travelog 87

Tour through the Barrancas of Eastern Mexico

How does the saying go? The best pleasure is in seeing well-known places again, and that's why we visit the deep canyons and high mountains of Guanajuato, Queretaro and Hidalgo again. To bring a little change into this year's tour we travel in the middle of the rainy season. This year one can call it the rainy season with justification because it really never stops raining, a fact that can change road conditions dramatically from one day to the next. On many occasions the question is asked if it is possible to get onto firm terrain before the next downpour and every afternoon we check the ground before parking for the night. On the other hand, the amounts of water transform the landscape into a sea of green hills and mountains. Alpine flowers, Mexican ones, are blooming high up in the mountains, and rivers through gorges carry so much water that roads, drivable during the dry season with no problem, become impassable for months at a time.

First we visit the Cerro Zamorano, a 3300m (10'830 feet) high mountain visible from far away. You reach it after a 40km (25 miles) trip on a good but bumpy cobblestone road. Pachyphytum compactum and many flowering Echeveria bifida, in this area almost a weed, can be seen along the road. At every village we have to ask about the road to the top because there are many small roads branching off to other hamlets. Finally, we go through a red gate, pass blooming Agave applanata whose steel-blue color is shown to its best advantage in the green grass, and then come to a canyon covered with dense vegetation. There seems to be no way through. Farmers tell us that we're still ok and that the road climbs up almost to the top of the mountain in this same canyon. There were only two narrow curves, they say, but our camionzote would surely have no problems at all. To be on the safe side, we walk a first part of the road because we don't feel like cutting down half the forest with no chance of turning around once in the canyon. As we see antennas of a TV station way on top of the mountain we assume that there must have been other large trucks getting up and the trees are actually cut back so that we don't have a problem at all. The only two narrow curves turn out to be a total of 10 curves and the turning radius of the Unimog is not enough in more than two of them to get around in one turn - but driving up is always easier than walking up. Almost at the top there's a beautiful parking spot where people have camped before us. We have to walk the last meters to the locked gate and climb a little to get over the fence, but then it's easy to climb the steel stairs up to the antennas and some buildings. Of course a watchman's living here but he's used to curious visitors. Almost all such installations in Mexico are now guarded because if not, everything that's not nailed and screwed down, is stolen. Copper is particularly popular. But robbers also take cables, remove antennas, even whole masts are dismantled to be sold for a few bucks as scrap metal. We climb around the cliffs and soon find red-orange flowering Echeveria secunda, preferably growing in crevices of rock walls. The view far out into the land below us, where thunder-clouds are already approaching, is breathtaking.

Next we want to drive from Toliman on to San Miguel Palmas. According to our INEGI map there are two roads going north from Toliman but of course only one has a signpost. We pass small villages and are sure to be on the right road. Far below us lies a beautiful river valley with small ranches and green fields. The dirt road looks more or less well-traveled but soon we're not so sure anymore because the tracks disappear and weeds and small bushes grow between the rocks on the road. Washed out parts follow, then we reach a junction where we get down to the river and a settlement. Fortunately it's no problem to ford the river as the bridge is only for pedestrians. At the last house we ask about the road to San Miguel Palmas and find out that we have been on a road that is marked as nothing more than a cow track on the INEGI map. Our reward for driving the bad road is an opportunity to take great pictures of Fouquieria splendens covered with green leaves and Isolatocereus dumortieri with yellow spines, glowing in the back-lighting. After just a few more kilometers we reach the real road, newly paved. In the vicinity of a Rancho that we don't notice until later, we find a perfect place to spend the night with views onto thunder-clouds already clinging to the mountains. To celebrate our wedding anniversary the weather takes pity on us. We barbecue Arrachera, flank steak, and vegetables. To pay tribute to the day we open a bottle of champagne. Later we even receive a visit from the village. A young woman and her two sons come to chat for a while but in truth she wants to sell us some crocheted table-cloths.

Now we drive on towards Xichu. We knew the old road when it still was a dirt road with tunnels carved out of the rock and waterfalls, but now, modernization too has reached this isolated corner of Guanajuato and there's a new paved road. From 2000m (6560 feet) it leads down into the valley to Xichu at an altitude of 1000m (3280 feet). Of course the road is made la Mexicana and is already starting to fall apart in many places. From time to time we catch a glimpse onto the old road below us, we can even spot one of the famous tunnels, but most of it was filled in with the construction of the new road. Half of mountain slopes have been scraped off and now the rock loosens with all the rain, boulders crash onto the road, entire mountains slide down and bury the beautiful pavement. Repairs have been done in many places and as a consequence the remaining road consists of only 1 1/2 lanes because the rest was used for building supporting and protective walls. It's hot and humid in Xichu. A little bit outside of town we find a place along the river near an old mine with interesting rocks for collectors. Echeveria xichuensis and Turbinicarpus alonsoi grow in the canyons near Xichu. Of the latter we found only a few specimens near the road on our last trip and thus are positively surprised to see that the population is slowly recovering with some big plants growing close to the mouth of the canyon. The road now leads along the river towards Guamuchil. To our right we are accompanied by vertical cliffs, to our left and below us flows the river, and at the other side of the river the cliffs rise straight up into the sky. The gray limestone cliffs are densely covered with Agave xylonacantha, hechtias and cacti. Everything is green and impenetrable. An inconspicuous track leads down to the river where we can park PocoLoco almost in the shade of a tree. A swim in the river in this spectacular canyon country cools and refreshes. In Guamuchil one does not have to ford the river anymore but drives over the new beautiful stone bridge. Then the road climbs up again and goes up and up and still up some more. We take pictures of a yellow flowering Astrophytum ornatum in a cliff but not a sign of Echeveria bifida that we photographed here last time. At the following cliffs we look for Beaucarnea compacta which is beginning to flower. Here we meet like-minded people; Miguel Lugo and it turns out that we have a mutual friend in San Luis Potosi. Miguel recognized our unusual truck immediately from our website. He's looking for plants over the weekend with two other friends. After we finally reach something like a pass, we find a flat space for camping tonight. The temperature in the Unimog is oppressively hot so we take the chairs out and use the stairs as a table out of sheer laziness. Outside we soon have to put on a jacket as there's a cold breeze coming up at again almost 2200m (7220 feet). The thunder-clouds are approaching fast too. Fireflies are dancing through the darkness and we can see summer lightning in the distance. At night we enjoy Mother Nature's, not Mozart's, Kleine Nachtmusik which turns out to be very loud.

All the altitude we gained we have to drive down again the next day. We only meet one other car and the important looking driver with walkie talkie wants to know if we are lost. Not 15 minutes later we have the police behind us with wails of sirens and flashing lights. They apparently mean us. Quite unfriendly, they first inquire about the who, where from, where to, and why. Then they take down our particulars and after consulting the central office the only thing that's left to do is search our truck. When they don't find any weapons or drugs, the three police men thaw a little bit. We get into talking but they don't want, or can't, give away if it really was that pompous a__ we met earlier who reported us. Nonetheless we're pretty convinced about it. They say that all the checks are only for our own safety and protection. People here are suspicious of unusual vehicles and call the police, they explain. Considering the daily headlines and graphic pictures in newspapers and on television it's no wonder that people fear kidnappers and the drug mafia behind everything - even behind a Unimog truck called PocoLoco painted with flowers. On the other hand it's not that pleasant anymore for ordinary people like us to be stopped by the police. You never know if it's really the decent police or if it's the bad guys with bought uniforms and identifications.

We drive on towards San Joaquin. Near El Doctor we visit our locality for Echeveria halbingeri var. halbingeri far above the road in the cliffs. Here we stumble over a very strange creature which looks like a cross between scorpion, spider, and cockroach. It's a Mastigoproctus giganteus, a Giant Whip scorpion or vinegaroon. If it feels threatened it can spray a liquid from its whip on the tail that smells like vinegar. We're here because a friend mentioned a locality in these mountains for Agave montana. The only thing we would have to do, he said, was look and aim for the highest peak to find the plants. This can be pretty difficult during the rainy season because the high peaks are mostly covered in clouds and fog. Local people point us to a road that climbs up into the mountains past flowering Echeveria secunda. Instinctively we always take the right fork and finally end at a strange looking rock that we instantly recognize as the piece of modern art our friend described. The last few meters we drive up on a rocky road to various quarries where we finally catch sight of the highest peak between the clouds. There's a perfect parking and camping spot for our truck, shrouded in mist floating up over the mountain top from the deep canyons below. We shoulder the backpacks and climb up to the top through large limestone boulders. The mountain slope is densely covered with the largest Agave salmiana we have ever seen in our lives and with a tree-like Nolina that resembles Nolina parviflora. We see only a few specimens of Agave montana, always growing in cracks of rocks on top of boulders. Reaching the top we are greeted by more swathes of mist on the other side. This seems exactly the climate that Agave montana likes as the entire mountain slope is overgrown with plants. Old inflorescences are all cut-off, it obviously is good cattle feed. While climbing around we stumble over two small rattlesnakes warming up in the sun. One instantly disappears into its hole but the other one doesn't mind our taking pictures at all. At 3100m (10,170 feet) altitude it is pretty cold. Then there are gusts of wind and fog drifting up from the canyons that block our view most of the time. At night there's a good thunderstorm going down on us and some lightning strikes pretty close.

We follow this road to Chavarrias and then reach another newly paved road. Paving-mania seems to have broken loose all over Mexico. Instead of building and paving important roads really well, they want to pave as many roads as possible. With an asphalt surface of a couple of inches, these roads never last long. As soon as we reach the next big highway we turn onto another small road that leads along a reservoir to Zimapan. The most impressive part of this road leads through some long and unlit tunnels and over the dam that holds back the Rio Moctezuma at its narrowest place. Unfortunately it's forbidden to stop and take pictures for fear of terrorist attacks. As always, we visit the small local market in Zimapan where right now a wide variety of chilies is available, but also lots of vegetables and zucchini flowers in abundance. Outside of Zimapan, already along the road to the Barranca Toliman, we find a place far above the deep canyons. We are already accustomed to the nightly thunderstorms and downpours. Sitting in the dry and cozy truck, watching the lightning and fireflies, and listening to the rain pelting on our roof are by now one of our favorite evening entertainments.

The drive down into the Barranca Toliman is well one of the most spectacular roads we have ever driven in PocoLoco. On our earlier visits with friends we always rode in their cars and even then the tunnel seems to be very low and the road extremely narrow. But doing the same thing in a truck, everything looks even steeper, lower, and narrower. Then there are the other trucks, transporting material from the mines. Along the first part of the road we're almost alone and the tunnel too turns out to be a lot higher than what we remembered. We take pictures of the first stands of Yucca queretaroensis, one of the most beautiful species of the genus. Shortly after the tunnel we get to a mine entrance. It turns out that this is another tunnel into which the fully loaded trucks disappear to reappear somewhere higher up on the other side of the mountain where they deliver the ore. No wonder we didn't meet any oncoming traffic! Now we can also see the heavily loaded trucks crawling up the side of the mountain like ants. The one driving up has the right of way. We're surprised that they remind us of this as it is a globally valid traffic regulation. But here nobody knows about it because something like a driving school is (still) almost unheard of. We carefully watch the mirrors in the tight curves to see oncoming traffic soon enough. We're lucky and get past the vertical cliffs and through the narrowest parts of the road without problems. Now we take a break at the first switchback. Some crazy engineers have scraped a road with many switchbacks into an almost vertical cliff. This place is ideal for taking pictures. Besides, we can also see exactly when there are no more trucks climbing up from below. After a while we catch a break in the mining traffic and start our way down the last few meters. PocoLoco is only a little too big for some of the switchbacks but we finally arrive at the bottom of this magnificent canyon. The fording of the river, where they had to pull out a car shortly before we came, is no problem for us.

Instantly, we're surrounded by curious mine workers who want to know everything about our truck and our trip. Some hopeless optimists even think we could drive down the canyon, but after a quick look at the washed-away entrance we postpone this project to the dry season. Normally, the mine works in three shifts day and night but tonight's thunderstorm left the river swollen and the trucks couldn't cross it anymore. Work was resumed in the morning. Other mines downriver are now only reachable by foot. We walk along the canyon upriver but soon we have to take off our shoes and then the water is too deep, even for rubber boots. Further into the canyon we see an interesting narrow passage but have to postpone this to the dry season too. We don't want to be surprised, and stuck, by another heavy downpour down in this canyon and start our ascent. Now we have the right of way. That's very convenient and results in some great photos when there are suddenly a few empty trucks oncoming. The drivers are mostly young fearless guys, not at all losing their nerve when they have to make way for PocoLoco or even have to back up for a long distance to find a pullout. We spend the night near a small village. And sure enough we receive a visit from the police after night falls. It's the completely unknown, at least to us, Policia Industrial y Bancaria de Hidalgo that wants our personal details. We promise faithfully that we will search for the Encargado, the village chief, at once next time we are in the same situation to avoid misunderstandings. Incredibly, our PocoLoco was reported as a stolen and abandoned money transporter! After the police now promise that everything is in order, they drive back to Zimapan. 20 minutes later the next ones, the Policia Municipal, stand outside our door. They met the others on the road, they say, but obviously they too have to write a report and need our personal details. The rest of the night is quiet, apart from the pelting rain on our roof.

From Zimapan we now drive through Ixmiquilpan towards Tolantongo. We don't drive down into the Barranca Tolantongo but turn-off to San Pablo Tetlapayac. After a pass the road snakes down into breathtaking canyon country. Above the not distant mountains the next storm is brewing and we can already see lightning. Along the road we take pictures of Fouquieria fasciculata, one of the rarer species which develops curiously swollen trunks with age. There's also Turbinicarpus horripilus but unfortunately not in bloom. The thunderstorm comes down on us but soon after the sun blinks through the clouds again. At the bottom of the canyon lies San Pablo Tetlapayac, a town with the biggest variety of Plumeria flower colors we have ever seen. Outside the village we cross the bridge over the Rio [[[[XXX]]]], a broad raging river of brown water. Then the road snakes up the mountain again. In Metznoxtla we have already reached the highest point. Fences and walls are alive in this settlement. Villagers have cut Stenocereus marginatus in long pieces and planted them next to each other as a natural fence. Next we glimpse the first spectacular views into the Barranca de Metztitlan, an area declared a biosphere reserve in 2000. It's not a canyon as we understand the word but rather a broad valley. The valley bottom is extremely fertile and farmed all year long. Steep, almost vertical cliffs limit the valley on both sides. They're covered with the famous Senitas, Cephalocereus senilis, and many more cacti and other succulents. As we already know the common road out of the Barranca de Metztitlan, we want to try another. People in a small store advise against it because of all the rains and the possibility that the water might have destroyed parts of the road. Of course we want to find out anyway and drive through the valley floor towards the mountains. The road through the fertile fields is slippery and muddy because of all the water, but as soon as we reach the mountains, we're on firm, rocky ground. The other two informants we ask about the road condition say that it's not a problem at all and that everything last night's rain destroyed was already fixed. The natural setting and the plants along this route are not as beautiful as along the paved road, but here we're almost alone and that's worth a lot.

Now it's time to patiently wait for the end of the rainy season and let the rivers dry out. Then we can set out for our next tour through the marvelous canyons of Hidalgo. As was not expected otherwise, our list of projects, interesting places and exciting plants has not become shorter. Besides other things we have in mind for the next trip, we really want to visit the mines near Zimapan and drive deep down into the mountain in one of the mining trucks.

August - September 2008

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen