This post was written by Achaessa, a busy mom of two girls and sundry rescue critters. She works from home for a distributed company and enjoys road trips, reading, and eating her husband’s cooking.
On the Road Again
My husband’s large Mexican family has a long history of taking road trips, usually by bus, to places they’re connected to – Puebla where his grandmother was from, Michoacan where his father was from, and numerous religious pilgrimage sites throughout Mexico important to his mother. Whenever we gather around the evening table, invariably someone brings up antics and accidents that happened on those trips – then we spend the rest of the time laughing.
Now that the siblings have kids of their own, we decided this year to start up family road trips for the next generation so that when los primos (the cousins) are grown, they, too, will have childhood memories that bring them together. There are 25 of us altogether ranging from my husband’s mother at age 66 to her 10-month-old great-granddaughter, and kids ranging from 4 to 18 years of age. We all live in central Mexico, well away from the coasts, so ocean beaches aren’t top of the list, and we end up in some awesome out-of-the way places with mostly Mexican tourists. My sister-in-law, Halina, is a whiz at travel research.
Our first 2019 weekend trip was in February to a region called La Huasteca Potosina in the southeastern part of the state of San Luis Potosi. I was sort of “meh” when I heard the plans – I had this image of San Luis Potosi as a high desert area. I was so very wrong.
The schedule was: Friday at Cascadas de Tamasopo, Saturday morning at the Jardin Escoltorico Edward James and afternoon at the Sotano de las Huahuas, ending with Sunday at Cascadas de Tamul, leaving late afternoon to arrive home Sunday night.
From where we live in San Miguel de Allende (in the state of Guanajuato), we drove five hours northeast, meeting up with the family van of 15, about an hour along the way for us (they’d already driven three hours from Mexico City). The drive itself wasn’t bad. There was heavy semi-truck traffic, and the highways are in good condition, so driving our two vehicles together felt safe, even though it was nighttime (which I normally never recommend).
On Friday morning, we arrived in the town of Tamasopo around 9:00 am. We breakfasted at a local café and then went down to a favorite eco-tourist location, El Puente de Dios (“Bridge of God”). It was perfect after the long drive – a short hike down to the river followed by floating in a shallow, crystal clear river, under the shade of mixed jungle and forest trees, glimpsing chattering tropical birds as they flitted through the branches.
I had to work during the late afternoon, so our part of the family hurried off to our rental house in Ciudad Valles so I could get online. The cousins stayed behind and later reported swimming in caves with white sand bottoms clearly visible 15 meters down, light filtering from above to reflect up through the water in rainbows. My very cynical tattoo-artist brother-in-law later scoffed at the thought that anyone else had ever been so close to god before because this place truly merited the name “Bridge of God.” I was super-bummed to have missed that, but my co-madre accidentally deleted all the photos from this day, so we’ve got a good reason to go back soon and follow up with our own pics.
Bungle in the Jungle
On Saturday morning, we left early for the almost two-hour drive to the Edward James Sculpture Garden in Xilitla. Rumor has it that Edward James’ godfather, the Prince of Wales (who later became the King of England, ie., Edward VII), was his real father. In any event, he inherited a fortune, became a patron of the arts, and decided to build this weird surrealist garden in the middle of the jungle in Mexico, inspired by Picasso, Dali, and other avant garde artists of the period, many whom he knew personally. The gardens only allow 800 people in at any one time, and the entire group must line up together to purchase tickets. The adult entry fee is under $4USD, and the guides inside are worth the $250MXN/$13USD price for a group tour. While waiting in line, we bought homemade tamales, gorditas with red chili, fruit sherbets, mango and lime fruit waters, and little bags of local hand-harvested coffee, freshly roasted and ground.
The garden was James’ summer home, and, according to our guide, was never meant to be open to the public. The few actual buildings are unfinished concrete blocks juxtaposed against fantastical and allegorical garden constructs.
It was worth a two-hour wander on the meandering trails, through super-sized tropical flower gardens, around thick roots, ducking Tarzan-style vines, encountering whimsy and magic at every turn, and ending with kid time in the wading pools beneath a tiny waterfall (which doesn’t merit a photo here because Sunday we went to the REAL waterfalls).
In the afternoon we went from jungle to forest, heading to the Sotano de las Huahuas – a deep cavern where birds roost at night. The entry fee was 30MXN/$1.55USD per person. Our guide, worth far more than the 80MXN/$4USD she asked, was a local young woman named Sabina, who lives across from the entry point. The walk from the ticket shed was 300 meters down, 300 meters level, then 600 meters up, with short rest stops. The flat rock trails are well-constructed and safe, but that last 600 meters is a strong climb – though my niece did it carrying her infant daughter, and my mother-in-law easily kept the pace. Sabina rushed us along because it was getting along to sundown when all the action takes place. The walk kicked my butt, not so much because of the climb or the strenuous pace but because of the noise of 20 people. I work from my home office, and I’m not used to so much noise. I had to stop and let everyone go past and then wait until I couldn’t hear them anymore before I continued on to the lookout points through the natural silence of the forest.
The birds start coming in shortly before the sun sets. Laying on a boulder hanging out from the first lookout, I could see the green parrots gliding down, down like water spinning into a funnel. The vencejos (swifts) start in at the same time. They come in so fast, 180 kilometers per hour, that you can’t even see them fly by. From that lower lookout, squinting through the trees into the upper edge of the cave opening, they’re barely perceivable dust motes. Moving to the upper lookout, with the still-blue sky in the background, they became a smear of streaks, and we could hear them passing, the air popping by, hundreds at a time. At the end, just as the sun goes down, there are so many going by it sounds like a hard rushing waterfall.
I started back before everyone else and let my eyes adjust naturally to the failing light. There are no lamps along the paths, but there are three little lighted stops along the way, tables under palapas where local families sell wild-gathered honey, vanilla, and a hardened tree sap used for incense similar to copal but with a lovely green edge to the resiny aroma.
Take me to the River
On Sunday, we headed out early from Ciudad Valle to Cascada de Tamul. The 45-minute drive took us through miles of orange orchards, which explained the faint, sweet, intriguing aroma we’d been smelling all weekend – citrus flowers! – and past the juice processing plant where the road was lined for several miles around with cargo trucks of all sizes, loaded with oranges waiting their turn.
When we finally arrived to Aquismon, following the signs to the cascada, we came to a decision point – the signs pointed to the right, but the young men in the roadway pointed us straight ahead “to the boats”. After a quick discussion, we made the right turn and soon ended up in someone’s yard with a metal gate and a dirt road continuing beyond. We thought we’d gotten lost, but no – an old man came out to the car, charged us 20MXN/$1USD, and opened the gate. We followed the often-rutted road through sugar cane fields, some freshly burned and smelling of caramel, for about 20 minutes more until we reached a camping area with hiking trails.
The 30-minute hike out to the falls on a relatively well-marked path crossed through a meadow of pools created by the turquoise river wearing its way through and under and around the vegetation, limestone, and boulders.
Ending at the falls itself, a 105-meter drop, which is the highest waterfall in San Luis Potosi:
You can stand right on the edge and look over:
From above, the river was enticing, and we could see a few wooden boats hovering around the rapids, so of course we had to go down and try it for ourselves.
The guide charged us 120MXN/$6USD per person, children half-price, including life vests, long wooden boat and oars, with two guides. We rowed about 20 minutes, then got out and walked for five minutes up the riverbank, as the two guides got out and pulled the boat up the rapids. After another 20 minutes of rowing (about 4km altogether), we could see the falls from below. The guide said that February is the best time to visit – in late March and early April, the tourists coming during Semana Santa make it too crowded, and by June and July, the river is 60 feet higher and impassable.
When we turned around the guide said, anyone who wants to jump in can float the current back through the rapids to our next stop – a cenote inside a cave. Floating the rapids down feet first was a thrill and, surprisingly, the water wasn’t cold. And it got warmer as we neared the outflow from the cenote. Getting out of the water, though, was chillier so after swimming in the cenote cave, we drank hot coffee and ate tamales offered at the rustic posts leading up to the cenote.
After that, it was a quick paddle back to the boat launch site and time to head home. Of course, we stopped to eat first. In Mexico, there are always places to eat, and the food is always good. With a family of 20 traveling together, you can bet that it’s an adventure. The best guideline for eating anywhere in Mexico (while on a road trip or otherwise) is make sure the place is full of people already eating!