travelog 82

Through the Sierra de los Huicholes

It's a must for one's 40th birthday to think up a little adventure, to celebrate true to style with tacos and beer, and to put up at some first class Mexican hotels. If on top of that there are fantastic landscapes, Swiss visitors, interesting plants, dusty and bad dirt roads, and beautiful handicrafts, the trip is perfect.

This time we're on the road through the Sierra de los Huicholes with Julia's mother, Lotti, and our good friend and loyal travelling companion, Maggie, in a Suburban that we borrowed from a good friend. Of course the route is long planned and we have already inquired among various friends about road conditions and the hotel situation in this isolated area. We even checked with the SCT (Secretaria de Comunicaciones y Transportes) about the road between Huejuquilla el Alto, Jalisco, and Estacion Ruiz, Nayarit. An ingeniero informed us by telephone that the biggest part of the entire road was already paved and that only about 80 kilometers (50 miles) of dirt road, with a few pot holes, had to be dealt with. It seems that one can trust Mexican road maps just as little as an engineers sitting behind a desk in Tepic. As always we have to find it out for ourselves on the spot. It all turned out quite differently from what we expected, as the gentle reader already may have suspected.

We first visit El Salto near Monte Escobedo. It's not that easy to find this place, but with the help of the locals we finally end up on grazing lands where a cowboy gives us directions. We really only have to walk a few more meters to stand at the edge of the Barranca El Salto, an impressive canyon that was completely invisible from farther away. A thin jet of water falls about 30m (100 feet) into the depth of a dark green basin, for sure an ideal place for a cooling bath during the hot summer months. Thanks to the low water level it's no problem at all to cross the small stream to the other side where we walk along the cliffs. Soon we discover Pachyphytum saltense, the plants for the sake of which we came here. We spend a wonderful afternoon and would love to explore the canyon for much more of its length but, as always, we don't have enough time. With our binoculars we spot larger groups of our plants on the other side of the canyon and leaving Martin to get us close to the plants, guiding us with hand signals and shouting. Now we can take perfect close-ups and at the same time don't have to search more hours for other photogenic populations. In Monte Escobedo we stay at a small hotel with a few bungalows. In the last rays of the evening sun we enjoy a tequila. Then it's time to dress up with warm jackets to brave the cold. In vain we look for taco places or open restaurants. It seems that most of the locals are on the annual pilgrimage to Bolaņos and the village is almost deserted.

From Monte Escobedo we drive to Mezquitic and on to Huejuquilla el Alto. Here we spend a day north of town and drive through beautiful canyon scenery with fascinating flora. From the road we can see deep canyons with a few paths that disappear somewhere in the deep shady world of these barrancas. One of these canyons starts very inconspicuously far up along the road but soon gets deeper and attracts our attention. Maggie and Julia, both of whom are still more or less in the mountain goat stage of life, shoulder their backpacks and hike into the depth on narrow cattle paths. The terrain is slippery, the trees to which one could cling are prickly, and it only gets steeper until the two of them finally reach the dry stream bed. But the reward is Pachyphytum saltense in the sunny cliffs, a species that was recently described in 2007 and was only known from its type locality at El Salto. In the meantime, Lotti and Martin sit in the shade of an organo, a Stenocereus queretaroensis, and chat with a curious farmer who is very interested in what we're doing in this forgotten part of the world. As we drive on we pass more spectacular looking canyons, all of them accessible only by foot. Soon we reach a bridge over a pretty river along which we hike into a canyon as far as possible. Again we spot Pachyphytum saltense but although the habitat seems ideal we discover only a few plants and can't see any other crassulaceae. In the evening we stroll around the plaza in Huejuquilla, admiring the beautiful, bright colored dresses and the jewelry of the indigenous Huicholes. Many wait on or near the backs of pickup trucks to return to their small villages or ranches after a shopping visit to the "big" city. In a narrow street around the corner of the plaza we're the early birds at the gorditas, a place famous for miles around. Sitting below a picture of Jesus, that is adorned with plastic floral wreaths and blinking chains of ligh,ts we enjoy gorditas, thick tortilla pouches filled with different ingredients. We're especially taken with the rajas, thin strips of medium hot chiles, mild bean and potato puree, and of course the extra spicy chorizo sausage provoking sweat and tears in all of us. Lotti especially, who loves everything very spicy, is in the seventh heaven.

West of Huejuquilla the relatively newly paved road leads through scenery that reminds us of the Monument Valley in the United States, except that rarely a tourist strays into this region. Solitary rock towers rise up into the air. Blue rivers have eaten their way into the rocks over millions of years. Far below a yellow bridge spans the Rio Atengo and in the background the Sierra de los Huicholes rises above the many mountain ranges we want to drive over to reach the Pacific ocean. Near San Juan Capistrano we make a short side trip to visit the new locality of Echinocactus grusonii. We hike down the dry river bed under shady trees until we reach the dark cliffs where the yellow spined large globulars glow in the first rays of the morning sun. Then the road quickly spirals upwards and we change from one vegetation type into another, now the oak and conifer forests. We pass Agave maximiliana and later Nolina parviflora and A. filifera ssp. schidigera. The newly paved road for sure is a masterpiece of road construction but it will take decades until the ugly piles of rubble from the construction will be green and overgrown. At a viewpoint far above the wide valley of the Rio Atengo we stop for an improvised lunch from the cooler. It's Mexican cheese, hot chiles, jicama, avocados, and a sweet melon for dessert. With such a magnificent view, what else can one wish for? If you go to the trouble of climbing down over used toilet paper and other less nasty garbage you can see Sedum mocinianum and Echeveria agavoides in cracks of rocks. If you look even closer and are lucky you can probably discover a Huichol sacred site with peyote (Lophophora williamsii), colorful candles and ribbons and other relics.

Now we're in the evergreen conifer forest with tall pines and oak trees. In the rocks along the road we take pictures of Sedum oxycoccoides, a species with dark red flowers that are very unusual for the genus Sedum. Soon we reach Canoas, a settlement with wooden huts in front of which colorful geraniums are flowering. For another 10 kms (6.2 miles) we can enjoy the paved road but then it suddenly turns into a dusty dirt road. The previously announced 80 kms of dirt road with "only a few pot holes" turn out to be more like 200 kms (124 miles) of, in part, disastrously bad and barely driveable road. We didn't count the pot holes because we were too busy to get our friend's car through this unscathed. The powdery fine dust of the road settles into every crack and forces its way into the car through the smallest opening. Trees and meadows along the road are powdered with a thick layer of almost white dust. School children bicycling home get covered in dust with every passing car. We are happy to be travelling west as advised by some friends because that way we only have to manage to get downhill somehow. Getting uphill would only be possible with fourwheel drive. Of course we make very poor progress and time is quckly running out. With every check of the watch we ask ourselves if we will ever make it to Jesus Maria, where apparently there is some kind of a hotel, before it gets dark. In general we start having doubts about the very existence of Jesus Maria because after every curve and past every pass we can only see more curves and even more high mountain ranges and deep canyons. Past the turn-off to San Andres Cohamiata at 2500m altitude (8200 feet) the road finally goes steadily downhill and a sign announces Jesus Maria in really only 53 more kilometers (33 miles).

Despite the constant bumping along the bad road we try to enjoy the breathtakingly beautiful scenery, a thing that is not always very easy, especially not in the back seats. Again and again the colorfully dressed Huicholes working around their little huts attract our attention. The road drags on and on and Jesus Maria doesn't seem to get any closer. Even after we pass the out-of-service landing strip there's no village to be seen. Exhausted, we finally reach Jesus Maria at 580m (1900 feet) before it gets dark. Of course there's no signpost for the hotel and when we finally find it, the owner is attending mass. Her husband, a pretty bewildered old man, shows us the few rooms. They are sheds where there is barely room for two narrow beds and a chest. The decoration ranges from religiously kitschy to local craft work. We first make ourselves at home in the courtyard and down a few cans of cold beer with lime juice, although the consumption of alcohol per hotel regulations is limited to one bottle or can. After a long half hour, Doņa Roberta, who matches her husband perfectly in her strangeness, finally returns from mass. What vagaries of life have caused this pair to end up in this forgotten place, remains a complete mystery to us. In the dark we now receive a guided tour through the hotel grounds. Over a few stairs and through another courtyard, you reach a row of toilet sheds. The doors were replaced long ago by curtains and a seat would be an incredible luxury. You have to scoop up the water to flush the toilet with a bucket from a tank whose content is so muddy and dirty that you want to avoid as much skin contact as possible. A good thing about the darkness is that you don't see much! There are more toilets on the grounds, all somewhere hidden in the darkness, but Doņa Roberta insists on showing them all to us. There are also two showers but at the thought of the sludgy water we say thank you but no way. When we get to negotiate the price, Doņa Roberta causes another surprise. Without batting an eye she asks for 250 pesos per room. This is a price you normally pay in a city for a decent room with TV, shower and toilet in the room. After a tough back and forth we finally get her down to 200 pesos per room. We don't have another choice, and she knows it perfectly well, because the next decent hotel is still almost 150 kms (93 miles) away. Kindly, and all businesswoman, Doņa Roberta offers us a few quesadillas that she quickly prepares with the help of her daughter. Somewhere her strange husband roams about and really gets on our nerves. To be able to sleep as best as possible we down a few tequilas after dinner. Then we visit Doņa Roberta's small craft shop. To reach the room where she has her little shop we have to cross the master bedroom where the old man lies in bed on his back like a dead beetle with all fours up into the air. Memories of Kafka rise up. Admittedly, the Huichol craft work is beautiful but besides being completely dusty and dirty, our hostess wants to rip us off again. Back in our rooms we go to bed in our dusty and dirty clothes and sprayed with insect repellent.

After a short and disturbed night we get up very early, before dawn. Doņa Roberta has already heard us moving and shuffles around in the courtyard, probably making sure that we don't purloin any valuables from the rooms, a thought that makes us laugh. We are the first car on the road towards Estacion Ruiz. Shortly outside of Jesus Maria hope for pavement arises, prematurely, as we soon see. It's only a short stretch of road which is under construction. In only 25 kms (15.5 miles) the road spirals upwards to 1460m (4790 feet). Soon the first rays of the sun crawl over the mountains and warm our tortured bones. In the cliffs along the road we discover Agave ornithobroma. Then we reach Mesa del Nayar where we optimists look for a breakfast place. Incredibly, there exists a nice and amazingly clean restaurant where the view out the window looks over the breathtaking mountain scenery. Huichol music plays from a radio. A young woman serves us fast and friendly and the breakfast is excellent. They even have real coffee and mother Lotti is excited about the beautiful molcajete, a stone mortar, in which the spicy salsa is prepared and served. Astonishingly enough, other guests arrive. The two men drive a small delivery truck and tell us that we still have some 150 kms (93 miles) of dirt road in front of us. Of course, this fact cheers us up, and is completely exaggerated too. The road goes up and up again until we reach the antennas of La Cofradia at 1740m (5700 feet). Finally we can imagine the Pacific ocean somewhere on the horizon. The infinite view over blue mountain ranges is breathtaking. The road now leads along some vertical cliffs where Agave pedunculifera grows like blue stars. Shortly after we pass an area with huge rock slabs where Agave ornithobroma again grows in crevices with almost no dirt. Further down we see Pilosocereus with white wool, orchids growing in trees and a Hylocereus which is overgrowing rocks and trees. A team of road construction engineers with their measuring instruments pass us by. Apparently there's road work going on somewhere below us and in a few decades this stretch of road will be paved too. Of course, the place will then lose some of its backwoods attitude and loneliness. But for now we bump on along the dusty road until we finally reach a huge construction site where we have to wait. Enormous machinery moves the earth by the ton and a young man signals that it will probably take an hour until the traffic can roll again. Fortunately a vehicle with some engineers soon roars up. These people obviously have the right of way. For a short time we can chat with one of them. The man from Mexico City explains that his company is building this stretch of the mammoth project. At the end of the year the few kilometers should be finished. Sounds like we were not that wrong with our estimate that the completion of the entire route will take another few decades. The construction machines excavate a lane for the few cars and we avoid a long wait in the burning sun.

Soon we reach a small settlement where one can buy gasoline and diesel for a lot of money. Here, the road forks. The old road snakes along for thousands of more curves but we take the new dirt road that is wide and beautiful to drive. An isolated rock tower attracts our attention and with the binoculars we can spot some agaves growing on the cliff. Lotti and Maggie wait in the shade of a large fig tree while we clear our way through the thick jungle. When we reach the lowest rocks we can see that the agave is A. impressa, a species that we have only seen further north around Escuinapa, Sinaloa. After a few more kilometers on this beautiful new road we come to a detour. We seem to be back on the old road and again have to move slowly. At least we're better off than the driver of a broken down pickup truck who asks us helplessly what he should do now. The road leads up and down and up and down the hills, passes small villages and interesting cliffs along a river until we reach another settlement where the road probably is in its worst condition. Here there is a big confusion but finally we find our way through the river and up the other side where we already see the tempting new road. But exactly at this intersection a car is parked. Its drivers have decided to repair their broken down car at this strategic intersection. One lies under the car and the other is busy staring into the engine block. It's quite impossible to pass this vehicle. Fortunately a big truck approaches behind us and has absolutely no chance of squeezing past the other car. The mechanics finally are convinced that their choice of a place for repairs was not the brightest idea and with combined strength the two pseudo-mechanics, Maggie and Martin, and the fat driver of the big truck behind us push the wreck the few meters up to the new road. From now on the road is mostly straight and compared to what we had before, almost like an autobahn. Soon we reach the pavement and then Estacion Ruiz where the first thing we do is buy something cold to drink. Santiago Ixcuintla is not far away. Just a couple of weeks ago a new hotel opened on the main square and we get spacious rooms, enjoy a long, hot shower, and feel like real humans again.

In a small restaurant we feast on grilled meat and chorizo. Beans, roasted chiles and green onions accompany our delicious meal. Some cold Negra Modelo beers are a must too. It's an excellent dinner to end an adventurous trip over the Sierra de los Huicholes. We are grateful that our car didn't fail us. A breakdown along this road could only have been a vision from hell.

February 2008

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen