A Day in La Sierra Norte

That morning, we awoke in Mitla and our group divided. Hanno and Kikki wanted to head into Oaxaca again, while we wanted to do a mezcal tour. It seemed wrong to have been on the mainland so long and not done a single tequila tasting. We also wanted to look at the ruins in Mitla, that the others had seen yesterday. Jaro came along with us, for what turned out to be a very short visit as the ruins were shut on Sundays. There were several other options on the road towards Oaxaca however and we decided to try those. 

As we had experienced the day before, this area is very hot on covid right now. There are still road blockades in place and lots and lots of hand sanitiser stations. The next town along was completely shut off so again, so it looked like ruins weren’t on the cards today. We hoped that the site of Monte Alban in Oaxaca would make up for this later. This left us parked on the side of the road, a little unclear about our next move. We wanted to do a mezcal tour, but it’s not really something I would want to do in the morning. I wanted to see the widest tree in the world, but apparently they have put a big sign around it, so you couldn’t see it. I also wanted to go the rug weavers in the next town, it was supposed to be interesting. Lee was not onboard, but unluckily for him, Jaro had the deciding vote and so we set off to the rug factory. 

It was a small non-descript building in a town whose main industry was clearly weaving. We chose this one as it had some good reviews on iOverlander. Inside, we were greeted by a woman who offered to give us a little tour. She showed us a small garden in a central courtyard with some plants, explaining that some of them could be used for dyes. 

Then we walked through a room where rugs occupied every inch of space, walls ceiling and floor. She explained that we could look later, and took us to a little clearer spaces with a few chairs. She began a demonstration of how the rugs were made. She showed us how the wool was washed, using a root that produces a natural soap.

Then, the wool is carded as demonstrated by a little old lady, her mother. Then we got to have a go.

Then she showed us how it was spun into yarn, apparently her mother spends 8-10 hours a day spinning yarn or carding wool. 

She explained how all the different colours were achieved. Through using different base colours of wool, black, grey or white and a range of different natural dyes. She showed us how the cochineal bugs live on cacti and can be harvested, dried and ground down to make red dye. Adding lime to this changes the colour of the red and gives different shades. Indigo is used for blue and they also use pomegranate juice to produce a turquoise shade as seen below. Turmeric makes a bright yellow as you would expect. 

I found the whole thing fascinating, and at this point I think it’s safe to say Lee was interested too. I was surprised at the brightness and intensity of the colours they could achieve naturally as quite often you associate natural dyes with being dull. 

After showing us all the colours, we walked behind to where three looms sat. she explained that each family member would have their own loom, and then demonstrated the process of making a rug. It is an incredibly labour intensive process, and it was nice to be shown it so closely. 

Then we were free to wander around the ‘showroom’. We decided we wanted to get something, it’s rare for us treat ourselves to a souvenir, space being a premium. After much agonising where we didn’t agree on a whole lot, we both managed to pick a rug we liked. Storage problems would be dealt with later.

Now it was mid-afternoon and I felt ready to brave the mezcal. We stopped off at another small family run distillery just down the road called Espina Dorada.

We went for a short tour, where they explained the process, and showed us the different types of agaves. 

Then it was time for the serious business of tasting. We were told that it included one sample, but as we leaned on the counter endless samples later this didn’t seem relevant anymore. The three children of the family, slightly younger than us were as happy to practice their English as we were to practice our Spanish. The let us try several of the ‘standard’ mezcals as well as the herbal ones including one featuring marijuana. For this first time, I got to drink that proper Mexican tequila that has a maggot in the bottom.

The girl who did our tour also showed us some local art in the building next door and told us if we wanted to come back on a day when they were distilling we could film the process. 

We began to think we should leave, we still needed to drive to a camp spot. We had planned to go back to the river but that was quite far. In the end we picked a closer one and decided to risk it. We bought some mezcal and insisted on paying for the tour even though they said we didn’t need to because it wasn’t in English. Then we headed for the mountains. 

It was a good job we hadn’t attempted the other spot with it’s incredibly steep road, as Ruby struggled up the hill, not on all cylinders. 

The spot we found was beautiful, and did a little to distract me from the engine issue. A little more obvious from the road than I would choose but with a gorgeous view of the mountain villages in the valley below and the city of Oaxaca behind them. Hoping we wouldn’t be disturbed, especially as Jaro had just lit a small beacon we watched the lights twinkling in the darkness and fortunately, remained alone. 

In the morning, a check of the engine revealed that the brand new HT leads were shorting to the inlet manifold and causing our problem. We fixed them accordingly and set off. 

The last thing we wanted to do before leaving the city and heading south to Puerto Escondido was visit Monte Alban, a huge archaeological site on the outskirts of the city. One wrong turn later, and we finally realised Ruby’s capacity for inclines. We drove up an incredibly steep slope while going progressively slower and slower… and then stopping. After some rather ropey hill starts that definitely took a lot of miles of the new clutch, Lee managed to edge us a few metres into the nearby side road. From here we followed Jaro on a different and more correct looking route to the top. 

With somewhat conflicting visiting times, we weren’t sure whether we only had 40 minutes or several hours to view the archeological site but we walked up to the entrance and paid for our tickets anyway. It was worth the effort for the view alone.

The site is huge, and has many different buildings that have been painstakingly uncovered, including some that are still being worked on. We nearly had the place to ourselves, in fact there were more people there working on restoring the pyramids than visitors. We were free to wander around, and read more about the place.

Most of the structure had boards, explaining what they had been used for previously. This one I found particularly interesting, which was their clock. Not only is it a giant sundial, but it was also capable of telling the month of the year by the shadow that it cast, which is quite impressive.

We had plenty of time to wander around, no one seemed worried about the multiple closing times. We read about the altars used for sacrifices, the places they built to play games and the burial chambers. It was great to be able to finally see some of these famous ruins, after having so much of them shut down previously.

Having finished our tour of the sight, we headed back to the campers to plan our spot for the night. Originally, we had planned to go to a spot an hour or so further south, but now it was getting late and we didn’t want to get there in the dark. Our hopes of being allowed to stay in the car park didn’t last for long when the security told us to leave moments later.

We decided to hedge our bets and try and find a local spot ourselves. With our usual app having no spots on it, I turned to google satellite for inspiration. Bruno left for the hillside spot we had been on the previous night and the three of us headed south for the river. After a little driving, we found an ok spot. The river was not as nice as I imagined, it was covered in litter and also appeared to be the local dump for the city’s grey water. We found a secluded spot a little way back from the bank and therefore the smell, surrounded by tall bamboo and unseen, so far so good.

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