The deadly vortex of Santa María del Tule

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Calvin laughed. “Everyone says they are just stopping by for a day or two, but then they stay for several weeks.”

“Well, we’d like to stay for three weeks, so does that mean you’ll never get rid of us?”

No truer words have been spoken.

The small town of Santa María del Tule has a population of little more than 8,000. It is located just out of the state capital of Oaxaca. (Pronounced Wa-ha-ka for all those of you as confused as we were when we first read the name).

This little town is most well known for a tree.

This may at first sound like a pretty disappointing claim to fame.

However, El Árbol del Tule is a particularly large tree. Growing in the church grounds in the centre of Santa María del Tule.Far from being the tallest, this one is famous for being particularly chubby. Some claim it to be the largest tree by volume in the world. With a circumference of 42m there is quite a lot of tree to see.

El Árbol del Tule.

As to exactly how big, that is up for a bit of contention. All sources agree that it is an Ahuehuete tree (Montezuma Cyprus). Other than that, agreement is hard to find. There are details on a sign displayed proudly beside the tree. These seem to be wildly inaccurate compared with most descriptions online. We won’t venture to tell you definitively whether it is one of the largest, oldest, chubbiest trees in the entire world. Instead, I think we can all agree, that yes, it is a rather big tree.

Just painting it on a plaque doesn't make it true. But some impressive stats nonetheless.
Just painting it on a plaque doesn’t make it true. But some impressive stats nonetheless.
We just call them swan plants at home. But from now on Asclepias Fructicosa shall be known as 'Old Balls'.
We just call them swan plants at home. But from now on Asclepias Fructicosa shall be known as ‘Old Balls’.

We found ourselves unable to resist a visit to the small town with a giant tree. But we didn’t know how difficult it would be to resist the pull to stay in Santa María del Tule.

We had booked three weeks staying at the small casita at Overlander Oasis. Our plans included some basic vehicle maintenance and possibly, an upgrade to the interior.

A whole three weeks living outside the 4Runner—unimaginable luxury!

Look! The casita has a kitchen. That gives us plenty of bench space to place our open beer bottles. Yep. We're not chefs.
Inside the casita.

Good thing we were heading indoors too. It was the start of rainy season. This happened at 4pm every day, like clockwork:

The town itself was small and friendly. With a focus on tourism around the big tree and the local drink—Mezcal. (Mezcal, for the uninitiated is a highly flammable liquid related to tequila. Unlike tequila an assortment of different agave plants are used to make mezcal. Which usually has a delicious smoky flavour).

No shortage of Mezcal to sample in these parts…
No shortage of Mezcal to sample in these parts…

We began to familiarise ourselves with the small town. It became a daily routine. Walk down the road, around the corner, past the empty field, past the family of four tiny wee puppies. This would bring us to our favourite store to buy our groceries.

We soon developed a similar routine to track down the best cheese, butter, bacon, beer, cake and fresh fruit and veggies.

But it wasn’t all about eating and drinking.

We had arrived with our brakes in a pretty sad state. Repairs would be necessary. We thought perhaps and extra week to get that sorted would be a good idea.

When parked at Overlander Oasis, it doesn’t take long for things to to start being pulled apart.

Three weeks turned into four.

We walked past the fields, there were little seedlings poking their shy heads above the soil. The little pups were braver, they would leave their mum to explore nearby gardens.

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Upon inspecting the vehicle’s dodgy brakes Ben found a very good reason to stay even longer.

That doesn't look structurally sound.
That doesn’t look structurally sound.

Four weeks tentatively turned into more… dependent on how long the repairs would take.

The seedlings were rapidly reaching for the sky. They began to take on the recognisable forms of corn plants. The pups were widening their circle, two here, one with mum, the other climbing out from under a fence.

Luckily, of all the places in Mexico for the 4Runner to behave badly, Santa María del Tule is one of the best.

Calvin knew the locations of several local wrecker’s yards. Better yet, he had his own garage full of tools and spares. Even better, he had the necessary skills to weld the 4Runner back together.

Job number one: Weld the chassis back to its former glory.

The 4Runner was immediately feeling a lot better.

The problem of the brakes remained.

The diagnosis that Ben had done up to this point had indicated that yes, it was an electronic issue. Without the proper electronic reader it was difficult to 100% confirm this.

The most likely guess? The unnecesarily complicated combined brake power booster unit had given up the ghost. This particular part was only included in the 2001 and 2002 4Runners. Discontinued thereafter—Toyota realised it was a terrible idea and chose never to speak again of this flawed design. This is why we miss our 1994 and 1989 Toyotas so much…

One fault in the unit means that the whole shebang requires replacing. Not repairing, but replacing. Not cool.

The offending unit.
The offending unit.

Not wanting to assume the worst, we sought official confirmation of the problem. Off to the local Toyota dealer.

First they tried to sell us a new truck. Clearly they didn’t understand that we were broke homeless people who live in our car. They soon realised that wasn’t going to be a happening thing. They gave us a quote for the replacement of this one, ridiculously expensive part.

48,317 pesos.

At the exchange rate at the time, this worked out to be more than half of what we had originally paid for the truck.

Four weeks was now definitely five.  Maybe six.

The corn plants were now very much corn plants. The puppies would play with us in the road when we passed, no longer running for the safety of mum.

Time for plan B.

Luckily there is always a ‘Plan B’. We popped in to the local wreckers, purchased a simple brake booster for less than 2000 pesos. Calvin and Ben disappeared into the depths of the garage. They emerged some time later. Successfully having swapped the offending part for an older unit from a simpler vehicle. We were back in business.

Out with the old.
Out with the old.
…and in with the… older?
…and in with the… older?

Sure we had no ABS, traction control or skid control. But the truck would stop on command and it hadn’t set us back the cost of a new one. We’ll definitely call that a win.

During this time plans were also forming for the upgrade of the interior of the 4Runner. We’ll detail this process in another blog post. The Flightless 4Runner 2.0 is a wonder to behold.

When it comes to home renovation projects or vehicle upgrades, Ben tends to have quite an imagination. Also, it turns out, so does Calvin. With both parties left unattended and the clean slate of an empty 4Runner on their hands, things spiralled out of control.

Spoiler alert: there’s now a fold out bench, slide out fridge, couch and table. We may have to referring to it as the Flightless Tardis.

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Even six weeks was looking like an unreasonable estimate.

Looks like we’re staying for seven weeks.

The fields were thick with lush green corn plants. The puppies were now hard to find. They would be off playing with the other neighbourhood dogs.

At this point, you would imagine that Leanne and Calvin would be completely sick of us.

We’re pretty convinced that they were. Athough they are also amazingly good at hiding this fact.

They are actually terrible at getting rid of people.

This is why they had so much trouble getting rid of the two pesky Kiwis sleeping in the casita:

First they feed us some food delicious food.

One of the many delicious meals we tucked into in the kitchen of Calvin and Leanne. There's some really tasty chicken under there.
One of the many delicious meals we tucked into in the kitchen of Calvin and Leanne. There’s some really tasty chicken under there.

Then they allowed us to borrow their assorted animals.

They shared their June birthday celebrations with Ben. Everyone could celebrate in style, even their ageing cat Spike. (Yes, that is how far behind we are with the blog. Don’t look so surprised. We’ve been adventuring.)

IMG_7628

Leanne took us on a tour of the local Mezcal distillery.

Not content with that, we also headed to the nearby town of Teotitlán del Valle to check out some talented weavers—Rosario and Ernesto.

So far this is looking like the worst possible way to get rid of Kiwis.

Next they ordered gringas (Giant el pastor tacos with gooey local cheese and a special 15 for 10 deal). Delivered to the door. Ben’s record is eleven in one sitting.

(FYI, eleven is enough to cause extreme feelings of regret.)

We frequented as many local restaurants as we could handle. From the delicious local food court, to some more glamorous dining rooms.

The best stop for Tlayudas or Mole Colorado in town.
The best stop for Tlayudas or Mole Colorado in town.
Here's Ben in his part-time gig holding up the ceiling in a restaurant in Teotitlán del Valle.
Here’s Ben in his part-time gig holding up the ceiling in a restaurant in Teotitlán del Valle.

During this time, other travellers came and went:

Follow the Wind, Oh My Darling Charlie, the Bumfuzzles, Bee Individual to name a few.

Luckily this was the quiet season for Overlander Oasis. Because each time somebody left it meant another going away shindig. More home cooking, more tasty deserts.

But the two pesky Kiwis were still hanging around.

They sent us to a local dentist to fix up our teeth.

An upgrade to these pearly whites—6 fillings replaced and one root canal, across 6 individual dentist's visits came to a grand total of $280 USD. Added bonus: It came with some free Spanish lessons from a very patient and friendly dentist.
An upgrade to these pearly whites—6 fillings replaced and one root canal, across 6 individual dentist’s visits, plus the initial consultation came to a grand total of $280 USD. Added bonus: It came with some free Spanish lessons from a very patient and friendly dentist.

They sent Emma to a local hairdresser. (Ok, that was a little scary.)

This is what a charming older Mexican gentleman assumed I wanted when I asked for short—the cut was fine. It was the time he spent fluffing it, combing it, covering it in product to form a perfect, solid, hair-helmet that was a little unexpected. Also, my hair has a mind of its own, so all that coaxing was combing undone 10 minutes later by the time we took this photo.
This is what a charming older Mexican gentleman assumed I wanted when I asked for short—the cut was fine. It was the time he spent fluffing it, combing it, covering it in product to form a perfect, solid, hair-helmet that was a little unexpected. Also, my hair has a mind of its own, so all that coaxing was combing undone 10 minutes later—by the time we took this photo.

Leanne and Calving told us where we could buy the best cheese, the best butter, the best bacon and the best free range eggs in town.

In a final, desperate attempt to get us to leave, Leanne and Calvin threw a going away shindig for us.

Leanne of course made the mistake of cooking us a pavlova. That is a terrible way to get rid of two hungry Kiwis.

Then there was talk of a roast lamb dinner…

The field of corn was now a green jungle of plants, taller than both of us. The tiny pups were now lanky, adventurous creatures. We would find them barking at passing cars and bikes, chasing one another though the streets.

Time to dry out the tent. (It turns out the cover isn't waterproof, so things got a little damp while it was parked up over rainy season.) Pack the 4Runner and hit the road.
Time to dry out the tent. (It turns out the cover isn’t waterproof, so things got a little damp while it was parked up over rainy season.) Pack the 4Runner and hit the road.

After 7 and a half weeks. We finally left Oaxaca. The interior of the truck upgraded, the brakes working, the chassis re-welded, full stomachs… and plans to return 10 days later for the Guelaguetza festival.

Yep. They’re never getting rid of these Kiwis.

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