travelog 71

Hidalgo, Magical Land

Deep canyons with raging rivers, picture-book cactus landscapes, soaring mountain ranges with impenetrable forests, picturesque villages, specialty cuisine on the roadside, infinite plains, mysterious archaeological sites. All that and much more distinguish the Mexican state of Hidalgo to which we would like to introduce you in this travelog.

Once again we meet with friends from San Luis Potosi for a short field trip. This time we plan to explore the area around Zimapan and in particular the Barranca de Toliman. As always, our friends are looking for Mammillarias, but we still prefer the Crassulaceae and Agavaceae. Near Zimapan we take a dirt road to the mines in the Barranca de Toliman. Soon we have to be patient and keep our distance because a badly smoking and smelling truck rattles down into the canyon in front of us. For now the road, one lane with a few wide spots, leads slightly downhill along a mountain side but soon we get glimpses into deep and dark canyons where we will somehow descend on this road. Our position behind the big truck is not too bad. We have only to follow it closely to pass the fully loaded upcoming traffic. The drivers know this road like the back of their hand and always find a wide enough spot to get out of the way. About halfway down we pass the first mine. It's basically a wide place to pass other trucks and a black hole in the rock wall where trucks disappear empty and reappear loaded with ore-bearing material. Now the road really narrows and gets risky. On one side the rock breaks off into the perpendicular cliffs of the canyon. On the other side it soars vertically into the sky. Mirrors have been placed in blind curves to be able to see oncoming traffic early enough. The only place to pass another car or truck now is in the hairpin curves, otherwise the road has been blasted out of the cliffs just wide enough to fit a truck. The views into the deep canyon makes even the heart of people who don't suffer from vertigo beat faster. Not only the views, but also the drive is breathtaking and after about 15 minutes we finally reach the bottom of the canyon where a river flows during the rainy season.

We find the Mammillaria amazingly fast and have now all the time in the world to look for Crassulaceae. We hike downriver as far as possible but too soon we're stopped by huge pools that we can't cross without rubber boots. Everywhere holes in the cliffs and overgrown piles of rock give evidence of earlier mining activity. The gray rock is populated with a silvery Hechtia and Agave xylonacantha, both of which produce wonderful patterns on the cliffs. Soon we find what we were looking for, namely Echeveria tolimanensis, an endemic plant of this canyon. On the cliffs and in the piles of rock we can also admire Astrophytum ornatum, yellow cushions of Mammillaria elongata, M. longimamma, and Ferocactus glaucescens. The steep mountain sides are densely overgrown and everything is covered with the green and impenetrable foliage. An old man with his burro marches past us. At the mine he stocked up with about 100 eggs and tells us that he lives 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) downriver and that the riverbed is passable with a high-clearance vehicle only during the dry months of the year. So that's another thing to put on the to-do list for another visit when we plan to explore this canyon more thoroughly.

Another highlight of this trip is the Barranca de Tolantongo near Ixmiquilpan. We drive over wide mesas and finally reach the canyon. Far below we can see and hear the river rage through the narrowed cliffs. The steep mountain sides are covered with Dasylirion longissimum and a little further down with the impressive Cephalocereus senilis. Unfortunately we soon reach a big gate that can only be passed in exchange of cash. Lots of cash: 70 pesos ($6.30) per person and another 20 pesos per car. It remains a complete mystery to us which normal Mexican family can spend that much money for a day in some swimming pools! It's certainly too much for us since we only want to see plants. Now we try a dirt road we had seen before and reach the bottom of the canyon on the other side of the narrowed cliffs. Down here we admire dense forests of Cephalocereus senilis, a columnar cactus commonly named Old Man Cactus because of its long white hairs. The inhabitants of the small village are in the process of constructing a swimming pool area too but they assure us that they want to make it affordable for normal people too. It's for sure a good business since the big cities of Pachuca and Mexico City are not that far away. During the dry season there are many possibilities for exploring the labyrinth of canyons and we have to put another place on the to-do list. The plan is then to cross over into the Barranca Metztitlan.

Now we part ways and the two of us start heading north. The days are beautiful and we're accompanied by a gloriously blue sky. Only towards evening thick clouds gather that sometimes dump rain in the late afternoon or at night. Traveling during the rainy season doesn't only mean looking for plants in pouring rain, but also admiring the incredible magnificence of flowers brought out by the water, and marveling at the green forests and mountains that can look quite brown, gray and inconspicuous during other times of the year. We travel north towards Tamazunchale along highway 85 and get higher and higher into the mountains. Often the highest peaks are hidden behind clouds. The road snakes around thousands of curves and after every other curve more valleys and green mountains appear with small villages clinging to them. Waterfalls along the road are fed by the rains and people wash their cars here. On a slippery ladder we climb up to one of the waterfalls and enter a fairytale forest of tall tree ferns. The closer we get to Tamazunchale, the more tropical the vegetation, and the temperature and humidity rise considerably too. Again and again we spot flowering Echeveria semivestita along the road. Green carpets of Sedum hultenii cover the rocks. Then a revolting smell greets us and we pass a dead cow, that was apparently killed by a truck, and that is now gutted and cut in small portions in the ditch. Palms and other tropical plants thrive. In the undergrowth we find a Ceratozamia, a member of the cycad family, and orchids grow in the trees.

Tamazunchale lies at 150m (500 feet) above sea level and it's accordingly hot and humid. The main road goes right through the small town and it seems that hell breaks loose day and night because all the traffic has to squeeze through town and over a narrow bridge across the Rio Moctezuma. We don't stay long because as soon as you leave the air-conditioned car your clothes cling to your body. We prefer to drive through lush sugar cane and corn fields towards Huejutla the Reyes. On the huge trees thousands of orchids are flowering and Rhipsalis baccifera has small white fruits.

Soon we reach highway 105 and turn south back into the mountains and towards Pachuca. Almost all of the small and pretty villages along the road advertise eco-tourism, have at least one hotel, and probably a nice church from the past. Molango with its red sheet metal roofs lies far below the road. The little town is picturesquely located on the shores of a small lake and only the landing strip for small planes almost in the middle of town seems to be totally out of place. West of the road one can now start to imagine the upcoming huge complex of the Valle de Metztitlan. We climb along cliffs and find Echeveria halbingeri var. sanchez-mejoradae growing in lichen on rocks and epiphytically on oak trees. Under the oaks and pines we stumble over the short inflorescences of a Polianthes. Without its brilliantly red flowers the grass-like plant would be absolutely invisible. In Metzquititlan we stroll over the main plaza. Masses of pilgrims spill out of huge tour busses. They all visit the Santo Seņor de la Salud, a very miraculous saint (like many other Mexican saints as well). He's showered daily with millions of flowers in his small chapel.

The next morning we drive into the Valle de Metztitlan where we search for various plants. The valley floor seems to be very fertile and it's not always easy to find a way through the fields to check out the cliffs where we find flowering Pachyphytum bracteosum. We drive through Metztitlan and to San Cristobal along spectacular cliffs with beautiful plants. The yellow flowers of Astrophytum ornatum particularly stand out from the surrounding greenery. Behind San Cristobal we can drive along the cliffs for a while until the road almost disappears in the lagoon. In these limestone cliffs we find Pachyphytum longifolium and other Crassulaceae growing with Agave mitis var. albidior, a century plant that takes on an extremely white coloring under the heavy sunshine. Like a castle the huge Augustinian church Santos Reyes towers above Metztitlan. In the middle of the huge place in front of the church stands an enormous stone crucifix. Unfortunately the doors are locked but an Augustinian Father recognizes that we traveled here from far away and opens a side door for us. The walls of the monastery are painted in black and white with figures and patterns but are unfortunately in bad condition. The fathers had to lock the church and monastery because of some idiots who scrawled signs of a devils cult over some angels and other murals.

On small dirt roads we now drive through forested mountains to Mineral del Chico, a small mining town. It's amazing how many restaurants, hotels and galleries there are in this small community. Fridays through Sundays must be pure hell when the weekenders from Pachuca arrive! Fir trees attract our attention a little out of town. Their trunks are overgrown with Echeveria secunda. Huge clusters of Echeveria thrive on almost every tree and fill every niche in the rocks. Furcraea parmentieri seems to like it too at 2700m (8860 feet). Again and again we get a glimpse of the naked cliffs and rocks towering above the forest. This is not only a paradise for nature lovers but also for professional climbers. Now we're not that far away from Mineral del Monte, another mining town also called Real del Monte. This is another one of the Pueblos Magicos of Mexico and it's beautifully restored. Pastes, stuffed pastry pockets similar to Empanadas, are the local specialty and available everywhere. In the mornings you can get hot coffee or atole in the front of the market and a woman offers fried tamales with a spicy salsa. Everywhere we see wild mushrooms for sale. Passing through many little villages we see the women in front of the markets offering mushrooms that look like ceps, death trompets, morels, or chanterelles, and others have red heads. A big bag goes for 10 Pesos and only the fear of buying inedible mushrooms holds us back.

A last highlight on this round trip through Hidalgo is the visit to the archaeological site near Tula de Allende. Almost at the crack of dawn we arrive at the gate. On the stroll to the ruins we're only bothered by a few early souvenir vendors. Of course our main interest lies in the atlantes, the enormous Toltec warriors. The stone giants stand on a pyramid and it's a great experience to be the only one walking between the towering stone warriors. One also has a beautiful view over the rest of the astonishingly large complex. There's a ball field, various pyramids, and even some well preserved friezes.

Of course this travelog gives only a small insight into the many sights that Hidalgo has to offer. There are many more magic villages, dense cactus forests, fascinating archaeological sites, attractive small towns with old churches and monasteries, deep canyons and high mountains, and at the same time local specialties offered along the road or in the markets. Whoever is interested in nature and culture can get his money's worth in this Mexican state! Certainly this is not the last time we will be on the road in this beautiful region!

August 2006

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen