travelog 88

A Weekend between Saltillo and Monterrey

"Por fin llegué a Coahuila", a large sign over the highway welcomes us about 100kms (62 miles) south of Saltillo, the state capital. "Finally in Coahuila", that's what we think too, as the stretch of road between Zacatecas and Saltillo is quite boring. Unless you like endlessly long and straight highways that disappear into the nowhere at the horizon. Or if you love wide open spaces where there are only a few low hills for hundreds of miles that bring some change into the flat highlands. Concepcion del Oro, the only larger settlement along the road, is an old mining town where you have the feeling time stood still somewhere in the 50's of the last century. You also search in vain for a gas station along the more than 60 miles of deserted road between Concepcion del Oro and Saltillo. The needle of our gas tank moves more and more towards "empty" but we're lucky and finally reach a PEMEX at the south end of Saltillo.

Many things have changed in Saltillo since our last visit. Roads have been widened, bridges have been built, and bypasses inaugurated. Shopping Centers were produced out of thin air and housing developments too, with their houses of barely 50m2 (540 square feet); houses that always remind us of chicken coops, growing up the inaccessible mountain slopes like cancer. Where the water comes from for all those people in this desert region, is a mystery to us - where the sewage flows to, as well. Without a car, the trip from those satellite cities into town, to work and school surely takes forever.

A little outside of Saltillo we climb a hill densely covered with plants. Agave lechuguilla forms large clusters and, together with a Hechtia, pulls at our pants legs. In-between we discover many different species of cacti. Thelocactus rinconensis with its long spines is surely the most impressive of all. What's most fascinating for us is a compact and beautifully black spined form of Agave victoriae-reginae, probably the forma nickelsii. The plants grow well hidden in the dry grass or below Creosote bushes and Ocotillo. Further up we find even more interesting plants. These are hybrids between A. victoriae-reginae and A. lechuguilla, hybrids between the former and A. asperrima, and hybrids between the hybrids and the original form. The further up we climb the more variation and crossings we find. Often it's impossible to determine which ones were the mother plants. On the way back down we stumble over Echeveria strictiflora in a dry and rocky arroyo. With their gray blue color the plants are perfectly camouflaged between the gray limestone rocks. Far below us the heavy traffic roars between Saltillo and Monterrey but if you immerse yourself in the beautiful surroundings, you almost stop hearing the sound of cars and trucks.

The next morning greets us with low hanging clouds and drizzle over Monterrey. Despite the bad road signs we find Santa Catarina and the entrance to the Huasteca Canyon. Early in the morning we're the only tourists. Amazingly enough, there's no entrance fee. A guard answers our questions and reassures us a little bit saying that the weather often is bad outside the canyon but changes after the first few curves. We don't trust him much but the sky really brightens after we pass the first curves into the canyon, the rain stops and even the sun tries hard to send its rays through the clouds. First we notice the stunning specimens of Agave victoriae-reginae, a species for which every Agave enthusiast comes here. It's the original form that can reach a diameter of 50cm. The spheres cling to the vertical cliffs from all the way up to the bottom of the dry river beds. We climb a hill behind a goat hutch to see the plants up close and to take pictures. The shepherd doesn't understand at all why we're so crazy about this plain normal plant. By the way, this is a very strange thing in the Huasteca Canyon. Its sign says "Parque Nacional Cumbres de Monterrey". It has been a protected area since 1939 and UNESCO designated it a "Reserva de la Biosfera" in 2006. Nonetheless there are weekend houses and cabañas for rent, and you can buy firewood, ice and cold beer. Farmers live in the canyon and graze their cattle and goats. Even a luxury development, Valle de Reyes, is planned here, but we'll talk about that later.

Again and again we stop to admire the stunning cliffs. There are no tourists to be seen. Even climbing enthusiasts, who normally crowd the canyon on weekends, don't dare to leave their homes because the rocks are wet and too slippery. The cloudy sky is ideal for taking pictures and we don't have to worry about shading the plants. The crumbly cliffs are covered with dry Selaginella in shady places. From time to time we see an Echinocereus or a Mammillaria but we look in vain for Crassulaceae. Agave bracteosa also prefers shadier parts of cliffs and in some low bushes we even find a Hesperaloe funifera. Every single canyon looks promising but we're on a mission and don't want to waste too much time along the road, a thing that we find very difficult to do as always. Clouds creep over the high mountain ridges and ledges and the sun sometimes sends a warming ray through a hole in the unbroken clouds. The paved road soon changes into a bumpy and dusty dirt road. There are many little roads branching off the main one but to really explore this huge area even a lifetime is not enough.

Today's mission is Agave albopilosa. Agave enthusiasts have certainly heard of this plant and everybody else thinks that it's "just" one of our spiny plants. It is really just another Agave species but until mow only the discoverers and describers knew where it grew. They kept, and keep, the type locality secret to protect the plant from looting. The newly discovered plant was one reason more for environmentalists and opponents to do something against the above-mentioned development, Valle de Reyes, for which 5000 houses and a golf course are planned. All this is to be built in a nature reserve. The problem about this development is that it is also known that this very rare Agave species grows somewhere in Huasteca Canyon. By pure luck a good friend of ours found the plants not long ago. After we swore to all Agave gods to keep the location secret, he told us how to find the plants. Our mission is therefore not very difficult.

It's easy to find the plants, but only because we know exactly where they grow. We spend almost the entire day climbing around in the bushes and along the cliffs to take pictures of the few specimens that grow low enough in the rocks. It's best to come with a tripod and a good telephoto lens because most of the plants cling inaccessibly high above our heads in the cliffs. The special thing about this species is that it has a tuft of white hairs below the terminal spine, a fact that make it indeed very interesting and funny-looking. Besides, it's a small-growing species prefect for cultivation in a greenhouse or in a pot on the terrace. Unfortunately, nobody has reproduced the plants until now and so it is to be feared that the few more or less accessible plants will disappear as soon as more people find the locality.

After an exciting day in Huasteca Canyon, a day that, as always, went by way too fast, we drive out again towards Santa Catarina. As soon as we reach the last curves, the gray clouds hang low from the sky and the drizzle greets us again. We fight our way through the evening traffic of Monterrey and finally reach Villa Santiago, a Pueblo magico. There's one hotel in the center of town where the rooms start at 1200 Pesos ($84 or CHF 97). The restaurants around the tastefully illuminated main plaza all look too luxurious for hungry people coming back from a field trip. In a small side street we find a house where tacos are served in the street-front room. The owner doesn't mind us bringing in our bottle of Tequila to have a drink against the wet and cold. The next morning we find out that the locals don't call their village Pueblo magico but Pueblo tragico, describing the condition from their - and our - view certainly more precisely. A market doesn't exist anymore, something unique for Mexico, so there's no hot coffee and fresh orange juice in the morning for us. Villa Santiago has become a sterile village where the prosperous people of Monterrey spend their weekend. Further south along the highway we find the Mexico that we know and love so much and we feel at home again.

Now we're driving up into the mountains towards La Cienega and Laguna de Sanchez. The clouds still hang low, the road is wet and water drips from trees. The road snakes steeply up the mountain and thanks to fog and clouds we have no idea of what beautiful scenery might be around us. Suddenly we break through the thick cloud cover and the sun shines brightly from an azure blue sky. Below us lies a sea of clouds with tall mountains rising like islands from an ocean. We drive through dense forests and come to a pretty and shady canyon. With too much rain the creek bursts its banks and floods the narrow (and in some places only single-tracked) road. Echeveria simulans, Sedum palmeri, and S. calcicola thrive in the rich soil.

La Cienega is a small village completely oriented towards day and weekend tourism from Monterrey and Saltillo. The road is lined with small restaurants where the cooks are already very busy cooking. Signs advertise inexpensive cabañas and as usual there's firewood, ice and cold beer for sale. We drive to the entrance to a stunning canyon where other people are already camping. If you hike far enough you'll get to a waterfall. With a suitable vehicle such as an ATV or a cross-country bicycle or motorbike you can even drive along the entire canyon to end up in Huasteca Canyon and leave at Santa Catarina. As we have many other things that we want to do and see today, all of those things end up on our long list of future projects. The road now leads through a beautiful valley lined with vertical limestone cliffs and tall mountains. Construction is going on like mad and one inevitably asks who will spend the night in all these cabañas. Suddenly we come to a narrow gorge. On both sides of the road the rocks rise into the sky. Next to the road flows a clear river that makes this stretch of road impassable with too much rain. The rock walls are covered with Agave bracteosa. Soon after the gorge we reach Laguna de Sanchez where we buy a local Mezcal that was made from Agave salmiana and A. gentryi.

On the next pass we stop to take pictures of Agave gentryi. Between the large green plants grows a beautifully yellow-banded A. lophantha. Then a spectacular view opens in front of us towards a triangular rock mountain rising above the small village of La Peña that surely got its name from aforementioned mountain. Tillandsia usneoides swinging slightly in the wind hangs from the old oak trees. Echeveria simulans grows in shady rocks and between oak leaves too. Now we pass many small villages on the road back to Saltillo. Without problems we find our way to the place where we took pictures of Echeveria cuspidata seven years ago. We climb down into the dry arroyo from the parking along the freeway. When we see the rocks where we took the pictures a long time ago we instantly know that this is the right place. But there's no trace of the few plants that we saw then. Not even in the surrounding rocks are we able to find a single Echeveria.

Now we head south again. "Ni modo, ya salí de Coahuila", a sign over the highway towards Zacatecas bids farewell. It will not take long until we see this sign again from the other side as the area between Saltillo and Monterrey has a lot more to offer than one can see in a weekend.

November - December 2008