The Better Side of Mexico

Thinking back, I started keeping a blog of our travels in 2007 when we sailed away from Boston for the third time, this one headed for the Western Caribbean. I’ve kept one ever since, both to keep in touch with family & friends but it’s also handy to look back on places we’ve been. It feels weird to be passing this way again! It may be that we return to a couple of the places we vistited 15 years ago by boat, now by truck! While the driving days are tough & tiring and sometimes make us second guess why we’re doing this (we pass through some really ugly areas and stressful narrow roads in cities) we’ve finally gotten to some pretty cool spots making for some standout days that make the driving worthwhile. We’ve always said we’d rather have days rated as 3’s and 9’s than a bunch of 5’s because it’s the extremes of the spectrum that we remember most.

Since the last time I wrote, we drove the scenic road route 40 from Mazatlan toward Durango which took 3 nights. A very winding and hilly road, we came up to over 9000 feet watching the scenery change along the way from lowland desert to pine forest. While there is a toll road that stays lower, runs straighter and would get us there in half the time, we opted for hugging the sides of all of the mountains to take in the scenery. We did a wild campspot the first night where there were tons of birds, and the next two nights we stayed at two different Mexican parks El Mexiquillo and El Tecuan. The first one was supposed to showcase interesting rock formations and a small waterfall. It was a bit worn and dusty and the waterfall was a tinkle but we took a long walk and camped in the grass that night. A local overlanderesque truck pulled in about 2 feet from us and we decided then that just like fiberglass, overland vehicles are magnetic too. The second park was dusty as well but we’d gone there to bike and the paths were prettty nice. There was a bike race just finishing when we arrived so we figured that was a good sign. It was fun to ride again and we enjoyed ourselves well enough. It didn’t knock our socks off but I guess we were spoiled by Tucson.

It felt good to stretch out on some straighter road as we approached the city of Durango for a day of errands. It felt like an assault on our senses with trash, traffic, fumes and more traffic. Just like doing chores or customs check-ins with cruising friends, it’s nice that we’re traveling with Ivan because everything feels lighter even if it isn’t fun. Just as we were picking up our clean laundry and ready to bust out of the city, a local guy stopped by and talked with Ivan. He was essentially warning us against going to Zacatecas, further down the road, especially with our vehicles due to recent cartel violence. Apparently they like 4×4’s and they had also been burning vehicles for effect. We don’t pay attention to the news. Generally, we find it overstated and for a tiny slice, it ruins the whole pie so to speak. We were only a few miles from the national park that we were headed to- Sierra de Organos so we decided to proceed as planned and think things over while enjoying the park for a few days. We were feeling a bit like we hadn’t seen anything super wonderful yet (and its clear because I don’t have any pictures of anything), we’d done a ton of driving and now, were we really going to have to worry about where we go all the time due to it not being safe enough? Everyone we’ve come in contact with had been so friendly and helpful.

Our campsite at Sierra Organos National Park

Well what a beautiful chunk of land at the Sierra Organos NP. It had a dreamy feel to me with cute campspots, really nice trails, a neat cave, interesting rock formations and hardly a soul there except the friendly entrance guard. We hiked all day both days and enjoyed being outside in the soft air in the evenings, enjoying the light on the rock spires. We felt rejuvenated and regained our perspective. Ivan talked with the guard who said he thought if we just drove on through without stopping in Zacatecas it would be best. So that’s what we decided to do. A long day of driving through the region of Zacatecas without stopping. We missed the “pink city” as its called and whatever it had to offer. Others have visited and enjoyed it. Oh well.

Traveling that day was on a newer stretch of toll road that had a fairly wide shoulder. This is where we learned that here too (our first experience was in Greece) the locals drive 3 across on a two lane road because the etiquette is that you drive in the breakdown lane allowing the middle of the road to be for passing in either direction. Its a very relaxing way to drive, staddling the lines, wondering if there might actually be someone broken down in the breakdown lane, a sleeping dog or cow that you would need to avoid while someone is passing you in your lane. We covered a lot of miles that day through some pretty scenery and some not so good looking areas to finally arrive at a turnoff to the little mountain village of Alvarez. Thanks to the Ioverlander app and friends who had done the same, we camped at an old hacienda ruin with a beautiful view and took an awesome 9 mile hike that Ivan picked out the following day in scenery that reminded us a lot of Nepal. I just love those kinds of hikes that travel on narrow roads, through farmer’s fields and along wooded fence lines with lots of farm animals around. It gives me a really nice sense of peace.

The next day, we arrived to the region called Huasteca Potosina, filled with rivers, waterfalls & caves. It is a touristed area famous for being pretty. I couldn’t wait to get there. We’d been looking at the pics of other friends and it looked so beautiful. Our first stop would be Puente del Dios. Unfortuntately it was Saturday, but this was the day we were passing through so we went for it. This is an impressive open cenote with a big waterfall, a cave that you can swim through, incredibly blue water, all set in a rainforest habitat. Then this is set in a pastoral landscape of sugarcane. Pretty neat! We spent the afternoon there checking out all of the corners of the swimhole & the pretty stone pathways and when we got cold, we sat in the sun. We didn’t feel comfortable bringing our camera so we stole this pic from Ivan. See all the people? That was the only drawback. But look here, with Google Magic Eraser, we can remove all the people and see it how we want to! Haha.

We moved to another famous section of river for the night, and shared it with a few hundred other people. What would be a quiet lovely spot on a weekday becomes a massive water party on weekends and there was nothing to do but join in so we did! Have we mentioned that mariache music is not our favorite? But still, the vibe is good because everyone is just having a nice time enjoying a beautiful area. I had a lot of fun that day.

Next we made our way to the area of Tamul Falls. The weather has been getting hotter and we were ready for more water days. Thankfully, we have the truck cab AC to get a breather from the heat. We sure hope it keeps working! These falls are huge and we were told that if it weren’t for sugar cane harvest season there would be even more water flowing but even so there is still plenty. We decided to approach the falls from the boat launch area and use our packrafts. We camped in a cow pasture next to the river under big trees that shaded us from the heat of the sun. It’s officially Spring now and the trees are bright green with new leaves, everything is blooming and the birds are going NUTS! This campsite was full of parrots, loud songbirds and these blackbirds that make the complex hanging nests. They were busy building them and making all kinds of racket. It was so funny listening to all of the different notes of all the birds there.

We set off the next morning in our packrafts headed for the falls. We had to portage around 2 sections of light rapids which was easy because the rafts are light as a feather. Then we hopped back in and paddled some more. As we headed up, the river narrowed and the canyon walls were filled with maiden hair fern and little waterfalls. It felt like a paradise. And then the falls came into view. Separating us from the falls was another rapid and then a stretch of smooth water. So at first, we beached the rafts, scrambled over some rocks and had a picnic lunch gazing at the falls. Then we swam all the way up to them and tried to keep our eyes open with all the spray and breeze that waterfalls make. We let the edges of the falling water hit our heads and backs like a massage and then floated around in our lifejackets looking up at this spectacle that we’d never experienced in this way before. Ivan’s GoPro failed so we didn’t have the pics that we’d hoped to get. We drifted back down the river to the packrafts and then Jon and I grabbed a raft and carried it back over to the falls so that I could get in and paddle up to them with a camera. Here’s what I got and what Jon got of me doing it. What a waterfall!

We mosied back down the river to our lovely campspot enjoying the shade from the canyon walls. What a day. We’re loving these rafts and I can’t wait to find the next spot where we can use them.

We did another driving day and arrived in the afternoon to the Sotano de las Golonodrinos, the cave of the swallows. We parked alongside the road in this relatively quiet mountain town and took a walk through the village. The quiet was only interrrupted by a big loudspeaker on a truck moving through selling mattresses for 300 pesos (about $15) “directo a la puerta a su casa!” This stuff just cracks us up! And later that night, another one driving around selling pizza. Just about the time you think you[ve seen it all then something else even harder to believe comes up.

Morning and night, you can watch the swallows make a mass entrance or exit around this huge sinkhole thats more than 1000 feet deep. The ranger said it is estimated to be from 1.5 to 2 million birds. Parrots also call this cave home. After walking down a path of a few hundred stone steps, you come to a rocky ledge that borders a pure dropoff into the cave. Park staff will rig a harness with a rope so that you can lean over the edge and look down. Since we went for the evening flight, the birds are all swarming overhead in waves before circling down and then lilterally dive bombing into the cave. Some cultures such as Russian, consider it lucky if a bird poops on you. It sure seemed likely that would happen. It was very interesting to watch and listen to all these birds heading in for the night. I wondered if they each had their own particular roosting spot or if they changed each time. And I felt happy that the few other people there were quietly enjoying this natural spectacle too.

Halfway on route 85 we camped at a rock quarry for the night

We departed from there for a long driving day on rural route 85, the only way to get from this point to the Grutas Tolantongo, our next attraction. Its a grueling drive with endless curves, potholes, steep hills, trucks and villages perched on hilltops practicing the familiar past time we nicknamed while cruising “recreational burning”. We’ve seen this in various parts of the world where there are little unattended, smoldering fires burning all over of this & that. Some trash, some grass clippings, whatever. Just enough to choke you. But the icing on the cake is about a million speed bumps. We even saw them building more new ones, because apparently there can never be enough of these annoying things. They are hard on our suspension, on the motorbike that we carry back there and on our patience. But they aren’t going away so there’s nothing to do but slow way down for these buggers.

It took 2 days to cover the distance to the Grutas Tolantongo but we finally got there and it was great. This is a box canyon with a beautiful river running through with thermal features and plenty of minerals to make the water blue. Every pool of water is a lovely temp of warm but not too warm such that you can stay in forever and be comfortable. You get to camp right beside the river and dip whenever you want. Then walk to some really neat features such as all the little pools perched on the canyon wall with mineral smoothed walls and pretty formations and colors not to mention great views. Then there’s an awesome cave with water blasting out of the rocks all over and the minerals have coated those openings also. And you swim so far in that you can only see by the light of your flashlight. This wouldn’t exist in the US due to liability. And even if it did, it wouldn’t be $10 a person for the day or $1.50 to camp for the night either! Then there was another long narrow, dark cave with a lot of heat in the rocks and much warmer water, like being in a hot shower. While in there, a Mexican lady was breastfeeding her baby. Why not? They had a water slide which I was really excited about but it’s only open on the weekends. We left Friday evening and things were really getting going- you wouldn’t want to be there at the weekend I don’t think!

We moved from there to another national park, El Chico, yesterday to do some hiking and take a breather. It sits at around 10,000 feet. It wasn’t as grand as Sierra Organos but glad it’s there. It was nice to breathe some mountain air and get some exercise. Plus Ivan made us dinner! And today, we toured the Teotihuacan ruins but I think I’ll wait till next time to sum that up.

We’re headed in to Mexico City tomorrow for the day via bus or Uber. That ought to be interesting. Then its off to try to do something with a volcano…. Its good to have some good days now. We’re enjoying Mexico and all the funny things we see that make us laugh. I don’t think we’ll ever run out.

Main entrance at Tolantongo- check out the bed! Why not?

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