High in Oaxaca’s Sierra Juarez, the mountain range to the east of Oaxaca city that borders the state of Veracruz, nestles Capulalpam de Mendez, one of Mexico’s Pueblo Magicos. The village is terraced into the mountainside and the views are breathtaking. Indeed, the altitude can take your breath away at almost 8,000 feet (2,350 meters, 7,710 feet to be exact).
We are on a two-day adventure, me, Hollie and Carol. We call it an adventure because none of us had been up this road before. Little did we know what would be in store for us further along. Before long, we will be called Las Tres Mosqueteras — female version of the Three Musketeers.
We leave Oaxaca early Sunday morning in my faithful La Tuga (10-year-old Honda Element) to take the switch-back federal highway MEX 175, first to Ixtlan de Juarez, where Mexico’s reformist hero Benito Juarez was baptized close to his birthplace of Guelatao. We climb nearly 2,000 feet in the distance of 62 kilometers or about 38 miles. The precipices are harrowing and the jam-packed shared taxis pay no attention to the solid yellow line that goes the distance to separate the two-lanes. It takes the better part of two hours to make the trip.
Soon we are in a bio-diverse ecosystem of pine, cedar and oak dripping with ferns, bromeliads and moss. It is a rainforest up here with water run-off, gurgling streams filled with trout and lots of roadside restaurants to eat them fresh.
I took one seat out of La Tuga so I can haul an easy-chair and ottoman to an ESL teacher friend, the only gringa at University of Sierra Juarez in Ixtlan. On the return, I carry back a locally crafted pine dresser made from sustainable wood.
After sleeping overnight at the very comfortable Ecoturixtlan ecotourism lodge (try the zip line), I propose we go further up the mountain a few miles more to Capulalpam. I had heard about it but had never been there and everyone is up for what’s next.
Once we get there, we are lucky to find a comedor open for breakfast at the central market. The eggs are perfect and the climate even more so. We meet farmers and innkeepers who tell us that there are only a few Zapotec speakers left in the village. We decide this a perfect spot for a writing retreat or just to chill-out for a few days. Next time.
Since the historic church doesn’t open until noon and it is only 10:30 a.m. local time (an hour later in Oaxaca City, go figure), we decide to scout out the road to the highest point in the village. There’s an overlook up there and we ask directions.
Go to the end of the pavement. Take the dirt road up, says a local woman. So we do. I turn left, climb higher, shifting between first and second. With each curve there is a vista more spectacular than the one before. Then, we face it.
A seventy-degree hill (okay maybe I’m exaggerating just a bit) rutted from rain run-off with a base of gravel and rock. I stop the car. Carol says, Well, we could get out and walk. I say, Well, I think we can make it. Let’s see what La Tuga can do. I press the clutch, push the stick into first and up we go. Except we make it only about half way until the clutch starts to burn and the car begins to swivel sideways dancing toward the edge.
I brake. Oops, I say. Roll down the window and honk, then yell, Necessito un ayudante. I need a helper. Ayudame. Help me. Un hombre. Un hombre. A man. A man. Hilarious, you might think, despite the fact that we are independent women trying to make our way in the world solita. Alone. Hah. Hombre, I yell again. Two children materialize at the top of the hill and look down at us. I imagine they are thinking, Gringas Locas.
Then, David appears. He runs to the passenger side of the car as Hollie is attempting an exit, tells her to get back in. Carol is unusually quiet. David guides me, tells me how to exactly turn the wheel so I can back down slow, straight and sure. Thank goodness my Spanish is good enough!
At the base of the road, I turn the car around around. David invites us all into his house to meet his wife Martha and drink fresh guava juice. His view hanging over the mountain side was pretty darn good.
But, we still want to find the Mirador, the very top of the mountain. David offers to guids us up there and climbs in the back seat. Amazing views.
We joke about our adventure all afternoon. Later, we invite David and Martha to join us for a trout dinner, exchange phone numbers, and I get contact information for his two adult children, a son and a daughter, who live in Los Angeles and who he hasn’t seen in seven years.
If I hadn’t made that turn, I wonder what this story would be like.
P.S. Find the whole wheat bread baked in the wood fired clay oven. Stay overnight at Hotel Chorromonte, 01 (951) 53 92052, with WiFi, beautiful, clean, from 200 pesos a night. Eat breakfast at Comedor Mau-Mau in the village market operated by Betzabeth Cosmes Perez.