travelog 89

The 'Gas Passing Herd' in the Sierra Huicholes

Our trip into the Sierra Huichole starts in a roundabout way. First we are asked by a friend if we know a certain road south of Durango. We refer him to another friend who can't help either. Now our interest has been awakened and we start studying maps. Soon plans are hatched and we want to join the group of Dutch to make the drive from Huejuquilla (Jalisco) through Jesus Maria (Nayarit) to Mezquital (Durango). All is well until shortly before our departure we are advised that the Dutch were unable to rent a 4x4 but only a large van and we truly doubt that it will be possible for them to manage the above-mentioned drive - a fact that will be demonstrated later. In the end our group consists of W. A. Fitz Maurice, Fitz in short, a man who is known to the reader from previous travelogs, and Jean-Marc Chalet, an Echinocereus aficionado who is accompanied by Manuel Sotomayor from Guadalajara. We shall meet the Dutch in Huejuquilla but not join them on the trip.

We set off in two cars, Jean-Marc’s Tracker and Fitz’s Jeep, that are filled to the top with coolers, tents, sleeping bags, groceries, camera equipment, hiking boots, and everything else one desperately needs on an expedition into unexplored areas. In Teul de Gonzalez we turn off onto dirt roads to avoid the long drive on a paved road to San Martin de Bolaños. The locals tell us that there's a passable connection. First we drive through beautiful oak forests but there are not too many interesting plants along the road. At a low cliff and mossy rocks we all look for small Mammillarias with hooked spines, Series Stylothelae, plants that are of special interest to Fitz. We find good specimens of Mammillaria mercadensis. There's also Agave maximiliana and a small orchid, but everything is very dry right now. Soon we reach the edge of a broad and deep valley and the road drops in curves from 2300m (7550 feet) more than 1000m (3280 feet) to the valley floor. From pleasant mountain air we go down into a hot oven. From the airy oak forest with Stylothelae and Orchids we come down into the stale air of a tropical deciduous forest with Mammillaria scrippsiana and columnar cacti. The only hotel in San Martin de Bolaños has the most basic of rooms, but at least they all have a ceiling fan. Around the corner we find a restaurant where we're served grilled chicken with pasta salad, but when the owners realize that we love Mexican cuisine, they bring out beans, local cheese and hot salsa. In honor of Fitz' 85th birthday, Jean-Marc opens a bottle of champagne. It's a perfect end for the day.

From San Martin de Bolaños we drive on towards Tuxpán de Bolaños. From far away we can see two antennas on top of rocky peaks and to our surprise we are exactly on the road that goes towards these antennas. Again we go up more than 1000m in curves. There's a small dirt road going to the first of the microondas. The view back down to the broad valley of Bolaños is breathtaking. We discover Agave rzedowskiana in the cliffs and in shadier places also Graptopetalum amethystinum, two species we have expected to see up here. We looked for a road to the second antenna but we soon find out that there was none and that we would have to make good climb before we could reach it. We pass. Mossy rocks attract our interest in the coniferous forest but we "only" find Mammillaria senilis. One plant has 18 open bright red flowers and makes for some great pictures. Back down in Bolaños we find out that Manuel will have to leave us the next day with the first bus back to Guadalajara at 6AM because of an emergency in the family.

The plan for the next day is to drive through Tenzompa and on to Huejuquilla. Jean-Marc had conscientiously studied all the maps on the Internet and made many copies. Of course he also checked all the roads on Google Earth and he assures us that everything looks great. Up to the turn-off to Tuxpán de Bolaños we already know the road from the previous day. Then the road is passable for a short while until it turns into one dusty, rocky, bad mess. One can see that there was work done to make the road wider and better, but in the middle of the work everything was dropped. Now we remember an article in the newspaper mentioning this road. The Huicholes, owners of the land, forbid finishing the work because they thought that their rights were being ignored and that nature conservation laws were not being met. Instead of a nice dirt road they're worse off than before. Where the new road is impassable a machine cleared a path through the forest, snaking around trees. Then it's back to the new road where you need enough distance to the other car or you will suffocate in a cloud of dust. Even with enough distance the cloud is so thick that visibility is sometimes only a few feet. As if we are on a roller coaster we roll and lurch through the ultra-fine, thick dust. At a junction where gas is sold from plastic containers, we ask for the condition of the road to Tenzompa. The man tells us that it goes on like before and we spontaneously decide for the other road to Mezquitic which should be a lot better. Of course now everybody takes this one and it too is in an unfortunate state. At least we find a nice picnic spot away from the dust where we enjoy tasty cheese and a bottle of red wine. After lunch everybody is in better spirits and the mood is really cheerful. Along the way we find more Mammillaria senilis growing on exposed mossy rocks and cliffs. Due to its bright red flowers the plants are visible from far away. At the only really interesting cliff we find, as expected, Graptopetalum amethystinum, the omnipresent Agave bulliana, a tiny orchid and Mammillaria jaliscana, a species Fitz synonimizes with M. mercadensis. In Mezquitic we reach the long-awaited gas station and the paved road and get to Huejuquilla in less than no time. Our favorite restaurant with the delicious "Gorditas" has closed its doors forever. In other places the common menu is "Quesadillas" with beans, a dish especially liked by the men in our group. The latter part of the menu always produces a true concert the next day.

As is well known, the highly regarded beans are not digested equally well by everyone. Fitz unscrupulously gives free rein to his gases. It even pleases him when he can surprise other people with his sounds (although made from a substantial distance as courtesy dictates). As soon as Jean-Marc and Martin realize that they are in good company, they don't restrain themselves anymore. They all step on frogs. That's how the guys call it. In plain English you'd call it passing gas or more crudely, farting. Fittingly we have chosen the poetic title "The Gas Passing Herd" for this travelog.

We spend the next day around Huejuquilla. Along dusty roads we explore the surroundings, discovering more localities for Echinocactus grusonii. With the help of Jean-Marc's Tracker we have to rescue Fitz' Jeep from a sandy river bed where it got stuck during a turning around maneuver. A little later we hear a strange, screeching noise from the Jeep's left front tire. There's nothing to see but the worrying sound doesn't stop. It must come from the brake discs. Break problems far away from any garage is what we needed out here! The only thing we can do is jack the car up and take the wheel off. To our relief it's only a small pebble caught between the brake pad and the disc. This is fixed very quickly. Now the car sounds happy and normal again and we can drive on with our minds set at ease. When we come back to Huejuquilla, the Dutch have already arrived at the hotel. The restaurant from last night is closed and we try a Mexican fastfood joint with hamburgers, hot dogs, "quesadillas" and "sincronizadas", but tonight it serves only vegetarian food since it's Ash Wednesday and Lent begins. In Jalisco, probably the most catholic state in all of Mexico, this is observed rigorously. That means more food for frog stepping concerts.

We leave early for Jesus Maria to have enough time for the long trip. We stop at the viewpoint above San Juan Capistrano to enjoy the vista. A Huichol family obviously spent the night up here honoring their gods. We smell the "incenso" up to the road. The road is now paved just past Canoas. We don't find more than Mammillaria senilis and M. decipiens. In February 2008 the dirt road past Canoas was a dusty and rocky adventure, but now extensive work has been done all the way to the turn-off to San Andres Cohamiata. It's a very easy and fast drive. Mossy rocks in oak and conifer forests are always tempting for short stops, but we can't find anything else than Mammillaria berkiana (Fitz synonymizes with M. mercadensis), unfortunately without flowers. Soon we leave the cool oak forests and come down into more tropical areas. A working air conditioner is a great thing as the outside air is as hot as in an oven. The road stretches on and on. We see a river far below us and small villages, but it's never Jesus Maria, today's destination. At La Guerra we cross the river on a nice bridge where we can push the pedal to the metal for a short time. Again far above the river, round river rocks are visible in the road embankment, a sign that the river cut its way through this place over millions of years. Finally we pass the airport of Jesus Maria. A sign identifies it just in case you'd drive by without noticing it, because this airport is nothing more than a grassy landing strip and an uncomfortable bench in the shade of a Mezquite tree, what serves as a waiting lounge. Then we finally reach the village where the only hotel in the place is still not signed out.

To reach the shady patio you must clear your way through second-hand refrigerators and fans. Then you'll get to the open kitchen and some tables and chairs in the patio. Doña Roberta doesn't remember us but this time she asks for considerably less money than last time around. 100 Pesos (about $7) per person for a tiny room with two narrow beds and worn-out mattresses, a picture of Pope John Paul II and the Virgin of Guadalupe on the wall, a fan and a kitschy rack is still a lot of money. Particularly because you reach the toilets without doors and flushed by the user with a bucket and positioned over a few unlit stairs. The showers we last time eyed only from far away will certainly be used this time, especially after Doña Roberta cleans them quickly just for us. There's no hot water, though, but with an air temperature of 38° Celsius (100.4 Fahrenheit) the luke-warm water is just perfect. Then we down some cold beer although it's forbidden according to the hand-written hotel rules on the wall. At nightfall, toads crawl and hop from their hiding places. Leafcutter ants start their nightly work and transport the pink flowers of a Bougainvillea to the nest. A scorpion lies in wait for insect prey on a flower pot. Doña Roberta prepares a few "Quesadillas" and the usual beans. Then she insists that we visit her little store with local craftwork. We can see it for free, without any obligation to buy her things. During Easter she charges a fee to tourists, she tells us, because they normally touch everything and don't buy anything. Our excuse that we already know her store doesn't count. When she finally realizes that we don't want to buy her dusty things, she starts begging us for support. She says that her husband fell and is now not right in his head anymore. Besides, his medicine is really expensive, so she really needed our help. Later, in a store on the main plaza, the owner tells us more stories. A few nights ago, on the bus to Tepic, they were robbed by some Huicholes. She explains that the Huicholes are fundamentally bad people because they believe in devilish things. We should be very careful when driving through their territory. The Cora on the other hand, a tribe living between Jesus Maria and Mesa del Nayar, are good people without exception because they believe in God. Around Llano Grande we'd reach the Tepehuanes tribe, she warns. These were even worse than the Huicholes. It sounds like the huge red sign over the road near Canoas, has something going for it where travelers are warned that beyond that point they were traveling on their own responsibility. It probably didn't refer to the bad roads but the uncertainty of whom you might meet.

Our real adventure off the beaten path starts today. From Jesus Maria we drive through San Juan Peyotan and on to Santa Maria Huazamota. At the beginning the road is incredibly bad but after we pass a bus we assume it can't get much worse. Near Huazamota a military Hummer races past us. It will be the only military vehicle we see on this entire trip. Huazamota lies in a beautiful river valley. From a huge round rock we enjoy the view. The landscape is mostly yellow and brown, everything is dry. Small farms line the river. They're fenced in with walls of round river rocks. Little storage huts with thin branches as walls balance on wooden posts. Everything looks impeccably clean and tidy. A fat iguana basks in the sun. The Indians in the small villages, Huicholes, Coras and Tepehuanes, all wear colorful clothes and observe us curiously. Work is done on the road and hope rises. But not for long as we soon see where the road climbs up the mountain. At least this gives hope for cooler temperatures. We start the arduous way up into the mountains. It needs a lot of fitness to drive, to always find the best way over large rocks, through washed-out gullies, and over obstacles hidden under the dust. And from time to time enough momentum to make it up the steepest parts. We will be eternally thankful to the Jeep that it showed on its intelligent dashboard when the tires didn't have enough traction, as if we didn't realize on our own that the car was skidding. An interesting agave, something between A. nayaritensis and A. maximiliana, populates the steep mountain sides. Above Picachos we get a spectacular view back over the valley of Huazamota from where we were coming from. Our eyes roam over endless rolling, blue mountains getting lost in haze at the horizon. Up here people are working on a new road again. We find a small steeply descending dirt road, a dead-end, that leads to a perfect camp spot between pine trees. We put up the tents, inflate the air mattresses, and put up table and chairs. It's quite incredible how much stuff Jean-Marc magically gets out of his small car. Due to the dryness we have to do without a campfire. It looks like every little piece of embers, carried away by the wind, could trigger a forest fire. We end a strenuous day with cheese and crackers, red wine out of plastic cups and Mezcal. The crescent moon and Venus, glued to the lower end of the crescent, shine brightly from the reddish evening sky. When night falls we all quickly disappear into our tents. The night is not that peaceful, though. There's much noise from Fitz' tent. His air mattress is empty and he changes to a foam rubber mattress. It's not much different with us. Our tent is on a flat rock which starts to push against our ribs. With a flash light we search for the pump in Jean-Marc's car and inflate the mattress again. But in the early morning hours we lie again on the hard ground.

On a small Mexican stove water is heated for coffee. Everything we have put up yesterday has to be put away today. Back on the road we soon reach Llano Grande and then La Candelaria where we feed the almost empty tank with some gas from containers. Immediately we're surrounded by curious children. They have never seen such fair-skinned people. And of course never a digital camera where one can see one's own picture on a small screen. From Candelaria to Mezquital, locals assure us, it's only a two-hour drive. That might be realistic with a small airplane but for sure not with a car, as we later find out. We fell for the Mexican trap again. People want to see you happy and content so they rather tell you it takes two than the more realistic five hours. Past Candelaria the road again drops down into a deep gorge with interesting looking cliffs. We pass Agave vilmoriniana but when we finally reach the bridge the sun burns relentlessly, the cliffs are far away and we can't spot more than a few Pilosocereus alensis with our binoculars. Now the road leads along a beautiful river with many shady trees. We stop to take pictures of the bright pink flowers of Echinocereus pamanesiorum. There's more road work past San Miguel de Temohaya. This always means dust and re-routing onto almost impassable tracks. Agave durangensis accompanies us for a long time. Then we get up to 2500m (8200 feet) and see red flowering Echinocereus polycephalus far above the road. Agave parryi populates this area. Behind the next mountain pass we can finally see down into the valley of Mezquital and soon reach the long-awaited gas station. Just next door a nice guy helps us clean the vehicles from the worst dust. Near the main plaza we find a no-name hotel where the Dutch have already taken up rooms. We can assure them over dinner that their van would never, in a lifetime, have been able to get from Jesus Maria over the mountains to Mezquital. For 50 Pesos per person you get a Spartan room with two beds and a white plastic chair. The shower and toilet are shared with the other hotel guests.

The next morning we drive south towards Margaritas. Many years ago we have been through here with our Unimog and have found a variegated Agave durangensis under a bush. Quite incredibly we find the same plant again after all these years! It has flowered but we can still see the variegation on the leaves. Further up the mountain we stop for Echeveria secunda and also find flowering Mammillaria longiflora and Echinocereus acifer. Soon we reach the turn-off to Los Charcos del Aserradero. The graded road is good and seems to be used a lot. A many-flowered solitary Mammillaria longiflora on a rock glows in the afternoon sun. The pleasure of a decent road doesn't last long and soon we start the search for a suitable camp spot. By pure luck we again find a small road leading to a clearing where we can easily put up three tents Under an incredible starry sky we enjoy the usual cheese with crackers and fruits. A Mezcal is good for digestion and against the beginning cold of the night. When Jean-Marc crawls into his tent, his air mattress is almost empty but he's too tired to do something about it. By now we have experience and we're a lot faster than the other night. Fitz doesn't even try his air mattress. We read the instructions on ours and find out that we did something wrong the last time. We follow the instructions religiously and the next morning wake up on a perfectly inflated air mattress.

At 2800m altitude (9200 feet) we wake up to cold 11° Celsius (51.8 Fahrenheit) and have to put on every down jacket we have brought along. The small fire in the Mexican street oven only heats the water for tea and coffee. We're waiting impatiently for the first warming rays of the sun. Just as we had experience putting up camp we're fast taking it down and stowing everything in the cars. We continue to rumble along south and reach Aserradero Los Charcos where we turn onto a much smaller and less traveled road. This one should be a lot better than the one we came in on, the locals tell us, but by now we don't have much faith in such statements anymore. The only plants we see are Mammillaria senilis, a beautiful plant with its attractive red flowers, but by now we consider it a weed, and Echinocereus acifer. We pass many small ranches and settlements where people look at us curiously. Tourists don't seem to be a common sight around here, a fact that is not surprising considering the rough roads. When we finally reach the pavement near Canoas after many hours on rocky and washed-out roads we almost can't believe it. It's as though we have never been on such a smooth surface. A quick drive brings us down into the valley where we visit a locality for Mammillaria roemeri. It's the culmination of the trip for Fitz (he synonymizes it with Mammillaria lasiacantha).. It takes a while until our eyes get accustomed to the ground but after we spot the first almost completely drawn-back plants looking like tiny white hairy buttons, we stumble over many more plants. It's too hot to linger around too long and we drive back to Huejuquilla. The panorama near the famous yellow bridge over the wide valley of the Rio Atengo is bathed in the soft evening light. The sun bathes the mesas that remind us of Monument Valley into its last light while the river already melts into the twilight.

In the hotel in Huejuquilla we enjoy a well-deserved shower before we toast to a successful trip with ice-cold beers in the restaurant around the corner. Without serious problems the two vehicles have carried us over all the mountains. Past every curve and on every pass we have enjoyed spectacular views of beautiful landscapes. Only the plants were a bit disappointing. The area was not very interesting for succulent plant lovers. We had hoped to see something new.

March - April 2009