Stranded Among the People of the Clouds
In the Mountains of Oaxaca

Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca

Photographs and Text by John Todd, Jr.

"The People of the Clouds":
This is the story of a drive through the switchbacks of Oaxaca from Huajuapan de Leon towards Pinotepa Nacional with little Indian villages of the Mixteca people nestled in the valleys of the high mountains of the Continental Divide. The Mixtecos are called the "People of the Clouds" in their own dialect.

How to Get There
From the Gulf to the Pacific
For the past week, four of us had been planning a trip to Pinotepa Nacional to be with friends for their anniversary.

To get to Pinotepa, is a 12 hour hard drive through the mountains of Oaxaca from the Gulf to the Pacific coast.

The last 8 hours of the trip after Huajuapan de León through the remote areas of Sierra de Oaxaca is especially slow and difficult.

After leaving Veracruz at daybreak, we finally got to Huajuapan de Leon, Oaxaca around noon. It had been an easy sail on the modern four lane toll road to Tehuacan, then some curves and narrow roads and a couple of villages into Huajuapan.

You might call Huajuapan the jump off before entering the Sierra de Oaxaca.

We expected 8 hours of switchbacks, and this town was the last of civilization we would see before nightfall, if all went well.

Huahuapan de León
A Great Lunch in Huajuapan de Leon
We had a great lunch at the Hotel García Peral, the Spanish colonial style restaurant on the plaza.

We were famished and the late breakfast was great.

As we headed south, the once gentle road became more treacherous as we plowed through the traffic bumps of little villages with Indian names and gorgeous antique churches from the 16th Century.

The Mountains of Oaxaca
The mountains got higher and the valleys got deeper. And the weather got cooler. We noticed at times we were above the clouds.

In the back of our minds, we knew we still had at least an 8 hour drive ahead of us so we settled into the back and forth, and ups and downs of the road.

Most of the time there were no guard rails.
An Old Village Church
Beautiful Countryside
The countryside was beautiful.

As we crossed the mountains and cruised through small villages in the valleys where a single river has given life to the vegetable and corn fields for centuries.

We were going into isolated country.

Narrow mountain roads, lots of switchbacks which would have made even the steadiest sailor queasy in the stomach.

And less people, too.
The Highways of Oaxaca
Disaster Strikes!
While crossing over one of the few level spots on one of the high ridges we discovered the brakes were gone!

Clear to the floor, and pumping didn't do a thing!

We were free coasting at about 50 MPH.

My buddy started downshifting the automatic transmission to 3rd, then to 2nd, then to first gear.

To our immense relief, there was a little rise at the end of the stretch with just enough room to pull over.

Out in the middle of nowhere.
The Mountains of Oaxaca
And, silence.

Just looking over the cliffs off to the left was a drop off about 2 km all the way to the bottom.

Looking over the cliffs off to the left was a drop off, about 2 km all the way to the bottom.

We were lucky to have stopped the car in time.

The Streets of Juxtlahuaca
Damage Assessment
In the silence of the high mountains, we waited for the brakes to cool down, testing them from time to time. After thirty long minutes, they were still hot and the pedal pushed to the floor. At best, they were slightly firm.

The Last 50 Km
It would be dark soon, and we decided to give it a try to the next town.

Those last 50 km. instead of admiring the beauty of the high mountains and green valleys, we were paralyzed with terror that the brakes might completely fail at any time.
Servicio Reyes
Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca
There was no traffic at all, and we decided to go for it and hoping to make it closer to the next big town, Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca.

We knew the town was just before one of the long and steep downhill grade of about 8 miles, and not many guard rails.

We creeped along in very low range gear, no more than 30 mph, hoping we wouldn't have to make any sudden stops.

Then up ahead we could finally see the Shangri-La village of Juxtlahuaca nestled in a narrow valley high in the mountains.

Servicio Reyes
As we cruised into town, along the highway were a couple of mechanics shops and auto supply stores.
Jorge´s Shop
We stopped at the cleanest looking shop where the mechanic suggested we look for "Jorge", a brake specialist in town who lived next to the Panteon Municipal.

We wound our way through the clean village and found the town cemetery and across the street was his home and shop.

His little daughter answered the door and called for Jorge. We knew we were at the right place.

Like many mechanics, he works best in the street in front of his house when it isn't raining. He pulled out a jack, lifted the car, and removed one of the front wheels while we waited.
Jorge working on the car
Jorge took a look at one wheel, then removed the other, then gave us his diagnosis: the brakes had been out of adjustment.

Since most of the load had been placed on the front shoes and discs, the system had overheated causing the massive failure.

The discs were also scratched and the brake pads were about half worn.

He said he needed about an hour and a half to fix it.

But, by then it would be dark, and we knew the mountain fog would close in.

The Streets of Juxtlahuaca
Spend the Night in Juxtlahuaca
What to do now?

By the time the car was fixed, it would be dark. We still had another 4 hours of rough road ahead to Pinotepa.

It was better to cancel the rest of the trip, and spend the night in Juxtlahuaca. Jorge recommended a good hotel, and drove us to the Hotel Flores.

He said was the best in town. He told us he would bring the car back when it was fixed later that evening.
The Streets of Juxtlahuaca
Just before Jorge took us to our hotel the clouds moved in and the afternoon rains started. I guess that´s why the call the people here, "the Cloud People".

Hotel Flores
At the Hotel Flores we just collapsed, relieved to be free of the car problem knowing it was in good hands.

I got up about an hour later at about dusk feeling refreshed, and went downstairs to the small "lobby".

It had enough room for two chairs and a glass counter where they also sold cosmetics, belts, and other knick knacks.
The Streets of Juxtlahuaca at Nightfall
Hilario, the young manager, was behind the desk adjusting the cable TV mounted on the wall high close to the ceiling.

He told me that he had lived 10 years in Oregon with his family and had also graduated from High School in Portland.

Two years ago he was in a bad accident and came back home to Juxtlahuaca to recover, and stayed on to help his uncle manage his properties.

The uncle still worked in Oregon and sent money back home each month.

At dusk it was still raining and getting colder.

Jorge brought the car back in great shape. His bill for riveting new pads and smoothing out the bad spots on the discs: $45.

I had expected to pay a lot more!
Tacos at Doña Rebe´s
Tacos at Doña Rebe´s
By then everybody was awake and hungry. Hilario recommended the best restaurant in town: Doña Rebe´s tacos.

We drove up the street to Doña Rebe´s where the kitchen was clean, and the furniture was new.

The kitchen was just behind the counter and the dining area had 7 or 8 tables.

It looked like this was another of the Oregon uncle's family backed businesses.
Flan Napolitano
Flan Napolitano
We dove into an endless amount of tacos and talked about the days events and how bad it really could have been.

For dessert, we all ordered a delicious "flan napolitano".

After dinner, we went home to the Hotel Flores dog tired from the long drive

Most of all it was from the nervous tension from having faced near disaster that day.

Sunday morning street
Sunday Morning
The altitude makes Sunday mornings in this part of Mexico feel refreshingly cool, especially having come from the tropical coast.

Suddenly you find yourself wide awake and actually wanting to take a stroll in the crisp early morning.

While the others slept in, I followed a lady and her daughter over to the market do some exploring.

It looked like that was where they were going.
Market on the Sidewalk
The Market
About a block before entering the market you begin to see people selling things from the sidewalks.

They sit in little chairs in the street and sell what they can bring in baskets selling different little things to the people who pass by on the sidewalk.

It almost makes you want to buy something.

El Borrachito who saved the national treasury
I walked by an old man sitting next to his wares on the sidewalk, mostly kitchen and household stuff. He was eating some kind of corn soup from a paper cup.

Out of the blue he looked up and asked me if I had heard about how a borrachito (a borracho is someone who is drunk and -ito at the end means "little")had saved the national treasury of Mexico. I wasn´t in a hurry and sat down on the curb to hear his story.

Map to El Camarón, Veracruz
The Train Wreck
It seems that a long time ago one of Mexico´s presidents was escaping the country

He loaded a special secret train with the entire contents of the national treasury, planing to send it from Mexico City to a ship waiting in the port of Veracruz.

The track switching orders were relayed by telegraph from station to station.

When the train got to Orizaba, word was sent to Paso del Macho, el Camarón, and Soledad de Doblado.

Everything went fine until El Camarón.

The Unexpected Happens
What they didn't count on was the station master at El Camarón was drinking tequila, and didn't relay the switching instructions.

There was a big train wreck, and then it was discovered that national treasury was aboard. The local authorities notified the government and it was shipped safely back to Mexico City.

El Camaron
The old man said there is a plaque near El Camarón commemorating the event. I have been to El Camarón (now called Adalberto Tejeda) several times to visit the French Foreign Legion monument. It's where one of the few times in history the Legion has been defeated, but I hadn't heard about a plaque commemorating the train wreck.

You meet all kinds of people you meet in the mercado who are looking for anyone willing enough to listen to them. It´s a good way to practice Spanish.

Anyway, that´s how a guy who drank on the job saved the national treasury of Mexico.

Maybe he was awarded a medal of some kind.

(Once I got back home, I was curious to find out the story about train wreck was true and took a trip to El Camarón, Veracruz to check it out.)

Triqui Woman
El Mercado
The market in Juxtlahuaca is really neat, especially with the colors of the dresses of the Indians.

It´s the smells of the food cooking, and the quiet talk of the people in different Indian dialects as they go about their errands.

There are basically two Indian cultures in this area which is called the Mixteca: Mixtecos and Triquis.
Triquis Indian Women
The Triquis Wear Red
The Triquis women wear the red long huipil or hand woven dress.

They also appear to be the most industrious and sell most of the vegetables in the market.

In addition to fresh fruits and vegetables from the coast, you can buy typical local products, mostly kitchen items made from fired brown clay.
Two Triquis girls and a little boy named Jonathan
Food is everywhere

A Fresh Empanada Breakfast
Ladies Cleaning Nopalitos (Cactus)
More Vegetables
More Vegetables
More Vegetables
Exchanging Market Gossip
Wheel Barrows for rent to carry vegetables
The Weather is Cool and Fresh

La Plaza
After the market, I walked across the street to see the traditional plaza.

In September the plaza of every town in Mexico is decorated with Mexican flags and the national colors, in preparation of El Grito de Independencia on the evening of September 15.

Bandstand and Statue of Don Benito Juarez
The Gazebo
The plaza in Juxtlahuaca has a special charm with its proud 1890´s style Gazebo in the distance and proud statue of native son don Benito Juarez who was born in the state of Oaxaca.

Generations of townspeople have enjoyed the peaceful evenings taking a stroll in the cool of the evening perhaps enjoying a concert by the Banda Municipal.

John Phillip Sousa would have loved Juxtlahuaca.

Today the plaza in Juxtlahuaca was decorated with the national colors which are shown in public places as well as in the homes of the Mexican people.
The Base of the Kiosk
The Base of the Kiosk
I noticed in one corner of the base of the 19th century kiosk a Grecian column and a stone that may have been the glyphs from a very old pyramid.

Everybody in town probably knows what it means, because there weren´t any signs telling the importance of the stones.
The National Colors
My Walk Continues
As I continued my walk around the town square, I noticed there weren´t any American tourists around.

The people selling flags for Independence day were up early and added color to the plaza.

Tomorrow night would be the Grito de Independencia at 11 PM led by the President of Mexico on TV.

And afterwards will be the Noche Mexicana Dinner of great Mexican dishes in most peoples homes.

As far as patriotism is concerned, a friend of mine here in Veracruz told me the real patriotism in a person comes out when it´s time to pay your income taxes.
La Plaza
An Ornate Park Bench
City Hall
City Hall
The morning sun was starting to take the chill off, and added to the bright patriotic colors.

I went over to the city hall and "Comandancia" where things were slowly coming to life.

It was a peaceful Sunday morning, and there wasn´t much for the policemen to do.It´s probably like that during the week, too.

It looked like the mayor was ready for the speeches to be made on Independence Eve.
City Hall
City Hall

Inside the Church
La Iglesia de Santiago Juxtlahuaca
Next, I walked over to the church.

It looked like it was several centuries old.

At 8:00 AM it was virtually deserted.

Inside, it felt pleasantly cool and was very clean.

And very quiet.

This is the best time to see a church.
The Sacred Heart
One of the Saints
Shepherd and the Animals
Los Animales
The people of Oaxaca are devoted to their pets and animals, and you see animals everywhere.

They almost seem to be treated with tolerance and appreciation almost as if they were part of the family or like neighbors.

August 30 is a special day in Juxtlahuaca when the animals are taken to the church to be blessed by the parish priest.
Santiago, the Warrior Pilgrim
Santiago, the Town´s Saint
In the first chapel on the right as you go in, there is a statue of what looks like a medieval knight on horseback.

I had never noticed this saint before.

He looked like a Spanish Conquistador.

Later I found out this is Santiago or St. James, the patron saint of Juxtlahuaca.

He is the warrior pilgrim apostle who brought Christianity to Spain and is also the patron saint of Spain.

His main shrine is in Compostela, Spain.
Chapel of the Virgen de la Soledad
La Virgen de Juquila
Off to the left of the main altar was the chapel devoted to the Virgen de Juquila. "Juquilita", the patron saint of Oaxaca, and much of southeastern Mexico.

Each time I see the Virgin of Juquila, I remember our Unexpected Pilgrimage to Juquila the year before.

It was an unforgettable experience where people go to make one wish.

Each year in December, thousands of people make pilgrimages to Juquila to ask for a miracle or to give thanks.

For many people this seems to work, especially when there isn´t any hope left.

Others come here during confusing times, looking for a sign of the right direction to take.

Here it´s peaceful and quiet and people can think about the important things in life.
Chapel to the Virgen de la Soledad
Gifts of Requests and Thanksgiving
Most people go to church to ask for a miracle or to give thanks.

They leave their votive candles and seem to leave their own pain and suffering.

Centuries old churches in Mexico, even in small remote villages, are in unusually good condition.

The church has survived in these remote areas is due perhaps not so much because of the church organization but because of the devotion and faith of the people.

The Gazebo
Time to Go
Time was getting away from me and I realized it was time to go.

I walked out of the church and passed the gazebo in the middle of the plaza.

By now, the smells of the steaming food cooking from the mercado across the street reminded me it was time for breakfast.

By now my friends were probably up and anxious to hit the road back to Veracruz in time for our own grito and Noche Mexicana Dinner in Veracruz.

We were still far from home, but the drive back would be faster now that we would be looking forward to a good dinner with some other good friends.

Walking past the market, I knew it was time for breakfast.
Steaming Hot Tamales
Steaming Tamales
The market is organized in different sections.

In the markets of Mexico is where you find the best variety of regional cuisine

It is one of the best kept secrets in Mexico.

There is a section where there is only tamales.
Waiting for Breakfast
Steaming Food
Steaming Food
Reluctant to Leave
There are places where you want to linger for another 5 minutes.That is the way it feels in the mornings in Juxtlahuaca.

At one of the stalls, a lady served me up a dozen or so tamales to take back to the hotel.Somebody told me once that it´s not a good idea to go to the market when you are hungry.

Snacks for the Trip
After picking up a bag of tamales, I passed the fruit section of the market and selected 8 or 10 sweet mangos to snack on.
Fresh Mangos for the Road
El Destino
Hilario had some cold cokes in the lobby of the hotel, and it would make a good breakfast snack before leaving on our trip back home.

Now I knew it was time to go back home.

At the same time, I wondered why the car had broke down in this little village.

Maybe it was our destiny, as the people of Mexico say.

Whatever the reason, it was time to go back to civilization.

Tomorrow would be another normal day back home and I wanted to stay in Juxtlahuaca just 5 more minutes.

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