The Cacophony of Mexico

Trip Start Jan 04, 2007
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Trip End Apr 04, 2007


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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Ah, the cacophony of Mexico! It is Saturday night, the 20th of January, and we are in Peña de Bernal, or Bernal for short, a picture postcard tourist town (mostly Mexican tourists, as it has not yet been discovered by foreign travelers in large numbers), perched on the edge of the desert near the beautiful city of Querétaro. Tonight a large group of dancers dressed as Indian warriors are dancing themselves into a frenzy to the beat of tom-tom drums and a new-age sounding recorded background. As they worked up a sweat, fireworks lit up the sky and lights shown on the famous landmark here, a large volcanic plug that is the third largest in the world (after Gibraltar and the one in Rio de Janeiro). A Bavarian sounding oom-pah band has been playing off and on all day, and the fact that the dancers and their music were still going did not deter the ensemble from striking up the band once again. A roving loud-speaker equipped truck blaring ranchero music and many barking dogs completes the assault on your auditory senses. We are going to stay two nights here, at my insistence, after jiggling along for a number of days on serpentine high mountain roads. Despite the noise, I have found the town to be utterly charming, with some great restaurants. A plus for the village is that it has less traffic than one usually sees. In addition, the streets around the town square are pedestrian only.
We entered Mexico at McAllen two weeks ago and took the cuota (toll road) through Monterrey and south to San Luis Potosi. We stopped for a visit at Real de Catorce, another off-the-beaten track high desert attraction. The village was once a wealthy mining center with a population of 40,000, but when the silver ran out, it became almost a ghost town. It is now making a comeback and has a few thousand residents, including some who are foreign. It looks like it ought to have been the set for the Treasure of the Sierra Madre (but it wasn't).
To enter the town, one must pass through a 1 1/2 mile former mine tunnel. Our truck camper was too big, so we took a 'taxi' in, riding with eight other people (and our dogs) in the back of a pick-up.
We next proceeded southward to the city and state of San Luis Potosi. The city was once a colonial gem, and still could be if it were cleaned up some. A lot of grime is on the splendid old buildings, but it has a lot to work with. The Sierra Madre Orientale mountain range roughly parallels the north-south Gulf coast of Mexico, intersecting with other ranges. At about the halfway point is a highway connecting the city of San Luis Potosi and Tampico, and we proceeded east along that route. (This area is often referred to as the Huasteca region) The first range we crossed was semi-arid, but then things became greener and more tropical since the eastern slopes are the rainy ones. We detoured six miles over a dirt and gravel road to visit a clear, lagoon-style lake (Lago Media Luna) fed by seven hot springs. It is reportedly 90 feet deep in places, at least in the rainy season, and believe it or not, is a popular place for scuba diving. (There's even a PADI dive shop of good repute close by). The water in the lagoons were crystal clear with a luke-warm temperature; tall pines and fan palms grew in between the lagoons. We camped there for the night expecting the nice weather to continue. It did not, and instead turned cold (down into the 40's). This was when the snow was hitting hard up north. We slogged on, driving off-road at one point to visit the Tamasopa waterfalls.
After turning south along the old Pan-American highway, we eventually made it to our principal destination, the town of Xilitla (pronounced "Hee-leet-la" and Las Pozas, the former jungle art garden (covering 37 acres) of a wealthy English eccentric named Edward James, 1907-1984. James had long been a patron of avante garde arts and he found his tropical paradise in this Huastecan mountain region. The town, like many in the area, stretches itself sinuously along the side of the mountain. We ended up camping for two nights on a wide spot in the part dirt, part cobblestone road in front of Las Pozas, about a mile from the town center.
Las Pozas is very hard to describe, so I have attached a few photos. It is like Max Ernst meets Timothy Leary meets Indiana Jones, with a pinch of the Hobbit thrown in. James was a devotee of surrealism, and after his extensive orchid collection was wiped out by a hard frost (or so the story goes), he spent 30 years and $5 million installing concrete 'plantings.' Originally, they must have been very colorful, as you can see from the freshly restored area and another area that appears to have been partially restored a few years ago. However, much of what is there is in serious danger of being taken over completely by the jungle. While I would not call much of the construction beautiful, it certainly was fascinating.
A labyrinth of stone paths and steps snake up the mountainside, converging in places on streams, pools and waterfalls.
Everywhere there is evidence of James' confections, including undulating staircases leading to nowhere, little casitas (not always finished) here and there, strange multi-story platforms, and fanciful flower and jungle forms. James willed the estate to the children of his longtime friend and manager, but neglected to made a provision in his will for its upkeep. Thus, a mere two decades in the wet climate has taken its toll. The colors had worn off, moss and lichens were taking up residence, and the jungle was moving in. Fortunately, it appears funding for restoration has been secured in Great Britain, and the work is proceeding.
Leaving Las Pozas, we proceeded in a southwest direction to visit the some of the Mission towns of the Sierra Gorda. T he missions were founded by Fray Junipero Sera, who went on to establish the much better known (at least among us Gringos) California missions. There are several sleepy but attractive little pueblos in the region, some of them enveloped by mist. They are difficult to get to which limits their ability to draw tourists. In any event, winter appears to be off-season for the region. The townsfolk stood languidly in their doorways watching the entry of two Gringos and two poodles driving a pick-up camper. I felt like the proverbial stranger entering Dodge.
The roads we drove were as steep and winding as any we've been on in Mexico, but they were in pretty good repair. The last day on the rainy side ended with a pass known as the "Doorway to Heaven" because of its high altitude. The landscape became progressively more arid as we made our way to Bernal.
The dogs continue to attract attention and people often ask us their names. I have taken to pronouncing Milo's name in the phonetic Spanish, which is "Mee-low," because the Mexicans seem to understand that better. That pronunciation naturally morphed into "Emiliano Zapata," (who was the dashing leader of a revolutionary faction during the early 1900s), a suitable companion to Pancho, whose full name, I tell those who inquire, is Pancho Villa. I inevitably get a big laugh out of this combination.
After leaving Bernal, we headed south to Tequisquiapan, an attractive town featuring balnearios, or thermal spas and water parks. They are not open this time of year, but we were able to camp at a balneario that had electrical hookups for RVs. It also is the center of a fledgling wine and cheese making region.
We continued driving south for several hours to reach Tula, in the State of Hidalgo. Tula is the site of the archeological ruins of capitol of the great Toltec civilization, which reached its zenith in about 900 to 1100 AD. The biggest draw are the Atlantes warriors, collasal stone statues acting as sentries to the city.

We looped back to Queretaro, a large, clean and beautiful city that is the capitol of the eponymous state. We've visited Queretaro several times on previous trips, but we always find something new to see. Its colonial centro is very large with fantastic architectural gems, including a large Roman-looking aqueduct that is still relatively intact.

NEXT: Our month in San Miguel de Allende
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