Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Oaxaca - Stuck in a River and Reversing into a Pickup

After leaving the tyre shop in Oaxaca, we got on Mex 175 heading south. The road from Oaxaca city to the coast, is only 160 miles long, but everyone we’d spoken to who’d driven it had said that the steep grades and winding route would take at least 6 hours to drive. It was already 2pm by the time we’d got the new tyre fitted, and not wishing to drive in the dark, particularly in the mountains, after 90 miles we were looking for somewhere to park. The Mex 175 is a narrow, winding road through steep mountains, and laybys and parking lots are few and far between. With a limited choice, we pulled off the highway in San Jose del Pacifico, and parked on a rare stretch of flat road next to the police station and town square.

The town is in a truly beautiful area, and a stroll in any direction will give you magnificent views, but almost immediately we noticed that San Jose is not like other remote mountain villages in Mexico. For a start there was a steady stream of tourists walking through the streets. Oaxaca is a popular state with tourists, but in most villages of a similar size I wouldn’t expect to see any tourists; in San Jose there were as many tourists as locals. The second thing which caught my attention was the overt psychedelic message. Mexican often like to paint their properties in bright colours, but almost every bar and restaurant had a psychedelic painting on the wall, and within 30 seconds of walking into the town, we’d been offered hallucinogens of various kinds. After speaking to an Australian tourist, and then a Russian tourist, it became apparent that San Jose has become famous for the kinds of magic mushrooms which grow in the area, and the town has become a mecca for people who like that kind of thing and want to get high in beautiful surroundings. Whilst in San Jose we met a pair of British travellers who’d stopped in the town to break up the journey from the coast, and were as bemused as us about what they found. We spent a peaceful night in the quiet town centre, and after a morning walk in the surrounding forest, we got back on the 175 heading south, navigating our flying carpet and communicating with the ether telepathically.

We could have driven the remainder of the road, and been on the coast by lunchtime, but following a recommendation from some travellers we’d met, we stopped at the Finca el Pacifico coffee plantation.

The plantation is accessed via a short dirt road off of the highway, the road is smooth but narrow, winding and steep; Jim had no difficulty, but a much bigger rig might struggle with the corners. We had not contacted Finca to let them know that we would visit, but on arrival, we were greeted by the father and son of the family enterprise, and were immediately invited to sit with the family for lunch; this was the first time we had eaten home cooked Mexican food and it was a delight to be treated with such hospitality. We ate mole amarillo with chicken and rice, had a sweet tamale for desert, and drank two cups of delicious coffee, grown in the surrounding plantation. We learnt about how the plantation works, and were given a hand drawn map with which we navigated a walk around their beautiful site. To add to the unconditional generosity we were shown, we were even allowed to park overnight in the courtyard in front of the house and processing sheds.

On the way into the plantation, the river was low, and Jim had no trouble on the crossing. However it rained overnight, and when we went to leave in the morning, the river was swollen from the previous night’s rain, and a thick layer of soft silt and mud had built up on the crossing. Not expecting any trouble, I crawled onto the crossing in 1st gear, and immediately stopped moving as the tyres filled with mud and turned to slicks. If I’d hit the crossing with a bit more speed, the momentum would surely have carried us across. I engaged the differential lock, and again tried to drive forwards; we made a little forwards momentum, before both tyres were spinning helplessly again. With the diff lock still engaged, I drove the truck forwards and backwards a couple of times, each movement cutting a rut a little deeper into the mud. In many situations this is a dangerous game, as you can quickly find the truck buried up to the axles in bottomless mud, however on the river crossing, the spinning tyres dug down to the hard river bed, and with a couple of grooves cut through about 20cm of mud, we crawled out of the river and out of the access road.

The rest of the journey should have been straightforward, but our drive through Puchutla added a bit of drama to the day. No perifico around the town was marked on our map, and so we chose to stay on the 175 and drive through the centre. All was going well on the reasonably wide and straight road, until an angry and officious policewoman decided that we weren’t allowed to drive through the town centre. I wouldn’t have minded, except that she chose to let us drive about 300m past the last turning, before telling us we’d have to turn back. With cars parked on both sides of the road, there was no room to turn around, and so I was forced to reverse back down the congested town centre with taxis and pick-up trucks trying to squeeze past on both sides. The policewoman walked behind the truck and proceeded to back me up, blowing on her whistle continuously and waving her hands with no discernable message. I should have ignored her flailing hands, and concentrated on my mirrors, because as I got to the crossroads, I heard a crunch as I reversed into a pick-up truck parked on the road side. The policewoman quickly disappeared, and I was left to sort the situation out with the owner who worked in the adjacent tool shop. The damage to Jim was a barely discernable scratch on the tail-lift column, but I had left two deep gauges in the hard sided body of the truck. Thankfully the owner was extremely reasonable, and was happy to accept 400 pesos to sort the damage out. I should consider myself lucky really, 400 pesos is less than £20, a sum which would barely get the truck washed in England; you’d be looking at more like 4000 pesos to get the damage corrected in the UK.

With the owner of the damaged truck placated, we still had the issue of navigating out of the town without being able to take the main highway through the town centre. Naomi did a sterling job of navigating us through the maze of narrow streets, and we’d soon squeezed ourselves out of the south side of Puchutla and were back on the 175. The remainder of the journey was uneventful, and in the afternoon we found ourselves a patch of undeveloped sand fronting Zipolite beach on which we could park and relax.

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