Oaxaca & San José del Pacífico, Mexico

The bus ride southwest to Oaxaca took about four and a half hours.  I had a luxury bus, so it was a quite nice trip with scenic views of the dry, steppe, desert scrub land which most people think of when envisioning Mexico that transformed into tropical savanna and rolling green hills.  The bus arrived in Oaxaca at about 5:45pm in waning sunlight and light rain.  I found a cab to Casa Angel hostel where I had booked a ‘pod’ style dormitory room.  After checking in, I ventured out to explore the city and find a nice restaurant for dinner.

Mexico steppe scenery on the way to Oaxaca.
Mexico steppe scenery on the way to Oaxaca.

Oaxaca is a charming city.  Although it is a city with a population of 800,000+ (according to locals), it is largely untouched by ‘Western’ development.  The streets are made of cobblestone with narrow sidewalks.  Along the streets are two story Colonial style buildings with outside walls made of textured mud-clay plaster painted pastel colors and terracotta clay roofs.  The old buildings near the center of town are made of large stone with elaborate busts and facades above.  Any building of size in the city has a courtyard and garden in the center.  At night, the cobblestone streets are lighted by dimly lit streetlights, creating a rustic, even romantic, ambiance.  I joked that Oaxaca reminded me of the movie Assassins.  Oaxaca is considered one of the culinary capitals of Mexico.  It is the birthplace of Mole sauces, and has a thriving gourmet and farm-to-table inspired restaurant scene.  There is also a quite large wellness scene, with many natural and homeopathic medicine shops and yoga studios.  From my limited perspective, the only negative I could find about Oaxaca City is that it seems to have a bit of a graffiti problem, with seemingly senseless tagging on many otherwise lovely flats in the city, and other graffiti stemming from massive protests and occupations that occurred in 2006.

After walking the streets for 45 minutes in the evening ambiance, I was enamored with the city.  I found myself at Zadunga, a modern gourmet restaurant near the center of town.  I was starving and ordered a ‘tamale de pollo con mole negro y un plato de enchiladas de pollo con moles.’  I also received a plate of fresh made tortilla chips with four salsas, guacamole, and a fish pâté.  So, it was a lot of food, but I had barely eaten that day and was up to the task.  Everything was incredible!  I had only tried mole once or twice before.  I wasn’t expecting it, but mole negro is unbelievably rich, and therefore heavy.  Mole rojo was my favorite.  I walked out of there feeling like I had a bowling ball in my stomach, partly because the amount of food consumed, but also due to the mole negro.  Still, it was just what I needed, and I was extremely pleased.  My bill was 220 pesos ($11).

I spent the next day exploring downtown Oaxaca.  I started at Mercado 20 de Noviembre, an indoor open-air market with many food vendors and barbecue/smoked meat places.  I had a plato de carnes Oaxacana, which was Oaxacan chorizo and a chili-rubbed and smoked piece of beef with rice, beans, and avocado, prepared by an abuelita (granny) of about 70.  Marvelous!  50 pesos.

How'd they know I was going to be here?!
How’d they know I was going to be here?!

Afterwards, I headed to another market, Mercado Benito Juarez, featuring handicrafts and other specialty items.  I was tempted to buy some artisanal mescal, but still wanted to put some time between me and my stomach illness before hitting the mescal.  The other thing I was tempted to buy were handmade boots.  Strong, supple leather boots, custom made for each foot, with each seam stitched 3 times by hand.  Plus, you get to design the boot (colors of leather and toe stitching patterns).  In Mexico, they say you die with your boots.  They told me a pair would last 10 years of everyday wear, for 1600 pesos ($80).  I would have bought a pair of boots if I didn’t have to carry them around on my travels.  Now, I wish I did buy a pair and ship them home.

Later I explored the Zócalo, and the Santo Domingo church and museum.

Inside the museum they had an awesome exhibit on Leopoldo Mendez, a Mexican artist whose primary medium was lithograph.  Like other Mexican artists, the theme of much of his work was political oppression and the Mexican Revolution, making for some powerful imagery.

Adjacent to the Santo Domingo church is also a huge ethnobotanical garden.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get to the ethnobotanical garden until 4pm, and it closed at 5.  I felt like it was a place I could spend an entire afternoon, lounging among the beautiful plantscapes.

I walked back to the hostel in a light rain (apparently, it rains most days at dusk in Oaxaca).  I was keen to watch the Cubs game, so searched a place with a TV and wound up at Tacos Alvaro, a small restaurant where the locals eat.  I asked them to turn on el partido de beisbol to which they obliged, and I had dinner and a few beers while watching the game.  Unfortunately, the Cubs got whooped 0-6 to go down 2 games to 1 in the NLCS.

The next day I took a tour of Monte Albán, an expansive pre-Columbian archaeological site a few miles outside of Oaxaca.  Aside from the pyramids and temples that are common in archaeological sites in Mexico, this place featured a large ‘ballgame’ court, in which warriors would compete on teams of two to eight, and the losing team would be sacrificed.

After Monte Albán, the tour visited a few other sites, including a hand-carved woodworking workshop and black clay pottery workshop, two of the specialty handicraft products unique to Oaxaca.

After the tour, I took a siesta, and later headed out to watch the Cubs game.  I found an Irish style pub with 20+ TVs, all tuned to a regional soccer game.  I asked if they would put the Cubs game on one TV, and they told me to fuck off (LOL!).  I wound up back at Tacos Alvaro, and watched the game there.  My waitress, Carmen was happy to see me again.  I met a Kiwi, Andrew, who was also staying at Casa Angel hostel.  We had a few beers while I explained the rules of baseball to him, and converted him to Cubs-fandom.  Cubs won big 10-2, and Andrew was hooked.

The next day while having breakfast in the kitchen of the hostel, I again ran into Andrew.  He was keen to head to Mitla and Hierve el Agua, a natural, mountaintop spring and ‘frozen’ waterfall about two hours outside Oaxaca.  It was my last full day in Oaxaca, and I didn’t have anything planned so decided to go along.

Getting there was an adventure, as you need to take ‘colectivos’ (shared van/small bus) into rural Mexico.  While waiting for a colectivo, a taxi driver offered to take us to Mitla for the same price as the van.  Without bus stops it would be faster, so we hopped in.  We didn’t realize it was a ‘compartido’ (shared) taxi.  The taxi was soon filled with three other passengers, for a total of six people in the small car.  Andrew is a pretty big, athletic dude and we sat with a stout Mexican guy of about 200lbs in the back, so it was quite cozy for an hour to Mitla.  In Mitla, we then took another taxi for 45 minutes through winding dirt roads up a mountain to arrive at Hieve el Agau.

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After hiking about the mountaintop and soaking in the refreshing, cold spring water for a while, we had mermelitas and a couple beers for lunch.  We took a colectivo truck down the mountain with an Austrian and Australian girl, whom we learned were also staying at Casa Angel.  We then all shared a taxi back to Oaxaca.  We all spent the remainder of the afternoon wandering around Oaxaca near the Zócalo.  We all tried ‘malteados de cacao’ (cacao malts), which were amazing after a day in the hot sun.  The cacao beans were ground on site after we ordered.

After returning to the hostel, I went to a yoga class at a nearby studio.  The class is normally taught in Spanish, but that day everyone who attended spoke English, so the instructor Laurie (a US ex-pat) taught in English for me.

After, I met Andrew for beers on the rooftop patio of the hostel.  After a short while, a party of guests at the hostel had erupted on the rooftop.  There were about 25 people from something like seven different countries drinking and bullshitting together.  It was great fun, but the Cubs were on again so I ventured out to watch.  I wanted to further experience the budding culinary scene in Oaxaca and try at least one more gourmet restaurant, but the Cubs in the NLCS trumps all, so I was relegated to dining at the only place I could find that would show the game, Tacos Alvaro.  Cubs won 8-4, so I was happy, and so was Carmen after I gave her a big, celebratory tip.

The next day, I took a camionetta colectiva (collective van) to San José del Pacífico at noon.  After climbing through perilous, winding mountain roads, the van arrived in San José at about 5pm.

San José del Pacífico is a small mountain town in the southwest of Mexico, about halfway between Oaxaca and the Pacific coast.  By small town, I mean there is not much there.  There are five or so cafés and a handful of small family owned hostels on the main strip in town.  The main strip is a 100m long slice of Route 175.  The locals live in small shacks scattered throughout the surrounding mountain ranges.  The town lies above the clouds in dense forest covered mountains, and is popular among travelers due to the amazing scenery, hiking, and mushrooms.  It is said to be the ‘Magic Mushroom Capital’ of Mexico (sometimes referred to as Mushroom Mountain or Magic Mountain), where psychedelic mushrooms grow naturally between July and October.  Honoring the traditions of their Aztec ancestors, nearly everyone in town is a user of mushrooms, and consequently the locals are extremely laidback and good natured.  They say their ancestors foresaw a time of great conflict and disconnection between humanity and nature (that we are experiencing now), and therefore carried out many ceremonies nearby to bless the mountains as a sacred place to reconnect with nature and the Great Spirit.  Before learning any of this, upon arriving I felt San Jose was an extremely ‘high energy’ place where my senses felt heightened.

After being dropped on the main street in town, I asked a taxi driver if he knew La Cumbre hostel, a place recommended to me by a couple travelers at Casa Angel.  The taxi driver nodded and pointed up into the hills.

Fifteen minutes later, a local of about four feet in stature with a barrel chest and bright countenance, Rolando, checked me in and showed me around at La Cumbre.  The accommodations were modest to say the least.  The hostel was basically a series of one bed shacks built across the hillside, with a shared bathroom a short climb below and a ‘comedor’ (small kitchen/restaurant) a short climb upward, and cats, dogs, and chickens all about.  After settling in, Rolando showed up in my doorway, “Hongos, amigo?” (Mushrooms, friend?).  I first inquired about a Temazcal ceremony, knowing they were common in this area.  He informed me there was one happening the next morning at 10am.  Rolando told me the traditional Aztec way is to fast overnight and do a Temazcal in the morning, followed by mushrooms while in a still fasted state.  “Quiero hacer eso” (I want to do that), I told him, and he smiled brightly and patted me on the shoulder, “Claro.”

First view at La Cumbre.
First view at La Cumbre.

Three doors down, I met Yoshi from Tokyo, Japan.  He had been at La Cubre for five weeks.  He was quite an interesting character.  About 35 with psychedelic tattoos from neck to wrist and ankle.  I appreciated the ‘Zen’ way about him.  Everything he did was with care and presence.  I’d never seen anyone prepare coffee or roll a joint with the attention and grace as he did.  “Maybe it’s cultural.  I should go to Japan,” I thought.  We immediately became buddies even though his English was not great.

I spent the evening watching the sunset over the mountains while hanging with Yoshi, and having a light dinner in the comedor before turning in early.  I had a Caldo de Pollo (chicken soup), which was incredible.  I remarked how good the soup was, and Manuel, the waiter/chef, explained that the chicken was butchered earlier that morning and had been cooking all day since.

I awoke at 7am, having slept wonderfully in the pure, cold mountain air.  I went for a walk in the brisk 50F morning, and found a place to sit and meditate as the sun rose over the mountains, preparing myself for the day’s events.  I later found my way to the comedor and had two cups of herbal tea and read the news before making my way to the Temazcal at 10am.

Crisp morning view.  Ready for the Temazcal.
Crisp morning view. Ready for the Temazcal.

At a lot adjacent to a church in the hills, a ten minute walk downhill from La Cumbre, I met Monica and Naison, a French couple who had been living in Mexico for the past 10 years studying ancient healing traditions.  Naison built a big fire with about 30 large rocks in the center.  While waiting for the fire to reach the desired intensity, I met my fellow Temazcaleros:  Elli and Amadi, a couple from Israel, and their young daughter Uni, and Jim, another local originally from France.  Monica gave us an overview of the ceremony and what to expect.

On its surface, a Temazcal is essentially a sweat lodge, used to purify the body of toxins.  However, the Aztecs used it as a means to reconnect to the Great Spirit and cleanse the ‘four bodies’ (Mental, Emotional, Spiritual, and Physical) of accumulated impurities.  Each of the four bodies is associated with one of the cardinal directions and one of the four elements: earth, water, wind, and fire.  The ceremony progresses by opening ‘doors’ (e.g. ‘West Door’) one-by-one into each body.  While each door is opened, the heat and vapor of the sweat lodge, as well as drumming, chanting and singing, burn impurities out of our beings.

When the fire was ready, we were instructed to change into our bathing suits.  We each took a handful of tobacco in our left hands, put it to our hearts and set an intention for the ceremony.  My intention was simply to reconnect to the Great Spirit, as I had muffled my connection gained in the Amazon through too much partying while traveling.  We each threw our tobacco into the fire and entered the Temazcal one-by-one, touching our heads to the ground in humility before crawling inside.

The Temazcal is a small earthen dome of about eight feet in diameter and three feet tall.  Entering inside is considered the act of reentering into the earth’s womb.  In the center is a pit where hot stones are placed.  It can hold no more than about 10 people.  With six adults and a small girl, we each had a decent amount of room.

A helper brought in five hot stones on a pitchfork, one-by-one. Naison greeted each stone, “Bienvenido Abuelita” (Welcome Grandma), as it entered the hut, and moved it into the fire pit.  Monica burned a piece of copal resin on each rock, touched each with deer antlers (sacred animal of the Aztecs), and said a blessing.  A bucket of water with various fragrant plants soaking was brought in, and Naison lowered a blanket over the door, announcing the ceremony was to commence.

Now in pitch darkness, save the faint glow of the hot stones, Naison said some words to open the first door (I believe it was East), and then used a branch of cedar leaves to splash water onto the rocks.  Fragrant steam billowed from the pit and engulfed the hut.  After just five minutes, with no way for the steam and heat to escape, it was intense.  Each door lasts between 10 to 45 minutes depending on Naison’s feeling of the groups progress and what is needed for proper cleansing.  Naison and Monica beat a drum, use Maraca-like shakers, and sing traditional Aztec songs.  All are encouraged to participate.

The first door lasted about 40 minutes, and I was quite relieved when Naison lifted the blanket to release the heat in the hut.  We had about a five minute break from the intense heat, while the helper brought in more hot stones from the fire for the second door.

The ceremony took about two hours to complete.  I sat upright for the first two doors, but by the middle of the third door had to lay on the ground where it is cooler to make it through.  Some people report psychedelic experiences while in the Temazcal.  I didn’t experience anything psychedelic per se, but did experience a broad range of feelings.  At one point, I felt quite emotional and almost wanted to sob, while at another point I felt anxious and my mind was racing, and at another joyful, laughing at all our silly human hang-ups.  By the end, I was feeling blissful, with intense gratitude for all I have, for the earth for providing for me, and for Great Spirit giving my human experience.

You are said to emerge from the Temazcal, the earth womb, reborn.  I emerged completely soaked in sweat, covered in wet dirt, and completely content.  I had a big smile on my face, and felt great despite dehydration and fasting.  I took another handful of tobacco in my left hand, thanked the Great Spirit, and threw it into the fire to close my ceremony.

I hosed down and hung with the group for a while, before heading back to La Cumbre.  There I showered, ate a couple bananas, drank a bunch of water and Gatorade, and then had a short rest.

Rolando came by at 2:15pm and asked if I wanted, “El Maestro o El Hermano.”  At first I didn’t understand, but after thinking about it, “The Teacher or The Brother,” I realized he was talking about mushrooms, and of course I wanted The Teacher.  Before I could reply, he continued, “El Maestro es mas grande y fuerte” (The Teacher is larger and stronger).  “Perfecto, El Maestro, por favor.”

Fifteen minutes later, Rolando returned with a cup of mushroom tea.  “El Maestro,” he said triumphantly with a shining grin as he handed it to me.  He instructed me to drink and eat it all.  “Buen Viaje” (Happy Journey), he said as he left.

El Maestro.
El Maestro.

Within 10 minutes, the psilocybin was setting in quite powerfully and rapidly due to my fasted state.  By 3pm, I was sitting on my porch, looking out over the expanses of mountains, while the clouds and trees were twisting and vibrating in new ways.

Uh oh... the shrooms are kicking in really fast
Uh oh… the shrooms are kicking in really fast

I packed my daypack, and set out for a hike.  Heading into the forest on a hiking trail, I passed an old man.  He took one look at me and knew I was heading out for a hike on shrooms, and smiled and nodded approvingly.  I hiked for about 20 minutes, greeting the plants, rocks, and wildlife along the way, and they greeted me in return.  I found a beautiful spot at the foot of tree to sit, and had a smoke while mesmerizing at the incredible aliveness of the forest around me.  I could see and feel the vibrating consciousness of the forest, and I was vibrating in mutual harmony with it.

I decided to meditate and had an amazingly profound experience.  If I hadn’t reconnected fully with the Great Spirit during the Temazcal, I certainly did while meditating.  I entered the nonphysical realm, in a way that I had only accessed before with DMT.  I had a vision that was the exact same as I had seen while doing ayahuasca three months prior in the Amazon—an arrowhead with a shifting array of light shining from behind it and upon hitting the point of the arrowhead, flickering and shimmering towards me (somewhat like the cover of the Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon).  At another point, I had a vision of myself holding a baby boy that was so powerful I wanted to weep in joy.  I had several other impactful visions, and overall my experience of meditating and hiking in the mountains was life affirming and therapeutic.

As it got darker in the mountains, I hiked back to La Cumbre, greeting and thanking all the plants, rocks, dirt, birds, insects, butterflies, and squirrels I encountered on the way.  I stood at a cliff overlooking the mountains, spread my arms wide overhead, looked to the heavens, and closed my eyes, thanking the Great Spirit for all that is.

At La Cumbre, I had a couple hand rolled Japanese cigarettes with Yoshi while watching the sunset over the mountains, in a state of peace and bliss the entire time.  At dark, I laid in my cabin for a while, and the trip reengaged, though far less intense than before.  I had several interesting revelations, while resting in my room.  My brain was unlocked, open to new and different ways of thinking and new neural pathways.  The revelations were mostly about myself, and about dynamics of relationships I have with people in my life.  I had another revelation about the Spanish language, making a connection that heretofore escaped me, and has since served me in my communication.  The Maestro was indeed an incredible teacher in many, many ways.

At about 8pm, I headed to the comedor for dinner.  I was famished, having not eaten anything except two bananas since the previous night—a 24 hour fast.  I again had the amazing Caldo de Pollo, a vegetarian Tlayuda (like a quesadilla but huge), and two cups of hot chocolate (a specialty in San Jose).  I realized that the Cubs were playing, and Manuel was nice enough to put the game on for me.  I was already in a state of bliss, and then I got to watch the Cubs win, sending them to the World Series.  I went to bed soon after and slept deeply.  What a great day.

I awoke the next morning at 7am, and got moving right away.  It was Sunday, and I had an Airbnb booked in Puerto Angel, on the Pacific Coast.  I packed up all my gear and walked down the mountain to the main strip of town.  I arranged for a van ride to Pochutla, near Puerto Angel.  I had an omlette and coffee while waiting an hour for my van to arrive.

On the way out of San Jose, incredulous that I had experienced so much wonder in only two nights, I stared intently at the gorgeous scenery trying to soak in psychic remnants of the Magic Mountain.

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4 thoughts on “Oaxaca & San José del Pacífico, Mexico”

  1. I’m thinking about stopping in San Jose Del Pacifico on my way to Mazunte and possibly doing a Temazcal, although my Spanish is not very good. What level of competency in the language would you say is required or recommended to participate in one of these ceremonies?

    1. The temezcal I participated in was conducted in English. They were seeking out travelers for the ceremonies, so I reckon they normally cater to English speakers. I arranged the ceremony through a little kid whose parents ran the ceremony. That was the most difficult thing, hammering out the details of the location, time, and cost with the little kid. However, like anywhere in Latin America, they know you’re a foreigner and if they want to offer a service they’ll usually be patient enough to deal with your broken Spanish. Just don’t be shy and repeat you’re understanding of the details 10 times if necessary until you’re sure you’re both on the same page. They generally enjoy the interaction with gringos 😉

      I’d recommend trying El Maestro after the cleaning of the ceremony, if you’re into that kind of thing. By far the most powerful and profound psilocybin experience I’ve had. San Jose is a magical place. Enjoy!

  2. Hi Matt
    Thank you for your wonderful travel story through Oaxaca. I did a similar route just a few days back. Great memories!

    A little Update on San Jose del Pacifico:

    La Cumbre. I stayed at la Cumbre which has undeniably the best view of the mountains of all Hostals. It’s breathtaking! But a friendly warning to travellers: Expect to pay for anything extra (toilet paper, warm showers, internet) and don’t expect them to care a single bit about you. They’re kinda unfriendly up there and mostly just interested in your money. Don’t let their groove get to you and you’ll be fine.

    Temazcal: best Temazcalero in Town is Paco. He does the real ceremony and is in there with you singing and drumming. A very nice person. Unlike the others who heat up their so called Temazcales and give you a bucket with water for you to do your own Temazcal. Paco advertises his dates on the blackboard at the Tattoo Shop (yes, there is a great Tattoo Shop in San Jose!).

    That said, bring warm clothes and have a safe trip! (Or trips, if you know what I mean…)

    1. Thanks for the info, Raf! I didn’t find the people at La Cumbre to be unfriendly, but, yes, they kinda do their own thing after they’ve checked you in. And they speak zero English. You’re on your own there!

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