travelog 93

Camping with Maggie

The time has come again. Maggie, our Swiss friend, announced her traditional every two year visit. Since she was really excited about one of our last travelogs describing the deep gorges and high mountains between Guanajuato, Queretaro and Hidalgo, she absolutely wants to see this area. She's even ready to suffer a little bit, say, like sleeping in a tent if this is necessary to get closer to the bosom of nature.

Our tour leads us east via San Luis de la Paz, Guanajuato, often along roads we have taken many years ago. Past San Luis de la Paz the mountains begin. Soon we reach our turn towards Rio Verde. We take pictures of Sedum pacense and S. glassii until we run out of battery power for the camera. No problem, we must have storage batteries with us. After searching the truck from bumper to bumper it becomes clear that the batteries must lie at home, waiting to be packed. We stop at the next settlement and buy a few "refrescos". I tell the young lady that I forgot to pack the spare batteries for the camera and that my husband was furious with me and that she could help me fix it. No problem, she allows me to connect the battery charging unit in her little store and for the next 20 minutes we watch the stressful country life. Two men sit on the bumper of a rusty old heap that has been transformed into a narrow bench and talk about everything under the Mexican sun. Three dogs idle away the entire hot afternoon in the shade of the same old car. The air stands still, a few insects hum, and the wild doves coo. The only working people around here are the women, sweeping and mopping floors, making tortillas, watching the one-room store and the children. With a full battery we leave the small village and drive down the mountain into hotter areas. The vegetation changes from conifer trees and oak forests to low bushes, Burseras, cacti and Agave xylonacantha. Myrtillocactus geometrizans, Stenocereus queretaroensis and Isolatocereus dumortieri are the dominant columnar cacti. Astrophytum ornatum, Coryphantha erecta, Mammillaria albata, Echinocereus pentalophus and Ferocactus echidne hide between sharp calcareous rocks under bushes of Fouquieria splendens. Soon we reach the river near El Capulin. There are many mines down here, most of them abandoned. Near Alamos de Martinez we come through a beautiful forest of red-trunked Bursera morelensis. Echinocereus pentalophus with a few open light purple flowers and yellow flowering Astrophytum ornatum populate the gray rocks. The dirt road is a lot better than when we were here last in 2002, at least on the San Luis Potosi state side. After the bridge at Puertecito we climb up the mountain again. In the distance we can already see the cliffs at the Alameda microondas where we want to set up camp tonight.

Our camp spot from 2002 still looks the same. Our truck is quickly set up with mattresses and sleeping bags. Maggie needs a little help putting up her tent and inflating the air mattress. Then we can relax from the strains of camping life with some improvised "Micheladas", beer with lemonade, fresh lime juice and ice cubes. We have a fantastic view back over blue mountain ridges blurring into nothing on the horizon. Crickets chirp and the darker night becomes the less we're bothered by tiny biting insects. As usual our dinner consists of ripe cheese, crackers and fruits.

The next morning Martin lights up a small fire to heat water for coffee. A mango and a muesli bar make breakfast. Now we climb up towards the cliffs. On a small path we reach a turquoise-colored pond. The oak trees are covered with Spanish moss, Tillandsia usneoides, and little orchids. The atmosphere between the gray Tillandsia beards in this oak forest early in the morning and in the fresh air is magical. The first groups of Pachyphytum kimnachii hang above the small pond. We climb up higher and stumble over a few solitary Echeveria bifida. Thousands of Pachyphytum kimnachii populate the sunny cliffs. All plants are in full flower. What a fantastic sight!

Past the Alameda microondas the road snakes down the mountain again. Bright purple flowers of Echinocereus pentalophus attract our attention in the thin forest. As soon as you get out of the car and climb around in the calcareous rocks, you'll find more and more flowering cushions. A short-stemmed palm also feels at home in this environment. Further down we stop for Sedum corynephyllum in densely covered rocks. Cyrtopodium punctatum, a terrestrial orchid typical of this tropical deciduous forest is flowering too.

We get two rooms at the only hotel on the main plaza in San Ciro de Acosta. It's hot and life comes to a standstill in the afternoon in this small town. In the shade of huge Jacaranda trees we refresh ourselves with "agua fresca". The later search for a restaurant or taco stand yields no results. It's Good Friday during Lent which is not that religiously observed here in San Luis Potosi as in Jalisco. Coming into town we have seen and smelled grilled chicken and one can certainly buy chorizo and meat but tonight there's nothing doing. When I ask about a restaurant in a small store, the young lady guides us around many corners to her sister's house in another part of town. Without her as guide we would never have found this place! The restaurant is closed, though, but our guide knows exactly where to find her sister. It doesn't take long until she comes back with all the others in a car. Quickly the joint is opened up, the ventilator and TV turned on. We order cold beer, served by the bustling husband of the cook. The food is Mexican-American, but when we ask for more Mexican fare we instantly get some spicy homemade salsa.

From San Ciro we drive to Conca. There are five Franciscan mission churches in the Sierra Gorda, the "fat mountains". In 2003 they were declared a world heritage site by UNESCO. One of the churches stands in Conca. They are famous for their colorful facades and Conca is a good example of it. After touring the church we sit down in a newly opened restaurant at the other end of the plaza in front of the church garden. We are well known for our endless patience but the service at this place drives even the usually even more patient Mexicans crazy. In return the tortillas are hand-made and the scrambled eggs taste excellent. Fortified by a hearty breakfast we start our trip into the mountains.

Just outside of Conca the dirt road climbs steeply up into the Sierra Gorda. Past La Florida we stop for Echeveria rosea, a species growing epiphytically on oak trees. Mammillaria hahniana is adorned with pink flowers. We almost miss our turn-off to Alpujarras in the maze of roads. A group of men explains the right way to us very elaborately. It helps a lot that we can see all the roads on the various mountain ridges from our position. Saying goodbye they wish us good luck. On a narrow road we reach Alpujarras, then just follow our noses towards Puerto de Buenavista. Now we're coming through the stretch that the guys obviously wished us luck for. The road becomes narrower and narrower and leads half in a creek and half through newly planted fields. A crossing is washed out and passable only with high clearance. Then a terrified donkey in front of a gate blocks our way. The road is between two rock walls. The donkey is not only stubborn, but almost wets his (non existent) pants. Between car and wall there is almost no room for the poor donkey and he obviously has no clue as to what he should do next. With the help of a stick and after a great deal of persuasion he squeezes through the narrow space between truck and wall. Quickly we open the gate, drive through, keeping the animal in check, and closing the gate as fast as possible. Now we only have to get up to Buenavista. This ascent is quite something too. It might have been easier to take the longer way around. Behind Buenavista the road drops down into a steep valley again. The heavy rains from February have destroyed the original road through a narrow canyon. The Mexican solution to make the popular Easter destination El Platanal on the Rio Santa Maria accessible to the public, comes into sight very quickly. Everything was rolled flat with heavy machinery, although this area is part of one of the largest biospheres in Mexico and strictly protected by law. But who cares about that? We sink what seems to be metres deep in the extremely fine dust on the rough road downhill. On the valley floor the Santa Maria river tempts with its light blue color. When we finally make it to the bottom we're of course not the only visitors on this beautiful Easter Saturday. Loud boom-boom music blares from various car radios. Most of the young men are already heavily drunk. All stare at us as if we'd come directly from the moon. We pack our things and disappear behind the next bend of the river to have a little more privacy, peace and quiet. The swim in the clear light blue river is wonderfully refreshing. Perfectly rounded river rocks in all pastel colors tempt the collector. Towards evening most of the visitors drive back to their ranches and only six cars are left. But one of them turns up the volume of his radio so that it almost completely drowns out the calming rush of the river, the wind in the trees, the singing of birds and chirping of cycadas. Martin talks to the group of people who have joined together to run a small restaurant, rent camping equipment, collect trash and in general watch for this place at the river. They assure him that all this is set up as an eco-tourism site but that there are always people who can't enjoy a weekend without their loud music. After they have a serious talk with the young man, it gets better for a short while but soon we're back at the original unbearable volume of noise. We escape with the car to the other end of the parking and carry Maggie's tent along. Now the rushing of the river drowns out all the other noises.

In the morning the women prepare hot coffee in the hut that serves as a restaurant. The road did not get better over night but at least we don't have any oncoming traffic. In Puerto de Buenavista we turn south. Again we go wrong in the maze of roads but finally end up on the right one that goes through Palomas and on to Xichu. Past Palomas it goes down the steep mountain in long curves. We cross the river on a heavy stone bridge and visit the small canyon before reaching Xichu where we have found Echeveria xichuensis and Turbinicarpus alonsoi before. One solitary dark purple flower of a Turbinicarpus shines bright from the crumbly cliffs. It's a quick drive to Xichu. On this Easter Sunday afternoon the little town seems almost completely deserted. The few hotels are closed or offer dirty rooms. Finally we find accommodation at the best place in town after we track down the owner in a small store. We have to share shower and toilet on the corridor but since we're the only guests this is not a problem at all. On TV at the restaurant on the main plaza they show Mexican football (soccer). We stuff ourselves and end the day in the hotel patio with a couple of Tequilas.

The next day we drive back through the narrow gorge of the Rio Xichu. There's almost no room for the road between the river and the vertical cliffs that tower on each side. This time we go on to Guamuchil and then up into the mountains. About halfway up we stop for Mammillaria marcosii and Beaucarnea compacta. Later, Echeveria bifida and E. coccinea with their red flowers stand out along the road. We continue towards Atarjea through Romerillos and Rucio. The road goes up and down and we're always accompanied by great views over the endless mountain ridges of the Sierra Gorda. Gas and diesel can be bought from barrels. Before reaching Mangas Cuatas we take the short cut through the river bed. Again the road climbs up steeply to a pass and drops down to Rio Blanco. We visit our locality for Pachyphytum garciae which grows together with many other Crassulaceae species. As was to be expected, we climb up to another pass behind Rio Blanco until we finally reach the paved highway near Camargo. We're all tired and dusty. We press on to Pinal de Amoles, a picturesque town with red corrugated iron roofs. Near the main plaza we find a cute little hotel where the rooms have creaky wooden floors and small balconies overlooking the narrow streets. At nightfall we go for a walk round the town and end the day with a well-earned solid dinner at the hotel's restaurant.

From Pinal de Amoles, where you can only get fresh squeezed orange juice and fatty "carnitas" along the road in the early morning, we drive back to "Puerta del Cielo", at 2400m altitude (7880 feet) the highest pass along any road in Queretaro. There are a few stalls along the road selling rocks from local mines. At the junction to Bucareli we find a good place for breakfast. The "patrona" is assisted by three young girls. What they produce from the wooden stove under the blue sky tastes excellent. For a change we drive down another steep dirt road to Bucareli. In one of the many curves we climb to interesting looking cliffs where we find Pachyphytum glutinicaule. This is probably the northernmost occurence for this species. Further down we pass flowering Strombocactus disciformis. The road snakes along a creek and through small green fields and fruit tree plantations. Soon we reach Bucareli with its unfinished mission church. The solidly built church consists only of high and thick walls, the roof is missing completely. Surrounded by a fantastic, craggy and extremely inhospitable mountain scenery the Franciscans started the construction of this church somewhere aroung 1790. In the hot morning of a day in May the silence in this place is unbelievable. The beauty of the panorama almost takes your breath away.

The road to San Joaquin starts behind a small store in Bucareli. The yellow flowers of Astrophytum ornatum shine brightly from all over the slopes. The Rio Estorax meanders far below us through spectacular mountain scenery. We catch one last glimpse back to the impressive mission church at Bucareli, ford the river and start the rough ascent in a narrow canyon. It's quite unbelievable but the road goes up this very narrow canyon. From time to time we spot small groups of Yucca queretaroensis. We quickly gain altitude and soon reach cooler coniferous forests with flowering Sedum humifusum and a Beschorneria species. After climbing some 1000m (3280 feet) up the mountain, we come past flowering Echeveria rosea on mossy trunks of oak trees. A group of ATV fanatics is the only oncoming traffic. It must be a special pleasure to race through the fresh mountain air in a convoy breathing in the dust from the vehicle in front. Soon it also starts to rain and we imagine how the group puts up its tents down at the Rio Estorax passing an uncomfortable night. They have paid for this under the name of eco-tourism and great adventure. Towards evening we reach San Joaquin where it's still sprinkling.It's easy to find a hotel and next door is a small restaurant where, as usual, on a large screen TV soccer is on again.

The rain has washed all the dust from the air and we wake up to a perfectly clear blue sky. The bus terminal is the only place in town where we can find hot coffee at this early hour of the day. The eyes of the girls behind the stove nearly pop out of their heads when they see that Martin, a real man, serves us, two chatting women, the coffee at our table. In Mexico it really should be the other way around. On a good paved road we drive more than 1300 meters (4270 feet) down into the deep canyon of the Rio Moctezuma. The road is paved only because CFE, the Mexican power company, has dammed up the Moctezuma river and is maintaining large turbines down here. At Las Adjuntas we reach the dirt road that leads all the way through the Barranca de Toliman to Zimapan in Hidalgo. This part of the road is only passable during the dry season because it goes through an extremely narrow gorge where the river becomes the road. The gentle reader might remember earlier travelogs where we mention the Barranca de Toliman. At the beginning the canyon is wide and open but soon the walls close in on us. A fantastic cactus vegetation surrounds us. We are especially delighted by all the flowering Echeveria tolimanensis. Under shady Guamuchil trees we have lunch and enjoy the surroundings that we have all to ourselves. Then we reach the two places where one can touch the cliffs with ones hands on both sides out of the car. It's impossible to get through these narrows with dry feet to take pictures of the car. Further up the gorge we come across large machinery and some workers, rolling the river bed completely flat. It almost looks like they plan to make a highway out of this stretch of road. Their work will of course be destroyed at once with the next heavy rains. When we reach the mines it's already too late for a visit under the earth. It's impressive that some mine workers recognize us immediately and ask about our "PocoLoco". The large Unimog must have made an impression on them. We talk a little, then we slowly climb up the mountain, stopping many times for incredible views back down into the narrow canyon scenery. Of course we also take many pictures of Yucca queretaroensis.

In Zimapan we are unable to find our usual spot for dinner, the restaurant "Los Arcos". After some searching and asking around, we're successful. It moved into a much larger establishment with green areas but it's not very busy at all. To mark the day and to end a successful trip, Maggie invites us for dinner and we stuff ourselves like pigs. We remember the wonderfully quiet nights in the sleeping bags under the starry sky; the bath in the light blue river; the picnics with perfectly ripened cheese; the many dusty roads; and of course the magnificent views we had at every bend of the road. The correct answer to Maggie's regular morning question "what's on the agenda today?" was only one: "We will drive up the mountain. When we're up there, we will drive down on the other side. When we reach the bottom we will certainly go up again. And so on...".

April-May 2010

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen