travelog 113

Botanizing in the Rain

We had warned Kelly. In our experience it rains the most in the month of July in central Mexico. But our friend from San Diego would not change his mind and was determined to continue with his plan; to finally bring his wife Denise to dangerous Mexico. If Kelly's not exploring in Mexico, Madagascar, Australia, Soccotra, or elsewhere in the world where there are succulent plants, he works in nurseries in San Diego. We had visited with each other several times but his wife had a fear of traveling in Mexico. No wonder with all the horrendous news that she was seeing on American television day by day - and forgetting that there's crime and murder in California too. Finally THE perfect opportunity was here. Kelly was attending the IOS Congress in Cuba and flew from Havana to Guadalajara. The same evening Denise flew in from San Diego. The next morning we picked them up at a hotel in Guadalajara to go on a short round trip together.

We had no intention of doing too much in this short time because it should not be Denise's first and last visit in Mexico. We wanted to show her more than plants, which of course were Kelly's main interest. Denise should also see some of the "Pueblos magicos", the magic towns, and a bit of the Mexican culture. In addition, the trip should be in an area where it was unlikely to meet heavily armed military or police convoys that might provoke unnecessary nightmares for Denise. So we drove east on some small side roads through the hilly countryside of Guanajuato to Mineral de Pozos. Kelly had stayed several times at a small bed & breakfast hotel that he thought would be a perfect start for our trip. From the big highway we took a small dirt road up towards Pozos where we already stopped for the first plants, beautiful gray-blue Agave asperrima ssp. potosiensis. Gray clouds hung long in the sky and we soon had to put on warm jackets. We had visited Pozos, one of Mexico's newest magical towns, about ten years ago for the last time. Since then many things had changed. The small town where mines once flourished, was a ghost town on our last visit. Only on weekends a few tourists ventured here and bought a souvenir at one of the improvised stalls on the dusty main square. You could wander around the old ruins without being bothered by anybody and there were no hotels to be found. Nowadays the old buildings are either fenced in or it is written in large letters that you have to pay for a visit. The improvised stands made room for small galleries and there are several bed & breakfast accommodations, all of which looking beautiful but made for the well-to-do tourists. We found accommodations at the Boutique Hotel "Posada de las Minas" (direct link here) where Kelly gave us a nice surprise and got us a night at a room with the great name "Luna de Miel", the honeymoon. The hotel was beautifully designed and set up, it even had a nice garden with succulents and everywhere there were niches and balconies to linger. At the very cozy bar, Denise invited us to margaritas and a delicious dinner. It was a successful start, but soon we started to have our doubts if we should not have rather visited this hotel as the culmination of the trip.

The next day we paid a visit to Mammillaria albiflora. The plants looked like tiny white buttons and were very well camouflaged between the small white pebbles. Then we went on north close to the Cerro Quijay where we looked for Sedum pacense. Almost at the top of the mountain we made a strike and found the plants in bloom. In San Luis de la Paz it was already time to look for a place to have lunch. We did not want to take the risk of eating at a taco place because we wanted Denise to survive the week without suffering from Moctezuma's revenge. The cook took forever to prepare a few quesadillas and a queso fundido, precious time that was later missing for the plant hunting. Past San Luis de la Paz we stopped for Pachyphytum fittkaui and Echeveria elegans but only the untiring Kelly climbed all the way to the top of the cliffs through the thick greenery. Along the winding road down to Xichu we took one detour on a small dirt road but it led only to an old quarry and not as hoped onto the old road which leads along interesting cliffs. The owner of the only decent hotel in Xichu was at mass and so we waited for her on a park bench watching the hustle and bustle in the streets. In the restaurant on the main square they even served almost-vegetarian food for Denise and Kelly and cold beer for everybody. We sat for a long time because while we were having our dinner, rain had started to pour. Usually these downpours don't last long but today we had to run back to the hotel in the pouring rain where we arrived pretty well soaked.

All night long the rain was drumming on the roof of the patio of the hotel with small breaks. In the morning gray clouds hung almost below the red roofs of Xichu and it was still drizzling on and off. Opposite the hotel we found a small restaurant where we had coffee, scrambled eggs and quesadillas for breakfast. Denise was well equipped with her own supply of breakfast cereal and nuts, except that even in Mexico City it would probably have been impossible to find the almond milk she liked best. The waitress told us that it had rained for the last four days and nights with short breaks. We had a short discussion about our plans and looked for alternatives on the map but in the end it was decided to continue with the original plan and get going trusting to luck. Past Xichu the muddy dirt road started, leading above the swollen, brownish-red river through a narrow valley that was enclosed by towering cliffs. On this rainy and cloudy morning the sky-high mountains could only be imagined. Soon Kelly had another opportunity for one of his macabre jokes which Denise didn't find funny at all: the road was blocked by a small white pickup truck behind which there was another vehicle blocking more of the road. Kelly cried out "a road block, a road block, we are being assaulted!", but it was only the guy delivering tortillas whose truck had broke down, the same one we had seen earlier at the breakfast place. The first stop was for Echeveria xichuensis and Turbinicarpus alonsoi. Kelly and Julia hiked alone into the small canyon. It was still drizzling and the trees and bushes were glistening with rain drops. Everything was green, full and fat. The plants we were looking for were mostly hidden below completely open selaginellas and difficult to spot. Then we drove slowly along the road to find Calibanus hookeri. It didn't take long until we discovered the first plants far above the road and we finally stopped at a place where one could only just climb up the crumbly rocks. In the meantime it had finally stopped raining and the clouds were higher up. Kelly forgot everything around because of the plants he had never seen before and came back down to the car completely dirty and with muddy shoes. Soon we reached the bridge over the river near Guamuchil. Half of the village had gathered on or near the bridge to see the extremely swollen river with its brownish red water. Some brave boys offered to "wade" through the river if we wanted to take pictures. We kindly declined their offer in the face of the raging waters.

Now the road was leading up the mountain in many curves until we stopped another time for Beaucarnea compacta. Meanwhile one could even see big patches of blue in the sky and the sun finally emerged from behind the clouds. We drove up further passing Echeveria bifida and Sedum corynephyllum. Our lunch today consisted of fresh bread rolls which we spread with avocados. We passed many small villages and far up in the mountains even encountered a huge bus whose driver asked about the road conditions to Xichu. It sounded like a Mexican had trusted his road atlas too much and taken the thick yellow road for granted where in reality there were only dirt roads leading over high mountains and into deep canyons. Roads, that after the day-long rains, were extremely muddy and slippery. Near Peņamiller we came through forests of Isolatocereus dumortieri and Fouquieria splendens. The landscape was incredibly green and Kelly, who had known Mexico so far only in the dry season, thought many times that he was traveling through Ireland. We made it to San Joaquin by daylight where we found accommodation at the pink hotel and again were lucky to find more or less vegetarian food.

Bright blue sky welcomed us in the morning. We drove to El Doctor and then on dirt roads up into the mountains to see Agave montana. At more than 3000 m (10,000 ft) we had to wander through a fairytale, foggy landscape to reach the top of the mountain. A large form of Echeveria secunda as well as two species of sedum were flowering. Of course the agaves were all worth at least one picture and the hours passed in no time. Up here there was also a fairly large population of hybrids between Agave montana and A. mitis. And in the end we also found some pretty rocks for the garden. On the way back to the highway we stopped for Echeveria halbingeri. In the late afternoon we tried to find the entrance to the Caņada de la Culebra, the snake canyon. Finally we found a small dirt road leading down into the spectacular canyon where one could spend an entire day without any problems. The variety of plants was overwhelming but unfortunately we had to hurry and had only a short time to climb up to the nearest cliffs where we found Echeveria humilis in bloom. It would be too much to list all the succulent plants but some of the nicest ones were Pachyphytum glutinicaule and the silvery Hechtia zamudoi with its beautiful, compact rosettes. We spent the night in Bernal, another magic town. For dinner we had pizza at an Italian place whose owner grew up in Aarau, Switzerland, and spoke perfect Swiss German. He later moved to Italy and finally found his way to Mexico City and Bernal.

On the last day of the trip we drove up the Cerro Zamorano. First we took pictures of Pachyphytum compactum, then we started looking for Sedum fuscum which Denise found first with a pair of eagle eyes. It reminded her of a tiny Dudleya species near San Diego. Further up the mountain we also saw the beautifully compact and blue-gray Agave applanata which was worth another photo stop. In the evening we were back on native soil in Jalisco where we toasted to a successful trip and a future Mexico adventure for Denise in Oaxaca.

July 2012

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen