travelog 59

Sierra Gorda

Gray clouds cling low on the peaks and creep over the mountains into fertile valleys. It drizzles. Water is dripping from every leaf, the colors of the flowers shine with intense brightness, dry rivulets become little streams and waterfalls. Although everything shines with humidity, nobody seems to have given up hope for sunshine because the laundry hangs over the fences for drying. "El Norte" is the name for the phenomenon when cold air from the mountains meets with warm air from the Gulf of Mexico. Then it rains for 1 to 2 days, the locals tell us, but after that the sun comes out again as if nothing had happened.

Our trip into the Sierra Gorda is long planned. We don't go because this area has been designated by UNESCO in 2003 as a world heritage site for its Spanish Franciscan missions. No, we go because of the interesting plants. The Sierra Gorda is an extension of the Sierra Madre Oriental. Four climatic zones (humid tropical, dry tropical, moderate and dry) meet here and that is why this region is so rich in flora and fauna. The country is characterized by high mountains and deep valleys. Mountain sides fall away steeply into deep canyons. Clear streams run under ancient sabino trees laden with Spanish moss (tillandsias), moss and bromeliads. From oak and pine forests you get down quickly into tropical or desert-like areas. Dirt roads are scraped hazardously into the steep mountain sides. A few houses are gathered into quaint villages around fertile places. Our plan is to meet with our friends from San Luis Potosi in La Florida. Three Englishmen will go along too, amongst them John Pilbeam who's certainly known to some of you because of his cactus books. And a Swiss living in Mexico will join in too for this excursion. On our way to the Sierra Gorda we search for interesting plants as usual.

Behind Queretaro we drive through a dry region. Agaves, yuccas and dasylirion characterize the landscape. Despite the heavy summer rains this year the soil seems to have already totally dried out and the stream beds are dry too. At one of these unlikely looking dry river beds we stop and are astonished at what's growing here: Lophophora diffusa, Astrophytum ornatum, Mammillaria elongata and more mammillarias, Coryphantha sp., Echinocactus platyacanthus, and a novelty for us: Strombocactus disciformis. That's only counting the small cacti. But also the river bed has a surprise for us. In a broken off vertical wall that surely will erode more with the next heavy rainfalls, we discover the rosettes of Echeveria humilis that are just past flowering. Next to them grow thousands of Strombocactus disciformis that are perfectly adapted to their surroundings and barely visible unless you look really closely. A little further along the road we also see this cactus with light yellow flowers! Soon the road snakes its way up into the mountains. Curve follows after curve, and behind every curve follows the next one. The views over the endless mountain ranges disappearing into the blue haze at the horizon are simply beautiful. We find a parking place and climb up to the cliffs towering above the road. It's a lot cooler and more humid up here. The mountain sides are adorned with small orange flowering marigolds. Lantana grows wild here. And we see many flowers that we know from European gardens. At the cliffs we find Echeveria bifida hidden under small bushes. It's impossible to miss the bright red flowers of Echeveria coccinea. Otherwise we would probably hardly notice the plants in the green undergrowth. Pachyphtyum viride hangs from the cliffs and is flowering too.

On a small dirt road we drive from 2500m (7000 feet) down to 1050m (3200 feet) within 20km (12.5 miles). Along the main road a small sign draws our attention to the mission of Bucareli. The dirt road is in bad shape. We rumble down deep into the valley around countless curves. Again and again we have to stop because we see flowering plants. If we hadn't had our appointment in La FLorida in two days, we would certainly spend more time here. Finally we reach the valley bottom and have to drive a few more kilometres along a road that is just as wide as the Unimog. On the left is a cliff, on the right either the river or small corn fields and plantations. Bucareli is a sleepy little place in an idyllic spot. The mountains soar into the sky, a valley opens to the south, and at the most strategic point at the end of the village sits the mission church. The big church was never finished. Only the walls tower into the air like broken teeth and at the entrance hang three ancient bells. You feel transported back into a Western movie by Sergio Leone. A woman opens the other buildings of the old mission that are adjacent to the unfinished church. It all looks dilapidated and deserted from the outside but we enter a beautifully planted inner courtyard with a fountain. A colonnade surrounds the courtyard. First we see the old library. It smells musty and it's humid. On a shelf along one wall are the books. Most of them bound in leather and written in Latin. They are from the 15th and 16th century. Incredible what you can find in such a remote spot deep in the mountains! Next to the library is a chapel that is only used occasionally. When the priest comes from the distant city, he celebrates mass alternately in the new church and in the old chapel. Why is that, we want to know. With a smile on her lips the woman explains that this way all the saints (standing as figures along the walls) can hear mass at least once in a while. We buy some goat cheese from a man in the village. As soon as we speak to him, he doesn't let us go. He's not very enthusiastic about the Americans (and he's probably not the only one these days...). He doesn't seem to like the Western way of life in general. Too many liberties! His second girlfriend in the US already had one child and was sterilized. For a Mexican, in whose life something important is missing without having children, this is absolutely intolerable. But even worse, he had to prepare his food by himself and he also had to do his own laundry. "They boss you around." After all that, he preferred to come back to his little village where, at age 38, he found an obedient wife, and, contrary to the malicious remarks in the village, he's now a 60 year old father of numerous children. And sure enough he sends his son to get change for us and his wife to wash and wrap the cheese. Liberty is all well and good, but of course only in the right hands.

Slowly the Unimog climbs the many curves back up to 2500m. When we arrive up there El Norte and the rain catch up with us. At the Puerta del Cielo, the Door of Heaven, at 2600m it's foggy, wet and cold. Here, Echeveria subrigida is in full bloom, its rosettes huge because of the humidity. It's not much fun to take pictures of plants when it's raining. We pass Pinal de Amoles, a small town with red roofs. From here on it only goes down. It drips and trickles from every tree. We drive through pretty valleys with clear streams and huge ancient trees that partly stand in the water. In Jalpan de Serra we visit the mission church with its pretty orange facade adorned with the maddest figures and forms. From here it's not far to Conca and another mission. From Conca we take a dirt road into the mountains to get to La Florida. It's still raining and the first part of the road is slippery and slimy. It's not a big problem with the huge tires on the Unimog, but it's still a lot more reassuring to feel hard and rocky ground under the tires. On the main square in La Florida, a village with a few inhabitants, we're, of course, the main attraction of the week. Finally something new is happening here and soon there come more pale-faces. Some of them even in a small rental car that is certainly not meant for use on soapy dirt roads. We make ourselves at home under a big tree and the rest of the group moves into a small house that was rented for one week. With the combined efforts of the men, the water heater starts working. China, a young Mexican who lives in San Luis Potosi with our friends while she finishes writing her thesis, checks out the kitchen. Two girls from the village help rid the house of spiders and clean it thoroughly. Now we can bring in the food, drinking water, coke and beer. As usual, Betty took good care so that nobody has to go hungry!

For the next two days we explore the surrounding areas. We drive along the dirt roads in two cars and climb every hill and search every rock that looks to be of the slightest interest to us. The first day is not particularly successful because we can't find the mammillaria Betty & Fitz wanted to see. Shortly after, without success either, we have to give up our search for Pachyphytum garciae. Nevertheless, the countryside makes up for everything. Dry brown-gray hills lie next to each other like elephant backs. Above tower forested mountains crowned with clouds. On a pass we see thousands of Monarch butterflies on their way to the sanctuary, their breeding-grounds in Michoacan. In groups they float and flutter southwards over our heads, carried away by the steady wind. To our astonishment we find Echeveria rosea the second day, a plant that we only know from southern Mexico. The plants grow only on the mossy trunks of oak trees and are impossible to miss because of their yellowish-pink flowers. Up here also mammillarias, mosses and ferns, tillandsias and an Aporocactus grow in the trees. The Englishmen, although not the youngest anymore, climb around like mountain goats to find the best subject. Betty takes care of lunch and hands out sandwiches filled with Russian salad, stuffed artichokes, breaded eggplant, and California grapes. On no account would you think you are in the depths of Mexico, but after all, we only live once. In the evenings we come back to cold beer if the electricity hasn't stopped working during the day. A cooling box that can be plugged in at a socket was brought here too. While we were out China cleaned the house and looked after our physical well-being.

The third day El Norte surprises us again. In the morning it's spitting on the roof of our PocoLoco, a noise that we actually love but that is most inappropriate at this place and this time, since we had hatched big plans the night before about which unexplored part of the region we will want to spend the day. A decision is quickly made because the rental car has to be returned within 3 days. El Norte is not a thing of only a few hours and once the road is wet and slippery, it takes a while until it's dry again. Jean-Marc, the Swiss living in Guadalajara, leaves in his small 4x4 for Xichu that lies behind the mountains to the west. The group from San Luis Potosi, traveling in a Ford Explorer and the rental car, pack up their stuff and leave La Florida in two cars crammed full. Somehow they have to find room too for the material that Jean-Marc brought in his car from San Luis Potosi. We decide to sit out El Norte, to wait until the next ray of sunshine and put in a day of rest.

But the weather isn't going to be better soon and so we too leave the next morning. We're driving westwards into unknown country to us. The underground is rocky and despite the rain not a problem for the Unimog. Laundry still hangs to dry over fences and big agave leaves. You have to be optimistic in this region. The further we come westwards the brighter the sky becomes and finally we can even catch sight of some blue patches in the sky above Guamuchil. The next day is as gloriously blue and sunny as we're used to. We explore the area, drive on different roads, climb into small canyons, examine rocks and find, of course, many interesting plants. Finally we're on our way towards Xichu. Before, the road was in the river bed and could only be used while the water level allowed it. Now we drive above the river but most of the time there's only room in this canyon for the river and the road. Where possible the locals plant a corn field or a few fruit trees in the valley. Many interesting canyons leave the main valley. On our explorations we advance far into these dark canyons. The canyon walls are like gardens, densely covered with plants. We especially like Bombax ellipticum with its interesting bark pattern and the bottle-like trunk thickened to a ball. In one of these dry canyons we find what we came for: Echeveria xichuensis (or Echeveria humilis, but that's what has to be found out). Cacti freaks would come to this area because of another plant, Turbinicarpus alonsoi. It's obvious that this location has suffered from illegal collectors too. At the entrance to the canyon we barely find plants and, if so, only small specimens. To our astonishment we also find Agave tenuifolia in flower, Dasylirion longissimum and even Yucca queretaroensis, one of the most beautiful yuccas.

Past small villages where the locals meet on this Sunday at the only store, past an abandoned mine that stinks of sulphur, we reach Xichu. On a Sunday afternoon there's a lot going on here. In the centre of this small town you can feed yourself at food stands. Fruits and vegetables are sold from wheelbarrows. Loud music booms from different stores, trying to attract customers. A street-trader from the big city offers plastic containers and buckets from the back of his pickup truck. The village youth gathers at the Internet cafes (there's at least 2 of them here!) or at the places with pinball machines. This bustling town is as busy as a big city.

Behind Xichu the road leads up along the mountain side. Slowly we come up higher and higher, past streams and waterfalls, until we reach pines and oak trees. The road is narrow and there are only a few places to make way for an oncoming car but there's not much traffic on a Sunday and the mines are closed. Soon this problem will be solved because the new paved road which will connect Xichu with the rest of the world, is almost finished. We just hope that the region can preserve some of its unspoiled state and naturalness. The two tunnels, cut into the rock and looking very low, are another surprise for us. PocoLoco just fits through them. Only close your eyes and duck while driving through. It works and we find a pretty place for the night away from the road next to a small altar for the Virgen de Guadalupe. In front and below us the valley of Xichu extends and the mountain ranges stretch into the horizon. The next morning we wake up far above a sea of fog. A few peaks rise above the fog like islands washed by the ocean. In the foreground, looking very Japanese, grows a pine tree. No wonder this country with its small wonders, the surprises around every curve and behind every mountain, the diversity of animals and plants, was made a protected biosphere in Mexico. And no wonder we have to say once more that this won't be the last time that we visit this area. There are many more corners in the Sierra Gorda, "the fat mountains", that we want to explore one day.

November 2003

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen