travelog 92

Hands Up!

Want to escape Guadalajara, a city with well over many million inhabitants? No problem! Just take one of the seven big main roads leading out of the city and you can either visit Lake Chapala, the Colima volcano, the "Altos de Jalisco' with their pretty villages and huge Tequila fields, "Pueblos Magicos" like Tapalpa, Mascota or Tequila, or last but not least, the craggy canyon landscape of the Rio Santiago north of the city.

We decide on the road to Zacatecas. Past cancerous-like growing urban developments where houses look more like chicken cages and you can't even distinguish your own from your neighbors when you're sober, we're leaving the city. Further outside, housing complexes for the growing middle class are being built. The houses are a little bigger, green spaces are more important, but they're still monotonous. You're lost without your own car out here. No schools, no grocery stores for many miles. Then we pass a cemetary with view and three monstrous red stone crosses. Last resting places are still available if you call a certain phone number. Then the first cliffs tower above the road. As soon as you reach the descent into the valley of the Rio Santiago, you'll sniff surprised. Up to this altitude you'll smell the penetrating sewer stench of all the black water that the city of Guadalajara scrupulously releases into the poor river.

Soon we reach the turn-off to Huaxtla where we drive a little bit down into the gorge on a narrow road. Our goal is Dioon tomasellii. After a short search we make a find. The population consists of many old plants growing in the shade of oak trees. We also take pictures of beautiful Agave guadalajarana and pink flowering Mammillaria jaliscana.

Back on the highway we drive on towards Zacatecas. The road drops down into the valley and the sewer stench increases the closer you get to the Santiago river. Soon we get a first glimpse of the river with its strange yellow-brownish water and the white crests. In May, during the season, small mangoes are sold along the road. It's "Mango Barranqueño", named after the capital of the municipality, San Cristobal de la Barranca. It's almost unbelievable but every May the "Feria del Mango" takes place, in the hottest of all months when the stink is the strongest. At least the mango trees receive enough natural fertilizer. In San Cristobal de la Barranca we take the road towards La Lobera. It first leads along the white foaming, stinking river. Relief for the nose comes when the road starts to go up. You have great views deep into the gorges of the Rio Santiago. Agave duplicata, A. bulliana and a Manfreda grow on the meadows. During the rainy season one can also admire flowering terrestrial orchids. Further up we reach the first cliffs that we hike along. On the flat mesa on top grow beautiful specimens of Agave guadalajarana together with the most spectacularly white banded A. schidigera we have ever seen. Agave rzedwoskiana forms small clusters in the cliffs. Mammillaria jaliscana and M. scrippsiana, Pitcairnia, Hechtia and orchids are other cliff dwellers. And if you look a little closer, you can even find a still undescribed Echeveria, resembling E. nodulosa growing in the far away state of Oaxaca. Magnificent big-leaved oak trees give shade for a leisurely picnic. A few houses with an old wood-fired bread oven are inhabited only during weekends or the rainy season, when cattle find enough food on the meadows.

For normal cars the trip ends here. With high clearance the road is more or less passable through to El Salvador and Amatitan on the highway to Tequila. Since we're trying out Jean-Marc's new Toyota FJ Cruiser, we want to see if the car is made for Mexican dirt roads. The road leads through beautiful oak forests. We're accompanied by Agave guadalajarana, various Manfredas and Mammillaria jaliscana. Our next stop is an opal mine about halfway to El Salvador. A few cobbled together wooden shacks are home to the men working in the mine and their families. When we visit, a young man pours out his sorrows and if we had the intention, and the money, we could right away sign the contract and buy the entire mine. We climb around the mine a little bit. It's more like a quarry than a real mine. The trained eye immediately recognizes opal-containig rocks. It's hard back-breaking work until you finally find an opal that is worth something on the market. Amateurs like us don't have much luck and after a short while we're exhausted from breaking rocks with a heavy hammer. The young man urges us to move on quickly. Under no circumstances should we stop if someone yells at us from the forest. We assure him that it is not our first trip in this area and that we did not have the intention on driving around here at night. We drive on at a leisurely pace and stop many times at interesting looking rocks. But we can't record any spectacular new findings. After quite some miles we come around a bend and stand before two black pickup trucks and about 15 men, all with their arms pointed right at us. First we gulp for air. Then their ringleader assures us that they're from the government. Oh, but it certainly is not our government, we think, but of course we don't say it aloud. They check our papers and we have to give a full explanation of what we are doing in their neck of the woods. Again and again the leader assures us that they're really from the government, making sure that law and order prevail around here. The ghostly manifestation lasts only about 10 minutes, then they send us on the continuation of our journey with a "buen viaje". They most likely have watched us for a while and Jean-Marc's Toyota, a model popular with drug people, must have arisen their suspicion. It's quite incredible whom you can bump into less than 50km away from Guadalajara.

We follow the winding road, past beautiful blue Agave guadalajarana and more A. bulliana with pretty white bell-shaped flowers. The landscape becomes flatter, the road more traveled, the area more populated. Soon we reach El Salvador, a village that made sad headlines in the past for shootouts between drug gangs and police. From here on the road is newly paved and we make fast progress. The road follows an impressive cliff down to the dam of the "Presa Santa Rosa". Here we meet the Rio Santiago again which fortunately has lost almost all of its stench flowing through the reservoir. Still, we won't draw our drinking water from it. We can spot Agave chazaroi, a species we will later visit in a more accessible place near Tequila, in the vertical rock faces. As steep as the road went down to the dam it climbs up again. When we reach the plains again we drive through endless blue fields of Agave tequilana contrasting beautifully with the red earth. In 2006, this area has been nominated a UNESCO world heritage site named "Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila".

If you haven't dawdled away all the time on the above-narrated round trip, you can turn right at Amatitan and continue to Tequila. The "Pueblo Magico" is not much more than a huge market for Tequila and Mezcal. Every store has the same selection of barrels, shot glasses, spirits, and other Tequila-related souvenirs for sale. The main plaza has been redone nicely, the Tequila museum around the corner is pretty interesting, but the guided tours through the two biggest Tequila factories of the area, Cuervo and Sauza, are completely overprized. Quickly we leave Tequila to the west and turn in towards San Martin de Cañas. You drive through more blue Agave fields stretching to the horizon, or in our case to one of the many small tributary gorges of the Rio Santiago. The Tequila volcano shimmers in the distance. We hike through an agave field to the canyons edge and find a small path leading below the cliffs. Thousands of Agave chazaroi populate the red rock walls. The bright and shiny green plants contrast beautifully with the red color of the rock. Native Plumeria rubra adorns itself with white flowers in the dry season. Hechtias and Mammillaria scrippsiana prefer the shady cliffs. Large plum trees bearing small orange fruits with large pits give shade and invite for a short rest. The view over the deep gorge and back to the Tequila volcano is breathtaking.

On the way back to Guadalajara you have the choice between the expensive toll road or the heavily traveled "Libre" on which you crawl along behind long lines of heavy trucks. At Jean-Marc's we end the day with an icecold Pacifico beer and are treated to a delicious Mexican meal by Lupita.

January 2010