Viva Mexico 3: Cuernavaca, Oaxaca and another flat tire
After spending the entire previous day towing the airplane and fixing its flat tire, we were happy to leave Guanajuato airport the next morning. Departure was relatively easy. One of the only advantages of staying at an airport hotel is the shuttle that takes you to the terminal, avoiding the hassle of finding a taxi or figuring out how to get there by public transportation. Also, we had gone through all the flight plan bureaucracy the day before, so the process was very smooth the second time around.
We have generally found flying in Mexico to be quite pleasant, once you are in the air: there is not a lot of traffic and controllers are very friendly. The pre-flight bureaucracy however is strenuous. You need to go to several offices, sometimes in different buildings to complete a complex chain of authorizations and payments. Not difficult, not expensive but long and convoluted, but most people are very helpful in their own area and point you to the next step. And that’s without immigration and customs which come on top for international flights, such as in Cozumel for example where Alex went to seven different windows over the course of a full hour.
On a lighter note, we noticed that in Mexico they say Golfo instead of Golf, we are Lima-Victor-Golfo-Quebec-Fox here. They also say toque y despegue for touch-and-go, versus toque motor in Argentina.
On this day, we were headed from Guanajuato to Cuernavaca, a.k.a the city of eternal spring, to meet Eric, a Mexican-French friend of mine. I first got to know him in 1980 when he came to the Liceo franco-mexicano to pass his Baccalaureat and needed information. He lived in Mexico City at the time but moved to Cuernavaca, 85 km South of the capital, more than thirty years ago for work.
Once we were airborne – hurray, the new tire-patch had survived the take-off run!- the short flight to the Aeropuerto Internacional de Cuernavaca (MMCB) was easy except for the descent. The city lies in a valley surrounded by a 9000 feet mountainous plateau which we were flying over at 11500 feet, and there was not much distance to descend to airport level (4300 feet).
The "terrain" map on our screen is dark red on our route
In addition, the area was filled with clouds masking the mountains so Alex manually maneuvered the plane through tiny holes in the cloud cover to stay visual at all times, making steep turns and going up and down while our GPS alarm repeatedly sounded “caution terrain, caution terrain”. After a few minutes of what felt like a roller coaster ride, we finally emerged in the valley under the clouds and could clearly see the airport 10 miles away. Now that we were in usual conditions again, Alex let me take care of the landing in my friend’s town. I entered right circuit, avoided flying over a group of houses and turned base aiming for what looked like a quarry of dark grey stones, and touched down, relieved to be on the ground again. But it was not over: the plane jerked to the left and we heard a flat tire noise (you know, the kind of metal scraping the ground sound when moving…). Conditions were clearly not usual anymore so Alex took over and immediately pulled the commands backwards and to the right, braking with the right pedal only and the plane stopped on the far left side of the runway, right before the grass. The newly repaired tire was flat again, it had not survived the stress of the landing, and we were in the middle of an active runway… We informed the tower and they immediately and professionally sent assistance. A tow car promptly appeared and we were off the runway in less than an hour. When we stepped out to look at the damage, we saw that the tire was completely flat but also that there was a small part missing from the boot. While the airplane was being towed, the airport manager and I went looking for the missing piece with his truck and we found it!
Towed again! (mountains in the background)
Tire autopsy revealed the weakness...
All in all, the runway had been closed for about an hour which would have been a disaster in a large airport but Cuernavaca has no commercial traffic, it mostly caters to flight schools and private flights, so the main consequence was that a few pilot students had to land at their alternate airfield which was probably good training for them 😊 But a NOTAM (notice to airmen) had officially been issued to alert and inform about the runway closure and bureaucracy in Mexico triggered a long chain of events including an investigation commission that came to check the airplane, all its documentation, our personal papers and luggage, the reason for our visit in Mexico… plus a visit to the AFAC (Asociación Federal de Aviación Civil) office at the airport to file our incident report, paying the fees for their intervention, etc…
Eric had been waiting for us since we landed, so I joined him while Alex was dealing with the authorities. This took about 2 hours, so Eric and I had plenty of time to catch up on the past 40 years… When Alex was released, Eric took us to the beautiful hotel Cortes (beautiful Mexican style) with its luxurious vegetation to relax a little.
Super upgraded room thanks to Covid+Eric's contacts
But despite the great surroundings, we could not really relax because we had to find a new tire for LV-GQF since another patch-job was definitely not an option. And you can’t just buy an airplane tire in the corner store… Alex mobilized the Vuelos network again and thanks to this great group of Mexican pilots, he was able to locate a new tire in Oruna (never heard of the place) which would take more than 24 hours to arrive, but at least we had a solution.
Our stay in Cuernavaca thus became a little longer than planned but turned out great: we had dinner at Eric’s, visited the town, the Xochicalco archeological site (apparently that was the grey quarry we had seen from the air) and the Tallera museum with its imposing 60’s mural by Siqueiros.
Despite it being October, there were flowers everywhere in the city, confirming the eternal spring reputation. The story goes that a very rich Sears & Roebuck heiress once decided to settle in Cuernavaca, of all possible places, because she was told it had the best climate in the world. Unfortunately, like in many cities, there is a feeling among inhabitants that it is becoming increasingly dangerous due to drug and mafia related crime. Eric and his wife Véronique shared that feeling while we had dinner al fresco in their garden enjoying the chiles rellenos -my all-time favorite Mexican food- and crunchy-fresh tostadas that Véronique had made while we talked about the past, education (Véronique teaches history, geography and social sciences at the local French lycée Molière), our round-the-world trip and Mexico.
In the meantime, the new tire had been overnighted to Mexico City and Arturo Sanchez from Turbo Motors aviation in Cuernavaca went to fetch it by car and did a great job of getting the plane ready again. A team of AFAC inspectors came to check all our paperwork again but we did manage to be done in time for a «test flight» above the city with Eric and the real flight to our next destination: Oaxaca.
Putting the pieces together again
Thank you Cuernavaca team!
Bye! and thanks for looking after the plane
This was a short flight again but Mexico has lots of mountains and in order to stay in visual conditions, we were sandwiched vertically between the Altiplano below and the thick cumulus clouds above, and horizontally between two thunderstorms, the worst of which was to the South over Puerto Escondido.
Alex had again chosen a perfect itinerary and altitude using the Windy App and we were able to stay in the clear until we landed in the Aeropuerto internacional Xoxocotlán (MMOX) from where we headed straight to La casa de Pino hotel, which we had booked upon arrival. As often happens, our taxi driver was a wealth of information about what to eat and where as well as what to see, so the same evening we rushed to taste the famous Tlayudas (a kind of large quesadilla but not exactly).
When we got back, the painters were still working on the facade of the hotel, preparing it for the upcoming Día de los Muertos holiday which they take very seriously in Oaxaca as we noticed the next morning when we walked around the colorful city: there were holiday preparations everywhere, large skeleton figures, skulls and banderines (decoratively cut colored paper flags) across the streets.
Casa de Pino in full preparation
A walk in the city (Santo Domingo church in the background)
Flowers around the door for the celebration
and bread being baked
And of course, some things are always present:
We were also happy to be in a flat city for a change, our legs still hurt from all the alleys and stairs in Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende...
Towards lunch time, we ended up in the 20 de noviembre market, overwhelmed by the offer and the multitude of small food stands.
We chose one at random and had all the specialties the taxi driver had recommended: mole (black and green), a Oaxacan tamal and tejate, allegedly la bebida de los Dioses (the drink of the Gods), a refreshing cold drink made with corn and cocoa. We were soon joined by a Japanese woman traveling alone and together we gathered the courage to taste the fried grasshoppers which were also on the menu. They were salty and crunchy, somewhat similar to popcorn but definitely more frightening.
Our new friend Chiya
Her Instagram page showed she liked the grasshoppers!
I am not so sure...
Our afternoon walk was a little shorter than planned because the “must see” Oaxaca museum and church of Santo Domingo de Guzman were closed due to Covid. At the church door, we were told that it sometimes opened around 6 pm so we came back but it was still closed. Luckily we were entertained by a wedding celebration that was passing by, despite the rain, and we tasted a few different kinds of Mezcal in one of the many specialty stores. Apparently 70% of Mexican mezcal is made in Oaxaca province and there are dozens of varieties based on different kinds of agave plants and distillation processes. Not sure if mezcal also qualifies as bebida de los dioses but it has its own saying: “Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, también; y si no hay remedio, litro y medio”. Boldened by the various drinks we had been offered, we went back one last time to check the church door and a different person promised that it would be open at 8 am the next morning for mass, so we woke up early and finally were able to enter, pretending we came to attend the service, and to sneak some pictures in, feeling a little guilty but also amazed by the gilded beauty around us.
For more Santo Domingo beauty, you can check out Alex' video at: https://youtube.com/shorts/2GUdLDINi0E?feature=share
After “mass”, we joined a tour to several villages which each had their own specialty: black clay pottery in San Bartolo Coyotepec, weaving in Teotitlan del Valle and in Arrazola, we discovered alebrijes, those fantasy creatures which are marvelously depicted in the movie “Coco” which originated in Oaxaca. Since we have no young kids or grandkids, we had never heard of the movie but after the guide referred to it, we watched it at the first opportunity and found it marvelously accurate and poetic.
Black pottery owl
Alebrijes (we like owls because there is an owl on the airplane)
We also spent a morning in the site of Monte Alban, the capital of the Zapotec culture (500 to 100 before Christ).
These day trips and our travels so far kept reminding us that Mexico is such a marvelous place, there is sooooo much to experience: food, history, traditions, archeology, beaches… definitely a place to return to, over and over, in the future.
But we were not done with this trip yet: we were heading to Palenque, to check out the Maya ruins.
PS: One more note on Mexico's food, we found this interesting display in a gallery in Cuernavaca, illustrating the European-Mexican fusion. I really like the simultaneous presentation of European and Mexican tableware.
Ingredients that existed in Mexico pre-Columbus
Ingredients that came from Europe
 For all bad, mezcal, and for all good, as well; and if there is no remedy, liter and a half