One of my favorite places that my travels have taken me to is Puerto Escondido, an amazing little beach and surfing town in the state of Oaxaca in the south of México, highly recommendable as a vacation spot. In a "combi", or church-van style vehicle, we were 15 that fit inside, definitely cramped but more excited to travel to a previously unknown place. We had speant almost a year in Mexico as exchange students, and would be leaving for our home countries in a month at the time, so if course we seized the opportunity when a family asked us to accompany them on a trip to Oaxaca, even under such strange circumstances. The itinerary: travel in the combi for 8 hours, stopping in Oaxaca de Juarez, the capital; Santa Catarina Juquila, a popular pilgrimage site; then Puerto Escondido, the final reward, through endless curving mountain roads, pristine beaches on the Pacific coast
On the way there, we stopped in a place that is really sacred here in México, Juquila. It's very common to see trucks and bumper stickers that say "Regalo de Juquila", or "Gift of Juquila", and I had always wondered what it meant. It turns out that Juquila is a little town hidden in the endless green hills of Oaxaca (The biggest state in México, if you ironed it), where the second-most famous virgin in México, after the Virgin de Guadalupe, and it's very common to ask for things from her, which works like this: One makes a pilgrimage to the town, asks for something, and if the prayer is answered, the person is required to return every year for seven years to pay thanks to the Virgin. For example, our friend Paco asked for, and received, a son 5 years ago; he returns every year with his son to the site. The same goes for the aforementioned trucks: the people who drive them have asked for work, received it, and in tribute put it on their windshield. Pretty cool tradition. People also leave physical manifestations of their thanks too. That entire hillside is covered in little crosses, clay cars, clay children, clay houses, each representing the wish that the Virgin has granted to the faithful through prayer. The innumerable pilgrimages had also left their mark, with many banners from distant places hung about, each commemorating a pilgrimage completed on foot, almost always more than a week in duration. The shrine was impressive, and the strength of the faith of the Mexican people never ceases to amaze. Descending the hill went much more quickly than the ascent had, who knows whether it was because of our habituation to the steep roads or the fact that we were going about twice as fast, but we arrived to the highway to Puerto Escondido quite rapidly.
Driving south to the coast through the southern end of the Cordillera Neovolcánica and the Sierra Madre del Sur, two of the largest mountain ranges in Mexico, is an experience only recommendable in hindsight, once one has passed through it unscathed. One lane in each direction apparently encourages aggressive driving, but then again I guess that everyone was trying to minimize their time on the road. Sleep was nearly impossible, if not for the motion of the combi then because of the tension that overcame us upon looking out the window and registering that we were, indeed, on the precipice of a cliff with no guardrail, and all hoping that our collective worrying would keep the combi on the road. After 3 hours of switchbacks and being passed by more adventurous souls, we descended and began to feel the warmth that signaled that the beach awaited us. The climate became more tropical, with more palm and fruit trees, accompanied by civilization, small rural towns that became more common as we went.
Upon arriving in Puerto Escondido, the group was torn. All of us cried out in relief and amazement upon seeing the endless ocean barely kept at bay by the golden beach, but we settled into a state of silent awe the more we observed our surroundings. After searching for around 20 minutes, we found a family-owned place run by a stern señora and her family that consisted of three squat cabins, a kitchen, and an expansive patio with tables whose floor turned into sand the further one walked from it, about 20 steps from Playa Zicatela, one of the most famous beaches in the world for surfing. We spent the rest of the trip relaxing in the sun, learning how to surf, laughing at the foreigners and enjoying each other's company. Having covered remote and rural mountains, grand colonial cities, and finally luxurious beaches, this trip was about as comprehensively Mexican as one could hope for.