travelog 114

A Day in the Field with Cactus Aficionados from Monterrey

After an icy-cold night at 3400 m (11'200 ft) and a strenuous day with very summery temperatures in the lowlands near Saltillo, we reached Monterrey, the third-largest city Mexico's, late in the afternoon. Again we found accommodation at the Hotel/Motel "Marbella Suites" in Santa Catarina along one of Monterrey's big access roads. In northeastern Mexico the so-called Auto-Hotels, establishments that you commonly rent by the hour to spend some quality time with your lover, can only be used for a maximum of six hours. That's Monterrey; most places in Mexico allow between eight and twelve hours. These establishments are usually very conveniently located along the main highways in and out of bigger cities and you can avoid searching for a decent hotel downtown. The northeast hotels cost in general a lot more than similar accommodation in central or southern Mexico, which is also true for restaurants and other necessities - though people don't necessarily earn more than in other parts of the Republic. We had called our friend Melo from a gas station to discuss the plans for the next day's excursion. When we wanted to call again from the hotel there was no phone in the room and the Internet did not work with the laptop but finally the technician kindly let us use his cell phone. After discussing things over and over, Melo eventually convinced us that we absolutely needed to come to his party that night because he had already bought the wine and delicatessen and everything was prepared. It turned out that the fiesta was taking place at the other end of Monterrey but Melo kindly offered to pick us up at the hotel.

With Mexican punctuality he came to pick us up at nine PM, at an hour we were really ready for bed after a day like today. Melo came with his family to chauffeur us to the party in San Nicolas de las Garza. He was driving like a madman through the evening and weekend traffic of Monterrey and we felt like on a roller coaster snaking through traffic. Two miles before reaching our destination we passed another of the "Marbella Suites" hotels which would have been a lot easier. The fiesta was taking place at Mike's house, another cactus freak. At ten PM we reached one of those housing developments where all houses look the same and you wonder how people find their house when they return at night a little tipsy. The party had already started on the roof terrace where the temperatures just started to become bearable. Melo instantly took his place at the BBQ where he grilled large pieces of arrachera (flank steak), T-Bones and Sirloin steaks and Argentinian chorizo to perfection. We also had fresh bread, onions and whole chicory from the BBQ. Just for us, Melo had bought French cheese and there was no lack of beverages either. At three in the morning Melo drove us back to the hotel where we sank into bed at four for a couple of hours of well-deserved sleep.

We had agreed to meet with Melo and Mike for breakfast at a well-known restaurant in Cienega de Flores at 8:30AM the next morning. After breakfast we drove north towards Nuevo Laredo and stopped at the Cuesta Mamulique where the two wanted to show us an interesting Echeveria species. We had seen and taken pictures of the same plants, resembling E. rodolfi a little bit, near Bustamante, Nuevo Leon. In the same area we later found Hesperaloe campanulata in thick undergrowth. Then we went on to Sabinas Hidalgo where Melo had to find his uncle to get the key to the former family ranch. We met up again in Bustamante from where we drove on to Ojo de Agua, a popular weekend destination along a river with camping spots, picnic tables and swimming pools. We left Mike's little car in the parking lot and squeezed into the cabin of our Dodge which was pretty uncomfortable. There's a dirt road going west from Ojo de Agua which we soon left to drive on smaller dirt roads. Soon we reached the first locked gate. The huge ranch was originally in the possession of Melo's family but his grandfather had sold the place. The new owner had to be a huge fan of heavy building machinery judging from the many little roads that we saw. His preferred weekend activity must be sitting behind the wheel pushing another little road that would never be used into the otherwise pristine landscape. We came through more locked gates.

The roads became narrower and smaller and finally we drove on one of these brand new roads up a small mountain. The last steep meters we had to climb on foot to end up in front of a small cave with a spectacular panorama view. There were some "pinturas rupestres", cave paintings, on the ceiling and very interesting lizards. We could take pictures of the relatively dry rosettes of Echeveria strictiflora growing under bushes and in the shade of agaves. Then we went on south along the low hills until we parked where the road came closest to the rocks. It was already mid-afternoon and the sun mercilessly burned down on our backs. A narrow-leaved Agave victoriae-reginae, the large form known from the Huasteca Canyon, was thriving in the rocks. This must be the northernmost known locality for this beautiful agave species. Only a few miles south of the cave with the paintings where we had taken pictures of Echeveria strictiflora we now found the interesting other echeveria again, the one we were photographing in the morning at Cuesta Mamulique. Back at Ojo de Agua we stopped one last time for more Echeveria sp. 'Mamulique' and beautiful Astrophytum capricorne which we had seen many times today, Lenophyllum guttatum, and much more.

At the parking we said goodbye to Melo and Mike who were returning to Monterrey. We looked unsuccessfully for accommodation in Bustamante. The owner of the best-known hotel/restaurant "Ancira" in town was having a Quinceañera, the 15th birthday party of his daughter and his entire family was put up at his hotel and the rest of the guests occupied all the rooms in the other few hotels in town. In Villaldama at last we found a room in a shabby hotel for the usual excessive price. Since we wanted to camp the next day up on the Sierra Lampazos where Agave ovatifolia grows (see our travelog 81) we didn't mind one night in a stuffy room with a noisy A/C system. And after an exhausting day we sank fast asleep anyway.

August 2012

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen