is the mothership and unicorns fart rainbows is a very taxing conversation. Just two different wave links is all.
Navarro and I could not have been more like minded. We bonded almost instantly. We spent the next few hours discussing any manner of topics and learning all about his full, rich, and often tragic life. Many of which topics I am not allowed to discuss on the interwebs. At fifty-six he has seen more than most and is officially my bid for the most interesting man in Mexico.
His family owned most of the high-end hotels in Cancun during the nineties, so he has experienced the upper-class life in Mexico. He has had volatile relationships and lost everything but now considers himself the luckiest man in Mexico.
He lives a very humble existence with only a bed, shower, and sink to survive. A long ways from upper-class if you ask me. He now gets his happiness from the people he meets and the wealth of knowledge he gets to share with them. There are very few moments in my life that have changed my entire way of thinking.
He told me “Grant, when many people die possessed with things, their funerals are full of things instead of friends and loved ones; but when I die there will be thousands of people from over one hundred countries who I can say are true friends. They will gather together and meet one another and become friends themselves, and that will be because I took the time to listen to their stories and connect with them on a personal level“. Take from that what you will.
After weeks of searching and many miles traversed, in my humble opinion, I can say that I have found the heart of Oaxaca. It may be different for each person, and you may or may not need to travel to a different state of mind to find it. However, for me, it was the final piece of the puzzle that brought my mission to find the heart of Oaxaca to a complete conclusion.
Now having accomplished my goal. I set off to the coast to find secluded beaches and try to continue to better understand the amazing, intense, and beautiful country of Mexico.
Great read Grant! We’re hot on your trail and plan to be in San Jose del Pacifico this weekend. Would you mind passing along the contact information for your new friend? This is something we might want to do.
Thanks and hope we catch up with you soon!
I’m glad you enjoyed it! Navarro has a store on the North end of town but he mainly stays at his place about a mile north of town at km marker 130. He has no phone or internet so just ask around town if you can’t find it. Everyone knows his name.
Summer of 1973 tasted infinity in San Juan del Pacifico. Changed the trajectory of my life. Glad to hear the mushroom/nature experience still there.
It was defiantly a great place to reflect on the life path.
Wow! What an amazing experience Grant. You truly are one of the bravest people I know.
Grant, that is truly amazing. You have show. The beauty many of us in this world would never associate with Mexico. We have met these people through your stories and now I see what you have been telling us. It is a beautiful country with wonderful people. Please keep the stories coming, I look forward to them.
Well thank you very much! I’m glad you enjoyed it!
Hello, Grant. I apologize for waiting so long to read all of your stories. and, I must say you have impressed me with the way you describe your adventures and the story telling in general. You can believe me when I say I will be following your adventure and missing you at the same time. I think both of your grandpas are a little envious. Love you man, and take care.
Thats an awesome story. I’m ready to pack a bag. I may have to ETS to get the full experience though – Jul 2018…