Pan American Trails | Oaxaca

Meeting hunger, thirst and the rigors of precipitous burro trails. Bright plumaged birds, relics of a mysterious civilization and scattered tribes of Indians in the little known Mexican State of Oaxaca

From the March 1936 Issue of Motorcyclist magazine.

The deeper Jose Porta Progressed toward Central America, the wilder became the country and the greater his physical hardships. This month we read about his journey in Oaxaca

The Presidente and his gang must have been fast asleep when I left the village the next morning, since I didn’t meet a living soul. The road was rough as usual and the mountains were superseded by endless deserts.

Water was very scarce in that region and both of my canteens were smashed up and almost useless, not holding more than a quart of water between the two of them. The heat was unbearable and my supply of water was all gone as I saw a ranch in the distance, surrounded by green trees. I reached it only to find out that it was a deserted building with a few iguanas running loose on its shattered roof. There was no water to be found in the premises, the well being dry, but I soon found something much better than water. It was an orange tree. A real to goodness tree, full of ripe, juicy oranges.

I parked myself under that tree and picked out all the oranges and made orange juice out of them. Thirsty as I was I must have squeezed about a hundred oranges. I drank my fill and with what was left of the juice I filled my canteens.

I traveled the rest of the day under a scorching sun and occasionally I would take a sip from my canteen. All went well for a while until the heat fermented the orange juice and turned it into a bitter concoction. I was too thirsty to mind the bitter taste and before I realized it I turned out to be cock-eyed drunk. All I remember is that I rode around for a while, unable to steer straight and then I must have laid myself down to sleep somewhere, because when I came to I found myself freezing in the middle of the night, laying alongside a bunch of cacti.

It is remarkable how cold it gets to be at night in the desert. It is on account of the rarefied air that the change in temperature is so sudden and so radical. The thinness of the atmosphere is not enough to break the sunrays in the day time which strike the soil at full blast, burning everything with a maddening heat. After sundown again the thinness of the atmosphere is once more responsible for the sudden change in temperature brought about by its inability to retain the heat acquired during the day. Such a change from the highest to the lowest temperatures will cause the hugest rocks to expand and contract daily until they crack and crumble, transforming themselves at last into small particles of sand.

It is the noonday heat which is to be feared the most by the unaccustomed traveler. The natives themselves will stop all activities and crawl to a shady spot and lay down for a few hours during the time that the sun is in its zenith.

But I was not always that fortunate and I had to travel incessantly, hopelessly looking for shelter, and still more hopelessly wishing for water, for my throat was parched and my lungs were hot.

The sand was deep and I had to push the motorcycle while the rear wheel was spinning without advancing. I would push until exhausted, then I would kill the motor and stop to catch my breath. I had exhumed all the moisture from my body, the hot air was burning my nose and my wind pipe and it was torture to breathe. I had lost my way and I knew not where I was.

I pushed ahead in a haphazard way. I wanted to get away from there. The heat was increasing and I couldn’t think clearly. And I was so tired. It would have been so easy for me to lay down and rest for just a few minutes. I would have fallen asleep right away, I knew that. In fact I was laboring hard to keep awake. I felt a dull thumping in my brains and everything around me felt so hazy and misty. Yet if I slept I might never wake up and I knew that I musn’t fall asleep. And did I have enough gas in my tank? I opened the top and looked in it. It was almost empty. I had two gallons of spare gas in a can and I poured that in the tank. How clear and limpid it was. Just like water. I wondered if I could drink it and quench my thirst.

I kept on traveling, anxiously scanning the horizon for a sign of human life. I reached the top of a hill and saw a man in the distance mounted on a burro. I drove towards him and at the noise of my motor he stopped and waited.

“Water, my friend,” were my first words. “Give me some water.” My face was scorched and my lips were cracked.

He had no water, but he handed me a bottle full of tequila. I took a generous gulp, then I gave it back to him. If I followed his tracks, he told me, I would get to a village.

The road was too sandy and I couldn’t keep up with him, so I lagged behind.

After that drink I was feeling much better and I was thanking my stars for having met a man with a bottle of tequila. I felt like a million dollars now and I could have licked the world.

The effect of the tequila didn’t last very long and a few minutes later I felt as weak and as thirsty as before. Again I was seized by despair and once more I thought I could never reach the next village. And where was the man with the tequila? Surely he couldn’t have gone very far. I forced the motor forward and pushed desperately with hands and feet. I had to reach the man with the tequila. My life depended on it.

I reached him and I begged for another drink. Patiently he handed me the bottle and I drank from it and reluctantly gave it back to him.

Once again the fire-water worked its magic upon me. My strength came back and with it new hope and new ambition. I didn’t care how far the next village would be, I didn’t care if I never saw another village at all. I could just go on like that forever.

Then came the reaction again. I felt weaker than ever and I was still thirsty. I was so thirsty that I thought I couldn’t stand it. I wanted tequila and I had to have it. I ran after the man with the maddening thought in my mind that he might refuse me. I caught up with him and I hollered out loud. Perhaps he understood my plight and perhaps he felt sorry for me.

“Keep the bottle,” he said. “I’ll soon be home.”

I grabbed the present and thanked him a million times. I sat down on the scorching sand and sippped slowly, appreciatively of the luscious drink. I meant to make it last me a long time, then, unable to resist the temptation, I took greater gulps and at last I lavishly poured it down my burning throat.

A few days later I left the deserts behind me and started to climb those high and rocky mountains of which the state of Oaxaca is so famous . The population there is very scant and is mainly composed of several tribes of pure-blooded Indians. There are probably fifteen different tribes in the state of Oaxaca alone, of which the Zapotecas and Mistecas predominate.

This state is one of the least known of Mexico, even to the Mexicans themselves, there being no railroad to cross those unsurmountable mountains, and only burros and horses being able to go over those treacherous passes. This region has still great stretches of land unexplored and uninhabited, replete with objects of the utmost interest for the sportsman or the man of science. For the sportsman will find all kinds of animal life in its natural habitat, unspoiled by the presence of civilized man, and the man of science will forever quench his thirst for knowledge in the study of the myriad of prehistoric relics left by a mysterious civilization which perished thousands of years ago.

From the top of those mountains I could look around me for miles and miles and behold a sight that few white men ever had the opportunity to witness. Yet I had no eyes for beauty. Multicolored birds of the richest plumage meant nothing to me: I was too hungry to appreciate them. The most imposing panoramic views left me untouched: I was looking only for water and nothing else mattered.

I was always worrying about the road and all I cared for was to go ahead and reach the next village.

My nights were spoiled by that pest of the tropics, the mosquito, and every morning I would get up as tired as when I went to sleep and would travel all day in a semi-conscious way hoping to be able to find a place to stop where there would be no mosquitoes.

I finally reached Oaxaca, the capital of the state by the same name. A picturesque and purely Mexican city, full of life and activity, it presented a vivid contrast to the primitive villages I had to go through in order to reach it. Although seemingly cut off from the rest of the world it was surprisingly modern and comfortable in every aspect. It had automobiles and traffic policemen and a few moving picture theaters and other entertainments.

The authorities and sporting clubs gave me the highest reception and did their best to make my stay there pleasant and interesting. It pleased my vanity to see policemen or soldiers straighten up and salute whenever I went by. It pleased me still more when I was presented with diplomas and certificates from several Oaxaca Clubs and was requested to autograph their albums.

Oaxaca is replete with interesting historical monuments. Mount Alban, a few miles out of town, contains several small pyramids and scores of stone slabs engraved with prehistoric hieroglyphics probably left by the Mayas who inhabited the country several centuries ago.

The ruins of Mitla, south of Oaxaca, are by far the most interesting prehistoric relics that I had the opportunity of seeing during my trip through Mexico. The sight of them alone more than atoned for all the sufferings and hardships I had to endure in order to reach them. Were they within easy reach of the average traveler they would soon be swarmed by eager American tourists, who would feast their eyes on the beauty of the Mayan architecture.

These ruins are of religious temples and they are still remarkably well preserved, although only the walls are left for our appraisal. It comprises several rooms and courts and halls, with a large plaza in the front. One room, for instance, the Hall of the Monoliths, contains huge granite columns which are estimated to weigh from four to five tons each and every one of them is carved from a single piece of rock. The nearest place where rocks large enough can be found is in the mountains several miles from there and how the prehistoric architects ever managed to carry those blocks from so far away is beyond human understanding.

****The walls of the ruins of Mitla are composed of delicate mosaics and beautifully carved blocks, consisting of thousands of individual pieces, each a masterpiece in itself.

From Oaxaca to Mitla and as far south as San Juanito the roads were passable although very primitive. There was considerable traffic among those little towns and most of the traveling was being done on burros or oxcarts, therefore I had no trouble in reaching San Juanito on my third day out of Oaxaca.

Here was again the end of all roads. I was about to undertake the crossing of the fiercest mountains of Mexico and I was worried. No road was ever built at any time over those mountains and no railway ever dared undertake its hazardous conquest. There is where I realized that I had made a mistake in going that way, yet it was too late to go back and I had to take my medicine.

For years they had talked and planned about a Pan-American highway that would lead from the United States, through Mexico and Central America and on to South America. Such a highway was supposed to pass over these mountains, and at the time I reached San Juanita they had started work on it, having already succeeded in building five miles of hard surfaced road.

Imagine my surprise in finding five miles of perfectly constructed highway in one of the most remote regions of Mexico, where it couldn’t possibly have done any good, since no automobiles could get that far. Yet on further thought that was the most logical place to start building the road. It was the crossing of the Oaxaca mountains that always baffled the engineering minds of the country and made a Pan-American highway almost an impossibility. But once those mountains were conquered the rest would have been easy, and a few touches here and there would soon enable the American automobile driver to reach Guatemala with his own car. Such a road would help Mexico, by luring a large number of tourists from the north and it would also help the tourist by bringing within his reach the heretofore unreachable natural beauties of Southern Mexico and the Central American countries.

In San Juanito I stopped overnight waiting for a supply of gasoline which was to be sent to the road workers who had orders to fill my tanks. And next day with full tanks I rode out of San Juanito. I couldn’t even use the five miles of road because when I reached the end of it, it was the end of it. I went back to the village and started to follow those famous burro trails.

I dreaded those mountains and I followed the valley as far as I could. I reached a river and started the crossing of it on the motorcycle. I rode until the water drowned the carburetor then I had to push. But when I reached the middle of the river I couldn’t push any more. The current was too swift and the motorcycle became too heavy and I had to tax my strength to the limit to hold her up against the power of the water. It was at least one hour before I reached the opposite shore, tired and exhausted. It was another hour before I could drain the motor of its water and get it running again. But after I rode a few minutes I met the same river which I had to cross again. I waded through it to sound its depth and the water reached my armpits.

There was only one way I could cross it and I patiently set to work taking that motorcycle apart and piece by piece I carried it over the river on my back. By dark I had all the pieces together again, but then it was too late to go any further. I found some corn in a field near by and I built a fire and roasted myself some delicious corn on the cob.

After my frugal repast, while collecting more wood for my fire, I saw a small snake curled up on the ground. It was no bigger than a lead pencil, with a large head on it. I wondered if it was a baby rattler. Being curious to know I did what I had done several times before. I stepped on it and grabbed it behind its head. But was it the dim moonlight or was it my over-confidence? Be that as it were I must grabbed it too far behind its head, because it suddenly opened an enormous mouth and dug its fangs into one of my fingers.

Christopher Columbus! I jerked my hand and threw the little pest into the air. Then, after sucking the blood out of my finger, I made a slit over the sore with a razor blade and applied a couple of tourniquets over my arms, which I gradually took off and finally went to sleep.

When I awoke the next morning my hand was swollen and my finger had taken a yellow tint and was as hard as bone. I could hardly use my hand and yet I had to cross that same river seven more times and then I found myself under the foot of those mountains the crossing of which I couldn’t postpone any longer.

Like a titanic wall they were standing in front of me impeding my advance and frustrating all my futile efforts in finding a path. I walked for miles around, and followed foot trails and burro paths but I couldn’t find a place where I could go through with my motorcycle. I could hardly walk up those mountains and in places I had to crawl on my hands and knees and, after two days of the most exasperating trials I finally had to admit that I was beaten and that I had to give up. I had either to go back or stay there forever for, try as I may, I couldn’t possibly drive any further.

I couldn’t blame the motorcycle because no machine has been built yet which would climb walls, especially walls built of broken granite, with a small spiral foot path which would lead straight up, curling upon itself every few yards.

As I said I struggled for two days before I decided to walk back to San Juanito for help then, with a tired countenance and my head bent low, feeling and looking like a defeated general, I returned to the village.

The Presidente wasn’t surprised at seeing me. In fact he never thought that I could make it and after calling a meeting he obtained two burros which I could use to carry the motorcycle over the mountains.

I took the two burros and, accompanied by an arriero, I went to where the motorcycle stood and started to take it apart. Still it was a lot of load for two animals and after loading them up with all my bundles and the tanks and wheels and other detachable parts I saw that the burros were taxed to the limit and that I still had the motorcycle frame and the motor to dispose of. The arriero and I agreed that we needed two more burros, so we arranged that he should go on alone with his two donkeys while I would go back to the village and get two more.

I waited two hours at the village before I could get my two animals, as nobody seemed to have a burro to spare, but at last I succeeded in getting a couple of old, dilapidated jackasses, and after I had my motor and frame firmly secured on their backs I started the climbing of those mountains.

As an arriero I consider myself a perfect flop. Maybe the load was too heavy, or maybe the burros were too weak. Anyhow those stubborn animals would climb a few steps then stop and rest for a few minutes. I learned later that was the way they were trained; they were supposed to stop occasionally while climbing a steep hill so that they would last longer. But at the time I didn’t know that much and I was anxious to reach my destination which was Rancho Escondido, at fifteen miles from San Juanito. I was told that the Ranch was the highest spot in those mountains and after I reached it I could be able to proceed with the motorcycle.

So I urged those burros to greater speed as I intended to reach the Ranch before dark. But it was useless; when they stopped they just stayed stopped and there was nothing I could do that would make them budge an inch. And then when we were traveling on narrow paths, on the edge of steep precipices I was always afraid that those donkeys would fall over and end down the valley below, especially the one that was carrying the motorcycle frame. He was so weak and he was wobbling so much as he walked that I had to hold him up at every dangerous pass. And then he laid down and he wouldn’t get up any more. I was at the end of my patience. I begged him and I coaxed him and I pulled him by the tail but he refused to get up. I found a strong stick and broke it on his back but without any result, and at last, when I was at the end of my wits he finally decided to get up and walk. And he walked for five minutes, then he laid down again. It was getting dark and I didn’t relish a night in those mountains with only a pair of pants and a shirt on me, as the first two burros had carried all my clothes.

And that consarned jackass would walk five minutes and then lie down for fifteen. He knew that he had a tenderfoot for a master and he was taking advantage of it. We were advancing at a mile an hour, and all my kicks and whippings and my wildest ejaculations in Mexican didn’t do me any good. The animals had to have their own way and as far as they were concerned I wasn’t there.

When night came and I was unable to see a step ahead of me I had to stop and try to make myself comfortable until morning. I unloaded the burros and tied them to a rock, then I laid myself in a corner and tried to rest. It was cool at first, then chilly and then cold and windy and, deprived of all covers, I had to get up and jump around to keep warm. I was half way between the valley and the Ranch and, dark as it was, I couldn’t possibly reach either of them.

With only the scantiest of clothing on me I had to keep moving all night long, to keep from freezing and dawn found me lifting heavy rocks and making the deep knee bend for the thousandth time.

As soon as I was able to see I packed my two stubborn animals and proceeded once more on our skyward procession. All went smooth for a while, until my friend, the lazy burro, decided again that it was time for him to lay down and have his customary nap. I was used to his ways by this time and whenever that happened I just sat down alongside of him and patiently waited.

At high sun I reached Rancho Escondido. The other two burros had safely arrived the night before and, having everything there that belonged to me, I started to put my motorcycle together and get set for an early start next morning.