Five characters (and their guests) in search of something.

Sunday, November 28, 2004


We had been to Monte Alban and to several other pueblos within an hour's drive, but our trip to Hierve el Agua was the first overnight for us. We went with Lauren and Mark Beam (Lauren is a local tour guide and consultant), their family, and a family of their friends from San Francisco.

Hierve el Agua is a mineral spring that spews its salts over the edge of several cliffs high in the mountains. The salts solidify and form what look like petrified waterfalls. Above the cliffs are some small pools, cold in the Mexican winter, where people float and look across the range of mountains ringing the valley below.

The attraction is valuable for the local people. So valuable, in fact, men from a neighboring town draw up a rope to close the road demanding their own cut of the profits that Hierve el Agua brings. The cut is small.

Though we brought quite a bit in the trunk of our rental car, we had neglected to bring any mescal. Once we were settled, Mark and I went to find a special mescal that he had had the last time he and Lauren came to Hierve. He described to me a hand-painted bottle with a picture of the mineral cliff--that held very good mescal. When we looked through the tienditas in the park, it seemed that the vendor was gone. Asking a few people where we could find such special bottles, some indicated San Lorenzo, the pueblo with the rope just before the park.

Mark and I left for San Lorenzo in his van, giving a ride to a local woman and probing for information about the elusive mescal bottles. She told us that we would have to travel all the way around the range, back to the other side of the valley. Still, we continued to San Lorenzo.

Passing over the rope, passing by the roperos, we saw a sign for "MESCAL" hand-painted on a white wall. It seemed closed. We asked two men talking over a fence next door. "Just knock."

We tentatively knocked on the metal door. No light inside. And then a groan. A low, disoriented groan. Then shuffling. The door opened onto a tilted face, out of focus red eyes, and a back hunched in the shape of a cot. We asked if he sold mescal and he responded in grunting spanish. "Pasa le." A wall of painted mescal bottles on a metal storage shelf. On one side colored liquids and on the other clear. "Is one better than the other?" Mark asked. He thought that some of the darker liquids might be mescal reposado (aged). "No, dulces." Sweetened and flavored. He pulled a bottle of clear mescal from the shelf and told us that it was good. "Can we try it?" Mark asked. "Si," the man answered as he went to the shelf for a nearly empty bottle. He removed the plastic cap and took two long swigs himself. Wiped his mouth and passed the bottle to Mark.

As Mark put the bottle to his lips and began to drink, the man spat the mouthful onto the ground. Mark decided to swallow. I took the bottle next and drank immediately, revelling in the moment, remembering my friend John Gant during his taste tests of coffee--slurping and spitting. Our man had perhaps done the same, perhaps had drunk to show his ownership. Perhaps drinking had become a reflex. Few customers and a hypnotic product from magical, mercurial nature hanging there like fruit in front of him in the dark.

We bought four bottles and drank half of one under the full moon that night. Outside our cabins, not close enough to the fire we had built.

On the way back the roperos held up their rope, although when we stopped at the mescal tienda we were still within sight. We showed them their receipt from no more than an hour earlier and they slowly agreed to lower the rope.

The morning was peaceful. Burros brayed below the cliffs. The moon still hung in the sky, eventually lowering between two peaks. The wind from the night had died down and we passed time dressing the children and picking at food as the burros' owners awakened. Our view of the range showed a wide variety of trees. From pine to palm. And the maguey plants in all forms sprouting up in rows or on hillsides became the symbol of this spherical whole for me.

A hike to the bottom of the petrified cascade. A late breakfast in the park. We left in the warm part of the morning and spiraled down through the mountain villages until we were back to Carretera 190, to Mitla, to Teotitlan del Valle, to Oaxaca.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good writing! A lot of the travel logs I read are dead boring. Nice to start reading and to feel it worth continuing to the end!

February 15, 2006 10:44 PM

Blogger Thomas Richardson said...

Argh. It's been some time since I checked the comments on the site. Thank you for your kind words. We loved the experience and love sharing it.

September 15, 2008 2:19 PM


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