I Stooped to a Group Tour!

I typically steer clear of group tours at all costs when traveling, preferring instead to go at my own pace. The “hurry up and wait” of the group dynamic is tiresome, as is spending time in places where I have no interest (e.g. shopping.) I love learning about the history of a place, but not while standing in a circle in the baking sun with other impatient people whispering, shuffling their feet, etc. And then there’s the dreaded tourist buffet for lunch, which reminds me of dorm food. No, best to go it alone.

But sometimes, logistics make it just too challenging. Such was the case in Oaxaca. I could have negotiated a taxi to the places I wanted to visit, but for a mere $11, I could have an all day tour with an English-speaking guide. Just write my name on the form and hand over 220 Pesos without ever having to utter a word, for I have contracted a dreadful case of laryngitis, and can barely eek out a whisper.

I’ve been to Oaxaca twice before, first in 2012 and again in 2014. On both visits, I wanted desperately to visit Hierve de Agua, a “frozen waterfall” made from mineral deposits. But it’s a long way up into the mountains, and not easily accessed without a car. Andador Tours offered this destination as a part of their day tour out of Oaxaca. I figured I could endure the carpet shopping and mescal tasting as a means to an end.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn we would be touring in a brand new Sprinter van. I snagged the single-seat side with a panoramic window perfect for seeing new territory. We would be making five stops on the day tour, the first of which was El Tule, location of Mexico’s most famous tree. Next we would visit a weaving shop (not as painful as it sounds,) followed by the archeological ruins of Mitla.

Finally, the part I had been eagerly anticipating and the reason for my succumbing to a group tour, Hierve el Agua, reached by a drive up into the mountains near Mexico’s Continental Divide. We are near the narrowest part of Mexico, the isthmus before the continent fans back out toward the Yucatan and Guatemala. At this narrowest point, it’s only 134 miles across from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans.

Not only does Eloy, our guide, speak perfect English, he enunciates his Spanish enough that I can actually understand about half of what he is saying. He has a lot of pride and passion for his home state of Oaxaca. He tells us Oaxaca State is #4 In production of oil within Mexico, #3 in production of cement in North America (I find this interesting since I grew up in “The Cement Capitol of the World.) #2 In production of power in Mexico (wind, as the narrow part of Mexico is the windiest part) #1 in the entire world’s production of pineapples, and #2 in production of beer. He gives just enough history at each stop to keep me from getting bored, and runs a tight ship, barking at the stragglers to keep us on schedule. I could not have not received a better bargain for my $11.

Here are photos and a little explanation of each stop along the Andador Tour:

Andalan Tours beautiful new Sprinter van was very comfortable for touring.

Arbol del Tule
Sight of Mexico’s most famous tree, a Cyprus, believed to be between 1,500 and 2,000 years old. At 119 ft in diameter, it is reported to have the stoutest trunk of any tree in the world. Though less than half the height, it is larger than the General Sherman tree in Sequoia NP at 102 ft around. It is wider than it is tall, yet you can tell how huge it is by comparing it to the four story church in the photos. Our guide called it “Broccoli Grande!”

You can tell how huge it is by comparing it to the four story church spires.

The tree is so large, I can’t begin to capture it in a photo.

Teotitlán del Valle
Second stop was the wool rug artisans where wools are died and carpets made. Oaxaca is known for their use of natural dyes. I first became aware of the toxicity of pigment while attending the Plein Air Invitational at Zion. Artists talked about protecting themselves from the chemicals in pigment by wearing rubber finger cots and masks, while others are making the choice to sacrifice intensity for more natural pigments.

Natural colors come from marigolds for the golds and yellows, wild moss for the greens, and indigo for the blues. But most indigenous to this region is the cochineal, a scale-like insect, a parasite which lives on cactus plants. It’s white on the surface because of the scale, but when you scrape that off and grind up the body, it’s color is such a brilliant red that it is used in carmine dye.

On the palm of the volunteer in the photo below, you will see the deep rust color which is the original color of the ground insect. Our guide adds lime juice to lower the PH, which makes the bright orange color, then adds lime (from limestone, not the fruit) to raise the PH, making the deep purple color. M&M’s are made in Oaxaca using famous Oaxacan chocolate and natural food dyes, as are many cosmetics.

There are over 2,000 looms in Teotitlán del Valle with 75% of the population being involved in some aspect of weaving.  Oaxacan-style throw rugs are similar in style to those used in southwestern decor in the US.

All these colors are from natural dyes.

Eloy, our guide, tells us about the cochineal insect, the white dots you see on the cactus.

Here, the volunteer demonstrates what happens when acid and alkaline are added to the carmine color made from ground insects.

One of the many looms in action.

Mitla Archeological Site
The state of Oaxaca has two important archeological sites, the first of which is Monte Alban, which was more of a political site, while the second, Mitla, was more of a religious site. When I was visiting Oaxaca City before, I only had time for one tour, so I chose Monte Alban, the larger of the two. While I was a little underwhelmed by Monte Alban, I had the opposite reaction to Mitla. Maybe it was because of the smaller, more intimate chambers and courtyards. Or maybe because Eloy, our guide told us it was authentic, while Monte Alban contained more restoration. Regardless, I was fascinated by the intricate mosaic fretwork made from small chiseled stone and fitted together like a game of Jenga using no mortar. According to our guide, the likes of these geometric works in stone can be found nowhere else in Mexico. The city of Mitla was believed to be at its peak around 450 to 700 CE, and met its end at the hand of the Spaniards in the 1500’s.

The Templo de San Pablo Apostol is located within the archaeological site of Mitla, constructed around 1590.

The church is adjacent to the archeological site.

Entrance to the courtyard where the best examples of the fretwork are found.

Inside the courtyard.

The mosaic fretwork lines the walls.

Our guide tells us it is all authentic except the roof, obviously.

Mexico’s Continental Divide
In order to reach the furthest destination on the tour, we drive up into the mountains. Eloy points out the mountain range which makes up Mexico’s Continental divide where the water flows into the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. At this point, the narrowest point of Mexico, it’s only 134 miles between the two oceans.

It’s a beautiful drive to Hierve el Aqua.

Much agave is grown in this area, famous for its mezcal. (apologies for blurry photo taken out van window at high speed)

The “pineapples” of the agave plant after harvesting, and about to be loaded for transport to the distillery.

Hierve el Aqua
This site was the primary draw for my taking the tour, as there is only one other place in the world that such a phenomena exists, Pamukkale in Turkey.

The name Hierve el Aqua is a misnomer, as it translates to “the water that boils.” However, the water coming from the natural spring is cold, and the “boiling” is caused from bubbling up from the spring. The water is so heavy with calcium carbonate that it has formed white stone cascades that resemble a frozen waterfall.

There are two areas, “cascada chica” also known as the amphitheater with pools for swimming, and “cascada grande” which more resembles a giant waterfall.
Our guide allocated two hours here, and I wondered how I would pass the time, particularly since it was too cool for swimming. However, I discovered some interesting yet challenging trails down to the bottom of the falls which were worthy of the time allocated.

The area known as the amphitheater contains several shallow pools for swimming, though it’s a bit too cool at this time of the year.

It’s like a giant infinity pool.

From the smaller of the two cascades, you can see the larger one which looks like a frozen waterfall.

Think of the Instagram likes!

Some get a little too close to the edge for my comfort.

One of the main bubbling springs (there are four here.)

To reach the base of the larger waterfall, one must first hike up, then down, down, down…

It’s a long way down to get to the base of the falls, but even longer back up! 😉

Difficult climbing out in the afternoon sun, but worth it.

El Rey de Matatan Mezcal Distillery
Lastly, what group tour through Mexico is worth its salt (and lime!) without either a tequila or mezcal tasting? In this case, our last stop is El Rey del Matatlan. Mezcal and tequila both come from the agave plant, but different varieties. But the processing is what provides the key difference. After the agave plants are stripped of their leaves, they are thrown into a giant underground pit with charcoal and lava rocks where they are smoked. This is what gives mezcal its smoky flavor, distinguishing it from tequila.

The “pineapples” have been smoked, and now ready for the fermentation vats.

Smooth and smoky!

Even with the Mezcal samples aside, I’d say the day was quite a bargain for eleven bucks!

Walkabout Oaxaca

Like the whole world these days, Mexico is changing rapidly. I notice more and more modern touches year after year. There are improvements in technology and infrastructure. Travel is getting easier, as I can now go online and book my bus ticket, make my seat selection, and pay via PayPal for my electronic ticket to be presented on my iphone. This is a huge new convenience as before, I had to wait to purchase at the bus station. And the first class buses all have charging ports beneath the seats now. Continue reading

Mineral de Pozos

I’ve written many times before about Mexico’s “Pueblos Magicos” program which translates to “Magic Towns.” This program established by Mexico’s Secretariat of Tourism (SECTUR) is a way to recognize certain towns for their historic or cultural ambiance that lends itself to a “magical experience.” I think of it as the urban version of the National Park Service. Just as you can be assured when a park has achieved official “National Park” status, there will be something there worthy of a visit, the same can be said for Mexico’s Magic Towns. There will, in all likelihood, be something Continue reading

Feliz Año Nuevo from the Fun Side of the Wall!

In light of the news lately, one of my dear friends asked me, “What will you do if he follows through on his threat to close the border?” My answer? “Party on…after all, I’m on the fun side of the wall!” 

This past year has felt both toxic and chaotic beyond the point of description. I am happy to see the winds of change blow 2018 on out the door. And as the cacophony of church bells peel outside my window near the Jardin in San Miguel de Allende marking Continue reading

Noche de Paz

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Time to Think

By the time I reach Virgin, Utah from Bryce National Park, it’s late afternoon with only an hour left before nightfall. I don’t typically like to arrive so late, especially when I don’t have a “Plan B” in mind. But I am headed to my favorite boondocking spot which I have had all to myself the past three out of four Novembers (I didn’t go last year, as I was back east.) I am hopeful that it will be no different this year, particularly since I am a few days later into the month than I have been in previous years. It’s a lovely spot with Continue reading

Bryce Canyon: Lighting the Candles at Both Ends

My stay in Kodachrome Basin State Park has me located just 30 miles outside of Bryce Canyon. I’d like to make a stop, but I have a deadline to meet. I am trying to make it to the Plein Air Invitational event scheduled in Zion National Park in time to attend the demo by my favorite artist. If I want to visit Bryce Canyon National Park, I’ve only got one night to do it. Continue reading

Kodachrome: “Where All the World’s a Sunny Day”

Traveling south along the scenic Hwy 12, my next stop is Kodachrome Basin State Park. It’s another one of those places that I feel every blogging RVer has visited but me. I don’t typically go out of my way to visit state parks, but with a name like “Kodachrome,” how could I resist those “nice bright colors?” Continue reading

The Canyons of Escalante

I’ve heard many fellow RVers sing the praises of Escalante before….“boondocking near Escalante, hiking in Escalante, conferring with the Interagency Visitor Center in Escalante.” But I was never sure exactly where in Escalante all this recreating was taking place. Was it the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and if so, where? At over a million acres, that’s a huge monument to attempt to explore.  But once Continue reading

Just Gut Up and Drive!

This was my fourth autumn to meander down through southern Utah in the Winnie. With each trip, I would stare longingly at the map, wishing I had the nerve to drive Utah’s National Scenic By-way, Hwy 12. Considered one of our nation’s most scenic by-ways, Hwy 12 has achieved the status of being named an “All American Road,” a distinction reserved for roads having unique attributes to stand alone as tourist destinations.

This 124 mile stretch of highway begins near Torrey just outside of Capitol Reef, and Continue reading