Monday, February 16, 2009

Eden à la Oaxaca

Santiago Apoala Nochixtlán, Oaxaca, Mexico has a pretty big name, considering it's home to only 230 people.

But what it lacks in census data, Apoala more than makes up for in importance. The area is known as the cuna (birthplace) of the Mixtec culture. It's an oasis of green -- a lush, cool valley criss-crossed by a clear river -- hidden away between the peaks of the dry, brown Oaxacan sierra. As the story goes, two trees growing along the side of the river fell in love and linked their roots and branches, thus producing the first Mixtec man and woman. In this sense, it's not unlike the proverbial Garden of Eden, a breathtakingly beautiful place from whence a people supposedly came.

Apoala is, like most things in this part of Oaxaca, "un poco retirado" (a little far) from, well, civilization. Apoala got electricity the year I was born: 1980. Today, the town has, like, one car, one store and a few stray turkeys running along its dusty roads. I guess that's what makes it special. But the "retirado" factor also makes it a pain in the a** to get to. My seven-hour journey to (and from) Apoala this weekend included a suburban van, a runaway taxi, and a bumpy, two-hour ride in the back of a converted cattle truck.

But the cliché about the journey being more fun that the destination doesn't hold here: The highlight of the weekend was, hands down, Apoala itself. More specifically, the highlight of the weekend was La Cola de Serpiente (The Serpent's Tail), a words-and-pictures-can't-do-its-beauty-justice kind of waterfall that I slept about 50 meters from on Saturday night.

After a bout of car trouble on Saturday, we arrived in Apoala late and trekked into the woods with the help of a local guide and a few flashlights. We stumbled to the place where we thought the waterfall was (we could hear it and smell it, but couldn't see much of it) set up our tent using the lights from our (signal-less) cell phones, the moon, and a zillion stars. Falling asleep to the sound of cascading water was better than the best lullaby and made sleeping on the rocky ground almost bearable.

Unzipping the tent in the morning, I felt a bit like a kid on Christmas Day: I knew a surprise was waiting for me. The crystal-clear water from La Cola glittered in the morning light as it cascaded from a 60-foot peak just above our campsite. I felt like I was dreaming, but the mist from the fall hit my face and slowly woke me up. I stared at the waterfall, sunned myself on a rock, stared at the waterfall some more, stretched a bit, took approximately 3,000 pictures, and then stared at the waterfall again. And, thusly, passed an entire morning.

Beautiful. The stuff of fairy tales and soap commercials. I'll definitely be braving the suburban and renegade taxis and glorified cattle trucks to visit Apoala again.

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