It would be culturally not inappropriate to start out with long winded explanations for why I haven't kept up writing blog entries, or to come up with all sorts of excuses for why I managed to spend merely one out of my three months in Mexico on a farm. But what good would that do? Instead, let me entertain my readers with a light hearted travel-log, before going back to the serious business of working on farms and such.
So after returning from Karacadir to Grand Tenochtitlan (aka Mexico City) to another three weeks of domestic life, Elba and I finally got to go on a little vacation. After long debates we decided to head North, and visit the many interesting sites of the region called the Huasteca in the states of Hidalgo, Tamaulipas, and San Luis Potosí. Once we managed to get all our things together, pack it into Elba's faithful Ford Icon, say goodbye to the family, buy a bathing suit, and give the car a thorough check-up from oil change to windshield-fluid, we set out towards Pachuca. By this time we were in the middle of the Friday evening rush-hour, that goes beyond any reasonable comprehenisibility. It was around midnight when we arrived at our first destination in Ixmiquilpan.
The cute little town with the hardly pronouncible name is less an attraction than the famous Grutas de Tolantongo, located only about an hour from there. http://turismo.hidalgo.gob.mx/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=139 "Famous" is of course a relative word, as you have to talk to a Mexican to even hear about that place. Last time I checked, it was not mentioned in the Lonely (Loser) Planet, and hence we didn't see any foreign visitors. Nevertheless, the place features a stunning natural beauty. The little dirt road leading to it winds itself through a dry landscape, only to take a drop down a valley covered with lush green vegetation watered by a turquoise colored stream. At the head of the stream the visitor is treated with all sorts of natural wonders, including a cold waterfall, pleasantly warm hotsprings, and amazing caves, all in one place. Despite the lack of foreign tourists, the number of Mexican visitors have caused various facilities to spring up at the site, including a hotel, a thermal pool, restaurants, but these don't really interfere with the natural beauty of the place.
We climbed up the rocks to the waterfall, where we took an unavoidable cold shower before entering the cave. Inside, the water was much warmer, and about knee-deep. After sitting down in the nice hot water, observing the stalactites hanging down above us, we started going deeper into the cave. As the walls closed in to a narrow corridor, the water got deeper and the current stronger, so swimming was difficult. We had to pull ourselves along a rope attached to the wall, carefully taking each step on the rocks under the water. After about fifty meters the cave opened up again into a large gallery, with amazing rock formations, illuminated by the flashlights of other visitors and the life guards stationed there. From a hole in the high ceiling a hot shower beat down powerfully on those who dared to stand under it for a strong shoulder massage. Around it a large pool provided a pleasant soaking, where at the time a group of young Christians were singing songs about Jesus. They had to be of protestant denomination, guessing from their upbeat cheerfulness.Above the big cave there was another one behind the waterfall, this one much smaller, darker, with warmer water. It was exciting to explore it, part swimming part climbing from one pool to another. Pretty soon, however, we decided that the water was too warm for us, so we went to enjoy the cold waterfall outside.
Driving back from Tolantongo we got a bit of rain, the first taste of what was going to be accompanying us throughout the whole trip. The next day we set out early, and after a breakfast of barbacoa (lamb) at the market, we started our drive to Xilitla. What we thought would be a short drive of 2-3 hours turned out to be about twice as long, due to winding roads through the Sierra Madre, unexpected speed bumps, and an ever increasing rain. By the time we got to Las Pozas it was pouring.
Las Pozas, is an interesting site near Xilitla, in the State of San Luis Potosí. http://www.junglegossip.com/ It was the house of an excentric English gentleman named Sir Edward James, who was artisicly inclined, inspired by nature, not too fond of walls, and loaded with cash. Hence, he came up with the strangest design for his house, which he built in the middle of the lush, dense greenery. Needless to say, it offered a stunning sight. We put on our rain-gear and went to climb around on his many staircases leading to nowhere, among the countless columns not holding anything, looking through windows only to see other windows, and wondering about the sheer lack of practical use of his structures. Yet, it was art as art can be.
Another amazing feature of this place is the river behind his house. Originally natural, it was also augmented by artificial pools, stairs, and waterfalls. Had it been earlier in the day, with sunny weather, we would have followed the local kids' examples and jumped into it. But since they were about to close, and there was no hope for any more sun, we got back into the car and headed onwards.Tired of the bad weather, we decided to drive down to the Gulf, and enjoy a day or two on the beach. It was not really late yet, and having left the Sierra behind us, we set out to drive to Tampico. Of course, once again we were delayed. This time it was the condition of the highway, coupled with torrential rainfall, which forced us to the side of the road on occasion, to wait for it to get lighter. Sometimes it did, for a few minutes at least. Once in Tampico, we checked into the first economic hotel, and waited for the next day and better weather.
In the morning, seeing that Tampico had little to offer, we went out for breakfast before heading up North to a little beach town with the promising name of El Brasil. At the café we saw the headlines in the newspaper: Hurricane on the coast of Cuba expected to hit Tamaulipas in the next days. Though it wasn't raining at that moment, the clouds formed a thick cover over us. What should we do? We hadn't bought a new bathing suit, not to mention come all this way to the coast, just to miss out on the beach. So we got into the car and headed for El Brasil.
Instead of El Brasil, what we found was a place called El Tordo, which had exactly what we were looking for: a virtually deserted beach, waves of considerable strength, and a little restaurant that served beer, fish, and sea-food. We went swimming and playing with the breakers, took a walk along the beach, and had a cold water shower. Then we ate at the restaurant, and talked to the owner of the place, the only person around, about the hurricane. After lunch we decided against staying for another day, or even another hour, and headed back inland as fast as we could.
Our destination for that night was El Cielo Biosphere Reserve, a place where not only foxes and rabbits say goodnight, but also pumas and bears. http://www.elcielobiosphere.org/ From reading different travel blogs on the net, I thought it would be a nice place to hike around and maybe take a tour. We arrived at night in the pouring rain, and found an exquisite place to stay. The price would have been somewat steep, but given the fact that we were the only guests in the hotel (yes in fact the only ones in the entire town) they gave us a 40% discount! Sweet!
The next day we found out that a tour would be possible, but waaaay too expensive, mostly for the same reason: Normally it's 1,800 pesos for ten people. So we went out to explore the region on our own. We were given good recommendations: Boca Toma is a wonderful place with turtles and all sorts of other water creatures, rides on the river, beautiful hikes, and delicious sea food. When we got there, we found that the heavy rains of the past days have turned the whole place into a swamp and made the it impossible to go out on the river.
Nevermind, we had fun walking around on our own and playing in the mud. The only animals we encountered were the tinny winged ones, who also like to suck blood, but other than that it was enjoyable. In the end we had dinner at the sea-food place, and finnished it off with a few beers on the hotel balcony.
The next day, after sleeping in late, we headed out for our last destination before turning back around: Real de Catorce in the mountains of San Luis Potosí. http://www.realdecatorce.net/ The drive there was long, but it offered great views of the changing landscape, from subtropical forests to the dry desert highlands. Just before Real, we stopped to take a look at Matehuala, a bigger town on the main highway, just 50 km from Real. It was very pleasant to walk around in the dry desert evening.
Stores seem to stay open later up North, until 8-9 ish. Eateries on the other hand don't even upen until that time. We had a pizza around the zocalo, then headed on towards Real. We were almost there, just 23 km to go, when the road to this out of place mining town took a turn, and turned from smooth pavement to rough cobble-stones. With our car it took us about an hour to make this last distance, while jeeps and rugged pick-ups kept passing us. The last obstacle
was the entrance into Real itself, which lead through a tunnel just wide enough for one car. Of course we had to encounter another one coming the other way, and had to back up till the curve where we could squeeze past each other.
The town itself is quite wild. Many houses are still abandoned, though the population is growing again. The streets are steep, some of them barely pasable by car. Walking through them at night was creepy, sort of like being in Pedro Paramo (famous Mexican literature about death, by Juan Rulfo). Just as we found a hotel we liked, managed to park the car in front of it, caried our things inside, and opened the balcony window to take a look, the clock of the church struck midnight with the bells playing probably the most beautiful song ever written: Ave Maria. Perfect timing for a most memorable moment.
The next morning we explored the town by daylight. Though many buildings are not occupied, the foundations and stone walls are still standing and strong. In fact, most of them are being incorporated into the new construction, so Real is keeping its hundred year old appearance. Downtown is very lively, obviously well frequented by tourists. We visited one of the two museums, the old mint building, where we saw an exhibition of contemporary and native huichoti art,along with old minting equipment. The other museum was closed, so we took a walk up to the "pueblo fantasma" a handful of abandond structures on the hill. Though everyone in Real refers to them as "ghost town", to me it looks like an old mansion of castelic proportions, maybe the house of some sort of lord, or owner of the mine. That is where I had hidden a geocache last timeI was there. It had been found maybe two times by other cachers, before it
vanished into the posession of mugglers.
On the way back we took a long cut around the town on the hills, and walked back to Real past the old cemetery. Just in time actually, as it started to rain softly, and once we were intown quite heavily. We escaped from the rain into a small eatery, had dinner, and went back to the hotel. Later that night we took another night stroll through the narrow streets.
The following day we were greeted with a beautiful morning, had breakfast in the fancy bakery on the zocalo, and visited the town museum. Finally before leaving we bought a book on Real de
Catorce, with many many interesting info, history, anecdotes, etc. which we kept reading to each other during our next drive. We learned so much, that we almost felt like going back. But the long cobblestone road just kept us from turning around.
What lay ahead of us now, was the long road leading back back to the Mexico City. To ease a little bit on the melancholia of our trip coming to an end, we decided to stop by the cities of San Luis Potosí, and Querétaro. About San Luis we knew very little, except that it was the capital of this gorgeously diverse state, which we had a chance to get a few glimpses of. Querétaro on the other hand was quite familiar to us. Elba's cousin Marta lives there, whom we had visited once two years ago, when I was living in D.F. Since it was on the way, we wanted to stop by there this time as well.
San Luis turned out to be a full on success. We arrived in the city just after a massive rain storm, and could enjoy the beauitifully decorated downtown with its many plazas and neat old buildings. We looked at the museum of Spanish viceroys, which augmented perfectly what we had read in the book about Real on the way there. Then we enjoyed the mild evening descending on the colorful lights of the decorations for Independence Day. For dinner we went to the Balcony, a bar-restaurant with exactly that name, from where we could enjoy good beer, delicious food, and a view over the plaza that couldn't be surpassed. What's more, we even got to see a live band, playingSpanish, American, and Mexican rock music. We stayed for the second half ofthe show, and a few more beers, and then a few more...
The next morning we woke up with a slight hangover that called for the ultimate cure: chilaquiles con huevo! We found them, pretty good ones too, on the balcony of another restaurant, just opposite the Balcony. As it turned out, last night's view could be surpasses after all. Also, the city itself was just as pleasant in the daytime, and we even found an interesting museum where we extended our knowledge of the Mexican revolution.Around 2pm, when it started to rain we got back to the car and drove to Querétaro in the what turned out to be the heaviest rainstorm of our trip. We actually had to pull over and wait for the water to ease up a little. In Querétaro it was not raining at the moment, and before we could meet Marta there were two important things we needed: a coffee and a place to pee. But as chance had it, we stumbled into another piece of Mexican history: La Casa de la Marquesa. Fancy-shmancy galore, take a look at it here: www.kiwicollection.com/property/la-casa-de-la-marquesa Though we were sure it was way above our standards, we had a coffee, used the bathroom, and ended up spending almost two hours there. One reason was the rain that was starting to fall again, but the luxurious atmosphere, the historical maps on the wall, and the chance to really feel like the pompous emperor Augustín de Iturbide and his hostess (mistress?) Marquesa de la Villa del Villar del Águila, proved to be strong factors as well.
Eventually Marta showed up and we drove to her place, only to go out again with her and her husband Gerardo. Continuing with the exclusivity, we went out to a Jazz bar, where we enjoyed music of the finest sort. The band was part Cuban, Brazilian, and American. During the break I got to talk to the bassist. It turned out to be the world famous Tyler Mitchell from Chicago, son of the even more famous visual artist Caton Mitchel. I bought one of his CDs from the other band he plays in, and had a blast at the second part of the show.
The next day nothing particularly interesting happened. We had lunch with Marta's mom, Elba underwent some dental treatment by her cousin (Marta's a dentist) and in the evening we walked around the hopelessly crowded downtown plazas of Querétaro. No wonder, it was Sunday the 14th, with the independence holiday just coming up. To enjoy that as properly as it is expectable for good Mexicans, we drove home to D.F. the same night, of course through the pouring rain.
Mexican independence is celebrated over two days. Indy Eve, if you will, people assemble for the biggest fiesta of the year, at home with their family, or out in the Zocalo. Of course there's lots of music, food and drinks. At 11pm they listen to the president's grito he gives from the balcony of the national palace, and then rings the bell. At this time the party is at its high point, and throughout the whole country tequila flows in rivers and people dance in the Zocalo.
For us it was rather a closed circle celebration, as we stayed with Elba's family. It didn't lack any of the wild exuberance Mexican fiestas are famous for. The greater part of the family came together, among them Elba's 80 year old uncle, who told us exciting stories of how things used to be different way back when. Following the president's little speech on TV, we exchanged views and opinions on history and politics, all in all in a typically Mexican way: free, without reservation, and with severe scrutiny especially of the contemporary polititians. This also goes to show that no matter how much corruption there might be, freedom of speech and expression is taken for granted. After all, who would disagree?
September 16th, the actual Independence Day, is a very quiet type of holiday: after all, everyone is too tired and hung over from the previous night's party. So we too stayed in bed late. In the evening we stopped by at Elba's mom's again, and I said my goodbyes. I was getting ready to embark on my next part of the yourney, to continue with what I'd set out to do in the first place: organic farming. Right. My next destination would be the island of Ometepe in Nicaragua.