South by West- camping from Alaska to Nicaragua

Travel time: January 2003 - January 2008  |  by Jerry Bazant

12- Pyramids of Oaxaca

Our first pyramids; Quiet New Year; Rolling coffins; In search of Mexican flag; Policia Turistica; German tourists; Guatemala border; No car insurance? 
---------------------------------------------------------------------
Out first encounter with pyramids was Monte Alban near Oaxaca. It was an awesome sight. Zapotecas Indians levelled a mountaintop and built a city there. At its peak 25 000 people lived there. About 1000 BC the place was abandoned. Archeologists are still debating why. On the flat ground are many buildings, some only half excavated, couple of pyramids, a ball court and more. Tourists are climbing everywhere and circulating among them are few unsavory characters selling "antique" figurines to gullible tourists.

...Zapotecas manually leveled this mountain top without using wagons or animals...

...Zapotecas manually leveled this mountain top without using wagons or animals...

In the valley is the city Oaxaca whose pronunciation baffled my brain [wa-HA-ka]. The campground is located conveniently in the city with shopping and bus station within walking distance. Unfortunately that might not last very long, in one corner of the camp an office tower was being build .
We spent a quiet New Year eve in the campground. The fireworks around the city started early and almost fizzled by midnight. Some campers went downtown and were disappointed. There were not big crowds in the Zocalo, locals were celebrating at home and in their streets.

...Oaxaca is spread below Monte Alban. It was destroyed by earthquakes 1854 and 1931...

...Oaxaca is spread below Monte Alban. It was destroyed by earthquakes 1854 and 1931...

After New Year we witnessed the arrival of  the "Rolling Coffins bus tour". The real name was Rotel, or Rolling Hotel but Coffins I thought was more appropriate. It was a German touring company with a special Mercedes bus. The rear end of the bus was converted into sleeping cubicles stacked up three levels high, something like catacombs. The bus was completely self-sufficient and organized like caravan. Each of the 20 tourist was assigned a job. Some prepared the tables, others brought water, some cooked, others washed the dishes. I couldn't help it but be impressed with German efficiency and organization. One hour after arrival they were ready to eat supper. Ten o'clock was night time and they were up at six, ready to roll again.
 

...Museo Regional de Oaxaca used to be a monastery. Now it is a treasure house for artifacts from Monte Alban...

...Museo Regional de Oaxaca used to be a monastery. Now it is a treasure house for artifacts from Monte Alban...

Later on came a similar group from England. Their Coffin bus was for some reason held up at the Guatemala border so they travelled in an ordinary bus and slept in tents. Instead of organization they had an organized chaos, arguing about doing their choirs, laughing, kidding and joking. After late supper,  bunch of them were standing together and waving arms back and forth.
"Exercise? Are you kidding? Just air drying dishes."
Their bed time was long after midnight after consuming many Coronas. The name of the touring company was Dragonmasters.

...Rolling Coffins caravan in action...

...Rolling Coffins caravan in action...

One day we decided to buy a Mexican flag and add it to our collection. Easier said then done, none of the big supermercados had one. Eventually in one store, could be Woolworth's, I saw my flag. But seeing it and buying it are two different things. The store baffled me. People were standing in lines, moving from one line to another, back and forth without buying much. Eventually I got it.

This is how I [almost] bought my flag:
- I stood in a line leading to the counter where the flag was. When my turn came I pointed it to the clerk.
- She wrote a slip and sent me to the cashier.
- I went to the line, paid the cashier and she stamped the slip
-I went back to the flag line. She checked the slip and picked up the flag and then she put it back.
"It is not for sale." she told me.
"Why not ?"
"Because it is the last one."

No sense to argue with her. So I went back to the cashier line, got my money back. I was starting to feel like a fool. Then I saw a pretty girl in a "Policia Turistica" uniform. I asked her, she called the headquarters and then sent me to another store. They had Mexican flags! They were big, 3' x 4', but so what, we will use it on the boat.

...the coffins are stacked up three stories high. Access is from the outside on the other side...

...the coffins are stacked up three stories high. Access is from the outside on the other side...

Near us was a campervan with BC licence plates. The couple had a peculiar daily routine. They got up early, made tea and carefully arranged cups and plates on a folding table. After oatmeal breakfast they would sit for half an hour without saying a word. Later they went to town and returned in the afternoon. The rest of the day was spent reading books, ignoring other campers. One day Sue spoke with them. They were Germans, Gunter and Marta, and the van belonged to his parents who lived in BC. They were learning Spanish in a Language school. They were world travellers, name a country and they had visited it.
The Spanish course was finished and they were planning to go to Guatemala. Gunter asked us if we would like to join them, it is safer to travel in a group. This would be their second visit to that country. Never thought of going to Guatemala but why not?

...Guatemala border crossing is a step into the third world...

...Guatemala border crossing is a step into the third world...

Crossing the border to Guatemala brought us to a third world. The border is hard to describe. Maybe a mass of humanity. Hundreds of stalls in overcrowded street, selling food, Indian blankets, wooden carvings, oranges, bananas, running shoes, radios and much more. Indian women in traditional colourful dresses with children, dogs. Overcrowded buses painted in bright colours belching clouds of blue smoke. Money-changers with 2" thick wads of Quetzals [Guatemala money] in their hands and more in bags hanging from their bellies. Cars and trucks from latest models to ancient wrecks.  A few unconcerned policemen holding shotguns watching the comings and goings.

...pedestrians share this street with occasional cars and trucks...

...pedestrians share this street with occasional cars and trucks...

Computers at the immigration gave a feeling of modern age but in fact they hindered the process because old forms were still being filled in triplicate on ancient typewriters. Computers were slow and frequently breaking down. It took almost an hour to finish the visa application, immigration and vehicle permit. Then we had to take a taxi back across the border to Mexico because our passport did not have an exit stamp. Four hours later we were on the road.
 

...human mules...

...human mules...

Guatemala is a country of steep mountains, extinct and active volcanoes, pine forests, banana trees, palms and corn fields. It is a densely populated country and all arable land is cultivated. Corn is grown on incredibly steep mountain sides, as far and high as an eye can see.

The highway was mostly good, but steep, full of sharp curves, with some rough sections. Almost every man in the countryside lugged a machete and almost every woman carried a bundle on her head.

"Don't drive without a collision insurance in Guatemala" I was warned "If you are involved in an accident you could end up in a jail regardless of whose fault it was". But where do you buy insurance? Not at the border, maybe in Quezaltenango a big city about three hours drive. So we were driving there on a Friday afternoon, without insurance, hoping to stay somewhere till Monday and then buy the insurance.
      

...first look at houses in Guatemala: different style and shape...

...first look at houses in Guatemala: different style and shape...

...ball court. The winners were [occasionally] sacrificed to gods. They didn't mind?? because eternal live was better on the other side...

...ball court. The winners were [occasionally] sacrificed to gods. They didn't mind?? because eternal live was better on the other side...

...climbing up the steep pyramid steps is always easier...

...climbing up the steep pyramid steps is always easier...

...then going down...

...then going down...

...or passing a gauntlet of vendors and stalls that tourists must pass...

...or passing a gauntlet of vendors and stalls that tourists must pass...

© Jerry Bazant, 2009
You are here : Overview The Americas Guatemala 12- Pyramids of Oaxaca
The trip
 
Description:
This journey in our pick up truck camper took us West from Ontario to British Columbia and Alaska, then South to Nicaragua. Later we trailered a sailboat and cruised the coast of BC, Alaska and Sea of Cortez in Mexico.
Details:
Start of journey: January 2003
Duration: 5 years
End of journey: January 2008
Travelled countries: United States
Mexico
Guatemala
Belize
The Author
 
Jerry Bazant is an active author on break-fresh-ground. since 12 years.
Picture of author