The ruins were visible instantly as we reached the top of the road. To be honest, we were not very impressed as it appeared that we were going to looking at half built walls and piles of rocks. Not to be discouraged, we pressed on a decided to go up to the entrance and take a closer look....mainly because the entrance to the ruins was free because it was Sunday. We were greeted at the entry by a number of men competing to be our personal guide. Unfortunately for them, we chose to go it alone. There was a neat museum at right inside the gate that provided us with some basic background on the Mayan culture and showed us some of the more common artefacts. With our newfound knowledge we started down the signed path to the ruins and within a few minutes of walking we were on top of a pyramid like structure looking out over the ruins of a massive Mayan city. The entire city was designed and built on top of the hill and our vantage point provided us with a 360 degree view of the surrounding central valleys, which included Oaxaca City.
It was a scorching hot day and in all of 10 minutes at the ruins we were feeling exhausted. We slowly made our way up and down the various buildings on the ruin site and snapped photographs of these amazing architectural achievements. There was a ground plaque at each building that provided a detailed explanation of its age, purpose and significance in the Mayan community. The day was very educational, bordering on information overload. We tried to capture the magnificence in the many photographs we took.
We finished our tour of the ruins with plenty of time left in the day, so we moved on to check out another landmark around Oaxaca City...the Tule tree. In Santa Maria del Tule, the widest cypress tree in the world is located. El Arbol del Tule is a 2000-3000 year old tree that stands in the front of the old city church and essentially dwarfs it. The tree is said to measure 58m around and 42m high. There is an admission to see the tree up close, which is priceless because it can be viewed for free only 1m back from the fence. We chose the free viewing of the tree. The village of El Tule was quite small and there was not much that peaked our interest so we were back behind the wheel of 'Nilla and on the highway in no time.
The drive along Mexico Highway 190 provided another day of interesting scenery. We were still driving through the mountains, however today they were covered with only dirt and cacti. This was a shocking change from the covering of bushes, agave, and assorted trees we saw on the mountainsides the day before.
One of the most attention-grabbing things we saw along the drive was a massive church sitting atop one of the lower plateaus on a mountain. The white church with red trim seemed to jump off the hillside with the deep blue sky behind it. We actually had to turn around and drive back several kilometres just for the photograph. After a few hours on the road, we reached a valley and the road levelled out. This was a good sign, as 'Nilla's brakes were starting to heat up again from the constant action down the mountain road. We hit the straight section of road and reached 100km/h for the first time of the day. It was only 10 minutes later that we spotted the Arnolds stopped at a roadside restaurant near Tehuantepec. We pulled in and joined them for a drink and some scrumptious fried fish with rice. The owner of the land was kind enough to allow us to park for free at the restaurant and camp for the night. Perfect timing...we were tired. We thought we had it all as there was also a beautiful breeze rolling in at the parking lot; however the wind completed stopped the moment we climbed into the van to sleep. We enjoyed yet another hot and muggy night.
The morning of March 26, 2007 we waived goodbye to the Arnolds again and headed out on another day of adventure. We were on essentially the same travel path as the Arnolds and knew we would be seeing them again. From our parking lot campsite we could see the lagoon named La Laguna Tehuantepec. We just had to check it out. We were not certain on how to get to the water, but followed our guts and cut through the first little town we reached named Tequisistlan. There was a traveling market in town and we had to veer off the main road as the ropes holding up their tarps were a little too low for 'Nilla to squeeze under. After a few turn-arounds we seemed to reach an outer ring road and we started to head toward the water. It was not far down a bumpy dirt road before we reached the start of the beach. The waterfront was covered with fishermen getting ready to hit the water for the day. It was tranquil and quiet as we sat on the rocks and watched the locals start their day. We walked around the lagoon for some morning exercise before climbing back into 'Nilla and retracing our steps out to the highway.
We drove to Tehuantepec to get gas and freshen up a bit in the PeMex bathroom. Cleaned and ready, we decided to take the free highway as it was still early in the morning and we had nothing but time. The locals had a different plan as there was a roadblock along the highway and no cars were able to pass. One local helped direct us to an alternate route, which was basically to turn around, back track and take the toll highway. An open driving route is better than no route we thought. The toll highway was in wonderful condition. It was two lanes in each direction and there were work crews hard at work cleaning up the overgrown brush along the roadside. The most amazing part of the toll road is that it came to a dead end. There was mess of on and off ramps with no signage and we had to ask one of the roadside workers which ramp to take. Funny enough, there were a few cars behind us that pulled over to the side and waited for us to figure out the jumbled mess of ramps before following us.
The toll highway ended at the town of Jucitan. Just after gassing up we were cruising the main drag and looking at sights, when Michael nearly missed a speed bump (or tope as they are called in Mexico). He slammed on the brakes and we screeched the tires right up to the front of the tope before letting off and rolling over nice and smooth like. Just to shed a little more light on this subject, a tope is a rather large speed bump generally 0.5m high and anywhere from 0.5-2m wide....basically a vehicle killer if you are not going super slow. Not far past the tope incident, we stumbled into the Arnolds as they were pulling over for lunch. We chatted briefly and decided to meet up later in the day at the next camp.
We were excited to reach camp and motored our way there. Camp was at Hogar Infantil, which is an orphanage that offered free camping with full hook-ups, in the town of Ocozocoautla. Our guide book noted that although the camping is free they are always looking for volunteers or donations. The orphanage is funded by a non-profit American company, however is run by locals. When we arrived the place was quite deserted, but that is because nearly all of the children were in school. The first person we met was Jeronimo, the bus driver for the children. He gave us a visual tour of the grounds and explained the usual routine of the children. Jeronimo was not really aware of any formal volunteer program, but did suggest that the kitchen could use help as it was run only by one elderly woman. This was also a way for us to meet and greet the children as they came for meals. The next meal was dinner and we made arrangements to return to the kitchen at 5:00pm.
We set up camp and met another couple that were camping there as well with a rather funky ride. Michael and Bridgett, from Germany, were traveling in this large white rig worthy of the cover of 4x4 Magazine.
The vehicle was a small version of the Mercedes Unimog and ran a 4 cylinder diesel engine that got amazing gas mileage. The Germans had it rigged up with solar power and two massive gas tanks that could take them 2000km before they needed to refuel. The sleeping and living quarters were a simple fiberglass box that was mounted to the frame on the back of the ride. There was also an access hole from the back sleeper to the front driving cab. It was a well designed machine, just a tad ballsy looking. It was almost army like in design and appearance. The Germans named their vehicle "kartopu", which is Turkish for snowball. Personally we think 'Van Illa' has a better ring. The Arnolds rolled up near the end of our visit with the Germans and we all chatted together for a short while, exchanging usual pleasantries.
After killing time at the campsite, we returned to the kitchen. We were introduced to Tia Petronila and shown around the kitchen. Tia Petronila spoke Spanish so quickly that we both often stared at her with blank faces until she physically showed us what to do, rather than
telling us. It was only a matter of time before we found a means of communicating. Our help in the kitchen was welcomed and gave Tia Petronila a break every now and then. For dinner, we helped prepare and serve chayote with eggs and refried beans. The children at dinner were amazing polite and had lots of questions about who we were and where we were from. Happily, we answered any questions thrown our way...or at least the ones we could understand. A young girl named Ernestina was also in the kitchen. She took an immediate liking to Geraldine as she followed her around with non stop questions and talking. It was cute. After dinner, we were dismissed and scheduled to return the following day to assist Tia Petronila with lunch. It was a satisfying experience.
There is a Mayan ruin site called Monte Alban that is located on the edge of Oaxaca City. Since we were so close, we decided to make the trek there to see what the hype was all about. We headed out of the trailer park and waved goodbye to yet another disappearing landmark and headed toward Monte Alban with a map in hand. Quickly, we realized that the map was again useless as there were no street sings to follow and besides, the streets we did find signs for were not listed on the map. Tossing the map aside, we followed the major flow of traffic and hoped for the best. We drove up one side of the inner-city mountain and then back down the other side and voila....a sign to Monte Alban. The road then led through a somewhat impoverished neighbourhood on the outskirts of town before reaching an area of open vast farmland. The remainder of the drive was a climb uphill to the parking lot as the ruins are located at the top.