Cruising Southern Mexico, Inland Road Trips and Crossing the Tehuantepec

Southern Mexico is rich with culture, natural beauty and friendly people. We absolutely loved our visit to the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. In fact, other than the Sea of Cortez and the Loreto / La Paz areas, this was likely our favorite part of exploring Mexico. As the inland destinations had a tremendous amount to offer, we spent a good bit of time wandering with our two feet instead of our watery fins. This post is the story of our travels both on water and on land. While our explorations were fantastic, we had a very sad chapter of our story in Huatulco. And that has made this blog post very hard to write. I have procrastinated until my heart could handle it. Sort of handle it.

When we last left off, we were leaving Acapulco, heading south to Huatulco. It was a beautiful 32-hour ride (240 nm), and as planned, we arrived on time to enter Marina Chahue in the Bays of Huatulco at high slack. The entrance was STILL skinny, and we saw a low of about 2 feet of water under the keel. Marina Chahue is a government owned and operated marina and it sits just outside of town. It’s a peaceful place and after our overnight run all four of us were ready for a relaxing walk, a cocktail and some down time.

The entrance to Marina Chahue, marked up and shared with other Panama Posse members.
Looking in toward the marina
A walk on the beach by the marina

We were greeted by friends Peter and Tom on SV Bohemia with plans for dinner that week and Mary and Doug on N46 One Life who proved once again to be a most fabulous advance team, showing us the way to town and the Port Captain. With the Port Captain checked off the list we explored town a bit and followed Doug and Mary to an excellent Oaxacan restaurant in La Crucecita (think of this as the downtown area) named El Sabor de Oaxaca, specializing in, you guessed it, Oaxacan cuisine. The moles! And a new find – a tlayuda, which is like a Mexican pizza on a large flat tortilla, spread with spicy beans, lots of Oaxacan cheese and all kinds of toppings. I skipped the crickets, a local goodie. No gracias.

Red all tied up and hanging out at Marina Chahue
Now this is an upscale power situation….
“Crated” power, right here folks.
Marina Chahue
The Santa Cruz area of Huatulco
The panga harbor
Panga harbor in Santa Cruz area of Huatulco
Huatulco has beautiful green open space and parks
The boulevard between town and the marina
In La Crucecita (downtown) by the square.
Walking Huatulco
Cathedral by the central square.
The central square.
Wandering.
Huatulco streetscape

 

After a bit of town exploring, we were ready to grab a rental car and have a land adventure! The road to Oaxaca City is a windy mountain road, with some failing edges, houses built on incredible pilings, hairpin turns, rock slides and absolutely spectacular views! We loved it. All along the roadway there were small “Comidor” restaurants run by families, each trying to capture the attention of the drivers working their way through the mountains. We stopped at a larger Comidor on a cliff that had swings where people could fly out over the valley below. It was super foggy so the swings were not operational, but the hot chocolate, tamales and quesadillas were outstanding!

Zoe mans the back seat.
This is a highway. 🙂
Gorgeous views.
Homes and buildings on stilts over the cliffs.
So green and pretty.
Our lunch spot!
Swing into the clouds anyone?
Mmm. Hot chocolate!
It’s a road trip!
Hey there!
Logging trucks rolling along with us
Coming down into the central valley.

We had decided to rent an Airbnb outside of the downtown so as to give the dogs space to run around and feel comfortable when we left them for a bit to explore the town. What an incredible setting!

Zoe confirms that there aren’t any crumbs in the kitchen.
Max is frozen. Sweater needed!
The stunning view from our Airbnb.
I LOVE these mototaxis! We think we should add one to Red.
Dinner out in our Airbnb village.

We spent a few days in Oaxaca City enjoying this incredibly colorful, vibrant town. Oaxaca City is a UNESCO World Heritage destination, so earned because of its mix of colonial architecture, indigenous culture, artisans and historical significance. Oaxaca City is thought to be one of the key cultural communities in Mexico. The artisan work is amazing, from textiles to pottery to weavings to alebrijes which are beautifully crafted fantasy creatures. The cathedrals are inspiring and the markets are thick with produce, textiles, arts, chicken, fish, spices and home goods. Simply walking through one of these gathering places transports you to a different time and place.

The Zocalo, the town square
Breakfast at the Zocalo with a marimba band
Delicious table side made hot cocoa
Cathedral Metropolitana
Incredible doorway in the cathedral
Detailed carvings
Cathedral light
Beautiful on the inside too
A serious ceiling

 

 

The green stone of Oaxaca is so interesting.
Color everywhere.
Selling Oaxacan cheese

Peppers

 

Sauces and moles.
Mole for sale
Gorgeous herbs and greens
Meat market stall
An early morning on the side corridor of the market

 

Selling tlayuda bases on the corner
tamales!
Crickets anyone?
Tiny clay shot cups and tiny bowls
It’s a pepper production
The market is incredible
There really isn’t anything that you can’t find here
Which bag should I buy?
I mean, I’m tall, but she is SERIOUSLY tall!
I love this city of color
And I love this man.
Gorgeous streets
The art in Oaxaca is historic and also modern
Love this one
Take a bite out of art.
Art installation
Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe
Cool streetscape
Mr. Jeffries strolls Oaxaca
I found this guy leaning on a cathedral
And then on a light pole. He must be seriously tired of waiting for his wife to take photos.
Streetside rolled stuffed crepe thing – delicious!
YUM!
I think he was about 12. Working hard on Kevin’s crepe!
Dinner with a view
Cool bar by the cathedral
I can do that too!
Cool sign. We have to take these photos you know – work thing.
Basiclica of Our Lady of Guadalupe
The cathedral, at magic hour

On the second day, we got up early to go visit the village of Santa Maria Atzompa, which is well known for its green and white pottery, and the nearby ruins at Monte Albán. Monte Albán is an archaeological site which was once a Zapotec city, from where the Zapotecs ruled the central valleys of Oaxaca. Monte Albán was first occupied around 500 BC, but was most populated between AD 300 and AD 700. At its peak, the population is thought to have been around 25,000 people. The city had palaces, temples, an observatory, a ball court and dwellings.

Shadow people.
That man isn’t actually a small person. The scale is huge!
View of the Oaxaca central valley
Kevin wanders…
With our take-along Posse burgee
Drawings abounded on the structures – some were maps, some spoke to the use of the building.
A view of the site
Another drawing.
Another view.
A carving telling a story in front of a temple.
Exploring.
It is an enormous site.
Simply amazing.

After our history lesson, we went on a shopping trip in Santa Maria Atzompa, visiting the Mercado de Artesanías (co-op of local artists) and had a glorious time picking out pieces of pottery. We also visited a few artist studios and purchased some very special items from the gentlemen that worked so hard to create them. The day was topped off with a mototaxi parade!

Wrapping purchases at the market.
Artisan’s work.
Did we get carried away?
A close up of one of our favorite new pieces in the boat.
We love to decorate the interior of the boat with items that we find along our way. Oaxaca is well represented.
Where shall these two fun faces go in the boat?

When we returned to the Airbnb in the mid-afternoon we noticed that Zoe was feeling a little slow. She just wasn’t herself and she wasn’t terribly interested in eating or playing fetch. We thought perhaps she was impacted by the high elevation, as afterall, she is a dog who lives at sea level. We stayed in the Airbnb village that night so that we could be with the dogs, and thought we’d reassess in the morning. At daylight we tried to interest Zoe in another walk with no happy reaction. And with that, we decided to go back to the boat a day early. On the way, we’d stop in the town of San Martin Tilcajete to see the town’s artisans hard at work on alebrijes. This way, the dogs would be with us.

San Martin Tilcajete was amazing, lined with murals that depicted the stories of the fantasy lives of the alebrijes. Alebrijes is a made-up word meaning “entangled and difficult thing of fantastic types.” Made from the wood of the copal tree, the alebrijes explore the curiosity and imagination of the artist with mythical creatures and animals with new super powers and stories coming to life with the artist’s hands. The pieces are carved and then painstakingly painted with fine patterns and colors. We purchased a flying dog (similar to Dante from the movie Coco which if you haven’t seen you should!) that was made by one of six siblings in a family that work together to create incredibly detailed and fantastical alebrijes. The flying dog relates to the story of the Xoloitzcuintli (Mexican hairless dog) who is thought to be a guide to the afterlife.

A new piece underway.

 

Our alebrije, Dante

When we arrived back at the boat, Zoe seemed to perk up a bit, thankful to be home. But she was unwilling to walk, didn’t really have any energy and just was not herself. By morning she was worse. We took her to a very kind vet in Huatulco who tried her best to help us. She was super knowledgeable and had a tremendous amount of equipment, and did a myriad of tests on Zoe. Zoe had an enlarged heart, and must have had this condition for some time. Her heart was impacting her kidneys and her systems were struggling. We spent the next 36 hours loving Zoe for every hour and every minute. She lay with us at night and during the day. We visited the vet again and tried to see if we could help her. Ultimately, Zoe passed away on the boat, lying next to Kevin and I, knowing that we loved her with all of our hearts. We take solace in the fact that she died at home surrounded by love. And, that she lived an incredible life. She was a dog with about 30,000 nm under her collar between all of our boats. She had been as far north as Glacier Bay Alaska and as far south as Huatulco, Mexico. She swam and played in the sand and was never alone. She was always by our side, doing whatever we were doing right there with us, whether on a hike, a dinghy ride or a restaurant outing. She was our beautiful, happy girl. We miss her terribly and our grief has been deep and wide. She was a bright light in our lives. Our first swim in the waters of Costa Rica will be dedicated to her.

Zoe fetching a stick somewhere on the west coast of the US – thank you for this photo Laura.

Throughout all of this traumatic experience we too, were surrounded by love. Our cruiser friends were there to help us, with a special thanks to Michelle and Chad and kiddos on SV Tulum V who stayed with Max while we were at the vet, and supported us with kind and soothing words. Our friends from SV Boundless brought us sunny sunflowers to brighten our day and everyone in our small traveling group of Panama Posse participants helped to ease our pain. Thank you to all of you.

We keep Zoe’s with us in the boat – when we are underway, she comes on up to the pilothouse. Beautiful flowers from Colin and Julian.

A few days after Zoe passed away, we had a weather window (a quick one, but still, a weather window) to cross the Gulf of Tehuantepec, well known and feared for its ferocious winds. While we were not feeling like doing much of anything (we had become crying, day drinking jigsaw puzzlers), we decided that it was time to go. Staying didn’t feel very good. Leaving didn’t either. But the next weather window wasn’t going to happen for over another week (maybe) and we told ourselves that a change of scenery might help.

To leave Huatulco, or any port in Mexico, you need to check out with the Port Captain. As this Port Captain had the very important role of ensuring that mariners were safe with the Tehuantepec winds, he asked to review our crossing strategy prior to providing us with our departure paperwork. A kind man, he didn’t speak any English, but he and Kevin had a good chat with a little help from Google Translate. We were cleared for departure. We wandered by the open-air seaside church in Santa Cruz, the area by the Port Captain’s office, and although we aren’t religious people (more spiritual I’d say), we said a little prayer for Zoe. And for us.

The peaceful open air church by the sea.
A place where spirits can easily come and go.

Leaving the marina at high tide (remember that skinny water!) we were early to begin our crossing. And that was all according to plan. We’ve had our boat now for almost six years. And for all of that time, the ashes of our two previous Labrador retrievers (Bean – yellow, Rio – chocolate) had been cruising with us. It was time for them to rest in the ocean, and with that all three dogs would be together in Huatulco. And so they are.

Our pups and a Dia de los Muertos flower from our friend Alexa for our little ceremony.

The Gulf of Tehuantepec is renowned for its gale force winds (called Tehuantepeckers), that funnel through the “skinny part” of Mexico, gaining speed on their journey from the Caribbean to the Pacific. Every week, or sometimes two weeks or so, it calms down for a short period of time. We left the bay and traced the shoreline for several hours as the sea was still quite lumpy and the winds were gusting. All of the sudden it just calmed down. Like fast. One minute it was lumpy oatmeal and the next it was a glassy lake. Crazy. With flat seas, we turned and throttled down. Let’s make tracks! Our night run was peaceful. And just what we needed to start to soothe our broken hearts. Time alone on the ocean at night is a healing time. The constant buzz of daily life, of social media and news, phone calls, problems and world challenges are gone. It’s just you and the boat and the ocean. I love night runs. And this one was memorable.

Good night sun, hello Tehuantepec!
Watching the sun go down into the sea

 

A night squall in the distance.
A flat calm, moonlit night ride
Good morning sun – in the middle of the Gulf of Tehuantepec

The 28-hour (230 nm) ride was spectacular. Early in the morning, we watched the dolphins play in our bow wake as we drank coffee sitting on the Portuguese bridge. Later, we rode on the flybridge admiring the hundreds of sea turtles basking in the sun all along our route, many, many miles from shore. Sometimes we think these creatures visit us to tell us that everything is going to be ok. Maybe it is Zoe saying hello.

The bling of the cell phone let us know that we were back in a coverage area. And another bling. And then rapid fire blings after that. Oh jeez, there was a tsunami alert. Fantastic! Our kids and my brother were having a texting conversation about this lovely event, but no one sent us a message on our sat phone. To be fair, in our grief, we hadn’t let the kids know that we were leaving Huatulco. Confirmation with N46 One Life and SV Iron Calculus, both already in the marina, let us know that indeed the marina was experiencing surges. The water level was basically changing 4-5 feet every 15 minutes. But the current was manageable and the depth was fine. It would just be a new adventure. Good times.

Amid all of this excitement, we realized that we had reached our 20,000 nm milestone! Meaning that during our ownership, we had cruised 20,000 nm on Red Rover. Wahoo! We had anticipated this happy event, and had asked PAE (Nordhavn) to send our new mileage pennant to our daughter Kirsten in LA. Kirsten brought the burgee to Zihua for Christmas and we had been waiting for just this moment to put the new green pennant on our bow. Check it out. Sporty looking, no?

Our little collection of mileage pennants
Well this moment is something to smile about!
Drumroll please.
Here we go!
Sporty gear!

I have a new saying for our travels when things are crazy, or go terribly wrong or are just frustrating and difficult: “It’s all a part of the experience!” Thankfully, our entry into Marina Chiapas went flawlessly, even with the tsunami surge. Marina Chiapas is remote from really much of everything other than an outstanding palapa restaurant. But it is beautiful, and peaceful.

The palapa restaurant
Hola Marina Chiapas!
The peaceful view from our slip
An artful marina building
Pool at the marina – with a staffed bar!
The marina wasn’t very busy when we were first there, until the next weather window when a bunch of boats came in!

Oh hey Red.
The palapa restaurant interior
Tableside salsa making
Super yum!
This works!
Oh there’s that salsa again
Lunch is served.
Palapa in the evening shadows

We rested, took some walks and cleaned up the boat a bit. And then we figured, we had better see some things! Our first effort involved hiring Miguel Angel of Discover Chiapas Tours who is a local guide and a recommended resource of the Panama Posse. And for a good reason! Miguel is FABULOUS. We had such a wonderful day with him learning all kinds of things as we drove around the area. For instance, I had no idea what a teak tree looks like. Or how coffee is grown, harvested, dried, transported and more! Or how cacao is made. The list goes on! Miguel is an incredible wealth of knowledge and most importantly, a super fun, kind, good human. I’m going to let the photos speak to our adventure, but a brief overview of our day included a trip up into the mountains to see the coffee growing process, a visit to two small towns in the mountains, near Chiapas’ largest volcano, a quick trip to see the border with Guatemala, an incredible stop in Tuxtla Chico aka “Chocolate Town” where we met a revered chocolate maker and had lunch in her courtyard, after which we learned how to make cacao (the raw version of cocoa). Oh, and we drank the best hot chocolate in the world. There’s that. We also visited a family that makes and sells tamales (which are also the best we’ve ever tasted) and the pre-Mayan ruins of Izapa. Miguel was also kind enough to take us to Walmart on the way back to the marina so we could pick up some provisions. And, he gave us tons of recommendations for our roadtrip to San Christobál de las Casas and Palenque. Days later he’d help us again by spending an afternoon searching for something we simply couldn’t find ourselves. A case of Controy, the Mexican version of triple sec that makes margaritas soooo much better. You have to love a man that visits 6 stores, asks stock clerks to check in the back, buys all of the Controy in town and delivers it right to the boat. Complete with gifts – because he is that kind of wonderful. Check out Kevin’s birthday disguise in the photo below.

The Mexico / Guatemala border
Coffee beans growing
The interesting almost Swiss architecture of the mountain town of Union Juarez
Views from Union Juarez
Lovely
Tacana Volcano
I love Mexico’s colorful community signs
Town square in Union Juarez
Beautiful detail on a fence
More of the town square
Murals depicting the coffee harvest
All along the roadway we saw people carrying their harvest – often to over 100 lbs.
Coffee museum in a home that was built by German immigrants and coffee farmers
A stencil for coffee bags
Check out this typewriter from the museum.
Learning about coffee’s history in Chiapas
Coffee beans drying
This is a serious load
This man stopped to talk with us – 100 lbs on his back in the hot sun
Ah! Chocolate!
How our lunch was being cooked
It was delicious – and took tremendous work to prepare