Sticky and hot in the ‘collectivo’ I lean forward to stop my back from touching the burning hot sides of the rickety metal van. A dark skinned woman, clutching shopping bags and a live chicken glares at me and turns to whisper to her friends, similarly clad in tight black skirts and provocative red tops. Three men expose their swollen hairy bellies beneath rolled-up wife beaters. “Hola chicas” one of them drools with mezcal heavy breath, his caterpillar-like moustache hairs bristling with intent. Janna rolls her eyes at me. “Puerto Esondido!” The ‘collectivo’ driver hollers, we jump up, just as the midday drunk extends a clumsy hand towards the vicinity of Janna’s rear. ‘Bienvenido a Mexico’ a sign welcomes us, as we fall about laughing in the dusty aftermath of the exiting van. ‘Welcome back’ you mean.
From the busy, modern metropolis of Mexico City with its gay-friendly clubs to the millennia-old Mayan ruins of Palenque buried within sweaty emerald jungle, Mexico is a cultural overload of Latino lifestyle. As a British traveller you will receive greetings from Western adoration, to outright anti-American fuelled contempt. Expect to be followed with the shouts of “Gringo!” as you past groups of dull-eyed youths lounging around their pimped out taxis. Expect to be noticed, but expect to love it to the point that you will be itching as much as your mosquito bitten limbs to return.
‘Manana’ is the mantra of this country, and it’s worth learning the true meaning on your first day. It translates simply as ‘tomorrow’ and will see you through the buses that will be late, the dishes in restaurants that arrive plate by plate, never allowing you to eat at the same time, and which may be garnished with the odd black hair. It is the Mexican philosophy that gives preference to living rather than working, allowing things to happen within their own natural time frame. Don’t give into frustration, just always carry a book.
Upon arrival in Mexico City a twelve hour bus journey transported Janna and I to the bus station in Puerto Escondido, nestled within the culturally rich state of Oaxaca. When taking buses there is a small difference in fare between first and second class, so opt for first but take a blanket as the air-conditioning will leave you huddling into the sleeping stranger by your side for warmth. Puerto is a surfer’s paradise. Dangerous 6ft high waves in perfect quaver curls uniformly rush towards the bleached white shores, throwing tenacious swimmers and unskilled body boarders into disarray. Having experienced numerous ‘wipe-outs’ – a surfers term indicating a catastrophic fall from a board – on our gap year two years previously we avoided the ocean and soaked up some sun, anticipating a night of annihilation instead in a club of the same name.
Walking down the main strip of clubs in Puerto’s centre we followed the enticing beats of reggaton to some of our old favourite jaunts. ‘Blue’ coughed up a healthy dose of free ‘mezcal’ shots, Tequila’s evil cousin which is distilled from the fermented juice of an agarve plant to over 50% potency. For ladies, a dance on the bar is often enough to guarantee free drinks for most of the night, but display caution with both the number of drinks you consume and the men that offer to buy them. We danced our way to ‘Wipeout’ in search of an old amigo, and sure enough Dabid, an unusually tall and handsome Mexican was grinning behind the bar at us.
As the night grew messier Janna and I were soon left with an empty bottle of Tequila and were being hounded with the chants of “eat the worm!” As an ex-vegetarian Janna had more kudos to escape this punishment than I, so in an attempt to be open-minded I gulped it down. A slight feeling of nausea is all that can be expected, rather than the rumoured hallucinogenic properties of this alcohol soaked insect.
A painful hangover the following morning led us to soothe our weary souls with an afternoon boat trip, best arranged personally on the beach with a local fisherman. Soon we were transported to the calmer side of Puerto’s waters, cooing with schoolgirl delight at the backs of dolphins playing in the waves generated by our boat. As a hedonistic town Puerto is the perfect introduction to Mexico, but after surviving a few nights, like Pinocchio’s wonderland you need to get out of there to avoid turning into a complete ass.
Joined by Dabid, our faithful bartender, we made a trip to Ventanilla’; a small eco-tourism type attraction, whose income sustains the local villagers. Previously a coconut plantation it is now marketed as a crocodile lagoon, and a protected breeding ground for the rare loggerhead turtle. The local people used to make a living by poaching the eggs which are believed to be an aphrodisiac, ensuring a decent profit from black market sales. Now most locals act as guides and workers for the project and a half-hour boat trip tour around the extraordinary lagoon at sunset will treat you to an unforgettable serenade of birdsong, as lazy crocodiles bask in the waning light.
Passing a night at the wooden tree-house style accommodation for a handful of pesos allowed us to join one of the workers, Lalo, on a night time walk to beat the poachers in a hunt for turtle’s eggs. Walking along the moonlit, virgin beach hundreds of glow-bug like plankton shone within my footprints, reflecting the densely star-studded sky above. We saw the wreck of a small plane and were informed by Lalo that it was the crash-site of a drug smuggling enterprise. Allowing us to climb onto the tip of its wings we scoured the beach for signs of turtle tracks, and quickly found what we were searching for. Digging at the end of the tracks with our bare hands we created a hole two feet deep in the loose sand. Soon our fingers began to feel heat, and touched upon the nest of wet, leathery golf-ball sized turtle eggs. “Which are delicious with salt and lemon,” Lalo added, winking. Making sure that Lalo transferred all the eggs to his bag and kept none for personal consumption we then returned to the main centre, in which the eggs were once again buried in a fenced off enclosure.
After a long sleep of feeling like hammock wrapped happy meals for the feasting bugs we awoke the next morning tired and itchy. Imploring Dabid to fetch us some coconuts we watched him monkey-climb his way up a palm tree, from which he cut down three ripe specimens with a machete. We passed a day on the beach, eagerly awaiting sunset. As the sun finally began to melt like a runny yolk into the sea we were handed buckets full of baby turtles which had hatched from previously collected eggs. Setting the tiny creatures, fragile and delicate just meters from the lapping waves, we watched them flap their way forward, only to be swept up in a handful of surf. In a few years these fully grown turtles would travel thousands of kilometres across the ocean to return to these shores, and I knew that I too would be back.