A Travellerspoint blog

Zipolite

After an enjoyable week in Oaxaca and surrounds we headed off to the coast. Rather than an 8 hour bus ride on windy mountain roads, we opted to take a small plane to Huatulco and then hired a cab to take us over to Zipolite.

View from the plane
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The Oaxacan coast between Huatulco and Puerto Escondido is one of the least developed parts of the Pacific coastline. Mostly it consists of small towns and fishing villages that are slowly drawing more tourists, but there are no high rise hotels as in Cancun. Zipolite is an old hippie hang-out that has a reputation as a laid back place where nudity is allowed. It turned out to be delightful, with plenty of eateries on the beach, small guest houses, and a very warm sea. It also is known as a place with dangerous surf and rip tides, although the swimming was generally excellent while we were there.

Our 7 room guest house was on a hillside overlooking the sea, and about a five minute walk from the beach.

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When we first arrived, two middle aged and rather out of shape and overweight couples were lounging around the pool buck naked. A bit of a shock, but they turned out to be quite ordinary and friendly folks who are more or less professional nudists. It was at least their third trip to Zipolite, but they frequent other nudist spots as well. Sorry, it seemed gauche to take their picture, although I'm sure they would not have minded. The small pool was a great place to sit around with a beer and cool off with or without your bathing suit.

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Needless to say, there was not a lot to do at Zipolite other than swim, sun, eat or drink, but that was fine by us. Our guest house owner was a gay,white, Mexican, who looked to be in his mid 40's. Apparently he had built the place with his partner, now separated. Most days he served us breakfast overlooking the pool, usually wearing only a skimpy towel.

In the five days we spent there we developed a bit of a routine. We would go down to the beach in the morning, around 10 or so and either return between 11:30 and 12 when the sun got too hot, eat in our little apartment, or go to lunch someplace along the beach.

After lunch we'd sit around the pool in the shade, or take a nap inside. By around 3:30 we walked down to the beach again for another swim.

More like 5 in this pcture
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And then it was back to our pool above the sea for sunset and a beer, and finally a walk to a restaurant, either on the beach or in the tiny town with small shops and restaurants on the only main street. The best way to get anywhere was to walk directly on the beach, although there was a dirt road that led through palm trees into town. That took longer and was more confusing. Our guest house was on one end of the beach, and so it was a bit of a walk to most restaurants, and to "main street," one block from the water. The nearby Alchemist was a frequent choice because the food was good, if a bit pricey by Zipolite standards.

Also on our side of the beach, was a spectacular set of rocks, with a large peephole to the sea, worn away over the years by waves and wind.

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Sunset was quite a show down here, as well as up at the pool.

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So what's with the nudity thing you want to know. Well of course, it was only some of the gringoes and gringas that were naked on the beach. It was an interesting thing to watch a middle aged, fully dressed Zapotec man selling coca frio to a naked gringa of indeterminate age. And it was a real mix of ages who were naked, all different shapes and sizes but only one color, or rather two, sunburn red or white. I'd say about 1/4 to 1/3 of the white people on the beach had shed their clothes, but there was no pressure either way. Sometimes I wore a suit, and other times I did not. Nobody cared either way.

I did begin to wonder just how it was that Zipolite got its start as a nude beach, and that it somehow managed to continue this way in a very Catholic and conservative country. It all began in the 60's, naturally, when a small group of hippie types showed up in this tiny and remote backwater, at least at that time. Many of them didn't bother to wear clothes. Some of them stayed and others left, but gradually as the town developed into the low key resort that it is today, the locals decided to retain the optional nudity. As in most of Oaxaca, the people are Zapotecs, and the central government more or less leaves them alone to run things as they see fit. I would guess it was more of a business decision to continue the clothes optional policy. There are of course, other small towns and resorts along this coastline, but Zipolite is the only one that allows nudity. How much the nudity helps their business is an open question, a bit like asking if the growth in Colorado is due to legal weed. I don't think it's hurting things.

On our last night we were hoping to make it to the other side of the beach, because there was a bar on top of a promontory which had a reputation for spectacular sunsets. As you can see by the picture above, we didn't make it. That sunset was on our side of the beach, but it's hard to imagine anything better. We did however, make it to our favorite restaurant, Fish and Love, which which is located just off the beach at the far end of town.

Debbie and Nanette in front of restaurant
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It is owned and run by a friendly local family. In the morning, until mid-afternoon they fish, and then return to prepare and cook what they catch. It couldn't have been any fresher, and they made a damn good margarita to go with it. If that wasn't enough, it was an incredible bargain.

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As in other restaurants people wear clothes, though we were early and thus the only customers. They did tell us that they had a popular clothes optional night once a month.

Naked Fish and Love, what could be better.

Posted by jonshapiro 06:39 Archived in Mexico Tagged beaches people food Comments (0)

Excursions from Oaxaca

After a few days of wandering the streets of Oaxaca, we were ready to go a little further afield. We went on a day trip into the Sierra Norte with a small tour group to the Zapotec villages of Lachatao. It took a couple of hours of driving on the curvy mountain roads to reach the village. It is a poor area, but the indigenous people there and in several other small villages, are trying to attract eco-tourists, and have constructed a number of bungalows just outside of town. Our first stop was a small anthropological museum, largely organized and opened due to the efforts of our guide, Oscar. After that, we went on a hike to what we were told was an ancient ceremonial place on nearby Jaguar Mountain. The hike was billed as a ritualistic inner journey, and that exactly what it was. Oscar, though not indigenous, had lived in the village for a number of years, and was convinced that he had found one of the original sites of Zapotec civilization on this flattened mountain. It was not long or difficult, perhaps two hours, but we made a number of stops en route for him to explain certain things to us about the culture and the religion, which was based on worshipping the spirits of the mountains, wind, and animals. We were encouraged to close our eyes and meditate on the sounds and smells of the forest. Oscar talked about the Zapotec way of life as being in harmony with Tao, or the Way, similar to the ancient Chinese religion. I'm not sure whether this accurately described the Zapotecs, who apparently were also into human sacrifice, or if it was a reflection of Oscar's time living in San Francisco. When we got near the top, which had wide views of the surrounding mountains and valleys, we were instructed to lie down in a certain spot and glance backwards over the horizon, and then describe the colors we saw. The predominant color was supposed to be indicative of a certain aspect of our mood and personality. I forget now what my color was, or its meaning.

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We then gathered around what looked like an ancient fire pit and sent out positive energy to the other folks on the hike, and then in widening circles to all living beings. It was a bit hokey, at least to me, but enjoyable nonetheless.

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On our return, we had lunch in the town's only "restaurant," prepared by local village women. Then some of us climbed up to the roof of the old church, giving us another great view of the mountains beyond.

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Oscar on church roof
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View from church roof
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The next day we hired Luis, to take us on a tour of Monte Alban and a few other nearby points of interest. Having lived in LA for several years, his English was good, and he turned out to be quite personable and informative.

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Monte Alban is one of the oldest ruins in Mesoamerica. It goes back to 500BC, although it was abandoned some 1600 years later for unknown reasons. Like the ceremonial site in the mountains, it is located on top of a flattened mountain with a commanding view of the Oaxaca valley below. It is obviously quite large, and while some of it has been reconstructed, parts of the pyramids are original. Getting there early was a good move, as the place was practically empty.

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Pelota field
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Local man at the ruins
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After Monte Alban, we stopped at a Mescal factory, just out of town. It was interesting to see how they made it from roasted agave.

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Of course we had to sample the product. Unlike most liquor, the newer stuff, made from wild agave, was more expensive than the aged ones, most likely because they are made from cultivated agave.

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Then it was on to see the Tule tree. Said to be 1600 years old, its circumference is immense, at least 50 feet or so.

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We stopped for a late lunch at favorite buffet that Luis knew. They had all four different moles, as well as a huge assortment of other meats, fish, vegetables etc.

Finally we ended the day by going to a weaving "factory." It was very much a family run business, and although they sell some of their handwoven rugs right there, they sell more at the Santa Fe Indian Market during the summer. We wouldn't see them there, but Santa Fe was going to be our destination in a few weeks.

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It was a long day, but I couldn't resist taking a shot of these kids on the way back to our hotel.

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Posted by jonshapiro 08:15 Archived in Mexico Tagged landscapes mountains people food tourist_sites Comments (4)

Mexico and New Mexico

This winter was different. Instead of our usual travels we decided to go closer to home in consideration of a possible move from upstate New York. The Mexican portion of the trip was the only "abroad" section and was really a chance to have a couple of weeks of warm weather before driving across country to Santa Fe. We had visited both of these places many years ago.

In Mexico we spent all of our time either in Oaxaca or along the Oaxacan coast in the small town of Zipolite. We went on this trip with our friends Debbie and Bill, and stayed in what had been an ancient monastery close to the center of town. Our room, on the second story, faced an inner courtyard where we had breakfast everyday. Oaxaca did not disappoint. Although there are obviously tourists it is not overrun by them, and manages to retain its distinctly Mexican and indigenous feel. The Zocolo is remains the center of life in this mid sized city, and many of the colonial buildings are still standing. It is quite lively during the day as well as the evening, with Mexican families taking a paseo or young people just hanging out. There are shops and restaurants lining the nearby streets.

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The pace of life is relatively slow, and though the province of Oaxaca is one of the poorest in Mexico, it doesn't feel that way in the center of town. The poor live on the outskirts and in the rural areas. The city spreads out in a wide valley between two mountain ranges, with the Pacific on one side and the Atlantic on the other.

Most days we spent wandering around the streets, and exploring.

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We went to the nearby market, although we were told there was an even larger one about a mile away.

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We checked out the main catedral, and on one day they were filming a quinceanera.

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Oaxaca is said to have the best food in Mexico, and with four different kinds of moles, great seafood and beer, and inexpensive prices, I would have to concur. So when we weren't walking, we were eating.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:34 Archived in Mexico Tagged churches people food air_travel buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (1)

Paleochora

The next morning we set out for Paleochora, following the same route we had taken to Elafonisi two days earlier. This time, instead of stopping at the cave church we went for a walk in the gorge, until we came to a old stone bridge, thick with cedar and other deciduous trees.

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On the way back, we were careful not to step on the bees which swarmed around the clover. We saw more wild, bright red/orange poppies moving in the stiff breeze and the small, but intense yellow and white flowers. We made a short detour to stop back in Elos for another plate of boureki, but the taverna was closed, and we had to make due with one of their competitors. We drove on through forests of evergreens and olive plantations, and briefly stopped in Kandanos, site of a big resistance battle during WW 2. Today, after being rebuilt, it is a sleepy, tidy place with folks, well men, sitting outside a small cafe.

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A few kilometers further, at the end of the road, we arrived at our destination, Paleohora.

It has about two thousand residents, and plenty of small hotels, guest houses, and tavernas, enough to handle the larger crowds of summer. It is slowly being developed as a resort area, but still manages, at least thus far, to hold onto its small town charms.

Upper main street
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Our guest house, where we rented a small apartment for a week, is about as cute as can be, and serves up what is probably the world's best breakfast. Not a exaggeration.

Manto, who is also a Byzantine style artist, moved to Paleohora from Athens with her husband several years ago in order to build the place.

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Detail from Manto's studio
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Unfortunately, as has been the case for most of this trip, the weather in Paleochora has not lived up to its billing as the warmest place in Europe during the winter and early spring. When the sun is out things are fine, but the weather can change in an instant, and the wind can blow fiercely. Yesterday, in anticipation of bad weather today, we undertook the 11K hike to Sougia, where we planned to take the ferry back to Paleochora at the end of the day. It was a highly enjoyable walk across the volcanic rocks near the beach, and then up and over some of the headlands nearby.

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When the clouds parted, there were views of snow covered mountains in the distance.

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About 3/4ths of the way, we came upon Lissos, an ancient Minoan site, which was later occupied by the Greeks and the Romans. The original askepolis is still somewhat intact, as are the Roman mosaics on the floor.

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Greek letters on a nearby wall
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There were also numerous cave-like burial mounds scattered about, and the setting, below two rocky promontories, and not far from a small beach, seemed ideal for defending against enemies from all directions. To us, the place had an almost spiritual vibe, much more so than the famous Knossos, which is more extensive, but not nearly as beautiful.

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Extensive grounds of Lissos from higher up on the trail
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From Lissos we continued through an immense walled canyon, and fortunately we chose the right way, and arrived in the tiny village of Sougia, around 4:30 PM. There was time for a late lunch of fish soup and moussaka, before we walked over to the ferry dock. By now the wind had picked up considerably, and it started raining. The ticket seller let us wait in his small kiosk, after we heard him playing the mandolin. Trying to keep warm as the ferry was late, we chatted with a friendly Swiss woman, perhaps 10 years younger than us, who had taken the boat over in the morning.

The seas were not as rough as they could have been considering the weather, and we made it back to town without getting seasick. By then, the winds were practically gale force, and it was a struggle just to walk back to Manto's.

Although there was more rain in the night, the next day was largely dry, although the cold wind blew unceasingly for a full 24 hours. It reminded us of our time in El Chaten, in Patagonia. Tired of being cooped up for most of the day, we managed a short, blustery walk through town.

Choppy sea even in the harbor on that very windy day
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We stopped for coffee in a newer place next door to our favorite bakery. It had big plate glass windows facing the sea, and the gusts were strong enough to rattle the glass. At times, it felt like it might crack and shatter. Despite the wind, the place was crowded. Cretans are a very social lot, and often spend many hours sipping a coffee, or drinking raki in a cafe, chatting with their friends, and no doubt catching up on the local gossip. As time has gone on, we have fallen into this lifestyle ourselves, going for a late lunch, and sitting around with a cappuccino. We usually are not able to make it to the 10 or 11 PM Greek dinner time, and instead make due with an evening snack, after having a big mid-day meal.

View of the sea and mountains, just outside the cafe
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Paleohora has lots of great hikes. On another day, this one bright and sunny, we went along the shore in the opposite direction, towards Elafonisi. The sea was a clear, intense blue, and turquoise near the shore.

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It is visible from most any vantage point, along with sharp and oddly shaped volcanic rocks that lie in the water, and across the smooth stone beaches that appear amongst the scrub vegetation at every turn.

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In the distance, also visible from many places along the trail, the snowy peaks of the Leki Ori Mountains stand in stark relief to the water. Rocky promontories stretch out like bony fingers, reaching toward the African shores of the Libyan Sea. Here we found Viena, the ruins of another Hellenic city. Though not as impressive as Lissos, which at one point had over 30,000 people, we saw parts of Greek columns lying on the beach near the water, and others that were partially submerged. None of this was even mentioned in our guide book. It seems that no matter what direction you choose to walk, there are ancient discoveries to be made.

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We spent some time just sitting on one of the larger deserted pebble beaches, feeling the soothing smoothness of the rounded stones. There is something comforting about holding the stones in hand, and of course, skimming the flat ones into the calm water.

It was easy to think about Odysseus plying these craggy shores more than 4000 years ago.

Shadows on the beach
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Returning to town, we had the traditional roasted lamb dinner in one of the few tavernas still open on Greek Easter Sunday. Afterwords, we strolled along the seawall, and heard a young mother calling out to her young son, Orfeo, Orfeo, as he trotted along the sidewalk as fast as he could. Another reminder of the ancient heritage of this island. One has the feeling that despite the economic problems, the Cretans,and probably most Greeks, feel very proud of their ancestors, and the rich culture they created.

At night, there were fireworks and a bonfire, along with a parade of Judas down the small streets of Paleochora.. Unfortunately, it didn't start until midnight and we didn't make it. In the evening of Good Friday, a few days before, there was a small candlelight procession with an effigy of the dead Jesus, who was carried from one church to another. Most of the candles had been blown out because of the wind, and it was cold so I didn't stick around for long.

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Our trip is coming to a close. Tomorrow we leave for Chania, and then fly to Athens at night. When the weather is good, which has been true the last two days, I am in no rush to return. In bad weather, a not infrequent occurrence on this trip, then home, with its added comforts, seems like a good idea after 10 weeks on the road. The Greek food continues to impress, as do the Greek people. They are always trying to feed you more. After every meal, raki and desert, even if you order another desert. Most everyone has continued to be extremely friendly and welcoming, including the folks at Manto's place. I will be sad to say goodbye.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:23 Archived in Greece Tagged landscapes beaches people photography living_abroad Comments (2)

Elafonisi, Balos, and the Mountain Villages of Crete

From Chania, we drove to Elafonisi through the mountain villages of the Enneachora, including Vlatos, Elos, and Kefali. Most of the tavernas and small hotels were closed, and many of the smaller villages seemed almost deserted. At first, the mountain Gods smiled upon us with good weather, and we stopped for a walk in the countryside outside of Topolia. It was a bucolic and tranquil scene as we wandered down the dirt track toward the river.

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Olive grove
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At one point we had some company.

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And the Spring flowers were starting to pop.

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We then went to see the cave church of Agia Sofia, high on the hillside above Koutsamatados Ravine.

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Further on, in Elos, we stopped for lunch at a simple restaurant run by a mother and daughter. They served up a very tasty boureki, a zucchini and potato, and cheese dish that we had eaten at Chicken Ltd., but in a different form. By then the weather had deteriorated, as it so often does in the mountains, and it was cold enough for them to make a fire for us.

From there we made our way to Elafonisi. None of the distances are very far in Crete, or Creta as they spell it, and even though the roads are narrow and full of curves, it doesn't take long to get from place to place. In Elafonisi, the sun was out, and it was warm enough to lie on the beach. Surprisingly, there were some other travelers sunning themselves as we did for an hour or two.

Elafonisi is famous for its shallow turquoise colored lagoon, where there is a small island connected to the mainland by a sandbar.

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There were also some striking volcanic rocks on the beach
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We found a small hotel and spent the night. When the sun went down it got quite chilly, and as with so many places in Crete and southern Italy, they are not really set up for cold weather. We asked for extra blankets, but could have used even more than they gave us. The next day was overcast and windy and seemed to promise rain, so we decided not to spend another day at beach. Instead we went back into the mountains, but this time took a different route, along the western coast to Kissamos. The weather improved somewhat, and the views along the route were stunning, as the road weaved in and out over high cliffs close to the sea.

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Kissamos, a small provincial and rather nondescript town, was big enough to have a few hotels that were open, and we found a place to stay. After a disappointing lunch, one of our only poor meals in Crete, we went off to see the Balos Penninsula, as suggested by our host at the hotel. Although Balos was mentioned in our guidebook, it was downplayed compared to Elafonisi. When we got to the beginning of the peninsula, the track narrowed, became rocky, and it was no longer paved. Given the balding tires we had on our rental car, we decided not to chance it, and started walking.
The main part of the peninsula is uninhabited, and has been set aside as a national park. It has rocky peaks, scrubby trees, and volcanic rocks jutting into a turquoise and deep blue sea. There is another peninsula on the other side, which frames the wide bay of Kissamos, and it is easy to see why the Minoans created an ancient port on this site because it is protected on three sides.

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After 20 minutes of walking, and noticing a number of cars coming back from the point, a young Italian couple stopped us and asked us how far to the end. We didn't know, but they stopped another car, and were told 1/2 an hour. Realizing that we would never make it by walking, I asked them if they would mind taking us. No problem. They were a delightful couple living in Milan, though originally from Calabria. Francesca is a high school teacher and Carlo a chemical engineer. It actually took more than 1/2 hour to drive out to the end, and then it was another steep 1/2 hour walk down to the beach. But what a spot. The trail led down the rocky, windswept scrub, much like the English moors. There were expansive views over the sea, and a rocky island attached to the mainland with a sandbar. Scattered about were other small islands, also with cliffs and scrub which seemed plunked down at random.

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Our Italian friends took this shot of the happy couple on Balos beach
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As the clouds moved back in, they scraped the top of the highest mountain on the peninsula, and then were blown out to sea. The sun went lower on the horizon, and backlit the clouds, creating shadows over the silver and cobalt water, as the waves washed onto the sandy shore. Goats scampered about on the nearby rocks, and aside from an uninhabited shack on the beach, it was a totally wild place.

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It felt like the end of the world.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:30 Archived in Greece Tagged landscapes beaches sky photography Comments (4)

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