It is impossible to go straight into a talk about the beautiful lacquer ware of Olinalá without talking about just how isolated this community is.
Olinalá is a small community in the Mexican state of Guerrero. While I have met a couple of their artisans, I had also been told that not many travel to sell their merchandise because of the area’s roads. So a decision had to be made…
- Really, really, really rural area? – check
- Tiny, singular “highway” for much of the ride? – check
- 5hr 20min to travel 260km (according to Google)? – check
- 1999 Ford Escort with rebuilt motor and transmission? – check
- Only $2800 pesos between my husband and I until payday? – check
- A couple in their mid-fifties that really ought to know better? – check
We have driven slow roads before. The culprits have been either really rugged terrain with a LOT of sharp curves, (mountains of Oaxaca), or a ridiculous number of topes (highway between Toluca and Zihuatanejo). Yes, poor road conditions have caused some headaches in the past, but they were NOT kidding about the road into Olinalá.
The first leg of the drive, from Mexico City to Cuautla, is no problem. Heading east and south from Cuautla to Axochiapan is pretty straightforward, too. Our first issue was the area around Chiautla. Google tried to direct us twice to two short cuts to avoid the big bend of highway to the town, but our car was not cut out for either of them. To be fair to Google, the highway heading south from Chiautla was really bad for a stretch.
Continuing on Highway 23 and crossing into the state of Puebla, we were soon rewarded by much better road and by some of the nicest scenery we have passed in Mexico, as the photos below show. We even got treated to views of eagles and buzzards.
Most of the drive on Highway 23 (from Chiautla) is in the state of Puebla proper, ending in the municipality of Ixcamilpa. Road quality did go down noticeably as we traveled south, but the views and the feeling of having the road to ourselves more than made up for swerving around the bad ones. While definitely mountainous, the curves were gentle. It’s not a super highway, but we did not see the reason why the drive should take so long. Until we crossed into Guerrero…
Our first warning was that immediately upon exiting the town of Ixcamilpa, the road turned to dirt/mud for a few hundred meters, then we entered a modern bridge to cross the river. There was no traffic, and we felt quite safe stopping in the middle of the bridge to take photos.
The mountains do get a bit more rugged here, forcing significantly more cuts into them. But this is not really the problem. The problem is that … well, to say it is poor maintenance would be the understatement of the year. The rock is this area is particularly crumbly and the cuts are all pretty much vertical. Not a good combination. Where the Puebla issues were easily overlooked, the road conditions degraded to dangerous as we approached Olinalá. Average speed… about 30kph…. 60 felt like flying. Rock falls everywhere, in places closing a lane and lots of evidence of where a very large rock had fallen previously.
The scenery was still beautiful but unfortunately the road took almost all of our attention. We made a short stop in the other lacquer town of Temazcalcingo, but time and the need to meet contacts, pushed us onto Olinalá proper.
Then the trip was worth it again.
Our first reward was the town church. Average colonial style rural church, but the inside is covered in evidence of the town’s creative hands. Walls, columns and more are covered in the designs of the lacquerware, using the same techniques and materials. We also discovered a second traditional handcraft here, the making of items with fine wood inlay.
The people inside were busy preparing the image of the patron for her Day of Assumption on Aug 15, but several were happy to talk to us about her, the lacquer and the woodwork, giving us a couple of contacts.
To be continued….
Photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia (the other 50-something that ought to know better)