travelog 91

Shivering through Nuevo León

The craggy mountains south of Monterrey attract us once again. It's deepest winter. Martin looks a little astonished when he sees the boxes with jackets and sweaters, woollen caps and thermal underwear, sleeping bags and woollen blankets that I stuff into the car. After all, we left Switzerland a long time ago to escape the freezing cold for good.

By now we know the entrance into Huasteca Canyon and find our way through Santa Catarina to the park entrance straight off. There are still no signposts up. Again we have the canyon to ourselves on a normal weekday morning. The sky is gray but at least it's not raining. The millions of Agave victoriae-reginae populating the vertical cliffs are always fascinating. We stop at the huge dam wall for a picture. Our car looks tiny next to the dam. The next stop is for Agave albopilosa. The plants that were more or less accessible are now gone. It will be absolutely impossible to wipe this species out, though. Its location is simply too inaccessible.

We decide on the turn-off towards Pajonal. One of the side canyons narrows considerably. Millions of Agave bracteosa and A. victoriae-reginae cover the canyon walls. We can't get over how incredibly green everything is. Every niche, every crevisse, every plateau looks like a small, planted miniature garden. Just before reaching Pajonal, the canyon widens up again and we gain altitude. Pajonal is a tiny village with 11 inhabitants, according to a sign. Vertical mountains surround the place. There are only a few clouds left and we enjoy the bright blue sky. Agave victoriae-reginae grows even in the middle of the village. An old man asks us for diesel he desperately needs for operating his lamp. Past Pajonal the road leads between two stone walls over a mesa. Fields lay fallow on both sides. They must have had a lot of rain not long ago because the road consists almost entirely of standing water. Speed and momentum are needed to avoid getting stuck in a deeper section. We pass just one car. The young man races like a maniac over the road, water splashes meterhigh. He probably knows from experience why he needs to push the gas so hard. On a low rock we discover Sedum wrightii in wet moss. In a dry riverbed and around Canoas we pass many beautiful specimens of a strange blue agave. It looks a little like a mixture between A. ovatifolia, A. parryi and A. parrasana. There are more of these fantastic plants in the climb past Canoas. Here, the road roughens considerably. We are glad that there's almost no traffic since getting out of the way for oncoming traffic is quite impossible. Finally we have to give up and put the truck into 4x4 for the first time. That works wonders! We can go on in a more comfortable pace and enjoy the stop at a small waterfall. A blueish-purple echeveria that fits best with Echeveria lilacina grows between oak leaves on the ground and on mossy rocks. There's a fine multiheaded specimen of bright red-spined Ferocactus pilosus hanging from the cliff and more small succulents. Past Los Llanitos we have the worst behind us. We take pictures of green Agave gentryi next to an extremely blue Agave aff. ovatifolia. Slowly the high mountains throw long shadows and we start looking for a place for the night. A grassy clearing looks perfect. With the last daylight we have cheese and crackers for dinner. It's too wet to even think about starting a fire. That's why we quickly move on to Tequila, trying to warm our cold bones. Soon we need the woollen blankets on top of the fleece jackets. In the car we throw 4 woollen blankets on top of the sleeping bags to stay comfortably warm.

In this mountaineous region it takes a while until the first warming rays of the sun crawl over the ridges. We pass Mesa de Santa Cruz with 18 inhabitants. The tiny rosettes of Sedum chrysicaulum snuggle between gray calcareous rocks. Looking a little closer we find many plants with white flowers. We can't see much of our surroundings anymore because we now drive down into a sea of thick fog. We go down and down. At a signpost we realize that we have just left the Reserva Ecologica “Las Navajas”. Slowly the fog clears and we see the famous Bachoco chicken farms in the flats near Saltillo. San Jose Nuncios is the last village before we reach the pavement at the junction of the toll road around Saltillo and the highway to Monterrey. At a truck stop we get hot coffee and sweet bread rolls. The shop owner assures us that the thick fog would clear just a few miles south. He's right! Bright blue sky greets us just a couple miles south of Arteaga.

We linger and climb around at the Puentes Chorros. It's not that easy to find Echeveria cuspidata var. cuspidata, but after a while our search is rewarded. There's also Sedum nanifolium, Villadia aristata and Lenophyllum guttatum. And of course interesting cacti such as peyote and Ariocarpus fissuratus and many more. On a very decent, paved road we drive over a mesa to San Antonio de Alazanas and on to Mesa de las Tablas. The last stretch is brand new. This area obviously wants to attract weekend tourism from Saltillo and Monterrey. There are no hotels but expensive cabañas for rent. Agave gentryi grows like a weed on the slopes of the mountains. Driving down to Tablas we see an interesting road going up a mountain on the other side of the valley. By pure luck we meet the man who holds the key to the gate. Quickly he explains how we'd find the entrance and we're off on our own. He forgot to mention that his sons preferably go up on horseback, though. We realize later that the road looks great from far away but really is in an unfortunate state. Sedum chrysicaulum and Villadia aristata are our constant companions. Millions of Agave gentry grow on the slopes. At some point these change into Agave montana. We find the purest form of the latter one only on top of the mountain. In 5 miles we climb 1000m (3280 feet) to 3300m (10'820 feet)! We have an incredible view far over the endless mountains towards the south. One Agave montana is formed, colored, or spined more beautiful than the other. Climbing around we suddenly stumble over a small, light blue echeveria that we can't put with any other species. The sun is already very low on the horizon when we finally start the descent. We reach the house of the key owner at twilight and ask about an affordable place to spend the night. The family invites us into their home and offers one of the empty rooms. This should be warmer and more comfortable than another night in the truck, our hosts say. To be on the safe side, we bring our sleeping bags and woollen blankets into the room which smells, or better, stinks intoxicatingly from wooden beams that were impregnated with diesel fuel. You get into the patio through a small one-room store. Several rooms, including kitchen and bathroom, are arranged around the patio. Chickens and dogs sleep further in the back of the complex. A warming fire burns in the kitchen and the housewife quickly prepares scrambled eggs with spicy salsa and hot coffee for us. The head of the household sits at the table with a woollen cap on his head. A brand new fridge was installed this afternoon. With the wintery temperatures we would have invested in a boiler for hot water instead. In the bathroom, the drain of the wash-basin is not connected and you're watering your feet with tooth-brushing water until realizing it. The toilet works as it pleases and it's safest to flush with water from a bucket. There's even a shower, a spout in the wall, that is, but without hot water it's not worth trying. The hosts show a touching concern for our well-being. They even want to install the TV in our room late at night. We spend another cold and uncomfortable night, same as in the car. The only difference is that we can look forward to hot coffee in the morning.

We meet our host in the early morning hours in the same clothes he wore the day before. He never took off his woollen cap either. For simplicity's sake, he must have gone to bed fully clothed. Understandable with the current freezing temperatures. Over coffee we ask about a track that we discovered on the map. No problem, the men at the table assure us, they had driven this road just a week ago. To come back, though, they had taken the longer way around over Jame and the paved road. Not a problem with our "camioneta" and 4x4, they repeat. We almost miss the entrance to the road. Then we're distracted by dried echeveria inflorescences. Soon the descent begins. Down there, not so far away, we can see the main road. Soon we hope that we will make it because we wouldn't dream of turning anymore. It quickly dawns on us why the family took the long way around for their return home. Not even with 4x4 you could get up here! It's only 5 miles from Tablas to the Jame-Nuncio road but it's quite obvious that it has rained heavily within the last 7 days and that the road is almost completely destroyed. It can only get better further down, we think. Then we stop in front of a creek. We try to fill its ford with large rocks. With speed and run-up Martin goes through, but of course he instantly looses our track of rocks and only barely makes it up onto solid ground. Then we drive in the creek bed to the next creek, this one almost a little river. It's absolutely impossible to cross the water without doing some substantial work. There's no one in sight for miles. No one answers to our whistling and shouting although we can see a couple houses on the other side. That's also where the good road is. In sight but so far away. We search for an alternative on foot and find another road locked with two chains. There's a lock on the first chain but it looks like we could open some wire to remove the chain. We're very busy when suddenly two men are standing behind a tree. The two swear blind that they don't have a key. Besides, they didn't drive to the other side of the river because of the rains that destroyed the ford, they say. This is a huge lie because we had seen fresh tire marks on this road. The discussion goes back and forth until the older of the two finally condescends to get the key out of his pocket. We have to promise faithfully that we will never drive through here again. For obvious reasons, we don't find this too difficult.

A huge weight is off our mind when we finally reach the good road. We make fast progress now. The valley is lined with vertical mountain chains and looks really fertile. Rocks with Echeveria simulans, Sedum calciola and S. palmeri, and a Lenophyllum species are interesting. The closer we get to Rayones, the more the valley widens. Now we come through beautiful walnut tree plantations. Where the river is still wild and untamed, it's lined with ancient "sabinos", Taxodium mucronatum, covered with Tillandsia usneoides. It's a magical atmosphere under these old trees with the burbling of the water and the birds singing in the background.

There's no big selection of hotels in Rayones. The owner of the "Santa Rosa" sees our desperation for a hot shower and doesn't want to give us a discount. He has to pay the gas, he reasons. After a long discussion he yealds and gives us a larger room with two beds where we at least can turn around without touching the walls. Just around the corner we find a nicely decorated restaurant with delicious homemade food. Rayones, although only 50kms (31 miles) from Montemorelos away, is a godforsaken hole. City people from Monterrey swarm the place at weekends. The inhabitans are sometimes without electricity or phone connections for many days. You'll search in vain for an Internet cafe. It's because the phone lines don't work when it's too cold, the restaurant owner explains. In an emergency, Telmex, the Mexican phone company, advised them to drive up the road towards Montemorelos to the highest pass and try the cell phone from up there. This is all a nuisance for the local people but for the visitors precisely this isolation from civilisation is part of the incentive to come here.

We visit Echeveria lilacina growing near Rayones. Then we take the road to Galeana. This route was really bad in 2002. In the meantime there was absolutely no work done on it. At Puente de Dios, a natural rock bridge, we try the new path down to the bottom. Hidden under tall, green bushes grows Yucca linearifolia. The new picnic tables invite to stay for lunch. Soon we reach Galeana where we put up at a hotel with Internet connection on the main plaza. The next day we take a day trip up Cerro Potosi, a 3700m (12'140 feet) high mountain with antennas on top. The road snakes up the mountain and we enjoy the gigantic views we have in all directions. The higher we come, the stiffer and colder the wind. A fallen pine tree blocks the cobble-stoned road almost at the top. Instead of driving to the antennas we take pictures of the beautiful Agave gentryi growing on the slopes. Like a weed they are everywhere up here. A crew of Telmex employees comes up in the afternoon. They are well-equipped and cut and remove the pine tree from the road in no time.

From Galeana we head south through La Ascension and La Escondida to Aramberri. Between Aramberri and Zaragoza we visit Echeveria cuspidata var. zaragozae again. The plants grow in small, narrow canyons in gypsum. It doesn't look at all like a likely habitat for echeverias. Around the corner is a place called La Joya. Myron Kimnach described Echeveria cuspidata var. gemmula from a place called La Joya, but he has never been at the type locality and looked La Joya up on a map. We are convinced that the two varieties are identical because La Joya and the type locality for var. zaragozae are only 100m (330 feet) apart. Whatever the name of the plants growing in crumbly gypsum walls is, they're pretty, little, bluegray rosettes with red leaf tips. It must have rained not long ago. All the selaginellas are green and wide open.

Behind Zaragoza we climb up the mountain. It's a rough and winding road. Somehow we expected this route through La Encantada to La Siberia to be easier. With just enough light we make it up to the microondas near La Encantada. Again we spend the night at far over 2500m (8200 feet) altitude. It will be another freezing cold night. The fire wood is half wet, or half dry, but when the fire burns it warms comfortably. We enjoy our campfire with cheese, crackers and Tequila, recovering from the strains of the last few miles. Wrapped up in sleeping bags and under 4 woollen blankets we also survive this night.

After a hot coffee and the usual muesli bar we go on to and through La Encantada. Sedum papillicaulum even grows on the rocky road. We pass an echeveria looking like the one we saw near Mesa de las Tablas. Then follows Echeveria simulans. In La Siberia a man on his donkey tells us that there's a much better road up to here from Zaragoza. It's just a little late now. We come through Puerto del Pino and go down to La Joya de San Lazaro, Santa Lucia and finally reach the newly paved road to Miquihuana in La Bolsa. We stop again for Echeveria unguiculata. Then the almost finished road leads through a wonderful garden of Yucca carnerosana, a large dasylirion and many more plants.

There must be a hotel in Miquihuana, but we see nothing. So we vote for another cold night in the sleeping bag and drive up the mountain near La Peña. On a beautiful clearing we camp under huge trees. There's enough wet wood around for a campfire. With our experience lighting a fire with wet wood we're successfull in no time. With woollen blankets wrapped around the legs and a few Tequilas we fight against the wet cold creeping up our bones. The next morning we drive down towards Miquihuana for breakfast. On the way we stop to look for Echeveria lyonsii. It's not that easy, but with a little luck we soon stumble over the first specimens. They have adapted really well to the color of the rocks and small pine cones. At the entrance to Miquihuana we ask a traveling garlic garland vendor for a restaurant. We're his first customers. He points to the main plaza and says "over there at the hotel!". There really is a small restaurant at the corner of the plaza but we see no sign for a hotel. Over hot coffee the owner tells us that the sign was blown down during a heavy wind storm the day before. It's now in reparation. No wonder we couln't find the hotel the night before.

After so many cold and damp nights in the bed of our 4x4 truck, we decide to end this trip. On the way back we make a short stop in San Luis Potosi where we enjoy the Fitz Maurice's comfortable home. Then it's finally back to our home base in Jalisco to warm our frozen bones. We will certainly be back but preferrably during warmer times of the year.

November 2009