travelog 76

Sierra de Guerrero

A Coca Cola truck races by on the dirt road, raising clouds of dust. The driver greets us and from the roof of the truck two heavily armed men wave to us cheerfully. The locals later tell us that sometimes the Coca Cola trucks are ambushed and robbed in these mountains, arguing that this company had enough money anyway. We're assured that nobody would harm innocent tourists such as us, although we're on the road without an armed escort. We are in the mountains of Guerrero, one of the Mexican states notorious for drug cultivation and smuggling, among other things.

The experience described above occured on the road from Filo de Caballos to Carrizal, deep in the mountains west of Chilpancingo. Along this road we are passed many times by local police cars and military trucks loaded with young armed soldiers. Finally, the commander of one of the trucks has to satisfy his curiosity and asks us, at first pretty surly but becoming friendlier as we speak, what we were doing up here in this remote region. We tell him our usual story, that we love the mountains and want to get to know the area, and that we were taking pictures of plants for our own fun. He's satisfied with this explanation and instructs his driver to get the column going again. It was easy to see that he hadn't seen many white-skinned tourists like us around here.

We start our drive into the mountains on highway 95 north of Zumpango del Rio. The road is well paved up to Xochipala, but after the village the potholes start. The road slowly spirals upwards and quickly we move from desert vegetation with columnar cacti to oak forests with beautiful specimens of Agave cupreata, a plant that flowers during the winter months. Soon we reach the first pine trees and the road leads from one mountain top to the next one. The pavement ends in Filo de Caballos. There's a landing strip for small airplanes and a strange PEMEX gas station reachable only through a dead end road way off the main road. Although we're about 50km (31 miles) from the closest well maintained highway and even further from any big city, Filo de Caballos is a lively village where you can buy everything you need if you live here.

We look in vain for Furcraea martinezii in the gardens of Filo de Caballos. That's the plant for which we came up here. Shortly before reaching Carrizal we finally spot a few small specimens on a shady mountain side. Locals tell us that we could find more and bigger plants at an intersection a few kilometers away. In the village of Carrizal we take a picture of a treelike specimen in a garden. From a loudspeaker emerges the clanging sound of woman's voice announcing that the family of Seņor Fulano, Mister So-and-So, has a phone call. It's probably the relatives calling from the US and since there's only one phone connection in the village, the entire population of the immediate environs of Carrizal knows who and when someone was called on the phone. Before we reach the above-mentioned intersection we're distracted by the bright orange-red flowers of an Echeveria. Echeveria multicaulis is actually only known from the surroundings of Omiltemi but a look at the map is enough to realize that we're only about 16km (10 miles) away from this place as the crow flies. The entrie steep sunny road cut is overgrown by this Echeveria. Unfortunately most plants are completekly covered with dust because of the nearby dirt road. Thanks to their bright orange-red flowers, it was impossible to overlook the plants.

A little further along the road, now in a very moist and shady part of the road, we find other colonies of the same Echeveria. Slowly we chug along. Finally we reach the intersection and there's really a Furcraea martinezii with a large old inflorescence standing just next to the road. We drive uphill for another while but can't find any other plants in the dense forest. Turning around we spot the large purple flowers of an unusual orchid growing right on the top of a huge dead tree. The plant body consists of strange green tubers that are connected through long shoots. Back at the intersection we hike up the mountain a little bit and here, in the shade of large trees, we see many more specimens of this Furcraea that is endemic to these mountains, and all with stems. The plants are an imposing sight with a crown of leaves of about 3 meters (10 feet) in diameter. Between the pine needles young plants that developed from dropped bulbils shoot up like spinach.

In a small village we can't resist the many scribbeled signs advertising the locally produced mezcal, a high-proof spirit made from Agave plants. An able woman sees our searching looks and instantly asks us how many liters we want to buy. When we tell her that we only wanted one liter to try she quickly refers us to a friend living close by. From a plastic canister the mezcal is poured into an old Coca Cola bottel. In this area the mezcal is distilled from the locally very common Agave cupreata. In a small gourd bowl we naturally get a big mouthful to try. On the table there's a big plastic bag filled with chapulines, small locusts. During a short period of time after the rainy season the people drive down to the surroundings of Xochipala to collect the chapulines from the trees. They are then roasted and eaten with chile, salt and lime juice, or as a condiment in tacos. When we assure the women that we already had eaten chapulines in Oaxaca, they laugh in disbelief. But when we describe to them the animals taste of dry grass, they seem to believe us because they, too, describe the taste of a mouthful of the grasshoppers as similar to zacate seco, dry grass.

We make a short stop in Chilpancingo, the capital of Guerrero. Mexican markets always have fascinated us and especially before Christmas it is interesting to look for plants that are used in the decoration of the nativity scenes. Tillandsia usneoides, carpets of moss and fir cones are standard offerings. At small improvised stalls along a side street of the market we discover many more interesting things. Handfuls of orchids, all pulled down from trees of the surrounding mountains, are available at every stall. Flowering big-leaved Tillandsias are equally popular. Piles of Agave cupreata in all sizes are stacked up besides various species of small cacti. A woman offers her little white-spined Mammillarias, the majority of them without roots, in a plastic container. Naturally, the sale of these plants is illegal because they certainly have not been collected with a permit by the proper authority, but nobody seems to mind very much in Chilpancingo. In cities like Oaxaca or Tehuacan, for example, where we always saw a wide variety of plants for sale in front of the markets on earlier trips, only Tillandsias and moss are sold now. The Mexican law doesn't seem to have reached Chilpancingo yet.

We leave the hustle and bustle of the market. The traffic is a horror for car drivers. The city feels very much like a Central American or African city. Or at least in our imagination life on those streets would be as chaotic as it is here. Nobody follows traffic laws, red lights are just simply ignored, just as the lines on the streets seem to be a total waste. The main thing is to somehow get ahead. Even the police don't give a damn about the other road users, and so we're matching them. Just honk your horn and push ahead, or completely block an intersection. Finally we somehow manage to get out of this crazy city and go eastward, in direction of Tlapa de Comonfort. For a while we drive through beautiful oak forests and stop many times for plants such as Sedum hemsleyanum and Villadia recurvata, both of which are flowering now. Past Chilapa the road snakes up into the mountains in countless curves. Driving up at the crack of dawn and looking back, we have a fantastic view over the valley of Chilapa that is shrouded in mist. Only a few hills and a church rise above the dense fog. As soon as we reached the top of the mountains, the road began winding down the other side into a deep valley. We stop almost at the bottom of the canyon to take pictures of the rare Agave petrophila in a cliff. On cattle trails we climb up through wet grass and finally find an inflorescence, the yellow flowers of which we can photograph. Soon we pass the bridge over the Rio Petatlan and then the road spirals upwards again. There's a big Coca Cola factory in Atlixtac, an inconspicuous place in the middle of extremely eroded, naked hills. Large clusters of orchids attract our attention at the bridge over a beautiful river. Far below the water sparkles in the sunshine, rushing down towards the canyon. The small river is picturesquely framed by green trees and bushes. On the shady rocks we discover a flowering Echeveria that resembles E. fulgens. Just next to it grows Thompsonella mixtecana, this one in flower too. The plants at this place still have pretty rosettes with fat, green leaves. Later we find the same species in drier areas where the plant died back and survives just as naked stems that couldn't be identified as a Thompsonella without the old inflorescences.

A few kilometers west of Tlapa de Comonfort we make a detour to Olinala. The small town, only connected to the rest of Mexico a few years ago with a nicely paved road, lies in an area called La Montaņa due to its lush pine and oak forests. Olinala itself, though, is at an altitude of 1300m (4260 feet) and we have long left the cool pine and oak forests. Olinala is famous for its lacquerware and the small streets are lined with stores where you can admire and buy the colorful chests, gourds, tables, and jewelry boxes. On a stroll through town we visit some of the courtyards and garages where entire families are devoted to the traditional craftwork. Silently couples sit on the ground and work on a big chest while their offspring watches over the improvised stall. Originally the artisans used the wood of Bursera penicillata, also known under the name linaloe, for the production of the trunks and chests because it gave the finished product a wonderful scent. Over the years almost all of these trees have been cut down and nowadays pinewood is used. Sometimes it is scented with linaloe essence. The small gourd-like fruits of a tree, the Crescentia alata, are used to make armadillos and turkeys. Various layers of lacquer are applied to the wood or the gourds and then carefully scraped off with an agave needle or the tip of a palm leaf from the garden. The artisans invent individual patterns, fantastic figures and magical animals that they conjure onto the chests, boxes, tables and gourds. Today you can buy pieces from Olinala all over Mexico, but the most beautiful, most original and the best valued pieces are still found on the spot.

Back on the main highway we come into lower elevations again shortly before reaching Tlapa de Comonfort. Past spectacular cliffs and a dry waterfall we reach the broad valley of the Rio Tlapaneco near Tlapa. At the entrance to town we find the public market where we look around. A small restaurant is packed with policemen, armed to the teeth, and other very dark-skinned market visitors. The food must be really good at this place. A woman prepares huge tortillas that are always served hot with the meal. Soon we manage to grab two chairs and sit down, suspiciously watched by many pairs of eyes. People at the table stare at us without any embarrassment. They must be wondering even more when the two white-skinned visitors from another world start to speak Spanish! The decision for mole poblano, an almost black, thick and spicy sauce, seasoned with chocolate and served with chicken meat, is easy because this dish from Puebla is one of our favorites. Concerning traffic, Tlapa is another chaotic place. We have to take care not to end up in the wrong lane on a one-way street and almost miss the exit our of this hectic small town. Just past Tlapa the valley of the Rio Tlapaneco narrows and a small river, the Rio Salado, flows into the bigger river. With the naked eye we can see Agave petrophila on the vertical cliffs on the other side of the river, but access seems a little bit difficult. Instead, we explore the small canyon of the Rio Salado together with a herd of voracious goats. The bizarre calcareous rock formations at the mouth of the canyon are overgrown with orchids. Hechtias with their barb-like spines stab our pants legs. Here, too, we discover Agave petrophila and the completely unrecognizable stems without rosettes of Thompsonella mixtecana. In the shade of tropical trees, now almost all leafless, we spot a plant, Beaucarnea hiriartiae, that was described only recently. It belongs to the family of the Nolinaceae. With its thick swollen trunk, the slender, snaking branches and the small crowns of leaves it's a very attractive plant. Judging from the healed cuts, it looks like people cut down branches to take them home. We drive on through the narrow canyon of the Rio Tlapaneco and finally reach the bridge over the wide river. Branching roads invite exploratory trips but we drive northward to Acatlan.

On this trip we only took a close botanical look at a very small part of the mountainous hinterland of Guerrero. Although people everywhere talked about how dangerous traveling in this part of Mexico is, we have only met with friendly and approachable people. We had outstandingly good food, we slept in peace and quiet, and we never felt threatened. Are the warnings exaggerated? Who knows? All we know for sure is that we will soon be back!

February 2007

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen