travelog 77

From Tehuacan to Huajuapan de Leon

The approximately 100kms (62 miles) between Tehuacan, Puebla, and Huajuapan de Leon, Oaxaca, are certainly one of the dream routes of all cactus enthusiasts. In 1994, on our first Mexico trip, this road was an absolute MUST, and since then we have returned many times to search and find more hidden corners of this magnificent country.

Tehuacan has changed a lot in the past 13 years. Mainly, it grew a lot bigger and now the city has difficulties handling the busy traffic. Actually, Tehuacan is a pretty ugly industrial city with a beautiful big main square shaded by huge trees where people meet at night to see and be seen. The public market is still as small as ever except that many peddlers set up their small stalls in the surrounding streets. At 6AM you'll find an open fonda, a small and inexpensive restaurant, on the first floor of the market. Provided that your stomach can handle it, we recommend the black mole with chicken, frijoles and handmade tortillas. This good and solid meal will carry you through the day for sure. If you'd like it a little lighter, try the sweet rolls with spiced and heavily sweetened coffee. Or you can taste a hot chocolate made with water or milk that is beaten frothy with a molinillo, a wooden chocolate beater. Of course you can also buy everything you need for a picnic under a columnar cactus at this market.

As soon as you have found your way out of the labyrinth of roads in Tehuacan and have driven south, you're in fantastic cactus country. Particularly striking of course are the dense stands of columnar cacti. In some parts these columns form a real forest. We'll save you from the listing of all the species occurring here. If someone wants to know the names, they can easily be found in any book on the flora of this area. When you get closer to the ground you'll notice the many small cacti such as Mammillarias etc. Of course it's not only the cacti but also other succulents, that make our hearts beat faster. We're particularly interested in Thompsonella minutiflora, a species that is best found just after the rainy season is over. Around the salt works of Zapotitlan Salinas this pretty little Thompsonella grows in cracks and crevices of rocks or in the shade of spiny Hechtias, Agaves or cacti. Also around Zapotitlan Salinas, and particularly in the small village of San Antonio Texcala, onyx handicrafts are offered along the main highway. With a little luck everybody can find a nice piece of polished rock in one of the many stores. You can also watch the stone masons work the pieces in their improvised workshops. Echeveria heterosepala and E. peacockii are other very interesting plants in this general area. The rosettes of Echeveria heterosepala preferrably hide under or in tufts of grass or in spiny bushes. With their green-gray coloration these plants are difficult to find and there were years when we searched the same spot as before and couldn't find one single plant! The small rosettes of Echeveria peacockii are equally perfectly adapted to their environment. They hide under and between light gray limestone and rocks or thrive in crevices. If you once have found one plant, you'll suddenly find many more that have to be photographed. Another interesting thing for us is the variety of Agaves growing here. The vegetation stands so dense that it's difficult to walk through and if you manage to find a way an Agave spine will probably prick you in your posterior. Agave marmorata is probably the largest representative of the family. But you can also take pictures of A. karwinskii, A. kerchovei, A. macroacantha, A. peacockii, A. potatorum, and A. stricta. Another impressive plant here is Beaucarnea gracilis. Old plants, and there are enough around here, form a huge swollen "foot" that looks a little bit like an enormous elephant foot. Wherever you stop and wander around the plants, you can discover interesting things!

On a dirt road we make a side trip to San Luis Atolotitlan. Shortly after leaving the main highway Agave peacockii, a naturally occurring hybrid between A. marmorata and A. kerchovei attracts our attention. Near Mezontla we even spot a fresh racemose inflorescence typical of this species. The flowers sit on short peduncles, an indication of the two parent species, the former belonging to the subgenus Agave, the latter to the subgenus Littaea. As soon as we climb a ways up the hill, a pickup truck appears. A man gets out and joins us on the hillside. He wants to know what business we have to be here. We explain that we are taking pictures and that we plan to go on to San Luis Atolotitlan. He then asks about our permit from PROFEPA (Procuraduría Federal del Medio Ambiente), a paper we can't produce. Before our trip, though, we had contacted PROFEPA via their Internet pages and asked about how and where to get a permit to visit this area, La Reserva de la Biosfera Tehuacán-Cuicatlán. Unfortunately we never got an answer! The man is obviously painfully embarrassed by our showing him our identity cards and drivers licenses but he says that PROFEPA laid down strict orders because in the past people have come to loot rare plants in this area. They now want to put a stop to all of this by using the help of the locals. The idea is excellent in itself but if people like us who ask in advance for a permit because they want to everything according to the new laws don't get an answer to their inquiries, something's wrong with the system. Finally we reach an agreement with the man that we can mention his name if we are stopped again and that today we can explore all the mountains in the area of Mezontla with his permission. Now we can drive on to San Luis Atolotitlan where we search for the friend of a friend who should be able to give us permission to look for a certain plant. It's pretty easy to find the aforementioned acquaintance but now we have to find a person in charge since they take turns in this village. This is not an easy task just a few days before Christmas. We walk through the entire village until we finally find someone at home in the last place we try. We have to sit down and present our request. Noel, our new friend, offers to be our guide for the day. But before anything is decided we chat about Switzerland and Mexico, Mezcal and Tequila, and just about everything else under the sun. After what seems to us as an eternity we are finally released with an oral permission to look for Echeveria purpusorum. Our friend knows exactly where the small magueycitos are to be found and quickly he climbs up a hill. Soon we find the first rosettes of Echeveria purpusorum, a species endemic to this region, in the loose rubble. Of course Noel is a lot faster climbing around the rubble and finds many more plants that we can take pictures of.

Back down at his house we give him a bottle of Tequila as a reward for his work as our guide because he doesn't want to accept any money at all. Instead he presents us to his neighbors who operate a small Mezcal production just next door. Volcanic rocks are piled up in a pit and we can still see some recently cooked agave hearts. In this area people use Agave marmorata for the production of Mezcal. There's only one man left, they tell us, who still harvests A. potatorum, a species that officially can't be used for producing Mezcal anymore because its population was drastically reduced. The cooked agave hearts are smashed and crushed with a thick wooden rod in a carved out tree trunk that looks more like a cattle trough. The liquid is then poured into concrete containers and fermented. The final product has its own smoky flavor and tastes really good. After three glasses on an empty stomach our heads are spinning and we quickly have to find a shady place for our picnic before continuing on to Coatepec.

All female inhabitants of the small village of Coatepec are armed with brooms and shovels. The women and girls sweep and clean every little street and alley in their village and burn the garbage on huge piles. In return they get food from the DIF (Desarollo Integral de la Familia), a government organization. This is an idea worthy of imitation, encouraging the people to clean their village on a regular basis. Only brechas, really small dirt roads, lead up into the mountains from here. Some of them are closed with locked gates to block access to a rare species of cycad. By now it's pretty late to find the local person in charge of giving permission and a guide with the keys and so we turn around without having seen Echeveria leucotricha.

Further south of Tehuacan we pass San Francisco Huapanapan where we visit Don Taorino Hernandez Munguia. We met Don Taorino back in 1994 on our first Mexico trip when we discovered Furcraea macdougallii growing along the road. He was, and still is, the owner of the land the plants are growing on. At that time he wanted to give us a whole bunch of young plants but the transport to Switzerland would have been too difficult and forbidden as well. There are still many tall plants standing and it looks as if a couple of them have flowered not long ago. We see hundreds of little bulbils growing in the grass. Don Taorino has a considerable collection of small plants in front of his house. We're not so sure if the old man really remembers us or if he lost part of his memory when he fell from a ladder helping to clean the church. We certainly can remember almost every little detail about his house. The furniture is the same as 13 years ago and still covered with the same plastic to protect it from dust and wear. It still smells unpleasantly sickly from urine, and behind the house Don Taorino shows us his huge collection of rocks. Later he involves us in a conversation that he dominates almost completely. His flow of words is unstoppable. The old man is obviously grateful to have found someone to chat with. When we finally say goodbye he wants to give us a huge bottle of CocaCola as a Christmas gift. In the end we are able to convince him that a few dried chiles from his garden would please us a lot more.

There's a dirt road leaving Huapanapan going to Membrillos through a beautiful little valley. Cerro de Chicamole where we want to find Echeveria longissima var. longissima towers over Membrillos. Of course it takes us a while to get to Membrillos because there are many things to marvel at along the way. The diversity of crassulaceae in this pretty valley is impressive although we see some flocks of hungry goats. Sedum allantoides, S. dendroideum ssp. dendroideum, S. hemsleyanum, S. pachyphyllum, S. sp., S. tortuosum, Villadia albiflora, Echeveria gigantea, E. nodulosa, and E. setosa var. oteroi all thrive in the cliffs along the small creek, and it might well be that we overlooked some species. Tillandsias and orchids hang in the oak trees. We also see Yucca mixtecana and of course various types of agaves. At the first house in Membrillos we ask about the Echeveria we want to find, apparently called farolito (light house) locally. The man refers us to other inhabitants but we don't have any luck with them either. At least they understand what type of plant we're talking about but they only know Echeveria gigantea and E. nodulosa. From the latter they give us a leaf to taste. It tastes extremely bitter but is used as a natural remedy against inflammations in the mouth. When we finally have convinced the people we have talked to about going up the mountain alone, an important looking man marches up towards us. Immediately he wants to know what we are doing here. When we explain to him that we plan to hike up the mountain, he wants to see our permit that we naturally can't produce. He says that in other parts of the world one has to produce permits and papers in order to see something and that it's no different here. After all something bad could happen to us and then our homecountry, Switzerland, would come and sue the people of this tiny hamlet for compensation. Besides, he tells us, there are many wild animals on the mountain and particularly cattle could be extremely dangerous to us. Poisonous snakes are very aggressive around here too. And last but not least we could be kidnapped by the inhabitants of the neighboring village who are in a constant fight with the inhabitants of Membrillos over the borders of their lands. When we are not really impressed by all that he repeats the entire list of dangers again. And so it goes on and on and on. Soon we realize that the situation is hopeless. We decide to come back anothe time, forearmed with a folder filled with stamped official papers.

Back on the main highway we drive south towards Huajuapan de Leon. In many gardens along the road we see Echeveria gigantea in full bloom. The plants are huge and including the inflorescences they can be as tall as a man. Around Santiago Miltepec some rocks attract our attraction and we find Sedum allantoides forming huge mats that thrive between moss and fern. Agave rhodacantha, a species widely used to produce Mezcal in Oaxaca, can be seen growing along nearby fields.

Huajuapan de Leon is a lot smaller than Tehuacan and still feels comfortable. Under huge trees nativity scenes adorn the main square and the church is decorated festively for Christmas. On one side of the small market we find a row of fondas where you sit with the locals at long tables. Tortillas are prepared on a comal, a metal plate over a hot fire. Cooks with colorful aprons advertise their menus to the passing crowd. It's typical Mexican dishes like mole, quesadillas, tlacoyos, and dishes with meat in red or green spicy sauces. Chicken or beef soup with lots of vegetables is another favorite. All of this acompanied by a cold beer and you can end a perfect day nicely.

The area between Tehuacan and Huajuapan was declared "La Reserva de la Biosfera Tehuacán-Cuicatlán" in 1998 and is now protected. Of course you can't prohibit people from visiting the area without an official PROFEPA permit because the main connection between the two towns runs through this vast area, but if you want to explore the small dirt roads and remote villages, you had better get a paper from PROFEPA which has an office in Tehuacan. Don't try to get your paper around Christmas, as we did; the office will be closed! In most places, though, the local people are very nice and understand the tourists. Most of the time they're only worried that one could get caught in the cross fire of their fights for land borders with neighboring villages. To see something of the beauty of this area, you really don't have to drive on dusty dirt roads. Just enjoy the simply beautiful landscape and the diversity of plants along the main highway. You will always find a place to park your car and wander around between the tall columnar cacti, the impressive elephant-foot trees and the fat barrels. Enjoy!

March 2007

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen