travelog 81

Sierra de Lampazos

"Real de Minas Viejas 20km" says a sign a little north of Bustamante, Nuevo Leon, along Mexico's Highway #1, about 35 km west of Salinas Hidalgo. The gate is locked. Real de Minas Viejas is also mentioned in a special issue of the magazine, Mexico Desconocido (Unknown Mexico), about Nuevo Leon. There is mentioned the possibility of spending the night in Bustamante. You can even find this place on the Internet click here. Now you certainly want to know why we absolutely want to go there. As you probably already have guessed, it's because of a plant. This is exactly the location from where, in 2002, a new agave species, A. ovatifolia, was described. Besides, after having had a closer look at the area, this seemed like the only place in these mountains that is more or less easily accessible by car.

First we act like tourists in Bustamante. We buy the sweet bread for which the town is famous at the panaderia La Superior at the entrance to the village. In this bakery the bread is still baked in a stone oven with a woodfire, behind the small house. The bread is sweet and tastes like gingerbread. Then we pay a visit to La Guadalupana, the local mezcal distillery. Here they still work traditionally with burros. Everything is done by hand. For decades Agave asperrima ssp. asperrima has been distilled here to produce mezcal, as one of the workers explains to us. They also provide us with the number for Don Pedro's cell phone. He is the owner of Real de Minas Viejas. Of course we sample the various mezcal types and buy a bottle. Why on earth the poster advertising the distillery shows a Dasylirion is another Mexican mystery. Even the above-mentioned employee thinks it is strange because he says you cannot find a single Dasylirion in the area. A statement that is, of course, nonsense. You only have to drive a few kilometers to Ojo de Agua, another attraction near Bustamante, to admire thousands of Dasylirions. We visit precisely this Ojo de Agua next. It's a beautiful canyon with sheer cliffs, green trees and hot water that is contained in various pools. Tables, benches and barbeques are conveniently located under shady trees along the road. At this time of year and during the week there's absolutely nobody here.

After calling back and forth with Don Pedro and his son we arrange to meet at 4 PM at the main square in Bustamante. We assure them that they will not have any troubles recognizing us and the truck after the two of them express their concern about finding us. At 4 PM sharp we sit on the plaza eating ice cream. And wait, and wait, and wait. Shortly before 5 PM the pair finally arrives, of course late, as is Mexican custom. Don Pedro is enthusiastic about our Unimog and we find out that he is thinking about buying one himself in Monterrey to bring tourists up to his place. Don Pedro is a real Mexican, one of the old school, exactly as one would imagine a Don Pedro upon hearing the name. He seems to be used to people wanting to visit his Rancho Real de Minas Viejas to see Agave ovatifolia, called noga by the locals. When we inquire about the costs for going up there he just says very generously that we should stay as long as we like, of course without paying anything. He says we should see for ourselves how quickly we will fall in love with the place and that in the end we won't want to drive away. The only thing he would appreciate us doing is giving his caretakers a small propina, a tip. Now father and son accompany us to the locked gate and we get the combination for the padlock. Don Pedro tells his caretakers that they are to greet us in 16 kilometers (10 miles), at the next gate.

First the road that leads through the flats is pretty good and we drive along fast. Then we reach the foothills of the Sierra de Lampazos and the road gets rockier and bad. Slowly the sun approaches the horizon. As fast as possible we bump and bang almost 800 meters (2600 feet) of altitude up the mountains. The 16 kilometer trip doesn't want to end. Night is coming fast and we don't see the ground we're driving on anymore. Soon we have to use the headlights. After what seems an eternity, we finally reach the aforementioned gate where Rosi and Abel, the caretaker couple, are waiting for us. Since it's completely dark by now we decide to give up and spend the night right here on the road.

The next morning Rosi and Abel are back at the gate at 8 AM sharp. They're more punctual than we Swiss, still getting the truck ready to go. Our lateness gives them the opportunity to fill the tank of their car from a canister. Rosi has to suck up the diesel from a hose because Abel prefers to leave this kind of work to the women. Later she's the one driving the car; a fact that strikes us as odd and not at all Mexican. Don Pedro had mentioned that we couldn't drive up on the old road that was used by a small train to get the ore down from the mines, because it was too narrow in places and we wouldn't be able to pass some overhanging rocks. He said that there was a new road on which busses with tourists drove up to his place. That sounded really easy, but how wrong we were! After the first few meters we ask ourselves how on earth a normal bus ever made it up that road. The road is washed out and runs for most of the time on pure rock. The climb sometimes is 80% (36) and a vehicle with a long wheelbase would inevitably get stuck on the chassis. For the last 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) on the so-called "new" road we need one full hour. Rosi later says that she was sometimes afraid the Unimog would overturn with all the swaying. On top of the mountain we have to carefully pass below some old oak trees but this is pure maneuvering and easy as pie compared to the sweating we did before. Finally we stand in front of the old stone building that was used 100 years ago as a workshop for the mines and now serves as a restaurant. Here we meet the vaquero Nacho, a real Mexican cowboy. Drinking coffee we chat a little and it's fascinating to hear the three talk wide-eyed about laptop computers, Google Earth, GPS and the Internet. We also see the photos of the bus that actually drove up to the restaurant on the new road. Then the road was really new, Nacho tells us, and even then the driver almost wet himself for fear of wrecking his beautiful vehicle. They all agree that it was again time to get the road ship-shape. If we needed something we should let them know because Don Pedro had called again to make sure that we had everything we needed. Next the trio takes us to some old mine shafts. We drive around in a pickup truck because on some of these roads the Unimog would inevitably get stuck because of its size. At the mine named Buenavista, along the old road, we park and walk into the mine tunnel. Nacho and Abel have flashlights and we make fast progress with the high-ceilinged tunnel. In the light of the flashlights the rock around us glitters beautifully. At a stone waterfall we stop for a photo. There's still water dripping over it and it's covered with small crystals. Nacho points out blue ribbons along the tunnel walls. He says that American tourists always carry these ribbons along into the mines to be able to find their way out again. We could walk on for about 1 hour and get out of the mine at the other end of the mountain, Nacho tells us. But since we're more interested in the plants that grow up here we postpone the subterranean exploration for another visit.

We bump along a few more kilometers on a road that leads way out onto a ledge, searching for a nice place to spend the night. There's enough wood for a campfire. The view onto the Sierra Pajaros Azules with its many peaks is breathtaking. We especially like one peak that rises above all the others like a huge tooth. It's El Iman, (The Magnet), but the ranch people call it "La Chiche", colloquial and a not very socially acceptable word for breast. We are surrounded by Agave ovatifolia. It's a beautiful species doing its name credit with the extremely broad and shovel-shaped leaves. The plateau consists of sharp-edged calcareous rock. Like big Lego pieces the sharp-edged rocks jut out of the ground, grass and small bushes growing in between and you have to be careful not to twist your ankle. Looking a little closer we find two Seda between the gray rocks. Suddenly we stumble onto the small rosettes of an Echeveria. We hike along the road to some old ruins and sheer cliffs. The cliffs drop hundreds of meters into the depth. Vultures circle above. An old mule track leads along the cliffs back towards Minas Viejas. Here we find more Echeverias. The rosettes are as big as plates and very regularly formed. It must be Echeveria runyonii, a species just recently rediscovered in another place in Nuevo Leon. The cliffs are overgrown with the blue rosettes. There's also Sedum palmeri, Lenophyllum guttatum, Agave tenuifolia, A. lechuguilla, A. asperrima, a few Ferocactus hamatacanthus, Mammillarias and Echinocereus, a Dasylirion sp., and in the valleys large stands of Yucca rostrata. Many of the massive inflorescences of Agave ovatifolia are cut off. Nacho later tells us that it's an ideal cattle food. On a late afternoon walk as the sunlight bathes the land in beautiful colors, Martin almost stumbles over what might be a coral snake, known in Mexico as Coralillo. The snake doesn't show any fear but lies still observing its adversary. Martin doesn't want to harm it and stands still, observing it. When Julia joins to see the brightly colored snake, it's too much for the snake and it disappears quickly into its nearby hiding place. Later we look at some fotos and determine that it must have been one of the many harmless species with colors that imitate the highly poisonous real Coralillo. But it's best keep your distance and observe.

After we climb up the Sierra de Lampazos with difficulty, we want to enjoy the place and we gladly accept Don Pedro's offer to stay as long as we like. The land is simply beautiful, the views breathtaking, the silence incredible, and the starry sky puts the Milky Way within our grasp. Every evening we light a campfire. The gnarled juniper wood burns slowly and smells lovely. The grilled meat that the butcher claimed was the best in all of Mexico, really tastes better than ever before. The only bad thing is that we're running out of the tequila that has made our nights at the campfire even more pleasant. To the cricket concert we move closer to the warming fire, search the sky for shooting stars, listen to the coyotes sing, and take things as they come.

Don Pedro was right. We can easily understand why he fell in love with this place and now calls it the most beautiful in all of the world. If there were not so many other beautiful places in the world, and in Mexico, we too would like to spend the rest of our lives up here among the agaves. So we say goodbye for this time with the promise to come back soon when the agave blooms.

November 2007

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen