Before I moved to New Zealand for a semester, I received two guidebooks for the country as gifts. I studied them both, inside and out, carefully marking the adventures I wanted to turn over in my brain during dull moments, like waiting for buses and late friends. Both books were heavy to carry with me across the planet, but I wanted to have my post it notes and bookmarks. On my first full day in New Zealand, I found my way to the tourism office, and I took so many brightly colored pamphlets that one of the women working at the tourism bureau asked if I wanted a shopping bag to take them all home with me.
But I’ve done quite the opposite while in Oaxaca. Instead of meticulously planning out each and every second of my days, I’ve tried the “go with the flow” method. I decided I wouldn’t research, wouldn’t highlight and star, I would just accept as many invitations to see and do and feel as possible. One reason—the pragmatic one at least–for my change in mindset is that I know that there is such a plethora of things to do and see that I realistically cannot see all of that I would want to see in Oaxaca in just thirty days. This is further exacerbated by the fact that my primary reason to be here is to study and collaborate and not to play.
So, I knew before coming here that if I just “let things happen,” that I can better stay in the moment, saving me some of the uncomfortable and scratchy “shoulda/coulda/woulda” feelings that can follow me home in the night. The second is that I’ve just simply been tired—tired of working, tired of planning, and most importantly, tired of worrying. So, in Mexico, I am just going to jump into things, arms outstretched, and see what returns my hug of the universe.
And the first real experience was my day trip to Hierve El Agua, beautiful mineral springs in the valley of Oaxaca. My other NEH colleagues started murmuring about this natural wonder from the first day I arrived, stating that they wanted to see the beautiful waterfalls. At one point, I got confused because someone asked me if I wanted to see the “frozen waterfalls,” and as I was sweltering in 88 degree heat, it felt incredulous that water could be frozen anywhere in the state of Oaxaca outside of a freezer. In addition, the name “Hierve El Agua” translates as “boiling water,” so I thought that for sure the name must be incorrect.
But as someone finally explained to me: Hierve El Agua isn’t waterfalls at all, but streams that have created hard, rock-like mineral deposits that give the appearance of enormous frozen waterfalls. They are amazing to see, and the community has also damned some of dripping water to create beautiful, natural mineral water for people to swim in. It’s a wonder (and gift) from nature.
I said yes without thinking twice. We had a meeting point of 12 p.m. outside my friend Benita’s hotel. In all, eight of us showed up: Benita, Steve, Vanessa, Shidah, Geoff, Aisling, Katherine, and Jesse (a male Jesse, whom everyone calls “el Jesse” and me “la Jessie”). After everyone congregated (Ashling and I were late as we had spent the morning running all over the city to photograph street art), we had to figure out how to get there.
And boy am I glad I said yes before I knew exactly what I was getting into. Let’s just say that unless you go with a tour, the ride there is half the adventure.
First, we walked north a mile to a colectivo stand. There are three main forms of transportation in Oaxaca—bus, taxi, and colectivo. The bus is pretty self-explanatory, but it is entertaining to see men hanging outside of the passenger entrance yelling the bus’s particular destination. Second, there are taxis, which you can hail off of the street, call, or jump into at taxi stands. There are no meters inside the taxis—you negotiate your price before you get in the vehicle. It seems the going rate, no matter how many people are with you or where you are going in central Oaxaca—is 40 pesos (roughly less than $3). The other day, my friends and I took a taxi to a restaurant that was almost twenty minutes away, and there were four of us the car—and the price was still 40 pesos. Amazing!
So last, we have the colectivo, or collective cabs. This is definitely the cheapest option if you want to travel out of central Oaxaca and see the neighboring cities. A colectivo has a specific designation (made clear with a sign in the car’s front window) and makes its rounds at each of the designated stops. Anyone desiring to go to that destination can get hop in, and the driver will notify how many spots are open by sticking the corresponding number of fingers out of his window while he slowly drives by. Colectivos are a far cheaper way to get out of town, and be a quarter of the cost of a regular taxi.
We split into two groups of four to try to make hailing a colectivo easier. We finally negotiated the ride for 25 pesos each (less than $2), which I realized quickly was a large victory as the drive to the city of Mitla was about 35 minutes away. Once we arrived and got out of the comfort of the taxi, I stretched and smiled, thinking we were almost there. But soon, I saw one of my Spanish-speaking friends negotiating fares in front of what essentially was a pickup truck with a top over it. I gulped and imagined someone holding my frizzy hair back as I puked up the three amazing al pastor tacos I had enjoyed from lunch. Remembering to bring medicine for car sickness is not something I had put on my daytrip packing list. Swimsuit, yes! Motion sickness pills, a big ole nope.
Here’s a video clip of our journey before we start climbing the mountain thanks to Aisling Roche!
But I made it. We piled into the camioneta and settled in for 40 minutes of going up a mountain over potholes and dirt terrain. We had to hold on to whatever we could—the metal poles on the edges, the seats, each other. I was my total chameleon self—because the group was happy, positive, and bubbly, I stayed comfortably in the same mood. As we reached almost the top, I thought we had finally made it. Nope. We had to change hands and pickup trucks, and the “new” truck made the old truck look like a hot rod. It was smaller with torn up seats and a roof that leaked. In addition, the new pickup truck already had passengers inside, so we squished even more next to a kind and very curious Oaxacan man.
So by the time we made it to the top of the mountain, it was 2 hours and 45 minutes after we had initially left. Our eyes welcomed the snack and taco stands at the top of the hill, but we weren’t swayed by the owners’ beckoning calls. We could impale our stomachs with food later. For now, we just wanted to see it.
We walked briskly down what has to one of the most beautiful watering holes in the world, school kid giddy to see the wonder. And at that time, Mother Nature, in her cheeky way, decided to greet us with rain. Thanks Mother N!
On top of sudden surprise of rain, we discovered that to do the hour hike around the limestone to see the beautifully petrified waterfall, we’d have to hire a local guide. As we sat there looking into our depleting money wallets, a bit drained and green from the journey, I suddenly called out, “we couldn’t have come all of this way to stop here. We have to do it.” I was a bit surprised at myself, but the others seemed to snap out of it and quickly agreed.
And it was an amazing hike, and the rain ended up in our favor. Benita translated the guide’s words as, “It’s good it is a bit chilly and rainy. When it’s sunny and hot, people always faint on the hike.” And so, in reflection, what with the long bumpy ride in the camioneta immediately followed by a hike with stairs meant for giants, perhaps the rain was a bit of a blessing. It created a landscape that was mysterious with a hint of magic. The group stayed in a good mood while we braved both standing on the bottom boldly looking up the mountain, as well as standing on top of cliffs and peering at the earth below.
My favorite part was following Aisling into the natural swimming pool. While people hesitated about swimming when it was so chilly and we still had to shiver in the back of a pickup on the way home, Aisling dove in before we could even start scratching our heads. We followed her in, and whooped, hollered, and swam laps. We looked out over the edge of the beautiful infinity pool out over the earth. As Shidah dubbed it, “It is the swimming pool of the gods.”
And so, even though I had no clue what to expect, and it was quite the trek to get there, especially if you don’t take the toll road back home (spoiler alert: you will lose your guts if you pay too much attention to the fact that you are on the edge of a tiny road with no guardrails) it was worth it. For two blissful hours, we felt on top of the world.