# 21 : Puertos Vacation # 1

Vacation Blog 1: Juquila and Nopala

21 November 2015

              Linda and I are taking a vacation! I know, some folks think we are living one, 24/365. But this is different. We are leaving Santa Cruz Etla. Not racing back to the States. No one to visit. No tasks to be accomplished. You know, a real vacation. It was supposed to happen last week, but Emma, our house sitter, overbooked. We’ve probably mentioned that you don’t leave a house unattended in this culture, especially when it is full of animals – 1 dog, 2 cats, and, presumably, countless tiny miscellaneous. So we put the vacation off for ten days, meaning that we would spend Thanksgiving on the road. That’s OK. We have a lot to be thankful for and carry our awareness of that fact with us wherever we go.

              On Day 1 we planned to drive about 200 kilometers—piece of cake! We are used to driving 110 KPH on the cuotas (about 72 MPH), so we should have plenty of time to visit the important shrine at Juquila, toward the end of the day’s run, and then spend the night in a nearby high-jungle town, Nopala, reachable by direct road from Juquila says the Google map. Though the close up map does indicate lots of curves. Well, if the locals say that one is tough, there is another one, only a little longer, from San Juan Lachao.

              But there is construction in Oaxaca on the Internacional, so, as counseled, we take the River Road. As do all of the trucks, busses, moto-taxis, and Juquila pilgrim-support trucks in the Central Valleys. Despite our 7:00 AM start, we don’t pass the airport until nearly 8:30. Grr. We’ll make up time on the flat(ish) road to Zimapán. Right. Lots of topes. Lots of —here is a very useful Spanish word for you— baches (pot holes). The scenery in the Valley is spectacularly pretty, and the passenger has lots of time to contemplate it as the driver zigzags past. 

At Zimapán we leave the Central Valley and start into the Sierra Madre Occidental, the mountain range that separates the Valley from the Pacific Coast. About 150 KM as the crow flies. The Oaxaca Central Valley averages about 1600 meters in altitude, the mountain passes (3) reach 2,000, the intermountain valleys (2) drop to 1,000, with the final descent dropping to zero at the beach. So there are lots of curves. Lots!  During one of my driving stretches, to keep from going nuts, I decided to count them, defining a curve as a total change of direction. I logged ten miles of curves, at an average of 20 curves per mile! Then I decided I actually had gone nuts, and I begged Linda to take the wheel for a while, at least until the turnoff to Juquila, which we had originally planned to reach by 11:00.


But, Linda was knitting, and after with the brief stop I felt pretty good, so I slid back behind the wheel.  We hit two short stretches before Sola de Vega and stepped on the gas, speeding the car up to a heady 40 mph. We rounded a corner into Sola de Vega and all the tail lights of the long line of stopped cars ahead of us were blinking. I got out, walked up a couple of lengths to where I could see what was happening. A line of 4-year-old girls, clad identically in green, white, and red, were parading across an intersection carrying little Mexican flags of the same color set. Behind them marched the 5-year-olds. Tubas the right of them, tubas to the left of them, volleyed and thundered. A lady in an abarrotes shop engaged my attention and I shrugged my shoulders in the universal “what-can-I-do?” way.

“If you’re headed south, go back 500 meters, take the first left, follow the dirt road across a bridge, turn left at the first intersection, and just keep on going.”

The surprise must have shown in my face because she added, “Don’t worry, you won’t get lost.”

We performed a 180, headed briefly north, and followed her instructions to the syllable, even though her “road” looked to us like a track leading to somebody’s barn. After three bache-dodging kilometers we found ourselves back on asphalt again, headed for the Juquila intersection.


The Virgen de Juquila, a tiny, miracle-working, 17th-century image about 30 cm high (11”), in our part of the country is more important than the Virgen de Guadalupe. In Oaxaca City it seems that every fourth commercial establishment is called Juquila, or Juquilita. Between the San Pablo Etla church and Claudio & René’s house at the base of the mountain, a distance of a little over a kilometer, there are three separate Juquila chapels. We use the nearest one as a landmark when we give directions, because it is painted bright purple. Her feast day is in early December, and thousands of Oaxacans make pilgrimage to her church in the mountains: by bus, on foot, on bicycle,


It was almost 2:00 when we reached the Cerro del Vidrio turn to Juquila, but even so, we decided there was still time to take a quick look if we got right to it. The village was only 30 km from the turn, on a mountain with only one intervening valley, and we hadn’t seen all that many pilgrims along the road so far, so the way ought to be fairly clear. Another miscalc. I don’t know where the pilgrims were, but their heavily loaded, sign-bedecked support trucks were all here, creeping their way down the hairpin turns to the valley and grinding their way up the long climb to Juquila.  Buses, too.

The long and the short of it (well, there was no short, not really) is that we finally got to Juquila, parked, and went into the lovely modern church. Surprisingly, it was not as crowded with pilgrims as have been the other major Catholic shrines with which we are familiar. Still, the tourists and worshipers did what they always do, the algebra of which turned out to be :

  Praying and  snapping tablet or cell-phone pictures.

From the church we circled round to see the back side of the Virgin’s mantle, browsed as rapidly as possible through the Pasillo de Reliquias (the Gallery of Religious Chachkis), watched kids playing in the fountain in the plaza, bought a cold soft drink, and headed back to the car.

Next, we sought the best route south. It was, after all that, El Vidrio, having learned that the direct road to Nopala will accommodate travel on four hoofs but not on four wheels. And that the rainy season did a number on the road to Nopala from San Juan Lachao that will again be suitable for cars, we were assured, but only after it has been re-graded. So we took the long—I,e., only feasible—route to Nopala, arriving just before dark. Nopala is at about 800 meters, hot and humid. We had a lovely if prosaic dinner in a lovely hotel, the best in town, priced at $19 US for a clean room with two double beds, an electric fan, a view of the plaza  (band, dancers, fireworks), hot water in the shower, and a gecko on the wall. Who could ask for more?

There are two sets of recently discovered ruins near Nopala, and I had resolved to visit one of them, on Cerro Iglesia, which I was led to believe involved a long climb halfway up a mountain on a trail that I would probably be able to find with ease. Ángel, the young subaltern at the hotel, offered to show me where to start, and in the thickening dusk we jounced a couple of km on a dirt road along a river to where the road ended at a ford that later in the dry season could be crossed safely by a car.

“There’s a suspension bridge up a ways. Cross that, turn left on a donkey trail, follow it for, say, a couple of kilometers, and you’ll se a vereda, a footpath, climbing up to the right.”

“OK. And it will take . . .

“An hour or two. If you see campesinos up there, they’ll be able to help you find it.”

Right. Two hours if you are eighteen years old and used to the heavy, hot, humid air. And don’t get lost. I thanked him and said I’d give it a try, and if I didn’t make it, well, I’d bird the lower slopes and be perfectly happy.


I woke about 5:45, and by the time I had brushed my teeth and counted out the morning’s pills it was beginning to get light. Outside in the plaza merchants were already setting up their market stalls for the Saturday market. I bought a piece of sweet bread in an abarrotes store and drove out of town toward the ford. I was astounded that despite the fact that the sun was not yet up, the road was crowded with men on foot, men on donkeys, men on motos, all headed in the same direction. All with large machetes in tooled leather sheaves tucked under their arms, most with thigh-high rubber boots, though a few wore huarache sandals made of leather or old rubber tires. As I parked the CRV on some gravel near the ford, locked up, and put on my binoculars, I talked to a half dozen of the men. I learned that I had inadvertently joined the morning commuters. There were two large coffee plantations halfway up the mountain, and the men were going up for the chamba (a word generally meaning a day’s work of physical labor), as the season to pizcar (pick coffee) had just begun.


              The men with donkeys dismounted. The donkeys trotted through the water, the booted men plashing along beside them. Most of the men without donkeys climbed up the concrete steps to the suspension bridge and strode across, avoiding the gaps and the more bowed of the weathered wooden slats, as the bridge jounced and swayed. Three snowy egrets, hunting for breakfast in the water that foamed among the boulders far below, seemed to pay them no attention. After all: they’re just commuters; every day; what’s the big deal?


              I have a confession to make. I loathe suspension bridges.  I know they are (usually) strong and safe. But I just look at one and all my acrophobia kicks in. My hands start to sweat, I get a queasy feeling in my stomach, my heart goes into overtime, and my brain starts telling me: “Hey, don’t you have better things to do today than cross this dumb old bridge?”


              But as I was standing at the top of the concrete steps, at the very brink’s edge of the long row of flimsy slats, up the stairs behind me come a man wrestling a motorcycle from step to step. Behind him, a boy who appeared to be about four years old.

              “You’re going to take that moto across this bridge?”

              He seemed surprised by the question. After all, wasn’t his intention obvious? “Sí, claro, todos los sábados.”

              “Every Saturday?”

              “No school. My son adores going out into the campo, so on Saturdays this is his special treat.”


              I watch them cross, descend the steps, the young man climb up and wrap his hands around his father’s waist, and the two of them put-put up the rocky hill toward the Hacienda Sinaí where papa will spend the day picking coffee beans.


              And then I cross the bridge, go a little way up the mountain, realize that it is not for me, not today, bird happily for a couple of hours, and go back across the bridge to Nopala to have breakfast with Linda.




The prizes? A flock of orange-fronted parakeets,  a russet-browed motmot, and another flock of yellow-winged caciques, the last two depicted below