I’ve known crazy roads and even crazier drivers. In Ghana, I got to know potholed dirt roads during heavy tropical rain where cars drove in every direction in any lane. I saw tro-tros stop in the middle of the road because their engines fell out and I rode with drivers who continually honked at and dodged chickens and goats.
In Cambodia, I got to know the “Dancing Road” which forced me to bounce against my will (although I hear it’s now been paved) and bus drivers who refused to slow down and bumped into a cow or a moped driver as a result (two separate incidents where both victims were fortunately able to walk away from the accidents).
In Bolivia, I got to know bus drivers who left for the middle of nowhere with not enough gas, gave offerings to dogs for a safe journey, and drove the bus in reverse around the corner on the edge of a mountain so that another bus or truck could pass on a narrow road.
I thought I had nerves of steel when it came to foreign roads, but it turns out there is still a lot more to know that I really don’t want to know. This was what I learned on my journey from the city of Oaxaca to a little beach town called Mazunte. After three nights in Oaxaca, I decided to head to the coast of Oaxaca state. To save on money and time, I opted to travel by van rather than bus. Going by van, you take a shorter route that the large buses won’t travel on. That should’ve been a clue.
Another clue should’ve been my Mexico Lonely Planet, which told me that van drivers are flexible about stopping to let people use the restroom or take a photo… “or vomit, as some people tend to do on this route.” I brushed this aside thinking it would be just pleasant mountainous drive that might be a little windy here and there. Wrong.
The trip started off with getting caught in traffic for an hour and a half on a dusty two lane road before we’d even gotten out of the city. Then not long after that, we were stopped at a military check point. Men (and some who looked like boys) with XXL guns came by and opened the trunk. They saw a backpack. They wanted to know whose it was. The van driver pointed to me. It was mine. I was the only foreigner in the van.
I read the military men’s eyes as they watched me get out of the van and could tell that they were more sympathetic than hostile. Perhaps they’d noticed I was a solo female traveler because I could tell that when they saw me, they didn’t want to search my bag, but had to follow through anyway. I smiled as charmingly as I could and let them halfheartedly poke around my bag for a few seconds before they zipped it up and gently put it back.
Back on the road, we headed deeper into undeveloped territory. As we went higher up in the mountains, I was happy to be sitting in the front and on the cliff side for much of the ride. It was incredible scenery; the villages in the clouds and the deep valleys below. As we drover further and came down from the mountains, we began to enter the tropics and a pounding tropical thunderstorm. This was where things got sketchy.
On that day, I truly began to understand the meaning of “hairpin turns”. But it wasn’t just the miles of curvas peligrosas we traveled that had me terrified, it was the driver who drove like a maniac through the storm. The rain intensified and visibility decreased. Parts of the road were flooded with water. In other parts, mud or chunks of rocks slid from the hills onto the road. And still the driver zoomed along like an insane NASCAR driver, overtaking other vans around corners on the two-lane rain mud and rock laden road. I hoped the beach would be worth it.
It wasn’t until we were done with the windiest part of the road that the rain finally eased up. Of course. I unglued my hands from whatever surface they were clamped onto and relaxed in my seat. And then we reached Pochutla, the town where we’d be dropped off. I knew the town wouldn’t be spectacular, but I didn’t expect to find it so unnerving.
I couldn’t tell if there was an event going on, or if it was just regular evening in Pochutla, but it seemed like a town for crazy people. I was not even close to dark and firecrackers were being set off at regular intervals. A group of teenage boys in masks ran through the town, chasing small children. The streets were full of loud people and traffic and we inched along to the van station. I rolled down my window to get some air, and people gawked as they saw me. A smiling man walked alongside our van and shouted to me, “Pochutla! Bienvenidos a Pochutla! Lady de Black! Lady de Black!” I smiled back while thinking, “No need to welcome me, I’m leaving ASAP!”
When we finally got to the van station, I immediately searched for the next available transportation to Mazunte. I could try to find a camioneta, a pickup truck where you ride in the back. Or I could take the taxi that was right across the street. The taxi won. I hear camionetas are fun and I might have tried it in a different situation, just for the experience. But I’d had enough “experience” for the day.
It wasn’t long after leaving Pochutla that the scenery once again became nature-filled and peaceful. When we arrive in Mazunte, the taxi driver began to turn up a hill toward the hotel I wanted to stay at. We drove up an unpaved rocky road past a graveyard. And then we stopped. I sighed, hoping once again, that Mazunte would be worth the effort. I still had yet to see a beach or ocean and I had doubts.
I found the hotel owner and he showed me around. He seemed a little strange to me, but there was an oceanfront cabaña available and I liked that there were just two other people staying at the hotel/campground, a couple from Quebec. Mazunte seemed like a good place for solitude and ocean. I negotiated a price with hotel owner. My very basic and rustic padlocked room had a view, which was nice, but even better was the porch in front of it. I dropped my stuff off went back outside to settle into a hammock overlooking the ocean. “Yes,” I thought. “This is worth it.”