Discovering Life in a Mexican Pueblo: Santa Maria Coatlan

Discovering Life in a Mexican Pueblo: Santa Maria Coatlan

I rounded the sandy corner precariously and was faced with a steep downhill. Teetering to a stop, barely keeping my overloaded bike upright, I found myself paralyzed. I could not turn around and go back to the safety of the tarmac, both because our destination lay down the hill, and because it was physically impossible to turn around on the narrow, steep dirt track. However, no matter how much sensible talking to myself I did, I could not bring myself to let go of the brakes and continue forward and down.

This was actually the road out of Santa Maria, which was less steep than the way in.

In my life to date, I have never had a panic attack, on that hot set of dirt switchbacks down to the small pueblo (village) of Santa Maria Coatlan, I came close. I did eventually make it down to the village, without dropping Cricket down the cliff, but it was an extreme case of mind over matter, and conquering fear.

We’ve been travelling for more than seven and a half months now, and I keep hoping to start feeling excitement about dirt roads. I am jealous of the way Phil and Alex see a road to nowhere winding along a far off mountain and they can’t wait to go explore it.

On the long day after our visit to Hierve del Agua when we spent the whole day on dirt roads in the mountains, I was feeling much more confident. That is until a patch of soft dirt sent Cricket and I sliding towards the cliff. Cricket went down, and I had to grab the handlebars and dig my heels in to keep her on the road. I grabbed the front wheel and pulled her back onto the road, but I had to wait for Phil to come back to help, if I tried to pick the bike up there it could have easily toppled over the side. I was pretty shaken up, I think I went into a little bit of shock. Being in the middle of the mountains, far from any civilisation, meant I had to get back on the bike and continue, despite that being the last thing I wanted to do.

Every experience like that sends my confidence level plummeting. It’s incidents like that which flash through my head when faced with a challenging stretch of road, and make me go even slower than I already go. I feel awful about it. Poor Phil has to deal with being crippled by a slow, nervous partner in crime, and the last thing I want to do is hold him back, which I quite obviously am doing.

While it should help that I rarely actually drop the bike, and I am technically capable of riding those roads, it is confidence, not skills, that I lack. In my ideal world, I could stick to tarmac roads and only take the dirt when there was no other way. However, there was no other way to Santa Maria, and I still struggled. This is an ongoing challenge that I must face. I refuse to be paralyzed by my own brain. There are whole countries of dirt roads to cross (Bolivia is known to have terrible roads) so I must keep calm and carry on. I’m sure that things will get easier (they already have) but I do wish it would happen a bit faster!

Santa Maria Coatlan is the small village in the mountains that our friends Ricardo and Claudia invited us to visit them in when we ran into them in Mihuatlan. Both sets of Ricardo’s grandparents live in this village of about 150 people, and we were invited to camp in garden of his maternal grandparents’ home, where he was also staying.

We weren’t sure where Ricardo’s grandparents lived when we got into the pueblo. Then the man himself rode up.

This was our first immersion in Mexican village life. The house consisted of several buildings settled on a hillside. The outhouse (a concrete toilet set over a hole in the ground) was down the slope from the main house where they slept. The kitchen was found up the hill, built of mud and sticks and containing the wood fire that all meals were cooked on.

The kitchen building

The beautiful Claudia cooks up a storm

Pueblo bike parking

Ricardo’s grandparents were truly inspirational, treating us like family, and managing to climb up and down those steep hills all day long. Ricardo’s other set of grandparents were equally welcoming. They ran a tienda (store) in the village and fed us a great meal when we were starving after spending a few hours in the baking sun walking to and from the local waterfall. We stopped in the shop to by some water, and ended up at their kitchen table with piles of food in front of us.

Ricardo’s grandparents (the ones we stayed with)

Abuela cooking

Enjoying the feast Ricardo’s grandmother made for us

The hike to the waterfall was really nice, although we didn’t follow instructions on how to get there, and ended up following a kind mezcal swigging stranger who walked us up over a big hill down some pretty non existent trails. It worked though, we ended up at a beautiful waterfall in the trees, with a few different pools and some comfortable rocks to rest on. On the way back we took the easier road, which was good as Alex had started feeling ill.

Mezcal man leading the way to the falls

Finally the waterfall appeared

Instead of swimming, I found a comfy, shady rock

Our other big outing was to the local caves. We had to get permission from the authorities, which proved to be difficult. It appears that very village has a person referred to as the authority (I can only assume it is like a village mayor) and in Santa Maria this person must be consulted for visitors to be allowed to visit the caves because the village’s drinking water originates from one of them. The authority turned out to be elusive, but eventually Ricardo and Ida tracked him down and we were allowed to visit the series of four caves.

The bridge to the caves

There was a tree at the entrance to the first cave

These stones weren’t made for stepping

The ponds in the caverns had some beautiful surprises

I am so glad that we had the opportunity to be welcomed into village life, and to experience the way many Mexicans live their whole lives. It was humbling and fascinating.

I would have thought that it would be the rustic conditions that would be the most difficult thing to cope with, but really I enjoyed camping and cooking over a fire. The aspects I found most challenging were the biting insects which took chunks out of our skin, resulting in bloody, itchy ankles for the following week or more, and the group living.

Ida and Alex in their tent in front of the main casa

Travelling reveals a lot about oneself that is not always clear when living a day to day life. One of the many things that has been reinforced about myself is that every so often I desire my own space.

I love people, new friends, socialising etc. However after many days of living in a group, and the associated constant activity, and group decision making, I find myself growing a bit grumpy, desiring solitude. Luckily I don’t count spending time with Phil as “group living”. We have an easy existence together, and often are in each other’s company but completely silent for hours.

In Santa Maria we had the four of us travellers, our friends Ricardo, Claudio and Lettie, their friend Catalina and Ricardo’s grandparents all co-existing.

After two nights, Phil and I were ready to move on. Unfortunately Alexander was feeling even worse than the previous day, and was not up for riding. We made the difficult decision to leave Ida and Alex in Santa Maria, and to head towards San Jose del Pacifico and the Oaxacan coast (again).

Alex benefited from Nurse Phil’s medical kit.

We stopped in Mihuatlan, as we had accidentally taken one of our couchsurf host’s keys and needed to return it, and we also wanted an internet connection to submit an application to Canada’s version of The Amazing Race. Our younger sister Heather had been asking us to enter for a month or so, and as we would be a pretty amazing team, we decided to do it.

Eduardo kindly welcomed us back and let us use his internet connection. It turned out that we couldn’t upload our audition video, so we emailed it to Heather and asked her to put the entry in. She also struggled, but managed to get it in 18 minutes after the submission deadline. Don’t hold your breath for seeing us on TV screens near you anytime soon.

After a few hours, we were back on the road, heading for the mountains again.