Words and photographs by Ehren Seeland
A truck engine snores quietly as we wait for more passengers to complete our trip back down a narrow dirt road from Hierve el Agua to Mitla. The black hood of the vehicle sizzles in the heat and a sliver of light slides off of a silver skull mounted to the front grate. My brother, who is visiting from Canada, flicks a slice of fleshy fruit to the ground with a plastic fork. “Do Oaxacan dogs eat mango?” A caramel-colored snout passes over the offering, huffing twice, eyes darting in our direction while moving towards to a new venue for possible noshing.
A giggling young couple saunter up to the truck, eyes glossy from afternoon cervezas. With this, we finally reach the minimum number of six people needed for the driver to pile everyone in and weave down the side of the mountain, ivory-colored rocks spewing in all directions. Our heads bobble to both sides, moving with the bends in the road, eyes heavy from a day of swimming in cold water.
This stunning destination sits roughly 70 km east of Oaxaca, and is composed of two enormous rock shelves, two artificial pools, along with a number of smaller natural pools throughout. Hierve el Agua literally translates to “the water boils” – a namesake on display in the form of gurgling swells that sputter and release oxygen into turquoise waters that are revered for their healing properties. From a side angle, one can gaze over what appears to be two waterfalls, but are in fact natural formations that speak to a layered history of calcium carbonate and a slew of other mineral deposits.
While it is possible to drive to the site, those without a car, those who are on a budget, or who are simply up for an adventure, can catch a colectivo from Oaxaca to Mitla and then transfer to another colectivo to head to the top. Colectivos are maroon and white taxis with set prices to various destinations from and to the city. Passengers are picked up en route until the car is full (a word to the wise: try to avoid sitting in the front seat – trust me on this).
Back in the city, the following day plays host to adventure number two. Strolling west in the mid-morning, pastries in hand, we make our way to Mina 501 to a hotel that sells roundtrip bus tickets to Monte Alban for 50 pesos. We are armed with the newest edition of a printed travel guide, which is to serve as our tour operator for the day.
After a 20-minute commute, we make our way from the bus into the ruins of this ancient city from which the Zapotecs ruled the Valles Centrales. This pre-Hispanic site features an impressive selection of temples, palace structures, an ancient ball court where skirmishes were settled, an observatory and 360-degree views over the city of Oaxaca. Guides are available on-site, though it’s easy to move through the grounds on your own, especially with the posted descriptions (and if your Spanish is strong).
This bus is an economical way to get to and from the site, but it is important to be aware that the fare includes a limited amount of time at the site, so check your ticket in order to avoid paying extra for staying past the designated return time.
Back in the city, we flag another colectivo to Santa María del Tule – a small town located about 10 km from Oaxaca, en route to Mitla. The main attraction is what is noted to be one of the oldest trees in the world, which boasts a circumference of over 160 feet – grown over a lifespan of more than 2,000 years. For a small fee, local children are available to guide you around the tree, pocket mirrors pointed in the direction of various sections that resemble everything from the tail of a squirrel to the Virgin Mary. A late afternoon shower sets in, and we scurry back to a colectivo as fat drops of rain soak through our jackets.
If you happen to be driving, the ideal accompaniment to a rainy day is a steaming bowl of hot stone soup at Caldo de Piedra – a roadside restaurant in between Tule and the city of Oaxaca. This local delicacy uses the pre-Hispanic cooking method of the Chinantec culture and combines a hot stone, seafood stock, fish, shrimp, herbs and chiles, which roll together in a slow boil, shrimp eyes peering from the foam in anticipation before being peeled and eaten.
In and around Oaxaca, a profusion of experiences await in an amalgamation of cultural, historical and culinary endeavors. For a true taste of local living, moving from location to location via colectivo is an excellent option that is simultaneously kind to a daily budget. In the interest of adventure, one also has the added bonus of being guided down a mountain by the ruby-eyed vision of a grinning skull, hands sticky with mango juice and gripping the tailgate of a truck for balance. As the road disappears behind every curve, dust swirls in the distance, hazy and welcoming like the memory of collected travel adventures.