Puerto Escondido: Oaxaca’s worst AirBnb host, pocho trucks, and a bioluminescent lagoon that makes it all worth it

The first time I heard of Puerto Escondido was from a dudebro I danced with all night at a bar years ago. I didn’t know he was a dudebro at the time because we were wearing Halloween costumes. We drank and yelled to each other about Mexico over the music.

“You HAVE to see Puerto Escondido!” he reminded me at least five times between tequila shots. Small beach culture, coffee plantations. It did sound awesome. Having now been to Puerto Escondido, I feel like I finally know more about this Halloween stranger: we wouldn’t be friends in a sober situation.

Puerto Escondido is the halfway point between Cancun and Mazunte, description-wise. It’s a large-ish city with a prominent party scene. Small but crowded beaches, cool restaurants, and also enormous surf beaches, and tacky rooftop clubs. It turns out the coffee plantations aren’t actually there, they’re back near Puerto Angel. The tourists are a little less gringo then they are in Puerto Vallarta, because you have to sort of know Mexico to get there, but it’s not as big a secret as the name, literally hidden port, implies.

We got there taking a bus from Mazunte. We took a taxi to the highway for about 100 pesos, where we were instructed to just wait in the road wait for a bus. Soon enough a large, decrepit tank of a bus rattled to a stop and opened its rusting door and we dragged out suitcases up the stairs. I fell asleep from the heat, and about an hour later, El Chango woke me up. Night was falling as pulled into a huge city and we could feel each other’s disappointment at the realization that nowhere with this much asphalt could be as cool as Mazunte. We paid 34 pesos each as we got off the bus, and caught another taxi to our Airbnb.

We wandered around that night, checking out the beachside restaurants of Playa Zicatela.

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We made a dog friend until the waiter shooed him away to my great disappointment.

It was nice, but not Mazunte nice.

Often the worst part of an experience is the best part of its story. The first thing I think of when I hear Puerto Escondido is the fact that we found Mexico’s worst AirBnb host. Let’s call her Adriana. Adriana clearly did not want people in her house, touching her things, and existing, but also clearly needed the extra money, renting out box springs disguised as mattresses. It was a fully felt resentful welcome. “Who left the bowl on the counter??” she’d yell at us and the Swedish couple in the room next door. “Who washed this mug so badly?” “Come on guys, we all have to work together!”

“Why is your bedroom light on?” she’d ask, poking her head into the bedroom. “Um to see so we could get things out of our suitcase?” Our room was dark and had a covered window.

“Ok, but turn it off right away when you’re done. Electricity costs me money.”

I’m all about saving energy but isn’t using her resources why we’re paying her to be in her house? We felt that we had already overstayed our welcome the moment we had arrived.

Adriana and her daughter had a sort of act that they were clearly putting on, an unconvincing play about the perfect mother and daughter. They’d come home holding hands and skipping, Adriana speaking to her daughter with a kind of enthusiasm that’s exhausting to hear. “How does my special princess feel about baking her VERY OWN bread today??? Yay!!” They would only do it when we were in the same room, and then turn it off like a switch when we weren’t.

They couldn’t keep it up after day three, and their interactions degenerated into a lot of fighting, mostly the mother yelling while her daughter stared blankly at the TV or told her mum to shut up. The TV was always on, blaring.

Adriana clearly had the hots for my boyfriend, but in typical guy fashion, he was none the wiser. She would walk by us in booty shorts and slowly bend over in front of him to pick up things that didn’t require bending to reach. I didn’t mind, I thought it was hilarious, and it’s kind of hot to know other people wanna bang your boyfriend.

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Carrizalillo Beach

The next day we went to Carrizalillo Beach and sat around.  We smoked a joint and kind of went in the water while other people surfed, which is the height of our beach participation on a good day. Toward the end of the day, a beach vendor came by, offering us a tour of the bioluminescent waters of Manialtepec Lagoon. He introduced himself as El Pingüino, and as much as I hate to admit it, he actually resembled a human penguin very closely. We talked him down to 500 pesos for the both of us (which we later found out is half the usual price. It’s so satisfying when the deal is real!). Later, a van picked us up by the highway. The guy driving told us about the lagoon, and that it was the meeting point between a river and ocean, permitting a huge range of microorganisms to live there, one of which explodes with light when in contact with the pH of our skin. The photos we’ve seen of it are all fakes, it’s almost impossible to catch with a camera and isn’t even visible to your eyes on the full moon.

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Fake.

We arrived at some sort of outdoor restaurant where we got changed into our bathing suits in the bathrooms. We then took our things down to a motorboat on the docks. The lagoon and surrounding forest were pitch black, the sky a navy blue dotted with stairs. Nervous, we stepped into a boat being driven by a quiet teen. We sped into the blackness unable to see where the water met the air around us. It was like like the Space Mountain of water, without a seat belt and with a real fear of death. Other speedboats would slip by, a single white light like an eye in the darkness alerting us of their locations. We finally stopped somewhere and our tour guide switched off the light, telling us to put our hands in the water. As we moved our hands through the water, light turquoise light radiated out from our skin.  “What!!” I exclaimed, my expectations instantly surpassed. We slipped into the water and swam around in the alternating hot and cold currents, thrashing our arms beneath the surface and leaving trails of light behind us. We lifted our arms and watched the beads of water, each one glittering like a gem as it rolled slowly down our skin. “This is like being on acid!” we declared.

10/10 would recommend.

This is a side story, but El Chango startles easily when he’s asleep and any sudden movement results in him jumping up into some fight position as he wakes up. One night he wakes up, looks at me, looks at the wall, sits up gasping, laughs and goes back to sleep, all in the span of a couple seconds. What the fuck? I look over at the wall and my heart stops as I see a shrouded woman, her face vaguely illuminated from outside, lurking in the corner. The ways the light fell highlighted specific features of her face.

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Turns out it’s a fucking surfboard

We also checked out Playa Manzanillo and Puerto Angelito, two beaches that are technically only separate because of some rocks in the middle. They are both packed, though, and finding free shade was tough. We did find a giant iguana, though, so that was neat.

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A small chapel on the rocks separating Playa Manzanillo and Puerto Angelito

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Above Playa Carrazalillo, we went for dinner at Restaurante Espadín for El Chango’s birthday.
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Their view is the shit and their food is good if you’re feeling like paying gringo prices.

We decided to look for whatever the downtown core was and found El Adoquín,  a cobblestone street with a night market. We dropped acid and spent hours examining the fine textures and bright colours of the hard carved and hand stitched handicrafts. Later in the night, a large nightclub opened on the rooftops.

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Just a small, bored child selling alcohol.
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The world’s most no-frills bar.
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There’s lots of cool stuff like this.
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OK, why is penis art such a consistent theme in Mexican souvenirs? I hate it so much. Who buys these?

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“Is my country really this tacky?” – El Chango

So this is an interesting cultural discovery for me:

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“Ah,” El Chango said. “Camion de pocho.” He explained to me the phenomenon of this type of truck. Pochos were guys who have gone to work in the United States to work at farms or landscaping. They save up for a couple years and put all their earnings into a truck, so they can show it off when they come to Mexico to visit their hometowns, where they throw their USD savings around. A big truck is a commonly accepted symbol of living the American Dream, the personalized paint job meaning you’re specifically a Latino who’s made it.

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There doesn’t seem to be an easy way back to Oaxaca City from Puerto Escondido. The options are:

  • a seven-hour vomit van and enough Dramamine to keep you unconscious the entire time (and probably a week after. Two pills didn’t work for me last time!)
  • a private flight if you know a guy who knows a guy (I do not know either of these guys), or
  • an 11-hour coach bus ride down a less windy highway.

We unenthusiastically chose the coach.

On the last day, we wanted to ask Adriana if we could leave our suitcases in the house until it was time for us to take our bus back to Oaxaca City.

“You have to do it, because she has the hots for you,” I whispered to El Chango as we hid behind the door of our Airbnb. In the week we stayed there, Adriana had only used a friendly tone with me once, and that’s because she didn’t know how to save a Word document as a PDF and deduced that I would be the more valuable resource.

“I’ll go,” he agreed, steeling himself.

He came back a few minutes later, wide-eyed.

“I’m traumatized,” he said. “You were right.”

Apparently she purred that he can do whatever he wants, while stroking his arm.

“I am so sorry for making you go through that. But thank you. Very convenient with the suitcases.”

“I need to wash my arm.”

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Our important Puerto Escondido purchases

Liveability ratings (out of 5)

Cultural life: 3

Nature: 3

Air quality: 3

Safety: 5?

Reliable internet: 4

Accessibility from foreign locations: 3

Green clay and the beautysads of Atzompa

As a translator, I always love those click-bait-y articles about words other languages have that we don’t have in English, and I even buy books of them, and I have to hold back using specific words I know in other languages when they would fit perfectly in conversation, filling a conceptual space that English can’t fill, for fear of sounding like a pretentious asshole. Like, what do I say when I want to tell my friend that I appreciate and recognize the hard work they put into their day, even though it had nothing to do with me, when I can’t say oktsukaresamadeshita? “I appreciate and recognize the reasons you are tired?” “…Um, thanks I guess.”

In Japan it makes sense to have a word for this: in collective society, it’s commonly understand that anyone’s efforts better the whole community and everyone encourages each other accordingly. We called it out to our coworkers at the end of the day, greeted our friends with it at the bar. In individualistic society, we only thank people for things that benefit us personally (which looks weird and self-centred after living in Japan). It can sound creepy to try and express non-Anglo concepts in English because we’re somewhat set in how we communicate and relate to each other’s lives in the Anglosphere, but in our own way. We have so many feelings people don’t commonly discuss because we haven’t collectively given them a name. Anyway, I digress, but for a reason. One word I feel like we need is that feeling of seeing something really beautiful and sad at the same time, like urban decay, something that makes you feel bad but still glad you saw it. The beautysads? Although a very present feeling for me in Mexico, I  felt it extra hard in Atzompa. Check it out yourself and then you can message me and we can think of a better word for it.

On one of our last days in Oaxaca City, we took another taxi ride to this small town on the Ruta Mágica de las Artesanías: Santa María Atzompa. Atzompa is famous for green glazed clay and has been passing the craft from generation to generation for about 1,300 years. Atzompa is northwest of Oaxaca city, in the opposite direction of the other artisanal craft destinations on the ruta mágica. We took a bus for about eight pesos from near the Central de Abastos Oaxaca south of downtown, that had Santa María Atzompa written in marker across the windscreen.

As the creaky bus rumbled into town, we passed small clay workshops dotted between the colourful walls of the homes and comedores, unsure if there would be a definitive town centre where we should get off. Soon enough the bus stopped outside the official Mercado de Artisanias.

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Stole this photo from an article about no one goes here anymore. Everyone is missing out!  http://www.nvinoticias.com/nota/26282/estrenan-mercado-de-artesanias-en-atzompasin-clientes

Inside were aisles of wooden shelving with clay goods for sale from various local artists, along with their names and addresses so that visitors can go to their actual workshops.

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Everything was absurdly cheap. This set of mugs was the equivalent of about an American dollar.
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Dishes for your salsa, about $3-$4 each.
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Reasons I should have brought a proper suitcase.
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My favourite item.

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Not everything is green.

The main source of income for 90% of Atzompa’s inhabitants is making crafts, but the crafts sell for so little they’re practically free. El Chango guessed they used moulds to churn out large numbers of products and keep costs down, and we wanted to see the process for ourself. We decided to pick a workshop to visit, and chose the workshop of a Señora Enriquez whose name was posted above the most carefully crafted pig bowls the market had to offer.

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Walking through the town, it didn’t appear that the craft market was booming. Men leaned idly against the walls of small shops and gangs of dogs padded past. I was, like I frequently am in small Mexican pueblos, the only woman outside.

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“Drowning you sorrows is drowning your family”: interesting mural on the side of a school

We arrived at a metal gated group of homes and knocked. An old, tanned woman opened the door inwards, seeming surprised but pleased to have visitors. She was barefoot and wore a red and green floral apron with a flowing handmade skirt underneath, and her grey hair was tied back in a traditional long braid.

El Chango explained that we saw her address at the market and wanted to see more of her work. She said that she didn’t have much work to show us at the moment but that we were free to look around. She ushered us into the yard which was closed in on three sides by the family’s homes.

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This dog hated me for trying to take its picture. Sorry dog.

She explained that had already brought all her completed items to the market to sell. She showed us a few remaining items in various states of preparation on shelves between the buildings: brown clay pieces sitting out to dry for what would be about a week, an ornate glazed wreath with individuals flowers meticulously attached by wire, religious forms decorated with gleaming green flowers. Opened mouthed in amazement, we turned each item over, examining the carved details in our hands as she warmly explained how much more work each item had left.

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The kiln surrounded by pieces that didn’t work out.

On the flip side of this beautiful art was the realization that this woman did all this labour by hand and alone. En Chango was wrong about there being moulds; each mug, bowl and decoration is hand formed, fired, and glazed with great care over a long timeline, many cracking from the heat and ending up discarded.

Señora Enriquez explained that the local artisans cooperatively run the pottery market, taking turns selling the goods. They’ll make a new collection of items, bring it to the market, and then swap shifts with the people there, who in turn go home and make their own collections to bring back and sell.

Although we wanted to continue hanging out with this friendly artist and her not-so-friendly dogs, we left for the bus, and Señora Enriquez wished us blessings and urged us to come back anytime. We agreed that we would.

At this point we realized almost all the artisans we saw were older women. As we looked around, it became apparent the town’s women work long hours at this family craft they have mastered in return for small change, while also doing the cooking and cleaning, and the men mostly wander around outside until their meals are ready. Every time I am exasperated with my job, I can think about how easy I have it (at least El Chango knows how to cook).

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Something unexpected about Atzompa is the feminist art painted onto the walls of the main street, something I haven’t seen much anywhere else in Mexico.

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“Together men and women will rise from the depths of inequality.”
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The store from another workshop across from the market. You can wander into the back yard and see the pottery is various stages of preparation by elderly women working there.

 

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My two souvenirs.

We left unable to believe that we had almost skipped this town full of beautiful art while generally feeling bad for the people creating it. We talked about how cool it would be to set up a non-profit that sell these carefully crafted pieces in other countries to help these artisans make a better living. I later found out it used to be a thing until the 90s when everyone found out the green glaze was made with lead monoxide and interest died out. In the 90s, lead-free glaze was introduced, but the international market for the town’s pottery never recovered. Doing research now, it doesn’t appear that all artisans use lead-free glaze, many preferring to stick to tradition. *slowly puts down green clay coffee mug* Next time I go back later this year, I’ll ask about that.

A short story in the meantime

IMG_4523.jpgBefore I met up with my boyfriend, my friend Selena and I stayed in a hostel/AirBnB in Puerto Morelos, where we had our own room.

One night, the hostel owner waves me over to talk in private.

“There is a mattress here for the other girl,” she whispers, looking around covertly.

“Oh, we don’t mind sharing the bed,” I say.

“If three people are in the room, you need another mattress.”

For context, I had just been smoking la hierba with this group of travelling Chilean strippers outside so I was more susceptible to confusion and paranoia than usual. 

“No, thanks. We don’t really want three people in our room,” I say, thinking she is finding a roundabout way of telling me she overbooked.

“Ok… But when you have three people, you should have another mattress. It will be more comfortable for the other person to sleep.” She’s keeping her voice down so as to not embarrass me but I have zero idea what we’re talking about.

I’m not sure why my mind goes the places it does,  but I assume she thinks Selena and I are a couple who are trying to have a secret threesome, which is why she’s being awkward. Selena and I had only been hanging out with the Chileans, so I guess she assumes we’re hooking up with one of them. But why? Just because they’re strippers doesn’t mean they’re having sex with everyone they hang out with. Should I be offended on their behalf?

“Is the third person one of them?” I asked, pointing to the Chileans outside.

“Noo,” she goes. “They’re Mexican!”  She exclaims this as if my question were totally idiotic. They’re not actually Mexican, but the point seemed to be that this third person was clearly not hispanic. So, continuing my train of thought, she seems to think Selena and I OBVIOUSLY wouldn’t have a threesome with a Latina. That’s racist! Now I want to defend me and Selena as a hypothetical couple. She doesn’t know us!

“Who is this other person? Are you talking about Selena?” I ask, exasperated. 

“She’s shorter.”

“Was this person in our room?”

“Yes.”

“With me?”

She shrugs.

“Wait, you saw a random person I don’t know in our room? Did someone rob us?” Panic sets in. We’ve already been robbed? We’ve been in Mexico for like two days!

“No, no don’t worry about it,” she says, clearly not sharing my concern.

“You saw a person know one knows in our room! Why wouldn’t I be worried about it?”

“No, no. It’s fine.”

“…You didn’t see someone in our room?” I am way too high for this conversation.

“It’s just a misunderstanding, don’t worry.”

“Ok.” I decide to just forget this happened. I’m really good at living with unanswered questions.

“But if the third girl wants a mattress, they’re here.” Dammit.

I go back to the room.

“Selena!” I cry out, flying into the room. Selena’s stone-cold sober and used to my misplaced drama.

“Bad news?” Selena says. She doesn’t use rising intonation so I think she’s telling me there’s bad news.

“We’ve been robbed?!” I say.

“What? No. I’m saying you look like you have bad news.”

“Oh, yeah. The owner thinks we’re hiding a third person in here. She’s seen her in our room. Is it a thief? A…GHOST?”

Selena sighs while continuing to read her book. “I know what this is. This always happens.”

Selena goes and finds the hostel owner and asks her to watch as she slowly removes her glasses. The owner watches in amazement as Selena transforms into the third girl. 

Mazunte: Your next beach vacation if you have any sense

I sort of understand the appeal of places like Puerto Vallarta or Cancun. You can fly straight there from Canada and the US, maybe you found a travel deal with an all-inclusive hotel and you don’t want to use any mental energy because you have two weeks holiday and you’re fucking tired.

About eight years ago, I was suffering from serious university burnout, got an email for a travel deal to Cancun and impulsively booked a vacation for me and my boyfriend at the time. I just needed to be far from the snowstorm I was in, and didn’t have the mental space to do any research. My boyfriend had never even been on a plane before and was the stereotypical Quebecois of ten years ago who didn’t want to travel because he sincerely believed that “Quebec has the best of everything” and only spoke French. When we got there, to be surrounded by loud spring-breaking Americans blasting top-40 music, overpriced stores, and literally no ambiance whatsoever, in a hotel that watered down its alcohol and served awful food, I realized I kinda fucked up and was deeply concerned my boyfriend would take this as proof that travelling is a pointless exercise in proving that Quebec has the best of everything.

Next time you need some sunshine but are too tired to plan, read this blog post and go to Mazunte instead. Trust me on this.

On the taxi ride to Mazunte from Puerto Angel (150 pesos), we drove through San Agustinillo. The main street was small, but lined with cafes and cool-looking stores. After the boredom that was Puerto Angel, I almost wanted to yell “Stop the car!”

“What’s cooler, this place or Mazunte?” El Chango asked the driver.

“Mazunte,” the driver said matter-of-factly. And I’m glad we continued.

How to Get There

If you haven’t made the mistake of going to Puerto Angel first, you can fly in to Huatulco or Puerto Escondido. You will probably have to fly into a big international airport first and then take a domestic flight (I use https://www.despegar.com.ar/vuelos/ for domestic flights). Then take a collectivo (bus) or taxi. If you exit the airport and ask around for a collectivo, it will be a fraction of the price of anything leaving the airport directly.

Here’s some info I stole from here http://wikitravel.org/en/Mazunte:

By plane: To Huatulco or Puerto Escondido (take the taxi to Mazunte outside the airport gate to save 75%). By bus: Go to south bus station Tasqueña, take either a route to Oaxaca City-Pochutla-Mazunte (not connected), which is 10 hours total, or a direct route to Pochutla (14 hours, Estrella Blanca buses). The latter is a coast route that goes through the Guerrero state (passing by Acapulco) then makes a stop in Puerto Escondido, and finally arrives in Pochutla.

The first ting we did on arrival was buy some cold pizza slices at La Baguette across the street form our apartment. It was so good, that El Chango felt like the pizza was a symbol of great things to come and he was right.

Clues that Mazunte might be a weird hallucination I had on acid and not a real place:

1) It’s THAT cool and yet I’d never heard of it before

2) There’s vegetarian food in almost every restaurant (maybe you don’t care, but I care)

3) It’s on the beach but not expensive

4) Everyone is beautiful and half naked. Have I wandered into a movie set?

5) The town’s one bakery has the best baked goods I have ever tasted, and I’m saying that as someone who has lived in four different French cities

If it weren’t for the shitty internet situation, it would be perfect. Are you on holiday and not giving a shit about the internet? Or are you a person who braids bracelets or teaches yoga for a living? Ok, then you’re good. For workaholics like me who need the internet, you can make it work with a little effort.

Mazunte is full of hippies like San José, but these are not the same hippies. While San José’s hippies look like they crawled out from under a rock in the forest, Mazunte’s hippies are fresh from the ocean, in shape from all the surfing and swimming. Everyone is tanned and topless and smiling, and just seeing the way they saunter down the street glowing will make you throw all your life choices into question. Why am I not living like them? you’ll wonder.

Mazunte is basically three-ish main streets, one running parallel to the water, and two connecting it to the beach. There’s also a sort of road leading up the hills to more hotels and Punta Cometa. You can see the whole town in about ten minutes.

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Accommodation

I really recommend AirBnb over finding accommodation through other websites, as most places with websites, as I mentioned in another post, charge more, at $60-$100 USD a night, but there are Airbnb options starting at $18 USD. Just don’t forget to select “Internet” in the filters if you aren’t looking to unplug for your whole stay. Also, a lot of the fancy places brag about being open air, but if you seem to attract every mosquito in town like me, I wouldn’t really see this as a bonus in a place like Mazunte.

If you don’t wanna do AirBnb, I recommend this link again for ideas: http://wikitravel.org/en/Mazunte

Also, I walked by Posada del Arquitecto every day. It’s expensive for a hostel but right on the beach and probably a good place to meet people if you aren’t as averse to people as me. There’s also yoga, massage, and wifi.

We were staying in an AirBnb apartment above a traditional dulce store on the street by the beach. It was perfect, that is, until I realized it had no wifi with which to finish my work.

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Nice cupboards, though

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One day in the kitchen I said the only way the apartment could be cooler was if there was a rooftop pool. We then spotted a ladder and a trap door to the roof. Careful what you wish for?

Other than the internet, the only only problem with the apartment was a giant rat stealing our loaf of bread, but that’s what happens when you leave the balcony door open, so our bad.

After much trial and error, I found the internet goldmine: La Estrella Fugaz

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La Estrella Fugaz is a restaurant and the only place I found with reliable internet that comes free with any purchase. There’s only one outlet though and you’re probably not supposed to use it. But I did.

I also discovered two awesome restaurants and possibly the world’s best bakery.

Cool Restaurants

1) Los Travesios. Here I got a vegetarian ceviche. I know, right?

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2) Sahuaro. This place has awesome food, a really cool ambiance in their yard, and kombucha, which is kinda novel.

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Their seating area is a cozy, dimly lit garden thing where we ate super rico yakimeshi and tried to guess the languages of the people in the tables around us.

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There’s also this really good juice bar (called “Juice Bar”?) that even makes some of the best kombucha I’ve ever had for about 20-30 pesos a glass. A sweet old dog works there, I think.DSC06839 (1).jpg

La Croissant: The best baked goods in the world

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Mexican baked goods are usually super dry and powdery. It’s intentional of course, but to my unrefined gringo palate it usually tastes like stale bread with sugar sprinkled on it. NOT the case at Le Croissant. They have great cheap pizza and the most delicious soft pastries.

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Libritos. Possibly best pastry of my life?
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Chocolate banana bread with proper banana slices inside. Close second.
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La Baguette, Juice Bar, …something else

Siddartha

I just wanted to say this restaurant fucking sucks! DSC06817

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Of course I’m going to elaborate; making fun of things is way easier than praising them. El Chango and I went there for sandwiches.  In the meantime I had to check my email for work with my phone. I asked for the wifi password.

“manzanaroja” the server tells me. I type it in. It doesn’t work.

“All lower case?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s not working.”

“Yeah, I dunno then.”

Another person comes up and asks the server to enter the password. She does. It connects.

“Can’t help you,” she says to me.

Ok then. Then the sandwiches took almost an hour and a half. No one else was ordering at the time. El Chango went to check in the kitchen and the employees were hanging out and chatting.

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One hour and a half later, this

Then when I tried to pay, I gave the server 500 pesos and she left with it and never came back. Another employee found my change later in a bowl at the bar. I think this was the first time I left no tip, whatsoever. Two hours later, I was hangry, still hadn’t checked my email, and resolved to write something unkind about them on the internet. Despite the restaurant’s name, eating at Siddartha is basically the opposite of a spiritual journey, where you come out a worse person.

The town has a lot of cool stores with handmade jewellery and clothing, and a sort of market that pops up by the beach, but a lot of the prices are much more expensive, especially when the crafts are made by foreigners.

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Mazunte is famously home to the Mexican National Turtle Centre. We got to Mazunte Sunday and were tired, then found out that the turtle centre is closed Mondays and Tuesday, and then we were leaving. So I cannot tell you about the turtle centre, sorry. This is what happens when I try to be spontaneous. I decided I wanted to see the building, just to feel like I did what I could and for an excuse to wander around. We walked up the main street to the large institutional building and stared at the gate.

“Hey man,” a guy said to El Chango from where he stood on the side of the road on his moped.

“Wanna see some turtles?” His voice suggested had it been warm enough for a trench coat, he would have opened it to reveal turtles strapped to the inside. Not feeling very generous, I wandered off and left El Chango to deal with whatever was happening, especially since, as usual, the man was addressing the other man.

“I can take you to see some turtles,” he said in a low voice. “You can free one. We’ll give you a turtle. To free.” He looked up and down the street furtively.

“Um… No thanks?”

The man looked around, then roared off on his scooter.

We wandered back to the centre of town, passing a cool homemade soda store. Turns out it was only open weekends. Apparently you should be in Mazunte on the weekend.

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Gatosirena fuente de sodas, next time!

One morning I was buying a smoothie I didn’t want so I could use the internet at the restaurant next to our AirBnb. A Mexican man was sitting next to a middle-aged American couple at the next table. I opened my laptop, hoping no one would say anything. I don’t know why, but whenever I’m working in a cafe in Mexico, at least one guy always has to yell “Hey, you’re on holiday, put the computer away!” or some shit. He changes forms but always says the same thing. I’ll say I’m working, and he’ll say What! Working here?? and then will start ranting about society to me. There’s no way to say “I’m not on holiday, this is my life,” without inviting a bunch of questions about my life. So I say nothing.

“Hey, what are you doing?” The Mexican asked me.

“Using the internet,” I said.

“You know who you look like?” he asked.

“No,” I said, with no curiosity, not looking up.

“Yelena Isinbayeva. The Russia runner. Are you a runner?”

“Not anymore.” Dammit, accidental share.

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I mean, I’ll take it, but this is clearly a case of All White Girls Look the Same

He asked me where I was from. The fucking internet wouldn’t connect. Come on, internet. Save me from this.

I told him Canada.

“You sound super American for a Canadian,” he said, as if scolding me. “Do you even speak Spanish?”

I switched to Spanish. “Yeah I do. I don’t even sound American, who are you to judge English accents?”

He laughed.

“How do you speak Spanish?”

“My boyfriend.”

“Mexican?”

“Guadalajaran.”

“So you like really ugly guys?”

When guys try to insult me to start a conversation (WHY is that a thing?), I just retreat into a dark Wednesday-Addams-esque place of imaginary vengeance inside myself and stop talking. I wanted to leave but now I’d ordered an overpriced smoothie. The internet didn’t work either. So many reasons to find a new restaurant.

“Wanna come on a boat tour with us later? Invite your boyfriend,” annoying guy asked.

“We’re busy.” Forever.

“There are going to be whales, and snorkleing and all the beer and marijuana you want. Just us with drinks and drugs out in the middle of the ocean.”

Thanks for the official invitation to my nightmare.

“Yeah I don’t think so.”

“Ask your boyfriend! Where is he anyway?”

“Doing some laundry.”

The men laughed. “Did you hear that, she’s got the man doing the laundry! HAHAHA, right on, girl!! Got the man doing laundry!”

El Chango was literally washing a few of his own shirts but didn’t want to defend the idea of a man doing laundry. I tried to turn the conversation to the retired Americans. They had recently discovered Mexico and marijuana and awkwardly passed a joint between themselves, fumbling with it as they tried to smoke. They seemed nice enough, but were not annoyed by the Mexican guy, which made them a little suspicious. I hovered by the restaurant kitchen, grabbed my smoothie and left.

The next day on the beach, El Chango and I were sitting together when Mexican boat door guy was walking by. “Oh god, don’t look now,” I said, accidentally in English,out of panic.

“Mande?” El Chango asked.

“Oh hey there!” Boat tour guy called.

“Mierda,” I said.

“Is that the annoying guy you told me about? He looks like a Mexican Charlie Sheen.”

He did. Mexican Charlie Sheen squatted down by us.

“So you’re the guy. I met your wife in the cafe,” he said. “I was telling her she looks like Yelena Isinbayeva.

“I don’t really see it.”

“Really?”

“Yelena Isinbayeva has black hair.”

Mexican Charlie Sheen thought about it and nodded in agreement. He then told El Chango about all the whales we could see if we agreed to be trapped on a boat with him. “If you don’t tell the others how much I’m charging you, I’ll take you for 200 pesos,” he said, which is still more than the tours usually cost, according to the internet.

“We’re busy,” said El Chango.

“What about tomorrow? We can go tomorrow.”

“Yeah, we have plans already.”

“What are your plans?”

“Ok, we don’t.”

After more back and forth, Mexican Charlie Sheen gave up and wandered away.

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This place just up from the beach makes its own super good ice cream (and even has vegan options! I know!).

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Don’t worry, Mazunte has dogs too

The beach is great. The water is calm, there is a steady incline into the deeper waters. There is an unwritten rule that almost everyone goes topless. A couple of palapa stalls sell beer in the shade.

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Look at this guy with his own beach umbrella

Punta Cometa

Everyone said we had to see the view from Punta Cometa. Usually I’m a bit disappointed with lookout points because practically every location on Earth has some sort of purportedly important viewpoint looking over something and they can’t all be good. To get to Punto Cometa, we walked up a steep side street I hadn’t noticed before, passing a number of hotels and guesthouses. We followed the signs upwards through the trees and properties, passing by a graveyard before entering a thicket of spindly trees that finally gave way to a dusty peninsula covered in greenery.

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Mazunte from the start of the peninsula walk

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The the other side of the peninsula from the town was a secluded beach, which we’ll check out when we go back.

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A line of people was already sitting along the cliff.  The sunset was fucking unreal, changing the unobstructed view of the clouds, ocean, and horizon to tones of pink and orange. Hippies passed joints and sold handmade snacks and pizza. El Chango and I kept exchanged looks of Is this place real? as the colours changed and the sun turned deep red before disappearing below the horizon.

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We left at dusk, seeing some police approach (looking for drugs?), around one side of the peninsula as we left by the other.

At nightfall passed by the cemetery. In the quiet, people were setting flowers , candles and paper decorations on the graves, each grave glowing with the colours of their decorations and framed by the black silhouettes of the surrounding trees. We returned down to the two main streets to wander around. Mazunte is an ideal place to walk at night, the air is perfect holiday temperature where you don’t get sweaty but also don’t need a sweater and each restaurant glows under its own lights beneath a dark sky unpolluted by city lights.

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Liveability ratings (out of 5)

Cultural life: 4

Nature: 4.5

Air quality: 4

Safety: 5

(But beware of the safety of your belongings in open-air accommodations)

Reliable internet: 0.5

Accessibility from foreign locations: 3

PS, apparently Mazunte has a great yoga scene but doing yoga always makes me wanna punch someone (what’s wrong with me?) so I can’t tell you more about it.

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I will leave you with a Mazunte dog trying to eat El Chango’s shorts

Next stop, Puerto Escondido.

San José del Pacífico: magic mushrooms, scorpions, and white people without shoes

To have a successful business with gringos in Mexico, you just need a website. Why? Because no one else has one. It’s one of those countries like Japan where you really have to get there and just ask the locals if you want any sort of legitimate experience. In Mexico, if something has a website, there’s a good chance they’re catering to gringos i.e. overcharging you for something that isn’t necessarily the best. Not always, but…usually. The sign of a truly Mexican business is that they want you to make your reservations through WhatsApp and transfer them money at the local Oxxo corner store, not with your credit card. It’s impossible to know that before getting there; I guess that’s why I’m writing this blog.

I could tell you that I went to San José because of the majestic views over the rolling mountains and its convenient location halfway between between Oaxaca City and the beach, but I’d be lying: we went because it’s the only town in North America where magic mushrooms are legal. Well, they’re illegal but it’s unenforced because it’s part of the region’s indigenous culture. Close enough.

We left from Oaxaca City one late afternoon. To get to San José from Oaxaca City, you can take a van from the Lineas Unidas van terminal (Bustamante Nº 601, Esquina Xochitl) for 95 pesos. They piled the roof of the van with suitcases and strapped them down with ropes. The trip is supposed to take a little less than three hours but, you know, Mexican hours.

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This is partly a post about San José and partly a hate-review of Cabañas La Puesta del Sol. Cabañas La Puesta del Sol  really take advantage of being the only cabañas of their kind to offer you a special kind of abysmal customer service. They’re the only cabañas in town with a website and a semblance of seclusion, and because the whole town is such a mystery, I was worried about getting there and having nowhere else to stay. All I could find online were blog posts about a famous hostel there, Hostel Catalina, one with no phones or internet that serves as a communal space for hippies. You just show up and they make space for you for about 50 pesos. I found videos online of people in a room full of beds chopping vegetables and singing together. The threat of having to stay at the hostel made me decide to reserve the only other option I could find online, La Puesto del Sol, even though it cost twelve times the price at 600 pesos a night. When we were in Oaxaca City, I made a reservation by email for a small cabin and they confirmed. I noticed that check-in for the cabañas was “before 5” in the email signature, so when we realized from the van that we’d arrive late, we called to tell them that we were still coming.

“Sorry, the system erases all our reservations at 5,” the receptionist explained.

“Can you make a new reservation for us then?” El Chango asked.

“It would just be erased at 5,” the receptionist says.

“Um.. Can we call back at 5 and make a new reservation?”

“No. We don’t take reservations after 5.” El Chango rolled his eyes.

“Can we just show up and take the cabaña if it’s still available when we get there?”

“You can try, but we won’t hold it for you.”

“Are there other cabañas in town?”

“Not like ours.”

“We’re literally on the bus and are going straight to the cabañas. We have nowhere else we could go.”

“Nothing I can do.”

This was bullshit, since the first time I reserved with them they had responded right away to confirm, at 11:45 p.m. which is definitely after 5. We considered calling back to make a new reservation with a different accent.

“What is this ‘system’?” I asked. “Animals with typewriters?”

El Chango looking out the window over the vast forested valleys and mountains on either side of the highway. “This place looks like Jurassic Park. Maybe dinosaurs. A velociraptor with a headset.”

“Maybe they change shifts at 5 and then a T-Rex comes on duty and its tiny arms don’t reach the keyboard.” I thought I was hilarious at the time, so at least I knew my joint/Dramamine car sickness cocktail was working.

When our bus finally pulled in to San Jose at 7, we hopped into a moto-taxi, to El Chango’s delight, and arrived at the cabañas. The humourless woman from the phone who we’ll call T-Rex reluctantly let us have the cabaña. Another gringo next to us told them he had a reservation and she handed him the keys to his cabin. The gringo had been in our van and hadn’t called to say he’d be late. Why did the system keep his reservation? Do they only erase your reservation if you ask about it? I was also annoyed to see another foreigner, from that dumb weird territorial instinct to be the THE foreigner in the obscure place you’re travelling so that other foreigners don’t take away from the Mexican experience or some bullshit. I sometimes hope on a subconscious level that as long as I stay away from mirrors, I’ll never see a white person. I remember seeing that a lot when travelling Japan: every small town has the live-in gaijin, some relic of the JET Programme who married a Japanese woman and never left, sneering at you from his vaguely modified Mazda Miata and asking if you’re lost even though you’re not, offering you directions you don’t need to affirm his superior knowledge of his corner of the country. I have to be careful not to become an equivalent kind of asshole.

An attendant helped us down the steep path to our cabañas, motion activated floodlights periodically blinding us as we stepped into the steep blackness.

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Here’s what it looks like in the daytime

The cabaña was pretty rustic and smelled of smoke. We noticed there was no kitchen, which was awkward given the huge bag of groceries we had brought, all things that needed to be cooked and refrigerated. Last time we stayed in a cabaña, it was in Mazamitla, Jalisco last summer, and our luxury narco cabin had probably raised our expectations too high (I’ll do a post about it later). El Chango went to talk to the receptionist who unsurprisingly said we couldn’t use their kitchen.

“What about hot water to make tea?”

“We sell camomile tea.”

“We brought our own tea,” he said, an insistent Tetley convert thanks to me.

“We sell tea.”

“We want a different tea.”

“Nothing we can do.”

“We can’t have hot water?”

“We can sell you a cup of hot water for the price of tea.”

On principle he refused. I would expect to see this pointless determination to stick to the rules in places like Japan, or in Canada if you get someone taking their job too seriously, but it felt like an intentional dick move for the usually easygoing Mexico.

That said, the view from the cabañas was awesome, you can DRINK THE TAP WATER because it comes from a natural spring, which is pretty fucking novel, and the showers are hot (not hot enough for tea, sadly) and have great water pressure, which is also pretty amazing (after you’ve spent enough time in Mexico and are accustomed to never really getting the conditioner out of your hair).

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The cabins as seen from the town

We decided to walk back down the highway to the pueblo in search of food. The street is a winding mountain highway with no streetlights, on the edge of a cliff with no barrier, which is a dangerous kind of fun at night when you have to jump out of the way of speeding busses belching massive clouds of exhaust, while remaining mindful to not jump too far, into the void. Every once in a while, we’d hear something large moving in the trees. Dogs? Coyotes?

We made it to town and found a cafe that sells baguette sandwiches. They advertised wifi in the window but you have to pay for it separately, which we soon found out is the norm for all of San José. When you have nowhere else to go, everything has a high cost, like in airports. The woman at the counter seem annoyed that we were ordering food although she didn’t appear to have anything else going on. When they brought our baguettes to our table, the server dumped a portion of my fries onto the table, stared at them a moment, smiled, and then walked away. I was a mess from the Dramamine, and wondered if maybe I looked like “another annoying tourist on mushrooms”.

“What did I do?” I slurred to El Chango.

“I think working in customer service just sucks.” So far everyone we’d met in San José was kind of an asshole.

In the morning we woke up to a foreign variety of bird sounds: tweeting, singing, a ridiculous distant turkey, and the tree in front of our porch was droning with humming birds. It was a welcome break from the urban noise of air brakes, people yelling out of trucks, and the trucks’ jingles loudly advertising water and gas. El Chango said after I passed out from my Dramamine, he was outside smoking on the porch and could have enjoyed the lone silence much longer had something dark and huge with a wingspan as long as his body not swooped by his head.

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A lot of the flowers here are the same as the west coast of Canada, yet were new and exotic to El Chango who is something of an amateur botanist and can usually name every species of Mexican flower and its ideal growing conditions and medicinal uses. We walked up the paths to the main building, where there seemed to be iguanas sunning themselves on every single rock of the garden. La Puesto del Sol does offer free breakfast, a toast-and-cereal kind of thing (I feel like they should do better if they aren’t going to let you cook but maybe I was still grumpy from being on the road for so long), and their precious hot water is free until 12, so I squirrelled away a thermos of it. The wifi they advertised on their website naturally wasn’t free, so I bought 24 hours worth and worked on our patio while El Chango napped. The cleaning lady was nice, so not everyone at the cabañas is a jerk, for the record.

So yeah, San Jose is considered the Mexican capital of magic mushrooms. They were always a part of the culture of the Mazatec people of Oaxaca, more of a therapeutic and spiritual experience than anything else, and were then Columbused by an Austrian and an American in the 30s, consequently becoming famous as a recreational drug, and then made illegal pretty much everywhere. White people ruining stuff as usual.

San José is also associated with curandera, shaman, and pop culture icon Maria Sabina, not because she’s from there (she’s from another pueblo in Oaxaca), but because she is sort of the poster lady for mushroom rituals and San José is the poster town. Her photo is all over the pueblo. Apparently the Beatles went to San José to get high too. I hope they didn’t have to stay in Cabañas La Puesta del Sol.

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You can see Maria Sabina smoking a blunt on the right

San Jose has really capitalized on the psychedelic aesthetic.

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So obviously I wasn’t going to not do mushrooms given this important cultural opportunity. We went on a hunt to find them. We walked into the pueblo and El Chango asked a woman who was unloading a washing machine on the side of the highway if she knew where we could find hongos.

“It isn’t mushroom season,” she explained, “they grow in the rainy season in June and July.”

El Chango nodded like he knew this. I, knowing nothing about plants, did not know this.

“But you can buy them preserved,” she said, pointing down an alley, “that way.”

We thanked her and walked down the alley until we got to a sort of motel filled with French hippies. We asked a local woman working there about mushrooms. She called to another girl who took us into the office on the ground floor. There on a wall shelf stood a small supply of mushrooms in various reused instant coffee and spaghetti sauce containers. They were preserved in honey, the liquid stained inky blue from the psilocybin.

“Four hundred pesos,” she said.

“And… How are they?” El Chango asked.

She shrugged. “I’ve never taken them. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. A lot of people come here asking for their money back when they don’t. There are no guarantees.”

We nodded. It struck me that maybe people in the service industry were so annoyed because the whole town’s economy is begrudgingly based on tourists coming to do drugs that aren’t even part of the contemporary local culture. Fair enough.

“Ok, we’ll definitely be back later,” El Chango said, which he says to every merchant we have no intention of seeing again.

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Floripondio, a unadvisable drug but pretty flower, casually growing by the road

As the sun began to set, we saw one of San José’s coolest features: the creepy fog that silently envelops the town at dusk.

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In the evening we wandered into another tourist shop selling crocheted mushrooms and jewellery.

“Hey, do you know where we can get mushrooms?” El Chango asked, which somehow felt embarrassingly direct to me even though this whole mushroom thing was my idea.

“My nephew can hook you up,” the man replied. He gestured to a younger man in a dirty baseball cap next to him who appeared either incredibly drunk or high on something that wasn’t mushrooms. I shot a look at El Chango, but he has a better trouble radar than I do and didn’t seem concerned. We followed the man to some nearby cabins on the highway, where we entered a two-bedroom apartment. The apartment was cramped and messy, with a camp stove as a sort of makeshift kitchen on a shelf. The walls of the bedroom were entirely wallpapered with nineties posters of Michael Jordan. A slight man with a shaved head greeted us, and brought out similar jars to the last place filled with hallucinogenic mushrooms floating in dark honey. It still looked revolting.

“They’re 500 pesos,” he said.

“The last place we went to said 400,” I said.

“Ok, 400 then,” he said, shrugging. He waved us over to his computer, where he sat down in front of the large, late 90s monitor.

“Check it out,” he said, opening a folder of photos. We crowded around with the guy in the baseball cap as the man scrolled through photo after photo of psychedelic mushrooms growing out of tree trunks and old logs, which had taken in the rainy season. There were photos of them freshly picked in his hands. Selfies where he awkwardly fit half of his face into the frame behind the mushroom. He reminded me of people who proudly overshare too many nearly-identical photos of their newborn.

We decided to do the mushrooms in the forest the next day, but within sight of the road, the one road the town has, in case anything went wrong.

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I’d like to point out that El Chango gave me this French manicure

El Chango was nervous, having never done them before. I assured him he shouldn’t be, and told him whatever he did, not to think negative thoughts or else he might spiral into hours of seemingly limitless existential despair. I was partly saying it to remind myself and obviously wasn’t helping either of us. We opened the jar and took out a spoon we had stolen from the cabañas breakfast buffet.

El Chango still seemed unsure so I went first. I took a spoonful of mushroom honey. It wasn’t awful like dried magic mushrooms are, but it wasn’t good either. The mushrooms were kind of gritty. Was it dirt? I passed the jar to El Chango. He took a bite.

“It’s not bad,” he said. “It’s like mushroom jam.”

This description made them seem even more disgusting. We took turns eating the honey-drenched clumps of mushrooms until there were none left. We took note of the time.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said.

We looked around at the forest, the filthy creek, the sign that said not to dump diapers (so specific!), the highway. We exchanged a look of “what if the mushrooms start working in the bathroom?”

“I’ll just hold it.”

We sat there, not sure what to do with ourselves.

“How long has it been?”

“Ten minutes.”

I spooned more honey into my mouth. Then it had been thirty minutes. We heard a noise in the trees. Two barefoot Mexican hippies emerged with some bewildered looking white guys in tow. They asked us if we knew the path to some place we’d never heard of. We didn’t. They continued into the forest.

“What a bunch of idiots, walking barefoot in a country with this many deadly insects,” El Chango said, foreshadowing the night we would have.

After close to an hour it became clear that the mushrooms weren’t more than expensive, disconcertingly crunchy mushroom jam. We wandered deeper into the forest until we found a clearing that reminded me of a campsite and sat in the sun, warming up after sitting so long in the shade of the trees. Somehow the hippies passed us again, still looking for whatever it was they were looking for. We nodded to each other. El Chango and I watched a giant grasshopper that had red and yellow colourations more fluorescent than I’d ever seen on a living creature. I always thought Mexican depictions of brightly coloured grasshoppers were caricatures but they actually look like that. It was real, not a sign of the drugs kicking in. I remarked that I could see the details of the grass in sharper focus than usual, but other than that, felt nothing out of the ordinary. El Chango felt the same. Looking at grass isn’t interesting, so we wandered back towards the pueblo. As we turned back onto the highway, an old lady sitting outside of a house/restaurant called us over.

“Come take a break from the heat,” she said, patting the space next to her on the bench. She wore her hair in two long braids with listones, ribbons braided into her hair, and had red chandelier-style earrings. She wore a long brown woven skirt, a type that El Chango later explained to me that many older women make themselves, and had the kind of permanent tan of someone who’s farmed their whole life. She asked us where we were from and we told her, both relieved to not be tripping balls for this conversation with an elderly stranger. I told her about how cold it was in Canada. El Chango reflected on the comparative peace of Oaxaca to Guadalajara, how not feeling like he has to size everyone up and watch his back is an unexpected relief. How you don’t realize how omnipresent the violence is, until it’s not.

He’s told me about how the daily newspapers in Guadalajara, and how they make grotesque and inappropriate jokes on the front page, a photo of a headless corpse with the tagline “Looks like he lost his head over his girlfriend!” That kind of thing.

The woman shook her head when El Chango mentioned the normalized violence, although fortunately he spared her the details of the newspapers. “It’s very peaceful here,” she said. “We don’t even have police here. No need.”

“The police are some of the scariest people in Guadalajara,” El Chango added.

“Did you do the ritual?” she asked us. We sheepishly explained that we had taken magic mushrooms over an hour ago and were just returning from the woods after realizing it wouldn’t work.

She nodded.  “It isn’t mushroom season.”

*(Side note: a few weeks later at a temescal ceremony, we met a shaman who laughed at us and told us that honey is actually the antidote to psilocybin).

The woman told us that everything grows in San José, and that the flowered trees along the highway would be covered in peaches later in the year. She considered it a small patch of paradise away from the chaos of the rest of the country. She ran the oldest restaurant in town, and was used to many foreigners coming to try the mushroom ritual, which she respected but had never done herself. She said that most foreigners don’t speak Spanish but that she enjoyed meeting people from all over the world, and was always able to communicate with gestures.

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Her restaurant

She asked what we do for work. I told her that I’m a translator and El Chango explained that he is a tattoo artist. He showed her the tattoos on his arms, some of which he has done himself.

“How do you do them?” she asked, touching El Chango’s arm tattoos lightly.

“We inject the ink with a needle.”

“And then you can take them off later?”

“No, they’re there forever.”

“They’re very beautiful,” she said, looking at a tattoo of my favourite flower that El Chango tattooed on his arm for me as a surprise. “I like them.”

El Chango looked really pleased. In big cities, older people will glare at him or just demand “What do you want?” when he enters a store (although once in a while they correctly guess that he’s played pro soccer in his life and love him; only extreme reactions happen, apparently), but in small towns, they judge him less for his tattoos, as they don’t carry any stigma of criminality (maybe  of soccer more than anything?). There’s no tattooed San José gang living in the forest ruining everyone’s lives.

As the weekend approached, a hoard of white hippies emerged from somewhere (?) to mingle in the street, all seemingly French, their dreadlocked hair adorned with beads and feathers, feet bare and clothing ripped. A tall bonde girl with ribbon wrapped up her legs in lieu of shoes gave me a dirty look as we walked by. As we passed a group, I overheard one girl telling the others in a Parisian accent and matter of fact tone that “Les toilettes sont le forêt, en fait.” I whisper translated to El Chango that she was informing them that the forest was the toilet around here. It didn’t sit right with me that these white people show up with their backpacks, stripping off their shoes and shitting in the woods out of nostalgia for an imaginary simpler time that the locals don’t even live in.

We went to the restaurant La Casa del Arbol which has the eponymous tree growing through it and proved to be the only good restaurant in town so far. On top of reasonable prices and portions and a back balcony overlooking the valleys, there were no dreadlocked white people glaring at us.

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“Can I ask you a question?” I asked the server.

“Sure,” she said.

“How do you feel about all these French hippies wandering around town barefoot? I mean, the locals don’t do that.”

She shrugged. “They’ve been coming here forever. We’re used to it. They’re not all French; many come from England and Canada.”

I looked down in shame.

At night we went to La Taberna de los Duendes for a beer.

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Drug-themed stuff for sale in the tavern in case you’ve forgotten where you are

We thought the meal prices seemed high, but we saw the servers delivering plates to the other tables, and they were viking-sized portions, so had we known about this earlier we would have eaten there too. Next time. When we go back in mushroom season. A group of American men drank mezcal in the back, yelling out orders in heavily-accented Spanish. El Chango looked annoyed, like he had reached his saturation point for gringos taking up too much space, and I couldn’t blame him.

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As the temperature dropped (San José can be at the freezing point at night, pack accordingly), we went back to the cabin, where an attendant came and lit a fire in our fireplace. We slowly started to put things back in our suitcases for the next day as the cabin warmed up. When El Chango tilted up his suitcase to lean it again the wall, something black stretched out beneath.

“Alacrán!” I yelped in a voice I had never heard myself use.  A black scorpion stood in defensive position where the suitcase had been.

“What do we do, what do we do??” I said, dancing around.

El Chango and I looked at each other and back at the scorpion. Not waiting to find out, it ran for the wall where it flattened itself and somehow fit out through the crack between the baseboard and the floor.

“Oh, gross,” I said at the sight of its flat body slipping away. Its pointed tail was last to disappear.

El Chango explained that it was probably drawn in by the heat from the fire. We reasoned that it was probably too freaked out to come back.

“You know, scorpions don’t like smoke,” he said. Although it was the most stoner idea imaginable, we lit up some weed, got on our hands and knees and blew the smoke into the crack between the floor and the baseboard, going along the wall. DIY fumigation.

Suitcases and scorpion dealt with, I sat on the bed colouring pictures of cats. At one point I reached down for one of my notebooks where some of my sheets had fallen to the floor.

“No, don’t!” El Chango exclaimed from somewhere on the floor. I pulled back my hand. El Chango was crouching next to the bed, lifting a fold in the sheet with a pencil. Curled up in beneath my hand was another scorpion, this one yellowish brown.

“No!” I cried. “Why?!”

“I figured there might be more so I’ve been scouring the room. What do we do?”

“I don’t know!”

The scorpion stretched out its body, also not sure what to do.

“…We have to kill it,” I said with dramatic gravity. I never kill living creatures on purpose (unless they’re mosquitoes, obviously, I’m not totally insane) but the thought of it slipping into the wall like the other one was too horrifying.

El Chango grabbed one of my shoes.

“Why MY shoe?”

“It was the closest one. Do I do it?”

“Ahh do it do it do it!” I cried, watching through my fingers.

El Chango brought the shoe down on the scorpion and ground it into the floor.

We both looked at the shoe, sharing a guilty silence.

“I feel bad.”

“Me too.”

“What would have happened if it had stung me?”

“It would be like a really bad…mosquito bite,” he said. I thought about the unnecessary force he used to grind it into the floor and knew he was lying, but was content with this lie.

“Ok, I killed it so you can clean it up,” he said.

It was only fair. I lifted the shoe and wanted to throw up a little bit. I’m not usually bothered by insects but my Canadian sensibilities aren’t used to small deadly creatures. I balled up some toilet paper and tried to scrape it off the floor, shuddering at the crunchy wet sound of it peeling off the ground. I opened the door and flung the body into the forest.

“Lo siento!” I called after it. Poor little guy just wanted to escape the cold San José night after all.

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Crushed scorpion. I couldn’t even get close enough to take a decent picture.

We thoroughly checked our bedsheets and mattress. El Chango explained that scorpions hate light as much as they like heat, so we should sleep with the lights on to lessen the chance of more sneaking in. Fortunately scorpions can’t climb bedposts, so as long as the sheets didn’t drop off the side of the bed we were safe.

“Imagine if they could fly,” I whispered, never having taken scorpions seriously until now.

El Chango told me that there’s actually a Mexican expression, Dios no le da alas a los alacranes. God doesn’t give scorpions wings. You use it to describe something that shouldn’t happen because it’s too ridiculously dangerous.

“Like me on a motorcycle,” he said.

It was a long night under the bright overhead lights, made all the more surreal by the sound of a large animal running back and forth on our roof for hours.

The next morning El Chango told me that the scorpion beneath my hand was a bark scorpion, North America’s deadliest, and that he’d seen on the Discovery Channel that its sting kills within two hours. The small yellowish ones are always way worse than the large black ones.

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This motherfucker

Not an ideal infestation in a town with no cell reception or hospital. It was pretty sexy that El Chango had possibly saved my life though. We warned the cleaning lady and decided to tell the receptionist, so they could fumigate. T-Rex was working again.

“So, have you ever had scorpions here?” El Chango asked.

“No, never, they can’t survive in this climate. There has never been a scorpion here.”

She seemed suspiciously insistent.

“Well there were three in our room last night.”

(We added an imaginary one because we were used to this woman not taking us seriously).

“…You must have brought them with you in your suitcases from the beach.”

We hadn’t come from the beach but that was her answer and she was sticking to it. They did not have scorpions, we had scorpions. I resolved to write them a terrible TripAdvisor review.

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Also they don’t like street dogs 😦

If I were to stay in the town again, I’d stay at this place instead:

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I was even told they’d have kitchens in the future cabins, so you won’t have to buy overpriced baguettes from angry people.
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Apparently they rent AND build cabins. They don’t have a website but they have a sign with a hotmail address, which is how you know it’s legit (and half the price of La Puesta del Sol).

The best gift we received from San José was a special vignette before our departure: a brood of bloodthirsty baby chickens devouring a carcass on the roof of a carnicería.

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Haunting, right?

Anyway, we want to go back, if only to hang out with that abuela again.

Top 3 Things to Do

1. Show up at the correct season and do mushrooms, with a shaman so you don’t get lost in the forest.

2. Go chat/mime with the woman who works at El Neuvo Triunfo.

3. Stare at the view and enjoy your lack of internet and cellphone reception. Only the scorpions can find you now.

Liveability ratings (out of 5)

Cultural life: 1?

(one point for mushroom season)

Nature: 4.5

Air quality: 4.5

Safety: 4

(usually I will mean safety from other people, but exceptionally we’re losing a point for scorpions and the risk of falling off a cliff or getting hit by a truck)

Reliable internet: 1

(note: there’s no cell reception whatsoever)

Accessibility from foreign locations: 1

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Next stop, Puerto Angel.

Puerto Ángel: Drug runners and boatloads of dead sharks

Google image searching is never the way to pick a destination. As I’ve learned travelling, online dating, apartment hunting, Tindering, Airbnbing… Ok, as I apparently have NOT learned, but know on some level, you can make anything terrible look good with the right photo angle. Puerto Ángel is one of those places you regret swiping right to after seeing its pristine beaches on Google. It isn’t horrible, but it’s kind of depressing and being in such close proximity to places that are AWESOME, there’s literally no reason to go there. Maybe if you have to use the toilet while driving somewhere to Mazunte or Huatulco, but otherwise, keep driving.

We got to Puerto Ángel by a 95 peso van from San Jose del Pacifico, which I shall never do again as long as I live. El Chango, as I’m apparently calling my boyfriend in this blog, used to suspect that I was exaggerating my stories of motion sickness, and once we even got in a fight because I flat-out refused to take a seven-hour bus ride with him, but I projectile vomited vindication all over that van during the longest four hours of my life (which I suspect turned into a long four hours for all occupants of the van). I had taken two Dramamine, but I recommend being at least in a coma to weather this trip. Fortunately I got to sit next to the driver for the last half of the trip, and could whisper “Voy a vomitar” whenever the urge arose, so he could swerve to the side of the unreasonably windy road and let me throw up on the edge of the highway. I later found out that this vomit session is something of a highway 175 rite of passage for Mexicans and foreigners alike.

When we got to Pochutla, we grabbed the first taxi we saw as I was desperate for an icy shower. When we arrived at Puerto Ángel, an old hippie in flip flops came out of a nearby store.

“How much did you pay for that taxi?”

“120 pesos?”

“Pendejos!!” he screamed after the taxi, shaking his fist as it sped away. He explained that it should have been 50. I was still feeling shaky and am used to taxis in my home country that charge about 150 pesos just to pull over and look at you so I didn’t care. I’m the perfect target for this kind of thing, really. “Wait are you Gatita?” he asked. He was managing our Airbnb, a sort of hotel thing right on the beach. He led us upstairs to our corner room.

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Despite the fact that I speak Spanish and had made the reservation, under my name, the hippie gave El Chango the tour instead of me, a gendered pattern I was getting used to. He asked El Chango to go smoke a joint downstairs with him later, but not when his mother was around, because she lived across the street and would kill him. He was at least 50 and after his repeated refusal to include me in the conversation, I found solace in the mental image of him being yelled at by an elderly Catholic woman.

Being a woman with your boyfriend in small-town Mexico gives you a fun window into seeing what it would be like to be Bruce Willis’s character in The Sixth Sense. Men do not look at or speak to you. And women… Where are the women? Wait, which horror movie is this? On more than one occasion when men ignored me, I spent a couple seconds searching for concrete proof that I wasn’t a spirit that only El Chango could see.

“Am I real?!” I would exclaim, pulling at my skin.

“Sometimes I actually wonder,” he’d reply, which I think is supposed to be a compliment but never helps this particular situation.

El Chango explained that in small-town Mexican culture it’s rude to talk to another guy’s girlfriend and that ignoring me shows respect for our relationship.

“I’m a human being trying to order a quesadilla FIRST, your girlfriend second,” I said, getting mad, hoping one of the offending parties would overhear.

“I’m not saying I agree with it, I’m just explaining the way they think,” El Chango said. “Mexican machismo.”

As for the women, they’re inside cooking or whatever. There’s this old Mexican pick-up line that guys would say to women: “What time do you go for bread?” Women in the pueblos only ever used to leave home to go buy bread so interested men would ask them what time they planned to go out, hoping for the chance to be able to intercept the bread run outside. Now it’s mostly an archaic joke that makes fun of itself, something El Chango will say while checking me out when I’m getting dressed: “A qué hora vas por pan?” Maybe it’s archaic in Guadalajara but there are still small towns where I am the only woman outside.

I showered and took a nap. By the time I had woken up, El Chango had befriended half the town, as always happens.

“Amor, I made some friends,” he said, a little sarcastically as if the pickings were slim. He explained that he couldn’t smoke a joint with the guy downstairs because his mama was there, but had gotten talking to a group of fishermen. At first they thought El Chango was a narco because of his tattoos and the way he talks, but he explained that he was just from Guadalajara and constantly surrounded by narcos, which rubs off but is not the same thing. They finally believed him and explained that they worked for drug runners that would run cocaine to a buoy out in the water (he pointed it out to me as he told me this part) and attach weighted bags of cocaine under the water. The fishermen would collect it and bring it to shore for a small cut. The narcos would then sell the fishermen the very cocaine they ran at an exorbitant price so they could stay awake fishing all night. They showed El Chango the coke they had gotten for 500 pesos, about half a gram. He informed them they were getting ripped off, something none of them had realized, since none of them ever leave the beach. Each afternoon they head far out into the ocean, beyond any sign of land, get drunk and high and catch sharks or whatever, and they come back in the early hours of the morning. They blow their earnings on a supply of coke and alcohol for the next fishing trip then do it again. Repeat. Forever. They invited El Chango fishing and he politely declined. I looked out over the small beach. “The fishermen who don’t quite look like fisherman on the beach are the narcos,“ he said.

“Dammit,” I said, the romantic scene ruined.

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My theory is that because El Chango is kind of gangster, guys want to impress him. We get invited everywhere, offered drugs, beer, and boat tours, seemingly because of some reverent fear. Any guy that’s looking at me appears stricken with terror when my tattooed boyfriend appears around the corner addressing me in the only Spanish I know, which apparently is apparently a more gangster form. I’ve done nothing for this street cred, but am consequently treated like the gringa Mia Wallace.

The eastern beach of Puerto Ángel is crowded with boats, and the water abruptly drops off in an underwater cliff, which gives me the heebie jeebies. Although our hotel was on this beach, the idea of hanging out in my bikini with a bunch of coked out fisherman from a town that doesn’t acknowledge women as full people who can be conversed with wasn’t high on my to-do list (and we both suck at swimming), so we would always walk to the western beach, where the water is shallow, there are fewer boats, and the retiree tourists hang out.

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Western beach

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Path from the eastern beach to the western beach

Every once in a while someone will yell from the beach to get out of the water, and a boat will fly onto the sand out of the ocean, full of giant fish. One particular time it was loaded with dead sharks.

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El Chango and I watched in fascinated horror as they hacked off their fins (for soup?) and gutted them with machetes (giving me hope that the rest of them would at least be used for something).

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There are lots of cool crabs which you can watch jump from rock to rock and sometimes fight. Probably makes the top five Puerto Ángel activities.

Puerto Ángel’s street dogs get a 10/10.

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This is Marcel, who we named Marcel because he doesn’t speak Spanish, or at least understand Spanish commands, and could therefore be French. He followed us around for an afternoon.

The local comedores were cheap and the food was pretty good. 15 peso tortas, 25 peso enchiladas. The meal always comes with a free dog.

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We tried to make our own kitchen by buying a cooler and living off of sandwiches. We didn’t see a lot of the town because I was working most of the time we were there but from what we’d seen, we weren’t missing much.

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Our days were mostly comprised of sandwiches and Westworld. Naturally the wifi didn’t work but I was able to rent wifi from the shop downstairs for 50 pesos per 24 hours. Every night the local kids would crowd into the internet shop and share a couple gaming systems, rolling around on swivel chairs, the sound of shooter games reverberating around the parking lot.

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We went to one fancy restaurant on the western beach and ate forgettable things I have already forgotten. The waiter refused to acknowledge me so we made a game out of it.

“Can I get you anything else, joven?” he asked El Chango.

“Yes, two more beers,” I said while El Chango pretended to be busy on his phone.

“Um…” he looked at El Chango, confused as to how he could hear a voice without El Chango moving his lips. “Coming right up.”

“Anything else?” he asked El Chango. El Chango acted like he didn’t understand Spanish.

“Can I get the bill?” I asked.

“Sure,” the server said to his feet, sweating.

He came back and handed El Chango the bill. El Chango didn’t reach for it.

“Thanks,” I said, taking it and handing the waiter money.

The waiter came back and put the change into El Chango’s hand. El Chango looked up at him making a display of confusion and transferring the money to my hand. El Chango insisted we tip almost nothing.

“Have a good night, joven,” he wished El Chango as we left the restaurant. I chuckled thinking of the two pesos waiting for him on the table.

“This town sucks,” I said.

“Agreed.”

We walked down the street, trying to see what else the town could possibly offer. Most things were closed and a giant ugly hotel loomed alone at the top of a large hill ahead of us.

“Hey man, wanna buy some LSD?” a guy yelled at El Chango from a roof.

“Am I real?” I started again. No one offers me drugs from the rooftops.

“We’re going to Zipolote if you wanna come,” the guy yelled, referencing a nearby lawless beach renown for nudism and exorbitant, unchecked drug use.

“Chido, bro,” El Chango called back.

“Why not?” he called after us. “You’ve gotta check it out!”

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I pointed this out every time we walked past it, “Look, it’s STILL there!” “I don’t think it’s going anywhere,” El Chango said. I’m always excited about Intragrammable garbage, even though I don’t even use Instagram.

We bought ice cream out of a deep freezer in a guy’s yard and watched Westworld in bed with the slow internet. The highlight activity of Puerto Ángel.

So, Top Puerto Ángel Attractions:

1. Marcel the street dog

2. Fighting crabs

El Chango says we have should add ice cream as the third, but there’s ice cream that’s just as good everywhere in Mexico.

“Who’s ever heard of a top 2 list though?”

3. They have ice cream

Liveability rating:

Who cares, I’m not going to live here.

Next stop, Mazunte (the place we should have skipped Puerto Ángel for).

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